Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

09 Nov 2012

SDA: Survival of the Fittest

by Matt Hinton

For fans of BCS chaos, the first few weeks of November are always the best point on the college football calendar: that fleeting sweet spot when just enough of the season has passed to establish the leading players for the home stretch, and just enough remains to put them through some inevitable drama. Of the top-ten teams in the BCS standings on November 1, 2011, eight of them went on to lose games over the next three weeks that they were favored to win. Three members of that group, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Oregon, all fell as double-digit favorites in a span of 24 hours, taking their hopes of playing for a BCS championship down with them. In 2010, five of the top ten at the start of November were eventually upset. At the start of November 2007, two of the top four included undefeated Boston College and Arizona State, for heaven's sake, and that was the most sane and stable week of that insane, unstable season.

So to the Big Question of "Who's No. 2?" this week behind the all-powerful Death Star that is Alabama, I think the only appropriate answer is: let's wait and see. The Crimson Tide themselves survived an all-hands-on-deck upset bid last weekend at LSU, and face another one Saturday against the most explosive offense in the SEC, by far, in Texas A&M. Notre Dame's perfect season came even closer to the edge against Pittsburgh, of all teams, which never trailed until the Irish punched in the winning touchdown in triple overtime. The fact that undefeated Oregon and Kansas State have not been seriously challenged only means they're due in the next few weeks, and Saturday's road trips to Cal and TCU are as good spots for a scare as any.

With four unbeaten contenders vying for two tickets to the championship game, "style points" are important, to a point. But recent history has repeatedly shown that, once the weather starts to turn, the only real virtue is survival.

Northwestern (+11.5) at Michigan (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Northwestern
Has the Ball ...
When Michigan
Has the Ball ...
Category NW'ern
(7-2)
Michigan
(6-3)
NW'ern
Off
Michigan
Def
NW'ern
Def
Michigan
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 16 22
2012 FEI Rk 26 34
2012 S&P+ Rk 42 20 40 20 43 19
2012 FPA 33 76
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 32 17 49 23
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 50 18 35 19
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 37 13 45 28
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
63.8% Run
(37)
72.6% Run
(8)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 51 23 74 4
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
49.2% Run
(7)
35.7% Run
(45)

The Wolverines are uncertain who's going to start at quarterback Saturday, and for once, they're just fine with that. With senior Denard Robinson on the bench last week with an arm injury, junior Devin Gardner was a revelation in his first career start, hitting 12-of-18 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-13 win at Minnesota, even after spending the vast majority of his time this year at wide receiver. (For those of you saying, "Well, yeah, but it was Minnesota..." note that the Gophers came into the game leading the Big Ten in pass-efficiency defense.) This is a crucial game for both teams in the Legends Division standings: given his track record over more than two-and-a-half years as the starter, it's safe to assume that if Robinson can go against the Wildcats, he will. Given his turn last week when given an opportunity, though, it's also safe to assume Gardner will get his chances to put the ball in the air, too, even if it takes some gadgetry to do it.

Oregon State (+4) at Stanford (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When Oregon State
Has the Ball ...
When Stanford
Has the Ball ...
Category OSU
(7-1)
Stanford
(7-2)
OSU
Off
Stanford
Def
OSU
Def
Stanford
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 9 19
2012 FEI Rk 7 21
2012 S&P+ Rk 18 30 32 10 15 64
2012 FPA 58 4
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 40 7 28 72
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 27 12 11 68
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 21 7 23 83
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
53.5% Run
(95)
61.8% Run
(43)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 48 29 3 53
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
22.7% Run
(115)
34.8% Run
(50)

Oregon State-Stanford is a compelling enough matchup in its own right, not least because both teams have voluntarily handed the reins to their backup quarterbacks, Cody Vaz and Kevin Hogan, with a division title still very much within reach. At the same time, it's impossible not to begin sizing up the Beavers and Cardinal as potential stumbling blocks for Oregon, which still has to get past both of them to have any realistic shot at the BCS Championship Game. More specifically, the Ducks will have to find a way to move the ball on the ground: Stanford leads the nation in rushing defense, as well as in sacks and tackles for loss; Oregon State ranks fifth against the run, having already shut down the likes of Wisconsin and UCLA earlier in the season.

