March 4, 2021

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Seventh Day Adventure: Championship Week

23 min read
Seventh Day Adventure: Championship Week

It’s the final week of regular-season college football, save for the classic Army vs. Navy game that will take place the following weekend. Another Rivalry Week has come and gone and Michigan is no closer to competing with Ohio State for supremacy in the Big 10 East. The Buckeyes blasted the Wolverines 56-27 in front of their own fans in Ann Arbor and left the Michigan fanbase desolate and ready to consider permanently moving on to basketball.

Other highlights of the week included Wisconsin hitting their passing game against Minnesota to win the Big 10 West again, as well as another dramatic Iron Bowl. In a game with multiple lead changes and wild momentum swings, the game ended as only a classic Iron Bowl pitting Nick Saban against Gus Malzahn could, with the former committing crucial errors on special teams that lost the game. First Alabama missed a 30-yard field goal attempt that bounced loudly off the upright, then they committed a substitution penalty when Auburn confused them by sending the punter out on fourth down only to flex him out as a receiver while leaving quarterback Bo Nix and much of the offense on the field.

So the Tide are essentially out of the playoff picture now. The top three spots are likely locked in regardless of what happens this week in the conference championship games, but there’s still an open fourth slot and plenty that could happen to send the system into chaos. There’s great debate over whether a one-loss Oklahoma, Baylor, or Utah is most likely to be the fourth team admitted into the proceedings.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Pac-12 Championship Game: Utah (-6.5) vs. Oregon at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California — Friday, 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Utah (11-1) Oregon (10-2)
F/+ 6 18
FEI 6 18
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 9 13
SP+ 10 17
IsoPPP+ 51 10
Rushing SP+ 26 28
Passing SP+ 11 14
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 5 20
SP+ 6 25
IsoPPP+ 12 68
Rushing SP+ 10 52
Passing SP+ 6 46

This is the third time in five years that Utah has won at least a share of their division and the second straight season in which they’ve advanced to the Pac-12 title game. This year will be their chance to finally break through and win the conference after losing 10-3 in a defensive struggle a year ago against Washington. The decade-long malaise that has affected USC has left Utah as the strongest program in the South division. Head coach Kyle Whittingham’s 2019 team is perhaps his strongest yet, fielding another physical and effective offense with a senior quarterback in Tyler Huntley and a particularly good defense even for Utah.

The Utes steamrolled most of the Pac-12 this year, save ironically for USC who bested them 30-23, and while they avoided Oregon they did overcome Washington 33-28 in a game that wasn’t quite that close. Oregon had to come back late to edge out Washington 35-31 and dropped the season opener against Auburn and another contest with Arizona State that effectively disqualified them from the playoffs. This is a pretty close match, though, and could serve to bolster Utah’s resume in a way that keeps them above Oklahoma and Baylor and allows them to leapfrog Georgia if the Bulldogs lose to LSU in the SEC Championship Game.

Both teams are built from the trenches and put a big emphasis on the run game even though both have senior quarterbacks. Justin Herbert is nominally the star of the show in Oregon, but the only time this season he has thrown for even 40 pass attempts was against Montana early in the year. Oregon’s two main running backs, C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye, combined for 264 carries for 1,605 yards at 6.1 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns. Short-yardage back Cyrus Habibi-Likio added another 10 rushing scores. The Ducks run a sort of spread offense, but their goal with the passing game is to open up the defense so that head coach Mario Cristobal’s offensive line can grind out wins on the ground.

Utah has a similar approach, but instead of turning to a committee they feed Zack Moss, who has 200 carries for 1,246 yards at 6.2 yards per carry with 15 rushing touchdowns. Their second-leading rusher is Huntley, who after removing sack yardage has 61 carries for 320 yards at 5.2 yards per carry with another five scores. Beyond Moss, the Utes don’t really have a primary option in the offense, but they spread the ball around to a variety of targets. The closest thing to a second option is tight end Brant Kuithe, who has 29 catches for 550 yards and six touchdowns working up the seams.

