Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» OFI: SEC Surprises

In an opening week where even the elite teams in college football looked mortal, the SEC had two big surprises in Texas A&M and Georgia defeating their South Carolinian opponents by big scores.

24 Nov 2011

SDA: Can't Miss

by Brian Fremeau and Robert Weintraub

There certainly has been plenty of college football stories that have been negative this year, but there is plenty to be thankful for as well. This weekend is one of those "can't miss" weekends on the gridiron, with plenty on the line. For the sake of the kickers, let's hope they can't miss as well.

Where to begin? As good as Houston has been this year, they still need to wrap up Conference USA. Penn State and Wisconsin clash for the Leaders division title in the Big Ten. UCLA, yes UCLA, can win the Pac-12 South. Virginia and Virginia Tech play for the ACC Coastal division. Michigan and Stanford have the chance to lay claim to a BCS bowl game. There's also the annual ACC-SEC challenge, featuring Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State and Wake Forest-Vanderbilt. Those rivalries mean something no matter what, and our FEI, S&P+, and F/+ rating systems love those interconference data points.

Oh yeah, the Iron Bowl kind of has a lot riding on it on Saturday, and the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the country are playing on Friday in Baton Rouge. Just a couple of games that have BCS national title implications for everyone. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Previews

No. 8 Houston (-3.5) at Tulsa (Friday, 12:00 PM ET, FSN)

OVERALL When Houston
Has the Ball ...
When Tulsa
Has the Ball ...
Category Houston
(11-0)
Tulsa
(8-3)
Houston
Off
Tulsa
Def
Houston
Def
Tulsa
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 21 38 4 34 77 40
2011 FEI Rk 32 51 6 55 66 46
2011 S&P+ Rk 22 20 5 24 73 22
2011 FPA Rk 39 51
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 30 16 104 38
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 9 32 89 27
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 16 29 72 36
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
43.0% Run
(116th)
62.2% Run
(44th)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 4 41 110 29
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
27.8% Run
(91st)
35.8% Run
(39th)

There are two undefeated teams in the Conference USA West division, and neither one has been particularly challenged in league play. The difference in record between 11-0 Houston and 8-3 Tulsa has very little to do with those games and everything to do with the non-conference schedules of the Cougars and Golden Hurricane. While Tulsa was taking its licks in the toughest non-conference slate we’ve ever measured (at Oklahoma, vs. Oklahoma State, at Boise State), Houston escaped UCLA and Louisiana Tech. Case Keenum has been prolific all season long, leading the nation in passing yards per game (388) and touchdowns (38), and he's only thrown three interceptions. Tulsa has picked off 16 passes this year, and their offense can capitalize as well. The Golden Hurricane has run for more than 200 yards in each of its last three games. If they can have that kind of production against Houston and keep Keenum off the field, Tulsa can win.

No. 3 Arkansas (+11.5) at No. 1 LSU (Friday, 2:30 PM ET, CBS)

OVERALL When Arkansas
Has the Ball ...
When LSU
Has the Ball ...
Category Arkansas
(10-1)
LSU
(11-0)
Arkansas
Off
LSU
Def
Arkansas
Def
LSU
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 11 1 13 1 38 3
2011 FEI Rk 6 1 16 2 42 21
2011 S&P+ Rk 23 2 11 1 52 9
2011 FPA Rk 22 2
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 17 1 51 11
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 13 1 59 2
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 12 1 62 5
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
49.5% Run
(106th)
75.7% Run
(eighth)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 11 3 19 7
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
29.8% Run
(80th)
42.9% Run
(14th)

If you enjoyed the 2007 season, when LSU lost the day after Thanksgiving at home to Arkansas, yet played for and won the BCS championship anyway, then pay attention, for it could happen again. The Tigers are second in the country in yards and points allowed, and have been the most physical team in recent memory. Their dominance, and the win at Tuscaloosa back when the month started, has given them an unassailable position in the computers. Even a loss at home to the No. 3 team in the polls, Arkansas, may not be enough to pry LSU from the big game over in New Orleans. Arkansas has had a few tight wins over mediocre opposition, and were nearly snapped in half by Alabama, but their offense still poses the biggest threat LSU has faced since the opener against Oregon. Tyler Wilson has made most Hogs fans forget Ryan Mallett, throwing 21 touchdowns and only three picks. Joe Adams leads a corps of downfield threats that pose a big threat to mortal teams. But LSU's secondary could be taken whole and dropped into an NFL roster without missing a beat, while its pass rush is, if anything, more ferocious than Alabama's. The Hogs will have an emotional edge after the death of freshman tight end Garrett Uekman last weekend, and a daylight edge as well -- any game at Tiger Stadium that is during the day is an advantage to the opponent, given LSU's record at night (only one loss since 2002 and roughly a .775 winning percentage since they started playing after dark).

