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Processing the Numbers, Football Edition |
The Big Sugar Bowl Preview

This is a tighter matchup than you'd like it to be, and it may all come down to Cardale Jones.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

All statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So, what’s next?

The one you’ve all been waiting for, of course. Finally, we’re taking a look at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, which will be contested by the SEC Champion Alabama Crimson Tide and the B1G Champion Ohio State Buckeyes. The game kicks off on January 1st at 7:30 PM CST / 8:30 PM EST in the Superdome, and will be televised by ESPN. Alabama was about 4 inches away from going undefeated, with a slight overthrow on the last offensive play of the Ole Miss game making the difference. Ohio State persevered through the loss of two starting quarterbacks and an early home loss to Virginia Tech to snag the final playoff spot by vaporizing Wisconsin in the B1G title game.

But first, a mea culpa.

You may recall I did a pretty nice playoff preview a few weeks back that featured similar content to the New Year’s Six previews that have run this week on RBR. All of the F/+ ratings, etc. for all the teams mentioned were correct, but somehow I managed to screw up averaging the numbers for Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State, clearly more evidence of pervasive SEC bias. I’m not sure what I did wrong before, but I made a more robust spreadsheet to do the calculations this time around and the numbers came out differently. The relationships between these teams’ resumes and that of Alabama’s still apply, but the numbers are not the same as they were before. That’s on me, I should be more careful in checking my work — I assure you I am thoroughly embarrassed about this.

Now that I’ve harpooned my already-nonexistent credibility, let’s take an updated look at how these two teams got here!

The Resume — Alabama

As a reminder, the schedule tables do not include games against FCS teams, primarily because the advanced metrics are not calculated for those teams. In the event of a schedule that does NOT include FCS schools, the lowest-rated FBS opponent by F/+ will be omitted from the table so everyone’s on a level playing field. In this case, that means Ohio State’s game against Kent State is omitted to offset Alabama’s game against FCS Western Carolina.

Team F/+ S&P+ FEI OF+ DF/+
ALABAMA 38.4% (1) 270.7 (1) 0.315 (2) 19.8% (3) 19.7% (2)
OLE MISS 29.3% (4) 248.2 (7) 0.242 (7) 9.2% (21) 18.8% (3)
MISSISSIPPI STATE 27.8% (6) 250.7 (5) 0.218 (10) 12.2% (14) 14.8% (9)
OPPONENT 23.5% (12) 234.2 (16) 0.214 (11) 18.0% (5) 6.1% (38)
LSU 19.4% (18) 234.0 (17) 0.135 (27) 3.0% (48) 14.0% (11)
ARKANSAS 18.6% (20) 230.9 (19) 0.171 (17) 8.9% (23) 10.3% (19)
MISSOURI 13.2% (31) 217.3 (33) 0.148 (23) 2.1% (52) 10.1% (21)
WEST VIRGINIA 12.6% (34) 224.5 (22) 0.098 (38) 2.8% (49) 9.4% (25)
FLORIDA 9.3% (41) 211.5 (42) 0.093 (39) -5.9% (97) 12.9% (12)
OPPONENT 7.5% (43) 212.5 (39) 0.084 (42) -2.0% (69) 7.6% (31)
TEXAS A&M 3.8% (53) 209.2 (49) 0.027 (52) 7.5% (30) -5.4% (90)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC -14.5% (97) 181.9 (98) -0.134 (97) -6.2% (98) -9.0% (105)
SOUTHERN MISS -22.2% (121) 173.9 (117) -0.193 (122) -10.5% (110) -9.4% (106)
AVERAGE 10.7% 219.1 0.092 3.3% 6.7%

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.


  • Average F/+ Opponent: Virginia (F/+ #37)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Boston College (S&P+ #29)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Florida (FEI #39)
  • Average Offense: Western Michigan (OF/+ #46)
  • Average Defense: Miami (DF/+ #34)
  • Best Win: Mississippi State (F/+ #6)
  • Wins against F/+ Top-25: 4 (#6 Mississippi State, #12 Lee County, #18 LSU, #20 Arkansas)

As a result of, you know, actually calculating numbers properly, Alabama has now played the toughest schedule of the four playoff participants by average F/+ rating, played the most Top-25 F/+ teams of the field, and tied for the most wins in those games with FSU. They also played the toughest defensive slate per DF/+, albeit by just 0.1% over FSU, and the second toughest offensive slate per OF/+, albeit just 0.1% behind Oregon. The SEC West was the best division in college football this season1, and while the Tide did not have the toughest schedule from that division there are not many teams around the country that played a harder one.

