Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Futures: UCLA QB Brett Hundley

Beyond the immediate considerations of Hundley's potential, the quarterback's tape raises larger questions about the position.

02 Nov 2012

SDA: Battle of the Titans

by Matt Hinton

For the second year in a row, the winner-take-all slugfest between Alabama and LSU is the most important game of the regular season in terms of the polls and the pecking order for the BCS Championship Game. But its status on that front also puts the rivalry front and center in what might be called college football's ongoing culture wars, pitting the SEC against the rest of the country on one hand, and the old school against the new on the other. For a sizable segment of the country, Alabama-LSU is an argument: This is how the game is supposed to be played.

In terms of hardware, it's hard to argue: the Tigers and Crimson Tide have accounted for three of the SEC's six consecutive BCS titles since 2006, and embody better than any other outfits the league's emphasis on deep, dominant defensive lines above all else. In terms of talent, it's impossible to argue: between them, LSU and Alabama lost 13 players in the 2012 Draft, nine of them on defense, eight of them going in the first two rounds, and the departures have made almost no discernible difference. They may very well exceed those numbers in 2013. They're mirror images, dominant programs forged from the same old-school, blue-chip blueprint, and when they come together, the result is nearly unwatchable.

Last year, it took them nearly two full games of merciless trench warfare before one side finally crossed the goal line, on a 34-yard gallop by Alabama's Trent Richardson in the dying minutes of the BCS Championship Game. Not only was a touchdown beside the point; by that stage, it was almost dishonest. From the moment the rematch of a 9-6 field goal-fest in the regular season became official, the basic argument seemed to be that scoring amounted to a lot of fancy window dressing.

That was obvious enough to the viewing public after LSU's win in November that they tuned out of the rematch in January in record numbers. This weekend, the competition for primetime eyeballs includes a much-anticipated Oregon-USC showdown in the Pac-12 that is guaranteed to feature more points than punts. (Ditto a crucial Kansas State-Oklahoma State match-up in the Big 12, also kicking off in primetime.) Either of those games, or both, will probably turn out to be more fun than Alabama-LSU, which promises to be about as fun as watching someone in a car crash, or being bludgeoned with a bag of nickels. Until further notice, though –- that is, until an Oregon, USC or Kansas State ends the SEC's run in the BCS -– such is the state of heavyweight championship football.

No. 16 Texas A&M (-7) at No. 15 Mississippi State (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Texas A&M
Has the Ball ...
When Mississippi St.
Has the Ball ...
Category A&M
(6-2)
MSU
(7-1)
A&M
Off
MSU
Def
A&M
Def
MSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 8 52
2012 FEI Rk 9 56
2012 S&P+ Rk 6 34 3 32 17 36
2012 FPA 49 46
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 1 50 12 44
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 17 22 29 30
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 14 62 33 60
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
54.5% Run
(91)
58.0% Run
(68)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 2 13 43 13
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
35.2% Run
(47)
36.4% Run
(39)

Gamblers jumped all over this line early in the week, moving the high-powered Aggies from mere 2.5-point favorites on the road to plus-7 in a matter of days -– quite a leap of faith for a redshirt freshman quarterback going into the most underrated environment in the SEC, even if that quarterback is Johnny "Football" Manziel. It could also be an overreaction to last week, when Texas A&M obliterated Auburn at the same time Mississippi State was getting its teeth kicked in at Alabama in the first Bulldogs loss of the season. But everyone gets their teeth kicked in by Bama, and right now, just about everybody obliterates Auburn: the Tigers are 0-6 in SEC play. losing by an average margin of a little over 17 points per game.

Meanwhile, we've already seen A&M struggle on the road to put away Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss. After blowing double-digit leads against the only other ranked teams on its schedule, Florida and LSU -– both at home -– Mississippi State is another reality check.

