Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

09 Oct 2014

SDA: Creating Separation

by Chad Peltier

Last week was chaotic for everyone -- the media, the AP and Coaches' Polls, Vegas, and advanced stats. No one was spared in a week of upsets, not even picking the high win-probability games.

This week's slate is full of great games between evenly matched teams too, but there should be less chaos potential. Ole Miss-Texas A&M, TCU-Baylor, Mississippi State-Auburn, Georgia-Missouri, and UCLA-Oregon are all games with fewer than 15 spots separating the two teams in the F/+ rankings. The SEC East will be all but decided this week, as will the Big 12. In fact, if you're a proponent of playoff teams being restricted to conference champions, then this is your critical weekend. The SEC West will continue to cannibalize itself with Mississippi State-Auburn and Ole Miss-Texas A&M. The Big 12 will only have one undefeated team after this weekend and Oklahoma is still in the mix, but the race will get much clearer. We will have to wait another month for a better picture of the Big Ten, however, with Ohio State taking an early second bye week and Michigan State facing the 3-3 Boilermakers.

Across the country this is a week for teams to create separation in their division and conference races -- and who knows, maybe we won't even have a tie in the AP Poll after this week.

BYU (+3.5) at Central Florida -- 7:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

Overall BYU Central Florida
Overall F/+ 46 64
Field Position Advantage 35 44
S&P+ 41 75
FEI 48 62
When BYU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 19 83
Efficiency 62 41
Rushing S&P 31 58
Passing S&P 76 55
When Central Florida has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 86 54
Efficiency 40 112
Rushing S&P 31 123
Passing S&P 48 30

After star quarterback Taysom Hill went down with a broken leg last week and the Cougars lost their first game of the season to Utah State, BYU suddenly has a lot to worry about in this once-promising season. Central Florida, Boise State, and Cal all look much more difficult now. Central Florida, meanwhile, has completely fallen short of preseason expectations. Ranking 25th in our preseason Projected F/+ and coming off a year where they ranked 7th overall in Rushing S&P+ and 13th in Offensive F/+, the Knights are an abysmal 123rd in Rushing S&P+ and have dropped games against Penn State and Missouri. So we have two slightly deflated teams battling it out tonight to see which can reverse their season trajectory.

Of course, the major storyline of the game is how Cougars quarterback Christian Stewart will perform in his new starting role. The coaches didn't adjust their play-calling last week after Stewart was suddenly thrust in to the game because Stewart reportedly has many of the same strengths as Hill. Before Hill's injury the Cougars offense was cooking: 19th in overall S&P+, 31st in Rushing S&P+, 34th in Success Rate, and 34th in Passing Downs. Stewart will have to redirect a large percentage of that efficiency. He's not the runner Hill was and overthrew the deep ball against Utah State, but reports from camp suggested that his throwing accuracy was his biggest asset. While that 31st-ranked rushing attack may suffer, Stewart can give the 76th Passing S&P+ offense a shot in the arm. What's interesting about the BYU offense -- as well as the Central Florida defense -- is the big gap between the S&P+ and FEI Efficiency scores. BYU is only average in the red zone, converting just under two-thirds of their trips into touchdowns, and struggles with turnovers (minus-2 margin overall), which means a lower drive efficiency than per-play efficiency. It's the opposite story for the Central Florida defense, which is below average per-play, but is stout in the red zone, allowing opponents less than a 30 percent touchdown rate. The Cougars' performance in the red zone could be the central determining factor for Stewart and company tonight.

FEI and S&P+ continue their diversion with opposite assessments of the Cougars defense and Knights offense. Central Florida has really struggled without Storm Johnson at running back, which has led to poor results on third down (39 percent) and in the red zone (57 percent). Those have been relative points of pride for the BYU defense, although they have been relatively weak on standard downs efficiency. The Cougars don't really give up big plays and are excellent on passing downs. That will make it tough going for the Knights, who are abysmal on passing downs (despite an excellent overall Passing S&P+) and on a per-play basis. The Knights will need some kind of consistent rushing threat to put the third-down offense in good position, with some explosive plays mixed in to try and avoid the stingy Cougars red zone defense altogether.

