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» Seventh Day Adventure: Week 13

The biggest game this week is the Iron Bowl, where the playoff hopes of Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia hang in the balance.

02 Oct 2014

SDA: It's Getting Real

by Chad Peltier

This is Showdown Saturday, when twelve members of the AP top 25 square off against one another. Maybe that's most important in the crowded SEC West, where almost every team (sorry, Arkansas) is poised to win the division.

There is also a healthy mix of defense-heavy games for those of you that are sick of 49-45 final scores. Thank Stanford, Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ole Miss for being bastions of defense in this offensive age. But then again, something has to give in the Alabama-Ole Miss game, and the Blake Sims-Amari Cooper connection (with a little Lane Kiffin infusion) might just be too much for the second-ranked Mississippi defense to handle.

Not all of the action is confined to the Southeast, though. Oregon and Arizona kick off later tonight in a rematch of last season's completely out-of-left-field Wildcats upset. Two of the best teams in the Big Ten face off this weekend too, while recharging Ohio State takes on Maryland and the Terps' deep receiving core.

This is one of the best weekends of college football this season, where you could literally watch three games at a time all day long, so let's get to the previews.

Arizona (+23.5) at Oregon -- 10:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

Overall Arizona Oregon
Overall F/+ 42 2
Field Position Advantage 32 40
S&P+ 51 8
FEI 22 1
When Arizona has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 36 28
Efficiency 11 67
Rushing S&P+ 41 42
Passing S&P+ 27 79
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 76 1
Efficiency 74 3
Rushing S&P+ 51 6
Passing S&P+ 106 3

The Ducks insist that "it's just another game" versus the Arizona Wildcats, despite being upset by Rich Rodriguez's team last season 42-16. This year, Oregon and Arizona enter the game as two of the three undefeated Pac-12 teams, and the Ducks look and sound prepared to avoid a repeat. With 40 teams separating the Ducks and Wildcats on the F/+ rankings you might be tempted to write off Arizona even if the game does turn in to a track meet between the third- and eleventh-most efficient offenses.

The bettors certainly have written off the Wildcats with a consensus 24-point spread in favor of the Ducks, but that spread does belie some serious deficiencies for Oregon. First, depending on your advanced metric of choice, the Ducks either have no clear defensive advantage (36th to 28th in S&P+) or are vast underdogs (11th to 67th in Efficiency) on defense. Part of the difference between the two rankings can be chalked up to S&P+ being opponent-adjusted and including season projections (until Week 7), but it's possible that the Ducks are simply better on a per-play basis than they are at stopping scoring drives. The two primary weaknesses in defensive FEI are in allowing methodical drives and allowing an 81 percent first down rate to opponents. The Ducks seem to be fairly boom-or-bust on defense, not just because of their better per-play efficiency than possession efficiency, but because of their relatively strong defense against explosive plays (38th in IsoPPP) and weak defensive Success Rate (87th). In fact, the Ducks have the weakest Success Rate of the top 30 Defensive S&P+ teams.

While clearly less talented than the Ducks, the Wildcats offense at least matches up well with Oregon's weakness against the pass, as freshman Anu Solomon is completing almost two-thirds of his passes for an average of 363 yards per game. That doesn't mean that Arizona has completely blown out its opponents this season. Apart from a 58-13 season opener over UNLV, they have won their last three games by a combined 14 points. One thing to watch out for tonight: Arizona has been far more effective on standard downs (14th) than passing downs (68th), while the Ducks have been the opposite on defense (109th and 14th, respectively). In order to notch a second-straight upset, the Wildcats will need to win standard downs and best their current 40 percent third-down conversion rate.

The Ducks -- as you could say in most of their games -- look to have the clear upper hand on offense. FEI and S&P+ agree that the Ducks are efficient and explosive on the ground and through the air, regardless of the down. However, for Marcus Mariota to have a career night against a lackluster pass defense, he'll also need to remain upright long enough to distribute the ball to his playmakers. After the newly rebuilt and injury-laden offensive line allowed seven sacks to Mike Leach's Washington State defense, the Ducks have used the off week to get two new starters up to speed and scheme to compensate for pass blocking deficiencies.

