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Published: 14.11.2021 (2 недели ago)

Week 11 college football storylines: How Georgia could be beaten, Oklahoma’s gauntlet begins

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The first two sets of the College Football Playoff rankings have given us plenty to yell about. How on earth could one-loss Alabama be No. 2 right out of the gate? How can we keep moving the goalposts on Cincinnati? How can head-to-head simultaneously mean everything (Oregon over Ohio State) and nothing (Michigan State below Michigan)? Et cetera.

One thing no one can argue about: Georgia being No. 1. Kirby Smart’s 9-0 Bulldogs have the best college football defense on the planet, they’ve beaten two ranked teams (Arkansas and Auburn) by a combined 71-10, and since a 10-3 win over Clemson in the season opener, no one has stayed within 17 points of the Dawgs. They will be favored by 20-plus points in each of their remaining regular-season games before a potential date with Alabama in the SEC championship game.

Can even the Crimson Tide hang with UGA this time around? If Georgia somehow drops a game between now and the national title game, what might that look like?

The Week 11 slate features four battles of ranked teams and plenty of playoff implications. But as it pertains to the title race, nothing else matters until or unless Georgia looks mortal. Let’s talk about that and the week’s other huge stats and storylines.

All times are Eastern. All games on Saturday unless otherwise noted.
How do you beat Georgia?

No. 1 Georgia at Tennessee (3:30 p.m., CBS)

Great teams lose. The 2018 Alabama team was about to be remembered as Nick Saban’s best, but lost by 28 points in the national title game. The 2015 Ohio State team was deeper and more experienced than the 2014 title team, but lost to Michigan State. The 2008 USC team might have been Pete Carroll’s best, but lost to Oregon State on a glorious Thursday night in Corvallis.

There are general upset scripts that unfold frequently in this sport, typically involving turnovers, special teams and so on. They certainly apply to any Georgia game moving forward. But the Dawgs have exhibited at least a hint of a few vulnerabilities that, when added together, could cause problems. Here’s how a Georgia-specific upset script could unfold.

Step 1: The Dawgs settle for field goals. Ask Michigan what it’s like to lose because you couldn’t finish your drives. In their Oct. 30 loss to Michigan State, the Wolverines settled for four field goals while the Spartans scored touchdowns on all five chances it had in the Michigan red zone. Michigan scored more times, but Michigan State scored more points.

The Wolverines rank 90th in red-zone touchdown rate. Georgia ranks 86th. The Dawgs could have fallen into a dangerous situation against Florida after managing just three points from their first three scoring chances. Turnovers turned the game into laugher, but they were up only 3-0 nearly halfway through the game. The Dawgs also scored only three offensive points on Clemson in the season opener.

Step 2: The opponent strikes deep. As incredible as the Dawgs’ defense has been — first in the nation in scoring defense, yards allowed per play, success rate allowed — they’re merely good against the deep ball. On passes thrown at least 15 yards downfield, they rank 29th in success rate allowed. Opponents are 16-for-43 on such passes for 466 yards. You have to survive a ferocious pass rush (Georgia is 16th in sack rate despite almost never blitzing), but if the opponent attempts some haymakers, one or two might land.

Step 3: Stetson Bennett runs into trouble on passing downs. For the second straight season, Bennett has ended up taking a lot more snaps than planned — this time due to JT Daniels’ nagging injuries — and he has not only survived, but thrived. Among players with at least 100 dropbacks, he ranks second in Total QBR behind only Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams.

“Statistically awesome quarterback for top-ranked team” is typically a slam-dunk Heisman formula, but Bennett’s name is nowhere near the top of the list. Why? Because he’s got just about the easiest job in the country. His defense never allows more than 13 points, and Georgia is more than happy to run the ball as much as possible. While Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud average 34 passes per game, Bennett has yet to throw more than 21 in a game. More than half of his passes have been thrown with UGA up at least two touchdowns. He buckled last season when Georgia found itself in more high-scoring affairs, and we don’t know how he’ll fare if Georgia ends up in one this year.

He also struggles under pressure.

