The storied history of the Minnesota Golden Gophers football program is perhaps best exhibited by its claim to the origins of cheerleading. With Minnesota in the midst of a three-game losing streak in 1898,1an editorial ran in the school paper that said, in part, “Any plan that would stir up enthusiasm for athletics would be helpful.”
More than a century later, Head Coach P.J. Fleck’s methodology, which calls for an unconventional supply of energy, has whisked up plenty in the Twin Cities, having transformed a contemporary doormat into the most surprising unbeaten team remaining.2 After Minnesota’s most recent win, Fleck all but begged ESPN’s “College GameDay” to visit Minneapolis for the upcoming matchup with Penn State.3
Minnesota is 8-0 for the first time since 19414 and has won 12 of its last 14 games. It’s instructive to recall that as recently as 2007, this was the worst Power Five team in the country by some metrics. Fan support isn’t exactly robust, either: Despite opening TCF Bank Stadium in 2009, the team has drawn such minimal attendance that the university’s official website can only boast that it has “the largest home locker room in college or professional football,” noting that someone could run a 60-yard dash inside it.5 All of which, of course, only adds to the strange reclamation project that has taken place in Fleck’s third season at the helm. Suddenly a program that went a combined 12-13 in Fleck’s first two seasons is on its way to a potential berth in the Big Ten championship game.
Like many seasoned programs, the Gophers have filled a trophy case over the decades, but college football’s Energizer Bunny might soon be unlocking it for the first time in the modern era.
Fleck’s is a mostly balanced operation. Minnesota’s offense and defense each ranks in the top 20 in expected points added,6 while the special-teams unit is abominable, ranking 124th out of 130 teams. “I think the teams that can be balanced at any moment, and can control and sustain the balance, are going to be the most dangerous teams,” Fleck has noted this season.
In conference play, the Gophers are boat-racing the opposition. Only Clemson and Alabama have outscored conference opponents by a wider margin, and no team has held the lead longer in conference play than the Gophers, who have led for 28 minutes and 49 seconds through five games. They’ve outscored the last three opponents 128-24.
With the subtlety of a flash grenade, Fleck has turned a fledgling football team into one closing in on its second 10-win campaign since the early 20th century. He brought an identity to a forgotten wasteland in a marquee conference. Regardless of how nauseating his sayings may seem to outsiders, Fleck brought oars to the Land of 10,000 Lakes and taught a community to embrace a shared mantra. “We’re as good as we are right now, that’s all I know,” Fleck said last month in certified coach-speak. What the Gophers are right now is pretty damn good — and that’s something they haven’t been in a while.
The most dominant college football player on one of the nation’s best teams is a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end. Although the Heisman Trophy is typically reserved for players who score touchdowns, rather than those who prevent them,1 Ohio State’s Chase Young has made a strong case for front-runner status.
“In a day and age when people get caught up in what’s next, he really wants to leave a legacy here,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day told Yahoo’s Pete Thamel. “That makes him special.”
And while these box score metrics are noteworthy, they fail to encapsulate or appropriately contextualize his influence on a game, which is reminiscent of South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh. Young’s versatility is critical to Ohio State’s success: Against Wisconsin, he lined up at linebacker, defended tight ends in coverage and was moved around on the line. He’s so fast that the Buckeyes don’t even need to blitz to turn a quarterback inside out: Only 11 Power Five teams have blitzed less than the Buckeyes, yet just Pittsburgh has accounted for more total sacks.
Ohio State is bludgeoning its opponents. The margin of victory in each of the team’s eight wins has been no smaller than 24 points, meaning that Young — perhaps in the interest of opposing quarterback safety — is removed from the field of play well before the score goes final. Among defensive linemen, Young is tied for 290th in defensive snaps, playing 261 total snaps this season. Just 17 of those snaps have come in the fourth quarter. His workload consists of little more than half of Ohio State’s total defensive snaps and just 15.5 percent of the Buckeyes’ fourth-quarter defensive snaps.
Heisman voters are mere human beings, biased by factors ranging from region to conference to position to race. Production is rarely contextualized,4 and the data with which these votes are cast is limited when it comes to defensive players. Sacks, tackles for loss and pressures — all of which Young has going for his candidacy — are only a fraction of on-field production and value.
But while imperfect, parsing Ohio State’s defensive splits with and without Young is instructive in identifying his value. While Ohio State allows a best-in-country 3.6 yards per play, with Young on the field, the Buckeyes allow 3.0 (the best mark through eight games since at least 2004), according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. Nearly half of all opponent plays gain zero or negative yardage when Young is on the field, a rate that drops 10.1 percentage points when he sits. Moreover, when Young is removed from the field, the Buckeyes pressure rate drops nearly 12 percentage points.
It is not enough to say Young is an unstoppable force. Mike Renner wrote recently that he’s doing things Pro Football Focus has never seen in its six years of tracking players. To watch Young bull-rush a quarterback is to watch an offensive line collectively drown. He’s too fast. He’s too strong. He’s too intelligent. His is the kind of impact that causes opposing QBs to, as Day put it, “start to feel ghosts and see ghosts.” Young was asked to replace Nick Bosa, the No. 2 pick in last year’s NFL draft. He responded by becoming the linchpin of a potent Ohio State defense and putting together perhaps the best Heisman candidacy by a defensive player we’ve seen in years.