Even though the script is written for a second-straight Wildcats upset (sack Mariota, win standard downs on defense, and attack the Ducks secondary), the talent level differential may be too much to overcome for Arizona.

F/+ Pick: Oregon

Texas A&M (+2.5) at Mississippi State -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Texas A&M Mississippi State
Overall F/+ 11 7
Field Position Advantage 60 24
S&P+ 14 5
FEI 5 12
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 15 10
Efficiency 1 8
Rushing S&P+ 4 2
Passing S&P+ 7 42
When Mississippi State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 14 2
Efficiency 60 35
Rushing S&P+ 37 16
Passing S&P+ 31 9

In the first of three major matchups in the best division in college football, the Aggies look to make it to 6-0 for the first time since 1994 while the Bulldogs try to best preseason projections and notch a second victory over an elite SEC West foe. Either team could have the advantage, depending on whom you ask. The Aggies are sixth in the AP Poll compared to the Bulldogs at 12th, and the Vegas line opened with the Aggies as 1.5-point favorites, but the line has since shifted towards Mississippi State at -2.5, and the Bulldogs have a slightly better overall F/+ rating. This game pits S&P+ and FEI against one another: S&P+ favors the Bulldogs while FEI in on the Aggies' side by an almost equal margin.

As Kevin Sumlin has said in the run up to the game, "you could argue [the Bulldogs] are as hot as anybody," and that starts with their offense. Junior Dak Prescott has typified the dual threat quarterback position, averaging more than 6 yards per carry while passing for nearly 250 yards per game. The Bulldogs are tilted more towards explosive than methodical, which is reinforced by not only a higher S&P+ than possession efficiency ranking, but by low First Down Rate (66 percent) and Methodical Rate (9 percent) compared to their 16th-ranked Explosive Drives rating and 14th-ranked IsoPPP score. Preventing explosive plays is something that the Aggies have certainly struggled with, especially against the pass, where they have allowed 14 pass plays of 20-plus yards.

This could certainly be the game where Kenny Hill makes a Heisman move. The Mississippi State defense is in the top ten in both metrics, but is far weaker against the pass than the run and much more susceptible to explosive plays (87th in IsoPPP) than consistent efficiency (sixth). The Aggies are poised to exploit this Bulldogs weakness with 73 pass plays of 10-plus yards and a nation-leading 27 pass plays of 20-plus yards. Kenny Hill can potentially take advantage of the Bulldogs pass defense where LSU couldn't. Of course, if the Bulldogs move defenders out of the box and keep everything in front of the secondary, the Aggies rushing offense can take advantage. Despite lacking a go-to back, the entire team seems to manage relatively similar rushing success rates. Even if the Aggies get down early, don't count out Texas A&M from a comeback at any point in this game.

F/+ Pick: Mississippi State

Alabama (-6) at Ole Miss -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Alabama Ole Miss
Overall F/+ 1 5
Field Position Advantage 119 11
S&P+ 1 2
FEI 4 11
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 6 2
Efficiency 2 2
Rushing S&P+ 20 18
Passing S&P+ 6 1
When Ole Miss has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 6 12
Efficiency 13 22
Rushing S&P+ 7 89
Passing S&P+ 21 17

Alabama takes on the second elite Mississippi school Saturday afternoon (the state of Mississippi will likely host the most talent of any state in the country this weekend). At first this looks like a traditional SEC matchup with both teams holding defensive advantages. Despite Alabama again topping the F/+ rankings after weeks of Seminoles dominance and holding a top-ten offense and defense, this is clearly an evolved Crimson Tide. First, the Tide are nearly last in the country in Field Position Advantage after ranking in the top ten the past two years. Part of this is due to extremely poor special teams efficiency, the worst in the SEC according to ESPN. Second, the Tide are 106th in the country in turnover margin, with a -3 overall margin and only two interceptions this season. Finally, like last season, Alabama has an elite offense, but with a different quarterback at the helm in Blake Sims and with a tilt more towards throwing screens and back-shoulder fades in the red zone (all to Amari Cooper, of course) than pounding the ball on the ground.