Oregon had a similar dimension in their own tight end Jacob Breeland until he was lost for the year with an injury. With Breeland gone, the Ducks tend to feed diminutive slot receiver Jaylon Redd (430 receiving yards and seven touchdowns) and Johnny Johnson III (731 receiving yards and six touchdowns). The Ducks have a senior-filled offensive line with loads of experience, whereas the Utes have four new starters this season who are pretty massive but mostly underclassmen. Nevertheless, the Utes line has arguably been as good or better.

These two defenses are likely to make the difference in this game. Utah has played fantastic man coverage much of the season with converted cornerback Julian Blackmon playing over the top at safety and picking off four passes, while star cornerback Jaylon Johnson has broken up 10 while picking off two more. It’s a very difficult team to beat without a strong, spread passing attack like USC utilized, and it’s made more difficult by defensive end Bradlee Anae, who had 12.5 sacks this season and 16.5 run stuffs playing on the edge. The Utes will man up the Oregon receivers and make Herbert prove he can beat coverage and make Cristobal prove he’s willing to gameplan to beat them that way rather than leaning on his own area of expertise, the offensive line (he was the offensive line coach at Alabama previously).

The Oregon defense is the main reason for their 10-win season, more so than their NFL draft prospect quarterback and senior-filled offensive line. New defensive coordinator Andy Avalos built on what Jim Leavitt had established in Eugene and the Ducks played great defense much of this season with a few slip-ups against Arizona State and Washington State. Like their offense, they emphasize the run game and action in the trenches first before worrying about the passing attack, which led to a big day from Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels, who threw for 408 yards on a defense that was primarily focused with stopping Sun Devils running back Eno Benjamin.

Huntley is often asked to do even less than Herbert, but that will change in this game if Oregon is able to get stops against Moss and the Utes run game.

Watch for:

  • Can Justin Herbert attack the Utah secondary’s man coverage in the face of dangerous pass-rusher Bradlee Anae?
  • How will Utah approach the Oregon defense loading the box to stop running back Zack Moss?
  • Which team is the stronger and better unit in the trenches? Both teams want to win there.
  • Does Utah need to win with style points to impress the playoff selection committee?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 9.9

Big 12 Championship Game: Baylor vs. Oklahoma (-9) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — Saturday, 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Baylor (11-1) Oklahoma (11-1)
F/+ 15 8
FEI rating 14 8
When Baylor has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 38 70
SP+ 17 41
IsoPPP+ 32 71
Rushing SP+ 29 89
Passing SP+ 32 19
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 8 3
SP+ 15 1
IsoPPP+ 3 5
Rushing SP+ 15 3
Passing SP+ 7 3

The 2019 Baylor Bears are in position to be the first defensive-oriented team to win the Big 12 this decade. The only other team that would compare would be the 2012 Kansas State Wildcats, who won a share of the Big 12 title thanks in part to great defense but also due to the indomitable play of quarterback Collin Klein, who had over 200 carries and over 300 pass attempts that season while grinding out wins.

Baylor had an explosive start to Big 12 play on offense but fell off due to some injuries. Quarterback Charlie Brewer ended the year with less than 3,000 passing yards but did add 10 rushing touchdowns to his 20 passing scores. The run game would come and go from week to week and the Bears scraped out wins thanks to their own fantastic defense holding seven out of nine Big 12 opponents to less than 30 points. They almost accomplished that same feat against Oklahoma during the season, but their own offense cratered in the second half while sitting on a 28-3 lead and the Sooners held the ball for almost the entire second half while overcoming the deficit with a dramatic 34-31 win.

The Sooners season has been defined by the relentless play of quarterback Jalen Hurts, which harkens back to Klein’s season at Kansas State. Hurts currently has just under 200 carries and just under 300 passing attempts himself and will hit both benchmarks in this game in all likelihood. He’s the team’s leading rusher and has 31 passing touchdowns and 18 rushing touchdowns. Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State identified him going into last week as a “one-man show” but the Cowboys couldn’t stop him and the Sooners took advantage of Oklahoma State’s strategies with power-option schemes that fed running back Kennedy Brooks for 160 yards on 22 carries.

