Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
28 Aug 2014
by Chad Peltier
Welcome back, college football.
We've actually got a fairly impressive slate of opening week games, headlined by Clemson-UGA, LSU-Wisconsin, and Texas A&M-South Carolina. Sure, you can focus on the more boring cupcake matchups like Michigan State-Jacksonville State or Oregon-South Dakota, but there are certainly enough good games to make you forget about the long and dreary offseason.
Some of the major out-of-conference matchups are projected to be blowouts (see: UCLA-UVa, FSU-Oklahoma State, and Alabama-West Virginia), but these spreads would just make an upset that much more exciting (and lucrative!), right?
For Alabama and Florida State at the top, this weekend offers the chance to confirm lofty preseason expectations and gaudy projected stats. But the real action is at the next level of great, but not elite teams like South Carolina, Georgia, Clemson, and Ohio State. These teams' season trajectories can be wildly different with a win or a loss here. Sure, Georgia can still win the SEC East with a loss to Clemson, and Ohio State could digest an upset from Navy and win the Big Ten, but the blow to the players' confidence--not to mention the Playoff Committee's perception of these teams--would be hard to shake.
The college football season, for all intents and purposes, kicks off with the Aggies and Gamecocks facing off later tonight. At first glance this looks like a classic shootout, with both offenses appearing to have the upper hand using last season's S&P+ numbers. In every comparison except for Standard Downs S&P+ when Texas A&M has the ball, the offense holds the advantage.
However, it's worth noting that "holding the advantage" isn't very descriptive. The difference between S&P+ scores when South Carolina is on offense is much larger than when the Gamecocks are on defense. In fact, the average ranking difference between the Aggies offense and Gamecocks defense is 22.3, but the average ranking difference between the Aggies defense and the Gamecocks offense is 59.5! Furthermore, the difference between USC's Projected Offensive F/+ ranking and Texas A&M's Projected Defensive F/+ ranking is 63, while the difference between Texas A&M's Projected Offensive F/+ ranking and South Carolina's Projected Defensive F/+ ranking is just 23. That indicates that while both offenses have the upper hand, the Gamecocks defense likely has a better shot at occasionally stopping the Aggies offense than the Aggies defense has at containing the South Carolina fleet of running backs.
One critical mismatch is between last season's Special Teams F/+ rankings, where Texas A&M has the overwhelming advantage. It seems that Texas A&M has to focus on maintaining good field position (where they ranked seventh last season), using special teams to their advantage, and hope that there isn't much drop-off in explosive play ability (where the Aggies ranked 12th in IsoPPP+ last year).
F/+ Pick: South Carolina
The Rebels and Broncos square off later tonight in the first primetime Thursday matchup of the season, and it looks to be a close one. Only three spots separate Ole Miss and Boise State in the F/+ rankings. The similarities between the teams really end there, though. While Boise has fairly consistent talent between its offense and defense, there is a much greater gap between the Rebels’ offense, which is ranked 68th in Projected F/+, and its elite defense, which is 12th in Projected Defensive F/+.
With such a mediocre offense, the Rebels will likely have some trouble with the Broncos defense. An inefficient running game failed to get scores out of possessions, even if the Rebels were relatively efficient at avoiding three-and-outs (10th in the country). Interestingly, the Rebels were far more effective on passing downs (23rd in Passing Downs S&P+) than standard downs (77th), even though the Rushing and Passing S&P+ scores were nearly identical at 55th and 50th respectively.
While Boise State has fairly consistent talent between the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, S&P+ and FEI differed wildly in their evaluations of Boise State’s defense. S&P+ had a glowing review of the Bronco defense, ranking them 36th overall, while FEI had the unit ranked 83rd. The Bronco defense was just inefficient in getting opponents off the field, typifying the bend-but-don’t-break defense. Of course, they would off tighten up in the red zone, ranking 15th overall in Defensive Red Zone S&P+.
This will be a tight game. Ole Miss should control the Broncos offense, but the Rebels offense should likewise struggle getting points out of long drives. One thing that might make the difference--and make this game tighter than the Vegas spread suggests--is the difference in special teams. The Broncos were among the very elite with their special teams, while the Rebels struggled all season.
