Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
18 Oct 2013
by Matt Hinton
In the ACC, a game like Clemson–Florida State is a rare gem. According to the Associated Press poll, the last time two ACC teams ranked in the top five went head-to-head was November 5, 2005, No. 5 Miami at No. 3 Virginia Tech, which also happens to be the last time before this weekend that two ACC teams were ranked in the top five at the same time. Prior to that, it had only happened on two other occasions since Florida State joined the conference in 1992: No. 3 FSU at No. 5 North Carolina in 1997, and No. 4 FSU at No. 5 Miami in 2004, the Hurricanes' first game in the conference. Since the Miami–Va Tech collision in '05, in fact, there's only been one meeting of ACC teams both ranked in the top ten, No. 10 Clemson at No. 4 Florida State last September. In between, you could count the number of weeks that two ACC teams occupied the top ten at the same time on one hand.
So yes, Tigers–Noles on Saturday night can stake a plausible claim as the biggest game in conference history. Both teams are undefeated, both feature Heisman-worthy quarterbacks, both have vanquished ranked opponents on a national stage. More to the point, both give the ACC a shot at the viable national contender it has so sorely lacked since Florida State was overthrown as perennial conference overlord at the turn of the century. Even the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 couldn't save the league from a decade in the wilderness: Since FSU's last national championship, in 1999, ACC teams are 2–12 in BCS bowl games, and join the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt as the only conferences in that span that have failed to put a team in the top five of the final polls. When the season's first BCS standings are released on Sunday night, the winner in "Death Valley" will be the most prominent ACC representative there in ages.
And it will deserve it. Like the conference as a whole, Clemson and Florida State both have a reputation as underachievers prone to biting the dust on big stages and in random moments alike. (In Clemson's case, there's an actual term for this that still has some currency, "Clemsoning," which is particularly unfair for a team with a) six wins over ranked opponents since 2011 and b) 14 straight over unranked opponents by a double-digit margin.) For one of them, at least, there will be no denying its place at the national table, and plenty of opportunities left to solidify it – FSU has November dates with Miami and Florida; Clemson closes against South Carolina – before the ACC Championship Game in December. Either way, for the first time in a long time, the title of "ACC champion" will have carry a little currency beyond the coastline.
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All games on Saturday 10/12 unless noted; all times Eastern.
Full Ratings: F/+ • S&P+ Offense • S&P+ Defense
Beginning this week, all ratings have been updated to reflect 2013 statistics ONLY. Preseason projections are no longer a factor.
At some point every discussion of Louisville comes back to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the star around which BCS ambitions orbit, but the story in last week's win over Rutgers was undeniably the defense. While the offense struggled, failing to score at all in 38-minute stretch from the second quarter until well into the fourth, the defense gave it more than enough margin for error, hounding Scarlet Knight quarterback Gary Nova for eight sacks and four interceptions. The Cardinals came out of the game ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense, a far cry from a unit that finished in the bottom half of the Big East in 2012 on both counts.
At this point, it's hard to separate how much of that improvement is due to an unusually long-in-the-tooth lineup (coming into the season, the depth chart included 16 different defenders with at least four career starts) and how much is due to the schedule. Through six games, Rutgers is the best offense the Cardinals have faced, by far, but considering the Knights are currently languishing at 67th in Offensive F/+, that's not saying much. UCF, on the other hand, comes in boasting the best offense in the AAC according to advanced stats, leading the league in Offensive F/+ (11th) and literally every single other offensive category despite a relatively dreadful showing last week in a too-close-for-comfort win over Memphis. Prior to that, the Knights fared much better against much better defenses from South Carolina and Penn State, where they became the first regular-season opponent to drop 500 yards on the Nittany Lions since 2001 in a 34–31 upset. It's not a fast-paced attack built for shootouts, by any means – at 63.6 plays per game, UCF is the slowest offense in the conference – but it's certainly efficient enough behind senior quarterback Blake Bortles to make things interesting if Bridgewater is in less than top form again.
