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?
22 Nov 2013
by Matt Hinton
As you know by now, no one stops Johnny Manziel. Not really. But he can be contained: This is a fact, documented last October, when LSU forced Manziel into three interceptions and career lows for completion percentage (51.8), pass efficiency (82.5) and yards per carry (1.6) in a 24–19 win in College Station. At the time, Jonathan Football was still a freshman upstart, not a household name, and while the setback wasn't enough to stop him from claiming a certain hallowed hunk of bronze six weeks later, it did ultimately prevent Texas A&M from winning the SEC West and (in all likelihood) the national championship. In 22 starts sat A&M, it's still Manziel's worst.
Fast-forward to 2013, and championship chatter in the SEC West is limited strictly to the state of Alabama. But Saturday's rematch in Baton Rouge is less about the stakes – Manziel's bid for a repeat in New York, both teams' bids for a BCS bowl – than the spectacle of what should be one of the most fun, full-throttle affairs of the season. Which is saying something, considering the surplus of high-scoring, down-to-the-wire drama SEC offenses have given us already. A&M will settle for nothing less: In three games against currently ranked opponents, the Aggies have scored 124 points while allowing 132, taking all three to the final minute. LSU's barn-burning, 44–41 loss at Georgia in September was arguably the most entertaining game of the season, exceeded only by last week's statistically impossible finish between Georgia and Auburn. Both offenses are loaded, and both defenses are inviting targets. If it's not the most consequential game of the season, there's no reason it can't be the most fun.
If you're surprised by the line on this game, you're not the only one, but it's not nearly the reach the records or reputations here would suggest. True, a month ago Kansas State was 2–4 with an stunning loss to an FCS team, North Dakota State. But those losses also included a 33–29 nail-biter at Oklahoma State and a competitive, 35–25 decision against Baylor, the only sustained resistance the Bears have encountered all season. From there, the Wildcats have taken four in a row, three by double digits, including a 49–26 ambush at Texas Tech. They've also settled on a balance between the "traditional" quarterback, Jake Waters, and the "athlete," Daniel Sams, who is able to create just enough space with his arm to function as a de facto tailback the rest of the time.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma's quarterback situation is back to the drawing board: After two months of Blake Bell, the pendulum has swung back to the opening day starter, Trevor Knight, who is no more likely to scare K-State with his arm than he was back in September. Knight is also working this week without a pair of suspended starters at tailback (Damien Williams) and wide receiver (Lacoltan Bester), adding to a list of absences that already includes Bell (concussion) and arguably the best players on both offense (fullback Trey Millard) and defense (linebacker Corey Nelson). On the bright side, wide receiver Sterling Shepard is expected to play after sitting out last week with a concussion. But Knight has given no indication that he can make effective use of him.
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Kansas State 31, Oklahoma 20
Where the Heisman Trophy is concerned, one-time frontrunner Marcus Mariota was forcibly removed from the discussion by Stanford, but his efficiency as a sophomore is no less of a marvel. With three touchdown passes in last week's win over Utah, Mariota extended his to TD-to-INT ratio for the season to 25–0, a number that – if it holds – would go down as the best in FBS history, by far. According to the NCAA record book (see page six), the only quarterback ever to finish a full season without an interception in at least 150 attempts is Virginia's Matt Blundin, who passed for 19 touchdowns without a pick in 1991. Mariota hasn't suffered an INT since last November, a span of 356 passes and counting.
Last November also happens to be the last time an opposing defense held Arizona tailback Ka'Deem Carey below 100 yards on the ground, or even came close: Since then, Carey has racked up 120 or more in 13 consecutive games (also the longest streak in the nation), and arrives at this game averaging 150 for the season en route to another round of All-America nods. As a team, the Wildcats are right on Oregon's heels as the most productive ground game in the conference. But that is where the comparisons end. While senior QB B.J. Denker has been relatively accurate (six straight games with a completion rate above 60 percent) and has avoided crippling mistakes (only four interceptions in 305 attempts), he is no threat whatsoever to challenge the Ducks' secondary downfield: Among full-time Pac-12 starters, Denker ranks dead last in touchdowns, yards per attempt and completions covering at least 20 yards. Only Stanford's Kevin Hogan averages fewer passing yards overall, and Arizona's "spread 'n shred" style under Rich Rodriguez bears no resemblance to the Cardinal's old-school grind. Carey will get his yards, as always, but the Wildcats won't get anywhere unless the defense balances the big-play gap with a couple of its own.
