When it comes to the College Football Playoff, the narratives leading up to the game rival the game itself in terms of intrigue and fanfare. As soon as the playoff teams were announced, we heard the narratives, some familiar and some new. Will Notre Dame be able to compete with Alabama? Does Ohio State belong in the playoff? Is college football broken, with a seemingly inevitable Clemson-Alabama rematch on the horizon? The narratives are why we play the games. The New Year’s Six Bowls largely reminded us of the gap between the top tier and the rest of college football, even as we needed some reminding about who the top tier was. Let’s look back at the NY6 and see how the numbers matched the narratives and what we learned.
Rose Bowl: No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 9 Notre Dame 14
Alabama scored touchdowns on each of their first three drives in the Rose Bowl. Mac Jones completed 11 of his first 13 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those touchdowns came at the hands of Heisman Trophy frontrunner and exceptional athlete Devonta Smith. The Alabama receiver took a screen pass 26 yards for his first score and then turned a 10-yard post into a 36-yard score. On those first three drives, Smith caught four of four targets for 93 yards, 50 of those coming after the catch. Alabama, in their embarrassment of riches, put the game out of reach in the first three drives thanks not only to the Jones-Smith connection, but also to Najee Harris, who took advantage of Notre Dame’s focus on the deep ball. Harris had three runs for 79 yards and caught a pass for another 14 yards, and any writer would be remiss to not mention his superhuman leap on a 53-yard run.
Put on its heels and backed into a corner, down 14-0 after punting twice, Notre Dame went back to the well of ball control and boring efficiency; the Irish drove 75 yards in eight minutes and three seconds, taking 15 plays to pull the game within a score. This drive was Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame operating at maximum capacity. The Fighting Irish are designed to slog, a hydraulic press just squeezing opponents up to and past their breaking point. Notre Dame converted three third downs and a fourth-and-goal from the 1, taking the maximum amount of time possible to march down the field. It’s a risky gambit, playing the time of possession game, and it’s even riskier when you’re down two touchdowns to one of the best college football offenses in history, but the Irish’s half-quarter drive was as much proof of concept that they could do it at least once.
To pull off the upset as 19.5-point underdogs, the Irish were going to have to extend drives on third downs and find an over-the-top threat for a big play. Outside of their one sustained drive, the Irish went 5-of-12 on third downs, just below their season average of 51.9%. Against Alabama, Notre Dame faced an averaged third-down distance of 7.31 yards, 15% longer than their season average. As for their deep threat, Irish quarterback Ian Book completed just three passes to non-running back targets in the first half. Six of his nine first-half completions went to running backs. The broadcast repeatedly informed viewers of Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Reese’s intention to get running back Kyren Williams 10 receptions in the game; Williams finished with eight receptions on eight targets, but for only 31 yards. Notre Dame’s longest pass play on the day targeted a running back, a 27-yard pass to Chris Tyree to push Notre Dame across the 50-yard line for the first time all day, and the longest pass to a non-running back came in garbage time as Notre Dame scrambled to cover the spread. As 247 Sports’s Bud Elliot notes, beating Alabama requires elite wide receiver talent in one-on-one matchups, and frankly, Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame just isn’t built for that.
Alabama gained 61% of available yards, averaging a starting field position of their own 22. They ran successful plays 55% of the time and converted of 60% of third downs. Their explosive pass game was one of the year’s best performances: 65% success rate through the air, +0.653 EPA/attempt. The Crimson Tide only needed nine explosive plays to take care of the Irish; after their three-drive barrage where they gained 260 yards to take a 21-7 lead, Alabama gained just 179 yards on their remaining five drives. Notre Dame, outside of their 75-yard first-half drive, averaged just 4.6 yards per play, with a 38% success rate overall. The Irish committed to their style of play, involving the running backs and committing to the rush, but that proved to be the limiting factor of their offense. Notre Dame’s rushing attack averaged -0.016 EPA/attempt, even as they rushed on 56% of early downs.
In all, the Irish played the style of football they wanted for most of the matchup, and outside of one drive, that style of football revealed itself to be obsolete. Notre Dame had no hope of scoring enough to keep up with Alabama, and in a game of limited possessions, the first three drives were all the Crimson Tide needed to advance to the National Championship Game while barely breaking a sweat.
