Playoff Watch: Clemson leads CFP in defense, scoring margin vs. winning teams


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Clemson ranks third in stop rate and leads the Playoff teams in overall defensive efficiency.
Clemson ranks third in stop rate and leads the Playoff teams in overall defensive efficiency.

And then there were four.

This year’s College Football Playoff selections were as controversial as ever, but there’s no mistaking that some talented teams will compete for a national championship.

Alabama, Clemson and Georgia all have elite defenses, ranking No. 1, 2 and 3 respectively in scoring defense.

Oklahoma has an otherworldly offense anchored by Heisman-favorite Baker Mayfield – No. 1 in yards per play (8.44) and yards per game (583.3 YPG) and No. 4 in scoring offense (44.9) – and a defense that ranks as low as 95th in defensive efficiency on Football Outsiders.

The Southeastern trio all also rank in the top-25 in scoring offense, led by Alabama at 12th (39.1), then Clemson at 21st (35.4) and Georgia at 23rd (34.9).

How does that all work out in big games?

Taking a quick look gives you Alabama on top in scoring margin versus FBS opponents (25 PPG), against the weakest strength of schedule (47 SOS), while Clemson is the inverse at 19.7 PPG and the No. 3 strength of schedule.

Against that tougher slate, the Tigers lead the pack versus ranked opponents (AP Top 25), averaging a 19 point margin of victory. Oklahoma joins them in double-digits (16.7), while both SEC teams have single-digit scoring margins (Georgia, 6.7; Alabama, 3).

Clemson also leads in scoring margin versus FBS teams with winning records (19.4), ahead of Georgia (14.5) then Oklahoma (13.5) and Alabama (11).

Scoring offense/defense v. AP Top 25
Clemson – 27.7 (22nd) / 8.7 (1st) / 19 margin
Oklahoma – 43 (4th) / 26.3 (20th) / 16.7 margin
Georgia – 24 (32nd) / 17.3 (2nd) / 6.7 margin
Alabama – 23 (37th) / 20 (5th) / 3 margin

Scoring offense/defense v. FBS winning
Clemson – 33 (13th) / 13.6 (1st) / 19.4 margin
Georgia – 30.8 (25th) / 16.3 (4th) / 14.5 margin
Oklahoma – Oklahoma 43.4 (3rd) / 29.9 (54th) / 13.5 margin
Alabama – 29.7 (31st) / 18.7 (6th) / 11 margin
(Via CFBStats.com)

FBS v. FBS average scoring margin (ESPN SOS Rank)
Alabama – 25 PPG (No. 47 strength of schedule)
Georgia – 21.2 PPG (17 SOS)
Oklahoma – 19.9 PPG (27 SOS)
Clemson – 19.7 PPG (3 SOS)
(Per TeamRankings.com).

ESPN Strength of Record rank (Game control rank)
Oklahoma – 1 (6)
Clemson – 2 (1)
Georgia – 3 (4)
Alabama – 4 (5)

In the advanced metrics, there’s not a great deal of difference in the field.

Alabama and Georgia rank in the top-26 in efficiency on offense, defense and special teams. Clemson leads the group on defense and Oklahoma ranks best on offense. As referenced before, Oklahoma’s defense stands out on the negative side, as well as Clemson’s status as the only team outside of the top-60 in special teams (118th).

S&P+ Rankings
Alabama (98.9 percentile; No. 19 offense, No. 3 defense, No. 26 special teams)
Georgia (97.9 percentile; No. 18 offense, No. 8 defense, No. 1 special teams)
Clemson (96.8 percentile; No. 35 offense, No. 2 defense, No. 118 special teams)
Oklahoma (96.2 percentile; No. 1 offense, No. 95 defense, No. 56 special teams)

Offense success rate / explosiveness
Oklahoma – 1st (54.4) / 1st (1.47)
Alabama – 9th (47.4) / 21st (1.29)
Georgia 13th (47.2) / 14th (1.34)
Clemson – 14th (47.1) / 119th (1.03).
(Via Football Study Hall – Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama)

Why Clemson’s “success” weighs better offensively than its rank in total offense comes in third down and touchdown efficiency, which both hold top-10 marks. Top-20 in total offense, Alabama is 55th in third down offense and 22nd in red zone touchdown percentage.

The Crimson Tide narrowly edge Clemson in stop rate (82.5-81.6), but falls a bit short of elite when it comes to third down (21st) and red zone defense (17th overall and 16th TD percentage).

On the offensive side, Oklahoma leads in explosiveness but ranks 39th overall in third down offense (43.1).
Against better competition, they’ve performed better than peers – 22nd versus ranked teams (42) and 15th versus FBS teams with winning records (44.87).

Defensive stop rate
(Percentage of drives that end in punts, turnovers or turnover on downs, via The Athletic)
Alabama – 82.5 (2nd in FBS)
Clemson – 81.6 (3rd)
Georgia – 78.5 (5th)
Oklahoma – 64.5 (67th)

Third down / red zone TD percentage offense
Clemson – 46.7 (10th) / 75.5 (9th)
Georgia – 47.3 (7th) / 70 (25th)
Oklahoma – 43.1 (39th) / 72.3 (17th)
Alabama – 41.5 (55th) / 71.2 (22nd)

Third down /red zone TD percentage defense
Clemson – 27.8 (5th) / 44 (5th)
Georgia – 33.2 (24th) / 46.4 (7th)
Alabama – 33 (21st) / 50 (16th)
Oklahoma – 38.7 (64th) / 58.7 (59th)
(Via CFBStats.com)

What will be interesting going forward is how true these averages ring in the Playoff, facing elite opponents with some extra time to prepare. Alabama and Clemson have the most (and best) track record of the quartet in CFP semis.

Oklahoma’s one Playoff semifinal was under a different coach in Bob Stoops, taking a 37-17 loss to Clemson in the 2015 Orange Bowl.

Over the last two semis, Clemson averaged a 25.5-point scoring margin and Alabama, 20.5. The Crimson Tide also lost in the 2014 semifinal, by seven, to eventual national champ Ohio State.

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