This offensive renaissance is not just because of Lane Kiffin, because Alabama was tenth in Offensive F/+ last season as well. It just looks different. Like last year, the Tide are efficient (third in Success Rate), win standard downs (eighth), pick up first downs consistently (third), and drive for Value Drives a nation-leading 67 percent of the time -- but they are also more likely to have an explosive drive than a methodical one and rank higher in Passing S&P than Rushing S&P. It's nothing that Robert Nkemdiche and the Ole Miss defense haven't seen before, though. Something has to give between the SEC's best defense and its best or second-best offense (depending on the metric). The Rebels are built to create turnovers (11 gained) and stop the pass, which will give Sims his first real test this season. The Rebels don't appear to have any glaring defensive weak points, but their rushing defense isn't quite at the pass defense's lofty standard. While the Tide have been very effective through the air and you always want Cooper to have the ball in his hands, you have to imagine Kiffin will seek to establish a lead and then turn to his squadron of fairly interchangeable running backs to grind out the game.

If the Alabama offense and Rebels defense stalemate, then Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace's ability to throw the ball and limit turnovers could be the deciding factor. But the Rebels will be fairly reliant on Wallace and his receivers alone, as Ole Miss has just the 89th-best rushing offense. The numbers suggest that Wallace is effective throwing on standard downs, but he'll have to get some help on the ground from diminutive junior running back Jaylen Walton as well. Ultimately, if this game is close late into the fourth quarter, the combination of Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry, and T.J. Yeldon suggest that the Tide could get the quick score necessary to come back or, if trying to preserve a close lead, to grind out a win.

F/+ Pick: Ole Miss

Nebraska (+6.5) at Michigan State -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Nebraska Michigan State
Overall F/+ 30 13
Field Position Advantage 19 1
S&P+ 32 13
FEI 25 23
When Nebraska has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 25 29
Efficiency 4 30
Rushing S&P+ 13 71
Passing S&P+ 20 76
When Michigan State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 43 3
Efficiency 22 36
Rushing S&P+ 56 16
Passing S&P+ 37 9

The Big Ten has come storming back (OK maybe not "storming") in recent weeks to recover from abysmal opening performances, but now the lone undefeated Big Ten team faces arguably the conference's top team in Michigan State. Even though the Cornhuskers are undefeated and riding high in the AP Poll (19th), Nebraska has some clear issues on offense and defense. The rush defense is as mediocre as the rushing offense is elite. There are still questions about sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s accuracy and ability to pass the Huskers back in to a game if necessary. They almost lost to McNeese State.

But there is a lot to like about Nebraska, too. The Huskers might walk away with both of the Big Ten's players of the year awards with running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory as two of the nation's top overall players. The Huskers have scored more than 41 points in every game except the aforementioned struggle against McNeese State. Further, they are surprisingly ranked third overall in Passing Downs S&P despite questions about depth in the receiving corps behind Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp (no other receiver has more than five receptions on the year).

The hype has died down significantly on Michigan State after they let Oregon pull away in the second half of the third quarter, but the 13th F/+ team is certainly still in the hunt for a playoff spot. What's strange is that this Spartans team looks little like what you might have expected. Third in Offensive S&P+ and 29th and 30th in the two defensive rankings, at first glance they look to be opposite of the team they were last season. However, in this case the rankings are a little misleading. The offense has certainly been impressive after racking up 129 points over the past two games, but that's expected against Eastern Michigan and Wyoming. The defensive numbers are artificially low due to facing Oregon in the second game of the season and allowing backups to play significant minutes in three blowout wins. While not great for defensive efficiency scores, that kind of experience will be invaluable in case the Spartans need to rotate and keep defenders fresh throughout a physical game with the Huskers. We should know significantly more about the Spartans after this game. Look for how left tackle Jack Conklin handles Gregory's pass rush, if Connor Cook can continue his pace commanding the eighth-most explosive offense, and whether the defense is able to shut down Abdullah.

