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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.

03 Sep 2015

SDA: The Best Opening Week in Years

by Chad Peltier

It's one of the best opening weeks in recent memory, with games starting Thursday and continuing until Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech on Monday night. Out-of-conference neutral-site matchups dominate the opening week lineup, with games like Texas A&M-Arizona State and Wisconsin-Alabama, as well as lesser matchups like Northwestern-Stanford and TCU-Minnesota creating a baseline for conference and team strength from the very beginning of the season.

Michigan (+5) vs. Utah -- 8:30 p.m. Thursday (FS-1)

The Harbaugh Era finally begins at Michigan with a prime time Thursday night matchup with Utah. Fan excitement for Jim Harbaugh himself and the presumed eventual rebirth of the Wolverines football program is almost unparalleled, even in comparison with Urban Meyer's return to Ohio State.

But there are a few problems. The Wolverines aren't favored in his first game. The advanced stats don't love Michigan's chances overall, particularly against a stout Utes defense. There's still a quarterback battle ongoing between Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock and former blue chip recruit Shane Morris. Simply put, success isn't guaranteed out of the gate for Harbaugh and his Wolverines, despite months of hype and relentless media coverage.

Utah might as well join the Big Ten based on how much this matchup looks like a defensive struggle on paper. Yes, both teams have offensive stars: the Utes return workhorse back Devontae Booker and presumed quarterback Travis Wilson, while Michigan has a loaded stable of running backs in De'Veon Smith, Derrick Green, and Ty Issac, as well as promising young receivers like Drake Harris and Grant Perry. But what both offenses lack is explosiveness, with the Wolverines ranking 97th in IsoPPP+ a year ago and the Utes at 76th. With neither offensive line operating at an elite level (Michigan was 55th in opportunity rate while Utah was 65th) and both defenses fitting a bend-don't-break profile, points may be difficult to come by.

Overall Michigan Utah
2014 Proj. F/+ 35 31
2014 Field Pos. Adv. 82 12
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
2014 S&P+ 82 30
2014 FEI 82 12
2014 Success Rate+ 36 36
2014 IsoPPP+ 97 21
2014 Rushing S&P+ 62 51
2014 Passing S&P+ 84 14
When Utah has the ball Defense Offense
2014 S&P+ 18 54
2014 FEI 41 69
2014 Success Rate 35 76
2014 IsoPPP+ 13 76
2014 Rushing S&P+ 8 79
2014 Passing S&P+ 45 66

But there are a few options. First, while the Utes had a stingy defense last season, particularly given their total recruited talent, it was far more effective at ending drives (often in turnovers, where they were +5 in turnover margin) and stopping big pass plays (14th in passing S&P+) than against the run. The 51st rushing S&P+ defense might give the Wolverines trio opportunities despite an underperforming offensive line to date. Given the Michigan offensive line's combined recruiting rankings and practice observations over the summer, most analysts argue that Michigan's offensive line has underperformed, but it has elite athletic potential. If the offensive line improves, Michigan has running backs capable of efficient and explosive performances. Green, despite his size, was somewhat of an all-or-nothing back before his injury last season, averaging early 8.5 highlight yards per carry, but under a 35 percent opportunity rate. Issac, a USC transfer, was a fellow five-star recruit in the 2013 class. And both of those backs are behind De'Veon Smith, a steady and efficient junior.

But the Utes defense was an attacking, aggressive squad last season led by now-departed Nate Orchard (who was second in the country in sacks and fifth in tackles for loss). The 15th-best havoc rate defense was particularly successful at shutting down pro style offenses like USC, Michigan, and Stanford. While losing Orchard hurts, there is plenty of quality depth behind him like burgeoning star Hunter Dimick.

Utah's blueprint is likely a mix of successfully bending-not-breaking, forcing either Morris or Rudock into turnovers, and then playing field position (12th in field position advantage last season) to grind out a win. Michigan's defense clamped down on explosive plays and the run, which means it will be strength-on-strength against Devontae Booker and the Utes offense. The run offense wasn't highly ranked (79th), efficient (76th), or explosive (76th), but Booker himself was a workhorse. Booker had the eighth-most carries of any back in the country last season despite his team's low opportunity rate (36.6 percent). Utah will likely have to go for quantity over quality here because Wilson and the passing game cannot be trusted to carry the offense. Instead, the Utes will likely need to capitalize on excellent field position and take advantage of scoring opportunities in what could end up being a low-scoring game.

