Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

27 Nov 2014

SDA: Rivalry Showdowns

by Chad Peltier

It's Rivalry Week, or Hate Week, depending on your school, which means that teams are fighting for the Territorial Cup, playing in The Game, or just expressing their Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate of one another. This is the greatest weekend of the year every season, with Thanksgiving games leading in to hotly anticipated rivalry games, but this season those games will mean even more to the national picture than usual. Minnesota and Wisconsin will fight to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship. Arkansas will try to keep Missouri out of the SEC Championship, and Auburn will try to do the same to Alabama. The winner between Arizona State and Arizona has the chance to meet Oregon for the Pac-12 title, and the winner of Ole Miss and Mississippi State will get a berth in the SEC title game if Auburn wins. About the only rivalry game without major conference ramifications might be The Game, which is always important, no matter either team's record. And again, outside of Michigan and Ohio State, the biggest F/+ difference between the rivals previewed here is Minnesota (31) and Wisconsin (13).

Arizona State (Pick 'Em) at Arizona -- 3:30 p.m. Friday (Fox)

Overall Arizona State Arizona
Overall F/+ 23 29
Field Position Advantage 23 9
Offensive F/+ 25 28
Defensive F/+ 24 42
When Arizona State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 35 46
FEI 22 33
Rushing S&P+ 74 39
Passing S&P+ 31 57
When Arizona has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 31 42
FEI 22 18
Rushing S&P+ 56 62
Passing S&P+ 31 76

The Territorial Cup has an added importance this season: not only are both teams ranked for the first time since 1986, but the winner has a shot to face Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship if Stanford upsets UCLA. The two teams are tied in the division standings, and they have similar F/+ statistical profiles as well. It's no wonder the Vegas line is currently a pick 'em. The only problem is that the Sun Devils may be much healthier than their Wildcats. Rich Rodriguez has said that freshman quarterback Anu Solomon will be a game-time decision due to an ankle injury suffered last week, but the Sun Devils have a healthy Taylor Kelly and top receiver Jaelen Strong ready to go. Strong, who leads the team in receiving, will likely return after sitting out against Washington State last week with a concussion. Without Strong, the Sun Devils' leading receiver is do-everything running back D.J. Foster.

But even with Foster, there's no guaranteeing that the Sun Devils will be able to run on the Arizona defense. While not a world-beating unit ranked 39th, it compares favorably with a below-average Arizona State running attack. Both of the Sun Devils' top running backs average at least 5.7 yards per carry, but they run behind the 88th-ranked offensive line in Adjusted Line Yards. The unit particularly struggles in short-yardage situations with the 117th-ranked Power Success Rate. The Sun Devils have been pass-happy on both standard and passing downs, so the trick for the Wildcats defense may be in controlling standard downs -- so watch the average yards to go on third down throughout the game -- and then forcing Arizona State to run the ball on third down. Besides the run/pass ratio and average distance on third down for the Sun Devils, another stat to watch will be sacks. While the Sun Devils have a disadvantage in pass defense, Scooby Wright III, who has the third-most sacks in the country, is part of a sack-happy defense that ranks ninth in Defensive Back Havoc Rate -- and they're up against an offensive line that is 112th in Adjusted Sack Rate. So the Sun Devils' success may depend entirely on the play of the offensive line.

The Wildcats rushing and passing statistics are surprisingly poor considering their top-30 overall offense according to Offensive F/+. That's mainly because of how careful the Wildcats have been with the ball: the offense has lost just 12 balls all season -- one more than the Sun Devils. Otherwise the Wildcats are fairly unremarkable in both third-down conversion rate and maximizing scoring opportunities. The goal may be for the Wildcats to just run the ball as much as possible with freshman Nick Wilson. The freshman has cleared the 1,000-yard mark and averages 6 yards per carry, but also averages 18 carries per game, which is 33rd in the country. So while the Sun Devils' defense overall matches up well against the Wildcats, the answer for Arizona may be in just pounding the rock with Wilson until the Sun Devils wear down throughout the game.