• Bennett under pressure: 10-for-26 for 219 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT

• Bennett under no pressure: 70-for-94 for 1,193 yards, 12 TD, 2 INT

Obviously everybody is better when they’re not pressured, but a 74% completion rate and 12.7 yards per pass versus 38% and 8.4 is quite a difference. Bennett gets the ball out of his hands quickly (hence the 3.6-to-1 unpressured-to-pressured ratio in attempts), but making him uncomfortable alters Georgia’s upside significantly.

We certainly can talk about which national title contenders are the most likely to cause troubles in these ways. Williams and Stroud have hit some deep balls, Notre Dame and Cincinnati are fantastic at forcing field goals, and a majority of primary contenders grade out well from a pressure perspective. But in the meantime, it bears mentioning that Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker throws an awfully pretty deep ball.

On passes of 15-plus air yards, Hooker ranks fifth in the nation, averaging 18.6 yards per attempt, and over the last four games he’s 12-for-21 on such passes for 480 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. The Josh Heupel offense loves the long ball, and Hooker has had enough time to look for it.

The Volunteers’ defense is also pretty good at not only forcing third downs, but forcing third-and-longs. Granted, the pass rush has been hit-or-miss, and opponents are converting third-and-longs, but at the least, Bennett might find himself behind schedule a bit more than he’s used to. Tennessee probably doesn’t have enough to scare the Dawgs for 60 minutes, but the Vols are good enough to force them to answer some questions.
The Sooners’ gauntlet begins

No. 8 Oklahoma at No. 13 Baylor (noon, Fox)

Oklahoma ranks only eighth in the CFP rankings, but ESPN’s FPI still gives the Sooners a 59% chance of reaching the playoff, the third-best odds overall. There are three main reasons for that.

  1. Carnage will unfold above them. At most, one of the three one-loss Big Ten East teams above OU will reach the finish line with one loss. Plus, if No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama win out, they would play each other in Atlanta in three weeks. That will give the Sooners plenty of chances to rise.
  2. Their strength of schedule is about to improve. Over the next three weeks, they’ll play No. 13 Baylor and No. 10 Oklahoma State on the road and host an Iowa State team that, per SP+, grades out as the second-best team in the conference. Then they’ll likely play Oklahoma State again in the Big 12 championship game. That’s a lot of potential ranked wins right there.
  3. They’re projected favorites in all of these games. Granted, they aren’t significantly favored, but they’ve got the edge in each. They’ve also got that whole “Lincoln Riley is unbeaten in November” thing working for them.

The Sooners are going to have their hands full in Waco, though, if they can’t knock Baylor off schedule. The Bears rank second in the country in standard downs success rate*, combining an excellent run game (Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner: 6.8 yards per carry) with vertical passing.

When off schedule, Baylor runs aground quickly. The Bears rank 68th in passing downs success rate, and Gerry Bohanon’s raw QBR falls from 76.7 on first and second down to 46.9 on third. That sets the stakes pretty clearly. The Sooners defend the run well, but a dismal pass defense has rendered them inefficient on both standard and passing downs. Their secondary has been a banged-up mess and might be in better shape after a bye week, but if they can’t knock Baylor behind the chains, Caleb Williams and the OU offense are going to have to put a big point total on the board — something they’re obviously capable of — to remain unbeaten.

  • In this context, standard downs refers to first down, second-and-7 or less, third- or fourth-and-4 or fewer. Passing downs are everything else.
    At what point do we consider A&M a contender?

No. 11 Texas A&M at No. 15 Ole Miss (7 p.m., ESPN)

Texas A&M’s path to the CFP is quite difficult, but it’s easy to describe. If the Aggies win at Ole Miss and LSU, and Alabama slips up against either Arkansas or Auburn, A&M is the SEC West champion. Upset Georgia in Atlanta, and the Aggies are an 11-2 SEC champ with wins over both UGA and Bama. That almost certainly gets them in.

Of course, SP+ gives them a 45% chance of winning out, gives Bama a 37% chance of losing a game, and would give the Aggies only a 28% chance of knocking off Georgia. Mash those odds together and you’re looking at about a 1-in-21 chance.

The Aggies have increasingly looked the part, however. Since their upset of Alabama, they have stomped iffy Missouri and South Carolina teams like a CFP team would, and they’re coming off of a 17-point win over Auburn. They’re up to sixth in SP+, and their dynamite pass defense could make things difficult for Matt Corral and the prolific Ole Miss attack.