The circumstances of Round 1 between Oklahoma and Baylor are peculiar and will undoubtedly get a lot of attention heading into this contest. The Bears jumped on the Sooners at home early with some quarterback draw plays and a few well-timed or accurate balls from Brewer. What settled the matter over the course of the game was the Sooners working out Baylor’s limited offensive arsenal and steadily pounding their excellent bend-don’t-break defense into submission with repeated Hurts direct snap runs and scrambles. Also highly relevant to Round 1 was the absence of Oklahoma’s star receiver, CeeDee Lamb, who has caught 50 balls for 1,035 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.

Oklahoma has a pair of big advantages heading into this game. They have Lamb on the field, and the defense knows that Baylor’s passing game will focus on the far hashmark in due to Brewer’s limited range throwing the ball. On the flip side, Baylor’s run game has improved over the last few weeks, and that will give them additional options for attacking the Oklahoma defense early.

It’s a reasonable guess that the Sooners will gameplan the Baylor offense differently this time around, and the Bears having a better run game will be essential to countering their strategies. The Sooners will likely play zero-man coverage on receivers running routes past the far hash while allowing their safeties to sit on post routes, flags, and fades to the boundary that Brewer throws with great accuracy to dangerous weapons like Denzel Mims (945 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns) and Tyquan Thornton (682 receiving yards, four touchdowns). The Bears have yet to face a really sharp defensive game plan that weighted defenders to those areas of the field and denied Brewer access to the boundary without facing a deep-half safety sitting on everything deep.

Baylor may instead look to grind out some drives with quarterback run options and double-tight end sets that stress the width of Oklahoma’s defensive front. They can’t jump on Oklahoma that way like they did in Round 1, but they may have more sustained success.

Oklahoma’s offense will likely lean on Hurts in the run game as much as they need to in order to guarantee victory, even running him 25 or 30 times if that’s what it takes. One area where they torched Baylor in Round 1, though, was on third-and-longs, where the Bears brought some man-blitzes that were defeated by Hurts’ scrambling and effective crossing routes by the Sooner receivers. If Baylor can either contain Hurts better or mix in some zone pressures that can’t be attacked as easily by the Oklahoma passing game, they could put the final touches on what otherwise would have been a master class defensive performance in Round 1.

Because these two teams know each other so well, both staffs will be highly dialed in on each other’s tendencies and personnel and will have a better eye of how to steer the game’s matchups to favorable territory. Hurts could give the Sooners the edge in such a matchup with his sheer physicality and athleticism, or else Lamb may put Oklahoma over the top with his own athletic attributes.

Watch for:

  • Will the Oklahoma defense game plan Charlie Brewer and the Baylor offense differently in Round 2?
  • How will Baylor handle Jalen Hurts’ running ability on designed or improvised runs?
  • Will a win by either team put them into the playoff? Surrounding context and game control could matter in this contest.

FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma by 5.2

AAC Championship Game: Cincinnati at Memphis (-9) — 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Cincinnati (10-2) Memphis (11-1)
F/+ 33 14
FEI 33 17
When Cincinnati has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 56 54
SP+ 70 33
IsoPPP+ 95 44
Rushing SP+ 63 35
Passing SP+ 86 35
When Memphis has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 28 7
SP+ 34 7
IsoPPP+ 59 1
Rushing SP+ 21 9
Passing SP+ 56 9

There are a few fun wrinkles with this game. Cincinnati and Memphis played just last week, with the Tigers winning 34-24 and sealing the game with a late touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati’s starting quarterback Desmond Ridder has been nursing an injured shoulder, and he sat the game out, but the plan is to play him in the rematch. There wasn’t really much on the line for Cincinnati in Round 1 because they had already clinched the East division, freeing them up to rest Ridder and potentially hold other schemes and tactics at bay for the inevitable rematch. Memphis, on the other hand, HAD to win against Cincinnati to maintain their lead in the West division over similarly 7-1 Navy, so they couldn’t afford to hold much back.