F/+ outright pick: Arizona State

Michigan (+20) vs. Ohio State -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan Ohio State
Overall F/+ 59 3
Field Position Advantage 59 3
Offensive F/+ 85 6
Defensive F/+ 39 11
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 73 8
FEI 17
Rushing S&P+ 55 47
Passing S&P+ 81 8
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 39 1
FEI 40 11
Rushing S&P+ 8 6
Passing S&P+ 49 2

At first glance this looks like the weakest matchup of rivalry games, but a) The Game is always a big deal, and b) both teams have quite a deal to play for. Ohio State is fighting for a spot in the Playoff and needs not just to win, but to dominate The Game (and the Big Ten Championship) for a spot. Michigan is playing not just for their coach's job (presumably), but for a bowl game. At 5-6, the Wolverines have a tall task in front of them if they want not just the bowl game reward, but the postseason practices that will likely help Michigan's next coach prepare for next season. The Buckeyes have a big statistical edge, but there are certainly a few weaknesses for the Wolverines to exploit.

Brady Hoke mostly cleaned up the defensive mess that he inherited from the Rich Rodriguez era, but the offense took a corresponding step back. The problems initially started on the offensive line, but solid recruiting has led to an underperforming, but passable line that ranks 54th in Adjusted Line Yards and 58th in Adjusted Sack Rate. They also have the 55th-ranked rushing game. These aren't world-beating numbers for sure, but they might be able to take advantage of a Buckeyes defense that is ranked 47th in Rushing S&P+ and 61st in Adjusted Line Yards. The defense is ranked just 49th in IsoPPP because the Buckeyes are susceptible to explosive run plays -- like Tevin Coleman and David Cobb exploited over the last two weeks. It's not a sure thing that Michigan's De'Veon Smith is up to the challenge -- he averages just 4.9 yards per carry and has had only two games this season with more than 5 yards per carry.

The Michigan passing offense is worse than the rushing offense and is probably the biggest advantage for the Buckeyes. Devin Gardner has been inconsistent at best, throwing 17 interceptions (fourth-most in the country), but it's not like he has had that much help. His big-play receiver from last season, Jeremy Gallon, is gone, leaving just Devin Funchess and Amara Darboh. Both are solid targets, but neither stretches the field, contributing to the 109th-most explosive offense according to IsoPPP.

The Buckeyes' offense is explosive, but more than anything it is efficient under the direction of redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. Barrett has earned a spot in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremonies, and he has plenty of weapons in the passing game with H-back Jalin Marshall, big-play threat Devin Smith, and the reliable Michael Thomas. The greatest chance for the Wolverines to win here is to shut down the Buckeyes' run game with their eighth-ranked rush defense and force some turnovers from Barrett. That will involve pressuring Barrett into mistakes -- the Buckeyes' offensive line is just 91st in Adjusted Sack Rate. While the first two parts of that strategy seem doable -- rush defense and pressuring Barrett -- the Wolverines are poor in creating turnovers (fourth to last with just ten total takeaways). It also doesn't help that Frank Clark, one of the team's top defensive ends, was recently kicked off the team.

All in all, the Wolverines need to play their best game this season in rushing offense and defense and the Buckeyes need to commit Virginia Tech-levels of turnovers for Michigan to walk away with this upset and see the postseason.

F/+ outright pick: Ohio State

Mississippi State (-2) at Ole Miss -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Ole Miss Mississippi State
Overall F/+ 9 4
Field Position Advantage 16 25
Offensive F/+ 27 12
Defensive F/+ 4 6
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 14 7
FEI 43 5
Rushing S&P+ 51 11
Passing S&P+ 10 19
When Mississippi State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 4 4
FEI 4 24
Rushing S&P+ 7 5
Passing S&P+ 2 8

The Egg Bowl will not be the battle between undefeated top-four teams that looked possible earlier this season, but at least Mississippi State has a shot at the SEC Championship game with a win (and Alabama loss). The Egg Bowl is still a battle for bragging rights in maybe the state of Mississippi's best season of football ever.

Both teams are built on elite defenses that fuel good field position and efficient-enough offenses. In Mississippi State's case, the rushing offense is buoyed by running back Josh Robinson and the 12th-best offensive line in terms of Adjusted Line Yards. The Bulldogs rushing offense could end up being the difference in the game: all three of the Rebels' losses have come against teams ranked in the top 25 of Rushing S&P+. In those three games, the Rebels allowed LSU, Auburn, and Arkansas to rush for 264, 248, and 159 yards respectively. Mississippi State's top-five ranking can't give Ole Miss fans much comfort. However, the Ole Miss defense excels at disruption and is second overall in Havoc Rate. The drop-off in the Mississippi State offense from S&P+ to FEI is likely due to their neutral turnover margin -- and their fumbles in particular. Expect the Rebels to focus on creating turnovers on defense, as it's likely their best shot at disrupting an efficient run game.

