News & Analysis

Galina: BYU and Cincinnati are proving their caliber as sneaky College Football Playoff candidates

Oct 24, 2020; Provo, UT, USA; BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) looks down field in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Texas State Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Provo, Utah. Mandatory Credit: Rick Bowmer/Pool Photo-USA TODAY NETWORK

Considering all the uncertainty 2020 has brought upon the college football world, it feels like this could finally be the year a Group of Five or non-Notre Dame independent school cracks the top four and makes the College Football Playoff.

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Undefeated Cincinnati and BYU — the two teams with the best shot — have given us two elite units to fawn over. BYU’s offense and Cincinnati's defense have been as good as anyone’s in the country. Below, we’ll break down what makes each of these units so good.

BYU has taken the torch for all pistol outside zone teams and cranked it up to 11 with their fantastic line play and Aaron Rodgers-esque quarterback play from Zach Wilson. Cincinnati shuts opposing offenses down with simplicity and execution. If either team makes the playoff, it will be because of their respectively dominant units.

BYU

The Cougars have been the most talked-about undefeated team because they have gotten excellent quarterback play and keep scoring points. People like points. They’re also incredibly efficient. Their .27 expected points added per play is the sixth-best mark in the country — and it's the third-best if we throw out the three teams ahead of them who have played only one game each.

BYU sits behind just Alabama and Ohio State in expected points added per play and success rate. The Cougars are behind only those two schools in expected points added per play through the air, as well. And they are one of 26 teams with at least 100 called run plays to generate positive expected points added per play on those plays.

Everything they do is efficient, and before we get into the amazing season Zach Wilson is having, we have to show the offensive line some love because it allows their skill position players to flourish. BYU’s offensive line is the No. 1-graded run-blocking unit in the country, producing an 89.0 mark.

Left tackle Brady Christensen is by far the best run-blocking offensive lineman in college football right now. His 96.0 run-blocking grade is higher than the next highest player by 2.8 points. Of course, one player does not make a unit complete. Six of the eight offensive linemen who have played at least 40 snaps this season have a run-blocking grade above 80.0. BYU is deep up front, and their players are people-movers.

The offense loves being in the pistol, as their 130 snaps in that backfield alignment rank 11th-most in the country this year. Putting the back behind the quarterback allows them to go in either direction for their preferred outside zone play. Half of their run plays, regardless of backfield alignment, have been outside zone.

When they run their outside zone play to the right, they average 5.7 yards per carry. Left tackle Christensen is on the backside of the play washing down defensive linemen and giving the runner a big cutback lane, which is where the big plays hit on outside zone. To the left side, it is still a respectable 4.9 yards per carry.

The Cougars have done a tremendous job when showing that outside zone run before pulling the ball and running play action off that concept. Their whopping .75 expected points added per play on outside zone play actions is absurd. Wilson averages 14.3 yards per attempt on those throws. This is not just outside zone action to slip a tight end to the flat. They are going to explode on you with a deep throw. Wilson’s average depth of target of 15 yards ranks third-highest in the country among quarterbacks with over 10 attempts.

When looking at BYU's pass plays outside of play action, we have to give credit to the offensive line once again. Stripping away play action, screens and RPOs gives BYU’s offensive line second-best pass-blocking efficiency in the country among the teams who have played more than a couple of games. They have protected their prized asset Wilson, and is responding by having arguably the best quarterback season in the country right now.

Wilson’s 94.2 passing grade ranks first in the country through Week 10, and he has 18 big-time throws to only three turnover-worthy plays. He has eclipsed a 90.0 passing grade in five of BYU's eight games this season and had an 87.7 grade against Troy.

He has been elite the whole season, with his lowest mark being a respectable 75.4 passing grade against Houston. This past week, in BYU's toughest test to date, he torched Boise State to the tune of a 90.6 passing grade. He has one of the sharpest arms in college football, can make plays inside structure and outside of it, and is incredibly accurate. Among quarterbacks with at least 25 passes thrown 20-plus yards, he’s been charted as having thrown an accurate pass 71.4% of the time. The next highest, UNC’s Sam Howell, sits at 58.3%.

Wilson has been elite almost everywhere, but throwing outbreaking routes is where he’s shined just a little brighter. He’s completed 21 of 28 out route throws for 246 yards and a 92.5 grade. He just doesn’t miss when the target is moving away from him.

The Cougars have one more legit opponent on their schedule when they play San Diego State in December, but the way they’ve been playing, it’s hard to see them losing.

Cincinnati

While BYU’s offense is setting the world on fire, Cincinnati’s defense is one of the most suffocating forces in the whole country. The Bearcats boast the sixth-best defense in terms of expected points added per play, -.22, among teams that have played more than 100 snaps this year. While they have been excellent against the run, coming in with a -.21 expected points added per play mark against running plays, their pass defense has been even better. A -.23 expected points added per play mark against the pass is absurd.

They live at the intersection of coverage and pass rush. Cincinnati's cornerback group might be its best unit — it's eating receivers and allowing a skilled pass rush to get to the quarterback. Ahmad Gardner headlines the secondary, having faced 36 targets this season while allowing zero success.

He’s surrendered just 12 catches for a meager 13.2 passer rating. There are only two players in the country with at least 10 targets who have given up a lower passer rating when targeted. Arquon Bush, another fantastic Bearcats cornerback, ranks eighth in the country in the same category. For good measure Cincy has four cornerbacks in the top 140 in the country in passer rating allowed.

In fact, none of Cincinnati's cornerbacks, safeties or linebackers who have been targeted at least 10 times have allowed a passer rating above 90.0. Just in the American Conference, 49 players have allowed a higher passer rating. Overall, their team coverage grade sits at 92.3, fourth-best in the country.

All this excellent coverage is allowing their pass-rushers to get after the quarterback. Cumulatively, their team pass rush grade is 87.3, which is the fourth-highest in the country. Myjai Sanders and Elijah Ponder, the Bearcats' starting edge defenders, are putting opposing tackles in a blender. Sanders grades out to 90.5 as a pass-rusher, while Ponder comes in at 86.8. That puts them both in the top 10 in the country among edge rushers with at least 100 pass-rushing snaps.

The most interesting part of their defense is how little they do schematically. For the most part, they show pre-snap what they will play post-snap. On over 50% of its defensive plays, Cincinnati shows a one-high safety look and then plays it out in either Cover 1 (47% of the time) or Cover 3 (48% of the time). Regardless of pre-snap safety looks, the Bearcats play Cover 1 or Cover 3 on just over 68% of their snaps.

Playing these types of one-high coverages puts a lot of stress on the outside cornerbacks. In essence, they are always in a man-to-man situation. As noted by how good Cincinnati's individual cornerbacks have been, they have passed every test offenses have given them. On throws to outside receivers, opposing offenses are finding extremely limited success. Cincinnati’s 41.3 passer rating allowed on those throws ranks just outside the top spot. This is one of the elite defenses in college football — regardless of conference.

Both these units transcend their Group of Five status and can absolutely run with any team in the Power Five. Besides BYU boasting a great quarterback and strong skill position players, the team has a grounded foundation with how good its offensive line is from top to bottom. For Cincinnati, it’s the defense's ability to play man coverage. The Bearcats aren’t just sitting in zone and having bad quarterbacks make bad reads. They are shutting down individual receivers.

One can only hope that either team gets a chance to prove their worth at the highest level of college football.

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