TCU (+5) at No. 21 West Virginia (Saturday, 3:00 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When TCU
Has the Ball ...
When West Virginia
Has the Ball ...
Category TCU
(5-3)
WVU
(5-2)
TCU
Off
WVU
Def
TCU
Def
WVU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 39 62
2012 FEI Rk 34 70
2012 S&P+ Rk 45 31 54 69 39 10
2012 FPA 11 82
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 91 30 14 24
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 35 86 71 10
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 72 65 31 5
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
59.6% Run
(58)
45.7% Run
(116)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 32 56 19 37
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
36.6% Run
(37)
25.0% Run
(103)

At the end of September, TCU was 4-0, ranked in the top 15, and the owner of the nation's longest winning streak, at 12 games. In October, the Horned Frogs lost their starting quarterback, then lost three of their next four, as many games as they lost from 2009-11 combined. Meanwhile, after the first weekend in October, West Virginia was 5-0, ranked fifth, and beginning to harbor serious national ambitions both for the team and for its prolific quarterback, Geno Smith. From there, the Mountaineers dropped two straight by a combined 76 points, and dropped off the national map. Welcome to the Zoloft Bowl.

Most concerning for TCU last week at Oklahoma State was the return of the turnover bug that the Frogs had seemed to overcome after giving the ball away five times in their first loss, at the hands of Iowa State. It may have been a month since we've seen West Virginia light a secondary on fire, but that doesn't make it a good idea to hand Smith a bottle of kerosene.

No. 20 Nebraska (-1.5) at Michigan State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ABC/ESPN2)

OVERALL When Nebraska
Has the Ball ...
When Michigan State
Has the Ball ...
Category Nebraska
(6-2)
State
(5-4)
Nebraska
Off
State
Def
Nebraska
Def
State
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 14 13
2012 FEI Rk 21 17
2012 S&P+ Rk 14 9 11 4 21 69
2012 FPA 121 74
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 5 1 20 82
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 19 8 28 56
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 8 1 23 80
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
68.3% Run
(20)
57.9% Run
(71)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 62 12 6 59
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
37.2% Run
(33)
24.9% Run
(105)

Michigan State successfully threw the brakes on a midseason slump last week in a predictably lo-fi overtime upset at Wisconsin, which may qualify as the most thrilling game in the Big Ten this season despite featuring just two touchdowns in regulation. Meanwhile, Nebraska took a giant step toward separating itself from the pack in the "Legends" Division by throttling Michigan, 23-9, on the heels of a come-from-behind 29-28 win at Northwestern. With those two victories in their pocket, the Cornhuskers control their own destiny for the Big Ten title game, but they also have no margin for error on the road.

Ole Miss (+14) at No. 6 Georgia (Saturday, 3:30 pm. ET, CBS)

OVERALL When Ole Miss
Has the Ball ...
When Georgia
Has the Ball ...
Category Ole Miss
(5-3)
Georgia
(7-1)
Ole Miss
Off
Georgia
Def
Ole Miss
Def
Georgia
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 50 22
2012 FEI Rk 62 27
2012 S&P+ Rk 27 22 15 45 43 9
2012 FPA 105 37
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 22 39 43 21
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 12 66 46 5
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 50 34 44 1
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
62.6% Run
(40)
60.2% Run
(53)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 17 46 31 39
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
34.0% Run
(54)
42.6% Run
(17)

Say this for Georgia fans: As high as they were after last week's validating, season-making upset over Florida in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, they've been in the SEC long enough to know a "trap game" when they see one, and Ole Miss fits the criteria to a tee. After two years as the West Division doormat, the Rebels have rallied under first-year coach Hugh Freeze, taking back-to-back games over Auburn and Arkansas to move to 5-3, on the heels of much closer-than-expected losses to Texas A&M and Alabama. (Ole Miss led A&M in the fourth quarter, and is the only team this season to actually hold a lead on the Crimson Tide, however brief.) If it can avoid the hangover, the only thing standing between Georgia and a return to the SEC Championship Game will be the most hapless, lame-duck edition of Auburn in at least 50 years. But the Rebels will not be nearly such an easy out.

Pittsburgh (+17) at No. 3 Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. NBC)

OVERALL When Pittsburgh
Has the Ball ...
When Notre Dame
Has the Ball ...
Category Pittsburgh
(4-4)
Irish
(8-0)
Pittsburgh
Off
Irish
Def
Pittsburgh
Def
Irish
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 54 3
2012 FEI Rk 52 2
2012 S&P+ Rk 71 4 57 9 88 6
2012 FPA 50 80
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 90 6 95 3
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 42 13 73 11
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 57 7 83 2
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
63.4% Run
(37)
63.3% Run
(38)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 25 15 76 14
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
29.3% Run
(80)
44.9% Run
(12)

Pitt has been all over the map under first-year head coach Paul Chryst, somehow trampling Virginia Tech in between equally head-scratching losses to Youngstown State and Syracuse, and it doesn't help that the Panthers' leading rusher and leading receiver have been charged with assault the day before the toughest road trip of the year. (For the record, neither player has been arrested, both have denied the charges, and both expect to play Saturday pending further developments.) Notre Dame, on the other hand, has been brutally consistent over the course of its eight-game winning streak, holding all eight victims to 17 points or less while topping 20 points itself just three times. With this defense, it doesn't take a big margin on the scoreboard for a win to qualify as "decisive."