Sugar Bowl: No. 3 Ohio State 49, No. 2 Clemson 28
In the late game, Ohio State taught Clemson and the general public a lesson in how college football games are won and lost when a team gets through its opening script and has to react. The Tigers came out on a tear, averaging +0.353 EPA/play, gaining 67% of available yards, and scoring two touchdowns. Clemson averaged just -0.075 EPA/play the rest of the game as they sputtered to keep up with Ohio State. After Clemson’s opening script of plays, the absence of offensive coordinator Tony Elliot became apparent. Trevor Lawrence completed eight of 11 passes to start the game, gaining 27.3% of his day’s total yards on just 22.9% of his total attempts. The bigger story may have been how Ohio State took away Travis Etienne as a receiving threat. Etienne caught three passes for 53 yards on the first three drives; the Buckeyes held him to just one more reception all game, an 11-yard target as Clemson played from a 49-28 deficit late in the game. Etienne finished the day with just 96 total yards, 32 on 10 carries in the rush game. The other two games where Etienne had fewer than 50 rushing yards? A 73-7 blowout of Georgia Tech where he sat early, and Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime win in South Bend. Evidently, the Buckeyes did their homework.
Despite a flurry of contrived narrative regarding how the Buckeyes “didn’t belong” in the playoff, Ohio State quietly showed up and took care of business. Ohio State scored touchdowns on seven of their 12 drives, including five straight first-half touchdown drives. The Buckeyes gained 61% of available yards, averaging an almost unprecedented +0.888 EPA/attempt as Justin Fields had a day. Fields completed 79% of his passes, throwing for six touchdowns despite enduring a literal bone-crunching hit. He connected with receiver Chris Olave six times for 132 yards, spreading the ball to seven total receivers. The Ohio State rushing game seemed not to miss Master Teague, unavailable for the game. In his stead, Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 31 attempts, a 43% success rate, and a +0.096 EPA/rush.
Clemson had little answer for Ohio State’s defensive adjustments and found themselves on the losing end of a blowout they surely thought would be a shootout. The way Ohio State limited Etienne and made Lawrence uncomfortable (35.1% pressure rate) left Clemson’s offense with no way to build their base and move the ball. Ohio State scored to equalize at 7-7 with eight minutes left in the first quarter. Over the next 23 minutes of game time, the Buckeyes went on a 28-7 run to end the half, outgaining the Tigers 8.72 yards per play to 6.29 in that span. Clemson recovered fairly well to start the second half, capitalizing on a Buckeyes interception and marching 80 yards to bring the game within two scores, but an Ohio State touchdown followed by a Clemson fumble sputtered the Tigers offense, and all Clemson could do was hang on and hope for garbage-time scores. It’s hard to quantify how much losing Tony Elliot impacted Clemson’s performance, but clearly the Tigers had no counterpunch for a motivated and perhaps underrated Ohio State; the Buckeyes withstood Clemson’s first big push, then just surgically dismantled the Tigers.
The Rest of the New Year’s Six
Orange Bowl: No. 14 Texas A&M 41, No. 12 North Carolina 13
It’s most appropriate, in the face of two playoff blowouts, to turn our attention first to a team most chagrined about the selection process. Texas A&M, 8-1 with a top-10 win and only a loss to top-seeded Alabama on their resume, felt they deserved a shot at playing for a national title, and on Saturday in the fourth quarter, they played like it. The Aggies and the Tar Heels, through three quarters, were in more or less a dead heat: 20-17 in favor of North Carolina, with A&M on the Tar Heels’ 9-yard line in a first-and-goal situation. Up to that point, both teams had seven drives. Each team would get five more drives in the fourth quarter: Texas A&M gained 78.7% of available yards while holding North Carolina to just 31.7%. Only once, in all five of their drives, did North Carolina start at better than a touchback, and they punted on that one drive (starting at the 40). Texas A&M closed the game with a statement: a 24-7 run, and outside of North Carolina’s big-play touchdown (75 yards), outgained the Tarheels to 9.78 yards per play to 2.29.
Peach Bowl: No. 8 Georgia 24, No. 7 Cincinnati 21
For the third year in a row, the Georgia Bulldogs found themselves in somewhat of a consolation bowl: missing out on the playoff yet again, Georgia played in a NY6 Bowl that felt lacking in stakes. Despite the potential to fall flat, the Bulldogs rebounded and outlasted the Cincinnati Bearcats, overcoming a 21-10 second-half deficit to win their second straight major bowl. Georgia survived mostly thanks to explosive plays and a second-half collapse by the Cincinnati offense. The Bulldogs averaged only a 35% success rate on the day, -0.174 EPA/pass, and -0.047 EPA/rush. Cincinnati’s defense afflicted Georgia to the tune of only 49% of available yards gained, a 9% third-down conversion rate, and less than a point per scoring opportunity. Cincinnati’s early lead was aided and abetted by Georgia’s abysmal special teams: the Bulldogs had a punt of only 4 yards, giving the Bearcats a 42-yard field. The game perhaps should’ve gotten out of hand in Georgia’s favor in the second half, but Cincinnati’s defense kept them around. Georgia drove 71 yards and fumbled in their first second-half drive where a touchdown would’ve flipped the game script. Instead, Georgia’s offense struggled to move the ball, themselves taking advantage of a Cincinnati turnover for a 25-yard touchdown drive.