The NCAA all but killed the program in 1987, imposing the so-called “death penalty” that banned SMU from play for an entire season.6 The cellar may be a temporary place, but SMU built a home in it over the past quarter-century. Fans would be forgiven for believing it was permanent. But this year’s squad had no intention of staying put.
Alumni — and admirers of SMU football from the 1980s — must be tickled to see that the spark in Dallas has come on offense. The Mustangs score 42.2 offensive points per contest, the seventh-most in the nation. Only vaunted, traditional powers in Oklahoma, Ohio State, Alabama and LSU have scored more offensive touchdowns.
The Pony Express isn’t back, but not for a lack of effort by the SMU Mustangs. Nearly 40 years after Eric Dickerson and Craig James formed one of the greatest backfield tandems of all time, the Mustangs have reestablished their mojo in the same vein. Only eight teams are running the ball more than SMU, and only Wisconsin has more rushing touchdowns. Much of SMU’s ground game has been courtesy of Xavier Jones, who just wanted to cap his college career “with a bang.” He ranks 11th nationally in rushing yardage (646) and is tied for third in rushing touchdowns (12).
What’s more, Dykes is largely operating with a new roster. Starting quarterback Shane Buechele, leading receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and leading tackler Patrick Nelson are all transfers. As The Athletic’s Chris Vannini noted, the program brought in 16 transfers this offseason, at least four more than any other team. In total, the team has 65 new players on campus this year.
Sometimes comparisons are best avoided. SMU has tied its best start to a season in school history, but it ultimately may not hold a candle to the halcyon days in which the Mustangs were “the best team money could buy.” An upstart season — one that could prove to be transformational — still hasn’t managed to mend the broken relationships between former players and the university. But even in the football-crazed state of Texas, who would have thought that SMU would return to relevance? If June Jones was the first to resurrect the program, Dykes is the first to show it can flourish in the modern era. SMU had gone over 30 years with just a handful of winning seasons after it faced crippling sanctions, but this year, a new chapter is being written in familiar ink.
CORRECTION (Oct. 18, 2019, 5 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described the ban applied to SMU’s football team in 1987. The school was banned from all play for the season, not just the postseason.
Like a makeover contestant who returns the tailored garments for a jeans-and-graphic-tee ensemble once the camera crew leaves, Paul Chryst is firmly set in his ways.1
Two weeks ago, the fifth-year Wisconsin coach notched one of the biggest wins of his career when his team trampled the Michigan Wolverines. In that game, the notoriously conservative Badgers attempted three fourth-down conversions, successfully converting all of them. That might not sound terribly surprising in a vacuum, but Wisconsin has gone for it on fourth down just 43 times since 2015, the second-fewest of any Power Five team, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. By Badger standards, the Michigan game was downright aggressive.
But the following week against Northwestern, Chryst reverted to his old ways: decision-making as field-position optimization. When drives stalled inside Wildcat territory, out came the Badger punting unit — four separate times. Unless a team is facing a fourth-and-forever situation, the calculus suggests going for it in opponent territory, regardless of yardline, essentially every time. No college football team has punted more in plus territory in a game this season.2 You could almost hear the groans from Madison on the telecast.
Teams are punting less often once inside midfield
Punts in opponent territory per game and as a share of all drives, among Power Five schools
Punts in opponent territory
No. Per Game
% of all Drives
Asked why he abandoned an aggressive fourth-down strategy, Chryst didn’t provide much insight, saying, “I think a couple things go into it: What are you doing offensively? How is our defense playing? Different situations.” The Badgers do indeed feature arguably the nation’s most formidable defense, but it’s also true that since Chryst was named Wisconsin head coach in 2015, his team has elected to punt 77 times in opponent territory — second-most of any team in the country.
Chryst certainly isn’t the only coach to insist on waving the white flag after his offense advances into an opponent’s side of midfield.3 But the analytical community — and those who care about their teams’ chances of success — can rest easy knowing that the rate at which coaches dial up a punt in opponent territory is falling noticeably. Through Game 5, just 5.7 percent of all Power Five offensive drives this season have resulted in a punt in opponent territory, the lowest rate since at least 2008.
This is true, no matter the offense’s field position. At any point inside the 50-yard line, the number of punts in the 2019 season falls beneath the prior 10-year average.
A team with a lead is more likely to punt, so it should come as no surprise that 56.6 percent of all punts taken at midfield or closer by Power Five teams this season have been taken by the team with more points on the board.
But even those attempts to pin an opponent deep aren’t consistently effective — it’s difficult to control an oblong ball in a narrow window. Less than 40 percent of all punts this season taken inside the 50-yard line by Power Five teams have resulted in the opponent getting pinned inside the 10-yard line. Punts taken 40 to 49 yards from goal result in a touchback nearly one-quarter of the time.
By and large, punting at the college level is dying on the vine, despite what punt acolytes like Stanford’s David Shaw and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz would have you believe. On average, Power Five games now feature nearly as many punts per drive (0.34) as they do offensive touchdowns (0.32), with punts falling to the lowest rate since at least 2008 while offensive touchdowns reach its highest.4
Not uncoincidentally, this is happening in conjunction with a spike in fourth-down conversion attempts, which have taken place on more than 12 percent of all drives at the Power Five level this season — also the highest rate since at least 2008.