Given those circumstances, Cincinnati would appear to have some major advantages in this game, but obviously Memphis is well-favored both by the Vegas oddsmakers and the projecting formulas such as FEI. Part of the problem is Ridder’s shoulder and exactly how healthy he’ll be for this contest. His backup Ben Bryant threw for 5 yards per attempt with two interceptions last week, so chances are good that Ridder can improve on that performance. Cincinnati’s lead running back Michael Warren II had 21 carries for 122 yards at 5.8 yards per carry with a touchdown despite lacking Ridder’s arms and legs as the constraint for Memphis when they tried to devote extra attention to him. There’s a lot of extra upside for Cincinnati in coming against Memphis with a fresh game plan that puts more on the quarterback and fields a stronger talent in that position.

The concern for Cincinnati in this game concerns stopping the Memphis offense, which hit them pretty hard a week ago when the Bearcats defense knew they needed to carry a winning effort. Cincinnati stopped up the Memphis run game reasonably well but left themselves vulnerable to the RPO and play-action game to the tune of 233 passing yards at 9 yards per attempt from Tigers quarterback Brady White, with two touchdowns and a single interception. The Bearcats struggled with Memphis’ effective RPO game, getting beat with quick concepts to the field when they played man coverage and struggling to stop the run when they tried to play zone.

Memphis’ Wildcat package did some particular damage; they’d flex out the quarterback and then direct snap run to the running back from double-tight end formations with another running back serving as a lead blocker. Cincinnati struggled to control the line of scrimmage or get numbers to the ball. Unless head coach Luke Fickell and his staff at Cincinnati have been saving up some answers or figured out some adjustments in this additional week, than the Bearcats will need their offense to have more upside in order to outscore the Tigers.

Interestingly, Memphis is 11-1 but not in serious contention for the playoff, ranking only 17th in the committee’s rankings. The Tigers have a two-point loss to Temple on their resume and only wins over fellow Group of Five programs. So it doesn’t appear that the committee is going to let them in as a Cinderella even if there were some sort of chaos scenario ahead of them. What’s more likely is that a Power 5 program will be scouting Memphis head coach Mike Norvell as a potential hire, especially at schools like Arkansas and Florida State that are already in the hunt for new leaders.

Watch for:

  • How much did Cincinnati hold back in Round 1 knowing that they might have to play Memphis again a week later?
  • How healthy is Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who sat out in Round 1?
  • Can Cincinnati’s defense find answers for Memphis’ balanced, spread offense?
  • Mike Norvell as a head coach candidate for some bigger job openings.

FEI Outright Pick: Memphis by 12.2

SEC Championship Game: Georgia vs. LSU (-7) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia — 4 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Georgia (11-1) LSU (12-0)
F/+ 5 3
FEI 7 4
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 28 20
SP+ 29 22
IsoPPP+ 85 88
Rushing SP+ 31 25
Passing SP+ 22 25
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 3 2
SP+ 1 2
IsoPPP+ 2 12
Rushing SP+ 1 4
Passing SP+ 3 4

The most likely scenario in the event of a Georgia victory in this game is that LSU is still selected for the playoff and those two SEC squads comprise half the field while Ohio State and Clemson fill out the rest of the selections (assuming victories in their respective games). It’s hard to imagine LSU dropping behind Utah, Oklahoma, and Baylor given their extensive resume of big wins this season.

Another scenario here is that Georgia, despite having what might be the best defense in college football this year, is still helpless against Joe Burrow and the Tigers offense and expectations for the playoffs have to recalibrate in light of the destructive power of this LSU team. Thus far, many commentators and stats have knocked LSU for their defense, which hasn’t been as strong as in previous seasons, but it’s not clear that this matters because no one has really come particularly close to stopping their offense. If nothing else, the playoff field will be looking to Georgia head coach Kirby Smart to offer up a blueprint on how to slow Burrow and his receivers down. The best existing blueprint is from Auburn, who played a 3-1-7 package designed to get depth to deny the Tigers’ various route combinations, particularly from their running backs, slot receiver Justin Jefferson, and tight ends.

