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What To Watch For In The College Football Conference Championships

Chalk up the 2019 college football season as one in which the sport reestablished the value of conference championships. Each of the top eight teams in the penultimate College Football Playoff rankings is vying for a conference title this weekend. The committee, which has often been prone to going in a new direction after the final playoff rankings, has essentially guaranteed that it will send four Power Five teams that appeared in conference championships to the playoff.

The title games include the usual suspects, of course: Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma are again in the mix in their conferences. But there are also new contenders, including Baylor and Virginia, programs that combined to go 31-45 over the previous three seasons.

Let’s break down the marquee conference championships this weekend, including the game odds from FiveThirtyEight’s college football prediction model, and spotlight a matchup to watch in each.

ACC

Clemson Tigers (91 percent win probability)
vs. Virginia Cavaliers (9 percent)

If today’s college football has a preeminent power, it’s Clemson, not Alabama.1 The Tigers haven’t lost in more than 700 days and recently capped their second consecutive undefeated regular season. Three more wins would result in a third national title in four years. But as recently as November, there were scenarios in which the reigning national champs could run the table and miss out on the postseason tournament altogether. Much of that, of course, is because the ACC is a weak conference. But the Tigers’ mauling of its second-half schedule has largely put those conversations to bed, even if Head Coach Dabo Swinney seems to be working to resurrect them.

Since a near-loss at Chapel Hill, Clemson has outscored its past seven opponents 353 to 61. Trevor Lawrence shed a lusterless start to the season2 to earn all-conference honors. From games 8 through 12, Lawrence’s nation-leading 95.4 QBR was a full 1.5 points higher than any other QB.

But Clemson’s defense is the runaway storyline of its season. To understand how dominant it’s been, it’s instructive to recall what it lost. All four members of the Tigers’ 2018 defensive line were selected within the first 117 picks of the 2019 NFL draft, only the 10th time such a feat has occurred since 1967, when the NFL and AFL began drafting together.

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables responded by putting a statistically superior unit on the field. By defensive successful play rate, which measures the share of plays allowed with expected points added of less than zero, Clemson’s 2019 defense is not only the best in the country — more than 1 percentage point clear of the field — but it’s also 2.3 points better than the nation-leading 2018 Clemson defense. And through 12 games, Clemson is allowing 0.74 points per drive, the lowest rate of any team since Alabama’s national championship 2012 squad.

It’s telling that Virginia is first mentioned this deep into our analysis. The line for this game — a conference championship tilt! — is Clemson by 29. The Tigers have won seven straight games by at least 31 points, so the line is certainly warranted. Virginia ranks 35th in ESPN’s Total Efficiency metric, and while that’s good enough for second in the ACC, it indicates a sizable gap in quality between the Cavaliers and Tigers.

Matchup to watch: Virginia’s third-down defense against Clemson’s ahead-of-the-chains offense

There aren’t many better offensive trios than Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins. Clemson’s offense has breezed downfield, so it’s no surprise that third downs are a rarity. Swinney has never had an offense at this point in the season with such few third-down snaps — a nice problem to have, admittedly.

Failing to get off the field defensively would kill Virginia’s already-slim prospects. The Cavaliers excel in those situations because they generate exceptional pressure on opposing quarterbacks.3 Third-down performance might not decide the outcome, but it could be the difference between Clemson blasting another opponent into oblivion or Virginia playing the game on its terms.

Big Ten

Ohio State Buckeyes (77 percent win probability)
vs. Wisconsin Badgers (23 percent)

If the Buckeyes miss Urban Meyer, they have an odd way of showing it. In their first official season under Head Coach Ryan Day, the Buckeyes have faced less in-game adversity than any team in the country. Only one game was tighter than 10 points. Since 2004, only Florida State’s national title-winning 2013 team outscored its first 12 opponents by a larger average margin than the 38.1 points this year’s Ohio State has drubbed its opposition by.

Wisconsin fared better than average against Ohio State in late October. The bad news is that the Badgers still lost by 31.

A win for Paul Chryst’s Badgers likely results in a trip to Pasadena, not a playoff ticket — our model gives Wisconsin only a 31 percent chance to make the playoff even if it beats Ohio State. The committee has never sent a two-loss team to the playoff, and it’s a safe bet that it won’t snap the streak for a team that lost to Illinois.

Matchup to watch: Chase Young vs. the Wisconsin offensive line

There’s perhaps no player more entertaining than the junior defensive end (who almost certainly won’t win the Heisman but should undoubtedly be in consideration). When Young last played Wisconsin, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year had the best single-game individual defensive performance of the season, tallying five tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles. The Buckeyes generated a pressure rate of 39.1 in the win, the best single-game performance against Wisconsin by nearly 9 percentage points.

The Badgers did shore up their offensive-line woes in the following weeks, allowing an average pressure rate of 23.7 percent with just three sacks in the four games since their tilt with the Buckeyes. But Young is a gamebreaker and if he gets loose, as he so often does, this will be another nightmare experience the Badgers won’t soon forget.

Big 12

Baylor Bears (37 percent win probability)
vs. Oklahoma Sooners (63 percent)

While the expectation in Norman is to compete annually for conference championships, the Bears are appearing in the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time in program history. The most recent installment of this matchup resulted in one of the most entertaining games of the season. And with both teams in the conversation to reach the playoff, the stage is properly set for Act 2.