For all of the machismo that football inherently brings to the table, it doesn’t take much to be considered an aggressive play-caller. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is nicknamed “Riverboat Ron” for his propensity to attempt to convert fourth-and-1s. Kansas coach Les Miles is dubbed the “Mad Hatter” because he wears a baseball cap and delights in calling fake field goals. There’s a chance your favorite coach is one play call away from some goofy nickname meant to intimate a take-no-prisoners ethos.
Game of the Week: Auburn (17 percent playoff odds) at Florida (10 percent)
How Auburn vs. Florida swings the playoff picture
Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for teams with a change of at least 0.5 points of playoff probability, based on the outcome of the Oct. 5 Auburn-Florida game
Change in odds if Auburn…
Current Playoff %
After a week with hardly any meaningful upsets to alter the College Football Playoff landscape, there are a few better shakeup candidates this week. Take Florida versus Auburn: Both teams are currently 5-0, and the winner would receive a sizable bump to its playoff chances with a victory. In fact, either the Gators or Tigers could potentially pull within a few spots of the top four in our playoff model, depending on who wins. (The loser’s odds, meanwhile, will drop into the mid to low single digits.) The game has implications for a few other teams as well. Most notable among that group is Alabama, whose Iron Bowl task is tougher in the universes where the Tigers beat Florida.6 Despite being on the road, Auburn has a 52 percent chance of winning at the Swamp on Saturday — simply the next step in a brutal stretch of games that will also include LSU, Georgia and Alabama before the season is through.
The most important games of Week 6
Week 6 college football games, measured by how much the outcome projects to swing the playoff odds of every team in the country
No position in professional sports is more important or more misunderstood than the quarterback. NFL scouts, coaches and general managers — the world’s foremost experts on football player evaluation — have been notoriously terrible at separating good QB prospects from the bad through the years. No franchise or GM has shown the ability to beat the draft over time, and economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler have convincingly shown that the league’s lack of consistent draft success is likely due to overconfidence rather than an efficient market. Throw in the fact that young QBs are sometimes placed in schemes that fail to take advantage of their skills,1 that red flags regarding character go unidentified or ignored2 and that prospects often lack stable coaching environments, and there is no shortage of explanations for the recurring evaluation failures.
All of this uncertainty makes the NFL draft extremely exciting: You never know for certain who will be good and who will be an absolute bust. Last year, much of the pre-draft speculation surrounded where current Buffalo Bills starting QB Josh Allen — who is tall and can hit an upright from his knees from 50 yards away — would be selected. This year, when Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray decided to forgo a career in baseball for a chance to become a top pick in the 2019 NFL draft, his measurables captured attention in a different way. Murray, listed at 5-foot-10 and 194 pounds, is 7 inches shorter and more than 40 pounds lighter than Allen, and he’s the the smallest top QB prospect in recent memory. While some scouts and NFL decision makers think Murray’s odds for NFL success are long — or have him off their draft boards entirely because of his lack of size — there is strong evidence in the form of metrics and models that he is actually a good bet to succeed.
Like the rest of the league, practitioners of analytics have a pretty poor track record at predicting QB success. It wasn’t just Browns fans who were high on Johnny Manziel — many predictive performance metrics liked him as well. If some of the world’s best football talent evaluators are convinced that Murray’s height is at least a minor red flag, how can we be confident that a 5-foot-10 college QB will be productive in the NFL? When it comes to the draft, deep humility is warranted. Still, there are solid reasons to be excited about Murray.
Completion percentage is the performance measurable that best translates from college to the NFL. The metric’s shortcomings — players can pad their completion percentage with short, safe passes, for instance — are well-known. But even in its raw form, it’s a useful predictive tool.
Completion percentage translates from college to the NFL
Share of NFL quarterback performance predicted by college performance in seven measures, 2011-18
Average depth of target
ESPN’s Total QBR
Yards per game
Yards per attempt
Adjusted yards per attempt
Its kissing cousin in the pantheon of stats that translate from college to the pros is average depth of target: Passers who throw short (or deep) in college tend to continue that pattern in the NFL. These two metrics can be combined3 to create an expected completion percentage, which helps correct the deficiencies in raw completion percentage. If you give more credit to players who routinely complete deeper passes — and dock passers who dump off and check down more frequently — you can get a clearer picture of a player’s true accuracy and decision-making.
Another important adjustment is to account for the level of competition a player faced. ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating does this, and we’re doing it, too. For instance, passes in the Big Ten are completed at a lower rate than in the Big 12 and the Pac-12. We should boost players from conferences where it is tougher to complete a pass and ding players whose numbers are generated in conferences where passing is easier.
When we make these adjustments, and then subtract expected completion percentage from a QB’s actual completion percentage, we get a new metric: completion percentage over expected, or CPOE. An example: In 2011 at Wisconsin, Russell Wilson had a raw completion percentage of 73 percent. We would expect an average QB in the same conference who attempted the same number of passes at the same depths that Wilson attempted to have a completion percentage of just 57 percent. So Wilson posted an incredible CPOE of +16 percentage points in his last year of college. CPOE translates slightly less to the NFL than either raw completion percentage or average depth of target,4 but it does a substantially better job of predicting on-field production. In stat nerd parlance, we’ve traded a little stability for increased relevance.
