Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

18 Sep 2014

SDA: Big Tests for Playoff Front Runners

by Chad Peltier

It's a big weekend for five potential playoff challengers. Though LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma, FSU, and Auburn are all favored in their games this weekend, any one of Mississippi State, Florida, West Virginia, Clemson, or Kansas State could manage the upset. The biggest Vegas spread is actually between Clemson and Florida State, where the Seminoles are 20-point favorites. Even with Clemson's big loss to Georgia in the opener, the Tigers have a quality team. Meanwhile, the Kansas State-Auburn and LSU-Mississippi State matchups are fairly even statistically. While the former has the chance to turn in to a run-wild shootout, the latter looks like a classic SEC grind-it-out defensive showdown.

Last week's upsets from South Carolina, Virginia, East Carolina, and West Virginia did not do great things for the F/+ record against the spread, but it has performed admirably in picking outright winners. A lot of that can be chalked up to it still being early in the season -- some teams have still only played two games, giving us only two chances to collect data and update last season's metrics. However, we can project that a few teams -- Mississippi State in particular -- are likely better than their AP rankings (or lack of rankings) suggest. The Bulldogs, for instance, are 17th in the F/+ rankings behind solid play from both the offense and defense, despite being unranked in the last AP poll (behind a Nebraska squad that almost lost to McNeese State!).

This is a weekend for clarity in the hunt for one of the four playoff spots. Five teams have a chance to position themselves well as they start conference play, or we could begin to see the real deficiencies that were previously masked from playing unranked opponents. Clemson and Vic Beasley will face a Jameis Winston-less Florida State for the first half as the Seminoles' Heisman winner was suspended for shouting an obscene phrase in the FSU student union. Kansas State has a chance to knock out the defending SEC champion Tigers in what should be a hard-hitting, offense-focused matchup later tonight. Florida takes on Nick Saban and Alabama for the first of its six straight games against ranked teams. Maybe last week's triple overtime against Kentucky was just the Gators looking ahead to the Crimson Tide. This will absolutely be the Gators at their freshest, so who knows if anyone is safe in Week 4.

Auburn (-9.5) at Kansas State -- Thursday 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Kansas State Auburn
Overall F/+ 26 7
2013 Special Teams F/+ 33 7
S&P+ 34 5
FEI 21 12
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 15 29
2013 FEI 16 10
2013 Rushing S&P+ 20 36
2013 Passing S&P+ 11 19
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 82 7
2013 FEI 35 7
2013 Rushing S&P+ 86 2
2013 Passing S&P+ 42 16

Auburn and Kansas State square off later tonight in a game that should mix the past and the present. Both offenses are spread-to-run-based with nods to classic rushing offenses of yesterday, including the Wildcats' "spread power I" and Gus Malzhan's incorporation of Wing-T concepts. Neither passing game is that well refined, so most of the yards should come on the ground.

However, Kansas State does have one of the most impressive wide receivers in the country in All-American Tyler Lockett, while Auburn is reportedly missing starting safety Jermaine Whitehead. The loss hurts for the Tigers. Not only was Whitehead a solid senior with an interception in each game this season, but it may force the Tigers to either reshuffle their defensive backfield or turn to younger players to retain their likely defensive strategy of forcing Kansas State to beat them through the air. Without experienced safety run support, that task gets a little harder. Even with everyone playing, Auburn might have a tough time with this matchup, as Kansas State brings the 15th-ranked S&P+ offense that was also 16th in FEI last year. Snyder's team, as usual, is well-coached, disciplined, and steady year-to-year. His offenses are generally steady play-to-play no matter where they are on the field (10th in Offensive Success Rate+ and 4th in Offensive Red Zone S&P+).

Auburn's offense, meanwhile, is the juggernaut we've come to expect from Malzhan. Even missing Tre Mason from last season, Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne are still running efficiently for the seventh-ranked S&P+ offense. The Wildcats' defense is below average, especially against the rush. Ranking 86th against the run last season and 82nd now in S&P+, the Wildcats lack the defense to be an elite team. While they're better situated to defend the pass-first Big 12 offenses, their inability to consistently defend the rush (and it's more of a success rate problem than explosiveness problem) does not look promising against the Tigers.

While both teams should produce some fireworks tonight, the numbers favor the Tigers to get slightly more stops on defense. Unless Lockett runs free for most of the night and/or the Wildcats consistently avoid passing downs, Auburn should be well positioned to win.

