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?
15 Nov 2013
by Matt Hinton
The glut of contenders at the top of the polls has yielded a glut of speculation this season over the role of "style points," especially in Columbus, Ohio and Waco, Texas, where the chances of playing for a national championship seem to hinge on them. If the month of November has taught us anything, though, it's the virtue of survival at all costs. Since 2006, 13 teams ranked first or second in the BCS standings after November 10 subsequently lost a game down the stretch, including No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon last year on the same night, November 17. Almost exactly a year earlier, in 2011, No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 4 Oregon and No. 5 Oklahoma all bit the dust in a span of 24 hours on November 18-19. Of those 13 teams, only LSU in 2007 wound up playing for the championship, and only then because 2007 was the most chaotic season of the BCS era.
So yes, on paper it looks like a relatively easy weekend for the current frontrunners: Of the top six teams in the latest BCS standings, all but Stanford are favored to win Saturday by at least 25 points. (The Cardinal are four-point favorites at USC.) Most of the foreseeable drama lies further down the rankings, with less touted teams jockeying for relevance in their respective conferences; by Saturday night, the championship picture in the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 will be much clearer than they are on Friday night, which is compelling enough. But recent history tells us it's the one we never see coming that winds up changing everything, in ways we'll still be talking about for years to come.
One of the most persistent questions for UCLA has been the absence of reliable playmakers aside from quarterback Brett Hundley. Through nine games, Hundley is the team's leading rusher, and the most productive tailback, Jordon James, has missed four full games to injury. Against Arizona, the Bruins may have found that guy in true freshman Myles Jack, who went for 120 yards on the first six carries of his career, including a 66-yard touchdown that marked UCLA's longest run of the season. (Brief as it was, the Pac-12 was suitably impressed by the performance to name Jack its offensive player of the week.) Which raises an entirely new question: How to reconcile Jack's emergence on offense with his role as one of the most reliable starters on defense? Before his cameo in the backfield, Jack was tied for the team lead in solo tackles as a full-time linebacker, a role he performed with the usual aplomb (eight tackles, one TFL, two passes broken up) against the Wildcats.
Jim Mora insisted this week that Jack is still a linebacker first. But how long can he ignore a viable weapon at an injury-ravaged position in desperate need of one? If he does play both ways, how many carries can he handle without affecting his effort on defense? Will he take on an expanded role, or stick to the limited package he was able to absorb in a few days of practice? If it's the latter, how effective can it be against a defense that's seen it on film? The Bruins have stumbled into uncharted territory.
With Washington, on the other hand, there is no such mystery: Junior Bishop Sankey leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards and carries, having gone well over the century mark in seven of eight games against FBS opponents and run for at least one touchdown in all eight. Last week, UCLA was gashed for 149 yards on 5.3 per carry by the Pac-12's other blue-chip tailback, Ka'Deem Carey, and 82 more on the ground by Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker. But Denker was no threat to the Bruin secondary downfield, averaging just 5.6 yards per pass with a long of 21 yards. If Sankey finds as much room on the ground as Carey did, Keith Price has the arm and the receivers to hold the safeties deep, or to make them pay for creeping up against the run.
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Washington 32, UCLA 24
You could have made a lot of money in August betting that Auburn –- winless in SEC play last year, widely projected to finish at or near the bottom of the conference again this year -– would be the team in this game boasting a top-ten ranking and dark-horse national title hopes while Georgia clings to the bottom of the polls. But the Bulldogs aren't dead yet: With a win Saturday and the right results elsewhere (South Carolina over Florida this week, Ole Miss over Missouri next week), the SEC East is still within their grasp. Georgia also comes into this game much healthier than it was in back-to-back October losses to Mizzou and Vanderbilt, especially at wide receiver, where Michael Bennett is back at full speed and Aaron Murray's favorite target, Chris Conley, is expected to play for the first time in more than a month. An injury-plagued secondary is finally intact, as well.