CPOE best predicts yards per attempt in the NFL
Share of an NFL quarterback’s yards per attempt predicted by college performance measures, 2011-18
Completion percentage over expected
ESPN’s Total QBR
Yards per attempt
Average depth of target
The test of a good metric is that it is stable over time (for example from college to the NFL) and that it correlates with something important or valuable. Completion percentage over expected is slightly more stable than other advanced metrics like QBR. CPOE is also the best predictor of NFL yards per attempt. Since yards per attempt correlates well with NFL wins, and winning is both important and valuable, we’ve found a solid metric. It should help us identify NFL prospects likely to be good — so long as they are drafted and see enough playing time to accumulate 100 or more passing attempts.5
But before we stuff the metric into a model and start ranking this year’s quarterback prospects, it’s worth asking why CPOE in college might be a good measure of QB skill. One possible explanation is that it’s measuring not just accuracy but also the signal from other qualities that are crucial to pro success. The ability to consistently find the open receiver and complete a pass to him requires a quarterback first to read a defense and then to throw on time and on target. Throwing with anticipation and football IQ are both crucial to playing in the NFL at a high level, and they are likely both a part of the success signal in the metric.
CPOE is also probably capturing the ability to execute a system efficiently. A quarterback who understands how each piece of the offense complements the others and constrains the opposing defense is a huge asset for his team. The term “system QB” has a negative connotation in player evaluation circles that is probably unwarranted. If a quarterback is operating at a high level, he is inseparable from the system he’s being asked to run. It’s also likely the case that the mental and physical abilities to run any system efficiently are traits that translate — even if only imperfectly — to the pro game.
CPOE also measures accuracy, of course — which many believe is the most important trait a QB can posses. Some coaches believe accuracy is an innate skill and not something that can be taught once a player has reached college. Others believe that mechanical flaws can be corrected if other traits like arm strength are present. The Bills clearly hold this view or they wouldn’t have drafted Allen, a player with an incredibly live arm but who had a college completion rate 9.2 percentage points below expected. But regardless of whether accuracy can be taught at the NFL level, all evaluators acknowledge its importance.
With all this in mind, I built a simple logistic regression model that attempts to identify players who will go on to establish a career mark of at least 7.1 yards per attempt in the NFL — the league average from 2009 to 2018. The model took into account CPOE and six other metrics, all calculated for the player’s college career.6 There are 49 quarterbacks who have entered the NFL since 2012 who have also attempted at least 100 passes — except for small-school QBs for whom advanced college data wasn’t available. I randomly split those players into two sets and used one set to build the model and the second set to test to see if the model is any better than random chance at identifying which prospects will go on to play productive NFL football. Though the model is relatively simple — and it would be wonderful if the sample size were larger — the results are promising. The model correctly identified many players who went on to have NFL success and many more who didn’t. The best estimate for its generalized accuracy is that it will correctly identify a QB prospect as a hit or a bust in around 74 percent of cases.7 The table below shows the results of the model, labeled Predict, and includes players’ college stats.
Results from the quarterback prospect model
A random sample of the 49 quarterbacks who were drafted since 2012* by model probability, along with college stats including completion percentage over expected (CPOE)
Avg. depth of target
Career NFL YPA
Humility is warranted at this moment, so let’s point and laugh at the failures first. After all, all models are universally wrong, but some can be useful. This one was wrong about Johnny Football, as it practically guaranteed Manziel to be an above-average NFL quarterback. What it didn’t know about was Johnny’s love of all-night parties and other off-field shenanigans. Kellen Moore, a lefty passer who had a decorated career at Boise State, is another hiccup for the model. Moore is an interesting case of a player who just barely reached the 100 passing attempt threshold and eclipsed 7.1 yards per attempt for his NFL career but still bounced around the league and never found success or even a starting job. So the model predicted his statistical success in yards per attempt but not his actual success on the field. The problem here is that our success metric — career yards per attempt over 7.1 — doesn’t perfectly discriminate between good and bad NFL QBs. Much like human evaluators, models can sometimes be right for the wrong reasons, and Moore is a prime example.8
The model was also suspiciously bad at predicting Lamar Jackson, ranking him as an almost sure bust as a passer. Jackson’s career yards per attempt — most of those attempts coming in just seven games — is right at the 7.1 threshold, and while he is no one’s idea of Drew Brees, a success probability of zero seems an overly harsh assessment for a player that has clear talent — especially running the ball — and has already helped his team to the playoffs.
Still, the good outweighs the bad. The only other false negatives in the bunch are Kirk Cousins and Marcus Mariota, both of whom have career yards per attempt figures above 7.1. Meanwhile the low probabilities assigned to passers like Nate Peterman, Zach Mettenberger, Paxton Lynch, Geno Smith and Blake Bortles all appear reasonably prescient.
Looking forward and applying the model to the current draft class, we find a few surprises. Kyler Murray sits comfortably at the top with a 97 percent probability of being an above-average pro quarterback. Murray’s physical and statistical production comps with Russell Wilson are especially striking. Wilson and Murray had roughly the same yards per attempt in college, identical average depth of target and similar Total QBR.9 Both are also under 6 feet tall and played baseball at a high level. As far as comps go for short QBs, you really can’t do any better.