That's largely where the similarities end. With no big-play threat in sight, Stanford has maintained its identity on offense of between-the-tackles grinding, and seemingly doubled down on the ground game with the decision to start Hogan, who has a reputation as a better athlete than the statuesque-type he replaces, Josh Nunes. The Beavers, on the other hand, have been much more successful at getting ball downfield to their dual deep threats, Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, despite failing to generate much in the way of a running game. If Vaz has time against Stanford's relentless front seven, the Cardinal secondary is vulnerable. But that's a big if.

Texas A&M (+14) at Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

OVERALL When Texas A&M
Has the Ball ...
When Alabama
Has the Ball ...
Category A&M
(7-2)
Alabama
(9-0)
A&M
Off
Alabama
Def
A&M
Def
Alabama
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 10 1
2012 FEI Rk 9 2
2012 S&P+ Rk 7 1 4 1 17 3
2012 FPA 52 6
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 1 1 14 5
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 14 1 21 1
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 15 3 34 9
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
55.1% Run
(88)
64.6% Run
(34)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 2 1 36 1
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
37.5% Run
(32)
46.1% Run
(11)

Alabama cleared the tallest hurdle in its path to a BCS title last week in a dramatic come-from-behind win at LSU, but not without taking a hit to its reputation as an irresistible force on defense. As a team, the Tigers rushed for more yards (139), passed for more yards (296), averaged more yards per play (5.1), earned more first downs (22), converted a higher percentage of third downs (50), and scored more points (17) against the Crimson Tide than any FBS offense in the last two years, all while amassing a nearly 19-minute advantage in time of possession. In short, the Tide looked unusually vulnerable against an offense that had consistently struggled against other SEC defenses.

Texas A&M most definitely has not struggled behind record-breaking freshman Johnny Manziel, who has had his moments even against the first-rate defenses of Florida and LSU in between shredding everyone else to the tune of nearly 400 yards of total offense per game. Not that he's going to come anywhere near that number against Alabama, or that a few big plays will be enough to win -– they weren't against the Gators or Tigers, and they weren't for Zach Mettenberger last week. But if a certain hurry-up, no-huddle offense is waiting for the Tide in the BCS title game, A&M may be the best test run they could have hoped for.

West Virginia (+7.5) at Oklahoma State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2)

OVERALL When West Virginia
Has the Ball ...
When Oklahoma St.
Has the Ball ...
Category WVU
(5-3)
OSU
(5-3)
WVU
Off
OSU
Def
WVU
Def
OSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 59 23
2012 FEI Rk 71 22
2012 S&P+ Rk 36 27 15 33 68 24
2012 FPA 67 114
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 26 30 48 17
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 17 32 85 23
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 10 52 63 12
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
45% Run
(118)
53.9% Run
(92)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 37 26 64 25
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
25.9% Run
(101)
37.3% Run
(33)

If the Mountaineers and Cowboys look like virtual mirror images of one another, that's kind of the point: West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen got the job based on the fireworks he oversaw as Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator in 2010, and has successfully converted Morgantown into one of the capitals of the "Air Raid" even as his successor in Stillwater, Todd Monken, has kept OSU firing away at a prolific clip. For OSU, in fact, the biggest difference between last year's ascent to the Big 12 championship and this years reversion to the middle of the pack has much less to do with moving the ball than it does with taking it away. Last year, the Cowboys forced 44 turnovers, the most by any FBS defense in nearly a decade, and finished No. 1 nationally in turnover margin; this year, they've forced just nine turnovers, fewest in the conference, and have finished minus–9 in losses to Arizona and Kansas State alone.

