Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Varsity Numbers: Honing in

Bill Connelly again looks at which college football teams the F/+ ratings are sure about, and which teams remain a mystery (led by Appalachian State).

05 Oct 2012

SDA: Big 12 Lets Its Spread Flag Fly

by Matt Hinton

Top-ranked Alabama is off this weekend, giving Nick Saban the rare opportunity to kick back, pick up the remote, and survey the field a bit on one of the most crucial Saturdays of the entire season. Of course he'll be checking out LSU's trip to Florida in the afternoon, for his own purposes. But if I may be so bold as to suggest, coach, you'll want to be sure to check out the primetime tilt between Texas and West Virginia.

After Saban's pointed takedown of up-tempo, no-huddle offenses earlier this week –- "Is this what we want football to be?" -– the Longhorns and Mountaineers promise to deliver an emphatic "YES!" in Austin, with a kinetic barrage of points that will double as a barrage of eggs aimed at Saban's front door. Between them, Texas and West Virginia scored 15 touchdowns with a grand total of five punts in 24 offensive possessions last week in signature wins over Oklahoma State and Baylor, the two of which combined for 99 points and nearly 1,300 yards of total offense in defeat. Once they found their rhythm, WVU and Baylor were trading touchdowns like basketball teams trade jump shots.

Traditionalists may wince, but the "Basketball On Grass" philosophy will not be getting off their lawns anytime soon. In January, the market reacted to the prospect of watching Saban's Crimson Tide and LSU punt each other to death (again) in the BCS Championship Game by tuning out in near-record numbers; the powers-that-be responded by brokering the most radical overhaul of the postseason system in the history of the sport. This season, Texas A&M is formally introducing the "Air Raid" to the SEC, two years after Auburn won a national championship with an up-tempo spread scheme featuring Cam Newton. If defense and punting are your jams, Alabama and LSU are your Springsteen and Stones. In the meantime, the kids will be having a blast Saturday in Austin.

No. 24 Northwestern (+3) at Penn State (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Northwestern
Has the Ball ...
When Penn State
Has the Ball ...
Category NW'ern
(5-0)
PSU
(3-2)
NW'ern
Off
PSU
Def
NW'ern
Def
PSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 65 50
2012 FEI Rk 72 51
2012 S&P+ Rk 56 50 49 42 53 63
2012 FPA 46 8
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 57 84 44 50
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 64 47 57 86
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 71 56 36 73
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
65.1% Run
(32)
60.2% Run
(58)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 25 86 98 68
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
46.8% Run
(10)
24.8% Run
(100)

Feeling free to experiment last week against the worst team in the conference, Northwestern stumbled across a terrifying discovery: Kain Colter can do pretty much anything, and do it well. On top of gashing Indiana for 161 yards and four touchdowns from his standard role in the "Wildcat," Colter also led Northwestern with nine catches for 131 yards in his first turn this season at wide receiver, helping the Wildcats set a new school record for total offense in the process. Through September, Northwestern is 5-0, ranked in both major polls for the first time since 2008 and –- between Colter and tailbacks Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy –- looks as versatile on offense as it has in ages.

And still, the oddsmakers are not quite convinced enough to make the Wildcats favorites in Happy Valley, a testament to Penn State's rally from a discouraging 0-2 start. The Nittany Lions looked as good in last week's 35-7 win over Illinois as they have at any point in the last three years –- the 28-point margin of victory was their largest in a Big Ten game since 2009 –- and they could very well be riding a four-game winning streak of their own if not for those four missed field goals in a one-point loss at Virginia. Penn State's defense is not a great one, but it is certainly better than anything Northwestern has seen to date, and will go a long way toward establishing the Wildcats' ceiling in conference play.