F/+ Pick: Ole Miss
While this matchup isn't particularly interesting at first glance, a combination of the debut of new Buckeye starting quarterback J.T. Barrett and a look through the statistics give this rematch of the 2009 nail-biter some intrigue.
Even without Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes are full of elite but mostly untested talent on offense. The loss of four starting offensive linemen, the starting slot receiver, and the starting running back contributed to the regression of the Projected Offensive F/+, but a slew of new talent at every vacant position has buoyed statistical projections.
The Buckeyes will undoubtedly score lots of points against the Middie defense no matter who lines up behind center--the Buckeye Projected Offensive F/+ is still tenth-best in the country and is going up against the 114th-ranked Projected Defensive F/+. Any chance at an upset will have to come from special teams and from a score-for-score performance from the Navy offense. The Buckeyes and Midshipmen are both ranked among the top for Special Teams F/+. Navy's Starting Field Position was really the driving force behind its special teams performance last season.
The Navy offense is rated 21.5% in Projected Offensive F/+ (13th overall), and their triple-option attack should do well against last season's barely-above-average Rushing S&P+ Buckeye defense. Funny enough, FEI favors the Navy offense much more than S&P+, so their per-play averages are worse than their possession-by-possession performances. The Buckeye defense will need to maintain gap integrity, stay disciplined, and force passing downs. The Midshipmen are predictably abysmal when they need to pass, with a Passing Downs S&P+ near the very bottom of the FBS.
F/+ Pick: Ohio State
Despite predictions that Alabama's two-game skid is the sign of the Tide's dynastic decline, Alabama and FSU remain the clear statistical powerhouses to open the 2014 season. Alabama has the edge in every metric and often by wide margins. So instead of focusing on the Tide, let's focus on Mountaineers strengths.
Despite being at the forefront of offensive innovation with an Air Raid offense that features packaged plays (with post-snap run/pass quarterback reads) designed to be equally effective through the air and on the ground, the 2013 Mountaineers offense was simply not very good, 97th in S&P+ and 86th in FEI. The outlook isn't too much better for 2014 (78th in Projected Offensive F/+). However, if Dana Holgorsen hopes to beat Nick Saban, it'll likely have to be by slinging the football around. The narrowest statistical gap between the WVU offense and the Tide defense is in Passing S&P+. With Alabama's shaky secondary (well, shaky for a Saban/Kirby Smart defense), Mountaineers faithful will have to hope for an Oklahoma Sugar Bowl-esque performance to take down the Tide. In all likelihood, lightning won't strike twice--but hey, we definitely didn't expect that last Big 12-Alabama matchup to turn out like it did, either.
F/+ Pick: Alabama
This game--along with LSU-Wisconsin--is the cream of the crop for the first week of college football. With seven "push" comparisons and a balanced distribution of advantages across the other statistical categories, this is likely to be a close game. The Projected F/+ scores--18% for UGA and 16.6% for Clemson--are nearly identical.
Georgia is projected to have a narrow advantage when they're on defense (14.9% Projected Defensive F/+ compared to 12.6% Projected Offensive F/+), but the Dawgs and Tigers are both ranked 15th when matching up the Dawgs offense with the Tigers defense. That's somewhat surprising given the Vegas spread for the game, which, according to Bovada, currently favors Georgia by slightly more than a touchdown.
A few other factors muddle our ability to pick a definite winner here. First, there's a significant difference between the Projected S&P+ and Projected FEI for Clemson. As Bill Connelly notes, the two metrics differ the most over Clemson and Baylor. That suggests that Clemson has relatively more trouble on a possession basis than it does play-by-play. The two statistics are much more consistent for Georgia. Second, we're really not sure how either first-year starting quarterback will play, or really even who will play. While both Cole Stoudt and Hutson Mason are long-time veterans making their starting debuts against one another, there is some speculation that Stoudt will be on a short leash with blue chip freshman Deshaun Watson waiting in the wings.
