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College Football Playoff Preview: Clemson’s One-Man Offense vs. The Balanced Sooners

Clemson and Oklahoma square off on New Year’s Eve in a matchup that pits the nation’s only remaining undefeated team (the Tigers) against the favorite according to FiveThirtyEight’s college football model (the Sooners). Both teams have a strong defense, but on offense they’re a contrast. Clemson has a one-man scoring machine in dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson. Oklahoma, on the other hand, is evenly balanced between a nifty passing attack and two strong running backs. In fact, the Sooners are one of the more balanced teams in recent college football history.


Clemson: Deshaun Watson is a one-man offense

Undefeated, No. 1-ranked Clemson enters the College Football Playoff with two major advantages: a top-notch defense and a star quarterback. The Tigers’ offensive attack is led by Deshaun Watson, a Heisman finalist and electric dual-threat quarterback in the vein of Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton. And like Manziel and Newton, Watson has carried his team into the national spotlight seemingly by himself.

According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), Watson is the third-highest-rated quarterback in the nation. (By adjusting for opponent strength, QBR aims to be a comprehensive measure of QB performance.) The only QBs to rate higher than Watson are Brandon Allen, of five-loss Arkansas, and Baylor’s Seth Russell, who suffered a season-ending injury after seven excellent games. Watson’s raw stats are also impressive: He has accumulated more than 3,500 yards and 30 passing touchdowns through the air, along with another 887 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and 11 rushing touchdowns on the ground.

Overall, Watson is responsible for 66 percent of Clemon’s total offensive yards (passing and rushing combined). Considering how efficiently he has played (shown by QBR) and how much of the offensive burden he has shouldered, Watson’s season is quite the outlier.

flowers-cfp_preview.clemson-1

Watson’s excellence under a heavy all-around workload puts him in rare company. He is one of 14 quarterbacks over the past 11 seasons (shown in the table below) to post a season QBR of 75 or higher while also rushing for at least 30 percent of his team’s total yards on the ground. The only quarterbacks to post better QBR numbers while running as much: Manziel (twice), Pat White and Newton. And Watson is a sophomore, meaning that — like Manziel — he could end up on this list again.

Is Deshaun Watson the new Johnny Manziel?
QUARTERBACK TEAM SEASON RUSH YARDS SHARE OF TEAM RUSHING QBR
Johnny Manziel Texas A&M 2012 1,410 45% 91.3
Pat White West Virginia 2006 1,219 31 90.5
Cam Newton Auburn 2010 1,473 37 90.0
Johnny Manziel Texas A&M 2013 759 32 86.7
Deshaun Watson Clemson 2015 887 31 86.6
Tim Tebow Florida 2007 895 34 86.5
Dak Prescott Mississippi St. 2013 829 34 86.5
Pat White West Virginia 2007 1,335 35 83.3
Collin Klein Kansas St. 2012 920 37 83.1
Denard Robinson Michigan 2012 1,266 53 82.7
Matt Jones Arkansas 2004 622 30 81.7
Dak Prescott Mississippi St. 2015 541 32 81.3
Greg Ward Jr. Houston 2015 1,034 33 81.1
Tyler Murphy Boston College 2014 1,184 36 80.2
Denard Robinson Michigan 2010 1,702 55 79.9
Chase Clement Rice 2008 693 37 78.8
Cody Fajardo Nevada 2012 1,121 32 78.2
Terrance Broadway LA-Lafayette 2012 769 31 75.0

Source: ESPN, TRUMEDIA

When Oklahoma faces Clemson on New Year’s Eve, its defense will have to confront a passing and rushing attack orchestrated by a quarterback with myriad skills — ranging from a dangerous deep passing ability to sharp scrambling instincts. Deshaun Watson is the rare QB who excels at being a one-man offense.


Oklahoma: The balanced Sooners are favorites

Oklahoma is our model’s favorite to win the College Football Playoff, with a 41 percent chance at the national championship. If the Sooners do take home the trophy, it will likely be due to a stellar effort on both offense and defense. This isn’t exactly a novel conceit — every team needs both units to play well to succeed at the highest levels — but it’s particularly true for Oklahoma, one of the most balanced teams in recent college football history.

Overall, Oklahoma is very good, rating well in all the fashionable advanced metrics. The Sooners sit at No. 1 in ESPN’s Football Power Index, which FiveThirtyEight’s college football model uses for game predictions. Oklahoma is also the top team according to Football Perspective’s Simple Rating System. And according to our Elo ratings, the Sooners are the fifth-best squad.