The more pressing question against Auburn is how well (or at least how long) the defense is able to hold up against the most productive ground game in the conference. Last week, the Tigers ran roughshod over Tennessee for 444 yards on 8.4 per carry, nearly half of that number courtesy of quarterback Nick Marshall; in their previous four SEC games, they ran for 213 yards at LSU, 282 against Ole Miss, 379 at Texas A&M and 233 at Arkansas, generating at least three rushing touchdowns in all four. With output like that, who needs to throw? Marshall attempted all of seven passes against Tennessee, a week after putting it in the air just nine times against Arkansas. In that context, he's a more competent passer than you'd normally expect from a former cornerback, but (as with any first-year starter) Marshall has also been far less efficient against the few defenses that have forced him into must-pass situations. On 3rd-and-7 or longer, only five of 25 passes have gone for first downs. The more often the ball is in the air, the better for the Bulldogs.
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Georgia 36, Auburn 31
Duke has never beaten Miami, as conference rivals or otherwise, but clearly these Blue Devils are not afraid of breaking a few barriers. Last year it ended an 18-year bowl drought; this year, the Devils have already clinched their first winning season since 1994, snapped a 47-game losing streak against ranked opponents and carved out a share of first place in the ACC's Coastal Division. With Georgia Tech's loss to Clemson on Thursday night, Duke officially controls its own destiny re: playing in the ACC championship game. Duke!
In a battle of good vibes, the Devils would crush Miami easily: In a span of two weeks, the Hurricanes have lost both their undefeated record, a casualty of lopsided losses to Florida State and Virginia Tech, and their best player, tailback Duke Johnson, to a broken ankle. Athlete for athlete, though, Duke is still fighting a steep uphill battle, especially on defense. Through nine games, the Devils have only faced one marginally competent passing attack, Pittsburgh, which bombed the secondary for 424 yards and six touchdowns in a 58–55 shootout. The Panthers rank 42nd nationally in pass efficiency; no other opponent to date ranks in the top seventy. Miami ranks 18th, and leads the ACC in completions covering at least 30 yards. In last year's game in Coral Gables, Cane QB Stephen Morris dropped 369 yards and three touchdowns on the Devils on just 15 completions, turning in a season high for pass efficiency in a wild, 52–45 win for Miami. True, even as a senior Morris remains as likely to throw multiple interceptions as multiple touchdowns, without much rhyme or reason for when he's hot and when he's not. But he very rarely passes up an opportunity to go deep, and in this case he should have plenty of them.
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Miami 38, Duke 27
Ostensibly, this is a do-or-die struggle for control of the Big Ten's Legends division, but good luck finding anyone who thinks the Spartans and Cornhuskers have looked like equals over the past month. In its last three games, Michigan State has outscored Purdue, Illinois and Michigan by a combined 85 points without allowing a single touchdown, handing the Wolverines their most lopsided loss in the series since 1967. In its last three games, Nebraska has lost to Minnesota by double digits and barely survived nail-biters against Northwestern and Michigan with late touchdowns to win, the former courtesy of a Hail Mary tip. After a dismal September offensively, Michigan State settled on a quarterback, Connor Cook, who has significantly upgraded the passing game without putting the defense in trouble. Meanwhile, Nebraska found out this week that its starting quarterback, Taylor Martinez, is probably finished for the season due to a lingering foot injury; in Martinez's place, redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. has thrown six interceptions in his last three starts to two touchdowns.
The Spartans are never going to be the kind of team that puts away any halfway respectable opponent in the second or third quarter; even Michigan, its offense beaten to a pulp, was within realistic striking distance into the fourth. In context, though, none of their eight wins this season has been close, because the defense has been almost unfairly good. Especially at the line of scrimmage: As FO colleague Bill Connelly wrote earlier this week, MSU is not only No. 1 nationally against the run according to the overall S&P+ ratings – it's No. 1 in nearly every subcategory related to stopping the run, including Adjusted Line Yards, line yards per carry on Standard Downs, line yards per carry on Passing Downs and Power Success Rate. Out of 241 carries against the Spartans this season, only ten have gained 10 yards or more, and only 24 have earned a first down, fewest in the nation on both counts, by far.
Coincidentally, the last team to make any headway on the ground whatsoever against Michigan State was Nebraska, which ripped the Spartans for 313 yards on 7.8 per carry last November. But most of those yards belonged to Martinez running from the shotgun, and even the ones that didn't owed something to the respect the defense was forced to pay him as a runner. With Martinez on ice, and the offense as a whole suffering diminishing returns in his absence, last year's success really does look more like a random coincidence than a template for a repeat. Either way, the 2013 Spartans have given no indication of being vulnerable to such a lapse again.