The Rebels have to be getting battle weary. A&M will be their sixth SP+ top-40 opponent in seven games. Corral continues to produce through the air, but his mobility has been hindered by a mid-October ankle injury, and it shows: After averaging 7.4 yards per play and 46.2 points per game over their first five contests, the Rebels have averaged 6.1 and 27.3 since.

The Ole Miss defense has improved overall, but the Rebels still rank 123rd in rushing success rate allowed, and A&M will happily run the ball until it can’t anymore. Aggies quarterback Zach Calzada has still enjoyed only one genuinely good performance behind center (his increasingly baffling masterpiece against Alabama), but that hasn’t held the Aggies back because their strengths. Can Ole Miss rise to the challenge once more?
Purdue can’t do it three times … right?

No. 19 Purdue at No. 4 Ohio State (3:30 p.m., ABC)

If or when the CFP expands to 12 teams, there should be a Purdue clause: If you take down three top-four teams within your own conference, you automatically qualify. Despite that pesky 6-3 record, wins over Iowa (No. 2 at the time) and Michigan State (No. 3), would put the Boilermakers on the precipice!

The third upset will be by far the most difficult. Whereas neither Iowa nor MSU were as good as their ranking — the Hawkeyes are currently 19th in SP+, the Spartans 22nd — Ohio State is second in SP+ and third in FPI. Caesars Sportsbook currently lists the Buckeyes as 21-point favorites over the upset kings of West Lafayette.

This game will have some delicious matchups on the outside. Purdue corners Jamari Brown and Dedrick Mackey have allowed a combined 24-for-58 passing, with one touchdown and one pick, as primary coverage men, but we’ll find out a lot about the Boilermakers’ depth. Corner Cory Trice was lost for the season to injury in October, and with Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson returning to practice this week after missing a game in concussion protocol, the Buckeyes should have all three star receivers (Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Chris Olave) available.

On the other side, how do Ohio State’s corners fare against “Big Game” David Bell? Bell caught a combined 22 catches for 457 yards against Iowa and Michigan State. The Ohio State secondary has been conservative but effective of late — over the last six games, the Buckeyes have allowed a 62% completion rate but only 10.2 yards per completion with nine interceptions, and they’re giving up just 14.2 points per game to boot. Will quick passes to Bell force them to get more aggressive?
Oregon vs. the most unpredictable team in college football

Washington State at No. 3 Oregon (10:30 p.m., ESPN)

Based on current SP+ rankings, Washington State has beaten the No. 16 team by 13 points, lost to the No. 58 team by 31 and played down-to-the-wire slugfests against teams ranked 40th, 66th, 91st and 96th. With and without fired head coach Nick Rolovich, it feels like the Cougars are capable of almost any result. No one likes to go against the wild guy in a fight, and that’s exactly what Oregon is taking on this weekend in Eugene.

The Ducks can take comfort in the advanced stats, at least. My postgame win expectancy measure — which takes the key, predictive stats produced by a given game, tosses them into the air and says, “With these stats, you could have expected to win this game X% of the time” — suggests that in the four games since the Ducks’ egregious overtime loss to Stanford, they’ve been more dominant than the final score suggested.

• Oregon 24, Cal 17: 94% postgame win expectancy, equivalent to a scoring margin of +13.2

• Oregon 34, UCLA 31: 98%, equivalent to +17.6

• Oregon 52, Colorado 29: 99%, equivalent to +19.5

• Oregon 26, Washington 16: 99%, equivalent to +21.2

While the Ducks won these games by an average of only 10.8 points, they outgained opponents by 2.4 yards per play and 151 yards per game, and they were unlucky not to win by more comfortable margins. They have risen from 39th in SP+ post-Stanford to 15th. Numbers and logic might not matter against Wazzu, but Oregon is rounding into form.
Week 11 playlist

Here are 10 more games you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both information and entertainment perspectives.

Friday evening

No. 5 Cincinnati at South Florida (6 p.m., ESPN2). USF’s offense has shown a spark of late, scoring 30-plus in three of the Bulls’ last four games. The defense, not so much. Cincinnati might actually score some style points whether Luke Fickell believes in them or not.