Despite entering the game as 3.5-point underdogs and breaking in a new starting quarterback, there is a lot to like about BYU, especially if they can convert touchdowns in the red zone on offense and put the Knights into third-and-long situations on defense.

F/+ Straight Pick: BYU

Georgia (-3) at Missouri -- 12 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Georgia Missouri
Overall F/+ 21 33
Field Position Advantage 2 56
S&P+ 20 39
FEI 22 20
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 7 23
Efficiency 16 47
Rushing S&P 7 61
Passing S&P 56 27
When Missouri has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 52 62
Efficiency 54 36
Rushing S&P 46 63
Passing S&P 58 39

The de facto SEC East championship is set to be one of the best games of the week. Whichever team manages to take this game is in the complete driver's seat for the division (likely continuing a three-year trend of either the Dawgs or Tigers winning the SEC East). It's tough to pick out the favorite for this game, however. The Dawgs have oscillated between "playoff lock" and a repeat of the secondary-less 2013 team, while the Tigers somehow lost to Indiana. Go figure.

The game comes down to three main points. First, and most important, will be how consistent the Missouri defense can be stopping Todd Gurley. With the seventh-ranked Rushing S&P+ offense, the Dawgs have leaned entirely on their fleet of running backs to grind opponents down with a mix of explosive runs and consistent gains on standard downs. Mike Bobo's strategy has been to start Gurley effectively in the first quarter, sub in Nick Chubb and the other talented (but now injured) Georgia backs in the middle of the game, then unleash the beast in the fourth quarter. That has led to Gurley running for 10.6 yards per carry with four runs of 20 yards or more in fourth quarters alone this season (and he has sat out or rested most of several games this year!). Missouri's pass rush (which we'll get to later) has been stronger than its rushing defense, but they'll need to destabilize Gurley on first and second down throughout the game and force Georgia into third-and-long situations where they feel uncomfortable with either Hutson Mason slinging the ball around or relying on Gurley to get it all done himself. The best way to do that might be for Missouri to play aggressively from the beginning and attempt to jump out to an early lead, forcing Bobo to ditch his preferred run-heavy strategy.

Second, even though Georgia's passing defense isn't ranked much worse than its rushing defense, the secondary is comparatively less talented than the deep front seven and particularly struggles on passing downs (91st) despite only allowing an 29 percent third down conversion rate (11th best). In those situations the Georgia pass rush hasn't been quick enough to get to the quarterback (and likely Jeremy Pruitt isn't saying "sic 'em" because he fears for that secondary), but linebackers are forced into pass coverage. Talented inside linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson should never be in coverage, but right now it's the least-bad option. This works out well for Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk, who might not need to worry about average standard down efficiency, because he might be able to extend drives no matter the distance on third downs.

Finally, as has caused Bulldogs fans unlimited frustration, Georgia's Huston Mason must have an efficient game. If the Georgia offense is going to be as unbalanced as it has been, then Georgia cannot afford to allow sacks on standard downs from an aggressive Missouri pass rush, nor can Mason turn the ball over. If Georgia can effectively mix a quick passing game with play action, then the Dawgs' chances improve significantly. But if the Tigers can force a turnover or two then this could be very well be South Carolina Part Two for the Dawgs.

F/+ Straight Pick: Georgia

Auburn (-3) at Mississippi State -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Auburn Mississippi State
Overall F/+ 5 2
Field Position Advantage 15 25
S&P+ 4 2
FEI 7 6
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 4 7
Efficiency 13 9
Rushing S&P 50 4
Passing S&P 8 31
When Mississippi State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 9 1
Efficiency 27 22
Rushing S&P 37 3
Passing S&P 45 7

In what may be the best matchup of the week between two undefeated and top-five teams, neither side has a clear advantage. Mississippi State looks like the third-ranked team it is, boasting an efficient offense and strong front seven on defense. Auburn, meanwhile, has been increasingly effective on defense while displaying surprising passing and passing downs efficiency.