Murray isn’t just a scrambler who excels working outside of the pocket and on broken plays, either. According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, 91 percent of Murray’s 377 pass attempts in 2018 came inside the pocket, and 81.6 percent of those throws were on target and catchable. Murray faced five or more defensive backs on 82 percent of his passing attempts and threw a catchable pass 78.8 percent of the time. Against nickel and dime packages, he was even better when blitzed, with 79.1 percent of his passes charted as catchable when the defense brought pressure. And Murray didn’t just check down to the outlet receiver when the other team sent heat. Kyler pushed the ball downfield at depths of 20 yards or greater 21 percent of the time vs. a blitzing defender.
Meanwhile the other consensus first-round talent, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, is viewed as much less of a sure thing by the model. While his CPOE is identical to Murray’s and his QBR is similar, the model rates his yards per attempt and low average depth of target as red flags that drag down his probability of success. Nickel is the base defense in the NFL, so a quarterback’s performance against it is important, and Haskins faced five or more defensive backs far less often than Murray, dropping back against nickel or dime on just 63 percent of his pass attempts. And when Haskins was blitzed out of those looks, he was not as adept at delivering on-target passes, with 76.4 percent charted as catchable despite only 6.6 percent traveling 20 yards or more in the air.
Kyler Murray’s accuracy and rushing put him atop his class
College quarterbacks invited to the 2019 NFL combine by their career statistics and predicted probability of success*
Avg. depth of target
Other surprises from the consensus top-four prospects are the rankings of Duke’s Daniel Jones and Missouri’s Drew Lock — both of whom completed fewer passes than we would expect, and both of whom were assigned a low probability of NFL success. Teams should probably be very wary of both players. Since 2011, college QB prospects with completion percentages under expected — a list that includes Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Mike Glennon, Matt McGloin and Jacoby Brissett — have all failed to post career yards per attempt above the league average of 7.1. Meanwhile West Virginia’s Will Grier — a player few experts have mocked to go in the first round — looks to be the second-best QB prospect of the class. With his excellent college production and nearly prototypical size at 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, Grier is a player whose stock could rise with a good performance on and off the field at the combine.
There are many weeks of interviews, testing and evaluation left to come for each of these prospects, and analytics are just one piece of the process. Models are certainly not a player’s destiny. Murray might end up profiling as a selfish diva who can’t play well with others. Lock could somehow morph into Patrick Mahomes. But ultimately the model and the metrics agree with Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury’s assessment that Murray is worthy of the top overall pick in the draft. Ship him off to a team with an early pick and a creative play-caller, and enjoy the air raid fever dream that follows.
Immediately after the Pac-12 football championship game in late November, an on-screen interview with commissioner Larry Scott at Levi’s Stadium was interrupted by a chorus of boos. Attendees, it seemed, weren’t too fond of the leadership of the “Conference of Champions.”1
For nearly six decades, the Pac-12 managed to emulate its ostentatious slogan across the collegiate sports landscape. The Pac-12 has finished an academic year with the most total national championships of any conference in 52 out of the past 58 years, including the past 13 years.
But when it comes to the two high-profile men’s sports of football and basketball, the Pac-12 is falling short. Months removed from Scott’s boo-inducing interview, as the college basketball season winds into its final stretch, the conference’s vertiginous fall in the top two revenue-generating sports is unmistakable.
While the Pac-12’s performance in football has been steadily declining since the College Football Playoff was introduced, the conference’s decline in men’s basketball seems more abrupt. Two years ago, the Pac-12 featured three 30-win teams for the first time. Three teams reached the Sweet 16, and Oregon punched the conference’s first ticket to the Final Four in nearly a decade. The abundance of talent was confirmed when the conference produced three lottery picks in the NBA draft — including Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, the top two overall selections.
The Pac-12 saw the top overall pick in the NBA draft again last season, in Arizona’s Deandre Ayton. But the conference face-planted at the NCAA tournament. Each of the three teams to reach the tourney failed to get out of the first round, including Ayton’s Arizona.2 Not since the Big 12 was formed in 1996-97 had one of the six major conferences3failed to send a team to the second round of the tournament. No Pac-12 team finished inside the top 25 of KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric, either. Of course, this came after three UCLA Bruins were arrested for shoplifting on international soil in the days preceding a game meant to showcase the conference, and the FBI’s investigation of corruption in college basketball led to the arrests of assistant coaches from USC and Arizona4 before the season even tipped.
But that didn’t curtail the enthusiasm of the commissioner heading into this season. “Really excited about what our teams look like,” Scott said at the Pac-12 media day. “Feel like we’ve got a very, very strong conference.”
On paper, he wasn’t wrong. The conference accounted for seven of the top 40 recruiting classes, with UCLA and Oregon pulling in two of the top five. Three teams were ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. But as the calendar year came to a close, the Pac-12 was mired in the worst December by a major conference in 20 years. By January, UCLA had fired head coach Steve Alford, and Oregon had lost Bol Bol, the conference’s most marketable player and the crown jewel of the 2018 recruiting class, for the year to a foot injury. Dana Altman’s Ducks, which checked in at No. 14 in the preseason poll and were considered an early favorite to reach the Final Four, are now longshots to even reach the tournament.
Cal is one of the worst teams in any conference and in the midst of its worst season in program history. Washington is the highest-ranking team in the conference by KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric and checks in at No. 35. No other Pac-12 team ranks in the top 50.
The conference has hardly proved itself against top-notch opponents. In any Quad 1 games,5 the Pac-12 is 11-51. The ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC each have at least three times as many wins over that caliber of opponent.
