Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Nov 2014

SDA: Challenging the Undefeated

by Chad Peltier

Last week's slate of games was full of elite conference matchups like Alabama-LSU and Ohio State-Michigan State, and this week is just as full of games that many anticipate will go down to the wire. Of the 11 games that we'll forecast this week, eight have a spread of less than a touchdown, and four feature two teams that are separated by less than a field goal. Nebraska-Wisconsin doesn't sound quite as appealing as Ohio State-Michigan, but the F/+ division is just as narrow. Clemson and Georgia Tech are next to one another in the rankings, Auburn and Georgia are within ten spots, and even Miami and Florida State are within three.

Speaking of the Seminoles, the two lone undefeated Playoff contenders (sorry, Marshall), Mississippi State and Florida State, have likely their greatest chances of losing this week. The Seminoles face a Hurricanes squad that is quickly improving on both offense and defense, but can't match wins with their numbers. For Mississippi State, Alabama is a talented and young team that wins without dominating.

California (+14) at USC -- 9 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

Overall Cal USC
Overall F/+ 49 24
Field Position Advantage 77 53
Offensive F/+ 38 23
Defensive F/+ 69 31
When Cal has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 38 38
FEI 32 24
Rushing S&P+ 55 69
Passing S&P+ 27 36
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 91 25
FEI 61 26
Rushing S&P+ 70 59
Passing S&P+ 111 16

The big Thursday night game this week pits two strong California quarterbacks in what we hope will be a love letter to passing attacks. The Trojans have a decided statistical advantage, but the Bears have both their hatred of the Trojans and a strong passing game from sophomore Jared Goff to fuel a potential upset bid. Neither team is ranked by the Playoff Committee, but the Trojans are 24th in the F/+ rankings thanks to solid statistical performances despite three losses by a combined 13 points.

The Trojans defense will have its hands full against an Air Raid offense that passes early (49 percent of standard downs), often (and then 79 percent of passing downs), and most importantly, efficiently. Goff completes 62 percent of his passes with just four interceptions, and has upped his yards per attempt nearly two yards. This has fueled a Golden Bears offense that is up to ninth in IsoPPP and 19th in Explosive Drives -- so when you're not turning the ball over much (averaging an interception every 93 passes, seventh-best rate in the country), generate a steady clip of explosive plays, and extend drives by converting 47.5 percent of third downs, things are going well. The Trojans have to counter this in two ways. First, they need to harass Goff as much as possible. The Golden Bears offensive line is 47th in Adjusted Sack Rate, but the Trojans secondary is 12th in Defensive Back Havoc Rate. If the Trojans can either force uncharacteristic mistakes or create negative plays, then that can shut down Cal like Washington did. Second, the Trojans have been relatively more stingy in drive defense than play defense. The Trojans allow scores on just 69 percent of opponent red zone opportunities, which is fifth in the country. So 1) generate some big plays using Su'a Cravens and the secondary, 2) prevent explosive plays, and 3) bend, but don't break.

Where things could get ugly is when the Cal offense comes off the field. While Cal's defense has improved to 69th overall, the pass defense is abysmal at 111th (and being equally poor in Success Rate at 117th and Explosive Drives at 104th). Cody Kessler will be more than happy to take advantage of this. Kessler has been as impressive as Goff in limiting turnovers, while throwing for 8.6 yards per attempt. The Trojans haven't been overwhelmingly consistent or explosive, but they have been solid enough -- specifically passing on passing downs -- to be a contender in every game they've played. What's interesting is that the Trojans have one of the lowest rates of running on standard downs (55 percent) but are far more effective passing on passing downs than standard downs (fourth versus 65th). Regardless of the run-pass division, the Trojans should be able to score enough to keep even East Coast fans watching until early Friday morning.