F/+ Pick: Michigan State

LSU (+8) at Auburn -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall LSU Auburn
Overall F/+ 10 8
Field Position Advantage 16 14
S&P+ 7 9
FEI 13 3
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 10 11
Efficiency 57 37
Rushing S&P+ 47 30
Passing S&P+ 23 52
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 8 11
Efficiency 13 17
Rushing S&P+ 57 52
Passing S&P+ 8 10

The third SEC West showdown pits two Tigers squads ranked in the top ten of the F/+ rankings. Despite being eight-point favorites in Vegas and ranked higher in the AP poll, Auburn lacks any decisive advantage in F/+ rankings. In fact, of the 12 statistical comparisons here, Auburn has a decisive lead in just three areas: overall FEI, defensive efficiency when LSU has the ball, and Rushing Defensive S&P.

F/+ paints an interesting picture of the LSU's offense. Quarterback Anthony Jennings was ineffective enough to lose his starting spot to freshman Brandon Harris and LSU ranks 57th in Offensive Efficiency, 47th in Rushing Efficiency, 74th in Explosive Drives, and 69th in Value Drives. So how does LSU rank tenth overall in Offensive S&P+? It may be partly due to opponent adjustments from playing two stout defenses in Wisconsin and Mississippi State, or because of the residual effects of a preseason projected Offensive F/+ ranking of 14th, or it might be that the LSU Tigers are simply that much better on a per-play basis compared to getting points from drives. Brandon Harris presents not only the highest long-term upside for LSU, but also may be the short term answer as Jennings was just 2-of-5 for 11 yards and two interceptions last week while Harris was 11-of-14 and scored touchdowns on all seven of his possessions. Making things more difficult for Auburn's defense (which, like LSU's offense, is much better according to S&P+ than Defensive Efficiency or unadjusted Rushing and Passing S&P) is the uncertainty of starting linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy, both of whom were injured against Louisiana Tech.

On offense, Auburn has somewhat struggled over the past two games converting third downs (despite being second in the country this season in third down conversion percentage) and running the ball consistently. According to the unadjusted S&P numbers, Auburn looks more like a pass-first offense than a rushing powerhouse despite ranking 79th in total passing yards and 18th in total rushing yards. Auburn has been much more effective at passing downs than on standard downs, potentially because the Tigers have used defenses' tendencies to load the box against them, averaging almost 15 yards per completion with three receivers averaging more than that. The eighth-ranked LSU passing defense will be tougher than any Auburn has faced so far.

With Brandon Harris at the helm, LSU is a completely different team than the one that lost to Mississippi State, making this game potentially closer than even the eight-point spread suggests.

F/+ Pick: Auburn

Stanford (-2) at Notre Dame -- 3:30 p.m. (NBC)

Overall Stanford Notre Dame
Overall F/+ 3 20
Field Position Advantage 18 38
S&P+ 4 27
FEI 6 15
When Stanford has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 50 32
Efficiency 69 10
Rushing S&P+ 86 20
Passing S&P+ 18 40
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 1 27
Efficiency 4 27
Rushing S&P+ 4 67
Passing S&P+ 3 13

If you need a break this week from the Texas A&Ms and Oregons of the world to see two stout defenses, then here's your game. Stanford looks like the better team, with advantages in nine of our statistical comparison categories, but Notre Dame is more balanced between offense and defense. Both defenses have the edge against their offensive opponents.