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F/+ Pick: Auburn

CLEMSON (+20) at FLORIDA STATE -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Clemson Florida State
Overall F/+ 21 1
Special Teams F/+ 78 27
S&P+ 23 1
FEI 22 2
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 45 1
2013 FEI 26 5
2013 Rushing S&P+ 32 4
2013 Passing S&P+ 10 4
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 18 2
2013 FEI 17 12
2013 Rushing S&P+ 12 14
2013 Passing S&P+ 17 1

Clemson vs. Florida State had perhaps the most hype of any game last season, but that's muted somewhat this year. For one, Florida State looks like the clearly better team, as the Tigers come off of a loss to Georgia in the opener. In fact, the Seminoles hold the advantage in nearly every statistical comparison except for Offensive FEI and 2013 Rushing S&P+. However, this is likely the Seminoles' biggest test of the regular season outside of Notre Dame. Florida State has the highest number of Remaining Mean Wins in the country at 8.9, and Clemson doesn't look likely to stop them from getting one win closer to 12-0.

However, it's possible that the Georgia game wasn't the best barometer for the Tigers. After all, Bulldogs defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt knew a thing or two about stopping Clemson (he engineered the defensive side of the 51-14 beatdown from last season). And Clemson's offense is still exceedingly dangerous under offensive coordinator Chad Morris. While only 45th in S&P+ this season (mainly because they have only played two games this season, one of which was against South Carolina State), either quarterback Cole Stoudt or freshman phenom Deshaun Watson is more than capable of putting the ball in the hands of Clemson's stable of receivers. The Seminoles defense doesn't have many weaknesses, but it was slightly less efficient in the red zone last season.

The Seminoles are first in Defensive S&P+ and second in Offensive S&P+, but it's still surprising that this game opened with a 22-point spread in favor of Florida State. Is this an overreaction to the Georgia loss or just confidence in the Seminoles? Either way, the Tigers still have Vic Beasley ready to fly after Jameis Winston off the edge. With that pass rush and the admittedly less-potent Seminoles rushing game, the Florida State offense will hinge on pass protection and Winston's ability to distribute the ball without Kelvin Benjamin .

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F/+ Pick: Florida State

MIAMI (+7) vs. NEBRASKA -- 8 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Miami Nebraska
Overall F/+ 31 27
Special Teams F/+ 42 38
S&P+ 22 25
FEI 36 27
When Miami has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 20 20
2013 FEI 14 26
2013 Rushing S&P+ 10 84
2013 Passing S&P+ 3 41
When Nebraska has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 41 54
2013 FEI 92 66
2013 Rushing S&P+ 100 23
2013 Passing S&P+ 92 60

Neither the Hurricanes nor the Cornhuskers are among college football's elite any longer, nor will this game have significant playoff implications, but this may be the most closely contested and potentially best game of the week. With only three schools separating the Huskers and Canes in the F/+ rankings, the two teams are extremely balanced on both sides of the ball -- even their special teams rankings are almost the same.

Both teams may also rely on the ground game on offense as well. Miami's Duke Johnson nears his early flashes of greatness as he returns from a broken ankle last season, while Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah is a classic, do-everything running back who propelled the Huskers into the top 25 in Rushing S&P+ last season. While the Hurricanes may have been more pass-oriented last season, the graduation of erratic but prolific Stephen Morris and the recent dismissal of redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen leaves Brad Kaaya alone against All-American defensive end Randy Gregory. Kaaya has managed to throw twelve passes of 20-plus yards this season (tied for 25th in the country), so it's not like he's a total drop-off in talent. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong has accuracy issues, but he throws to two very talented and big targets in Jordan Westkamp and Kenny Bell.

Comparing the S&P+ rankings for both teams, neither has a decisive advantage on either side of the ball. Both are 20th when the Canes are on offense, and Miami has a slight advantage when the Huskers get the ball. However, one thing that's for sure is that Miami would be wise to run Duke Johnson all night against last season's 84th-ranked Rushing S&P+ defense, while the Huskers should do the same with Abdullah against last season's 100th-best rushing defense. Actually, it's pick your poison for the Huskers, as the Hurricane defensive backfield might be ripe for the picking. Though it's hard to favor the Huskers after a narrow comeback win over McNeese State and the Big Ten's struggles overall, Nebraska has a few more offensive weapons to give them the edge.

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F/+ Pick: Nebraska

MISSISSIPPI STATE (+10) at LSU -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Mississippi State LSU
Overall F/+ 17 10
Special Teams F/+ 102 10
S&P+ 11 14
FEI 31 5
When Mississippi State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 14 2
2013 FEI 46 38
2013 Rushing S&P+ 52 40
2013 Passing S&P+ 46 20
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 13 56
2013 FEI 25 5
2013 Rushing S&P+ 10 18
2013 Passing S&P+ 18 8

LSU vs. Mississippi State would not normally be a hot ticket game, but Dan Mullen's team is playing solid defensive football. Other prime time Saturday night matchups might get most of your attention this weekend, but this SEC West showdown will exemplify how good the defenses can be in the best division in college football.