No. 23 Texas (+6.5) at No. 18 Texas Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2)

OVERALL When Texas
Has the Ball ...
When Texas Tech
Has the Ball ...
Category Texas
(6-2)
Tech
(6-2)
Texas
Off
Tech
Def
Texas
Def
Tech
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 27 24
2012 FEI Rk 32 25
2012 S&P+ Rk 28 17 24 26 31 13
2012 FPA 2 87
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 4 52 54 25
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 50 18 23 16
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 16 14 45 15
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
65.4% Run
(32)
42.7% Run
(121)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 33 22 18 12
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
27.9% Run
(91)
32.1% Run
(68)

You have to go way, way back to find the last time anyone needed much convincing that Texas Tech was smart money to beat Texas, but this time around gamblers are doubling down on the Red Raiders: since Tech opened as a 2.5-point favorite, lopsided betting has moved the spread a full five points in favor of the home team. Not only does the money think the Raiders are going to win: it doesn't think it's going to be all that close.

Uninspiring as the Longhorns were in the month of October, though, they still managed to limp out with a 6-2 record off back-to-back wins, and have proven themselves on the road in wins at Ole Miss and Oklahoma State in September. Meanwhile, Texas Tech was last seen being trounced by 31 points at Kansas State, a sobering reality check on the heels of a 6-1 start, and one which must have sparked at least a few fleeting flashbacks to last year's November collapse on the heels of a 5-2 start. Texas' cameo in that skid came in a 52-20 beatdown in Austin in which the Longhorns piled up 439 yards rushing and scored every time they touched the ball. The gap has obviously closed since then, and the trajectories of both teams' seasons over the final may hinge on by how much.

No. 4 Oregon (-8) at No. 17 USC (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When Oregon
Has the Ball ...
When USC
Has the Ball ...
Category Oregon
(8-0)
USC
(6-2)
Oregon
Off
USC
Def
Oregon
Def
USC
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 2 21
2012 FEI Rk 4 13
2012 S&P+ Rk 2 32 2 46 2 20
2012 FPA 15 28
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 2 60 5 33
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 14 36 2 15
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 9 36 28 27
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
66.5% Run
(25)
51.3% Run
(108)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 42 79 9 22
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
56.3% Run
(5)
32.3% Run
(64)

In the biggest, most important sense, voters were clearly wrong when they used USC's impressive November surge in 2011 as a pretense to vault the Trojans to No. 1 in the preseason polls: the Trojans have yet to look like a frontrunner against legitimate competition, and last week's turnover-marred, 39-36 loss at Arizona guaranteed that they will not be one down the stretch. Ironically enough, though, the loss was also the best exhibition this year for the firepower that put them on top in the first place -– namely, sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee, who obliterated a Pac-12 record with 345 yards on 21.6 yards per catch, personally accounting for 70 percent of Matt Barkley's career-high 493 yards passing. A week earlier, Barkley set new conference marks for completion percentage and pass efficiency in a blowout win over Colorado; in the same game, junior Robert Woods set USC records for touchdown catches in a game and receptions in a career. Barkley has multiple touchdowns passes in six of USC's eight games.

In that sense, the Trojans still look very much like the up-and-coming outfit that ambushed Oregon last year in Autzen Stadium, where Barkley dropped a 323-yard, four-touchdown bomb that snapped the epic home winning streak of the Ducks and booted them out of the national championship picture. That was the game that sent Barkley's stock (and USC's, for that matter) skyrocketing. The biggest difference from that game to this one, in fact, is probably the Oregon defense, still only a few weeks removed from shutting out the same Arizona offense that just hung 39 on the Trojans. The Ducks usually find themselves ahead by so much, so quickly, that the final stats are badly distorted by garbage time noise. Just stick to these two: 1. Oregon owns the nation's best margin of victory, 34.0 points per game, despite frequently letting its foot off the gas in the second half, and 2. At some point, the Ducks have scored at least 28 consecutive points in every game except one, a 55-21 win over Washington in which they scored 21 consecutive points on two separate occasions. At its explosive best, USC is still just trying to keep pace.

