Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Oct 2014

SDA: There Can Be Only One

by Chad Peltier

We have crossed the midseason threshold and things are starting to fall into place. The F/+ rankings have been updated and are free of any influence from preseason projections, and opponent adjustments have all been made.

Half of the top ten teams in the F/+ rankings play in the SEC, with two each from the states of Mississippi and Alabama. Clemson has risen to the 11th spot, which is making that Georgia win in the opener look very good (which, combined with the Missouri shutout, moved the Dawgs up 12 positions from last week). The biggest surprise for some might be Florida State falling to 14th, making it an almost even matchup with Notre Dame this week.

Even though there are five matchups between AP Top 25 teams this week, there are only two matchups between F/+ Top 25 teams -- Florida State (14) vs. Notre Dame (13) and Oklahoma (4) vs. TCU (5). Other games fall off due to one opponent being ranked much lower in F/+ (like Texas A&M, Kansas State, and Arizona State). Regardless, it looks to be a good weekend between fairly evenly matched teams.

Pittsburgh (-1) vs. Virginia Tech -- 7:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

Overall Pittsburgh Virginia Tech
Overall F/+ 38 18
Field Position Advantage 38 42
Offensive F/+ 17 76
Defensive F/+ 70 4
When Pittsburgh has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 20 6
FEI 17 6
Rushing S&P+ 1 12
Passing S&P+ 40 1
When Virginia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 51 77
FEI 75 76
Rushing S&P+ 68 100
Passing S&P+ 96 89

Tonight's ACC tilt has bettors favoring the Panthers even though the Hokies have the overall statistical advantage. There are two keys to the game. First, the Pittsburgh offense versus the Virginia Tech defense is strength on strength, but the Hokies passing defense is better than their rushing defense -- can Virginia Tech load the box to make Pittsburgh and Chad Voytik one-dimensional? Second, even though the Hokies offense and Pitt defense is a fairly even matchup, can Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer cut down on interceptions and take advantage of a weak Panthers secondary?

The Hokies offense has been more prolific than last year's was under Logan Thomas, but it has suffered from an uncharacteristically plodding run game that was hurt even further by Shai McKenzie's torn ACL in late September. Yardage production hasn't always translated to points either, as Brewer has thrown 11 interceptions in six games (fourth-most in the FBS). While there's not much to distinguish the Hokies offense this season, it's worth noting that Brewer has a knack for picking up third downs, with the 14th-best third-down conversion rate at close to 49 percent. Pitt, likewise, hasn't shown much to make opposing offenses very concerned either. The Panthers have performed better per-play than per-possession despite sporting a decent field position advantage. The defense is geared towards stopping the run, but they're only average at doing that. The key will be in whether Brewer can exploit holes in the Panthers' secondary without turning the ball over. An early Pitt lead will just play into Paul Chryst's hands, allowing him to hand the ball off to James Conner 36 times, keeping Brewer and company off the field.

Speaking of James Conner, the sophomore running back is really the Panthers offensive engine. In Pitt's three wins this season Conner averaged 27 carries for 181 yards. In their three most recent games -- all losses, including one to Akron -- Conner averaged 25 carries for 110 yards. Obviously that's still excellent production, but opposing defenses have begun to corral Conner, holding him to under 4 yards per carry in losses to Akron and Virginia, with a long run of just 14 yards after he had a 60-yarder earlier in the season. Quarterback Chad Voytik has seen an increased workload over the last few weeks, throwing an average of 31 times over these last three games. The sophomore has been mildly effective, throwing just under an average of an interception per game and 6.64 yards per attempt. This week the Panthers will see easily the best defense they have faced all season, and they were held to just ten points in the loss to Akron. Without an early lead it's unlikely that Voytik would be able to quickly drive the offense against the nation's best passing defense in order to come back. The Panthers' best bet is to start fast, then eat the clock.

Vegas bettors have the Panthers as narrow favorites, but Virginia Tech has the defense -- and potentially the offense -- to win this likely low-scoring fight.

F/+ outright pick: Virginia Tech

Kansas State (+7.5) vs. Oklahoma -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Kansas State Oklahoma
Overall F/+ 29 4
Field Position Advantage 20 16
Offensive F/+ 56 14
Defensive F/+ 15 18
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 46 14
FEI 56 25
Rushing S&P+ 76 10
Passing S&P+ 58 19
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 16 5
FEI 18 21
Rushing S&P+ 3 9
Passing S&P+ 34 7

While Sooners fans have seen their playoff hopes diminish following a loss to TCU and a subpar showing against Texas, Oklahoma still has the opportunity to redirect its season. Quarterback Trevor Knight has struggled in those last two games, completing just 26 of 55 attempts with two interceptions. Meanwhile, Kansas State has faced just one ranked opponent in five games, the ugly 20-14 loss to Auburn.