1 | The ACC was on par with the SEC as a whole this year, but they had a more even distribution between their divisions.

That loss to Ole Miss is still tough to swallow. I sort of knew it was coming, but to be inches away from undefeated like that is rough. I’m glad we didn’t end up with an undefeated Oregon, Ohio State, and TCU, because the Tide absolutely deserve to be in the playoff even with that loss. This team has some warts we’ll be talking about later, but in my mind no other team in the country has been as consistently excellent as the Tide. Those struggles against West Virginia and Arkansas make a lot more sense now that we’ve got a season of game results to look at, and Ole Miss may very well have been in this spot instead of the Tide if not for the Treadwell injury. Just a fantastic year from what’s rapidly becoming my favorite Alabama team of all time.

Similarity — Ohio State

  • Offense — Rushing: Mississippi State (RUSH OS&P+ #5)
  • Offense — Passing: Lee County (PASS OS&P+ #2)
  • Defense — Rushing: Orange Team (RUSH DS&P+ #22)
  • Defense — Passing: Florida (PASS DS&P+ #12)

Mississippi State runs pretty much the same kind of offense as Ohio State does — Mullen is an Urban Meyer disciple after all — and that’s not a good comp for Buckeye fans. The Bulldogs managed just 138 yards on their 40 carries, a 3.5 yards per carry average. Josh Robinson in particular was extremely limited, and the average would be a lot worse if not for one big run by Dak Prescott. Running on the Tide has not been a winning proposition for basically anyone this year, with the exception of a few quarterbacks who’ve had some success. This entire game will hinge on the play of Cardale Jones, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

The passing comp is a nightmare for the Tide, as little brother completely carved Alabama up. I’m not even going to give you stats from that game, it’s too disgusting. I don’t think Ohio State is quite the matchup nightmare Lee County was — nobody2 can cover Sammie Coates or Duke Williams one-on-one, let alone both on the same play. The problem with those two — and really, every wide receiver that’s exploited the Tide this season — is that they are big and fast. Devin Smith has some scary numbers (namely, a 26.6 yards per catch average, which is enormous), but he’s only 6’1" and 197 pounds. Michael Thomas actually leads the Buckeyes in receptions and has great size at 6’3" and 212 pounds, and while still a heck of a lot faster than I am he’s a few steps slower than the other three receivers I just mentioned. I fully expect Ohio State to put up numbers here, but not to the same degree little brother did.

2 | Except Thorpe award snub Bradley Sylve, of course. *snicker*

This year’s Tide has flipped the script a bit on offense, relying on the passing attack instead of grinding the opponent into a fine powder on the ground. Blake Sims challenged school records in the Florida game, putting up 445 yards on just 33 attempts, though it should be noted that performance came at home. Amari Cooper had his first 200 yard game of the year, and schooled future NFL cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III all afternoon. If the Tide put up that kind of performance on the Buckeyes, you can go ahead and pencil them in for the title game in Dallas. The running numbers against that orange team were less exceptional, but the Tide still managed 183 yards at 4.5 yards per carry, and that was on the road in a rivalry game. Health in this department is an important factor, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

The Resume — Ohio State

Team F/+ S&P+ FEI OF+ DF/+
OHIO STATE 36.5% (2) 266.0 (2) 0.257 (5) 18.8% (4) 15.4% (7)
MICHIGAN STATE 23.6% (11) 248.9 (6) 0.165 (19) 11.1% (15) 9.7% (24)
WISCONSIN 19.8% (17) 243.3 (9) 0.127 (30) 10.0% (18) 10.5% (18)
VIRGINIA TECH 12.7% (32) 218.7 (30) 0.144 (25) -5.4% (91) 18.1% (4)
MINNESOTA 12.1% (35) 212.0 (40) 0.115 (34) 3.8% (44) 5.0% (42)
MARYLAND 6.3% (45) 203.3 (59) 0.017 (58) 1.6% (54) 0.2% (61)
CINCINNATI 5.6% (46) 210.0 (47) 0.001 (62) 8.4% (25) -5.4% (88)
5.1% (50) 211.9 (41) 0.027 (53) 13.5% (12) -7.1% (99)
PENN STATE 3.6% (54) 215.0 (34) 0.032 (51) -7.9% (104) 14.2% (10)
MICHIGAN 1.6% (60) 205.9 (56) -0.024 (69) -3.1% (72) 4.7% (43)
RUTGERS -4.4% (73) 198.6 (67) -0.091 (88) -0.3% (60) -4.2% (78)
ILLINOIS -6.6% (78) 192.6 (80) -0.056 (78) -1.8% (67) -5.4% (89)
INDIANA -9.5% (85) 191.7 (84) -0.066 (82) -5.3% (89) -3.3% (72)
AVERAGE 5.8% 212.7 0.033 2.1% 3.1%

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.