The way West Virginia's offense has been playing over the course of its ongoing, three-game losing streak, a well-timed turnover or two may be exactly the spark it needs to rediscover its explosive September form. Otherwise, the fading memory of Geno Smith, Heisman frontrunner, is going to keep looking more and more bizarre.

Kansas State (-7) at TCU (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When Kansas State
Has the Ball ...
When TCU
Has the Ball ...
Category KSU
(9-0)
TCU
(6-3)
KSU
Off
TCU
Def
KSU
Def
TCU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 3 48
2012 FEI Rk 1 35
2012 S&P+ Rk 14 47 6 25 32 81
2012 FPA 1 24
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 11 8 42 105
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 6 53 34 57
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 7 17 26 88
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
72.7% Run
(6)
60.1% Run
(55)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 6 17 30 55
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
42% Run
(16)
37.1% Run
(34)

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder has been predictably coy this week about the status of his star quarterback, Collin Klein, whose absence in a key November road game stands to turn the Big 12 and BCS standings on their heads. Klein left last week's 44-30 win over Oklahoma State in the third quarter with an unspecified injury, thought to be a concussion, and Snyder -– notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to injuries, or most anything else -– has offered little more this week than a vague "hope" that the engine of the Wildcats' 9-0 start will be ready to go by Saturday night. If he's not, the Horned Frogs will be waiting to pounce on a season-defining upset, just one week after narrowly pulling themselves from the brink of a three-game losing streak last week at West Virginia. Prior to that, TCU had dropped three-of-four since starting quarterback Casey Pachall left the team following a DUI arrest in early October, including its first two-game losing streak since 2007, which lent added urgency to the comeback in Morgantown.

With renewed confidence, a marginally-healthier lineup, and a break or two, there's a good chance for the Frogs to emerge as this year's angels of BCS chaos. Or, if Klein plays and is his usual heady, efficient self, they could just another bump in the road.

Mississippi State (+14.5) at LSU (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Mississippi St.
Has the Ball ...
When LSU
Has the Ball ...
Category Miss. St.
(7-2)
LSU
(7-2)
Miss. St.
Off
LSU
Def
Miss. St.
Def
LSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 60 8
2012 FEI Rk 58 11
2012 S&P+ Rk 38 6 45 4 34 18
2012 FPA 41 9
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 45 10 50 8
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 52 3 22 44
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 56 11 56 14
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
57.1% Run
(72)
69.9% Run
(12)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 22 4 13 32
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
36.3% Run
(40)
29.7% Run
(79)

It didn't take a crystal ball to see a reality check coming for Mississippi State over the course of its 7-0 start -– just a quick glance at the backloaded schedule -– but no one thought it would get quite as real as last week's 38-13 trouncing at the hands of Texas A&M. At least not in Starkville. It's only going to get realer this weekend in Baton Rouge, where the Bulldogs haven't won since 1991. Since then, LSU has taken 19-of-20 from Mississippi State in all locales, by an average margin of three touchdowns per game; ten of the last eleven have been decided by double digits. If Zach Mettenberger's stunningly solid performance against Alabama was a sign that he's turning the corner, this one may get out of hand quickly.

Notre Dame (-19) at Boston College (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Notre Dame
Has the Ball ...
When Boston College
Has the Ball ...
Category Notre Dame
(9-0)
Boston College
(2-7)
Notre Dame
Off
Boston College
Def
Notre Dame
Def
Boston College
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 6 78
2012 FEI Rk 3 90
2012 S&P+ Rk 4 84 9 76 8 95
2012 FPA 78 115
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 7 60 6 122
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 10 79 8 60
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 4 51 5 90
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
61.5% Run
(47)
46% Run
(116)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 15 104 9 70
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
43.4% Run
(15)
23% Run
(114)