It's relatively difficult to forecast how effective these offenses will be despite season-long efficiency. Neither offense has a clear advantage overall on offense by either S&P+ or FEI Efficiency, but they do have advantages when separating Rushing and Passing S&P. The Auburn defense looks far more effective when adjusting for opponents, and has been particularly efficient on passing downs and limiting opponent first downs (allowing opponents just a first down on more than half of all possessions). Mississippi State's offense has been slightly more efficient than explosive, but that doesn't really play in to the Tigers' defensive weakness. However, Dak Prescott should find some holes in the pass defense, particularly on standard downs.

The situation is less clear when Auburn has the ball. At fourth in S&P+ and 13th in unadjusted offensive efficiency, it's clear the Tigers are an elite Malzhan offense, but being ranked 50th in Rushing S&P+ is probably a surprise and may not be totally reflective of the unit's actual ability. Sure, the offense misses Tre Mason, but running back Cameron Artis-Payne is no slouch either. The passing game is efficient but Nick Marshall hasn't exactly bloomed into the passer that many suggested he had become from offseason workouts. He has only thrown one interception on 95 pass attempts, but averages less than 8 yards per attempt and just over 10 yards per completion. An explosive passing game would certainly help the Tigers exploit Mississippi State's one apparent defensive weakness against the pass -- and particularly allowing explosive passing plays. So look for Marshall to target his big-play receivers D'haquille Williams and particularly Sammy Coates.

F/+ Straight Pick: Mississippi State

TCU (+8.5) at Baylor -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall TCU Baylor
Overall F/+ 7 9
Field Position Advantage 10 6
S&P+ 11 6
FEI 3 19
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 12 3
Efficiency 45 3
Rushing S&P 6 5
Passing S&P 32 1
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 18 23
Efficiency 4 9
Rushing S&P 17 14
Passing S&P 10 2

This is likely the most interesting game outside of the SEC West, with two more fairly evenly-matched teams. There aren't clear advantages or disadvantages in many of the statistical matchups here, so we'll need to zoom in on two of the three clear statistical disparities -- the TCU offensive efficiency and Passing S&P.

We know that the Baylor offense is typically excellent with Bryce Petty under center (despite being somewhat slowed by the Longhorns defense) and the TCU defense has been particularly effective on third downs and limiting explosive drives. What is less clear is how effective the Horned Frogs offense really is. They've been efficient rushing the ball despite lacking a clear leading running back -- quarterback Trevone Boykin leads the team in both carries and rushing yards -- but Baylor's rushing defense is one of the best in the country. Boykin has led a similarly efficient passing offense that isn't very explosive (65th in IsoPPP). The Bears are ranked within the top five of every defensive S&P+ measure, and the top 25 of every FEI component as well. Neither team has an advantage is turnover margin, with both again ranked in the top 25 and averaging nearly +1 per game over opponents. So the key to this game will likely be in whether Boykin can continue his excellent play.

F/+ Straight Pick: Baylor

Oregon (-2.5) at UCLA -- 3:30 p.m. (Fox)

Overall Oregon UCLA
Overall F/+ 6 10
Field Position Advantage 47 29
S&P+ 10 23
FEI 5 2
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 3 34
Efficiency 1 63
Rushing S&P 23 29
Passing S&P 3 59
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 33 24
Efficiency 81 23
Rushing S&P 34 54
Passing S&P 84 54

This Pac-12 showdown has lost some of its luster with both teams falling last week, but it still looks to be one of the best games of the week with potential playoff ramifications. UCLA and Oregon share a great deal in common, even if it's not as apparent at first glance. Both offenses are led by upperclassmen Heisman-contending quarterbacks, are extremely efficient and among the best in the nation, but have terrible offensive lines. In fact, Oregon and UCLA are both among the worst in the nation in sacks allowed per game: Oregon is 114th and allows an average of three sacks per game while UCLA is worse, allowing 4.4. Even the defenses are ranked similarly higher on a per-play basis (33rd and 34th) compared to their much lower possession efficiencies. If I had to make a single prediction, I'd guess that whichever team leads in sacks will also win the game.