Arizona (+9) at No. 18 Stanford (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When Arizona
Has the Ball ...
When Stanford
Has the Ball ...
Category Arizona
(3-2)
Stanford
(3-1)
Arizona
Off
Stanford
Def
Arizona
Def
Stanford
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 23 15
2012 FEI Rk 31 30
2012 S&P+ Rk 18 13 20 5 27 67
2012 FPA 23 10
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 8 21 15 63
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 24 5 20 40
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 47 10 16 74
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
51.7% Run
(103)
57.8% Run
(72)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 24 12 41 46
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
22.0% Run
(114)
26.7% Run
(92)

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez complained this week that his team is beginning to suffer from some wear and tear after five consecutive games against other hurry-up offenses, which exposed the Wildcats to more total plays in September (857, or 171.4 per game) than any team in the country not named Marshall. The good news: Stanford is not a hurry-up offense interested in getting off as many snaps in as little time as possible. The bad news: Stanford is the rare team in 2012 that is still interested in old-school ownage of the line of scrimmage, and has the personnel to pull it off in bruising fashion.

We don't know exactly how Arizona will hold up to a straight-ahead, between-the-tackles running game, because it hasn't seen one yet. But given that the Cardinal have had nine full days to simmer over last week's deflating upset loss at Washington, here's guessing the Wildcats will be looking forward to seeing the spread again by Sunday morning.

No. 4 LSU (-2.5) at No. 10 Florida (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

OVERALL When LSU
Has the Ball ...
When Florida
Has the Ball ...
Category LSU
(5-0)
Florida
(4-0)
LSU
Off
Florida
Def
LSU
Def
Florida
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 7 8
2012 FEI Rk 14 5
2012 S&P+ Rk 3 9 25 10 4 27
2012 FPA 3 15
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 20 9 31 33
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 61 8 9 28
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 7 9 42 33
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
71.9% Run
(11)
70.6% Run
(14)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 73 5 21 10
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
25.9% Run
(97)
44.7% Run
(15)

It's the first weekend of October, Florida is 4-0, and the major polls have the Gators ranked in the top ten on the heels of a convincing win over Tennessee, which is the cue for Gator fans to begin bracing themselves. In 2010, Florida was 4-0 on the first weekend of October, ranked ninth nationally on the heels of a convincing win over Tennessee, and walked right into a 31-6 beatdown at the hands of No. 1 Alabama. In 2011, Florida was 4-0 on the first weekend of October, ranked 12th nationally on the heels of a convincing win over Tennessee, and walked right into a 38-10 beatdown at the hands of No. 3 Alabama. In both cases, 'Bama left the Gators beaten and bruised –- mentally and physically -– and initiated a season-long tailspin that ended with Florida unranked and sporting a losing record in conference play.

This year it's No. 4 LSU in the pivotal slot instead of Alabama, and its in Gainesville, but the basic narrative is the same, and so is the mental hurdle for Florida. Last year, the Tigers destroyed the Gators in Baton Rouge, 41-11, further confirming their second-class status for the second year in a row. The 2012 Gators are a year older, they're healthier, and early returns suggest they're in better hands with sophomore Jeff Driskel at quarterback than they ever were with perennial punching bag John Brantley. They're also better-tested, having come from behind to beat Texas A&M in College Station in addition to the annual dispatching of the Vols, and better-rested, coming off a bye week. This team should have a confidence that last year's edition clearly did not going into its "reality check" appointment in Tuscaloosa. This is where we get to see if it's actually a different team.

No. 17 Oklahoma (-6) at Texas Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

OVERALL When Oklahoma
Has the Ball ...
When Texas Tech
Has the Ball ...
Category Oklahoma
(2-1)
Tech
(4-0)
Oklahoma
Off
Tech
Def
Oklahoma
Def
Tech
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 13 4
2012 FEI Rk 9 6
2012 S&P+ Rk 22 5 83 6 9 26
2012 FPA 101 28
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 89 29 47 58
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 100 2 3 30
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 83 13 3 68
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
55.1% Run
(88)
45.6% Run
(115)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 29 9 47 7
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
19.7% Run
(120)
34.4% Run
(54)

While most of the country was focused on the nuclear offensive numbers in the Baylor/West Virginia and Texas/Oklahoma State games, Texas Tech spent last Saturday quietly tightening the vice on Iowa State, securing its spot as the No. 1 total defense in the nation for the second consecutive week. Yes, you read that correctly: one full month into the season, none other than Texas Tech –- ground zero for the up-tempo, point-a-minute shootouts that have come to define the Big 12 –- is currently leading the nation in total defense at 167.5 yards per game. That puts the Red Raiders just ahead of the feral, blue-chip units at Alabama, Florida State and LSU. This is akin to Peter O'Toole leading a monastery in sobriety.