No. 13 Georgia (-6) at Georgia Tech (Saturday, 12:00 PM ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Georgia
Has the Ball ...
When Georgia Tech
Has the Ball ...
Category Georgia
(9-2)
Ga. Tech
(8-3)
Georgia
Off
Ga. Tech
Def
Georgia
Def
Ga. Tech
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 23 25 24 55 24 14
2011 FEI Rk 36 21 37 46 24 5
2011 S&P+ Rk 11 24 42 54 8 14
2011 FPA Rk 63 76
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 95 88 12 9
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 6 31 16 25
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 27 82 7 25
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
60.3% Run
(54th)
87.6% Run
(second)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 61 68 18 18
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
50.2% Run
(sixth)
61.1% Run
(third)

Georgia's defense has been the key to its nine-game winning streak, and its 3-4 is the sort of defense primed to slow Tech's triple-option. In Jonathan Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, the Dawgs have a pair of run stuffers in the middle, and the fleet linebackers, led by Butkus Award candidate Jarvis Jones, can chase down the option pitches on the flanks. If Tech has an edge, it is in motivation -- UGA has bigger fish to fry next week, namely the SEC Championship game. These schools loathe one another, but Tech can fire all its guns on Saturday, while the Dawgs need to save a little something. With lead running back Isaiah Crowell increasingly brittle, UGA may look to quarterback Aaron Murray and superb frosh wideout Malcom Mitchell to win this one. For Tech to succeed, it needs to play better defense than it has of late. Tech has surrendered over six yards per play the last two weeks, and neither Virginia Tech nor Duke have the weaponry UGA can deploy. Al Groh's defense will have to at least approximate the one coached across the way by Todd Grantham, or it will be another long year of taunting from the state school and its loud alumni.

Ohio State (+7.5) at No. 17 Michigan (Saturday, 12:00 PM ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Ohio State
Has the Ball ...
When Michigan
Has the Ball ...
Category Ohio St.
(6-5)
Michigan
(9-2)
Ohio St.
Off
Michigan
Def
Ohio St.
Def
Michigan
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 29 12 64 18 16 16
2011 FEI Rk 34 8 67 10 12 14
2011 S&P+ Rk 45 10 74 26 20 10
2011 FPA Rk 9 17
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 32 25 21 4
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 109 22 18 22
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 74 16 23 9
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
77.9% Run
(seventh)
74.1% Run
(ninth)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 35 48 23 16
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
43.7% Run
(12th)
41.2% Run
(18th)

Okay, so our F/+ numbers predicted at the beginning of the year that Ohio State and Michigan would meet again in the Big Ten championship game one week after this one. There aren’t any conference divisions to be claimed, but Michigan still has a shot at earning a BCS bowl invite at the conclusion of an impressive first year for Brady Hoke. The Wolverines weren’t as prolific offensively as they were last season, though Denard Robinson is still doing his part. The really remarkable turnaround has been defensively. A year after allowing teams to do as they please offensively, Michigan moved up nearly 100 spots in our defensive F/+ ratings (No. 115 to No. 18) and have held seven opponents to 17 points or less. Ohio State can move the ball a little better now that wide receiver Devier Posey is back in the lineup, and perhaps they’ll rally around Luke Fickell in his final game as head coach. Michigan has home field and more to play for, however, and we expect they’ll deliver.