Regardless of who gets the most snaps for Clemson, the statistics suggest two major points. First, both offenses have the advantage in Passing S&P+ over the defenses. Second, both defenses have the advantage in Rushing S&P+ over the offenses. So we might expect Mason and Stoudt/Watson to air it out against relatively weak secondaries and both sides to have some trouble establishing efficient ground games. However, we have some reason to expect the Georgia rushing offense to outperform statistical expectations--last season's Rushing S&P+ numbers were deflated with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall unavailable for much of the season.
F/+ Pick: Georgia
Alabama isn't the only elite team to face a Big 12 team on the first Saturday. The Seminoles are matched up with an Oklahoma State team that looks to have regressed on offense and replaces the majority of its top tacklers from last season. While Florida State has the clear advantage on most of the major statistics, Oklahoma State will need to hope that its defense can slow down Jameis Winston.
Oklahoma State doesn't have the edge in any of the major stats, but there's no clear winner in FEI, Rushing S&P+, and Passing Downs S&P+ (Florida State was No. 1 last year, Oklahoma State No. 9) when the Seminoles are offense. So, if I'm Mike Gundy, I'm hoping the defense can slow down the Seminoles ground game enough to force Jameis into some third-and-long situations. It'll likely be bend-but-don't-break for much of the night for the Cowboys defense, which fared surprisingly well slowing down opponents in the red zone (23rd in Defensive Red Zone S&P+).
On the other hand, Mike Gundy has to just hope for a return to form for his spread-to-pass offense. With inconsistent quarterback play following Brandon Weeden's departure to the NFL, he must put faith in either J.W. Walsh or Tyreek Hill leading the offense consistently. The Seminoles are not an ideal first opponent in that regard.
One final note: Florida State's lone "weakness" in 2013 was a relatively pedestrian Special Teams F/+ ranking despite having an elite Field Position Advantage score. 27th overall is hardly weak, but when you're ranked first and third overall in Defensive and Offensive F/+ respectively, it's almost embarrassing. However, they're still far and above the middling Oklahoma State special teams squad, which was ranked 85th in Special Teams F/+ at the end of the 2013 season.
F/+ Pick: Florida State
There might not be a bigger disagreement between the Projected F/+ rankings and the AP poll than with LSU. The AP has the tigers ranked 13th, right ahead of Wisconsin, but they're sixth overall in the Projected F/+ rankings. While this looks to be a closely contested battle regardless, the statistical gap between the two teams is far more pronounced when looking at the advanced stats than just going by the AP poll.
LSU has the advantage on both offense and defense, but the advantage is fairly narrow on both sides of the ball. Wisconsin's defense was quietly stout in 2013 and it's unclear whether the Tigers' surprisingly efficient passing offense will maintain that standard after Zach Mettenberger's NFL departure. The Badgers' strength is really in rushing defense, so they will have to make LSU one-dimensional and force a new quarterback to pass to win. That might be an issue considering the leading returning wide receiver caught just seven passes last year.
One issue for Wisconsin: as good as the Badger offense was, it had a tendency to get hung up in the red zone. The Tigers, on the other hand, excelled in stalling opponent drives in the red zone, with the 13th-ranked Defensive Red Zone S&P+. One issue for LSU: turnovers. The turnover margin was zero (61st), but the Tigers had an Expected Turnover Margin of 7.1--that difference (-7.1) ranks them among the worst of the worst in the FBS.
So the keys to the game are fairly simple: Wisconsin has to dominate the ground game on both sides of the ball, while LSU must avoid turnovers and rely on superior talent in the defensive backfield.
F/+ Pick: LSU
|Underdog||Spread||Favorite||F/+ Pick||F/+ vs. Spread Pick|
|Texas A&M||11||South Carolina||South Carolina||Texas A&M|
|Boise State||11||Ole Miss||Ole Miss||Boise State|
|Rutgers||8||Washington State||Washington State||Rutgers|
|Navy||15||Ohio State||Ohio State||Navy|
|Oklahoma State||18||Florida State||Florida State||Oklahoma State|
|West Virginia||26||Alabama||Alabama||West Virginia|
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