Much of the credit for that turnaround belongs to defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, Texas Tech's fourth different DC in as many years, and much goes to a September schedule that pitted the Raiders against Northwestern State, Texas State, New Mexico and Iowa State -– none of them exactly a tinderbox of explosive playmakers. So far, though, neither is Oklahoma: the Sooners struggled mightily in their opening night escape from UTEP, and looked sloppy to say the least in a 24-19 loss against Kansas State. As it happens, they also haven't won in Lubbock since 2003, when Adrian Peterson was still in high school. We've yet to see anything from this edition of Oklahoma that justifies the standard assumptions about the overall talent level and other advantages that come with the OU brand. One of these teams is in for a serious reality check, and it is not necessarily the Red Raiders.

No. 5 Georgia (+2.5) at No. 6 South Carolina (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Georgia
Has the Ball ...
When South Carolina
Has the Ball ...
Category Georgia
(5-0)
S.C.
(5-0)
Georgia
Off
S.C.
Def
Georgia
Def
S.C.
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 10 12
2012 FEI Rk 20 12
2012 S&P+ Rk 10 16 2 14 48 34
2012 FPA 31 24
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 6 11 46 62
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 7 44 58 16
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 2 6 25 26
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
62.6% Run
(40)
66.8% Run
(22)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 12 74 66 21
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
45.6% Run
(13)
37.0% Run
(38)

Amid the hosannas for their emerging freshman heroes in the backfield, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, Georgia fans have to have at least a twinge of doubt over the championship credentials of a defense that just got diced up by Tennessee for 478 yards. True, the blame for three of the Volunteers' six touchdowns last week falls on turnovers by the otherwise prolific UGA offense (a concern in its own right), but five games in, the Bulldogs have yielded big plays in all five and have yet to hold an opposing offense -– including the likes of Buffalo and Florida Atlantic -– below 300 total yards. Last year, UGA finished fifth nationally in total defense; it currently ranks fifty-fifth.

On South Carolina's side, there are some lingering questions about the relative explosiveness of their own above-the-fold workhorse, Marcus Lattimore, in the wake of the knee injury that ended his sophomore season in 2011 –- which says a lot about the initial impression he made on fans prior to the injury, considering Lattimore still ranks near the top of the SEC with 110 total yards per game, in an offense that has consciously lightened his load in lopsided non-conference games. That Herculean reputation was built largely on Lattimore's dominating performances against Georgia the last two years, and the Bulldogs will get a full dose on Saturday. But even assuming the rushing attacks cancel one another out, Georgia still has to account for edge-rushing monster Jadeveon Clowney and the conference's best pass rush.

No. 8 West Virginia (+6.5) at No. 11 Texas (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When West Virginia
Has the Ball ...
When Texas
Has the Ball ...
Category WVU
(4-0)
Texas
(4-0)
WVU
Off
Texas
Def
WVU
Def
Texas
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 9 6
2012 FEI Rk 10 2
2012 S&P+ Rk 14 12 1 16 65 14
2012 FPA 52 4
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 3 7 22 10
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 10 30 87 46
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 1 29 60 17
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
43.9% Run
(118)
67.3% Run
(21)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 26 2 58 34
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
22.4% Run
(113)
28.2% Run
(83)

In terms of man-for-man talent and reputation, Texas still boasts the best defense in the Big 12 –- the Longhorns have the led the conference in total defense four years running –- but the distinction is no comfort to UT coaches, who sounded appropriately freaked this week about the prospect of facing West Virginia after giving up 582 yards in a harrowing, come-from-behind win at Oklahoma State. While the Mountaineers have basked in a week of hype and hyperbole following their latest 70-point assault on Baylor, Texas has been holding open auditions for a strong safety who has a prayer of bringing down Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey in the open field.