Watch for:

  • Harbaugh's big debut
  • Will Michigan have an effective quarterback against an aggressive Utah pass defense?
  • How Utah replaces Nate Orchard as a pass rusher
  • Whether Michigan's sneaky-good run defense bottles up workhorse running back Devontae Booker

F/+ Outright Pick: Utah

Texas A&M (-3) vs. Arizona State -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arizona State Texas A&M
2014 Proj. F/+ 19 25
2014 Field Pos. Adv 22 79
When Arizona State has the ball Offense Defense
2014 S&P+ 27 58
2014 FEI 16 86
2014 Success Rate 71 87
2014 IsoPPP+ 35 78
2014 Passing S&P+ 70 119
2014 Passing S&P+ 38 24
When Texas A&M has the ball Defense Offense
2014 S&P+ 47 18
2014 FEI 22 24
2014 Success Rate 34 14
2014 IsoPPP+ 40 20
2014 Passing S&P+ 38 26
2014 Passing S&P+ 46 14

In potentially the most competitive matchup of the weekend, the Aggies and Sun Devils face off elite offenses and decent but unspectacular defenses. Of course, this out-of-conference opener also marks the beginning of new Aggies defensive coordinator John Chavis' tenure in College Station. The longtime LSU defensive coordinator was known for his aggressive, NFL-ready defensive lines and shutdown secondaries, but it's unclear whether he has the personnel to counter Arizona State's offense with Mike Bercovici behind center. Bercovici received early starting experience last season filling in for an injured Taylor Kelly, but was actually a surprising upgrade over Kelly in both yards per attempt and completion percentage. Texas A&M sophomore Kyle Allen ensures that this is not only potentially the most competitive game of the opening week, but that it likely features the best quarterback tandem in the country as well.

The Sun Devils are seen as a dark horse Playoff contender for some, given the lack of depth at USC, new freshman quarterback at UCLA, and need to replace Marcus Mariota at Oregon. Arizona State returns a high number of impact players, though losing receiver Jaelen Strong hurts this pass-happy offense. Strong's departure precipitated running back D.J. Foster's move to receiver, and he figures to be a dynamic weapon with a high catch rate to compliment stalwarts at the position such as Ellis Jefferson, Fred Grammage, and De'Chavon Hayes. The Sun Devils should once again be pass-happy, as they passed on 47 percent of standard downs in 2014, and will challenge the Aggies' defensively. Of course, to temper the expectations of last season's 16th FEI offense, the Aggies' defensive strength -- the 24th-ranked S&P+ pass defense -- will only get better under Chavis' direction, both because it matches well with the Sun Devils' offensive strength and because the Aggies have serious star power in the front seven to try and improve from ranking 119th in rushing S&P+. Five-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack joins sophomore and SEC sack leader Myles Garrett to give the Aggies some chance to improve on their abysmal run defense from a year ago. While it's unlikely the Sun Devils will capitalize on the Aggies' relative weakness in run defense given their 70th ranking in rushing S&P+ and 71st success rate, Chavis will likely put his five-star pass rushing duo to work against Bercovici and the Arizona State offensive line.

The Aggies' offense took an expected step back last season, not only from losing Johnny Manziel, but transitioning to a new starter in Kenny Hill, then benching Hill for freshman Kyle Allen in the middle of the season. The run offense largely returns, with the 26th-overall rushing S&P+ attack benefitting from the return of steady-if-not-explosive starter Tra Carson (40.3 percent opportunity rate but only 3.5 highlight yards per opportunity). Allen, a former blue chip quarterback himself, had up-and-down appearances, but all camp reports suggest (as many do) that he has made significant strides in his sophomore fall camp. The Aggies were far from bad on offense last season, ranking in the top 25 in both S&P+ and FEI, finding success particularly with their 14th-ranked passing game. It would be hard not to find success in this passing offense, given Allen at quarterback (not to mention one of the top overall quarterback recruits in true freshman Kyler Murray) and potentially the best collection of wide receivers in the country. With Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones, and newcomer Christian Kirk, the Aggies are deep and full of top-end talent. The Sun Devils were good defensively -- certainly better than Texas A&M's starting point -- but were slightly worse against the pass than the run. That, of course, plays right in to the Aggies' hands.

Against the only true Air Raid team on their schedule last season, the Sun Devils allowed an astounding 601 yards to Washington State. They also gave up 446 to Notre Dame and 355 passing yards (15.4 yards per attempt) to UCLA. All in all, this is an even matchup between two pass-happy teams with similar statistical makeups. Further, both teams are dark horse conference contenders. Will a dominant out-of-conference win to open the season be a stepping stone for something even greater for the winning team?