Early Saturday

Mississippi State at No. 17 Auburn (noon, ESPN). Both the Bulldogs and Tigers lost to ranked SEC West rivals last week, and only home-field advantage gives Auburn a projected edge here. MSU is efficient on both sides of the ball; can the Bulldogs punish a sometimes shaky Auburn pass defense?

No. 6 Michigan at Penn State (noon, ABC). Penn State is a top-10 caliber team when quarterback Sean Clifford is healthy, and I named the Nittany Lions one of the bigger potential chaos agents remaining in the CFP race. They’ll get their first opportunity in this coin toss against Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines.

Saturday afternoon

Minnesota at No. 20 Iowa (3:30 p.m., BTN). This rivalry rock fight lost some luster when Minnesota suffered an upset loss to Illinois last week. But the winner of this one will still be tied, at worst, for the Big Ten West lead.

Miami at Florida State (3:30 p.m., ESPN). Miami freshman quarterback Tyler Van Dyke is up to 10th in Total QBR and has led the Hurricanes to three straight narrow wins. If FSU can bounce back after physical and frustrating losses to Clemson and NC State, this one could go down to the wire, as nearly every other Miami game has.

UAB at Marshall (3:30 p.m., CBSSN). Both of Conference USA’s division battles are two-team races — it’s Marshall and Western Kentucky (who play in Week 13) in the East, UTSA and UAB (Week 12) in the West. But before the main events, this cross-division battle will pit two stingy and aggressive defenses.

Saturday evening

No. 16 NC State at No. 12 Wake Forest (7:30 p.m., ACCN). Wake Forest’s last five games have averaged 87.8 total points. NC State’s last four have averaged 46.0. Can an increasingly strong Wolfpack defense prevent the Demon Deacons from turning this into a track meet?
Eli’s Places

Eli Manning takes on his own version of his brother’s signature show to explore what makes college football a way of life across the country. Join Eli as he travels to some of the most well-known and historic college football establishments and meets with giants in the sport to better understand what makes college football such a national sensation. Stream on ESPN+

No. 9 Notre Dame at Virginia (7:30 p.m., ABC). Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong left the Cavaliers’ loss to BYU with an apparent rib injury two weeks ago, and his status is uncertain. If he’s healthy enough to perform well, this game could be both a track meet and a tossup for a Notre Dame team with rising CFP hopes.

TCU at No. 10 Oklahoma State (8 p.m., Fox). Mike Gundy’s Cowboys are two-touchdown favorites, but the Gary Patterson-less Horned Frogs are coming off of their most inspired performance of the year, an upset of Baylor. This one might not be a gimme.

Late Saturday

Nevada at No. 22 San Diego State (10:30 p.m., CBSSN). Watch this one both because the Aztecs and Wolf Pack are tied atop the MWC West and because of San Diego State’s golden-legged punter.

Small-school showcase

With the playoffs approaching quickly, here are five lower-level games you should keep an eye on. The more small-school football you follow, the healthier you become. It’s just science.

FCS: No. 7 South Dakota State at No. 17 South Dakota (2 p.m., ESPN+). North Dakota State leads the powerful Missouri Valley in the loss column, but the winner of this one keeps its title hopes alive for a bit longer (and all but assures itself of an at-large playoff bid).

FCS: No. 24 Northern Iowa at No. 14 Missouri State (3 p.m., ESPN+). In the last three weeks, Bobby Petrino’s MSU Bears have beaten North Dakota and Southern Illinois and nearly beat NDSU. They’re in excellent form, but scoring on UNI is never easy.

D2: No. 17 Albany State at Miles (3 p.m., ESPN3). The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship game pits Albany State against its demons. The Golden Rams have maybe the best defense in Division 2 and are favored, but they lost the last two conference title games to Miles by a combined 71-29.

D2: No. 2 Valdosta State at No. 4 West Florida (5 p.m., FloSports). The 2018 D2 national champ against the 2019 champ. It doesn’t get much bigger than this one. It also might not be the last time these two heavyweights play in 2021.

FCS: No. 8 Eastern Washington at No. 4 UC Davis (8 p.m., ESPN+). EWU has lost back-to-back heartbreakers — 35-34 to Weber State and 23-20 to Montana State — and now has to face an Aggie team that beat Tulsa and has suffered only one loss all year.