Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Scramble Over/Unders: the Norths

The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"

24 Sep 2009

7th Day Adventure: Strange Days

by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub

It was a tricky week of picks for these fearless columnists last week. As a group, the FO college writers went 9-21 against the spread. USC lost to a team that went 0-12 last year, Florida struggled (offensively, at least) against Tennessee, Florida State blew away supposed BCS-buster BYU, eight SEC teams scored 30 points or more, and an already-crazy college football season got even crazier. Do we have another 2007 on our hands, or will the season stabilize after this week?

This Week's Games

No. 4 Mississippi (-3) at South Carolina (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. EST, ESPN)

With an easy early schedule and early losses from the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and USC, here the Rebels stand, ranked fourth in late-September without having to break a sweat. Their season truly starts with a tricky trip to Columbia to face a team that might be putting things together. The Gamecocks have scored 75 points in the last two games, their highest two-game output since mid-2007. Their defense, featuring linebacker Eric Norwood, is solid. If the Rebels can survive this trip, along with one to Vanderbilt next week, then the Oct. 10 matchup versus Alabama could be the biggest Mississippi game since about 1963.

The Picks -- Rob: S.C. | FEI: S.C. | S&P+: Ole Miss

No. 22 North Carolina (+2.5) at Georgia Tech (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. EST, ESPN 360)

It’s the resounding question on the Flats -- has the competition figured out Paul Johnson’s triple option? Georgia Tech’s ground attack has looked less than lively in the last seven quarters against Clemson and Miami. Next up for the Jackets is North Carolina, a team that features a fearsome defensive front led by tackle Marvin Austin and an active linebacking corps, including Quan Sturdivant. The Heels held East Carolina to a piddling 55 rushing yards last Saturday. It’s the type of deep, athletic group that could force Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt into throwing situations, which has been a recipe for mediocrity. Junior Demaryius Thomas is the lone receiving threat wearing old gold and white. Running back Jonathan Dwyer, a preseason Heisman sleeper, has been held in check so far, and is nursing an injured shoulder. Tech may not need many points, however, as Heels quarterback T.J. Yates has struggled mightily to recapture his 2008 form.

The Picks -- Rob: Ga. Tech | FEI: Ga. Tech | S&P+: Ga. Tech

Southern Miss (+14) at No. 20 Kansas (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. EST, FSN)

Feasting on a tray of cupcakes (Northern Colorado, UTEP, Duke) that would make even Penn State feel a bit hypoglycemic, Kansas has sleepwalked to a 3-0 record. The under-challenged Jayhawks started slow last week against Duke, but they probably cannot afford to do the same against a Southern Miss team favored by many to make the Conference USA title game. The Golden Eagles are 3-0 themselves after a comeback road win over Virginia. Kansas is comfortably and rightfully favored, but they will have to overcome both USM quarterback Austin Davis (149.9 passer rating) and their own basketball team, which has given them their best fight of the season.

The Picks -- Rob: USM | FEI: USM | S&P+: USM

Arkansas (+15.5) at No. 3 Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EST, CBS)

And just like that, the SEC has another stud quarterback. Ryan Mallett, the 6-foot-7 Michigan transfer now ensconced in Fayetteville, threw for five touchdowns and 408 yards against Georgia, proving pigs can indeed fly. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, their defense isn’t nearly as solid as the offense, and Alabama has been punishing opponents with a balanced attack. The Tide is averaging 268 yards per game on the ground and 245 through the air. The skill players get the ink, but the real story has been Alabama’s offensive line, which has replaced stars Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell without skipping a beat. Junior college transfer James Carpenter has been strong in Smith’s old left tackle spot, and senior guard Mike Johnson is the outstanding leader of the line. Alabama's speedy defense will provide a far stiffer test for Mallett than the Bulldogs did.

The Picks -- Rob: Alabama | FEI: Alabama | S&P+: Arkansas

No. 6 California (-7) at Oregon (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EST, ABC)

What do you do when you feel your team is underachieving and might lose any serious chance it has at a Rose Bowl bid with a home loss this weekend? Throwback unis, of course! The Ducks will don the old-school green and yellow for their battle against Cal. Star running back Jahvid Best (the best in the country at his position) and stellar rushing defense will fight back in blue and gold. Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has been awful this year, having completed just 45.3% of his passes (with no help from his receivers) for zero touchdowns, two interceptions and an 88.8 passer rating. He improved as the season wore on in 2008, but if he struggles Saturday, the calls for a new quarterback will grow louder.