No. 2 Alabama (-21) at Auburn (Saturday, 3:30 PM ET, CBS)

OVERALL When Alabama
Has the Ball ...
When Auburn
Has the Ball ...
Category Alabama
(10-1)
Auburn
(7-4)
Alabama
Off
Auburn
Def
Alabama
Def
Auburn
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 2 64 8 79 2 63
2011 FEI Rk 3 72 18 92 4 48
2011 S&P+ Rk 1 67 3 77 2 53
2011 FPA Rk 15 13
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 1 76 2 41
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 3 75 2 38
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 1 71 2 42
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
62.6% Run
(42nd)
74.0% Run
(10th)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 9 86 1 33
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
43.8% Run
(11th)
35.3% Run
(43rd)

After the 2009 and 2010 editions of the Iron Bowl, few will be surprised if the less talented side (Auburn) throws a scare into the BCS hopeful (Alabama). The last two times these teams met, the underdog flashed out to a big early lead, only to be run down by the favorites in dramatic fashion. On paper, this should more closely resemble the 2008 game, when Bama sent Tommy Tuberville into exile with a 36-0 beatdown. The Tide sports the top-ranked defense in the country against a spread option attack that has sputtered against good teams, averaging only 14 points against top-25 squads. The Tigers were pummeled two weeks ago by Georgia, who are a JV version of the Tide. Auburn's defense has struggled against all comers, and will have its hands full with Trent Richardson, who will hope to burnish his Heisman candidacy with a big game. Bama quarterback A.J. McCarron has been the steady hand he's asked to be -- he beat Auburn's former starter, Barrett Trotter, in the high school state championship game two years ago. But the Tigers' new starter, Clint Moseley, has three Alabama state titles to his name ... albeit in a smaller division. All will soon find that the Iron Bowl is the only state title that really matters, and it matters more than any game they'll ever be a part of.

No. 6 Virginia Tech (-4) at No. 24 Virginia (Saturday, 3:30 PM ET, ABC/ESPN2)

OVERALL When Virginia Tech
Has the Ball ...
When Virginia
Has the Ball ...
Category Va. Tech
(10-1)
Virginia
(8-3)
Va. Tech
Off
Virginia
Def
Va. Tech
Def
Virginia
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 15 44 19 42 17 39
2011 FEI Rk 13 28 26 19 22 39
2011 S&P+ Rk 9 53 30 27 10 71
2011 FPA Rk 34 106
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 48 20 42 67
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 28 47 4 84
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 39 19 26 84
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
65.7% Run
(27th)
60.7% Run
(52nd)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 69 38 4 78
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
40.5% Run
(20th)
33.9% Run
(53rd)

This is uncharted terrain for the Cavs, who usually are playing this game merely for bragging rights. This time, a division title and a spot in the ACC championship game are at stake. UVA has never appeared in the conference title game, and to beat their in-state rivals and earn a trip to Charlotte, it must find a way to slow Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, who has run roughshod over the opposition of late. During the Hokies' six-game winning streak, Thomas has run for eight scores and passed for 12 more. Tech's defense, while not quite the howling unit of yore, has been plenty tough: they're tenth in the nation in points allowed (16.8). The Wahoos have been tight on defense as well, giving up only 20.8 points per game, and coach Mike London has the team playing a punishing brand of ball, as opposed to the spa-like atmosphere under previous regimes. Running backs Perry Jones and Kerry Parks need to keep banging away at that Hokies run defense, which has allowed nearly 160 yards per game over the last three games. If they can keep it close, UVA might not regret bringing their in-state rivals to the ACC for once.

No. 20 Penn State (+15) at No. 15 Wisconsin (Saturday, 3:30 PM ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Penn State
Has the Ball ...
When Wisconsin
Has the Ball ...
Category Penn St.
(9-2)
Wiscy
(9-2)
Penn St.
Off
Wiscy
Def
Penn St.
Def
Wiscy
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 19 6 59 25 3 1
2011 FEI Rk 20 4 62 27 5 3
2011 S&P+ Rk 17 4 79 28 3 1
2011 FPA Rk 19 23
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 46 53 9 5
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 86 36 3 1
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 90 61 3 3
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
64.2% Run
(32nd)
70.0% Run
(19th)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 37 10 12 2
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
38.7% Run
(27th)
42.7% Run
(16th)

Michigan State has already punched its ticket to the Big Ten championship game, and the Leaders division is on the line in Madison, between Penn State and Wisconsin. Perhaps more than any other team in the country, the Badgers have to be lamenting two plays -– back-to-back end-of-game touchdown heaves at that –- that cost them the chance to be right in the mix for a BCS national title berth. Their outstanding offense (No. 1 in points per drive, 4.1) is still right in contention for other hardware, with quarterback Russell Wilson (No. 1 in completion percentage) and running back Montee Ball (25 touchdowns rushing, five receiving) both on the short list for an invite to the Heisman ceremony. Penn State is the toughest defense they’ll have faced this year, but they won’t need to be terribly productive. The rushing game led by Silas Redd punched Ohio State a bit last week, but the Nittany Lions probably don’t have enough offensive horsepower to make Wisconsin sweat too much.

