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December 7, 2019
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How each playoff contender has answered its offseason questions

How each playoff contender has answered its offseason questions
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Back in June, I shared one of my favorite ways of framing any sort of title race (national, conference, division, Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, etc.): by counting “ifs.” How many conditional clauses do you need to turn a team into a contender? The fewer the better.

As far as the national title race was concerned, Alabama and Clemson had the fewest ifs, while other teams with decent title odds (via Las Vegas) required far more. Let’s walk back through my summer ifs list, assess how each team has addressed its conditionals and see what it has to tell us about the national title race as a whole.

Acing the test

Alabama (4-0)
Current FPI title odds: 28.5% (preseason: 27.6%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … the secondary cuts down on the glitches
If … Steve Sarkisian can make a difference in the red zone

Alabama has ridden its proven passing game to four easy wins and 50 points per game. The questions we had for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide were more peripheral, and so far the answers we’ve seen are favorable, if incomplete. New offensive coordinator Sarkisian’s red zone offense has been fine, but he won’t really have a chance to prove himself until Bama encounters a close game (which might not happen for a while). The secondary, too, has been mostly fine, if slightly conservative.

A new “if” has emerged, however: Due to injury, the front seven is one of the youngest in the country. Freshman linebackers Shane Lee and Christian Harris are each among Bama’s six leading tacklers, and four freshman linemen are also contributing. Granted, they’re all blue-chippers, but can they avoid the typical young-player glitches when the games really count?

Clemson (4-0)
Current FPI title odds: 24.1% (preseason: 37.1%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … there’s no hangover
If … young defensive linemen get up to speed quickly

Clemson put hangover concerns to rest by beating Texas A&M and Syracuse by a combined 65-16. The Tigers ranked third in defensive SP+ last season, lost a ton of ultra-talented contributors up front and currently rank … second. The rich get richer.

So why have the Tigers’ title odds fallen? First, the field has gotten deeper, with Ohio State looking like a major contender. Second, the offense hasn’t quite cleared the high bar we set. The run game is ultra-efficient, but the passing game has sputtered: 75th in passing success rate, 63rd in completion rate. Trevor Lawrence has already thrown more interceptions this season (five) than he did in 2018 (four).

So maybe there has been a bit of a hangover on one side of the ball. But the ACC might be even weaker than it was last season, and Lawrence has plenty of time to work out the kinks.

Ohio State (4-0)
Current FPI title odds: 14.9% (preseason: 0.4%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … Justin Fields lives up to blue-chip hype … and doesn’t get hurt
If … the Ohio State run game becomes the Ohio State run game again
If … the defense suffers fewer catastrophes

With a new head coach and quarterback, it was justifiable to wonder if Ohio State would be full-on Ohio State in 2019. It didn’t take us long to find our answer. Fields is very much living up to the hype, the run game is excellent and the defense, so strangely glitchy last season, ranks fifth in defensive SP+, up from 26th in 2018 (the horror!).

On top of all that, the three remaining regular-season opponents in the current SP+ top 25 all have to visit Columbus. All is well.

Really, the only “if” without a complete answer is the “Fields doesn’t get hurt” part. He’s been running the ball quite a bit — 28 non-sack carries in four games despite blowouts — and he’s taken six sacks, which isn’t a ton but is more than you’d hope from the level of competition.

Wisconsin (4-0)
Current FPI title odds: 7.2% (preseason: 0%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … there is at least steadiness at QB
If … a new offensive line is the same old Wisconsin offensive line
If … the run defense comes back, too, for that matter
If … third-and-medium is Wisconsin’s friend
If … the pass rush comes back

Wisconsin had a steep hill to climb to become a true contender. So far, so good. Of the five ifs above, the Badgers get three resounding A-plus grades. Quarterback Jack Coan is completing 77% of his passes and is seventh in Total QBR. The new offensive line has struggled a bit in pass-rush situations but has been good enough in the ground game to rarely face any. And on defense, Wisconsin ranks first in rushing success rate.

The other two ifs could still bite the Badgers in tighter games. They are still just 58th in third-and-medium success rate (better than last season’s 110th, at least), and the defense is 46th in sack rate and 106th in blitz-downs sack rate. The secondary has made sure that doesn’t matter in the least, but that could change against better passing teams.

Strong passing grades

Georgia (4-0)
Current FPI title odds: 10.7% (preseason: 8.2%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … James Coley can make a difference in the red zone
If … Dan Lanning can dial up pressure
If … the defensive front is a little less flexible

Georgia handled three lesser opponents by huge margins, then survived a nice home test from Notre Dame 23-17. The Bulldogs’ title odds have improved a bit; it would be silly to nitpick too much.

We’re going to anyway! We’ve gotten only resounding, positive answers to one of three ifs: Georgia has been excellent near the goal line.

The defense still has questions to answer. The Dawgs are preventing big plays as well as anyone and are good in the red zone (eighth in points allowed per scoring opportunity) and 10th in overall defensive SP+. But they’re still only 52nd in sack rate and 34th in overall havoc rate (total tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles divided by total plays). Within just the front seven, they are 86th. This is an excellent reactive defense, but can the Dawgs make disruptive plays when they need to?

LSU (4-0)
Current FPI title odds: 7.0% (preseason: 6.4%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … Joe Burrow‘s late-season growth was real
If … the LSU run game becomes the LSU run game again
If … Kristian Fulton and Kary Vincent Jr. can get greedy

LSU nearly made the “acing the test” list, but defensive concerns are holding the Tigers back a smidge.