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Oregon 42, Arizona 17
As mentioned above, LSU's is the only defense in two years that has kind of taken Johnny Manziel out of his game, rebounding from an early, 12–0 deficit in last year's game to hold the Aggies scoreless for nearly two-and-a-half quarters. But that defense is a distant memory, a majority of its starters now residing on NFL rosters. In its wake, the overhauled 2013 edition has been the worst defense of Les Miles' tenure, yielding 437 yards to Auburn, 494 to Georgia, 468 to Mississippi State and 525 to Ole Miss in a season-killing loss in Oxford. And although Alabama was too methodical to break the bank on total offense, finishing with a relatively pedestrian 372 yards, the Crimson Tide did score five consecutive touchdowns on their last five possessions in a 38–17 blowout, on drives covering 78, 80, 79, 71 and 78 yards. The only SEC opponent the Tigers have held below 400 yards/21 points is Florida, whose offense is about as far from Texas A&M's as two attacks in the same conference can possibly be.
But A&M has made no pretense of playing defense, either – in six SEC games, the Aggies are yielding a little over 500 yards per game – and LSU is far more capable than in the past of matching fire for fire in a shootout. Mainly, that's due to the dramatic leap at quarterback by senior Zach Mettenberger, who leads the conference in yards per attempt and remains hot on Manziel's heels in terms of overall efficiency. Where Manziel has the best individual receiver in the nation, Mike Evans, Mettenberger has the best one-two punch in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, who are both hot on Evans' heels in terms of yards, touchdowns and big plays. Both offenses have deep, productive backfields; both offenses are as healthy as they've ben all season. The most decisive variable Saturday is which one touches the ball last.
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Texas A&M 41, LSU 39
With no BCS game on the horizon and the injuries adding up, Irish eyes are already beginning to turn toward 2014, a relevant topic this week with the pending return of quarterback Everett Golson from a season-long suspension. (Golson, a full-time starter during last year's run to the BCS title game, was booted from the university in May for exercising "poor academic judgment," but plans to re-enroll this winter in time to practice with the team ahead of a bowl game.) The current starter, Tommy Rees, hasn't given fans much to look forward to down the stretch, serving up multiple interceptions in all three losses and in a near-miss against Navy. In those four games alone, the Irish are –9 in turnover margin, which may be the most glaring consequence of Golson's absence.
That's a bad omen against BYU, which has been especially active in taking the ball away: Since the end of September, the Cougars have forced multiple turnovers in six straight games, 17 in all, many of them forced by the consistent pressure of outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy on the pass rush. That's important to an offense that is more committed to the run than any opposing offense Notre Dame has seen outside of the service academies, and will be content to pound away with quarterback Taysom Hill and tailback Jamaal Wiliams as long as the score allows – remember, this is the same ground game that utterly humiliated Texas back in September – an even more attractive option this week with immovable nose guard Louis Nix III undergoing season-ending surgery. The more success the Cougars find between the tackles, the more damage Hill can inflict on play-action to Cody Hoffman. But must-pass situations are another story entirely: On third-down passes with seven yards to go or longer, Hill is an abysmal 16-of-60 with just 13 conversions.
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Notre Dame 23, BYU 19
Michigan is out. Nebraska is out. Northwestern is way, way out. But here we are in late November, and of all teams it's Minnesota clinging to life in the Big Ten's Legends division, where the Gophers sit two games back of Michigan State with the Spartans on deck in next week's regular season finale. I'll leave it up to the reader to determine whether it's more or less impressive that they've managed to put themselves in that position despite being more or less the same team statistically that finished in the division cellar in 2012. (Even with a 4–2 record in conference games, the Gophers have been slightly outgained and outscored by B1G opponents.) If nothing else, though, the offense has found an anchor in junior tailback David Cobb, a career backup who has emerged with four consecutive 100-yard games over the team's four-game winning streak.
Still, aside from Minnesota's edge in special teams, the tale of the tape in this match-up is grim in every respect. Wisconsin actually is the team the Gophers aspire to be, consistently imposing its will even against the best defenses on the schedule. Look at the last three games: Against Iowa, which (according to the most recent S&P+ rankings) ranks ninth in overall defense and third against the run, the Badgers ran for 218 yards in a 19-point win; against BYU, which ranks tenth in overall defense and sixth against the run, they ran for 229 in a 10-point win. Last week, against a truly horrible defense from Indiana, Wisconsin ground the Hoosiers into a fine paste, pounding out 554 yards on 11.1 per carry. (For now, that stands as the best single-game total on the ground by any FBS offense this season.) Minnesota is nowhere near that bad, especially with the presence of a future draft pick, Ra'shede Hageman, in the middle of the defensive line. But it's nowhere near the level of Iowa or BYU defensively, either, and would be facing an uphill battle on the line of scrimmage even it was.
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Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 17
Advanced stats and computer polls are bullish on the Pac-12, in general, but especially on Arizona State, making the Sun Devils something of a Rorschach test. On one hand, ASU is No. 6 in the latest F/+ rankings, No. 10 according to overall S&P+ and No. 11 according to a consensus of the BCS computers. On the other, the Devils don't show up in either of the BCS human polls until No. 22, the widest perception gap between man and machine anywhere in the top twenty-five. If the BCS computers were actually allowed to operate as their proprietors designed them to, the gap would probably be even wider.
