College Football: 5 Under-the-Radar Stats That Could Define the Playoff Race

Michigan and Washington's two-way play helped them emerge as contenders. What stats should you be watching for?

By the time Alabama’s Eddie Jackson fielded the Tennessee punt on his own 21-yard line, the Tide were already leading the Volunteers by 25 points, with under a quarter to play.

Then, 79 yards later, the Tide return man helped his team stretch their lead to 42-10. Despite the game being over for all practical purposes, Jackson’s touchdown caused the Twittersphere to erupt.

That’s because it was the 11th non-offensive touchdown Alabama had scored in its seven 2016 games. Earlier in the game, Jackson’s teammate, safety Ronnie Harrison, took a failed screen pass back for an easy pick six.

The related statistics lit up Twitter.

In all, the Tide’s 11 defensive and special teams’ touchdowns are equal to or more than what two FBS offenses have had all season: Buffalo (11) and South Carolina (9).

The Tide’s ability to put points on the scoreboard in all three phases of the game is one key way they have established themselves as the front runner for the College Football Playoffs. At this point, that is hardly a secret.

But here are five lesser-known statistics that could have a significant bearing on the playoff picture during the second half of the college football season.

6.8: Texas A&M’s yards per rush

The Aggies’ rushing attack has proven to be one of the pleasant surprises in all of college football this season. Behind Trayveon Williams (8.6 yards per carry) and transfer quarterback Trevor Knight (8.4 yards per carry), Texas A&M now ranks fourth in the country in rushing offense, according to numberFire’s nERD efficiency metric. Their 6.8 yards per rush average is even more impressive considering it is 2 full yards better than the team’s 4.35 average last season. The offseason hire of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone from UCLA has been a big part of the change. Proof? In 2015, the Bruins under Mazzone averaged 5 yards per rush (23rd), and running back Paul Perkins finished fourth in the conference with 103.3 yards per game. This year, UCLA is managing a woeful 2.8 yards per rush, third worst in the FBS, behind only Miami (Ohio) and Texas State.

The success of the Aggies’ running game has taken pressure off Knight as a passer, as well as the defense. In fact, behind an effective rushing attack, Texas A&M averages 15.5 offensive possessions per game (2nd in the FBS) and 40.2 points per game (16th), which creates a larger margin of error for an already talented and stout defense. Texas A&M will need an efficient rushing attack this week when they face Alabama, nERD’s top rated rushing defense, in a battle to control the SEC West.

6: LSU’s defensive touchdowns allowed

Regardless of who wins this weekend’s clash between Alabama and Texas A&M, both teams still have LSU left on their schedule in November. The Tigers, ranked 13th by numberFire, are a longshot to make the playoffs, but they could play the role of spoiler and possibly playoff eliminator if they could knock off the Tide and/or the Aggies. While LSU’s offense has gotten much of the attention during the team’s disappointing 2016 start, the defense has been quietly devastating. In fact, LSU has only given up six offensive touchdowns in their first six games. That is easily best in the nation. In all, the Tigers’ defense ranks fourth nationally, yielding 14 points per game, and is ranked ninth in the FBS, giving up 3.23 points for each opponents’ trip inside the Tiger 40-yard line.

No one will deny that an anemic offense keeps LSU’s upside depressed. But this defense might be good enough to stifle even the most prolific offenses. Bill Connelly of SB Nation’s S&P+ gives LSU a 36% chance to beat Alabama at home and then exactly a 50-50 shot to defeat the Aggies on the road to close the regular season. This week’s matchup against Ole Miss will be an appropriate litmus for Dave Aranda’s defense and whether their current dominance is sustainable over a full season.

+13: Washington’s turnover margin

Take one look at the Huskies’ nation-leading +13 turnover margin and any skepticism would be warranted. Turnover luck is something that tends to regress to the mean. But while Washington has experienced some fortunate bounces during its 6-0 start, according to Bill Connelly, the Huskies’ expected turnover margin is still +6.48, which is third in the country. One part is quarterback Jake Browning and his stewardship of the ball on offense. In all, the Huskies have only turned the ball over four times all seasons. That’s second nationally behind Western Michigan, who have a mind-boggling one turnover through seven games.

What is even scarier for Pac-12 teams is that Washington, currently ranked fourth in overall team efficiency by nERD, has not yet taken advantage of many interception opportunities, despite their +13 turnover margin. The Huskies are currently third-worst in the entire FBS, with a pass deflection-to-interception ratio of 21%, when the national average is 33%. It is possible that turnover regression is not coming for the Huskies. Only one opponent -- Washington State -- has fewer than nine combined interceptions and fumbles this season. It is just one key factor in why S&P+ gives Washington a better than 80% win probability in each of their final six games.

560: Florida State’s penalty yards

The Seminoles’ 560 penalty yards are the worst in the 128-team FBS. Penalty yards themselves are not a predictor of success or failure, but they can hint at larger discipline and focus issues. Careless mistakes and mental gaffes have come to define this 2016 Florida State team, which was supposed to be Clemson’s most difficult obstacle on the Tigers’ path to the playoff. In addition to giving away yardage via penalties, the Seminoles’ breakdown on defense has been crippling. Florida State has given up 43 plays of 20 yards or more. That is 124th in the nation. The Seminoles’ offense has been mistake-prone as well. They have allowed 46 tackles for loss, 7th-worst among all Power 5 teams, and 21 sacks, 119th in the nation.

It is not surprising, then, that S&P+ gives Florida State a win probability of only 33% against Clemson October 29. Jimbo Fisher is likely using this week’s bye to address some of the Seminoles’ self-imposed setbacks.

3.6: Michigan's yards per play allowed

The reality is there were about a dozen defensive statistics that illustrate just how dominant Michigan’s defense has been in 2016. But perhaps the most impressive is that the Wolverines give up just 3.6 yards per play, a half yard-per-play better than second-ranked Florida and Ohio State. Michigan, nERD’s top rated team in 2016, is also first in the nation in defensive success rate, opponents’ points per trip inside the 40-yard line (2.82 when the national average is 4.67), and defensive S&P+ both rushing and passing.

S&P+ gives the Wolverines at least a 92% chance to win each of their final five games before heading into the Horseshoe against Ohio State on November 26. That includes this Saturday’s showdown against Illinois (99% win probability) and at Michigan State the following weekend (97% win probability). And nERD doesn’t rank any of those five opponents’ offenses in the top 25 in rushing or passing. By the time Michigan hits the road against the Buckeyes, this team may be on the verge of setting a myriad defenses records.