Early signs point to that being Oregon. The Oregon defense averages 3.2 sacks per game compared to UCLA's 1.4. Many were surprised by Virginia's surprising 11 tackles for loss and five sacks, but they may reflect more on UCLA's offensive line than anything else. Oregon will need to do all it can to keep the injured Marcus Mariota upright, because he certainly gives the Ducks the best chance to win. That's obvious, but Mariota's importance can't really be exaggerated due to the Ducks' relative inefficiency running the ball. The numbers suggested that Oregon could and should pass frequently against Arizona, but the Ducks didn't lean on the passing game in that loss. It's the same this week, with the UCLA defense relatively weak against the pass and more reliant on drive-ending big plays and preventing opposing big plays.

UCLA has consistent rankings between S&P+ and Offensive Efficiency, while the Ducks are far worse in defensive drive efficiency than per-play. S&P+ isn't particularly impressed with either the Bruins' rushing or passing game, but a lot relies on whether Brett Hundley is healthy and protected. When he is, the Bruins are more efficient than explosive and better on standard downs than passing downs. That puts even more pressure on the offensive line in obvious passing situations, since the Ducks have been worse than average against the pass, but have been fairly effective getting to the quarterback. With enough time, Hundley should be able to exploit the Ducks secondary enough to win the game by a narrow margin. If not, then this could turn in to a frustrating slugfest of efficient offenses mired by big losses.

F/+ Straight Pick: UCLA

Ole Miss (+2) at Texas A&M -- 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Ole Miss Texas A&M
Overall F/+ 1 16
Field Position Advantage 12 58
S&P+ 2 18
FEI 6 21
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 13 27
Efficiency 26 87
Rushing S&P 114 84
Passing S&P 12 65
When Texas A&M has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 2 10
Efficiency 2 5
Rushing S&P 22 4
Passing S&P 3 10

Mississippi State was able to fully exploit the Aggies' weaknesses, which the Razorbacks couldn't fully exploit last week, so the game plan for beating Kenny Hill and company is already written. Ole Miss, by all accounts, should be in a position both statistically and in terms of personnel to take advantage of these Aggies weaknesses.

Ole Miss is built like an old-guard SEC team: defense-forward and with just enough quarterback play to win ball games. The only glaring difference between Ole Miss in 2014 and old Alabama championships squads is how poor the rushing offense has been. Where Alabama could win with excellent field position, defense, and Heisman-quality running backs, Ole Miss has the 114th-ranked rushing offense. The Aggies defense is certainly not all-world against the run, but it's unclear whether the Rebels can exploit that weakness. And if the Ole Miss offense is entirely in the hands of Bo Wallace, you really never know what you're going to get game-to-game. That unpredictability will only be compounded by Aggie freshman defensive end Myles Garrett's ability to get to the quarterback.

Otherwise you have an exciting matchup between the consensus second-ranked defense in the country versus Kevin Sumlin's offense. Kenny Hill wasn't as effective against Mississippi State as he has been the rest of the season, but the offense still dominates standard downs with a surprisingly effective by-committee run game. Rush defense also happens to be the Rebels' comparative weakness (though they're still in the top 25) and it's possible to imagine the Aggies stringing together long drives on the back of an efficient rushing game. The Rebels are much more effective preventing explosive drives (third) compared to stopping methodical drives (28th). Mississippi State showed that the Aggies can be slowed by taking out short perimeter passes, but the Rebels will also need to slow down the rushing game and force passing downs in order to remain in the top three.

F/+ Straight Pick: Ole Miss

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 7

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
BYU 3 Central Florida BYU BYU
Texas 14.5 Oklahoma Oklahoma Oklahoma
Duke 3 Georgia Tech Georgia Tech Georgia Tech
TCU 8 Baylor Baylor TCU
Mississippi State 3 Auburn Mississippi State Mississippi State
Arkansas 10 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Florida 1.5 LSU LSU LSU
UCLA 2.5 Oregon UCLA UCLA
Missouri 3 Georgia Georgia Missouri
Ole Miss 2 Texas A&M Ole Miss Ole Miss
Arizona 2.5 Southern Cal Arizona Arizona

Record last week outright: 7-5
Record last week against the spread: 6-6
Season outright: 47-22
Season against the spread: 35-34

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 09 Oct 2014

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