In the past Georgia has tended to be a 3-2-6 dime team as needed against spread offenses, subbing out their outside linebackers for extra defensive backs. This Georgia team lacks a dominant outside linebacker, making it all the more likely that they may choose to go that route. LSU had to counter that personnel package from Texas in Week 2 of this season, but the Longhorns used that package to bring a variety of zone blitzes with a big pair of safeties playing down on the line. The Bulldogs may instead play more drop-eight coverages, or else blitz with inside linebackers Tae Crowder and Monty Rice, although neither of them has recorded a sack yet this season. Georgia has been able to pressure teams this year, as evidenced by their stunning defensive numbers, but they rarely finish plays with sacks. The leading pass-rusher is Azeez Ojulari, who has 4.5 sacks on the year playing as an outside linebacker.

This game could be the ultimate test of the style of playing coverage or bringing pressure going up against a high-level spread passing attack. If Georgia can’t limit LSU playing that style, then we may see more aggressive blitzing in the playoffs from whomever the Tigers draw next, save for Ohio State who don’t need to blitz with Chase Young on the field.

On the other side, Georgia is going to offer up a nice test of LSU’s run defense. The Tigers had been inconsistent this year on defense up until they played Texas A&M the other week. In that game LSU totally squashed the Aggies’ passing game, and while they did take a little damage from A&M running the ball with Isaiah Spiller (11 carries for 66 yards), it was totally incidental to the game, which was a dominating blowout. Georgia will be patient with their run game, provided they don’t allow Burrow and the Tigers to march down the field and score touchdowns on their first several drives, and will test Tigers’ linebackers Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen, who’ve been inconsistent against the run.

If LSU can’t blow the Bulldogs away because they allow Georgia to run the ball and control the pace of the game, that will be an interesting indicator for how the Tigers defense may handle the Ohio State power run game, or Clemson and their star running back Travis Etienne, or prospective playoff teams with top rushing attacks like Utah or Oklahoma. Meanwhile, if Georgia gets into a hole in this game handing off over and over again and never keep up with LSU’s potent offense, eventually people will ask whether their own offensive approach is too conservative. The Bulldogs have been a top team under Smart the last few years, but they’re starting to pile up some postseason losses in games where their opponent was more aggressive on offense.

Watch for:

  • How will Georgia attempt to defend LSU’s pro-spread, and does it work well enough for playoff teams to copy?
  • Can the LSU defense hold up to Georgia’s pounding run game and attempts to slow the tempo and shorten the game?
  • If LSU starts scoring, will Georgia take the reins off quarterback Jake Fromm and can he help them keep pace in a higher-scoring game?

FEI Outright Pick: LSU by 9.7

ACC Championship Game: Virginia vs. Clemson (-28.5) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina — 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Virginia (9-3) Clemson (12-0)
F/+ 43 4
FEI 44 2
When Virginia has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 51 1
SP+ 57 3
IsoPPP+ 90 1
Rushing SP+ 55 2
Passing SP+ 56 1
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 61 6
SP+ 36 6
IsoPPP+ 100 10
Rushing SP+ 74 1
Passing SP+ 59 23

By most measurements, including FEI, Virginia is the worst team in our preview today. That has been the nature of the ACC for Clemson the last few seasons; their conference has mostly served as a long tuneup before the postseason. Back in 2017, Clemson appeared to be clicking again with new quarterback Kelly Bryant, only to be shut down by Alabama in the playoff when they didn’t have a pro-spread passing dimension like they had in previous years with Deshaun Watson. They typically don’t really need that dimension until the playoff and didn’t quite show it in 2018 until they played Notre Dame. For that reason, it’s easy for Clemson to throw national commentators and numbers off with their regular-season performances.

Virginia is unlikely to prove an exception to this rule. To force the Tigers out of their normal formula, a team needs to be able to handle their spread RPO run game featuring Travis Etienne, who had 1,368 yards on just 168 carries this year at 8.3 yards per carry with 16 touchdowns. The 2019 Clemson offensive line is one of the better run-blocking units yet for head coach Dabo Swinney, featuring maulers at left tackle in Jackson Carman (a 6-foot-5, 330-pounder who swallows defenders) and at right tackle with Tremayne Anchrum (a 6-foot-2, 310-pound player who excels at getting under pads and driving people).