That’s all remarkable, in the usual ways a championship-level team is remarkable; what’s less common, though, is Oklahoma’s balance. The Sooners are the only team in the country to rate in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. On offense, quarterback Baker Mayfield leads a sharp passing attack, with heavy utilization of All-American receiver Sterling Shepard. Buttressing that efficiency through the air is an impressive running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, who have combined for more than 2,000 yards this year. The Sooner defense, led by standout linebacker Eric Striker, can crimp offenses in several ways — it’s in the top 10 among all FBS teams in both sacks and interceptions.

One way to look at team balance historically is to define it as the absolute gap between a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. Going back to the 2005 season among teams in the top four in overall efficiency, these Sooners are the second-most-balanced team of the decade. Only the 2013 Alabama squad had a smaller gap between its offense and defense.

Balance of elite college football teams, 2005-15
EFFICIENCY
RANK SEASON TEAM OFFENSE DEFENSE GAP
1 2013 Alabama 85.7 85.9 0.2
2 2015 Oklahoma 83.3 83.0 0.3
3 2006 USC 79.0 79.6 0.6
4 2010 Boise State 87.8 86.9 0.9
5 2012 Alabama 90.3 91.2 0.9
6 2007 West Virginia 78.5 77.6 0.9
7 2006 Ohio State 83.3 82.1 1.2
8 2014 Alabama 84.9 82.5 2.4
9 2008 USC 89.4 86.6 2.8
10 2013 FSU 93.5 89.2 4.3
11 2011 Boise State 82.4 77.5 4.9
12 2008 Florida 91.4 86.4 5.0
13 2007 Kansas 74.1 79.2 5.1
14 2015 Clemson 81.3 87.1 5.8
15 2009 Florida 80.1 86.0 5.9
16 2012 Oregon 88.3 81.7 6.6
17 2010 Ohio State 80.0 87.0 7.0
18 2005 Texas 92.0 85.0 7.0
19 2010 Alabama 87.7 79.1 8.6
20 2005 Penn State 74.0 83.4 9.4
21 2012 FSU 74.3 83.8 9.5
22 2011 Oklahoma State 88.1 78.4 9.7
23 2006 LSU 85.0 75.1 9.9
24 2013 Baylor 87.9 77.8 10.1
25 2005 Ohio State 73.3 83.7 10.4
26 2008 Texas 89.0 77.6 11.4
27 2014 TCU 75.8 88.0 12.2
28 2009 TCU 70.2 82.6 12.4
29 2007 USC 71.1 83.5 12.4
30 2014 Ohio State 87.5 74.9 12.6
31 2009 Alabama 77.3 89.9 12.6
32 2015 Ohio State 67.0 80.6 13.6
33 2011 LSU 76.6 90.2 13.6
34 2011 Alabama 80.4 94.5 14.1
35 2010 Stanford 91.9 76.4 15.5
36 2008 Oklahoma 95.3 79.2 16.1
37 2013 Oregon 87.7 71.3 16.4
38 2012 Texas A&M 91.3 74.6 16.7
39 2005 USC 95.8 78.7 17.1
40 2014 Oregon 91.3 69.9 21.4
41 2009 Texas 67.4 89.1 21.7
42 2015 Alabama 70.8 92.9 22.1
43 2006 BYU 90.0 64.5 25.5
44 2007 Florida 93.1 49.8 43.3

Source: ESPN

Of course, offense and defense aren’t all there is to football. And on special teams, the Sooners aren’t quite so intimidating or balanced. Frankly, they’re bad. Oklahoma is ranked No. 93 of 128 FBS teams.

At least broadly, it looks like Oklahoma is on to something here. The correlation between overall efficiency and the gap between offense and defense among all teams is strong and negative,1 meaning the less balanced a team is, the worse it performs. This isn’t an effect of talent imbalance among worse schools, either: Among the top 25 teams in overall efficiency in each season since 2005, the more efficient teams have been slightly more balanced as well, though the relationship is weaker here.

If Oklahoma wins out and reconfirms FiveThirtyEight’s soothsaying abilities, it will likely go down as one of the least one-dimensional teams that college football has seen in quite some time. Perhaps this style doesn’t produce the same thrilling, back-and-forth games the best imbalanced squads play, like that ridiculous 2007 Gators season (Tim Tebow’s first as a full-time starter), but its effectiveness isn’t in doubt.

Read more: Alabama’s Dominant Run Attack vs. A Lucky Michigan State Team

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, it’s -0.195.

Andrew Flowers writes about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

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