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Louisville 36, Central Florida 19
Is it safe to trust Texas Tech? The 6–0 record says yes; the recent track record over the back half of the schedule says not a chance. Under Tommy Tuberville, this is the point in the season where the wheels came off. In 2011, the Raiders started 5–2 and rose to 19th in the polls following an upset over Oklahoma; from there, they lost their last five by 31 points per game. In 2012, the Raiders started 6–1 and rose to 18th following an upset over No. 5 West Virginia; from there, they dropped four of their last five – the lone victory coming against the worst team in the Big 12, Kansas, in overtime – and Tuberville hit "eject" before the bowl game.
What do the numbers say under his successor, Kliff Kingsbury? So far, so good. At 34, Kingsbury is unusually green for a head coach, which may be one of the reasons he has shown no hesitation in putting the offense in the hands of two true freshman quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield and David Webb, who are attempting nearly 55 passes per game. (Kingsbury was also a freshman starter for the Raiders, in 1999, and more recently oversaw the freshman triumph of Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's offensive coordinator. Clearly, he is not about to yield to inexperience.) Still, Tech's only road trips to date have been at SMU and Kansas; going into West Virginia is another story entirely, as Oklahoma State found out a couple weeks back in an ugly, 30–21 loss no one saw coming. Offensive issues notwithstanding, that definitely will not be the case if the Mountaineers add another upset victim on Saturday.
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West Virginia 28, Texas Tech 23
Poor Missouri. On one hand, last week's 41–26 upset at Georgia was the Tigers' first big, validating win as members of the SEC, vaulting them into the top 15 in the major polls and establishing them as viable frontrunners in the East Division. On the other, they remain such outsiders in the Ess Ee See culture that even their biggest games don't rate among television executives, which is why this game – a pivotal matchup that will go a long way toward deciding the East rep in the SEC Championship Game – won't be seen by most of the country. (To be fair to the TV guys, that decision was made before the win over Georgia; even after that game, though, CBS opted to pass on Missouri–South Carolina on October 26 in favor of a likely blowout, Alabama–Tennessee, relegating another relevant test for Mizzou to ESPN2.) More to the point, the victory cost the Tigers their starting quarterback, senior James Franklin, who will miss this game and the trip to South Carolina with a separated shoulder. In his place, Missouri is turning to a redshirt freshman, Maty Mauk, who fits the "dual threat" mold this offense favors but has barely seen the field.
Against most other defenses, the benefit of the doubt might still go to Missouri's huge, productive wide receivers, especially 6-foot-6 Dorial Green-Beckham and 6-foot-4 L'Damian Washington, who stole the show in Athens with seven catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns from Franklin. Against Florida, though, they'll be matched up against the most athletic set of cover corners in the country, Louchiez Purifoy, Vernon Hargeaves III and Marcus Roberson, who (along with safety Cody Riggs, a converted corner) just held LSU's NFL-bound receivers to their worst output of the season, by far. In the S&P+ rankings, the Gators are No. 1 nationally against the pass and on passing downs, generally, where the blue-chip pass rush adds to the misery: On third-and-7 or longer, opponents have converted just five times in 47 attempts. The offense leaves a lot to be desired, but (as usual) as long as it avoids giveaways it will have all day to come up with the two or three drives it needs to win.
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Florida 20, Missouri 13
Last year, Texas A&M racked up 671 yards of total offense at Auburn in a 63–21 massacre that was much worse than the score indicated, arguably the lowest moment for the Tigers in a season defined by one nadir after another. At 5–1, these Tigers couldn't be more different than they were in October 2012, but A&M is exactly the same: With 587 yards in a wild, 41–38 win at Ole Miss, the Aggies are atop the SEC again in yards and points per game, and No. 1 nationally in Offensive F/+. Johnny Manziel, being Johnny Manziel, overcome both an early injury scare and a pair of late turnovers in Oxford to turn his fourth 300-yard passing/100-yard-rushing performance in 18 career starts, most of any quarterback in FBS history. His leading receiver, Mike Evans, is third nationally in receiving yards, fourth in yards per catch and (as Alabama discovered, repeatedly) effectively cannot be covered man-to-man by college defenders. If Auburn has come as far as it thinks it has from last year's collapse, this is the game to prove it.
