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College Football Playoff Preview: Georgia’s Balance vs. Oklahoma’s Offense

If one College Football Playoff showdown is a matchup of old, familiar playoff foes (Clemson vs. Alabama, Part 3) the other is stocked with relative neophytes: Oklahoma and Georgia. It’s the Bulldogs’ first-ever appearance in the playoff since it began in the 2014-15 season, and Oklahoma is making only its second playoff bid after losing to Clemson in the 2015 Orange Bowl. Here’s what to look for in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day between the Bulldogs and Sooners:

Oklahoma’s defense is terrible by playoff standards. Will it matter?

Among this year’s four playoff teams, three are extraordinarily balanced: Alabama, Georgia and Clemson each rank among the nation’s top 10 in efficiency on both offense and defense.1

Oklahoma, on the other hand, is a study in imbalance.

Not only do the Sooners have the best offense of 2017, but the difference between their offensive efficiency and the second-ranked offenses (Alabama and Oklahoma State) is about the same as the difference between No. 2 and No. 10 Central Florida’s. Since the playoff started four seasons ago, the only offense remotely close to being as efficient as Oklahoma’s belonged to Oregon in 2014 — and the Ducks weren’t really that close to the Sooners.

At the same time, the Oklahoma defense is easily the worst of any playoff team. The Sooners allowed 25 points and nearly 385 yards of total offense per game this season. They rank 59th in the country in defensive efficiency. It’s safe to say that Oklahoma has the most one-dimensional profile of any team to ever make the College Football Playoff.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Sooners are primed for a playoff letdown. Oklahoma has the best quarterback in the country (Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield) and a host of other weapons that can make opposing defenses pay. Their stat sheet could give any defensive coordinator a heart attack. (This is, after all, a team that surpassed 600 yards of total offense in more than half of its games!)

But it’s also worth noting that in three years of playoff action, the more efficient defense won 67 percent of its games, while the superior offense won only 56 percent. Even if those numbers are skewed by Alabama’s success as a defensive juggernaut, the Tide have won with defense for a reason. Oklahoma will have to buck that trend if they want to prove that a great offense can win, too.

 

Can Georgia keep winning from ahead and complete its rise?

Roughly one year and two months ago, the Georgia Bulldogs were 4-4 under new coach Kirby Smart after losing to the Florida Gators. Their Elo rating was +9.1, only the 33rd-best in the country. And although Georgia perennially hauled in great recruits, there was little to suggest it would be sitting two wins away from a national championship on New Year’s Day in 2018.

From that point on, though, the Bulldogs embarked on one of the great overnight improvements in playoff history. Since that day late last October, they went 16-2 and added 22 points to their Elo rating. Georgia now ranks second behind Clemson in Elo (+31.3). Since the College Football Playoff started in 2014, only one playoff team — Washington in 2016 — added more to its Elo rating between its low point of the previous season and its rating heading into the playoff:

The most improved playoff teams

Among College Football Playoff teams, the biggest improvements in Elo rating between the team’s low point in the previous season and the playoff

Elo Rating
Season Team Before Playoff Prev. Season Low Diff.
2016 Washington 29.4 4.8 +24.6
2017 Georgia 31.3 9.1 +22.3
2015 Oklahoma 29.5 8.8 +20.7
2017 Oklahoma 30.0 9.7 +20.3
2014 Florida State 32.1 12.0 +20.1

The College Football Playoff began in 2014

The Bulldogs are an exceptionally well-rounded team, ranked fifth nationally in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency during the regular season. All-SEC running back Nick Chubb surpassed 1,100 yards for the third time in his career and No. 2 rusher Sony Michel nearly broke the 1,000-yard mark as well. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm stepped in to instantly become one of the most efficient passers in the country.

Perhaps the only concern about the Bulldogs is if they find themselves in the unfamiliar territory of playing from behind. Fromm has been much better when the Bulldogs have a lead. During the regular season, only three Power Five conference QBs had a bigger split between their Total Quarterback Rating while the team was leading and while it was trailing:

Granted, Fromm’s split comes in a small sample because Georgia seldom trailed during its 12-1 campaign. (Georgia ran only 16 percent of its plays while behind on the scoreboard, nearly half of which came against Auburn in the Bulldogs’ 40-17 November defeat.) But perhaps Oklahoma’s best chance against the Bulldogs is to use its dominating offense to jump out to an early lead, then hope its defense can force Fromm into freshman mistakes while playing from behind. Between Georgia’s impressive balance and Oklahoma’s shaky defense, however, that might be a task easier said than done.

Footnotes

  1. All stats and rankings in this story are as of the end of conference championships, since none of the playoff teams have played a bowl game yet.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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