Notre Dame and Boston College have played every year since 1992, but Saturday's showdown wakes up two relevant echoes: first, from 1993, when Notre Dame –- just one week removed from assuming the top spot in the polls in a "Game of the Century" triumph over No. 1 Florida State –- saw its perfect record ruined by B.C. in the next-to-last game of the regular season, ultimately costing the Irish a national championship. Nearly a decade later, another undefeated Irish team -– again coming off a validating win over Florida State -– welcomed the Eagles to South Bend in 2002, and again limped out bearing its first loss. Only twice in the last two decades has Notre Dame managed to sustain an undefeated record into November, and on both occasions Boston College was waiting to kill it.

So here we are, another decade on, with another unbeaten-but-vulnerable Irish outfit headed to Chestnut Hill, and the thought of another season-killing upset is as far-fetched as ever. For one thing, Notre Dame's obligatory scare came last week, in a harrowing triple-overtime escape against Pittsburgh, which was only possible due to a 14-point Irish rally in the fourth quarter and an inexplicably lucky turn in the extra frames. For another, the 2012 edition of Boston College is a far cry from the upstart, bowl-bound teams that played spoiler in 1993 and 2002, currently residing at the bottom of the ACC's Atlantic Division with losses in six of its last seven. (The one win came in a 20-17 nail-biter over injury-ravaged Maryland, which was down to its fourth different starting quarterback of the season.) Most Eagle fans have been resigned for weeks to waiting out the rest of the season in anticipation of the inevitable exit of coach Frank Spaziani. It would be a double shame to give them reason to doubt his demise.

Oregon (-28) at California (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Oregon
Has the Ball ...
When California
Has the Ball ...
Category Oregon
(9-0)
California
(3-7)
Oregon
Off
California
Def
Oregon
Def
California
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 2 65
2012 FEI Rk 5 68
2012 S&P+ Rk 2 46 1 28 9 70
2012 FPA 16 85
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 3 44 19 53
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 5 26 7 88
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 6 32 40 40
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
67% Run
(26)
55.9% Run
(81)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 31 47 14 80
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
56.5% Run
(5)
34.7% Run
(52)

The last time Oregon was in Berkeley, in 2010, the nation's most prolific offense was held to just 15 points on 317 yards and escaped with its perfect season intact due largely to a crucial false start penalty against Cal's kicker. Once again, the Ducks arrive with the nation's most prolific offense, once again awaiting their first serious challenge of the season after dropping a 62-point, 730-yard bomb on USC. So thorough is his team's dominance in his fourth season that coach Chip Kelly is looking forward not only to a national championship, but to an "inevitable" leap to the NFL once he wins it.

Meanwhile, his counterpart on Saturday, Jeff Tedford –- like Kelly, a former offensive coordinator at Oregon himself –- is in such dire straits after three consecutive losses that Cal fans are already busy crossing names off the list to replace him. The Golden Bears don't possess remotely the firepower necessary to keep pace with the Ducks, especially with their best player, wide receiver Keenan Allen, on the bench for the second week in a row due to a lingering knee injury. Even if an upset is out of the question, though, Kansas State and Notre Dame would really appreciate another surprise defensive stand for the road.

Picks

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Matt F/+
Northwestern +11.5 Michigan Michigan NW'ern
Arizona St. +9 USC USC USC
Oregon St. +4 Stanford Stanford Oregon St.
Penn St. +7 Nebraska Penn St. Nebraska
Texas A&M +14 Alabama Alabama Alabama
W. Virginia +7.5 Oklahoma St. WVU OSU
Kansas St. -7 TCU KSU KSU*
Mississippi St. +14.5 LSU LSU* LSU
Notre Dame -19 Boston College Notre Dame Notre Dame
Oregon -28 California California California
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
Last Week
Season Total
F/+: 5-5 (0-1) 60-40 (5-4)
Matt: 5-5 (1-0) 40-60 (3-6)

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 09 Nov 2012

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