While Stanford may be able to win the game on the strength of its defense alone, Notre Dame will need balance. The Fighting Irish offense has been consistently successful and efficient in value drives (11th and 12th in the country, respectively), with Everett Golson leading the way, but the offense lacks a truly explosive receiver or running back. Both the IsoPPP and Explosive Drive metrics rate the Notre Dame offense similarly (79th and 84th), but sophomore William Fuller is Golson's only true go-to option. In two games this season -- against Rice and Syracuse -- Fuller has played that explosive role, averaging 20 yards per completion with long receptions of more than 70 yards in each game. Notre Dame will need a similar performance against the second-ranked IsoPPP Stanford defense, especially since the rushing game has been mediocre to date.

Stanford, on the other hand, has had a large drop off in rushing efficiency (86th) since losing Stepfan Taylor to the NFL. Quarterback Kevin Hogan keeps the Stanford offense rolling fairly effectively, but the offense has been extremely reliant on field position and special teams for scoring opportunities. The Cardinals rank 82nd in IsoPPP and 116th in Explosive Drives, while still being only average in both Methodical Drives (75th) and Value Drives (40th). With those numbers, quality field position is essential to maximizing scoring opportunities, but so is not turning over the ball, which the Cardinals have done nine times so far.

F/+ Pick: Stanford

Oklahoma (-5) at TCU -- 3:30 p.m. (Fox)

Overall Oklahoma TCU
Overall F/+ 4 18
Field Position Advantage 17 2
S&P+ 3 17
FEI 7 20
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 9 22
Efficiency 7 1
Rushing S&P+ 8 8
Passing S&P+ 34 4
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 5 20
Efficiency 7 20
Rushing S&P+ 6 1
Passing S&P+ 16 32

This is Oklahoma's first big test of the season and likely one of just two remaining roadblocks to the playoff (the other being the Baylor game). TCU has statistically outperformed its AP poll ranking with the top overall FEI Efficiency ranking, the most efficient opponent-unadjusted rushing offense in the country, and the second-best Field Position Advantage. With those laudable statistics, only an average red zone touchdown percentage and less impressive passing game keep TCU from the top ten overall F/+ teams, and potentially being favorites against Oklahoma. As it is, the Sooners are just five-point favorites after opening at -6.

Both teams have similar makeups: excellent at field position, strong rushing games, stingy defenses, and slightly less efficient passing attacks. However, Oklahoma separates itself in two key places: offensive drive efficiency and explosive plays. TCU has an excellent offense despite maybe over-relying on quarterback Treyvone Boykin, who leads the team in both passing and rushing. But they are slightly less efficient turning red zone visits into touchdowns (converting two-thirds of their trips). They also are not exactly a quick strike offense at 94th in Explosive Drives and 67th in IsoPPP. Oklahoma, on the other hand, seems to be more balanced, with the 11th-best IsoPPP and 12th-ranked Explosive Drive score. That's where it looks like Oklahoma can separate itself from TCU this weekend -- mixing bruising running back Samaje Perine with big passes to receiver Sterling Shepard.

F/+ Pick: Oklahoma

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 6

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Arizona 24 Oregon Oregon Oregon
Texas A&M 2 Mississippi State Mississippi State Mississippi State
Maryland 8.5 Ohio State Ohio State Maryland
Florida 2.5 Tennessee Tennessee Florida
North Carolina 2.5 Virginia Tech Virginia Tech Virginia Tech
Ole Miss 6 Alabama Ole Miss Ole Miss
TCU 5.5 Oklahoma Oklahoma Oklahoma
Texas 15 Baylor Baylor Baylor
Notre Dame 1.5 Stanford Stanford Stanford
Northwestern 8 Wisconsin Wisconsin Northwestern
LSU 7.5 Auburn Auburn LSU
Nebraska 7 Michigan State Michigan State Michigan State

Record last week outright:8-3
Record last week against the spread:5-6
Season outright: 40-17
Season against the spread: 29-28

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 02 Oct 2014

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