If A&M is vulnerable to an upset, it's going to come by some combination of Manziel's occasional recklessness with the ball and the defense, which has yielded at least 33 points and 460 yards in every conference game. In advanced terms, the Aggies are 13th out of 14 SEC teams in Defensive F/+, and at or near the bottom in every category under S&P+. Auburn's strength, as usual, is on the ground, where first-year quarterback Nick Marshall – a juco transfer who began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia – has been more effective as a third or fourth tailback than he has a passer. Not that Marshall can't throw, if necessary; he had 339 yards and two touchdowns passing against Mississippi State, including the game-winner at the end of a drive on which he was 6-of-8 for 66 yards. But the offense is built around establishing Marshall as a running threat alongside Tré Mason (515 yards on 5.6 per carry), Cameron Artis-Payne (389 on 7.2) and Corey Grant (331 on 10.0), and throwing just often enough to make defenses wary of overcommitting. A&M has yet to show it can stop anyone with a pulse either way.
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Texas A&M 44, Auburn 24
Quarterback Braxton Miller said this week that Iowa is the best defense Ohio State has faced, and the numbers back him up: Based on current F/+ ratings, Iowa is the best defense the Buckeyes have faced or will face, especially against the run, where the Hawkeyes are the only FBS team that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. But Iowa hasn't seen an offense on par with Ohio State's, either (in F/+ terms, the most formidable attack the Hawkeyes have faced is Iowa State, which ranks 58th; OSU ranks 16th), and its last time out wasn't exactly one for the books. Against Michigan State, a moribund offense that had been outscored by its own defense in its first three FBS games, Iowa yielded 26 points on 412 total yards, including a pair of touchdown passes (covering 47 and 37 yards, respectively) that marked the Spartans' two longest plays of the season. Ohio State had longer plays in every game.
Still, the Hawkeyes face a much bigger gap on offense. If they think they can get away with it, the ideal offensive vision is straight out of 1978. Through four non-conference games, Iowa averaged 54.5 carries per game for 4.5 yards per carry; against Iowa State, it ran 60 times for 3.6 per carry, amassing a 16-minute advantage in time of possession in a 27–21 win. (The long gain against the Cyclones: 13 yards.) In the Big Ten opener, against Minnesota, they kept it on the ground 45 times, and amassed a 12-minute advantage in possession. Against Michigan State, though, the ground game was stopped cold, managing a grand total of 23 yards on just 16 attempts; meanwhile, quarterback Jake Rudock put up 46 passes trying to throw Iowa out of a second-half deficit, and MSU held the ball for nearly 14 minutes longer. Ohio State isn't quite Michigan State against the run, but it is the next best thing in the Big Ten. If Rudock can't command any more respect for his arm, the result will probably be the same.
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Ohio State 31, Iowa 17
Stanford's 27–21 flop at Utah took everyone by surprise, but in retrospect looks very much of a piece with the Cardinal's 31–28 win over Washington seven days before. In both games, the offense looked lethargic, falling into a rut in the second half; in both games, the only real sparks came from receiver/return man Ty Montgomery, who in both games accounted for a kickoff return for touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage and more all-purpose yards than the rest of the team combined. Given the team's hard-scrabble identity, though, the defense deserves its fair share of the blame, yielding 400-plus yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2010, under Jim Harbaugh.
In one sense, that has to be encouraging for UCLA, which racked up 461 yards against essentially the same defense last December in the Pac-12 Championship, a 27–24 loss that came down to a missed field goal. But the vast majority of those yards came on the ground, most of them courtesy of All-American tailback Johnathan Franklin, who left a void the Bruins have not come close to replacing: Although they still run often, keeping the ball on the ground a majority of the time in a very up-tempo scheme, they've yet to crack four yards per carry against a defense that isn't Nevada or New Mexico State.
In the tale of the tape, S&P+ ratings mark Stanford's defense on standard downs (i.e. rushing downs) as the most glaring advantage for either team. (Less empirically speaking, a glance at UCLA's patchwork offensive line opposite Stanford's loaded, veteran front seven lends itself to the same conclusion.) With Franklin getting most of the attention last December, quarterback Brett Hundley had his best rushing game of the season against Stanford, carrying 13 times for 98 yards before sacks; without Franklin, he's taken on a much larger share of the ground game when necessary, setting a career-high with 19 carries at Nebraska and topping it with 20 at Utah. After last year, Stanford definitely respects Hundley in that capacity, but if it's only Hundley, he's in for a very long afternoon.