No. 18 Clemson (+4) at No. 14 South Carolina (Saturday, 7:45 PM ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Clemson
Has the Ball ...
When S. Carolina
Has the Ball ...
Category Clemson
(9-2)
S. Caro.
(9-2)
Clemson
Off
S. Caro.
Def
Clemson
Def
S. Caro.
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 30 43 15 14 66 49
2011 FEI Rk 17 37 19 15 26 64
2011 S&P+ Rk 47 28 26 17 67 49
2011 FPA Rk 50 75
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 62 55 93 24
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 12 6 44 75
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 34 18 79 38
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
57.1% Run
(77th)
67.0% Run
(22nd)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 22 40 31 53
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
26.3% Run
(97th)
37.7% Run
(29th)

Six weeks ago, this was shaping up to be a potential battle of top-five teams. Then Marcus Lattimore got hurt, Clemson remembered it was Clemson, and we're left with a good-but-not-great Palmetto Bowl. On the injury front, super-frosh Sammy Watkins should play for the Tigers, who desperately missed their speedy playmaker in the blowout loss to North Carolina State. Watkins and quarterback Tahj Boyd will try to move the ball against the Gamecocks stingy defense, which ranks 15th in the nation in points allowed. The reverse matchup is of weaker units. Clemson's defense, led by Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson, have been disappointing this season, with only 20 sacks while allowing 27 points per game. The South Carolina offense struggled even with Lattimore, and averaged only 16.5 points per game in the four conference games before last week's rubdown against the Citadel.

No. 23 Notre Dame (+7) at No. 4 Stanford (Saturday, 8:00 PM ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Notre Dame
Has the Ball ...
When Stanford
Has the Ball ...
Category Irish
(8-3)
Stanford
(10-1)
Irish
Off
Stanford
Def
Irish
Def
Stanford
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 9 13 17 35 19 7
2011 FEI Rk 16 10 12 17 21 13
2011 S&P+ Rk 8 13 13 33 14 8
2011 FPA Rk 79 59
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 7 47 3 26
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 20 23 42 16
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 17 25 17 8
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
54.0% Run
(90th)
58.6% Run
(65th)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 6 50 45 30
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
28.0% Run
(89th)
35.8% Run
(40th)

Head coach David Shaw started barking a bit this week about the BCS and Stanford’s outside-looking-in position in the standings. Certainly Stanford’s lone loss to Oregon compares favorably among the other flawed contenders for the title game, but it is their lack of a strong resume of wins that has the Cardinal fighting an uphill battle. Shaw’s campaigning is fine as long as they don’t overlook the Irish. Notre Dame has been an F/+ darling all season, featuring a top-10 rushing offense and rushing defense according to S&P+. ND’s two-headed backfield is down to one with Jonas Gray out with an ACL, so it will be up to Cierre Wood (1,001 yards, nine touchdowns) to lead the way on the ground. As with every Irish game this year, quarterback Tommy Rees needs only to eliminate turnovers for Notre Dame to be fine. Even if Notre Dame plays well, however, Stanford’s can control the line of scrimmage, and Andrew Luck’s precision can pick apart a vulnerable ND pass defense. Will the Cardinal be motivated and focused to roll over Notre Dame in their final opportunity to impress voters?

UCLA (+14.5) at No. 10 USC (Saturday, 10:00 PM ET, FSN)

OVERALL When UCLA
Has the Ball ...
When USC
Has the Ball ...
Category UCLA
(6-5)
USC
(9-2)
UCLA
Off
USC
Def
UCLA
Def
USC
Off
2011 F/+ Rk 74 14 48 45 93 9
2011 FEI Rk 78 7 36 30 102 9
2011 S&P+ Rk 61 19 34 34 85 17
2011 FPA Rk 66 24
2011 Rushing S&P+ Rk 33 34 105 28
2011 Passing S&P+ Rk 19 25 56 15
2011 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 22 44 76 14
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
69.7% Run
(20th)
51.5% Run
(103rd)
2011 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 63 33 55 41
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
40.2% Run
(23rd)
35.2% Run
(45th)