The bigger question is whether the Longhorns trust their sophomore quarterback, David Ash, enough to take the reins off in a mano-a-mano shootout with the most prolific passer in college football in September, Geno Smith. Ash appears to have completely outgrown his turnover-prone freshman phase, and currently ranks second nationally in pass efficiency, right behind Smith. West Virginia's defense is obviously vulnerable, having just been burned to a crisp by Baylor for 700 yards and 63 points itself. If Texas has doubts about its own defense's ability to break serve, though, it may decide there's no harm in patiently pounding out a living between the tackles, or anything else that keeps Smith, Austin, and Bailey on the sideline.

Miami (+13) vs. No. 9 Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

OVERALL When Miami
Has the Ball ...
When Notre Dame
Has the Ball ...
Category Miami
(4-1)
Irish
(4-0)
Miami
Off
Irish
Def
Miami
Def
Irish
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 58 5
2012 FEI Rk 55 3
2012 S&P+ Rk 68 8 43 8 76 28
2012 FPA 20 37
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 48 14 89 15
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 71 12 75 35
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 66 7 61 18
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
43.6% Run
(120)
60.2% Run
(59)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 36 13 115 14
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
34.3% Run
(55)
39.3% Run
(28)

Few current players on either roster were even alive when Notre Dame and Miami were doing the "Catholics vs. Convicts" thing back in the eighties, but these teams are every bit as different as their predecessors. Where the Hurricanes have won in consecutive weeks at the end of wild, back-and-forth shootouts against Georgia Tech and N.C. State, the Fighting Irish have extended their record to 4-0 by keeping both Michigan and Michigan State out of the end zone in low-scoring slugfests. We've yet to see Miami's defense hold its own in a battle of attrition, or Notre Dame's offense attempt to keep pace in a track meet.

For now, it seems we can chalk the former up to opportunity. The only defense Miami has faced that is even plausibly in the class of the one it will see Saturday belongs to Kansas State, which held the 'Canes to season lows in both total yards (262) and points while also forcing three turnovers in a 52-13 rout in Manhattan, Miami's only loss. On the other hand, Notre Dame has effectively shut down every offense it's faced. The Hurricanes look like a much better, more confident team now than the one that got blasted in Manhattan in Week 2, but they're still more susceptible to being dragged into the Irish's kind of fight than vice versa.

No. 3 Florida State (-15) at N.C. State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

OVERALL When Florida State
Has the Ball ...
When N.C. State
Has the Ball ...
Category FSU
(5-0)
N.C. St.
(3-2)
FSU
Off
N.C. St.
Def
FSU
Def
N.C. St.
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 3 56
2012 FEI Rk 4 53
2012 S&P+ Rk 4 65 6 74 12 44
2012 FPA 11 89
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 13 66 41 52
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 21 77 7 47
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 12 92 33 13
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
59.3% Run
(65)
58.9% Run
(69)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 16 72 3 82
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
41.5% Run
(21)
31.7% Run
(67)

Compared to its eye-opening outburst against Clemson on Sept. 22, Florida State seemed slightly hung over for much of last week's 30-17 win at South Florida, which is not necessarily a bad thing. What great season doesn't include a sleepy, routine road win at the expense of an amped-up mediocrity? N.C. State in Raleigh falls into the same category, and the Wolfpack have more than enough firepower surrounding their NFL-bound quarterback, Mike Glennon, to throw a scare into the FSU defense if it's not at its rampaging best. But it will take an unprecedented, unforeseen meltdown by E.J. Manuel and the Florida State offense to let them hang around for four quarters.

No. 21 Nebraska (+4.5) at No. 12 Ohio State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Nebraska
Has the Ball ...
When Ohio State
Has the Ball ...
Category Nebraska
(4-1)
Ohio St.
(5-0)
Nebraska
Off
Ohio St.
Def
Nebraska
Def
Ohio St.
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 17 25
2012 FEI Rk 13 24
2012 S&P+ Rk 27 25 9 45 58 15
2012 FPA 118 73
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 11 71 45 18
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 27 43 102 19
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 11 40 59 10
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
72.1% Run
(10)
66.0% Run
(26)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 70 45 22 64
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
32.1% Run
(64)
46.3% Run
(12)

Nebraska's rally from a 20-3 deficit was good for drama, but on the whole, neither the Cornhuskers nor Buckeyes made any great leap forward in last week's respective wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State. Both quarterbacks, Taylor Martinez and Braxton Miller, went over 100 yards rushing and passing; both defenses clamped down against the run. Nebraska appears to have found a pair of reliable complements to Martinez in tailbacks Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah; Miller has developed a steady rapport with fellow sophomores Devin Smith and Corey "Philly" Brown at receiver. Both offenses managed to survive multiple turnovers en route to victory. On paper, these are virtually identical teams in style and substance.