From the original Ifs list: “Linebacker Devin White‘s production can probably be mostly accounted for by simply keeping sophomores Micah Baskerville and K’Lavon Chaisson healthy.” Baskerville and Chaisson have missed two games each, and that appears to be making a difference. LSU is just 38th in defensive SP+ and has allowed seven gains of 30-plus yards (70th in FBS). There are more glitches than expected, even as the cornerbacks (namely Fulton and freshman Derek Stingley Jr.) have combined for 13 passes defensed.

That said, the offense has wiped away most of these concerns. LSU is second in offensive SP+, and it’s safe to say that Burrow’s late-season growth was very real. Plus, the success of the passing game has created opportunities for LSU runners to thrive.

Oklahoma (3-0)
Current FPI title odds: 5.4% (preseason: 4.2%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … the secondary gets more aggressive
If … the defensive front gets more disruptive
If … Jalen Hurts shows he can go off script occasionally

Two outta three ain’t bad.

OU is creating explosive plays as well as ever. Hurts is averaging 18 yards per completion and 10.8 yards per carry (!), and a trio of running backs is averaging 8.6 yards per carry. Ridiculous.

It’s still a mixed bag for the defense, though. Despite a current SP+ strength of schedule ranking of 117th, OU ranks just 48th in success rate allowed and 49th in defensive SP+. That’s an improvement over last season, but there are much better offenses to come on the schedule.

The defensive front has indeed been more disruptive — OU ranks 18th in defensive line havoc rate and 28th in sack rate — but the secondary is still passive. OU is allowing a 64% completion rate (95th in FBS) and ranks 101st in defensive-back havoc rate. There are probably plenty of high-scoring games on the horizon for the Sooners.

Notre Dame (2-1)
Current FPI title odds: 2.4% (preseason: 3.6%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … the red zone offense improves, run game or no run game
If … the front seven finds a new playmaker
If … losing WR Miles Boykin doesn’t mean losing big pass plays
If … the run game improves, perhaps dramatically

The Irish offense is outstanding in the red zone (currently 13th in points per scoring opportunity), and the defensive front seven has the playmakers it needs. Check and check.

Sophomore linebackers Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah combined for just 5.0 tackles last season; this season, they have already combined for 9.5 tackles for loss. And we saw just how well this unit tackles in last week’s game at Georgia.

The two other ifs, however, remain unknown. Notre Dame ran the ball well for a while against Louisville but hasn’t since, and while Ian Book is averaging a vastly improved 14.3 yards per completion so far, I can’t give the Irish full credit here because against a fellow contender in Georgia, Book averaged just 9.5 yards per completion. So these four ifs have produced two resoundingly positive check marks but two areas for lingering concern.

Texas (3-1)
Current FPI title odds: less than 0.1% (preseason: same)

Preseason Ifs …
If … Texas can figure out how to run the ball without getting Sam Ehlinger hit so much
If … big-play blue-chippers can actually make big plays
If … a super-young secondary is ready to not only hold the fort, but improve
If … a Tom Herman team can play every game as an underdog

Early developments have been mostly positive for a Texas team that voters liked a lot more than analytics. Longhorns running backs are generating efficiency, and they’re benefitting even further from the emergence of a ridiculously efficient receiver in Devin Duvernay (87% catch rate, 67% success rate). UT is also getting a massive big-play boost from sophomore wideout Brennan Eagles (10 catches, 276 yards, four TDs). This has created a far greater level of offensive consistency, and it has helped Texas to play well as a favorite as well as an underdog.

The bad news: That young secondary is getting obliterated by injury. Safeties Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster are both out indefinitely, as are three other defensive backs. The Longhorns are on a bye this week, thankfully, and take on a less-than-amazing West Virginia passing game in Week 6, but Oklahoma looms on the schedule.

Not great, not terrible

Auburn (4-0)
Current FPI title odds: 2.0% (preseason: 0.7%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … a reconstructed receiving corps holds up
If … a freshman quarterback doesn’t play like a freshman
If … the offensive line takes a mulligan
If … the pass rush gets home

The Tigers have survived two strong tests away from home, beating Oregon by six and Texas A&M by eight. The defense is as unforgiving as ever, and the offense has moved the ball when it absolutely needs to. The receiving corps has produced as hoped.

Unfortunately, the other ifs above don’t have particularly positive answers. Freshman Bo Nix has shown an ability to raise his game in key moments, but Auburn still ranks 114th in completion rate and 85th in passing success rate. The offensive line is clearly better but has lots of room for growth. And on defense, the pass rush still lacks: The Tigers are 95th in blitz downs sack rate, and, consequently, 111th in third-and-long success rate allowed.

The Tigers still rank 10th in SP+, but the remaining schedule features four games against teams ranked even higher than that.

Oregon (3-1)
Current FPI title odds: 0.7% (preseason: 1.2%)

Preseason Ifs …
If … a young pass rush becomes a good pass rush
If … Oregon learns to handle success
If … Justin Herbert turns flashes of brilliance into an actually brilliant season
If … Oregon starts making an Oregon level of big plays again

What a hire defensive coordinator Andy Avalos has been for Mario Cristobal and the Ducks. Oregon currently ranks fourth in defensive SP+, playing solidly against the run and mostly dominating the pass. Oregon ranks 21st in overall sack rate — 10th on blitz downs — despite leaning mostly on young pass-rushers.


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