Cincinnati had only eight successful plays in the second half. They gained 150 yards on two touchdown drives, one of those a 79-yard play, and outside of that, gained only 157 total yards on their other 11 drives. On their last six drives, Cincinnati gained just 19 total yards as they watched a 21-10 lead evaporate. The Bearcats had the ball up 21-19 with 2:54 in the game, but took a gamble on a third-down pass and failed to even run the clock down sufficiently. Georgia then drove and got a field goal just in time, punctuated by a safety as Cincinnati tried to conjure up a last-play miracle. The Bearcats went pound-for-pound with the Bulldogs, especially as you consider that Cincinnati played the entire second half without their starting left tackle, but the Georgia defense was too much for the Bearcats to survive.
Fiesta Bowl: No. 11 Iowa State 34, No. 20 Oregon 17
Iowa State and Oregon looked to be an excellent matchup for college football nerds: Matt Campbell, defensive wizard, versus Joe Moorhead’s tricky and versatile modern offense. The first quarter of the game seemed to bear that out, and then Iowa State pulled away. A touchdown followed by a successful onside kick gave Iowa state a 28-14 lead, and the Ducks had little else to say in the game. The second half was more or less a “ride it out” situation for the Cyclones, and Iowa State went home with the program’s biggest win in history. Iowa State and Oregon matched success rates, 48% each, but three areas dictated the game: Iowa State’s “stolen” possession, from the onside kick, gave them a touchdown advantage out of thin air. Oregon turned the ball over three times, although one of those came on the end-of-game desperation drive, and the Ducks converted no third downs. None. Oregon faced six third downs and a fourth down, and came away with nothing. That combination of an inability to extend drives and turnovers just squandered any chance the Ducks had of generating a comeback, and Campbell’s Iowa State Cyclones will finish the season in the top 10, deservedly so, on the back of some grinding defense, just enough offense, and a little magic.
Cotton Bowl: No. 5 Oklahoma 55, No. 6 Florida 20
Yes, Florida’s offense largely opted out of this game. Yes, we should refrain from making too many inferences about the quality of teams based on bowl matchups, especially in this crazy pandemic year and especially when one team clearly is less invested than the other. But Oklahoma is so good, perhaps even incredible. I’ll say nothing of Florida, given the circumstances, but the Oklahoma Sooners offense under Lincoln Riley is a thing to behold. The Sooners averaged a 60% success rate, +0.348 EPA/pass, +0.459 EPA/rush, and gained 67% of available yards throughout the game. Spencer Rattler threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns, and Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson, Marcus Major, and Seth McGowan combined for 435 total rushing yards. Oklahoma averaged 10.5 yards per play on the day and scored 55 points despite two turnovers. The Sooners had 12 drives in the Cotton Bowl; five of them resulted in touchdowns, two in field goals. In the second half, the Sooners scored on four of five drives as they just poured it on. In a similar vein to Texas A&M, expect this game to boost the Sooners to the top of many 2021 preseason polls.
Listed ranks are F+ going into bowl season.
These players added the most value to their teams in bowl season.
- Justin Fields, Ohio State QB: +30.0 Total EPA
- Zach Wilson, BYU QB: +26.6 Total EPA
Wilson capped off an impressive season for the Cougars: 11-1 despite no conference ties, getting in 10 regular season games amidst the pandemic. Wilson led BYU to a 49-23 rout of Central Florida, completing 76% of his passes for 425 yards and three touchdowns, adding two touchdowns on the ground.
- Mac Jones, Alabama QB: +21.8 Total EPA
- Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State QB: +21.8 Total EPA
It has been an odd season for Sanders, odder than most, as his team struggled with offseason drama and he dealt with an injury. In the Cowboys’ season finale against Miami, though, Sanders looked like the best version of himself. In addition to a spectacular fourth-down touchdown early in the game, Sanders completed 67.5% of his passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns as Oklahoma State outlasted Miami 37-34.
- Cameron Peoples, Appalachian State RB: +19.3 Total EPA
Peoples quite literally ran all over North Texas in the Mountaineers’ 56-28 Myrtle Bowl win. He averaged 14.4 yards per carry, scoring five touchdowns, and breaking loose for a 76-yard explosive run. Peoples finishes the season with 1,124 yards, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
- Bijan Robinson, Texas: +17.3 Total EPA
Texas fans might be wondering where this Bijan Robinson has been. On just 10 carries, Robinson gained 183 total yards as the Longhorns rolled over Colorado 55-23. Texas was successful on nine of Robinson’s 10 attempts, and this is just the third time that Robinson gained over 100 yards on the season.