It’s the big kahunas, the head honchos, the bee’s knees of football, the cat’s pajamas… OK, you get the idea.
It’s the College Football Playoff, and we’re using our TRACR mode to project which teams will advance to the national championship game.
This may be one of the closest playoffs we have seen in quite some time. Georgia is the No. 1 seed, but the Bulldogs play an Ohio State squad with the highest offensive TRACR. Michigan is the best team overall in TRACR, but the Wolverines play a TCU squad looking to come back after losing in the Big 12 Championship game.
There are two Big Ten teams in the playoff for the first time. No Alabama or Clemson. It should be fun.
TRACR (Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster) is a net efficiency metric that evaluates how well a team performs based on who it plays. The model, which is trained on over 10 years of college football data, rewards big wins over good teams and punishes losses to bad ones or even wins that are closer than expected.
We’ll also add the SmartRating for each game as they become available. SmartRatings is an AI-based platform that provides excitement ratings for sporting events, teams and players. The excitement scale, ranging from 0-100, is powered by complex algorithms that are predicated upon six primary variables: pace, parity, novelty, momentum, context and social buzz.
The weight of each variable is dynamic and adapts as a season progresses. The excitement scale translates to the following general sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game) and 85-100 (Great Game).
You can look at the rest of the early bowl predictions here. Make sure to check out our predictions for the second half of bowl games as well.
Fiesta Bowl, Dec. 31: Michigan (No. 1 in TRACR) vs. TCU (No. 7)
- SmartRating: 85
- Winner: Michigan
- Win Probability: 65.0%
Michigan Data Points: Michigan’s last two games have illustrated that the offense can still be dominant without Blake Corum. Donovan Edwards has racked up 401 rush yards in Michigan’s two, averaging 8.5 yards per carry. That is unreal for any player, let alone one that did it on the road against Ohio State and in the Big Ten Championship game against Purdue. Edwards is averaging 7.5 yards per carry on the season – the highest among FBS players with at least 100 attempts.
I have criticized Michigan a little because of an over-reliance on the run game. But boy, was I proved wrong when the Wolverines rushed for 418 yards against Penn State in October. Even after the Penn State game, however, the offense has evolved. It is still dominant on the ground, as shown with those big runs against Ohio State, but it has gotten more creative.
Perhaps the best example is the use of Kalel Mullings. The linebacker had TWO rushing TDs against Purdue, acting much like a fullback. In addition, he had a jump pass on third-and-2 against Ohio State that completely caught the Buckeyes off guard. The throw was not great, but it led to a first down and eventually a TD. It was truly one of my favorite plays called by any team all season.
It will be important to see how Michigan adjusts in the second half of this semifinal. The Wolverines had only a one-point lead against Purdue and were down at the half against Ohio State. They outscored the Boilermakers by 20 points in the second half and the Buckeyes by 25. That might be the strategy again: keep running the ball and controlling possession before TCU runs out of gas in the second half.
TCU Data Points: What can TCU do to win? The rush defense will have to step up and force some turnovers. The Horned Frogs could not stop the run against Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship game. Deuce Vaughn had 130 rushing yards and that big TD that increased Kansas State’s lead in the fourth quarter.
They have shown signs of promise, though, especially earlier in November at Texas. The Horned Frogs held the Longhorns to 28 rushing yards and under 200 yards of total offense. Bijan Robinson averaged only 2.4 yards per rush – the worst of his career.
The defense can still allow 200 rushing yards and win this game, but it will have to take a monumental effort from Max Duggan. He’s carried this team time and time again and is the main reason for TCU’s spot in the playoff. While he has almost the exact same yards per attempt as last year, Sonny Dykes has trusted his senior quarterback more this season. Duggan has delivered; his TD rate went up and his pick rate went down.
Much of Duggan’s success has been thanks to Quentin Johnston as well. Johnston showed flashes of brilliance in Big 12 play, breaking out in October against Kansas and Oklahoma State but also in the Big 12 Championship game. Michigan also has a free safety named Quinten Johnson. Will they get matched up on a play or two in this one?
Jokes aside, it could be Will Johnson that goes up against TCU’s Johnston. This Johnson vs. Johnston matchup will be fun to watch. Michigan’s freshman DB picked off Aidan O’Connell twice in the Big Ten Championship game and is starting to cement himself as one of the best defenders in college football.
TRACR gives Michigan about a 65% chance of winning this one. I think the Wolverines will be too much to handle for the Horned Frogs.
Peach Bowl, Dec. 31: Ohio State (No. 3) vs. Georgia (No. 4)
- SmartRating: 85
- Winner: Ohio State
- Win Probability: 55.0%
Ohio State Data Points: Historically, the fourth seed in the CFP has won twice: Alabama in 2017, beating Georgia in overtime thanks to Tua’s tremendous pass, and Ohio State in the inaugural playoff in 2014.
In 2014, the Buckeyes were the hottest team entering the playoff after crushing Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship game. Ezekiel Elliott had three straight games rushing for over 200 yards and backup Cardale Jones flashed signs of brilliance. It was quite the run at the end.
Now, it feels like Ohio State is declining. Ryan Day has now lost to Michigan in back-to-back seasons after losing The Game at home for the first time since 2000. C.J. Stroud looked like a favorite for the Heisman, but he had average-to-poor performances in three of Ohio State’s last four games. Still, this is an Ohio State team that went 11-1 in the regular season, won seven games by at least 25 points, and is ranked No. 1 in TRACR’s offensive rating. Up until the Michigan game, the offense was putting up historic numbers.
The Buckeyes have illustrated that they can have a dynamic offense without their top wideout entering this season in Jaxson Smith-Njigba, who decided to enter the NFL Draft after dealing with a hamstring injury almost all season. They still have two 1,000-yard receivers in Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. I don’t care how good Georgia’s defense is – both are tough guards and it will be difficult to double up on a guy. Both receivers had 40-yard plays against Michigan and can do the same against Georgia.
Does Ohio State have enough in the run game to beat Georgia, or will we see an air raid offense? TreVeyon Henderson is out with an injury, Miyan Williams has been absent over the last two games, and the Buckeyes are relying on linebacker Chip Trayanum for carries. Something seems off.
Georgia Data Points: Georgia is allowing a nation-best 77.0 rush yards per game. The Bulldogs are also allowing 2.9 yards per carry – the fourth fewest in the FBS.
This might be the toughest defense Ohio State will see this season. Georgia ranks third in the country in defensive TRACR, but also eighth in offensive TRACR. The Bulldogs did allow over 500 passing yards to LSU, which could lead to some deep balls from Stroud. But remember, Georgia still won that game by 20.
Georgia has played two neutral site games this season: the SEC Championship game in which it put up 50 points against LSU and the start of the season when it pounded Oregon 49-3. The Oregon game is still the most impressive I’ve seen any team play this season, especially when the Ducks ended up being a nine-win, possibly 10-win team.
Georgia’s Stetson Bennett had a tremendous season, getting Heisman votes and completing almost 70% of his passes. The running game has many threats, whether it is Kenny McIntosh, Daijun Edwards or Kendall Milton. Milton had his best game of the season against LSU just a few weeks ago.
This one looks like it will be closer than Michigan vs. TCU. TRACR, surprisingly, has Ohio State favored but only at 55.0%. Georgia might be the better team going in, but Ohio State has had time to readjust and could pass all over the Bulldogs. It will be close.