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College Football Playoff Preview: Alabama’s Dominant Run Attack vs. A Lucky Michigan State Team

Alabama and Michigan State face each other in a late New Year’s Eve game that could stretch into 2016 (depending on your time zone). Alabama is the favorite, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, as the Tide have the nation’s top defense and a dominant running back in Derrick Henry. The Heisman winner is quite the workhorse, rushing 90 times in his previous two games. Michigan State, on the other hand, is lucky to be in the playoff at all. Although they’ve managed an impressive record en route to a Big Ten championship, the Spartans have often won — as against Michigan — by the skin of their teeth.

Alabama: Is Derrick Henry being run into the ground?

Derrick Henry has had a magnificent season, racking up 1,986 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, earning him the Heisman Trophy. He has also had a tremendous workload, carrying 339 times in 13 games, with at least one and possibly two left to play. This came to a head in Henry’s final two games before the playoff, with him carrying 46 times against Auburn and another 44 against Florida. The questions here are obvious: Is Derrick Henry being run into the ground? Might his workload negatively affect his pro career? Probably not, at least as far as we can tell.

If Henry were an NFL running back, we might point to the fabled “Curse of 370.” The curse is an idea popularized by Aaron Schatz at Football Outsiders; when Schatz singled out running backs who had 370 or more carries in an NFL season, he noticed that they subsequently performed poorly. There’s considerable dispute over the specifics of such an effect, but workload concerns take on added meaning for college running backs, who have not yet begun their pro careers, and who, one might worry, are coughing up earning power one 40-carry game at a time.

If the “curse” exists at the college level, then Henry’s season is a red flag. Henry is averaging 26.1 rushes per game — the 25th-highest per-game workload of any FBS player over the past 12 seasons. The carries have clustered in the back half of the season, as well: Over the first six games of the season, Henry averaged 20 carries per game; in the last seven, he has averaged 31.3. In total, Henry has carried the ball 339 times this season — 17th most in FBS play over the past 12 seasons — with more football left to play. Given his workload in the last two games, he might careen right past the infamous 370 mark in just 14 games.

Now for the good news: Based on the available stats, a heavy college workload has no relationship to a shorter shelf life in the pros. Of 97 running backs who have played at least four NFL seasons since 2005,1 there’s no statistical relationship between college rushing attempts (either total or per game) and whether the RB suffered a drop-off in NFL production between his first two years and years three and four.

Of course, some NFL backs peak early and fade quickly. One can think of Alfred Morris, Knowshon Moreno, Cadillac Williams and LeGarrette Blount. In some cases that’s because of injury, but often it’s just a decline in production. Take Kevin Smith: Smith carried the ball more than 900 (!) times while at the University of Central Florida; in one particularly cruel year, he had 450 rushes. And, sure enough, Smith peaked early in the NFL. He rushed 455 times for more than 1,700 yards in his first two seasons. But that trailed off to just 106 total carries in years three and four. It’s cases like this that make it tempting to draw a link between a running back’s college workload and his pro decline. “He was just run into the ground,” you could say.

But there are plenty of counterexamples. DeAngelo Williams, DeMarco Murray and Ahmad Bradshaw, for instance, all had more than 500 college rushing attempts — which is where Henry, with 547 carries, is now. Yet these backs got better as their pro careers progressed into the third and fourth years. A regression analysis between college rushing attempts (both total and per game) and the change in NFL production (whether in yards or total carries) found no relationship at all.

Of course, this analysis looks only at the first four years of a back’s pro career; this was done to give us a sufficient sample (97 backs) and to avoid plaguing the analysis with a survivorship bias, as better backs have longer careers, and running backs in general have short tenures in the league.

So if Derrick Henry goes for 40 or more carries for a third straight game, we’ll likely hear that he’s being used up and his best pro years are being shortened. Several years down the line, that may turn out to be true. But the argument against overuse has always been that performance takes a hit in the next few years after a heavy-workload season, and with college rushers, that doesn’t seem to be the case — at least for now.

Michigan State: Lucky or good?

It’s the play of the year: Michigan State was down 23-21 at The Big House, 10 seconds on the clock, Michigan punting on what would surely be the final play of the game. It was — just not the final play anyone could have imagined: Michigan State blocking a Michigan punt and returning it for a touchdown as time expired. What was likely the most exciting moment of the college football season also perfectly represents Michigan State’s run — a year of close calls and near-failures, but success in the end.

The Spartans are 12-1 heading into the College Football Playoff vs. Alabama on Thursday. They got there not by dominance, but by the skin of their teeth. Are they lucky, or are they good? They’re both.

Start with the obvious: Michigan State has a great résumé. It ended the season ranked No. 4 according to ESPN’s Strength of Record, a statistical measure of how impressive a team’s wins and losses are. Just ahead of Michigan State are — no surprise — the other playoff contenders: Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma.

Clemson 13-0 2% 77% 1 1
Alabama 12-1 2 73 2 2
Oklahoma 11-1 7 71 3 3
Michigan St. 12-1 14 67 4 14

Source: ESPN

Underpinning this ranking is the probability that an average top-25 team — specifically, a team rated in the 90th percentile according to ESPN’s Football Power Index — would have this team’s record or better after playing this team’s schedule. So the typical “good” team had only a 14 percent shot at matching the Spartans’ 12-1 record. That’s impressive, but it lags far behind the top three; Clemson and Alabama have accomplished what a typical top-25 team would have only a 2 percent probability of matching.

Although Michigan State has earned a strong record, it has been awfully lucky en route. For instance, in the two weeks before that miracle win against Michigan, the Spartans had close calls against Purdue and Rutgers. Their habit of cutting it close caught up with them when Nebraska delivered their only loss in a thrilling and controversial 39-38 upset.

The Spartans recovered from that loss with big wins against Ohio State and, in the Big Ten title game, versus Iowa. But both games were extremely close. Michigan State never led until the final play of the game against the Buckeyes, and it took an epic 22-play drive in the conference championship’s final minutes to beat Iowa.

Luckily there’s a stat to illuminate how dominantly a team wins: ESPN’s Game Control rating, which is a reflection of a team’s average in-game win probability, adjusted for opponent strength and aggregated throughout the season. Think of it as a metric that determines how early big powerhouse schools put the game out of reach and thus avoid the coin-flip finishes Michigan State hazarded coming down the stretch.

Although the familiar trio of Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma rank No. 1 through No. 3 in Game Control, the Spartans are No. 14. That’s because their average in-game win probability was just 67 percent. By contrast, Clemson won in far more dominant fashion — on average, the Tigers had a 77 percent in-game probability of winning. (And the Tigers won all their games, after all.)

It’s tempting to look at Michigan State’s résumé and thumb the scale on the side of luck; success in close (and especially flukey) games has never been very replicable in football, college or pro, and the Spartans had more than their fair share. But this dim view misses the fun parts of MSU’s season: It’s the only team to arrive in the playoff having played a full slate of thrilling games, instead of the more typical championship route, which involves a few competitive conference games sprinkled into an otherwise sleepy march to inevitability.

Alok Pattani contributed database research to this article.

Read more: Clemson’s One-Man Offense vs. The Balanced Sooners


  1. A further constraint was that the back had to have at least 50 total carries in his first two seasons.

Andrew Flowers wrote about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.