Watch for:

  • Chavis' defense, particularly against the pass
  • The Sun Devils' secondary against an Air Raid attack
  • Can Arizona State run against a previously abysmal Aggies run defense?

F/+ Outright Pick: Arizona State

Alabama (-10) vs. Wisconsin -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Wisconsin Alabama
2014 Proj. F/+ 22 2
2014 Field Pos. Adv 84 75
When Wisconsin has the ball Offense Defense
2014 S&P+ 29 3
2014 FEI 33 8
2014 Success Rate 21 7
2014 IsoPPP+ 17 6
2014 Passing S&P+ 10 1
2014 Passing S&P+ 60 17
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
2014 S&P+ 29 5
2014 FEI 23 5
2014 Success Rate 26 2
2014 IsoPPP+ 30 6
2014 Passing S&P+ 28 3
2014 Passing S&P+ 23 7

New Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst will face likely the toughest matchup possible in his first game leading the Badgers. The second-rated F/+ Crimson Tide may still be looking for a starting quarterback, but they are nonetheless one of the most formidable opponents possible to kick off the season, not to mention a head coaching tenure.

But while it's easy to expect excellence from Alabama given their track record and the talent coach Nick Saban has amassed in Tuscaloosa, there are a few unsettled depth chart issues, even this late in preseason camp. Obviously the biggest question is whether Alec Morris, Jacob Coker, or possibly even Cooper Bateman will wind up playing quarterback. Insider reports suggest the dark horse Morris has the upper hand, but we may not know until kickoff. But Alabama has several other position battles and questions at wide receiver and in the secondary, where Tide faithful are particularly bitter given the 243 passing yards given up in the season-ending playoff loss to Ohio State. Given how close the battle between Coker and Morris is, the most important race may be to find a suitable replacement for Amari Cooper, who was targeted the second-most in the entire country at 39.8 percent of Blake Sims' passes. If there's one thing Lane Kiffin likes, it's to funnel an absurd amount of the offense through his team's top playmaker.

But the game plan for the season opener against Wisconsin doesn't need to be complicated and it's likely OK if the Tide still have to wait on one of Robert Foster, Chris Black, Calvin Ridley, or Ardarius Stewart to emerge as the top guy. Alabama can likely use its absurd depth to just wear down Wisconsin with a simple, run-based offense that feeds the ball to Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, and Damien Harris. With Henry, the Tide have a workhorse 240-pound back who averaged a 46.5 percent opportunity rate, while Drake provides an explosive change-of-pace option. While the Badgers defense was 28th in rushing S&P+ and a steady 25th in success rate+, it's likely that the Tide can afford to keep it a close, grinding game until opening it up in the second half thanks to better depth on both sides of the ball. Even on defense, coordinator Kirby Smart and Saban have long held the most fearsome defense against pro-style offenses, and now they likely have one of the top front seven's of Saban's tenure and likely the best in the country this season. Wisconsin has a road-grading line that was 12th in adjusted line yards, but they also have to replace three starters, including two All-Americans. Saban will likely try to force Wisconsin's Joel Stave to pass, then sell out heavily against new starting running back Corey Clement.

So how can Wisconsin pull off an upset? The answer largely depends on how well Joel Stave settles in at quarterback after fighting to win his job back from Tanner McEvoy last season. Stave caught the yips early in preseason camp last year but regained his confidence enough to lead a successful offense behind Melvin Gordon, but now much of that rushing infrastructure is gone. The Badgers have certainly earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to replacing both linemen and running backs, but they will also need to pass, and likely very explosively, against the Tide to pull off this upset. In fact, the Tide were ranked in the top ten of every advanced metric listed here except Field Position Advantage and defensive passing S&P+, so those areas demonstrate the Badgers' likely game plan: create short-field scoring situations then try to hit big plays both in the passing game and in the run game. Clement, in 147 rushes last season, was a great combination of reliability (42.9 percent opportunity rate) and explosiveness (6.83 highlight yards per carry), but it's possible he'll need to be used creatively to find holes against this front seven. There's no doubt that Smart and Saban have spent many offseason nights studying how to plug the defensive gaps that allowed Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliot to run wild through their front seven, but it's worth watching how much of the Buckeyes' game plan that Chryst plans to adopt, with pulling tackles, crack-blocking receivers, and wham blocking H-backs.