The Picks -- Rob: Oregon | FEI: Oregon | S&P+: Oregon (LOCK)

No. 9 Miami (-2.5) at No. 11 Virginia Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EST, ABC)

Before the season began, the fear in Miami was that, while the Hurricanes had promise, the crucible of the opening four games was too much to ask a young team to overcome. Two games in, the Canes are unbeaten, and quarterback Jacory Harris has been Heismanesque. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has restored a striking power not seen in Coral Gables in years. Perhaps Miami will be this season’s Alabama, a traditional power returning to glory a year ahead of schedule. To continue the turnaround, The U will have to win at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. It is a daunting venue for any opponent, as Nebraska discovered Saturday, losing despite controlling play for most of the day. The Hokies resemble Miami of the past few years, with an iffy passing quarterback, Tyrod Taylor. The hokies have also struggled to replace running back Darren Evans, who tore up a knee on the eve of the season.

The Picks -- Rob: Miami | FEI: Va. Tech | S&P+: Va. Tech

No. 15 TCU (+3) at Clemson (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EST, ESPN 360)

After losses by BYU and Utah last weekend, the Mountain West Conference needs TCU to carry the torch. This game features two of the most efficient defenses in college football. TCU hasn't given up a single non-garbage score this year, and Clemson's defensive box score against Boston College last week was absurd -- 54 total yards in 53 plays. Possessions will be at a premium, as both the Tigers and Horned Frogs rank among the national leaders in rushing attempts per game. Clemson's CJ Spiller has the most difference-maker potential, rushing, receiving and especially returning kicks. He already has a touchdown each from a kickoff and a punt return and has provided the Tigers with a big field position advantage.

The Picks -- Rob: Clemson | FEI: Clemson | S&P+: Clemson

Iowa (+10) at No. 5 Penn State (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. EST, ABC)

There isn't an official preseason in college football, but Penn State scheduled the next best thing over the first three games this year. The Nittany Lions have defeated not-so-mighty Akron, Syracuse, and Temple by a combined score of 90-20, victories that fell somewhere between a yawn and a shrug in terms of national attention, and performances that haven't provided much useful information statistically. Iowa escaped a nightmare opener against Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) Northern Iowa, but have since been modestly impressive -- especially on defense -- in victories over Iowa State and Arizona. Unlike last year's late-season upset by the Hawkeyes, this one probably doesn't have the same kind of BCS title game implications. But impact Big Ten games may be few and far between this fall, and this one should at least be identity-defining.

The Picks -- Rob: Penn State (LOCK) | FEI: Iowa (LOCK) | S&P+: PSU

Notre Dame (-7.5) at Purdue (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen ranks second nationally in passer rating, running back Armando Allen is already closing in on his rushing totals from the last two seasons, and Notre Dame is No. 1 in the country in unadjusted offensive efficiency. So why aren't Notre Dame fans doing cartwheels? Star receiver Michael Floyd broke his collarbone last week, Clausen and Allen are limping around, and the defense has been gashed in consecutive weeks by Michigan and Michigan State. Purdue is nursing a bruised ego, suffering a head-scratching letdown to Northern Illinois after a valiant defeat to Oregon a week earlier. This is precisely the kind of game the Irish should win easily if they are truly on the path to a return to glory -- and this is precisely the kind of game that has impeded that journey under Weis.

The Picks -- Rob: Purdue | FEI: Notre Dame | S&P+: Purdue

Texas Tech (+1) at No. 17 Houston (Saturday, 9:15 p.m. EST, ESPN2)

Despite lacking nearly all of their defensive ends due to injury and suspension, and despite getting next to nothing from their offense in the first half, the Texas Tech defense kept the Red Raiders in the game against Texas Saturday. They will need to play equally well to avoid back-to-back losses. Ask Oklahoma State how efficiently quarterback Case Keenum runs the Houston offense. Also ask them how strong and steady running back Bryce Beall is, or how dangerous receiver Tyron Carrier can be. Houston needed some good breaks to beat Oklahoma State -- they recovered three Cowboy fumbles and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a deflected pass -- but they will happily take down Tech if the Red Raiders are slow to recover from last week's tough loss.