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Stanford 27, UCLA 24
Even as offenses are putting the ball in the air more often in the spread era, the old-school workhorse is passé: Among the "Big Six" BCS conferences only 13 backs are averaging at least 18 carries per game, and only five more than twenty. In that context, there is no more glaring exception than Washington's Bishop Sankey. Despite his unremarkable size (the team lists him at 5-foot-10, 203 pounds), Sankey leads the nation over the first half of the season in both yards and carries per game, and that's despite touching the ball just four times against a token FCS patsy, Idaho State; in five games against FBS defenses, Sankey is averring 31 carries – a dozen more than any other Pac-12 back except Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey – at 5.3 yards a pop, drawing comparisons to Emmitt Smith in the process. (The last two weeks, he's also added ten touches as a receiver in the Huskies' losses to Stanford and Oregon.) As long as Sankey is healthy, Corey Dillon's single-season rushing record at Washington doesn't stand a chance.
On paper, at least, neither does Arizona State, which has been rrepeatedly gashed by opposing ground games: Wisconsin rushed for 231 yards on 7.2 per carry, Stanford for 240, USC for 247 and four touchdowns. In those three games alone, ASU allowed ten runs of 20 yards or longer, and has yet to get anywhere the near the production from defensive tackle Will Sutton that it was accustomed to in 2012. (So far, Sutton has earned more headlines for adding "bad weight" and being "dominated" by Stanford guard David Yankey, although somehow he also landed on one of the midseason All-America teams making the rounds this week.) The Devils are still very aggressive and make plenty of plays in opposing backfields, but once the ball crosses the line it's been relatively smooth sailing.
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Washington 37, Arizona State 34
For a while there, LSU looked like an offense that had fully embraced its potential in the passing game, dropping more yards through the air on Georgia (372) and Mississippi State (340) in consecutive weeks than it had generated in any game since 2005, Les Miles' first season as head coach. (Altogether, the Tigers finished with more total yards against Mississippi State than they'd gained against an SEC opponent since 2002, and more points then they'd scored in a conference game since 1997.) But although there was very little hint of that kind of explosiveness in last week's win over Florida, a defensively-driven, 17–6 slugfest in the stereotypical SEC mold, it still served as a reminder of just how stacked this offense is: As far as quarterback Zach Mettenberger has come in the past year – seven weeks in, he's still the most efficient passer in a conference loaded with proven, veteran quarterbacks – when it really needs to LSU can still pound 235-pound tailback Jeremy Hill for 121 yards on 6.4 per carry against the best defense in the country. Across the league, there may be better players at each position than Mettenberger, Hill and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., but no one has a better cast assembled in one place.
Obviously, this not a very opportune moment for Ole Miss to show up with a half-dozen regulars on defense sidelined by injuries. The defensive line has been particularly hard-hit, with ends C.J. Johnson and Temario Strong, tackle Issac Gross and blue-chip freshman Robert Nkemdiche all expected to be on ice (Johnson, who sat out last week against Texas A&M, has just been ruled out for the season); leading tackler Serderius Bryant is also doubtful after suffering a frightening head injury against A&M that left him motionless on the turf for several minutes. Handling LSU is a tall enough order at full strength; shorthanded, there's nothing to do but take cover and hope the Rebel offense can fight fire with fire.
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LSU 38, Ole Miss 23
Is there a more unpredictable team in college football than USC? Of course, teams that change coaches in midstream are inherently volatile, especially when the axe drops so early in the year: In the Trojans' case, while the season might feel like a lost cause, the Pac-12 championship and accompanying Rose Bowl berth are still on the table in a wide-open South Division. Even before it ditched Lane Kiffin, though, this was a wildly inconsistent outfit, veering randomly from inept offensive efforts against Hawaii and Washington State to a 521-yard romp against Boston College, from a proud, impenetrable defense in the first four games to a demoralized unit going down in flames at Arizona State.
