By: Edward Egros

The Patriots...and Now the Tide

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Anyone looking to tease the Atlanta Falcons mercilessly might write that 28-3 score somewhere prominently or even wear that scoreboard on a t-shirt.

Expect Alabama fans to do the same whenever they need to remind Georgia fans about their team's collapse.

Alabama's Nick Saban once worked for Bill Belichick, so knowingly or not, Saban reflected his former boss in terms of how he engineered coming back from a two-possession deficit in the second half of the National Championship Game. He switched quarterbacks at halftime (opting with a true freshman quarterback with little experience up to that game), he wanted more throws down the field (Alabama completed four passes of 15+ yards in the second half, compared with completed none in the first half) and he demanded his defense take more gambles getting to the backfield (nine tackles for loss in the second half versus only three in the first half).

Belichick also took more risks in Super Bowl LI, knowing that these gambles were the only ways he could possibly win the game. If they failed and the Patriots fell into a deeper hole, it didn't matter; they were going to lose anyway, the size of the deficit does not matter.

In a previous post, I talked about a paper from Brian Skinner: "
Scoring Strategies for the Underdog: A General, Quantitative Method for Determining Optimal Sports Strategies". Skinner explained how underdogs must call riskier plays to have a chance at success. It might mean getting shellacked, but by finding specifically how much riskier a team should get, it might be the only way for those trailing to win.

Nick Saban had to make the change at quarterback because there was almost no chance he was going to win with Jalen Hurts. He had to take more throws down the field because he did not have the time to grind it out with the rushing attack. Lastly, he had to take more chances defensively because if Georgia mounted lengthy drives, there wouldn't be any time left for Alabama to have a chance to complete the comeback.

Some fans still seem surprised by these comebacks, calling them "improbable" or "unbelievable". While they are fantastic for football, it is not a coincidence that the coaches mounting these comebacks not only have won championships, they have been with their respective employer for years, with job security that seems undeniably stable. It is possible coaches who do not have this kind of job security are nervous to be blown out in any game, must less a contest for a championship. Any boss insinuating that the margin of defeat matters can have devastating consequences to the likelihood of a comeback.

Hopefully coaches will be more confidence in a deficit, take more risks, and football fans can watch even more competitive games.

Georgia or Alabama?

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The field is set inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for college football's national championship game. Aside from the playoff logo in the center, it looks a lot like what the SEC Championship will probably look like for years to come. Alabama has shown few signs of slowing down from its dynastic pace, while Georgia's achievements on the field and in recruiting suggest they may be that next major program to become a staple of the playoff.

Those games in the future will never have the stakes of tonight. So who will win?

As previously mentioned, Charles South and I put together a prediction model using advanced analytical techniques (you can see our
poster presentation here). Quick warning: you are about to see a long list. The significant variables—pertinent to tonight—that determine the outcome of a football game are:

- Yards per Pass Attempt
- Yards per Rush Attempt
- Rush Attempts
- Total Yards
- Yards per Play
- Turnovers
- Opponent Points Scored
- Opponent Yards per Rush Attempt
- Opponent Total Yards
- Opponent Turnovers
- Opponent Penalty Yards
- Average Point Differential
- Opponent Offense Passing Yds
- Opponent Offense Yards per Rush Att
- Opponent Offense Total Yards
- Opponent Offense YPP
- Opponent Def Total Rush Yds
- Opponent Defense YPRA
- Opponent Defense Total Yards
- Opponent Def Yards Per Play
- Opponent Defense TO
- Opponent Avg Points Differential
- Difference in Win %
- Recruiting Rankings

If you survived reading that long, congratulations! What's important to learn is the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide excel in just about every category. The difference in yards, points and statistical increments are razor thin, no matter your perspective. Without going into every variable, we can summarize several of them into overall offense, defense, schedule and recruiting.

Georgia's rushing attack with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb comprise most of its offense. They overcame the massive deficit in the Rose Bowl, they make the game manageable for a freshman quarterback and, as part of the backfield, they average more yards per carry and rushing attempts than Alabama. Neither team throws it much, though Georgia is more efficient through the air, by roughly one-third of a yard per attempt. Though Alabama is less efficient overall, some of that fact can be attributed to having big leads early in games, then cruising the rest of the way; it is why the Tide have more total yards than the Dawgs and Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts is the second-leading rusher on his own team, to preserve those leads.