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Michigan State 24, Nebraska 13
After a false start in September, is Texas turning out to be the team everyone expected it to be? In Big 12 play, the Longhorns are 6–0, tied for first place, and have outscored their three toughest opponents in that run (Oklahoma, Kansas State and TCU) by a combined 49 points. On the other hand, they've hardly looked like a team turning the corner in a pair of harrowing, come-from-behind road wins at Iowa State and West Virginia, where they needed overtime to escape last week despite four WVU turnovers in regulation. How much longer can they hold the line? Saturday's visit from Oklahoma State is the first leg of a three-game round-robin over the next four weeks that will decide the conference championship between OSU, Texas and Baylor, and the Longhorns are resigned to navigating it without their best player on offense, tailback Johnathan Gray, whose promising sophomore campaign came to an abrupt end in Morgantown due to a torn Achilles.
Meanwhile, for an 8–1 outfit still very much in control of its own destiny in the Big 12, the Cowboys are on uncertain footing offensively, too. Quarterback has been a revolving door between the opening-day starter, Clint Chelf, and sophomore J.W. Walsh, both of whom have been serviceable in the read-option role but neither of whom has demonstrated much consistency as a passer. Walsh took the reins in the opener and started the next five before the pendulum swung back to Chelf, who has taken almost every snap in the last three. Initially, the latest change on the depth chart seemed to signal a deliberate departure from the "Air Raid" philosophy that defined Mike Gundy's best teams to a far more run-oriented attack, one willing to keeping it on the ground nearly two-thirds of the time in wins over Iowa State and Texas Tech. Last week, though, the running game was M.I.A. against Kansas, managing just 85 yards on 31 carries, and Chelf's arm wound up carrying the day despite a pedestrian (51.3) completion percentage against the reigning conference doormat. This is not the same Texas defense that was ripped to ribbons in early losses to BYU and Ole Miss, by a long shot – Big 12 opponents are averaging 344.5 yards per game, second only to Baylor – but it hasn't seen an attack since the Ole Miss game with Oklahoma State's potential, either. If Chelf is sharp enough early on, the Cowboys have enough firepower (and enough of a safety net on defense) to be whoever they want to be.
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Oklahoma State 35, Texas 24
As of three weeks ago, this matchup loomed as an unlikely blockbuster with major Big 12 and BCS implications: Two undefeated upstarts, two prolific spread offenses, one neutral field, all the marbles, etc. At least Baylor has held up its end of the deal. Texas Tech, on the other hand, limps in bearing the scars of a three-game losing streak, each one more sobering than the last. Since climbing into the top ten in mid-October, the Red Raiders have looked worse by the week, losing to Oklahoma by eight, Oklahoma State by 18 and Kansas State by 23, the latter two in Lubbock. (This is becoming an annual ritual for Tech, which ended on a five-game losing streak following a 5–2 start in 2011 and dropped four of its last five in the regular season following a 6–1 start last year.) Suddenly the Raiders look every bit the welterweight, just hoping to make it four quarters against the most aggressive attack in the conference without getting knocked cold.
For Baylor, last week's validating, 41–12 blowout over Oklahoma stands as a high-water mark in the program's history. But the most encouraging aspect of the victory was how far it strayed from the up-tempo/shootout narrative: It took the Bears the entire first half to ramp up to speed offensively, and they never really hit full-throttle. Defensively, though, they looked the part of a legitimate contender, holding the Sooners to their fewest total yards (237) since 2007, and fewest yards per play (3.4) since 2005. The price of that win included injuries to tailbacks Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, who are both doubtful for Saturday, and receiver Tevin Reese, who is done for the year following surgery for a broken wrist. Still, in their absence the Bears got 182 yards rushing against OU from Shock Linwood and big plays in the passing game via Antwan Goodley, Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller. As long as Art Briles is calling the plays and Bryce Petty is pulling the trigger, the offense is going to hum along just fine. And even if it doesn't, it's nice to know the defense has their back for a change.