That said, Nebraska's defense is a specific concern in Columbus for two reasons: a) Despite their success against Wisconsin, we have seen the Cornhuskers shoved around by a physical, straight-ahead running team, in a 36-30 loss at UCLA; and b) Nebraska's last three road trips against respectable offenses –- at Wisconsin and Michigan in 2011, at UCLA earlier this year -– have all ended with the 'Huskers being gashed for huge yardage in convincing losses. Ohio State's output may not be quite as overwhelming Saturday, but it's becoming harder to bet against Braxton Miller by the week.

No. 23 Washington (+24.5) at No. 2 Oregon (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Washington
Has the Ball ...
When Oregon
Has the Ball ...
Category Wash.
(3-1)
Oregon
(5-0)
Wash.
Off
Oregon
Def
Wash.
Def
Oregon
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 37 2
2012 FEI Rk 45 8
2012 S&P+ Rk 32 2 58 2 22 11
2012 FPA 41 49
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 21 2 28 7
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 45 4 17 39
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 52 27 8 9
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
55.0% Run
(91)
62.4% Run
(43)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 69 10 82 65
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
33.0% Run
(60)
50.8% Run
(5)

Washington has played two top-10 opponents already this season, with wildly different results. In Baton Rouge, the Huskies were methodically dismembered by LSU in a 41-3 beating that could have been worse. Nineteen days later, back in Seattle, the same Huskies took it to Stanford in a 17-13 upset that sent them rocketing into the latest polls. If Oregon was visiting Washington instead of vice versa, I suspect the point spread would swing by at least a touchdown in the Huskies' favor, along with some accompanying upset buzz on the heels of last week's ambush of the Cardinal.

As it is, Washington is just looking to keep its head in the death trap that is Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks are a different, more murderous animal than they are anywhere else, and were last seen driving Arizona to madness in a 49-0 thrashing. That's the only game in its first five in which Oregon covered the spread, and even that was due largely to the Wildcats' repeated failures on multiple opportunities in the red zone. But make no mistake: Once they put the pedal down, you can still never be sure when the Ducks' accelerated scoring binges are going to end.

Picks

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Matt F/+
Northwestern +3 Penn State Penn St. Penn St.
Arizona +9 Stanford Stanford Arizona
LSU -2.5 Florida LSU Florida
Oklahoma -6 Texas Tech Oklahoma Texas Tech
Georgia +2.5 S. Carolina S. Carolina S. Carolina
W. Virginia +6.5 Texas W. Virginia Texas
Miami +13 Notre Dame Miami Notre Dame*
Florida State -15 N.C. State N.C. St. Florida St.
Nebraska +4.5 Ohio State Ohio St.* Nebraska
Washington +24.5 Oregon Washington Washington
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
Last Week
Season Total
F/+: 4-6 (1-0) 30-20 (3-1)
Matt: 3-7 (0-1) 17-33 (1-3)

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 05 Oct 2012

3 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2012, 7:46pm by Mr Shush

Comments

1
by cfn_ms :: Fri, 10/05/2012 - 5:53pm

and I don't know about the rest.

2
by Warzone (not verified) :: Fri, 10/05/2012 - 10:35pm

Didn't Arizona give up 180 yards on the ground to a pro style between the tackles rushing offense last week?

3
by Mr Shush :: Sat, 10/06/2012 - 7:46pm

"This is akin to Peter O'Toole leading a monastery in sobriety."

My limited experience of monks leads me to believe that many of them might even give the great Mr O'Toole a run for his money in the piss-artistry stakes.