Conference record in Quad 1 games, 2018-19
As it currently stands, the conference would be lucky to receive two bids to the tournament, with the Huskies projected to be a No. 9 seed and Arizona State possibly squeaking in as a 12 seed. It’s been a quarter-century since a major conference produced a one-bid campaign.
According to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the Pac-12 collectively is just 7.31 points better than an average Division I team this season. That’s on track to be the conference’s worst single-season mark since the 2011-12 campaign and the third worst in the past three decades. The last time a major conference produced a worse SRS was 1997-98, when the Big 12 put up a 7.17 in its second season of existence. You have to go back at least 30 years to find a worse mark produced by the Big East, Big Ten or SEC.
If recent history serves, next month’s tournament will reinforce what many already know: The Pac-12, which hasn’t won a national title since Arizona cut down the nets in 1997, has fallen off considerably in terms of prestige.
Over the past decade, the Pac-12 has made two Final Four appearances and failed to reach a national championship game. Every other major conference has been to at least twice as many Final Fours and made at least two title game appearances. The Big East has won more national titles in the previous eight years than the Pac-12 has in the past 45. In particular, the performance of the Pac-12 in the 2016 tournament, relative to seeding, was the second worst performance by any conference since at least 2000. And over the past three years, no conference has underperformed more than the Pac-12 when it matters most.
The Pac-12 is also struggling in college football. Over the past two seasons, the conference is a combined 4-12 in bowl games, with three wins coming by a combined 4 points.
If this feels like a sudden drop, it’s because it is. The Pac-12 has won a single national title in the past 20 years, but you only have to go back three years to find an ESPN segment debating whether it was the best conference in college football. Since the playoff was introduced, the Pac-12 has made two appearances — going 1-2 — and failed to appear in three of the five seasons.
In total, the conference was 3.53 points better than the average FBS team in 2018-19, the lowest mark by a Power Five conference6 in six years. Since 2010, the conference has produced three of the seven worst seasons, two of which came in the past two seasons.
Oregon State has arguably been the worst Power Five football team for twoconsecutive years, and programs like Oregon, Stanford and USC, which traditionally have been competitive on a national level, have fallen off considerably. Washington’s good-but-not-good-enough seasonal cadence seems to have run its course, too. This offseason, perhaps the conference’s biggest story was that Kliff Kingsbury almost became an assistant coach at USC.
Arizona State is the lone Pac-12 school with a Division I hockey team,7 and there’s a reasonable chance it will end up ranked higher at season’s end than any team the conference fielded in football or men’s basketball.
Living up to the standard established by John Wooden, who won 10 national championships over 12 years at UCLA, would be impossible. But falling to the bottom of the major-conference barrel in the two sports most scrutinized is a disastrous turn for a conference literally branded around dominance.
To some, the Conference of Champions® has transformed into the Circle of Suck. This may be the bleakest moment in the illustrious history of the Pac-12, as the conference continues its stroll away from relevancy.
CORRECTION (Feb. 22, 2019, 12:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said the Pac-12 had no football teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the end of the 2018 season. Two teams were ranked: No. 10 Washington State and No. 13 Washington.
One year ago, the Oklahoma Sooners fielded the worst defense to ever qualify for the College Football Playoff. Under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, and behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma took a 17-point lead on Georgia, the eventual national runner-up, before losing in the Rose Bowl semifinal. Twelve months later, Riley has another Heisman-winning quarterback in Kyler Murray and has piloted another one-dimensional Sooners team to a playoff berth.
The reward — a date with Alabama, college football’s lead power broker — seems more like a punishment. The Tide, long a defensive force under coach Nick Saban, now boast what’s likely the best offense in program history. Las Vegas oddsmakers cared not for Oklahoma’s three-game winning streak against the Tide and opened with Alabama as two-touchdown favorites. According to FiveThirtyEight’s college football prediction model, Alabama has a 41 percent probability of winning the national title. Oklahoma faces much taller odds, with an 11 percent probability of winning it all.
Here’s what to look for the when the two programs meet in the Orange Bowl semifinal Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Will Tua Tagovailoa or Kyler Murray win the QB showdown?
Seldom do a Heisman winner and his runner-up meet after the winner is crowned. Even given that rarity, this may be the best postseason clash of college quarterbacks we’ve ever seen. Both are coming off of historic regular seasons, with each in line to trump the record for Total Quarterback Rating, which ESPN has tracked since 2004 and is measured on a scale of 0 to 100.
But it’s not just the quarterbacks. In terms of offensive efficiency, this is the best matchup since the playoff began in 2014. Oddsmakers have taken notice, setting a points over/under total that’s unprecedented in the playoff era.
It seemed logical that the departure of Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, would abate Oklahoma’s offensive horsepower. That 2017 team had the most efficient offense ever tracked, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group.1 But in Murray’s first full season as a starting college quarterback, the Sooners’ offense has actually improved. “Kyler Murray has accomplished more in one season and had more impact on the Sooners’ tradition in one season than any other player in our history,” former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told The Athletic. “He’s broke all the damn records.”
The Sooners have gotten better under Murray
Oklahoma’s offensive production in 2018, with Kyler Murray at quarterback, vs. 2017, with Baker Mayfield at quarterback
Offensive points per game
Yards per play
Percentage of first downs or TDs per play
Percentage of first downs or TDs per pass attempt
Percentage of plays for zero or negative yards
As if spring-loaded, Murray’s legs have minced opposing defenses. On a 75-yard touchdown run against Kansas, a broadcaster declared, “You’re not going to catch him,” before Murray had passed the 40-yard line. The junior is the country’s pre-eminent dual-threat wizard, whose 892 rushing yards place him seventh among all Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks this year.