Watch for:

  • Whether the Badgers can run on the best front seven in adjusted line yards last season
  • If Alabama sticks to a simple run-based offensive game plan or tries to filter the ball to a single receiver
  • How Alabama's secondary improves, especially against play action passes

F/+ Outright Pick: Alabama

Auburn (-10.5) vs. Louisville -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Louisville Auburn
2014 Proj. F/+ 33 11
2014 Field Pos. Adv 110 62
When Louisville has the ball Offense Defense
2014 S&P+ 49 20
2014 FEI 51 45
2014 Success Rate 51 24
2014 IsoPPP+ 27 53
2014 Passing S&P+ 31 23
2014 Passing S&P+ 42 59
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
2014 S&P+ 14 4
2014 FEI 6 2
2014 Success Rate 9 9
2014 IsoPPP+ 26 4
2014 Passing S&P+ 15 15
2014 Passing S&P+ 20 1

The Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic has a somewhat underrated matchup between Auburn, who have become a trendy preseason Playoff pick in the media, and a Louisville team that replaces most of last season's stellar defense (but does so with experienced star players who transferred in with Todd Grantham). The confidence in Auburn stems from the Will Muschamp hire at defensive coordinator, the return of redshirt sophomore Carl Lawson, and Jeremy Johnson at quarterback. Louisville's defense will likely retain Grantham's signature attacking character, while it's hard to discount a Bobby Petrino passing offense, even with questions at quarterback and wide receiver.

Will Muschamp has his work cut out for him in turning around a defense that was 45th in FEI, 53rd against explosive plays, and 59th against the pass last season. Against a typical Petrino offense in a season opener, that would be extremely troublesome, even for Muschamp's defensive prowess. But there are large questions for the Cardinals offense this season. A quarterback rotation continued in to Louisville's bowl game against Georgia last year, while Reggie Bonnafon appears to have the upper hand out of the four competitors. But they must replace four of their top five receivers, including star Devante Parker, so it's unclear whether the passing offense will be ready in time for what should be fearsome Auburn pass rush that was 31st in havoc rate last season. In fact, it's likely that Muschamp will simply try and force the issue and make Louisville one-dimensional. The Tigers were more efficient in run defense (23rd to 59th in rushing and passing S&P+ respectively) and can likely try and stop the experienced and efficient (but not explosive) Brandon Radcliff, then force a relatively green quarterback and receiving corps to beat the Tigers defense through the air. The more obvious passing situations that Auburn can force Louisville in to, the more it can cut Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, and Byron Cowart loose in the pass rush.

The front seven is talented but with thin depth overall, so it will be interesting to watch whether Louisville opts for a run-heavy game plan to try and wear out the Tigers front, then mixes in explosive downfield pass plays, to which Auburn was particularly susceptible last season. Ranking 53rd against explosive plays, the Tigers were break-don't-bend, giving up too many big plays through the air. There are likely answers on Auburn's roster for the secondary, with transfers Tray Matthews and Blake Countess potentially playing a role for the Tigers, but there are still enough questions that a run-heavy start balanced by a vertical passing game could leave the Tigers open to explosive plays. But both the Auburn secondary and the Cardinals passing offense are big question marks, and both sides will likely win a few battles here and there.

Gus Malzhan will have an experienced pass-first quarterback for the first time in his Auburn tenure in Jeremy Johnson. Johnson played extremely well in place of Nick Marshall, completing 12-of-16 for 243 yards against Arkansas last year. Reports from camp suggest Johnson does an effective Cam Newton impression, and even though the offense moves on to yet another starting running back (Roc Thomas got the nod over Jovon Robinson and Peyton Barber) and loses three of the top five receiving threats (Sammie Coates, Quan Bray, and tight end C.J. Uzomah), it's looking like Rhett Lashlee and Malzhan have plenty of firepower with which to work. Much the same way as Auburn's defense last season, the Cardinals were break-don't-bend, with a worse IsoPPP+ rating than success rate+. Opponents could take advantage of Grantham's aggressive, ball-hawking strategy to connect on big pass plays, which Auburn will likely try to do with receiver Duke Williams. The Cardinals replace most of their elite defense last season, but do so with an insane group of transfers, taking on everyone from departed Georgia defensive backs Josh Harvey Clemons and Shaq Wilson to TCU defensive end Devonte Fields. But while these players have practice experience and game experience at other schools, they are still new to working with one another in game situations for Louisville, so it remains to be seen whether they can handle what's likely to be an explosive Auburn passing attack.