  • Average F/+ Opponent: Cincinnati (F/+ #46)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: (S&P+ #)
  • Average FEI Opponent: (FEI #)
  • Average Offense: Missouri (OF/+ #52)
  • Average Defense: UCLA (DF/+ #49)
  • Best Win: Michigan State (F/+ #11)
  • Wins against F/+ Top-25: 2 (#11 Michigan State, #17 Wisconsin)

So, I removed the Kent State game this time and the averages went down3, which is what tipped me off to the issue with the last article. This schedule turned out tougher than Oregon’s after the adjustment, and they are still the only playoff participant not to schedule an FCS squad, so there’s that. Everything else I said last time still applies:

I have to believe they would not have made it here if Minnesota had won the B1G West. Their obliteration of Wisconsin in the B1G championship game gave them the slight edge over TCU and Baylor, helping offset a puzzling home loss to F/+ #32 Virginia Tech.

However, recall again all of these metrics are adjusted for opponent strength. Ohio State had the easiest schedule, which should depress their ratings accordingly. Except it didn’t, which means Ohio State dominated that schedule the way you’d expect an elite team to do. The fact they did this after losing Braxton Miller in camp and replacing him with a freshman quarterback is unbelievable. F/+ thinks this is the second-best team in the country, and that means they belong in the Playoff.

3 | Average F/+ should have been 4% last time.

Similarity — Alabama

  • Offense — Rushing: Navy (RUSH OS&P+ #14)
  • Offense — Passing: Michigan State (PASS OS&P+ #4)
  • Defense — Rushing: Penn State (RUSH DS&P+ #3), but not really.
  • Defense — Passing: Maryland (PASS DS&P+ #30)

Nothing’s changed here, so again lifted from the playoff preview:

Interestingly enough, all of these comps were teams the Buckeyes played on the road. Ohio State travels very well, however, so expect the Superdome to be a truly neutral site.

Navy’s another one of those triple-option teams, so maybe not the best comparison, but suffice it to say the Tide will be able to get yards on the ground in this one. The Buckeyes were also lit up by Michigan State through the air, so I’d expect the Tide offense to roll.

Penn State gave up over 200 rushing yards to the Buckeyes, but that was on 57 carries. The only team to hold the Buckeyes to a lower yardage output was Virginia Tech, and neither of those teams are anything close to the country’s finest rushing defense. Once again, receiver matchups will be key, as the Tide’s closest pass defense comp gave up 19/24 for 264 yards and 4 TDs against the Buckeyes. Something tells me Ohio State will get yardage through the air, and the Tide will have to win a Lee County-esque shootout to get to the national championship game.

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 38.4% (1) F/+ 36.5% (2) PUSH
FEI 0.315 (2) FEI 0.257 (5) PUSH
S&P+ 270.7 (1) S&P+ 266.0 (2) PUSH
Spread+ -9 Spread +9 ALABAMA

When Alabama Has The Ball
OF/+ 19.8% (3) DF/+ 15.4% (7) PUSH
OFEI 0.666 (5) DFEI -0.487 (12) PUSH
OS&P+ 133.1 (2) DS&P+ 129.7 (4) PUSH
Rush OS&P+ 133.4 (8) Rush DS&P+ 110.0 (37) ALABAMA
Pass OS&P+ 154.9 (3) Pass DS&P+ 129.8 (10) PUSH
SD OS&P+ 137.9 (2) SD DS&P+ 119.1 (19) ALABAMA
PD OS&P+ 144.3 (6) PD DS&P+ 117.5 (33) ALABAMA
OALY 124.8 (6) DALY 101.1 (59) ALABAMA
OASR 224.4 (4) DASR 137.4 (12) ALABAMA

When Ohio State Has The Ball
DF/+ 19.7% (2) OF/+ 18.8% (4) PUSH
DFEI -0.617 (5) OFEI 0.56 (9) PUSH
DS&P+ 137.6 (1) OS&P+ 136.3 (1) PUSH
Rush DS&P+ 159.7 (1) Rush OS&P+ 148.3 (1) PUSH
Pass DS&P+ 116.9 (26) Pass OS&P+ 163.8 (1) OHIO STATE
SD DS&P+ 132.7 (5) SD OS&P+ 141.1 (1) PUSH
PD DS&P+ 126.2 (17) PD OS&P+ 184.8 (1) OHIO STATE
DALY 143.4 (1) OALY 135.0 (2) PUSH
DASR 83.2 (94) OASR 99.2 (69) OHIO STATE