The Wildcats offense has put up solid numbers on terrible defenses, but then was stymied for just 14 points against Auburn due to a non-existent run game and three turnovers. Kansas State is ranked slightly better than average on offense, but is proficient in at least flipping the field (fourth in Value Drives and 20th in Field Position Advantage). Quarterback Jake Waters leads the team in rushing and passing, and is one of the primary reasons the Wildcats have converted nearly 51 percent of their third down conversion attempts. The Sooners have been hurt by running quarterbacks in the past, but the defense is not the reason why Oklahoma would lose this game.

Instead, a potential upset would be due to inconsistency from the Sooners offense. While ranked highly in almost every F/+ category, many Sooners fans can't shake the loss to TCU or the near-loss to Texas, or Trevor Knight's play in those two games. Even without the injured Keith Ford the Sooners have turned to the power run game with freshman Samaje Perine. Perine, who headlined the Honor Roll in One Foot Inbounds following his 242-yard performance against West Virginia, hasn't had the same spark against either TCU or Texas, where he averaged under 4 yards per carry. Sooners fans have lamented the corresponding decline of Trevor Knight running in both reads and scrambles. Knight has had 17 attempts for 63 yards in the last three games. The Wildcats are geared to shut down either Perine or Knight with the nation's third-best rushing defense. Further, the Sooners have relied heavily on receiver Sterling Shepherd, who has the highest percentage of his team's receiving yards in the country according to ESPN. Oklahoma will need Shepherd to get open against the Wildcats, both because of how heavily Knight has relied on him so far, and because of the Kansas State rush defense.

F/+ outright pick: Oklahoma

Texas A&M (+11.5) at Alabama -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Texas A&M Alabama
Overall F/+ 36 10
Field Position Advantage 83 112
Offensive F/+ 20 22
Defensive F/+ 59 8
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 7 4
FEI 27 14
Rushing S&P+ 10 1
Passing S&P+ 16 12
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 39 4
FEI 70 31
Rushing S&P+ 48 37
Passing S&P+ 22 3

This isn't the undefeated heavyweight bout it was last season. The Tide and Aggies are both flawed teams fighting for a chance in the Mississippi-led (it doesn't matter which Magnolia State team you think is best right now) SEC West. Alabama has the slight overall statistical edge, but it has a complicated history with Air Raid teams and the Aggies in particular. However, while the 2012 upset was an upset at the time, the Aggies finished third to Alabama's top F/+ ranking. Alabama got revenge last season 49-42, but the F/+ disparity between the two is much greater now than it was in either of the last two seasons. This season the Tide have the edge in S&P+ and FEI on both offense and defense.

Alabama's offense began by averaging 42 points per game and 0.52 points per play, but has averaged just 15.5 points per game and 0.24 points per play in the past two SEC West games against Ole Miss and Arkansas. (As a side note, Alabama has mirrored its Sugar Bowl opponent Oklahoma this season, losing narrowly two weeks ago and then playing poorly last week, especially on offense) Quarterback Blake Sims started off sharp, if overly reliant on Amari Cooper (who was a non-factor in the near-loss to Arkansas). The Aggies defense is not quite as improved as some had hoped during the preseason, but the passing defense has made significant strides, likely due to true freshman defensive end Myles Garrett and his 7.5 sacks. His matchup with fellow former five-star freshman left tackle Cam Robinson will be one to watch all game, even if Garrett has been inconsistent in run support and isn't yet an every-down player.

The Aggies offense has been predictably excellent under the command of Kenny Hill, but struggles (as many good offenses do) with Methodical Drives. The Aggies get receiver Malcome Kennedy back this week after he has missed the previous two weeks with a shoulder injury. His reemergence should add to the unit's consistency and explosiveness with his 11.5 average yards per reception. The Aggies will need to be more consistent and methodical, as the Tide are highly ranked in all defense categories except First Down Rate and Methodical Drives.

F/+ outright pick: Alabama

Notre Dame (+11.5) at Florida State -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Notre Dame Florida State
Overall F/+ 13 14
Field Position Advantage 46 66
Offensive F/+ 32 11
Defensive F/+ 13 30
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 19 26
FEI 40 30
Rushing S&P+ 26 81
Passing S&P+ 15 57
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 22 16
FEI 10 14
Rushing S&P+ 17 13
Passing S&P+ 53 22

Florida State vs. Notre Dame is the game of the week, the only matchup of unbeaten teams, and features two quarterbacks yet to lose a regular season game, but based on the betting line you would think that Notre Dame is just a pretender. The Seminoles are 11.5-point favorites at home, but are actually ranked one spot behind the Fighting Irish in the F/+ rankings. In fact, just comparing the rankings of the 12 stats listed here, Notre Dame has a clear advantage in four and Florida State only has a decisive advantage in three -- the other five are too close to call.