It's easy enough to see the Rebels' weaknesses on offense: turnovers and the run game. Ole Miss has an even more drastic rankings drop-off from S&P+ to FEI, and it's due not just to the turnover margin (the Rebels are tied for 77th with 20 total lost), but also to inefficiencies during scoring opportunities. The lack of a strong running game seems to have hurt the Rebels when they have scoring opportunities. The offensive line is 57th in Power Success Rate and 119th in Stuff Rate, so short-yardage situations are an issue, and the run game is too boom-or-bust to be reliable. So the Rebels don't rely on it, running on just 57.6 percent of standard downs and 20.5 percent of passing downs (123rd). That's an extremely quarterback-unfriendly division because the defense can almost guarantee that passing downs will be passes. But at least the Rebels can most likely do the most damage to the Bulldogs defense in the passing game. Mississippi State is still top-20 in Passing S&P+, but the defense is geared more to stop the run. In that case, it may fall in to Bo Wallace's hands to forgo balance and just get the ball in Vince Sanders' hands.

F/+ outright pick: Ole Miss

Minnesota (+13.5) at Wisconsin -- 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)

Overall Minnesota Wisconsin
Overall F/+ 31 13
Field Position Advantage 12 56
Offensive F/+ 46 19
Defensive F/+ 38 13
When Minnesota has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 43 12
FEI 39 13
Rushing S&P+ 41 26
Passing S&P+ 48 27
When Wisconsin has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 41 15
FEI 30 29
Rushing S&P+ 34 9
Passing S&P+ 34 50

Minnesota and Wisconsin continue the trend of rivalry games determining conference races. The Badgers look like the superior team statistically -- and Wisconsin dominated their latest common opponent, Nebraska, while Minnesota merely got by them -- but both teams have elite running backs in the Gophers' David Cobb and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.

It's tough to say when one team has a talent like Gordon on offense, but the Badgers defense may actually be the team's superior unit. They excel on third downs, allowing just a 27.7 percent conversion rate (third overall), and they have one of the top Success Rates in the country (fifth). Further, their front seven is fifth in Havoc Rate and the defensive line is second overall in Adjusted Sack Rate. All of this suggests that Mitch Leidner could be in for a rough day, and also that Minnesota's best option is to run Cobb early and often against a defensive line that is 40th in Adjusted Line Yards. The Minnesota offensive line should give Badgers linebackers Derek Landisch and Vince Biegel plenty of opportunities to get to Leidner for big plays: the Gophers' offensive line is a very respectable 19th in Adjusted Line Yards, but 121st in Adjusted Sack Rate. The first key to the game will be whether Minnesota can be balanced enough offensively to keep the Badgers from stacking the box against Cobb.

It's unclear whether you need to say much more about the Wisconsin offense other than "Melvin Gordon." The Badgers haven't needed much else all season, as he has racked up 2,109 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns. Wisconsin has shuffled between two relatively similar quarterbacks in Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, but it hasn't mattered when the Badgers have a 2,000-yard rusher and potentially another 1,000-yard rusher in Corey Clement. The best thing to say for Minnesota here is that they were very effective against Ameer Abdullah, holding him to just 98 yards on 20 carries. The secondary is 11th in Havoc Rate and the defensive line is 31st in Adjusted Line Yards. The Gophers are a fundamentally sound, if less talented, defense that needs to at least slow Gordon -- just keeping him from breaking runs past the secondary is the first goal. Do that, create some turnovers, and win the field position battle (where they certainly have an advantage), and Minnesota has a chance for Paul Bunyan's axe and a rematch against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship.

F/+ outright pick: Wisconsin

Auburn (+9.5) at Alabama -- 7:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Auburn Alabama
Overall F/+ 8 1
Field Position Advantage 51 101
Offensive F/+ 3 4
Defensive F/+ 26 2
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 5 1
FEI 2 7
Rushing S&P+ 20 1
Passing S&P+ 1 12
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 16 3
FEI 38 8
Rushing S&P+ 21 12
Passing S&P+ 38 3

Despite Auburn's three losses -- including two of their last three games -- the Iron Bowl isn't any less significant than it has been in previous years. Auburn is still ranked eighth in the country in the F/+, while Alabama is fighting to clinch the SEC West with either a win or a Mississippi State loss in the Egg Bowl. Of course, Alabama is also likely fighting for revenge over last year's "Kick Six" loss on a missed field goal return for a touchdown that kept the Crimson Tide out of the national championship. Alabama is certainly playing for more than Auburn this season, but that doesn't mean much in the context of a rivalry game like this one.