In its first game post-Kiffin, against Arizona, USC raced out to an impressive, 28–3 lead in the first half, only to watch the Wildcats rally to within a touchdown in a game that was every bit as close in the end as the 38–31 final suggests. The absence of wide receiver Marqise Lee (hamstring) didn't stop the offense from striking for a pair of 60-plus-yard touchdown passes in the first quarter, its two longest plays from scrimmage this season, and an injury to starting tailback Tre Madden didn't slow down the ground game in the second half. (Lee is expected to play in South Bend; Madden is uncertain.) But their presence didn't lift the offense out of the doldrums for most of September, either. This is an immensely talented team capable of anything at any time.
Notre Dame has settled into a more reliable pattern, although not necessarily a more reassuring one: In three games against ranked opponents, the Irish have allowed 41 points to Michigan, 35 to Oklahoma and 34 to Arizona State, yielding significantly more yards in each of those games than in any game in last year's run to 12–0. The offense, so often a liability in 2012, hasn't made nearly enough of a leap to compensate for that regression – scoring is up by a couple points per game, but total yards and yards per play are down – and isn't about to find a new gear under pedestrian senior Tommy Rees in his 25th career start. The good news from a 37–34 win over Arizona State was Rees' rapport with fellow senior T.J. Jones, who had eight catches against ASU for a career-high 135 yards; the better news was the reemergence of the pass rush, which sacked Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly six times after recording just four in the first five games. (The secondary certainly needs all the help it can get.) Maybe those are the first stirrings of a veteran team beginning to round into form over the second half of the season, with a BCS bid still in play, but that still hinges largely on which Trojans show up on the other side on Saturday night. Buyer beware.
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Notre Dame 38, USC 31
Some of the statistical trends associated with this game defy the high-flying, quarterback-driven narrative – Clemson's defense is actually outperforming the offense according to both F/+ and S&P+ – but the one that really stands out is Florida State's apparent advantage along both line of scrimmage. Offensively, the Noles are not exactly the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, but they have been able to successfully establish the run in every game with Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and converted safety Karlos Williams, who collectively average 7.1 yards per carry behind a long-in-the-tooth o-line that paved the way last year for 287 yards rushing against essentially the same defensive front it will see on Saturday. (Which also happens to be the same front that has already allowed 222 yards on the ground to Georgia, 165 to N.C. State and 323 to Syracuse, including sacks.) Defensively, FSU has given no indication of a drop-off following a mass exodus of defensive linemen for the draft, filling the void with a rotation that includes six different players (Chris Casher, Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman, Timmy Jernigan, Jacobbi McDaniel and DeMarcus Walker) who arrived on campus as five-star recruits.
How Clemson's offensive line holds up against that group is a fulcrum for how the game will unfold. In games like this, the Tigers run to keep the defense honest and move the sticks in short-yardage situations, not to grind out a lot of yards, which usually means Tajh Boyd shouldering a heavy load as the token short-yardage back. He's not a great runner, but in ten career starts against ranked opponents, Boyd has averaged 14 carries (for just under 25 yards), including a team-high 18 carries last year in Tallahassee and 16 against FSU in 2011. The top tailback, Roderick McDowell, looked like a breakout star in the star in the opener, gashing Georgia for 132 yards on 6.0 per carry; in the meantime, he's looked like an ordinary role player. So Boyd winds up absorbing a lot of additional hits because there's no one else to do it.
Jameis Winston has had the luxury of avoiding wear and tear, both because Florida State is better at generating a conventional ground game and because it's been too far ahead in most games to bother risking him on designed runs. The one exception was at Boston College, where FSU fell behind early and Winston wound up with 14 carries for 67 yards. Against Clemson, he'll be in the crosshairs of the most productive pass rush in the nation, and the most productive rusher, Vic Beasley, who has nine sacks in five FBS games. (Draftniks will want to keep an eye on Beasley against FSU left tackle Cameron Erving.) If Winston is forced into predictable, must-pass scenarios – either because the Seminoles can't run, or they've fallen behind and have to throw their way back into the game – he might get his first taste of real heat.
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Florida State 33, Clemson 28
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