Oklahoma has a baked-in reason to run up the score: They sit behind Utah in the latest playoff rankings. Even if the favorites win out this weekend, Lincoln Riley’s team could still be on the outside looking in. Meanwhile, a win for Baylor would bump the Bears’ playoff odds to 60 percent, but they’ll need even more style points to jump Utah or any of the favorites currently ahead in the rankings.

Matchup to watch: Jalen Hurts vs. Baylor’s pass defense

For more than a decade, the Big 12’s reputation has been one of ostentatious scoreboards and offensive box scores. Seldom is defense mentioned in a positive light. But Baylor is doing its best to recontextualize. Through 12 games, this is the Bears’ second-strongest team defense in the efficiency era,4 and much of that is a credit to how the team controls the air.

Only seven teams have a stronger pass defense, as measured by expected points added. The Bears lead the conference in opponent net yards per pass attempt5 and opponent QBR. That’s showing up in traditional box score, too: Compared with this time last season, team takeaways have spiked more than 200 percent.

But Oklahoma’s Hurts is no average QB. The senior shook off an atrocious first half in the teams’ first meeting to finish with four touchdown passes and more than 400 yards of total offense. He is by all accounts one of the best players in the country and could tame the Baylor defense just as he did the last time they met.

Pac-12

Utah Utes (55 percent win probability)
vs. Oregon Ducks (45 percent)

Utah has come a long way since losing less than 24 hours after I wrote that a new-look offense could lead the Utes to the playoff. Ranked fifth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, the Utes have a 34 percent likelihood of ending a two-season drought for the Pac-12 and reaching the playoff, according to our model.

A win over Oregon would bump Utah’s playoff likelihood to 60 percent. And while our model is more bearish on Oklahoma,6 a comfortable Utes win would likely seal the deal.

A particularly painful scenario for Utah would play out if Georgia were to beat LSU in a nail-biter, resulting in both teams advancing to the playoff and, assuming Clemson and Ohio State win, the Utes and Sooners staying home.

Matchup to watch: Utah’s much-improved offense vs. Oregon’s stingy red-zone defense

Not unlike a boxer who prefers to be on the ropes, Oregon’s defense seems to perform best when it’s backed up on its side of the field. The Ducks lead the country in defensive red-zone efficiency, allowing opponents into the end zone on just 33.3 percent of drives that reach the area. That rate is a full 3.3 percentage points clear of the field.

Oregon also leads the country in goal-to-go situations, allowing opponents into the end zone on just 21.4 percent of drives. That rate is even more impressive considering that it’s 23 percentage points lower than the next-best team.

This is Utah’s best offense since it became a card-carrying Pac-12 member. The Utes score 2.98 points per drive, the program’s best mark since the 2004 season, and Tyler Huntley has performed like one of the best QBs in the nation. But the Utes will need to finish off drives against a Ducks defense that’s grown confident it can prevent them.

SEC

Louisiana State (57 percent win probability)
vs. Georgia (43 percent)

Joe Burrow has been so magnetic this season that this weekend, his virality even extended to the school’s video crew.

The Heisman front-runner gets his toughest test of the season to date this weekend when he stares down a ravenous Georgia defense. Fittingly, the matchup will pit the No. 3 quarterback in Total QBR against the No. 3 defense in QBR allowed.

This is the only obvious “win-and-you’re-in” playoff matchup, and some posit the Tigers will go regardless of outcome — though our model, which rewards conference winners, gives LSU only a 14 percent chance with a loss.

Matchup to watch: Jake Fromm vs. LSU’s secondary

We get it: LSU has a fantastic offense. But lost in its brilliance is that the Tigers defense hasn’t been terribly special.

By adjusted defensive expected points added, which weights the metric based on quality of opponent, this is the fourth-worst LSU defense at this point in the season since 2004. Because of an at-times-lacking pass rush, LSU can be stretched out vertically. Perhaps a byproduct of blowing teams out of the water, opponents are taking shots downfield against the Tigers. Quarterbacks average 9.43 air yards per pass attempt against LSU, which ranks 95th nationally and 13th in the SEC in the metric.

LSU’s defense has allowed 41 passing plays of at least 20 yards, the highest total through 12 games by any LSU defense since at least 2004. And the Tigers have accumulated the fewest expected points added on pass defense of any LSU team since 2015. Heading into the season, this was supposed to be the best secondary in the country.

Fromm is one of the best QBs LSU will see this season. And even though the Bulldogs are thin at receiver, given how inconsistent the Tigers defense has been, he might get the green light to attack downfield.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The Crimson Tide lost twice in November, while the Tigers have lost four times in the past five seasons.

  2. After throwing four interceptions as a freshman in 2018, Lawrence threw five passes for interceptions over the first five games of his sophomore season.

  3. Only three teams have a higher pressure rate, including Clemson.

  4. Since 2005.

  5. Which measures the distance the ball travels in the air on each pass, adjusting for number of attempts.

  6. If both teams win this weekend, we give the Sooners a 66 percent probability of reaching the playoff, while Utah’ chances would be at 52 percent.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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