No. 1 Alabama (-8.5) at No. 5 LSU (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, CBS)

OVERALL When Alabama
Has the Ball ...
When LSU
Has the Ball ...
Category Alabama
(8-0)
LSU
(7-1)
Alabama
Off
LSU
Def
Alabama
Def
LSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 1 10
2012 FEI Rk 3 11
2012 S&P+ Rk 1 8 5 6 1 42
2012 FPA 4 9
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 13 11 2 16
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 2 4 1 97
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 12 12 4 23
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
66.0% Run
(29)
70.1% Run
(13)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 1 4 1 77
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
47.1% Run
(9)
29.8% Run
(76)

The glaring difference between the Tigers and Tide since we saw them in the Superdome in January is the unlikely emergence of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron as something other than a savvy, within-the-offense manager under center, and of the Crimson Tide's downfield passing game in general. Before the season, the lack of a consistent big-play threat and/or a quarterback who can keep involved on a weekly basis was supposed to be the one weakness that eventually undercut the Tide's bid for a repeat, as it nearly did last year. McCarron is one of only two regular starters nationally who's yet to throw an interception, and he currently leads the nation in pass efficiency for the second week in a row. His top three receivers, Amari Cooper, Kenny Bell, and Kevin Norwood, average 17.7 yards per catch between them, with multiple touchdowns apiece covering at least 25 yards; the "possession" receiver in the group, Christion Jones, averages just shy of 15 yards per catch.

At least as importantly, McCarron has played in (and won) this game before. His counterpart, Zach Mettenberger has not seen a defense on par with Alabama's, and hasn't looked so hot against the ones he has seen. In four SEC games, Mettenberger has completed fewer than half of his passes (46.2 percent), with a single touchdown and one of the worst efficiency ratings in the league. The Tigers still haven't found a reliable big-play threat, and it might not make much difference if they had.

What LSU does have, of course, is the only defense in the country that can even begin to match Alabama's athletically and statistically –- the Tigers also rank among the top 10 nationally in every relevant category, including turnover margin -– and one that has been particularly ruthless against big plays. In eight games, opposing offenses have completed exactly one pass for longer than 30 yards, fewest in the country. In the loss to Florida, the Tigers didn't give up a single play longer than 17 yards, and that was on an ad-libbed quarterback scramble; no other play for the Gators went for more than 14 yards. Sans a top-ten draft pick at one corner and a Heisman Trophy finalist at the other, the secondary has been brilliant, and the blue-chip pass rush has been as advertised.

Which leaves us more or less back where we started: with two defenses slugging it out against two offenses that are (justifiably) at least as concerned with giving up field position on a turnover than actually moving the ball. World War I buffs ought to feel right at home.

No. 24 Oklahoma State (+8.5) at No. 2 Kansas State (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Oklahoma St.
Has the Ball ...
When Kansas St.
Has the Ball ...
Category OSU
(5-2)
KSU
(8-0)
OSU
Off
KSU
Def
OSU
Def
KSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 17 6
2012 FEI Rk 16 1
2012 S&P+ Rk 26 18 19 38 33 7
2012 FPA 102 3
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 18 53 32 15
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 22 33 34 6
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 11 26 56 4
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
55.8% Run
(87)
73.1% Run
(6)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 16 36 32 6
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
40.4% Run
(21)
43.9% Run
(15)

For a team that came so close to playing for a national championship in 2011, Oklahoma State has been a forgotten squad in 2012 -– in part because the Cowboys began the season with lowered expectations in the polls and immediately lowered them even further with two losses in their first four games in September, at the hands of Arizona and Texas. Along the way, OSU has had to deal with a barrage of injuries, especially at the starting quarterback position, which has already changed hands twice between a pair of freshmen, Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh.

Hitting November, though, the Cowboys are still very much in the Big 12 race after a 3-0 October against Kansas, Iowa State, and TCU, and they can still put themselves in the driver's seat to repeat as conference champions Saturday with an upset in Manhattan.