F/+ outright pick: USC

Clemson (-3) vs. Georgia Tech -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Georgia Tech Clemson
Overall F/+ 17 18
Field Position Advantage 12 43
Offensive F/+ 2 46
Defensive F/+ 70 1
When Georgia Tech has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 8 33
FEI 1 2
Rushing S&P+ 6 5
Passing S&P+ 8 5
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 72 49
FEI 70 40
Rushing S&P+ 106 111
Passing S&P+ 80 45

The ACC has a strong weekend between Georgia Tech–Clemson and Florida State-Miami, to the point where it's tough to say what the better game will be. The draw here is the matchup between the Yellow Jackets' second-ranked F/+ offense and the new top defense in the F/+ rankings. The Clemson offense versus the Yellow Jackets defense looks fairly poor, but I think that's deceptive, especially due to quarterback Deshaun Watson's return to action.

Starting with the less-anticipated matchup first, the big news is obviously Deshaun Watson's return. Backup Cole Stout played well in Watson's absence (with an injury to his throwing hand), but the offense clicked in Watson's three starts before his injury and Watson completed 67 percent of his passes at 10.5 yards per attempt. Since the Passing S&P+ ranking here (45th) is a season average, it likely doesn't reflect the passing offense's true ability, but the matchup is the same: the Tigers are facing a poor pass defense and a worse rush defense, but the Tigers' own rushing offense is missing a little Andre Ellington right now. But more than Ellington, the issue with the rush offense seems to be on the offensive line, where the Tigers are 90th in Opportunity Rate and 100th in Adjusted Line Yards, while 28th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Part of that result is likely because opposing front sevens could stack the box fairly heavily in Watson's absence, but it doesn't entirely explain the Tigers' struggles in short yardage situations. Clemson converts 43 percent of their third down attempts (51st), but they were under 33 percent in two games against ranked teams, and second to last in the country in Power Success Rate. There isn't much about the Yellow Jackets defense that inspires too much intimidation, and the Jackets' 79th ranking in Adjusted Sack Rate is a clear mismatch to the point where Deshaun Watson may have a career day.

So if the Clemson offense has a decided advantage, the other matchup looks to be a classic strength-on-strength battle. The Tech offense is extremely efficient when quarterback Justin Thomas does pass the ball, but he only averages thirteen attempts per game and completes just 50 percent of his passes. In typical Paul Johnson fashion, the offense is the most successful in the country even still, and explosive enough (34th) to break a run at any point. The key may be in third downs, where Georgia Tech leads the country by converting more than 59 percent of attempts. But Clemson's defense is also the tops in the country in opponent third-down conversion percentage, allowing opponents to convert just 23 percent of attempts because of their top overall Front 7 Havoc Rate and eighth-ranked Adjusted Line Yards rush defense. So it's a draw going in between the two units except for one area: explosive plays. The Clemson defense is just 59th in IsoPPP and has a slightly lower (17th) Defensive Back Havoc Rate, so you have to wonder whether Georgia Tech can connect on a few big pass plays to Deandre Smelter. Ultimately, though, while the Tech offense versus Clemson defense is a draw statistically, the other matchup heavily favors a healthy Deshaun Watson and Clemson.

F/+ outright pick: Georgia Tech

Mississippi State (+7) at Alabama -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Mississippi State Alabama
Overall F/+ 6 1
Field Position Advantage 25 108
Offensive F/+ 13 6
Defensive F/+ 6 2
When Mississippi State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 6 1
FEI 23 10
Rushing S&P+ 9 1
Passing S&P+ 12 10
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 6 4
FEI 7 12
Rushing S&P+ 9 22
Passing S&P+ 20 3

We have been treated to a number of top-five matchups this season, and everything about Mississippi State-Alabama suggests we're in for a heck of a game. Not only are both in the top five of the College Football Selection Committee's rankings, but they are both in the top six of the F/+ rankings. There are few statistical advantages for either team in this matchup -- just two for the Bulldogs and two for the Tide out of the 12 in this chart -- so the margin for error for either team is low. This is an interesting matchup not just in terms of the Playoff and the SEC West race, but in the importance of experience versus talent. According to Mississippi State beat writer Bob Carskadon, the Bulldogs start three players who were four- or five-star recruits in high school, while the Tide have 20 of 22 former four- or five-star players. Of course, the Tide also have much higher turnover to the NFL, so the Bulldogs are playing to win the experience vs. talent argument, too.