Without Jameis Winston I would wholeheartedly predict Notre Dame to win this game. However, Winston is responsible for that 22nd-ranked Passing S&P+ offense. Senior receiver Rashad Greene has more than 35 percent of the team's receiving yards, so he's also a critical component of the passing offense. Otherwise the Seminoles distribute the ball fairly evenly between their group of talented receivers and running backs with no single pure star. Despite being the 13th-best Rushing S&P+ offense in the country, the Seminoles tailbacks put up a lousy 22 percent Success Rate against Clemson, easily their best opponent to date. Leading rusher Karlos Williams is averaging less than 5 yards a carry too, so it's no wonder that Jimbo Fisher has chosen to pass more often than he did last season. The Notre Dame defense has been stout, if not up to the level of the 2012 unit that led the way to a national championship appearance (academic suspensions will do that to you). The Fighting Irish haven't shown the ability to get a consistent pass rush, and with starting corner Keivarae Russell suspended, the defense is ranked just 53rd going in to face Winston, Greene, and tight end Nick O'Leary. This is without a doubt Notre Dame's biggest disadvantage in the game.

Notre Dame's offense has enjoyed Everett Golson's return, as the passing offense has surged to 15th in the country -- not to mention that Golson is the team's second-leading rusher, with only two fewer carries than Tarean Folson. Any big plays from this offense are going to come from Golson, because Folson isn't the most explosive back. Golson's ability to exploit an inconsistent Florida State passing defense, maybe pick up some yards scrambling against the 81st Rushing S&P+ defense, and not turn the ball over might be the deciding factors.

F/+ outright pick: Florida State

Oklahoma State (+9) at TCU -- 4 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Overall Oklahoma State TCU
Overall F/+ 30 5
Field Position Advantage 37 8
Offensive F/+ 57 12
Defensive F/+ 31 20
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 61 19
FEI 57 22
Rushing S&P+ 99 30
Passing S&P+ 33 28
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 14 38
FEI 28 16
Rushing S&P+ 10 26
Passing S&P+ 19 62

Between Baylor and TCU setting offensive records and Oklahoma falling short of preseason projections, the Cowboys have become the forgotten contenders in the Big 12. That's a shame because Oklahoma State is still undefeated in conference play and performed well against the Seminoles in the first game of the season. Matchups with Oklahoma, Baylor, and Kansas State still loom for Mike Gundy's squad. TCU is coming off their close loss to Baylor and it is unclear if they will play with a hangover or with a renewed sense of purpose.

TCU looks like the better team on both sides of the ball, however. Just about the only advantage that the Cowboys have looks to be in pass defense, where TCU doesn't quite equal their efficient rushing numbers. TCU is a middle-of-the-road offense in the red zone, and is only converting 40 percent of its third-down attempts, but is great on Passing Downs (13th in the country), so they must be getting a big boost from opponent adjustments. The Cowboys have been surprisingly strong against the rush all season, so it will be strength on strength when TCU has the ball. Like we mentioned last week, Trevone Boykin is the key to the offense (similar to Everett Golson). He is the school's rushing leader as well, outpacing the leading running back by ten carries and 37 yards on the season. Shut down Boykin and you shut down TCU.

Oklahoma State's offense has been less efficient than a typical Cowboys squad, ranking near the middle of the pack in both S&P+ and FEI. Baylor showed that the TCU defense isn't quite as efficient as initially expected, but it's not clear that the Cowboys can really take advantage. The biggest issue has been getting bogged down in the red zone, where they have only converted 48 percent of red zone trips into touchdowns.

F/+ outright pick: TCU

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 8

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
West Virginia 8 Baylor Baylor Baylor
Rutgers 19.5 Ohio State Ohio State Rutgers
Indiana 15.5 Michigan State Michigan State Michigan State
Tennessee 16.5 Ole Miss Ole Miss Ole Miss
Virginia Tech 1 Pittsburgh Virginia Tech Virginia Tech
Kansas State 7.5 Oklahoma Oklahoma Oklahoma
Texas A&M 11.5 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Notre Dame 11.5 Florida State Florida State Notre Dame
Oklahoma State 9 TCU TCU TCU
Arizona State 3 Stanford Stanford Stanford
Arkansas 3.5 Georgia Georgia Georgia

Record last week outright: 7-4
Record last week against the spread: 4-7
Season record outright: 54-26
Season record against the spread: 39-41

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 16 Oct 2014

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