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Baylor 48, Texas Tech 24
At 4–5, coming off a 34–17 thrashing at the hands of Vanderbilt, Florida is at its lowest point in a generation. (Maybe a little longer, in fact.) And it's getting lower: Among the casualties against the Commodores was the leading tackler, Antonio Morrison, who joins the starting quarterback (Jeff Driskel), the most disruptive defensive lineman (Dominique Easley) and four other starters ruled out by season-ending injuries. Adding to the gloom, backup QB Tyler Murphy has been held out of practice this week due to a recurring shoulder injury, and will likely cede the start Saturday to third-stringer Skyler Mornhinweg. Altogether, coach Will Muschamp said on Thursday only 51 scholarship players will even make the trip. Barring a monumental upset over Florida State in the season finale, a loss at Carolina will effectively seal Florida's first losing season since 1979.
Still, the fact remains that when not being backed into a corner by turnovers, there's just enough left of the defense to keep almost any game within reasonable striking distance, even if it's left up to the defense or special teams to supply the strike. Against Vanderbilt, 24 of the Vandy's 34 points were the result of short-field drives that began inside Florida's 25-yard line; otherwise, the Commodores finished with season-lows for total yards (183) and yards per play (3.3), as did Arkansas, Tennessee and Miami before them. (LSU's production against the Gators – 17 points, 327 yards on 5.8 per play – were its worst against anyone prior to last week's loss at Alabama.) The Gator secondary, No. 1 nationally against the pass in the S&P+ ratings, is the best South Carolina has faced, and one of very few that can expect to match up man-to-man with the Gamecocks' solid but unspectacular receivers. Making it a four-quarter game comes down to how much gas is in the tank and how deep a hole the offense digs.
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South Carolina 21, Florida 10
For 55 minutes, Stanford played as close to a perfect game against Oregon as we've seen in 2013 or will see again. Fine. But is it sustainable? It certainly doesn't leave much margin for error. After punting on its first series, the Cardinal offense proceeded to score on its next six in a methodical, cloud-of-dust fashion that belongs to a different era. The first scoring drive covered 96 yards in a dozen plays, milking six minutes off the clock. The next covered 58 yards in five minutes, extending the lead to 14–0. The next, a 20-play, 96-yard slog that chewed up the final 8:26 of the second quarter, leading to an easy field goal on the final play of the half. The first three possessions of the second half also resulted in chip-shot field goals, at the expense of another 15 minutes off the clock. For the game, the Cardinal converted 14 third downs and amassed a 25-minute advantage in time of possession – at one point, between its last possession of the first half and its first possession of the second, Oregon's warp-speed offense didn't get off a snap for nearly an hour in real time. Meanwhile, Stanford churned out 274 yards rushing with a long gain of just sixteen.
Of course, USC is well acquainted with the Cardinal's Paleolithic M.O., having watched them do the same thing to Matt Barkley's Heisman campaign last September that they did to Marcus Mariota's last Thursday night. (In fact, Stanford has taken four in a row against USC, its longest winning streak in the 90-year history of the series.) Unlike the Ducks, though, the Trojans are designed for trench warfare: Aside from the outlying, coach-killing debacle at Arizona State on Sept. 28, opposing offenses have managed just 3.1 yards per carry and a grand total of two rushing touchdowns all season. For its part, Stanford wasn't nearly as consistent on the ground in wins over Washington and UCLA or in its only loss, at Utah, where the offense ran only 29 times in 56 total plays. Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan has a well-earned reputation for keeping the sticks moving on third down, as a runner as well as a passer, but he's not going to scare this defense as an every-down passer: In 15 career starts, Hogan has only attempted 30 passes once (at Oregon in 2012, in overtime), and hasn't completed more than 18 in a game this season.
The equation changes significantly if USC has to play without its best defender, DT Leonard Williams, who has been bothered by a bad shoulder; especially given that the injury list already includes two starting linebackers, Morgan Breslin and Lamar Dawson, who are out for the season. But WIlliams insisted this week that he expects to play, and he figures to be a very difficult man to move.
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Stanford 27, USC 17
1 comment, Last at 15 Nov 2013, 8:50pm by Kal