Impressive as the Wildcats have been –- they've trounced three ranked teams already by a combined 77 points -– Oklahoma State has been quietly solid in its own right. Despite the attrition and injuries on offense, OSU still leads the nation in yards per game, and the overlooked defense has held their last three Big 12 opponents to 14 points or less. Last week, TCU's offense only scored once. Going back to their two losses, the Cowboys out-gained both Arizona and Texas by more than 130 yards apiece in those games.

And if there is any team in the Big 12 that knows how dangerous this time of year can be, it's Oklahoma State: last year, it was the Cowboys in K-State's position of holding serve as the top dog in November, until they were ambushed in a double-overtime loss at Iowa State that paved the way for the All-SEC finale. This team is not that one by a long shot -– Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are not walking through that door –- but it's certainly good enough to return the favor this weekend if K-State is suffering from any hint of a hangover.

No. 22 Arizona (+3.5) at UCLA (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

OVERALL When Arizona
Has the Ball ...
When UCLA
Has the Ball ...
Category Arizona
(5-3)
UCLA
(6-2)
Arizona
Off
UCLA
Def
Arizona
Def
UCLA
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 11 32
2012 FEI Rk 14 35
2012 S&P+ Rk 11 37 4 42 34 32
2012 FPA 16 20
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 6 47 41 32
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 3 41 30 32
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 10 50 43 34
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
53.0% Run
(100)
57.9% Run
(70)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 9 27 63 21
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
23.2% Run
(110)
32.3% Run
(65)

The question in the Rose Bowl is: can you trust Arizona on the road? The Wildcats have been surprisingly feisty in Tucson, having already turned in home blowouts over Oklahoma State and Washington prior to last week's stunner over USC. Away from home, the results are decidedly mixed: A tight, overtime shootout at Stanford is offset by a 49-0 whitewash at Oregon. If they're able to take out the Bruins on their own turf, it's fair to say Rich Rodriguez has a damn good team on his hands, wherever it happens to be lining up.

Picks

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Matt F/+
Texas A&M -7 Miss. St. Miss. St. A&M
TCU +5 W. Virginia WVU TCU
Nebraska -1.5 Michigan St. Nebraska Mich. St.
Ole Miss +14 Georgia Ole Miss Ole Miss
Pittsburgh +17 Notre Dame Pitt Notre Dame*
Texas +6.5 Texas Tech Texas Texas
Oregon -8 USC USC Oregon
Alabama -8.5 LSU LSU Alabama
Oklahoma St. +8.5 Kansas St. OSU KSU
Arizona +3.5 UCLA UCLA* Arizona
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
Last Week
Season Total
F/+: 6-4 (0-1) 55-35 (5-3)
Matt: 2-8 (0-1) 35-55 (2-6)

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 02 Nov 2012

5 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2012, 10:21am by Kal

Comments

1
by lionsbob :: Sat, 11/03/2012 - 11:03am

I guess since I am an Alabama fan the 9-6 regular season game to me was great (besides us losing), and definitely not boring...every play was high stakes. But I guess if you like seeing USC-Oregon play patty-cake that is cool too.

2
by Levi Brown still sucks (not verified) :: Sun, 11/04/2012 - 11:22am

lol people like to watch an actually fun product on the field. Get a time machine and go back to 1941 if you like to watch that bullshit. The most exciting thing that happens in games like that is when a fan in the stadiums blows their brains out when they realize they paid to watch the game.

3
by lionsbob :: Sun, 11/04/2012 - 3:38pm

fun=bad football. Got it.

4
by Joseph :: Sun, 11/04/2012 - 5:46pm

Must resist to make comment about suicide=fun.....

Seriously, there is a reason why the SEC has won the last 6 BCS championship games--their defenses are, beyond a doubt, the best in the country. They have shut down high-scoring offenses from all conferences. The Big-however-many-teams-they-have-now that covers multiple schools near I-35 plus WV--not one has a great defense. Oklahoma & TCU (aren't they in that conf?) have had some good ones, but they don't this year. And don't get me started on the ACC & Pac-how-many-ever-they-have either. Those teams' defenses are worse.
Anyway, as regular readers on the NFL side of this site know, it's harder to have a consistently good defense than an offense. In college, where you only get players for at most 4 years, it's nigh impossible. And yet, Alabama and LSU have done it for years now.

5
by Kal :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 10:21am

That doesn't make it particularly fun to watch one way or another.

Also, auburn didn't have an elite defense and they went undefeated in the sec. Not all sec teams are created equal.