The Matchup on Special Teams
ST F/+ -1.1% (91) ST F/+ 2.3% (20) OHIO STATE
FPA 0.487 (87) FPA 0.576 (3) OHIO STATE
FGE -0.287 (99) FGE -0.11 (77) OHIO STATE
KE -0.125 (75) KRE -0.202 (93) ALABAMA
PE -0.289 (9) PRE 0.004 (34) ALABAMA
PRE -0.252 (117) PE -0.298 (8) OHIO STATE
KRE -0.192 (89) KE -0.213 (30) OHIO STATE

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Wondering what all these terms are?

  • FEI: The Fremeau Efficiency Index, an overall team quality metric that is drive-based and opponent-adjusted. For a more detailed discussion of FEI, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.
  • OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.
  • DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.
  • FPA: FEI Field Position Advantage, a measure of how much field position value a team earned against its opponents.
  • Fremeau Special Teams Efficiency Components - The special teams component of F/+ is based on Brian Fremeau’s Special Teams Efficiency, which is made up of the following five components of special teams play (per FootballOutsiders):
    FGEField Goal Efficiency, the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
    PREPunt Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    KREKickoff Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent kickoff earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    PEPunt Efficiency, the scoring value per punt earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    KEKickoff Efficiency, the scoring value per kickoff earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
  • ASRAdjusted Sack Rate, which is a version of sack rate (defined as sacks / [sacks + passing attempts] ) that has been opponent-adjusted. The metric is scaled based on an average rate of 100; the higher the rate the better. ASR is calculated for both the offense (OASR) and defense (DASR).
  • ALYAdjusted Line Yards, which is a measure of success in the running game specific to the line. This is accomplished by taking each carry by running backs only and weighting the yardage as follows:
    • Runs for a loss are weighted 120%.
    • Runs for 0-4 yards are unweighted.
    • Runs for 5-10 yards are weighted 50%.
    • Runs for 11 or more yards are not included.
    After the weighting process, the runs are further adjusted for game situation and opponent, and then averaged out per carry, resulting in adjusted line yards — a more detailed explanation of the entire process is available here. ALY is calculated for both the offensive line (OASR) and the defensive front seven (DASR).
  • S&P+: Another overall team quality metric, S&P+ is primarily play-based and consists of three components: Success Rate, Equivalent Net Points per Play, and a drive efficiency component. The "+" refers to opponent adjustments. For a more detailed discussion of S&P+, check out this sectin of the PTN Football Primer.
  • OS&P+: The offensive component of S&P+.
  • DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.
  • Rush OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at running the ball.
  • Rush DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at stopping the run.
  • Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.
  • Pass DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.
  • PD: Passing Downs, defined as later downs with medium yardage or more to go (3rd, 4th downs in excess of 5 yards to go), as well as 2nd down with more than 8 yards to go.
  • SD: Standard Downs, defined as all downs that are not Passing Downs.
  • SD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.
  • SD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.
  • PD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.
  • PD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.
  • F/+: The F/+ combined ratings combine FEI and S&P+ into one metric that serves as Football Outsiders' official rankings for college football. For a more detailed discussion of F/+, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.
  • Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.
  • Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.
  • ST F/+: The special teams component of F/+.
  • Swanson Giddiness Index: Easily the most accurate predictor of success in college football, the Swanson Giddiness Index is a qualitative, completely unsupportable metric that is presented via the tone of that week's image/animated gif of Ron Swanson — beloved Parks and Recreation character and official spirit animal of Processing the Numbers.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN primer!

So, what do we know?

This is the de facto National Championship according to F/+, as it features the #1 and #2 teams in that ranking. The Tide are higher ranked in both S&P+ and FEI, but not by any significant degree. This certainly isn’t the closest matchup of the bowl season according to these metrics, but it is the closer of the two semifinals. Vegas, as they are wont to do, has the Tide laughably installed as a 9 point favorite. I’ll tell you right now they aren’t going to cover.