The Picks -- Rob: Houston | FEI: Tex. Tech | S&P+: Tex. Tech

Storylines of the Week

Rob Weintraub: Three weeks into the college football season, and we are in an unusual position -- no team has been particularly impressive. Florida, thought to be in the company of the great teams of all time, struggled with Tennessee and clearly miss Percy Harvin’s explosiveness. Most other top squads either haven’t been tested yet, like Ole Miss and Penn State; have struggled to find an identity, like Ohio State; or have lost to inferior competition, most infamously USC. Only Miami has performed to universal acclaim, and even the Canes are a dropped touchdown pass away from underachieving. The games have been impossible to pick for your average Joe too, which is why I’ve let my wife do the picking this week. There are few chances for the elite to impress Saturday, but plenty of places for pratfalls (watch out, Cal, Autzen Stadium is a tough place to play).

Brian Fremeau: If you haven't been paying attention, successful onside kick numbers are up. Some kick return teams haven't been paying attention: Michigan State dribbled an onside kick that could have been recovered by the student manager running out to grab the kicking tee last week against Notre Dame. Others have been picture perfect one-two-three hoppers that have set the stage for several dramatic finishes. Combine the onside kicks with fumbles on kickoff and punt returns, and 43 offensive non-garbage possessions have been forfeited by teams on special teams receiving miscues to date. That's almost one for every three games played and a 22-percent bump from the first three weeks last season. Statistical aberration or trend?

Bill Connelly: As the evening games moved toward halftime Saturday night, Georgia led Arkansas 27-21, West Virginia led Auburn 21-20, and Texas led Texas Tech ... 10-3, in a half that saw no offensive touchdowns (this after Nebraska almost beat Virginia Tech earlier in the day without scoring a touchdown at all). What in the name of Tommy Tuberville is going on around here? SEC teams can't stop scoring, and Big 12 teams are starting to figure out this whole "defense" thing? Luckily Mississippi State and Vanderbilt were still around to guide the punt parade, or else the country might have truly lost its bearings, its offensive and defensive equilibrium.

Picks and Projections

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Rob FEI S&P+
Ole Miss -3 South Carolina South Carolina South Carolina Ole Miss
North Carolina +2.5 Georgia Tech Georgia Tech Georgia Tech Georgia Tech
Southern Miss +14 Kansas Southern Miss Southern Miss Southern Miss
Arkansas +15.5 Alabama Alabama Alabama Arkansas
California -7 Oregon Oregon Oregon Oregon*
Miami-FL -2.5 Virginia Tech Miami Virginia Tech Virginia Tech
TCU +3 Clemson Clemson Clemson Clemson
Iowa +10 Penn State Penn State* Iowa* Penn State
Notre Dame -7.5 Purdue Purdue Notre Dame Purdue
Texas Tech +1 Houston Houston Texas Tech Texas Tech
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
  Last Week Season Total
S&P+: 5-5-0 1-0-0 19-11-0 (2-1-0)
FEI: 1-9-0 0-1-0 13-17-0 (1-2-0)
Rob: 3-7-0 0-1-0 8-22-0 (0-3-0)

Remember to discuss games all weekend long on our new college football discussion board.

Posted by: The Outsiders on 24 Sep 2009

18 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2009, 5:03pm by Todd S.

Comments

1
by Will :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 2:17pm

I'm really starting to buy in to the S&P+ method.

Will

12
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 8:18pm

I think S&P+ might have an advantage over FEI early on in the season. There haven't been enough drives to get a serious sample yet, but there've been a lot of plays.

I still think that stats are going to be misleading until you get enough of a sample of similarly-matched teams. Teams don't always do the same thing when they play heavily-overmatched teams. Even when the game might be considered "competitive."

2
by ninerbeliever (not verified) :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 2:25pm

Oregon can't pass, and Cal is great against the run. How do they score again? Then again OU's defense is solid plus at oregon. I am weighing between a few long Best runs vs Cals horrible special teams. Got to go with Best

6
by zlionsfan :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 3:49pm

I don't know, Oregon struggled mightily with an average (or below-average) Purdue team in Eugene. I was also surprised to see that everyone went with Oregon ...

