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?
08 Nov 2013
by Matt Hinton
Nick Saban left Baton Rouge in 2004, but in style and substance, LSU remains the closest living relative to the juggernaut he's seen to fruition two states away. Maybe all that shared DNA helps explain why the Bama–LSU series has been such a dead heat, even in years when the records would seem to suggest otherwise: While Saban preaches to his players incessantly that they should strive to compete against themselves, LSU is the only opponent that brings the analogy to life.
Since Saban touched down at Alabama in 2007, the Tigers and Tide have split six regular-season games, 3–3, by a grand total of 32 points. (The last two years, Bama has come into the LSU game winning its first eight by an average of 32 points, and both of those games came down to the final play.) Saban's successor at LSU, Les Miles, is the only coach in that span to beat Saban twice in a row, or twice, period. The combined score in those six games is Alabama 133, LSU 127. Even if you throw in the one-sided, 21–0 flop of a BCS title game in 2011, the rivalry emerges as two identical, blue-chip rosters canceling one another out.
Because LSU comes in with two losses, the 2013 edition doesn't carry the outsized, winner-take-all hype of the past two years, but there is no mistaking the Tigers for just another speed bump on Alabama's path of destruction. If any team in college football can dethrone the Crimson Tide, it's LSU – it's always LSU. Because it's only fitting that Bama's biggest obstacle should be the one created in its own image.
Wait a minute, why are teams from different time zones who haven't played in 33 years suddenly hooking up for a random, September-y non-conference game at the height of the conference season? Uh, why are you asking? Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
And compared to the watered-down Big Ten fare that would usually occupy this time slot, this is a gift. Although the Cougars and Badgers barely rate right now in the mainstream polls or the BCS standings, this is the only matchup of the day between two teams that rank in the top dozen according to both F/+ and S&P+, a claim even Alabama–LSU cannot make (see below). That also makes it arguably the toughest game on either team's schedule outside of Wisconsin's trips to Ohio State and maybe Arizona State earlier in the season. After close losses in both of those games, it may also be the Badgers' last chance to chalk up a victory that backs up the impressive numbers.
Both offenses here are run-first, run-last and run-as-often-as-possible-in-between, only differing in their preference for who's doing the running: BYU's leading rusher is its quarterback, Taysom Hill, while Wisconsin keeps the ball overwhelmingly in the hands of tailbacks James White and Melvin Gordon. When they do throw, both teams have proven senior targets (Cody Hoffman for BYU, Jared Abbrederis for Wisconsin) who rank among the post most prolific receivers in school history. If there's any advantage, it may be that Wisconsin QB Joel Stave fares better in must-pass situations than Hill, whose pass efficiency on all third-down attempts is an abysmal 69.9. Then again, the presence of ball-hawking linebacker Kyle Van Noy on the Cougar pass rush has a tendency to level the playing field.
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Wisconsin 29, BYU 23
If not for Nebraska's dramatic, Hail Mary heave to beat Northwestern, this game would have doubled as the world's largest group therapy session, and there's still plenty of angst to go around. Before the game-winner dropped from the heavens, the Cornhuskers were staring at their second consecutive loss against a Big Ten welterweight, against a backdrop of ongoing uncertainty at quarterback and rampant speculation about the head coach's future. (Taylor Martinez remains out Saturday, Bo Pelini remains in, both to the chagrin of much of the fan base.) Meanwhile, Michigan was pummeled into submission at Michigan State, effectively eliminating the Wolverines in the Legends Division in grisly, potentially season-killing fashion. Both teams arrive at 6–2, but neither is ranked, and neither is anywhere near the team it expected to be hitting the home stretch.
On paper, Michigan has the edge virtually across the board against Nebraska's defense, which has had more than its share of problems against competent offenses. But that's assuming there's anything left of Michigan's offense after the debacle in East Lansing, which is an open question. Even before last week, the Wolverines found themselves relying more and more on quarterback Devin Gardner to generate positive yards on the ground, picking up the slack for a tailback rotation that averaged well below four yards per carry. Against the Spartans, Gardner was sacked seven times, hit countless more and was yanked in the fourth quarter because he was too "beat up" to go on; including sacks, Michigan netted –48 yards rushing, the worst number by an FBS offense in the past three seasons. (Excluding sacks, the number rises from –48 to +1. One positive yard.) Although Nebraska is not Michigan State defensively – no one is at the moment, but Nebraska especially is not – the Cornhuskers have improved from earlier in the season, and remain relatively healthy on that side of the ball. On the other side, Michigan has opened with a different starting five on the offensive line in four of the last five games, shuffling through six different starters at the guard positions alone. There is a 19-game home winning streak to consider (the Wolverines have yet to lose in Ann Arbor under Brady Hoke), but the biggest question here is which one of these teams still has any gas in the tank.
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Michigan 27, Nebraska 23
Generally speaking, this is not a match-up that springs to mind when most fans hear "BCS ramifications," but the stakes here are actually very high: For one year and one year only, the American Athletic is one of the "Big Six" conferences with an automatic ticket to a big-money bowl for its regular season champion, and Houston and UCF happen to be tied for first place in pursuit of that ticket. UCF has already staked its claim by ambushing the presumed frontrunner, Louisville, leaving Houston as the only thing between the Knights and a cushy home stretch against Temple, Rutgers, South Florida and SMU. The Cougars haven't felled any would-be goliaths, but they are one point from an undefeated record and haven't given any indication of being in over their heads in this kind of discussion.