Watch for:

  • Jeremy Johnson and Auburn's explosive passing offense against a new Louisville secondary
  • The Auburn pass rush against Louisville's new quarterbacks and new group of wide receivers
  • Explosive pass plays from both teams

F/+ Outright Pick: Auburn

Notre Dame (-9.5) vs. Texas -- 7:30 p.m. (NBC)

Overall Texas Notre Dame
2014 Proj. F/+ 43 14
2014 Field Pos. Adv 115 45
When Texas has the ball Offense Defense
2014 S&P+ 80 43
2014 FEI 108 54
2014 Success Rate 64 64
2014 IsoPPP+ 94 80
2014 Passing S&P+ 52 70
2014 Passing S&P+ 99 96
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
2014 S&P+ 7 20
2014 FEI 21 21
2014 Success Rate 12 23
2014 IsoPPP+ 5 14
2014 Passing S&P+ 32 27
2014 Passing S&P+ 3 13

Two traditional college football blue bloods go to battle in prime time Saturday night, with Notre Dame beginning the Malik Zaire era as favorites over Charlie Strong's Longhorns. Notre Dame, like Auburn and USC, is a top-15 projected F/+ team and popular preseason Playoff pick. Texas, in year two of Charlie Strong's rebuild, is not. But this is nonetheless a heavily anticipated matchup for two teams that have unclear identities in 2015. Is Zaire more than a good verbal leader but also capable of leading a downfield explosive passing game? Who is Texas' quarterback and can they command an offense that was 80th in S&P+ and 108th in FEI last season? Will Texas' defense survive losses in the front seven?

Notre Dame reportedly has the attention of numerous NFL scouts due to the collection of talent Brian Kelly has assembled in South Bend. From corner Keivarae Russell to receiver Will Fuller, linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive tackle Sheldon Day, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, there is more than one first-round pick on the Irish roster this season. But the question remains whether they can put it together and play cohesively. Russell should help the defensive secondary immediately upon his return (the bigger question being whether Tyrone Swoopes and his group of receivers can exploit any secondary holes anyway), but the defensive issues are more extensive than can be addressed just by Russell's return. The Irish were 96th in passing S&P+ and 80th against explosive plays, averaging 43rd and 54th in overall defensive S&P+ and FEI, respectively. This was not an elite defense last season despite the star power.

But the real question is whether Texas has the personnel to exploit any defensive holes. Swoopes completed just 58 percent of his passes last season and seemed to struggle going though reads and progressions, but that was to be expected for most young quarterbacks. That's even more true given the fluid offensive line, where Strong seemed to do an inordinate amount of house-cleaning, leading to a near-constant reshuffling of the starting five (76th in adjusted line yards). With a more veteran group of linemen, it's fair to expect more from the passing game from the beginning. While explosive passing was the route against the Irish last season, Texas may opt to rely on a bread-and-butter rushing attack led by former top running back recruit Jonathan Gray. The offensive line had a dismal 31.6 percent opportunity rate, which Gray bettered (34.2 percent). At least until Swoopes settles in with a green receiving corps (last year's veteran top two didn't best a 55 percent catch rate), the Longhorns might lean on Gray against last season's 70th-overall rush defense. That's all the more likely given the injury to starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones.

Casual fans might turn more of their attention to the Irish offense, where expectations abound for Malik Zaire. Zaire came in to relieve Everett Golson, eventually taking his job and leading to Golson's eventual departure to Florida State. Zaire will benefit from the return of his top four receiving targets, including emerging superstar Will Fuller, who was both consistent and the most explosive receiving option last season. Losing running back Greg Bryant to academics hurts, but Tarean Folsten can carry the load as an efficient rushing option at the very least. The Longhorns pass defense was the strength of the team last season and should survive some personnel losses to make the passing game challenging at the least for Zaire, but this matchup may be decided more in the run game for both teams.