The Cavaliers defense is a zone-blitz defense that generates a ton of pressure from a 2-4-5 alignment that involves regularly dropping the outside linebackers while stunting and attacking with the inside linebackers and defensive tackles. The Cavs are great at getting pressure by just bringing four thanks to the variety that their 2-4-5 alignment creates. The starting defensive tackles have combined for 9.5 sacks, the inside linebackers for 12.5, safety Joey Blount has 3.5, and the outside linebackers have 10. This could be an interesting test of whether Clemson’s pass protection is up for the challenge of keeping Trevor Lawrence upright well enough to execute the sort of spread passing attack that eviscerated Notre Dame and Alabama a year ago. The Tigers lost longtime left tackle Mitch Hyatt and fifth-year senior and third-down running back Adam Choice from last year’s team, so their pass protection has some holes to fill to recreate the magic.

But none of that will matter unless the Cavs can stop Etienne and the run game. In their losses to Notre Dame and Louisville, the Cavs were hit pretty hard by rushing attacks. Fighting Irish running back Tony Jones ran for 131 yards and three touchdowns on just 18 carries while Louisville almost had both their quarterback and running back hit the 100-yard mark on Virginia’s defense. So we may see glimpses of how Clemson’s pass protection is coming along, but it may not be particularly relevant to the outcome of this game if Etienne runs wild through the Virginia defense.

The Cavaliers offense has carried the team more often than the defense, scoring 33.7 points per game with a spread-option attack centered around the versatility and distribution of quarterback Bryce Perkins. The signal-caller threw for 2,949 yards this season at 7.1 yards per attempt while putting three different receivers at 600 yards or higher, and he also ran for 902 yards (removing sack yardage) and 11 rushing touchdowns to go along with his 16 passing scores. The Cavs were often able to work their way down the field with some passing before finishing drives with the option run game. Bruising tailback Wayne Taulapapa had only 416 rushing yards but finished 12 drives with scoring plunges.

None of this figures to translate very cleanly against the Clemson defense. The Tigers have been very multiple with their base defense this season, moving star linebacker/safety hybrid Isaiah Simmons all over the field and keeping inside linebackers Chad Smith and James Skalski glued to the box, where they can stuff the run and blitz from different angles. Their safeties also get involved regularly and big Tanner Muse (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) is often brought into the box late like an extra linebacker to blitz or fit the run. Their identity this season essentially revolves around attacking teams with the linebacker corps and creating confusion. The freakish Simmons now stands at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds; he leads the team with 14 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 15.5 run stuffs, five pass break-ups, and an interception.

In all likelihood the Tigers are going to swarm Virginia’s spread-option game, confuse Perkins, and coast to the playoff without getting a good stress test for what their real strength or weakness might be when they play the other elite teams.

Watch for:

  • How does Clemson’s pass protection hold up against the creative zone blitzing of the Virginia 2-4-5 defensive front?
  • Can Virginia stop Clemson running back Travis Etienne and test whether Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson passing game have their fastball?
  • Clemson’s big, fast defensive backfield going up against Bryce Perkins and the Cavs’ spread-option offense.

FEI Outright Pick: Clemson by 34.2

Big 10 Championship Game: Ohio State (-16.5) vs. Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana — 8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Ohio State (12-0) Wisconsin (10-2)
F/+ 1 7
FEI 1 5
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 4 9
SP+ 4 14
IsoPPP+ 14 120
Rushing SP+ 2 60
Passing SP+ 5 16
When Wisconsin has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 2 5
SP+ 2 11
IsoPPP+ 23 109
Rushing SP+ 11 6
Passing SP+ 2 13

Round 1 of this game went very poorly for the Badgers, who made a crucial mistake. They played quarterback Jack Coan extensively in a pistol formation, only 4 yards off the line of scrimmage as opposed to the normal 5 you get in a shotgun, and he didn’t take deep drops from there on passing plays. Presumably the goal was to boost the run game and to encourage Ohio State defensive end Chase Young to go upfield and wide. What actually happened was that Young sacked Coan four times and stripped him of the ball twice.