There is at least one very obvious reason for that: Houston is leading the nation in turnover margin at an amazing clip of +2.5 per game, on pace for the second-highest margin on record. (According to the NCAA, the all-time mark for turnover margin belongs to the 1952 UCLA Bruins, who were +4.0 per game, although the fact that they're the only team prior to 1978 on the official list casts some doubt on the exhaustiveness of that title.) At any rate, that number puts the Cougars way, way ahead of the curve: The FBS last team that finished even +2.0 over a full season was the blue-chip Miami outfit that obliterated everything in its path back in 2001.
(Another interesting footnote for recruitniks, who will recognize a couple offensive headliners in this game as high-profile, blue-chip talents who were heavily pursued by more decorated programs: UCF's starting tailback, Storm Johnson, began his career as a four-star recruit at Miami, and Houston receiver Deontay Greenberry was considered a lock to wind up at Notre Dame until a last-second defection on signing day. (Surely he is the only prospect who has ever spurned the Irish for the Cougars.) So far, they're living up to the hype as the AAC's leading rusher and leading receiver, respectively.)
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Central Florida 36, Houston 31
Last weekend was a disaster for Miami, which lost both its undefeated record and its best player, tailback Duke Johnson, to a broken ankle. Still, compared to the rest of the ACC Coastal, the Canes look like models of stability. Take Virginia Tech: While the Hokies remain well within striking distance of first place, standings-wise, they've widened the gap considerably the last two weeks by succumbing to baffling upsets at the hands of Duke and Boston College. In both of those games, the consistently excellent Tech defense was undermined by four turnovers from the offense, all of them courtesy of senior quarterback Logan Thomas, who continues to show no discernible progress toward fulfilling the potential that had pro scouts salivating back in 2011. No active quarterback with fewer than 1,000 career attempts has thrown more interceptions.
On the other hand, no other quarterback is asked to shoulder as much of his team's production, either. Against B.C., Thomas accounted for 429 of the Hokies' 446 yards of total offense, raising his share of the team's total production for the season to 75 percent. That's a huge number – for some context, the wildly prolific Johnny Manziel is accounting for 65 percent of the total yards at Texas A&M; no other ACC quarterback is over 62 percent – and it's been on the rise all year:
Logan Thomas' Share of Virginia Tech's Total Offense (2013)
vs. Alabama (L): 28.7%
Western Carolina (W): 43.3%
at East Carolina (W): 86.2%
Marshall (W): 62.6%
at Georgia Tech (W): 101.0%
North Carolina (W): 86.5%
Pittsburgh (W): 84.4%
Duke (L): 81.4%
at Boston College (L): 96.2%
(The number at Georgia Tech was over 100 percent because the rest of the team finished with negative rushing yards.) Is it any wonder he tries to do too much when no one else can be relied on to do anything at all? That puts into context just how good the defense has been to keep the Hokies in the thick of the division race, and if Thomas gets any help whatsoever down the stretch there's still a chance for them to retake the lead.
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Virginia Tech 21, Miami 16
The most obvious obstacle to another classic in 2013 is LSU's defense, on pace to finish as the most generous defense on Miles' watch by a wide margin. We probably should have seen it coming: Seven starters from the 2012 D went in the first five rounds of the draft, an overwhelming exodus even for a blue-chip factory like LSU. But the new starters have been alarmingly mediocre, at various points yielding 437 yards and 21 points to Auburn; 494 yards and 41 points to Georgia; 468 and 26 to Mississippi State; and 525 and 27 to Ole Miss in a crippling upset. Instead, with the exception of a 17–6 slugfest against an offensively-challenged edition of Florida, the Tigers have had to make a living outscoring people. With predictable results.
On that note: If Alabama has anything that might conceivably be construed as a weak spot, it's the secondary, which still bears scars from the 469-yard, five-touchdown flogging it took at Texas A&M. (It's also missing its best player, injured safety Vinnie Sunseri, who made the biggest play of the A&M win with a pick-six off Johnny Manziel.) The defense has been an absolute rock since that game, yielding a grand total of 26 points in its last six. But no one it saw in that span can hold a candle to LSU's Zach Mettenberger, who turned in arguably the best game of his career against Bama in 2012, or to his first-rate receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Then again, most of the damage in College Station came from Manziel throwing long to Mike Evans, a 6-foot-5 nightmare in the midst of one of the most dominant seasons by any receiver since the turn of the century. Landry and Beckham are as polished as Evans, if not more so, but they have nowhere near his size or raw physicality. They'll get their catches; recreating a one-of-a-kind performance is asking a bit much.
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Alabama 31, LSU 17
Last year, UCLA went off in one of the most inexplicable blowouts of the year, a 66–10 romp in the Rose Bowl that defied all context. Virtually every other piece of information about those two teams suggested they should have battled to a near-draw through double or triple overtime; instead, the Bruins thoroughly dominated a game that helped propel them to the Pac-12 South title. This year, the location flips to Tucson, but the basic point is the same: Both sides are 6–2 overall, 3–2 in the Pac-12, both have rebounded from back-to-back losses against the conference's upper crust, and both rank within seven places of one another in all three of our full-team indexes. Given that they're both a full game back of Arizona State in the division standings, they also know the loser can go ahead and book its rooms for the Fight Hunger Bowl.
One of the most relevant footnotes in 2012 was the Bruins' success against Zona tailback Ka'Deem Carey, who finished with a season-low 59 yards on just 3.4 per attempt. The following week, Carey set the Pac-12 rushing record with 366 yards against Colorado, and he's still going: Since the UCLA loss, he's cracked the 100-yard barrier with ease in eleven consecutive games, and currently leads the nation in yards per game for the second year in a row. In terms of Heisman speculation and other superlatives, Carey is relatively below the radar, but extending the streak opposite fellow All-American Anthony Barr could change that in a hurry.
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Arizona 34, UCLA 28