At the same time, Tagovailoa has been the figurehead of the Tide’s offensive ascension since replacing Jalen Hurts in last season’s national championship game. Saban has been in Tuscaloosa since 2007, and this year’s offense has been his best in terms of, well, everything.
This is Saban’s most dominant Alabama offense
Alabama’s offense by season under head coach Nick Saban
Both Murray and Tagovailoa are having little difficulty stretching the field. If they keep up this pace during the playoffs, each would rank in the top three among all QBs since 2004 in single-season passing yards per attempt, with Murray’s current 11.92 mark in line to set the all-time record.
They won’t, however, be competing against equally proficient defensive units. Murray will be staring down a top-flight fortress that spent the past few months razing offensive lines and leveling quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide rank second in defensive efficiency, behind Clemson, and they lead the country in adjusted defensive quarterback rating, which accounts for the strength of the opposing quarterback. The Tide ranks among the 15 best teams in opponent completion percentage (51.8 percent) and yards allowed per pass attempt (5.86).
Tagovailoa will have the luxury of playing against a defense that might seem as though it’s providing Alabama an escort to the end zone. Oklahoma ranks 92nd in defensive efficiency, unseating last year’s squad as the new worst defense to make it to the playoff; the Sooners have allowed 56 touchdowns this year, 13 more than Alabama has allowed since the beginning of the 2017 season. Uninspired performances led to the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. But the unit’s play hasn’t improved. After giving up 39 first downs to Oklahoma State, the most allowed by any FBS team this season, interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill found room to praise his team for making “critical stops.”
Pass defense, in particular, has been ghastly for the Sooners. No FBS team allows more passing yards per game (291.4), and only five allow more completions (22.3). The Sooners love to give up the long play, having allowed 56 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the fourth-most by any team.
It’s unlikely that the turnover margin will favor the Sooners — even though Tagovailoa threw as many interceptions in his last outing as he did the rest of the season total. Oklahoma has generated 11 takeaways all season, the fewest of any qualifying team in the playoff era. Alabama has forced 11 since the beginning of October — and 21 in total.
On the opening drive of the SEC championship game, Tagovailoa suffered a high ankle injury, which required surgery the following day. The sophomore has said that he’ll be unencumbered come game time, and given how little he rushes — generating just the 89th-most rushing yards among QBs — he won’t need much mobility. Even a pocket-locked Tagovailoa can still shred an opposing defense.
Can Oklahoma survive Alabama’s first-half avalanche to win the second half?
Players come and go, and each season carries idiosyncrasies, but the narrative arcs of the Sooners’ two previous playoff appearances were seemingly penned by the same author. In both, a lead evaporated and a dominant first half gave way to a second-half dud.
Rewriting the script, then, will be paramount this time around for Oklahoma.
Offensively, the Sooners seem to have the first half covered. No team puts up more first-half yardage than Oklahoma, which averages 313.4 yards a game. The team racks up 9.5 yards per first-half play — nearly a first down on each play. Riley’s offense is outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 points in first halves this season, the eighth-best mark in the country.
Of course, what separates Alabama from Oklahoma is its defense. The Tide allow 7.9 points per game in first halves, 12th-fewest in the nation and 7.9 fewer points than the Sooners. Alabama doesn’t just shut the door on its opponents in the opening 30 minutes — it packs their bags, shuttles them to the airport and ushers them through TSA. Remember when the Tide turned Tiger Stadium into a morgue by the third quarter of November’s top-five showdown with LSU? Or when the Tide took a trip to Oxford, watched Ole Miss score on its opening play and then blitzed the Rebels with 62 unanswered points, including 49 in the first half?4
LSU and Ole Miss aren’t alone. Saban’s squad is outscoring opponents 388 to 103 in first halves this season. On average, the Crimson Tide enter the locker room at halftime with a 21.9-point lead, the second-biggest margin by any team since at least 2004, the first year for which data is available.5 Ninety-three teams have scored fewer total touchdowns than Alabama has scored in first halves. Only four teams in the past 15 seasons have scored more first-half touchdowns than the Tide’s 53.
These lopsided first halves mean that the Tide hardly ever fall behind on the scoreboard. The average college football team this season played 178.6 first-half offensive snaps when trailing. Alabama played 18 — 32 fewer than the next-closest team.
Bama rarely plays from behind
Total first-half snaps when trailing for this year’s playoff participants
Coming into the SEC title game, teams had run a combined 388 first-half plays against the Tide defense. They didn’t have the lead on any of them. Georgia finally broke through in the SEC championship; the Bulldogs ran 43 first-half offensive plays against the Tide and led for 12 of them.
The nightmare doesn’t end for Alabama opponents in second halves: Then they’re outscored by a touchdown and a half, on average. In second halves, teams score 0.92 touchdowns per game against the Tide, tied for the sixth-fewest.
Conversely, Oklahoma’s dominance tapers off considerably in the final two quarters, when it outscores opponents by only 5.2 points, which ranks 24th nationally.