Auburn's offense is a little surprising. Gus Malzhan's Hurry Up No Huddle offense has been all about the run game in the past, with enough passing to balance a power spread rushing attack. And in fact, the Tigers run ninth-most in the country on standard downs (76.5 percent) and still 33.5 percent on passing downs. While quarterback Nick Marshall started his college football career as a defensive back at Georgia and is not known as one of the most accurate or technically proficient passers, he (or, probably more accurately, Malzhan's offensive system) has produced the most efficient passing offensive in the country in Passing S&P+. The Alabama defense isn't perfect, but it is extremely effective against the run game. With former Nick Saban disciple Jeremy Pruitt's Georgia defense as a template (the Dogs held Auburn to just 5.1 yards per pass and 4.3 yards per rush), Alabama will likely use its defensive line (which ranks fourth in Adjusted Line Yards) to stop Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne up front and force Marshall to throw. The challenge will be in keeping Marshall inside the pocket and not letting him roll out with plenty of run/pass options. That, and someone named Cam Newton, is how Auburn has slayed the Crimson Tide twice in the past five years.

Layne Kiffin's Crimson Tide offense is primarily "get the ball to Amari Cooper as quickly as possible." That's not to say that Alabama's two running backs, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry aren't great -- they each average a little better than 5 yards per carry and are fairly consistent. The Alabama offensive line, while young, is tied for sixth in Adjusted Line Yards (with Auburn) and third in Adjusted Sack Rate. Once an early-season liability, the line may now be the Tide's greatest advantage. The Auburn pass rush is just 94th in Adjusted Sack rate and 53rd in Front 7 Havoc, so Blake Sims should have plenty of time not just for the standard screens to Cooper, but for longer passes to underutilized receivers like Christion Jones. Stopping Cooper may be the key to the game for Auburn. Unless the Auburn offense plays like it did against Georgia, the Tigers will score enough points to be competitive -- it will be on the Auburn defense to keep the game within reach in the fourth quarter. The Tigers are 38th against the pass and 75th in IsoPPP, so the Tigers will need to do all they can to limit Cooper from turning 5-yard screens into 75-yard catch-and-runs. Cooper has three times as many receptions and more than four times as many receiving yards as the team's second-leading receiver. Shut him down and then Auburn can focus on limiting Henry and Yeldon.

F/+ outright pick: Alabama

Arkansas (-1.5) vs. Missouri -- 2:30p.m. (CBS)

Overall Arkansas Missouri
Overall F/+ 22 33
Field Position Advantage 34 57
Offensive F/+ 22 62
Defensive F/+ 16 15
When Arkansas has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 18 23
FEI 26 10
Rushing S&P+ 17 9
Passing S&P+ 26 15
When Missouri has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 19 66
FEI 20 62
Rushing S&P+ 5 66
Passing S&P+ 24 65

This Friday matchup features two of the hottest teams in college football right now. Arkansas, fresh off of their dual victories over LSU and Ole Miss, looks to continue their streak of wins over ranked SEC teams. While the Razorbacks are playing for pride and momentum for next season, Missouri is fighting for an SEC Championship berth. As improbable as it would have seemed following their loss to Indiana and shutout loss to Georgia, the Tigers are a win away from meeting either Alabama or Mississippi State in Atlanta. First they have to contend with the Razorbacks, who have shut out their last two SEC opponents. Defense was the key in both victories -- the offense only rushed for 254 total yards in the two wins.

The Tigers are currently narrow underdogs, and to fend off the surging Razorbacks, they will need to first force Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen to pass the ball. Both LSU and Ole Miss were successful in this regard, holding both Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams to inefficient games. Missouri's biggest strength here might be its defensive line, which is 13th in Adjusted Line Yards and eighth in Adjusted Sack Rate, led by Shane Ray, third in the nation in sacks. You can bet that any defensive game plan will force Allen to pass, only to fend off Ray and Markus Golden. Surprisingly, the Arkansas offensive line isn't quite up to Bret Bielema standards, at just 55th in Adjusted Line Yards and 35th in Adjusted Sack Rate. That suggests that Missouri will have an advantage in the trenches, and it's unclear whether Arkansas has the explosive firepower necessary to score quickly if it is consistently losing the battle up front.