With few glaring statistical differences between the two teams, three disparities are magnified. First, the huge gap between Mississippi State's Field Position Advantage (25th) and Alabama's (108th). What has gone in to the Tide being so bad in starting field position (but still so good in Offensive and Defensive F/+)? The real problem is in the offense's starting field position (102nd), but the Tide aren't ranked below 36th in either kickoff or punt returns -- instead, the problem lies in turnovers. Like the Seminoles, the Tide have struggled in turnover margin, going -2 on the year. And digging in even deeper, it's because the Alabama defense, while excellent at most every efficiency and explosiveness ranking, haven't forced that many turnovers -- just 12 on the year. The Havoc Rates are good in both the front seven and defensive backs, but with all that disruption, there have been relatively few opponent turnovers. The key then for the Bulldogs will be just to keep that trend going -- run the ball, play field position, and don't turn the ball over.

Second, the common argument is that Alabama's offensive line is young and unexperienced, with guys like freshman left tackle Cam Robinson earning the highest praise. Again, the line is not untalented, but it is young. The resulting pregame storyline has been whether the Tide can block an experienced Bulldogs front seven with guys like Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney. However, in both Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate, the Crimson Tide offensive line is ranked in the top ten (10th and fourth, respectively). Only in Power Success Rate -- critical short-yardage situations -- do they look pretty poor (97th). Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are ranked 40th and 36th in the same two statistics. So counter to the common argument, the question shouldn't be whether the young Crimson Tide line can handle the Bulldogs front seven, but whether the Mississippi State defense can slow down Derrick Henry throughout the whole course of the game.

Finally, the Bulldogs offense has been rolling with Heisman candidate Dak Prescott doing his best Tim Tebow interpretation, but the offense is much more impressive in S&P+ than in FEI. Like Alabama, the reason might be turnovers lost, where Mississippi State is ranked 90th with 18. Thanks to their opportunistic defense (18th in interceptions), their turnover margin overall is neutral, but the ten lost fumbles have been drive killers for an otherwise efficient offense that ranks third in Success Rate and 18th in Available Yards. The Bulldogs are varied in standard downs, running just 60 percent of the time, but their costly fumbles have doomed otherwise promising drives. The Tide will look to strip every ball they can from bowling ball running back Josh Robinson.

F/+ outright pick: Alabama

Nebraska (+6) at Wisconsin -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Nebraska Wisconsin
Overall F/+ 14 19
Field Position Advantage 5 44
Offensive F/+ 33 37
Defensive F/+ 16 10
When Nebraska has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 28 9
FEI 35 13
Rushing S&P+ 26 22
Passing S&P+ 34 18
When Wisconsin has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 21 19
FEI 11 48
Rushing S&P+ 48 16
Passing S&P+ 13 66

The winner of this Big Ten West showdown likely gets the unlucky distinction of getting to face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. This game is quintessentially Big Ten, featuring two dynamic running backs in Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah who are vying for the title of the conference's best back.

The Huskers, like many teams in college football with a great running back, are excellent at winning the field position battle and have seemed unstoppable at times with Ameer carrying the load. Abdullah has piled up six games of 100-plus rushing yards, going over 200 yards three times, and carrying the ball an average of 23 times per game. Of course, it has come at a cost -- Abdullah hurt his knee against Purdue and did not practice during the Huskers' bye week last week. Despite Abdullah's insane numbers this year and the team's obvious reliance on him to run the ball, the Huskers are actually outside of the top 25 best offensive teams, even in Rushing S&P+. While Abdullah is a talent, the offense is fairly quarterback-unfriendly, running on 74 percent of standard downs and passing on 69 percent of pass downs -- a fairly predictable run-pass split. You also get the sense that quarterback Tommy Armstrong is in the same vein as former quarterback Taylor Martinez, in the sense that Armstrong has a low completion percentage (53 percent), but can fuel explosive plays (like the Huskers' twelfth-ranked IsoPPP score). The Wisconsin defense is very stout against both the run and the pass, particularly in getting big plays from their front seven (12th in Front 7 Havoc Rate). The key for the Huskers will be in whether they can establish the run enough with Abdullah and Armstrong to give Armstrong the opportunity to complete easy throws in the face of a tough Badgers defensive line.