Little if any of that decline is attributable to the offense, which roars from start to finish. But defensively, the bottom seems to fall out for the Sooners after halftime, as they allow an average of 2.23 touchdowns per game in second halves, the most by any team in the Big 12 and tied for the 20th-most nationally. Riley’s defense has allowed 29 second-half touchdowns, the most by an Oklahoma defense since at least 2004.
However, should Oklahoma keep the game close down the stretch, it has a peerless crunch-time quarterback in Murray. The Sooners have played seven games decided by 14 or fewer points, while Alabama has played only one. In the fourth quarter, when the scoring margin is within 14 points, Murray has a nation-leading quarterback rating of 99 — that’s on a 1-to-100 scale, mind you.
There’s an argument to be made that Oklahoma is better equipped — certainly more experienced — to handle high-leverage situations.6 But Alabama has been so dominant that it simply hasn’t mattered.
For most of the century-plus that Iowa State has been playing college football, the Cyclones have toiled in misery, the doormat of virtually every conference they’ve been a part of. That neighboring programs at the University of Iowa and University of Nebraska rose to national prominence, in part at the expenseof the Cyclones, no doubt made this fact more painful for the faithful in Ames.
But despite losing to Iowa in the first game of their season, the No. 16 Cyclones are the class of the region this year.
At 6-3, Iowa State’s record doesn’t jump off the page, but coach Matt Campbell has turned the program around. In 2017, Campbell’s second season on the job, the Cyclones snapped a seven-year streak of losing records and capped the season with a win in the Liberty Bowl — just the fourth bowl victory in school history.
Now currently on a five-game winning streak against conference foes,1 including two wins over ranked opponents, Iowa State has a chance to play in the Big 12 championship game if it beats Texas on Saturday and Kansas State next week, and West Virginia loses either to Oklahoma State or Oklahoma. The Cyclones haven’t won a conference title since before the television was invented, last doing so when they were a part of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Even being ranked this late in the season has the Cyclones on the brink of another accomplishment: The team has finished a season in the Associated Press rankings only twice in school history — and never higher than 19th. By comparison, their rival to the west, Nebraska, has finished 48 seasons in the rankings.
Iowa State is 12.89 points better than the average team this season, according to Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System. That would be the team’s third-best season of all time and the best mark since 1976. Not bad for a program that, through the 1990s — despite having a transcendent talent at running back — averaged an SRS of negative-4.7 and won less than 26 percent of its games.
Campbell, at least at podiums, is hardly satisfied. “I think what’s exciting is that I sit here right now knowing that our best is still out there,” he said after the team’s most recent win.
Iowa State’s five-game winning streak coincides with Campbell’s decision in early October to play true freshman quarterback Brock Purdy, who spurned a scholarship offer from Alabama. Purdy’s Total Quarterback Rating of 85.0 trails only Shea Patterson of Michigan (85.2), Kyler Murray of Oklahoma (95.3) and Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama (95.8).
Purdy has an elite target in Hakeem Butler, the successor to recently graduated star receiver Allen Lazard. At 6-foot-6, Butler is a ball-hawking skyscraper who ranks second nationally in yards per reception (22.7) and share of receptions resulting in a first down or touchdown (86.1 percent). Add in a bruising tailback like David Montgomery — a consensus first-team All-Big 12 selection from a season ago who has amassed 1,108 yards after contact over the past two seasons, the fifth most of any running back — and the Cyclones have a frightening offensive triumvirate. In the seven seasons under Paul Rhoads, Campbell’s predecessor, Iowa State never ranked in the top 50 in offensive efficiency, but the team is on track to crack it for the second season in a row.
But the pulse of Iowa State’s success is in the dominant defense installed by Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. This season, the Cyclones rank 13th in defensive efficiency at 79.22 — 8.79 points higher than any previous season in the previous 10 years and 30.62 points higher than their average over that stretch. Iowa State leads the Big 12 in rushing yards allowed per attempt (3.1), opposing passer efficiency rating (125), yards allowed per play (4.94) and opponent drive score percentage (25.9 percent), among other metrics.
The Cyclone defense displayed its chops on Oct. 13 against West Virginia, which touts a top-five passing offense (337.3 per contest) and top-10 scoring attack (40.89 per contest). Will Grier, a likely Heisman finalist, was held to a season-low 100 passing yards, and the Mountaineer offense managed just 7 points. (West Virginia finished with 14 total points, but 7 came by way of a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown.) “We didn’t do anything right,” West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said afterward.
Iowa State’s toughest assignment left on the regular-season schedule comes Saturday against No. 15 Texas, before the Cyclones close with matchups against Kansas State and Incarnate Word.2 But that last game, scheduled for Dec. 1, would be canceled if Iowa State can reach the conference championship.
For decades, conference foes worked Iowa State like a speed bag on Saturdays, turning Jack Trice Stadium into a virtual burial ground. Opposing coaches like Tom Osborne at Nebraska and Hayden Fry at Iowa inflicted substantial punishment, year after year. But under Campbell, the cardinal and gold have shown that they won’t be pushed around. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating pegs the Cyclones higher than it does Central Florida, a team largely crowdsourcing its playoff candidacy but that does have the nation’s longest current winning streak. A win Saturday in Austin, a game some consider to be the program’s most significant in the past decade, wouldn’t vault Iowa State into the playoff conversation. But it would rubber-stamp a growing notion: The Cyclones — yes, those Cyclones — are finally ready to contend.