Only six teams separate the Tigers and Bulldogs in the F/+ rankings, and Mississippi State is performing surprisingly well on offense (14th in S&P+). Both defenses have the clear advantage and it will be strength-on-strength when the Tigers have the ball. LSU running backs Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette are leading a typically potent ground game (14th in rushes of 20-plus yards even though they're averaging just 4.27 yards per rush) against the big MSU front seven. The key to the entire game may be in how well Mississippi State defends the Tigers' rushing game, because neither Brandon Harris nor Anthony Jennings has really seized control of the quarterback position for LSU.

The second key for Mississippi State is in how well quarterback Dak Prescott plays. Prescott is almost as important for the Bulldogs running the ball as he is passing, and so far that has worked out to almost 300 yards rushing in the past two games. LSU is not Southern Miss or UAB, however. While the Tigers' defensive strength is clearly against the pass (after giving up nearly seven yards per carry to Wisconsin), any Miles-coached team will be solid overall defensively.

With Mississippi State's front seven and LSU's defensive backfield, this game will be all about the battles in the trenches. It will likely be low-scoring, with some less-than-impressive passing attacks, but that LSU should win by about a touchdown.

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F/+ Pick: LSU

Oklahoma (-7.5) at West Virginia -- 7:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall West Virginia Oklahoma
Overall F/+ 54 5
Special Teams F/+ 49 37
S&P+ 55 4
FEI 57 10
When West Virginia has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 55 25
2013 FEI 86 15
2013 Rushing S&P+ 109 72
2013 Passing S&P+ 63 21
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 67 8
2013 FEI 55 23
2013 Rushing S&P+ 62 26
2013 Passing S&P+ 102 32

Tennessee was something of a test for Trevor Knight and the Sooners, but this in-conference matchup is definitely the first big test for the Sooners defense. West Virginia's typically high-flying offense looks back on track after ranking 86th in FEI last season. The Sooners are no doubt the statistical favorites, but Vegas only has them winning by about a touchdown. Considering the stark differences in the numbers, you'd expect the spread to be considerably higher.

The Mountaineers' best chance is to turn this game into a shootout. Quarterback Clint Trickett was able to throw for 365 yards against Alabama, and he has a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio through three games. Holgorsen's defense, meanwhile, is especially susceptible to the pass (as always) after being ranked 105th in Defensive IsoPPP+ last season. That doesn't bode well against potential Heisman challenger Trevor Knight. As Knight emerged on a national stage last season against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, he has led the Sooners offense to the eighth-best S&P+ ranking. The Sooners will have to rely on Knight on offense, too, since starting running back Keith Ford was injured and will miss the next few weeks. Freshman Samaje Perine and redshirt sophomore Alex Ross have proven to be capable, but neither offers the pass protection capabilities that Ford brought to the table. The Sooners will likely want to be a more ball control-like offense just to keep Trickett off the field as much as possible, too. Getting a high success rate from Perine and Ross is imperative, as is moving the chains with short passes from Knight. If the Sooners offense can intersperse their long drives with explosive pass plays (to which the Mountaineers have proven susceptible), it will be difficult for West Virginia to pull off the upset.

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F/+ Pick: Oklahoma

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 4

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Kansas State 9.5 Auburn Auburn Kansas State
Iowa 7 Pitt Pitt Iowa
Georgia Tech 8 Virginia Tech Virginia Tech Georgia Tech
North Carolina 2 East Carolina East Carolina North Carolina
Florida 14.5 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Virginia 14 BYU BYU Virginia
Mississippi State 10 LSU LSU Mississippi State
Vanderbilt 22 South Carolina South Carolina Vanderbilt
West Virginia 7.5 Oklahoma Oklahoma Oklahoma
Clemson 20 Florida State Florida State Florida State
Miami 7 Nebraska Nebraska Miami

Record last week outright: 8-5
Record last week against the spread: 4-9
Record outright overall: 25-10
Record against the spread overall: 16-19

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 18 Sep 2014

5 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2014, 6:52am by Chad Peltier

Comments

1
by dwest718 :: Thu, 09/18/2014 - 6:00pm

F/+ Lock of the week this week?

2
by dab3dab3 :: Thu, 09/18/2014 - 6:04pm

chad.....who is your lock(s) of the week?

4
by Chad Peltier :: Mon, 09/22/2014 - 6:50am

Lock is in bold

3
by Scott de B. :: Thu, 09/18/2014 - 9:03pm

You seem to be under the mistaken impression that Nebraska trailed for much of the McNeese State game. Nebraska never trailed after their second possession. There was no "comeback win".

5
by Chad Peltier :: Mon, 09/22/2014 - 6:52am

You're right, good catch. They were tied at 24 when Abdullah broke free on his catch and run.