UCLA has no such problem, landing somewhere between No. 13 and No. 18 across the board, but after the last two weeks the Bruins' fate seems uniquely tied to how coaches decide to handle freshman phenom Myles Jack. As a linebacker, Jack has started nine games in a row and ranks second on the team in both solo and total tackles; as a tailback, he's averaged 9.4 yards per carry with five touchdowns in wins over Arizona and Washington, flashing breakaway speed and short-yardage power in the process. But at what point does the two-way experiment begin to yield diminishing returns? Coach Jim Mora noted this week that Jack's involvement on offense is limited not only by the workload, but also by his tenuous grasp of pass protection, which makes him a potential liability when not carrying the ball; in turn, his early production is unsustainable if defenses begin reading his presence in the backfield as a sign that reads "HANDOFF TO JACK." To date, though, that scenario is strictly hypothetical – until a defense actually stops him, Jack is simply too good not to get his touches.
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Arizona State 34, UCLA 24
Another byproduct of Auburn's win over Georgia was a shortening of the fuse in the SEC East. Although Missouri still controls its own destiny to play the Iron Bowl winner in the SEC championship game, UGA's elimination from the race leaves the Tigers with no margin for error over the next two weeks – a Mizzou loss against Ole Miss or Texas A&M will deliver the division title to South Carolina. Frankly, between Auburn's Hail Mary and their own improbable, demoralizing defeat at the hands of the Gamecocks, at this point Mizzou fans have every reason to brace for an emotional fire drill.
The good news this week is the pending return of senior quarterback James Franklin, expected to make his first start in more than a month, although just how good that really is depends on your assessment of his replacement, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk. Statistically, Mauk doesn't jump off the page. But he has been good enough for the Tigers to put up 36 points on a very nasty defense from Florida, and to connect on eight touchdown passes with no interceptions against inferior units from Tennessee and Kentucky. Ole Miss does represent a much steeper challenge than Mauk has faced on the road (his starts against Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee were all at home), but he could still see spot duty in a run-first role, and there is too much at stake for Franklin to come out shaking off rust. It's a fluid situation.
Ole Miss is healthier than it's been in a while, too, most notably at tailback, where diminutive senior Jeff Scott is back in the rotation following a month-long absence. Before his injury, Scott was a key spark in the Rebels' 3–0 start, channeling ex-Rebel Dexter McCluster en route to 417 all-purpose yards and a pair of big-play touchdowns – one as a tailback, the other as a punt returner – in wins over Vanderbilt and Texas. At full speed, he can change the game (and potentially Missouri's season) in a matter of seconds.
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Ole Miss 24, Missouri 20
For any other offense, Baylor's injury situation would be dire straits. Last week, the Bears were missing their leading receiver, Tevin Reese, and their top two tailbacks, Lache Seastrunk and Glasgow Martin; this week, the casualty report includes all three as well as the starting left tackle, Spencer Drango. Does it matter? Against Texas Tech, an ostensibly shorthanded attack rolled up 675 yards (340 rushing, 335 passing) in a 63–34 blowout, the fifth time in nine games Baylor has rushed for 300 and passed for 300 in the same game. The third-string tailback, Shock Linwood, has cracked the century mark three weeks in a row and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season. So far, the specific personnel has made no difference in the Bears' path of destruction whatsoever.
The specific opponent, on the other hand, has made a difference, if only in the degree of their defeat. Kansas State, for example, led Baylor through three quarters by controlling the line of scrimmage, pounding out 327 yards rushing and a 19-minute advantage in time of possession; K-State also held the Bears to 114 yards rushing on 3.1 per carry, a banner effort against an attack that averages well over 300 on the ground in its other games. But the dam eventually broke in Manhattan, in the form of three 50-plus-yard touchdown passes from Bryce Petty, as it did against Oklahoma, which held Baylor to 10 points for the first 29 minutes but ultimately yielded 41 points because its own offense couldn't stay on the field. Even the Bears' "close" games have not been all that close in the end.
That said, this is the ideal time from Oklahoma State's perspective for the Cowboys to host a season-defining showdown that will likely decide the Big 12 title. Offensively, OSU has finally settled on a quarterback, Clint Chelf, who has reclaimed his place at the top of the depth chart with four efficient, versatile performances in as many weeks. (In three of those four, he's accounted for at least 85 yards rushing in addition to multiple touchdown passes.) Defensively, it's coming off a thorough throttling of Texas, where it held the Longhorns to a season-low 13 points. (In their first six conference games, the Longhorns scored at least 30 in all six.) Certainly this is a better team than the one that lost to West Virginia back in September, and Baylor has consistently struggled under Art Briles as a true road team. But neither of those trends has been as reliable as the Bears' week-in, week-out dominance.
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Baylor 40, Oklahoma State 26
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