Defensively, there seems to be few weaknesses with Alabama, though outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings will not play because of a knee injury. Near the end of the regular-season the injury problems mounted, but were under control in the Sugar Bowl, limiting the number-one ranked team to just six points and 188 total yards. Its rushing defense is best in America, allowing 2.7 yards per carry. The team passing efficiency defense also gives Bama the edge. Led by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, they've allowed just seven passing touchdowns and has an efficiency mark a full 17 points better than Georgia (1st in college football vs 13th nationally).

These statistics can be misleading given the small sample sizes in college football. Georgia did play an additional game, and often another contest can help a team historically. Alabama has only a slightly better point differential this season than Georgia. The Bulldogs faced the best offense when it comes to passing efficiency (Oklahoma). The best Alabama went up against was Auburn at 13th; a game they lost (Georgia split the two meetings). The Bulldogs got to face a Top 10 rushing attack in Notre Dame, while the Tide never faced anyone in the Top 25. The best passing efficiency defense Alabama faced was in the Sugar Bowl (5th) while the best Georgia saw was 19th (Auburn). The schedule favors Alabama but only slightly.

Finally, our study used
247Sports Composite Class Rankings to determine who has the best talent. Our study highlights the second-year and third-year classes, but also analyzes the average ranking of the first three classes. In this case, Alabama had the top class the past three years, though Georgia consistency fielded a Top 10 group.

Again, it is clear how evenly matched these teams are and how similar they are in terms of their approaches and philosophies. It promises to be an exciting game, and while the unpredictable like turnovers or missed field goal attempts prove all of the difference, if what's controllable decides this game, Alabama should have a narrow victory.

Predicting the College Football Committee

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The penultimate College Football Playoff rankings are out and those conceivably in the running are:

1. Clemson
2. Auburn
3. Oklahoma
4. Wisconsin
5. Alabama
6. Georgia
7. Miami
8. Ohio State

Before predicting how the playoff will develop, it is important to keep a couple of things in mind. First, the College Football Playoff committee has
outlined some of the things they hope to accomplish picking the four teams. Among the most relevant items:

- Consider geography
- Avoid rematches in the regular-season
- Consider strength of schedule
- Consider conference championships won

It is also important some of the things the committee has never done in three years:

- Taken two teams from one conference
- Taken a two-loss team
- Taken three teams from the same region of the country

Using these guidelines, here is how the playoff will be decided:

- The winner of the ACC Championship between Clemson and Miami gets in, the loser is out.
- The winner of the SEC Championship between Georgia and Auburn gets in, the loser is out.
- Oklahoma gets in if they win the Big 12 Championship, TCU cannot get in.
- Wisconsin gets in if they win the Big Ten Championship. If Ohio State wins, they get in if TCU wins.
- Alabama gets in if Oklahoma loses OR Wisconsin loses.

It is impossible point differential matters in any of these league championship games (it is the committee, it is omnipotent). But chances are, we have our blueprint for who will compete for the national title in January.

Forced Into Success

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(Courtesy: Getty Images)

An odd thing happened to the Dallas Cowboys in their last couple of games: their opponents' starting kickers exited their games early with injuries. Philadelphia's kicker Jake Elliott suffered a head injury and Los Angeles' kicker Nick Novak experienced back problems. Both teams had to resort to emergency backups during the game, with less than ideal results. Each backup was seen missing the practice the net on the sideline while warming up.

The difference between the Eagles and Chargers is how they adjusted to losing their kickers. Philadelphia opted to avoid kicking all together, not attempting field goals and going for two instead of extra point tries. Los Angeles remained conventional, playing as if they had its kicker. The results are drastically different. The Eagles went for 2-point conversions on four occasions, converting three of them. They also faced a fourth-and-5 from the Dallas 17-yard line, scoring a touchdown on the play. Even if you assume Philadelphia would have made that field goal (and every extra point attempt), by not using a kicker, the team gained five points. As for the Chargers, Drew Kaser missed two extra points and still had Novak make one more attempt, which he missed. Had Los Angeles gone for two after all four of its second-half touchdowns, and if we assume they would have converted half of them (the league average), they would have netted three points.