The Badgers offense looks like it normally does, with an excellent rushing attack and a perfectly average passing offense. While Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement balance efficiency (24th Success Rate) and explosiveness (18th IsoPPP), there is steep divide between their per-play and per-drive efficiency (48th). Part of this may be due to turnover margin, where the Badgers are -4 on the season; part may be due to struggling on third downs, where the Badgers are 76th with a 39 percent conversion rate; and the final piece is likely in the red zone, where the Badgers get touchdowns an average of 64 percent of the time. The Huskers are decent on a per-play basis, but the problem is consistency, where they are 64th in preventing opposing explosive plays. Of course, the strength of the Wisconsin rushing attack is in the offensive line (21st in Adjusted Line Yards) and that's probably bad news for Nebraska's defensive line, which is 66th against in Adjusted Line Yards itself. While both teams feature elite running backs, the Badgers' offensive line likely gives them a slight rushing advantage and may be the key to a Badgers victory.

F/+ outright pick: Wisconsin

Auburn (+2.5) at Georgia -- 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Georgia Auburn
Overall F/+ 13 5
Field Position Advantage 1 39
Offensive F/+ 9 1
Defensive F/+ 43 19
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 7 17
FEI 8 27
Rushing S&P+ 1 10
Passing S&P+ 13 30
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 33 2
FEI 52 2
Rushing S&P+ 71 11
Passing S&P+ 45 1

The Georgia Bulldawgs have all of the emotional advantages coming in to the 118th edition of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. (A Georgia win here would tie the series at 55-55-8). For one, quarterback Hutson Mason just got off of his most efficient passing performance in a game where the offense scored 61 points on eight touchdown drives (out of ten total!). Second, the Bulldawgs finally return to Athens for their first home game since their October 4 victory over Vanderbilt. On the other side of the field, the Auburn Tigers were upset at home last weekend by the unranked Texas A&M Aggies. Finally, the nation's best player, Todd Gurley, returns to action for the Dawgs and the pre-game fan hype for No. 3's return is reaching critical levels. But what do the numbers say about this matchup? Are the Dawgs talented enough to capitalize on emotional advantages?

In all likelihood this game will be a shootout, with both offenses having decent statistical advantages. Georgia enters as the top rushing offense in the country thanks to the lethal combination of Gurley, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel, who are all healthy at the same time for the first time since the Tennessee game. The offensive line, which is second in the country in Adjusted Line Yards, is playing its best football as well. Even though rushing defense ratings haven't really altered offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's strategy or the unit's production, the Auburn defensive line is ranked 12th in Adjusted Line Yards and tenth against the run. So the question may be whether Hutson Mason can be accurate in his play-action passes to Chris Conley and Malcom Mitchell in the face of a defensive backfield that is seventh in havoc rate. While both teams are good in field position, Georgia really has field position and turnover margin down to a science (first in Field Position Advantage and fourth in turnover margin at +14) -- Georgia winning the battle at the line of scrimmage and maintaining that positive turnover margin may go even further than Gurley's return in determining whether the Dawgs come out on top.

It's difficult to imagine Auburn without an elite offense under Gus Malzhan, and it's the same story this year as they're currently first in Offensive F/+. That has started up front, as it always does, with the sixth-ranked offensive line in Adjusted Line Yards. The line really excels in all facets and not just run blocking (like the Bulldawgs, Buckeyes, or Ducks, for instance) and is complimented by Cameron Artis-Payne (who is averaging almost identical yards per carry and yards per game numbers as Tre Mason last season). Despite the top-ranked Passing S&P+ offense, it's unclear whether Nick Marshall's arm can win a game if he is forced into that spot. With the rushing efficiency and the line's success in pass blocking, however, he should at least have time to throw. Artis-Payne did his part in the loss to the Aggies last week (apart from his fumble) by averaging a 57 percent success rate, and the offense was only ever slowed by turnovers. It will likely be the same story this week as the neither defense can afford for their offense to turn the ball over or put them in a bad field position often. Look for this one to still be competitive into the fourth quarter, with potentially the last team with the ball winning.