If that's the case and Arkansas is inefficient in its run game and spotty in the passing game, it will take a Herculean effort from the Razorbacks defense to win. But don't count that scenario out -- almost the same story happened twice in row in Arkansas' last two wins. Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith, a recent Broyles Award nominee, has led a defense that forces turnovers and negative plays with the best defenses in the country. Tenth in Havoc Rate and second in Adjusted Line Yards, the defense -- and particularly the defensive line -- does a good job controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing a fundamentally sound defense to make plays. The Missouri offense is mediocre at best, with all statistics ranking in the mid-60s. Quarterback Maty Mauk is inconsistent like Bo Wallace, and the offense's success greatly depends on his play. With two stout defenses and defensive lines that look like they will control the line of scrimmage, big plays and turnovers will be the difference in this game, as it doesn't look like either team will have an offense capable of consistently scoring.

F/+ outright pick: Arkansas

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 14

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Texas 6.5 TCU TCU TCU
Texas A&M 3 LSU LSU LSU
Arizona State 0 Arizona Arizona State Arizona State
Stanford 4.5 UCLA UCLA UCLA
Michigan 20 Ohio State Ohio State Ohio State
Georgia Tech 13 Georgia Georgia Georgia Tech
South Carolina 4.5 Clemson Clemson Clemson
Florida 7.5 Florida State Florida State Florida State
Ole Miss 2 Mississippi State Ole Miss Ole Miss
Minnesota 13.5 Wisconsin Wisconsin Wisconsin
Notre Dame 7 USC USC Notre Dame
Auburn 9.5 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Oregon State 20 Oregon Oregon Oregon
Missouri 1.5 Arkansas Arkansas Arkansas

Record last week outright: 5-4
Record last week against the spread: 1-8
Season record outright: 85-41
Season record against the spread: 60-69

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 27 Nov 2014

4 comments, Last at 01 Dec 2014, 10:43am by Joshua Northey

Comments

1
by TomKelso :: Thu, 11/27/2014 - 7:02pm

Well at least there was a pick on TCU-Texas; very surprised there was no analysis of a game as important as any of these that isn't know as a Commodity Bowl.

2
by justanothersteve :: Sat, 11/29/2014 - 12:32pm

Please note the name of the column: Rivalry Showdowns. Why is Texas-TCU as important? Arizona State at Arizona, Michigan at Ohio State, Mississippi State at Ole Miss, Minnesota at Wisconsin, and Auburn at Alabama have all been going on almost without interruption for close to 100 years. They also may determine who goes to their conference championship. These games have a lot at stake. (The good football teams in the state of Mississippi this year is also a great human interest story.) Arkansas at Missouri determined whether outsider Missouri would be in their second consecutive SEC Championship. Texas-TCU determines if TCU finishes second in the Big 12 (since TCU also lost to one-loss Baylor). Texas couldn't be bothered to play TCU between the dissolution of the old SWC and the new Big 12.

The writer has to stop somewhere. Sorry your team didn't get mentioned. But Texas-TCU isn't as important as these games unless you live in Texas.

3
by TomKelso :: Sun, 11/30/2014 - 10:15pm

Texas-TCU is as important as any of these games, despite your flippancy, because it determines far more than that. In truth, it determined far more than Minnesota-Wisconsin, Miss State-Ole Miss, or Missouri-Arkansas, because it determined much more than "who finishes second" in the Big 12.

You might not like it, but after the results of this weekend, TCU is considered to be in the playoff. These two teams have a history going back decades, whether you wish to acknowledge it or not.

But maybe you don't know much about college football; Texas being high-handed and dismissive is as much of a tradition as "Texas Fight" and burnt orange lights on the Tower. There has been a rivalry, is a rivalry, and will grow into a bigger rivalry every time they play. And if you think a school can have only one rival, please take it up with the B1G, which seems to have a trophy for chance encounters at street corners.

4
by Joshua Northey :: Mon, 12/01/2014 - 10:43am

You really seemed to not understood his post, or the OP. College football sure brings out the crazies.