As a result, Los Angeles' conventional wisdom cost them three points, while Philadelphia gained five points with aggressive play calling. In other words, the Eagles were eight points better with their approach.

There is plenty of analytical research suggested NFL teams
kick fewer field goals or attempt more 2-point conversions. While these findings have been perpetually published for years, it hasn't changed the sport very much. Teams are still attempting roughly as many field goals and extra points as ever, even though offenses have improved and extra points have become more difficult. While teams refuse to implement this research, a real life example happened in the span of one week where one team put itself in a better position by kicking less. It doesn't explain everything, but it can spotlight one reason why Philadelphia has the best record in the NFL, while Los Angeles is on the fringe of the playoffs.

Gary Patterson is the Most Hated Man in College Football

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(Courtesy: Getty Images)

It's not Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or some college football pundit who polarizes fan bases to insanity, just for that monthly paycheck.

It's TCU head coach Gary Patterson, who's led the program since 2000, including a pair of conference transitions and two New Year's Six Bowl victories. Despite few controversial issues within his program, Patterson earns this distinction because of who he is and where he works.

Who he is, is a winner. Perhaps most notable among his accomplishments, his teams are 43-5 when ranked in the Top 10. This record suggests the longevity of having played so many games near the top of the poll du jour, but also a near perfect winning percentage when expected to succeed.

Where he works is a small, private university with
roughly 10,000 students. To compare, this student body is 1/4 the size of Alabama's and roughly 1/5 the size of other highly touted college football schools like Penn State and Ohio State. Also, many of these schools are flagships of their own state, meaning their fan bases extend well beyond those who actually attend the university. Not only can't TCU boast being a flagship, it operates from a state with some of the larger followings in America like Texas and Texas A&M.

Gary Patterson is a successful coach who works for a small school with a smaller fan base trying to get his team into Year 4 of the College Football Playoff. He came close during the inaugural year of the playoff, but was pushed aside for: Ohio State (Baylor also finished ahead of TCU but was also left out, another small private university). Some will argue vindication for the eventual champion Buckeyes, but how TCU would have performed in the playoff that year remains a mystery, even more shrouded given its 39-point victory over 9th-ranked Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. The gripes only grow louder knowing TCU
controlled games better than Ohio State, had a better defensive efficiency (a metric that predicts success better than offensive efficiency) and the strength of schedule between the Frogs and Buckeyes were roughly the same.

TCU's lone loss that season was to Baylor, and committees historically rank good losses worse than mediocre defeats. The trend seems counterintuitive, but rhetorically serves as an acceptable argument within college football. Also, because the Frogs and Bears split the Big 12 Championship, despite the head-to-head result, they could have "canceled each other out", opening the door for Ohio State.

Still, the only other school with a successful season these last four years most like TCU is Stanford, with an
enrollment roughly 50% larger than the Frogs'. In 2015, they won the Pac-12 Championship, but two losses locked them out. The last two-loss team to win a National Championship was LSU in 2007, so opportunities for those in Stanford's position have always been limited.

Today, TCU is in a more advantageous position than three years ago. The latest College Football Playoff poll has TCU ranked 6th. They will face 5th-ranked Oklahoma and could face the Sooners again in a separate Big 12 Championship Game, something that did not exist during the TCU/Baylor controversy. The conference added this contest because their analytics suggest the game gives a Big 12 team
a greater likelihood of making the Final Four. Two wins over a highly ranked Sooners squad would give the Horned Frogs an undisputed league championship, something that is a statistically significant variable for making the playoff. Their strength of schedule ranking would also increase and defensive efficiency may also rise because a win would include containing Sooner quarterback and Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield.

Despite the lone loss, if TCU wins its remaining games, the Frogs' resume would be arguably as bulletproof as any one-loss team. The committee admits to wanting geographic diversity, but there would not be another program in that region of the country with a more attractive resume. If TCU is still left out, something should be considered amiss. Having a smaller following could be assumed as a factor for being left out. Gary Patterson would then spotlight a problem with this era of determining a National Champion: he has done virtually everything he can to put his team in a position to play for a title; and yet gets left out for a second year. A conspiracy theory, true or otherwise, that undermines the validity of the selection process, is something the sport and the committee would hate.