Rick Neuheisel has to be sitting on the warmest seat ever occupied by a coach on the verge of winning a conference division title. The Pac-12 south has been an adventure this year, and the Bruins are inexplicably one win away from clinching it –- outright, in fact, not just because USC is ineligible to play in the conference title game. There’s little hope, of course, of UCLA derailing the Trojans unless they are still coming down from the high of last week’s win over Oregon. USC has played as well as anyone in the nation in the second half of the season, and quarterback Matt Barkley has played his best in big games – 24-of-35 with three touchdowns at Notre Dame, 28-of-45 with three touchdowns versus Stanford, and 26-of-34 with four touchdowns against Oregon. The Trojans feed the ball on the ground to Curtis McNeil and Mark Tyler (1,418 yards and nine touchdowns combined), a weak spot for UCLA.

Storylines of the Week

Robert Weintraub: Forget the tryptophan and the in-laws -- this is rivalry weekend in college football. Games all across the nation over the next three days will pit culture versus agriculture and neighbor versus neighbor, sometimes even cleaving family members apart for three hours. In other words: it's the best weekend of the year, so enjoy.

Brian Fremeau: We have a veritable feast of football games this weekend, so many that we didn’t even find room to include three rivalry games that almost always earn a spot in the SDA. West Virginia hosts Pittsburgh in the annual Backyard Brawl, attempting to win a third game in a row in the series, something neither team has done since the mid-1990s. It’s also the first Brawl after the recent announcements that Pitt and WVU will no longer be conference mates in the near future. Speaking of conference divorces, Texas and Texas A&M get together as conference-mates for the last time (maybe ever, maybe not) tonight. And Florida State and Florida don’t have as much riding on their annual finale as usual, but good old fashioned hate is all any of these games really need anyway.

Picks

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Rob F/+
Houston -3.5 Tulsa Tulsa Tulsa
Arkansas +11.5 LSU LSU LSU
Georgia -6 Ga. Tech Georgia Ga. Tech
Ohio St. +7.5 Michigan Michigan* Michigan
Alabama -21 Auburn Alabama Alabama
Va. Tech -4 Virginia Va. Tech Va. Tech
Penn St. +15 Wisconsin Penn St. Penn St.
Clemson +4 S. Carolina Clemson Clemson
Notre Dame +7 Stanford Stanford Notre Dame
UCLA +14.5 USC USC USC*
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
Last Week
Season Total
F/+: 6-4 (1-0) 60-59-1 (6-6)
Rob: 4-6 (0-1) 64-55-1 (6-5-1)

Posted by: Brian Fremeau on 24 Nov 2011

5 comments, Last at 26 Nov 2011, 10:53pm by Sid

Comments

1
by Tom Gower :: Fri, 11/25/2011 - 10:04pm

Annoyed I missed the easy, and I would've taken it even if it was improbable, Houston counter-consensus pick. I also would've picked LSU. C'est la vie.

Georgia, Ohio State, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin, Clemson, Stanford, USC. Ohio State, Auburn, and Wisconsin are counter-consensus picks, and I'll go with the Tigers as my Edelstein lock.

2
by Jim Kimber (not verified) :: Sat, 11/26/2011 - 4:40pm

Why does the Auburn crowd wear red when the team plays in blue? (Excuse ignorance but have only been following college football a few years - live in UK). Thanks!

3
by Tom Gower :: Sat, 11/26/2011 - 6:42pm

Auburn wears blue and orange, and most of their fans wear orange. Alabama wears red (crimson).

4
by Sid :: Sat, 11/26/2011 - 8:13pm

As of now, Stanford doesn't deserve real consideration for the title game due to their pathetic schedule. Oregon was the best team they played, and they lost pretty badly to them. Their only impressive win was over USC. Otherwise, you have Duke, San Jose State, Colorado, Arizona...

If they beat ND convincingly, they can enter the conversation.

5
by Sid :: Sat, 11/26/2011 - 10:53pm

"The Pac-12 south has been an adventure this year, and the Bruins are inexplicably one win away from clinching it –- outright, in fact, not just because USC is ineligible to play in the conference title game. "

UCLA clinched it now. They don't need to win anymore.

They play in the conference championship against Oregon.