The offensive matchup is favorable for the Tide, which does not have a single weakness per these numbers — they rate out in the top-10 in each offensive metric on the chart. For all the heartache about the running game this season, they still put up the #8 unit according to S&P+. For all the heartache about the offensive line, they protect Sims (4th in ASR) and get good push as well (6th in ALY). The former is critically important, as Ohio State features a gentleman by the name of Joey Bosa — you may have heard of him at this point. Bosa was fourth in the country in sacks and in the top-10 for TFLs at the end of the year, and was named All-America for his troubles. He’s joined on the front seven by Michael Bennett and Darron Lee, who were second and third on the team in sacks and TFLs. This front creates a lot of havoc, and if they are able to consistently reach Sims it changes the entire complexion of this game. Their pass defense is the strength of the defense, and it’s good enough to offset the Tide’s #3 passing offense4.

4 | Assuming they can cover Cooper. Good luck!

Everything keys off the run for the Buckeyes, and that starts with the great push they get up front, where they have the #2 rated offensive line per ALY. Unfortunately for them, the Tide’s defensive front is even better, rating out as the best unit in the country per ALY and against the run per S&P+. The tradeoff for that road grading is apparently in pass blocking, which is the one area this offense isn’t excellent. The Tide has a better pass rush than usual this year, but it’s still among one of the worst units in the country, although a good bit of that is scheme. The area the Buckeyes really have an edge on the Tide is, unsurprisingly, the passing game, where they rate out #1 in the country per S&P+. The secondary has been suspect all season, and while I don’t expect a repeat of the Iron Bowl Ohio State is going to have success in this phase of the game. If Smith finds himself all alone behind the secondary and Jones can find him again like in the B1G title game, this could get ugly.

And now we come to special teams, my favorite subject to talk about this season. The Tide’s remained steady in the 90s in ST F/+ for most of the year, which is considerably far behind Ohio State’s #20 mark. The Buckeyes have benefited from one of the highest field position advantages in the country, ranking 3rd in FPA. Both teams have the advantage when kicking, and it should be noted that Ohio State’s punt unit is actually better than Alabama’s. Cameron Johnston gets a little less work than J.K. Scott and isn’t quite as good in gross punting, but Ohio State as a unit is a shade better at defending returns. One matchup to watch is when Scott’s on the field, as the Buckeyes are pretty good at returning punts. They also have an advantage kicking field goals, which isn’t any great surprise. It’s now come out that Adam Griffith has been dealing with a stress fracture in his back. This certainly explains a lot of what’s been going on this season, as lower back injuries are notoriously problematic to treat. It sounds like this is not something that will affect his quality of life after football, I just feel bad for the guy that he can’t consistently practice and play at his best. I suspect as a result you’ll see the Tide go for it on fourth downs inside the 40 as a result. If this ends up coming down to field goals… let’s hope this doesn’t come down to field goals.

I mentioned earlier the play of Jones will decide this game. Every sports media outlet on the planet has made absolutely sure you’re aware that there’s only a game and a half of tape on him for the Tide’s staff to break down. If he’s able to replicate his performance against Wisconsin in this one, this is going to be a very long night for the Tide defense. I don’t think Ezekiel Elliott is going to have an easy time running on the Tide and that’s not really Jones’ thing, so if Jones can’t get going through the air this may be over before halftime. Ian Boyd says Ohio State must run the ball effectively AND stop Cooper to win5, and I will be very surprised if they are able to consistently do either.

5 | That’s it. That’s ALL they have to do!

Any intangibles to consider?

This is in the Superdome, so no weather factors to discuss here. You’d think it would be a home game for the Tide, but Ohio State fans are everywhere and travel legendarily well to boot, so I expect this to be a true neutral site environment.

Ohio State OC Tom Herman will be the next head coach for Houston, but will be coaching the Sugar Bowl. I am not anticipating that this will have any outcome on the game whatsoever, but it’s worth mentioning.

I already talked about Griffith’s injury situation — he’s indicated he’ll be playing in the game and handling kickoffs in addition to field goals to start. The only other significant injury is Denzell Devall’s foot, which has him questionable to play. T.J. Yeldon and Cam Robinson are both still dealing with nagging injuries, but all reports indicate they are ready to go on New Year’s Day. Yeldon will not be the lead back however, instead spelling Derrick Henry and Tyren Jones. That's if he plays — Coach Saban has indicated he's a gametime decision. Ohio State has no significant injuries that I am aware of, outside of the reasons Jones is playing in the first place.

THE PICK: Alabama Crimson Tide6, but they will have to play a near-perfect game to beat this team. Vegas is nuts, this is going to be tight.

6 | Like you were expecting something different.