Also, what's with "Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division II) Northern Iowa"? That's just going to confuse people further. FCS is not DII; DII is still around. FCS is I-AA. If you meant that Northern Iowa was formerly a DII school, yes they were ... but not since 1980.

7
by Brian Fremeau :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 4:05pm

The 1-AA error has been corrected. Good catch.

17
by beargoggles :: Fri, 09/25/2009 - 3:25pm

Yikes, 7 is a lot of points. Figure in that Oregon is guaranteed to try an onside kick against Alamar's sleepy Cal ST, and I have some nerves. But I really like the Cal defense against the Ducks.

3
by Eddo :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 2:36pm

Conflicting locks? I love it.

4
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 2:37pm

4-6 (0-1) last week, and ruing my pick of the Longhorns instead of Cincinnati as the Edelstein lock of the week. 15-15 (1-2) on the year feels a little bit better looking at the numbers above, but still not great.

This week: Ole Miss, UNC, Kansas, Alabama, Cal, Miami*, TCU, Penn State, Purdue, and, much as it pains me, Texas Tech. Tempted to make the Horned Frogs the lock on my "road dog pick against you three" theory, but instead I'll go with the Hurricanes to keep showing the rest of CFB what a talented team with a quarterback and an actual offensive coach can achieve.

5
by socctty :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 3:32pm

I love the conflicting locks as well (h/t to #3). Could someone point me in the direction of an explanation for SP+? I'm guessing it stands for pread/points+ or something along those lines?

11
by Bill Connelly :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 5:03pm

The fastest way to get to know S&P+ is to read the S&P entry here: http://footballoutsiders.com/info/glossary

Then read this Varsity Numbers column: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/varsity-numbers/2009/varsity-numbers-lo...

I just try to boil the S&P+ rating down to a point value, then base the spread picks off of that (while applying a bit of a home-field advantage). So far so good, I guess.

8
by robwein (not verified) :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 4:30pm

I can explain the conflicting locks, in part--I use no statistical-based method, and have clearly proven that I'm an idiot or a curse or whatever when it comes to picking games. At least I can cling to the "what a strange season" line of thinking.
RW

9
by Eddo :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 4:46pm

Oh, I understand it, and I wasn't meaning to be snarky. I am just entertained by it, that's all.

14
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 10:28pm

8-22? My God. That's starting to become serious. You really should consider declaring that you're reversing all of your picks at some point, just to see if you can game the universe.

10
by Dean :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 4:50pm

Having seen both Miami and Virginia Tech, I'd be pretty surprised if the 'Canes don't win impressively. I realize they're the designated flavor of the week, and they're quickly going from underhyped to overhyped, but they should handle Tech.

13
by Rover (not verified) :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 8:41pm

I am guessing that by year's end, no one will say Jahvid Best is the best in the country at his position except as mirthful word play.

From what I've seen, he goes down easily when contact is made & isn't real shifty or jukey. He reads holes very well and is very fast, 2 important skills. That's a very good RB, but without being able to name any, I bet there are better. Time will tell.

S+P is 19-11; that is no joke.

15
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 10:30pm

19-11 is still within 1 sigma of 0.500. Rob, however, is starting to venture into the real of impressive.

16
by sam :: Thu, 09/24/2009 - 11:00pm

I think the fact Florida beat Tennessee essentially without Riley Cooper, Deonte Thompson, Arron Hernandez or Jeff Demps is kind of impressive. That's their 2 starting wideouts, their starting pass-catching TE and one of the 2 main pieces of their RB tandem. Oh, and Brandon Spikes (MLB) got hurt during the game. Not making excuses, but there was never a moment in that game where you thought Tennessee had a chance and to do that shorthanded sounds good to me.

--
sam! or the original sam from the old FO

18
by Todd S. :: Fri, 09/25/2009 - 5:03pm

"Combine the onside kicks with fumbles on kickoff and punt returns, and 43 offensive non-garbage possessions have been forfeited by teams on special teams receiving miscues to date. That's almost one for every three games played and a 22-percent bump from the first three weeks last season. Statistical aberration or trend?"

It's neither an aberration nor a trend. It's returner Aaron Valentin of Purdue. (His first punt return went for a TD against NIU. Later in the game he had back-to-back fumbles. To top it off, a linebacker (Werner) collected a roughing the punter penalty to negate a third Purdue possession later in the game.