F/+ outright pick: Auburn

Florida State (-2.5) at Miami -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Miami Florida State
Overall F/+ 12 9
Field Position Advantage 70 55
Offensive F/+ 10 4
Defensive F/+ 18 29
When Miami has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 16 30
FEI 10 25
Rushing S&P+ 44 91
Passing S&P+ 9 70
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 15 10
FEI 31 6
Rushing S&P+ 19 8
Passing S&P+ 7 10

We all thought Louisville and their then-top rated defense would prove to be the toughest remaining challenge for the undefeated Seminoles, but we were wrong. The Hurricanes, while unranked by the Playoff Selection Committee, are as high as 12th in the F/+ rankings. Many thought that Marshall was the biggest snub of the second Playoff Committee rankings, but Miami is a much bigger omission. The largest difference between rankings in the F/+ and College Football Playoff rankings is eight spots for Ole Miss -- except for Miami, which looks like a statistical contender even if their rankings and record don't reflect that. For Florida State fans, you can't be very excited about this game other than because of rivalry-fueled hate. The Seminoles have moved back in to a F/+ top-ten ranking after spending the season stringing together comeback wins and languishing in good-not-great statistical territory. It looks like they don't stand much to gain in perception from a win, either, with the Committee not really respecting the Hurricanes even with statistical prowess. But then again, winning is winning for the Seminoles at this point.

The most interesting matchup is when the Hurricanes have the ball. The real threat seems to be from first-year starter Brad Kaaya, who is quietly putting up a heck of a season outside of the spotlight. With the ninth-ranked passing offense, the Hurricanes are 15th in explosive drives and third in IsoPPP. They manage these numbers because of an offensive line that is 17th in Adjusted Sack Rate and throwing often on early downs (running on just 56 percent of standard downs). But what's surprising is that the rush offense is ranked just 44th despite featuring Duke Johnson, a running back who has returned from a horrible leg injury to average 7.7 yards per carry and already over 1,200 rushing yards on the season. The offensive line -- so good at pass blocking -- is also fairly proficient in run blocking (37th), so it's not them. It can't account for everything, but the Hurricanes have lost eight fumbles, which is 80th in the country. Even with the lower Rushing S&P+ ranking, this is not just a duel between elite quarterbacks, but a genuinely scary game for the Seminoles rush defense at 91st in the country. Stopping the run will be paramount for the Florida State defense.

As Jameis Winston said earlier this week, the Seminoles have been hurt by his 13 interceptions (114th, and -1 in overall turnover margin). But Florida State has actually been very balanced between rushing (eighth) and passing (tenth) offense, even without too many flashy rushing performances. So outside of whether Winston can control his interceptions, the big question is whether the Seminoles running backs like Karlos Williams and Dalvin Cook can take the load off of Winston. The Hurricanes have been excellent in stopping big plays (fourth in IsoPPP and 11th in Explosive Drives), so it'll take consistently efficient plays to beat the Hurricanes defense. But once the Seminoles get in the red zone, they're likely to get six points, since the Hurricanes defense is 94th, allowing touchdowns on close to 66 percent of opponent red zone opportunities.

For both teams, look past the quarterback duel -- the team with the more consistent offensive line and most successful rushes will likely come out on top of this ACC dogfight.

F/+ outright pick: Miami

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 12

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
California 14 USC USC USC
Georgia Tech 3 Clemson Georgia Tech Georgia Tech
Virginia Tech 6.5 Duke Duke Duke
South Carolina 7 Florida Florida Florida
Mississippi State 7 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Nebraska 6 Wisconsin Wisconsin Nebraska
Washington 9 Arizona Arizona Arizona
Auburn 2.5 Georgia Auburn Auburn
Miami 2.5 Florida State Miami Miami
LSU 2.5 Arkansas LSU LSU

Record last week outright: 5-4
Record last week against the spread: 6-3
Season record outright: 80-37
Season record against the spread: 59-61

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 13 Nov 2014

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