Beyond that, Wisconsin also failed to establish the run with star running back Jonathan Taylor, who managed just 52 yards on 20 carries, while allowing Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins to turn 20 carries into 163 yards and two touchdowns. It was an extensive thrashing that made the Badgers look completely outclassed. They’ll need a wildly different game plan in Round 2 to have a chance.

There are other difficulties in this game for Wisconsin. In Round 1 they managed to hold Justin Fields to a 12-of-22 day passing with 167 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Solid work, not like what Fields did to Michigan the other week when he threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns. The Buckeyes passing game has slowly improved over the course of the year as Fields has grown more comfortable in the system. They’ll need that to continue, if not in this game then in the upcoming playoff, where teams may prove more resistant to their rushing attack. Additionally, Fields has been somewhat limited by an unspecified knee injury against Penn State that saw him step out of the game against Michigan before returning with a kneebrace. With the brace, Fields has still looked mobile and he has exceptional arm strength and accuracy throwing on the move, but his ability to add a running dimension on option plays may be diminished. Since they are big underdogs in this game, Wisconsin might as well build their game plan around the assumption that Ohio State is a playoff-lock whether they win or lose and may not utilize Fields as much in the run game. From there, the best game plan for Wisconsin will be to field their nickel package, play zone, always have a safety trigger down into the box on run plays, and aggressively overplay the running back on any option looks. The surest way for Wisconsin to lose again is to get torched for deep passes down the field while Dobbins runs for over 100 yards.

Wisconsin’s offense almost has an easier task ahead of them. For starters, their plan for blocking Young can only improve by giving Coan more space to work. Paul Chryst and his staff also need to work out how to get Taylor going in the run game as there’s no recipe for a Badgers upset that doesn’t feature their key player rushing for over 100 yards. The Buckeyes tend to rely on man coverage (or else Cover-3 matching schemes that amount to something similar) and their ability to get into matchups on the back end with their skill athletes is hardly matched elsewhere in the country. The difficulty for a team like Wisconsin is in finding a matchup where their receiver can win one-on-one. They could try flexing out tight end Jake Ferguson more and asking their running backs to help block Young rather than chipping with tight end as they did in Round 1 at times. The Badgers could also play in two-back sets with third-down running back Garrett Groshek sharing the field with Ferguson and Taylor in hopes of confusing Ohio State and getting Groshek matched on a linebacker who can’t cover him.

Confusion and misdirection have to be a big part of the Badgers formula as they aren’t going to be able to bully Ohio State up front like they did against other Big 10 opponents this season. Buckeyes defensive tackles Jashon Cornell and Davon Hamilton combined for 19 run stuffs this season while keeping linebacker Malik Harrison clean to make 16 tackles for loss and 19.5 run stuffs on his own.

Without a creative game plan and lots of tricks that catch Ohio State by surprise, the main intrigue of this game may just be whether the Buckeyes get through it healthy for the upcoming playoff run.

Watch for:

  • Can Wisconsin protect quarterback Jack Coan from Ohio State defensive end Chase Young?
  • How will the Badgers get running back Jonathan Taylor going against the Ohio State defensive front?
  • The health of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields’ knee.
  • Which team is able to impose their will in the trenches? That’s normally Wisconsin’s game, but Ohio State beat them there in Round 1.

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 16.5

FEI PICKS: Championship Week

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Ian’s Pick
Against the Spread
Utah 6.5 Oregon Utah Oregon Utah
Oklahoma 9 Baylor Oklahoma Baylor Baylor
Memphis 9 Cincinnati Memphis Memphis Cincinnati
Clemson 28.5 Virginia Clemson Clemson Clemson
Ohio State 16.5 Wisconsin Ohio State Wisconsin Ohio State

FEI’s Picks against the spread last week: 3-3

FEI’s Picks against the spread on the year: 41-39

Ian’s Picks against the spread in last week: 3-3

Ian’s Picks against the spread on the year: 39-41

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