Watch for:

  • Whether the game turns in to a run-first, limited passing slug fest
  • Will Fuller as the lone exception to that rule
  • How well the Texas offensive line stands up to the Notre Dame pass rush

F/+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame

Ohio State (-12) vs. Virginia Tech -- Monday 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Ohio State Virginia Tech
2014 Proj. F/+ 1 24
2014 Field Pos. Adv 5 76
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
2014 S&P+ 1 10
2014 FEI 7 2
2014 Success Rate 1 2
2014 IsoPPP+ 1 10
2014 Passing S&P+ 1 16
2014 Passing S&P+ 2 2
When Virginia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
2014 S&P+ 11 85
2014 FEI 7 93
2014 Success Rate 23 93
2014 IsoPPP+ 12 104
2014 Passing S&P+ 42 108
2014 Passing S&P+ 8 86

The final big game of the week features a rematch between the national champions and the only team in the country to beat the Buckeyes last season. Only this time, the game is in Blacksburg, further complicating what would first be thought of as an odds-on win for the Buckeyes. Still, Ohio State is sitting as double-digit favorites over Virginia Tech, spurred by offensive talent and line play that came together following last year's early loss. The Hokies return much of the same personnel as last season and are largely even healthier than they were a year ago when quarterback Michael Brewer was making just his second start as a Hokie. So can Virginia Tech pull off yet another upset, this time against the top team in the country at home?

The critical matchup will be the Ohio State offense against the Hokies defense. Last season defensive coordinator Bud Foster wrote the script for attacking Tom Herman's power spread offense with his use of a 46 bear front and cover zero. Subsequent Ohio State opponents largely followed this script, attacking with a bear front and forcing J.T. Barrett to pass to win. Except Tom Herman had an answer for this defense -- bear-beater run blocking, with crack-blocking receivers and pulling offensive tackles creating big holes for an increasingly healthy Ezekiel Elliott throughout the season. Bud Foster will of course have studied Ohio State's response extensively, so it will be interesting to see how the Hokies choose to counter Ohio State's bear-beaters. Statistically, Ohio State had the best offense in the country last season according to four advanced metrics listed here. Elliott and the experienced offensive line are the core, while the passing game got going both vertically and horizontally thanks to one of the deepest groups of wide receivers in the country.

Of course there's still the matter of picking a quarterback between Barrett and Cardale Jones, but this is as much of a no-lose quarterback battle as you're likely to find across the country. Urban has stated that one will start but both may play situationally, so it will be interesting to see how Ed Warinner and Meyer distribute snaps. Three of Ohio State's top receivers are suspended for this matchup, including Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall, and Corey Smith, leaving a mix of new slot receiver Braxton Miller, former running back Curtis Samuel, leading receiver Michael Thomas, and a mix of four-star underclassmen to fill the gaps. Virginia Tech's defense is largely intact from last season's second-ranked FEI squad that finished second in passing S&P+ and 16th in rushing S&P+. So it's possible Ohio State's game plan will be more run-heavy than before given the offensive line's success, and Ezekiel Elliott's explosive ability. The one area where the Hokies defense was worse than elite was in preventing explosive runs (41st), and Alabama can attest to Elliott's ability in this department. The key will be in balancing the Buckeyes run game with a vertical passing game despite using two quarterbacks and missing three wide receivers against last season's second-ranked passing defense.

Of course, the Hokies will actually have to score some points against Ohio State to score a repeat upset, and that's hard to predict given the 85th and 93rd overall offense according to S&P+ and FEI respectively. Michael Brewer has a full season as a Hokie under his belt but will need to cut down his 15 interceptions from a year ago, particularly with Vonn Bell roaming the secondary. The best news Brewer heard all summer was likely defensive end Joey Bosa's suspension for the opener, requiring either Sam Hubbard or Jalyn Holmes to fill in for the superstar junior. The pass rush should be formidable for the Hokies offensive line as Darron Lee became one of the most aggressive pass rushing linebackers by the end of the season -- particularly when the Hokies' line was 102nd in adjusted sack rate last season. Two of the Hokies' top three running backs return in Marshawn Williams and J.C. Coleman and while neither had much in the way of efficiency (Coleman had the higher opportunity rate at only 36.4 percent), they were decently explosive when given the opportunity. All in all, the Hokies skill positions on offense are experienced, from the top four receiving threats all returning, to continuity under Brewer, to the running backs, but that might not matter if the line doesn't improve on last season's 98th ranking in adjusted line yards and 93rd-place finish in opportunity rate. On top of that, the Hokies lose three starters, including the center and left tackle. Unless there is some addition by subtraction, the offensive line is looking like the weak point that the Ohio State front seven may exploit.

It's hard to see the Buckeyes losing the chance for revenge, given their offensive line superiority, depth at offensive skill positions, and aggressive secondary. Still, with so much returning for the Hokies, it's almost certain they will give the defending national champions a strong fight.

Watch for:

  • Can Ohio State still generate a pass rush without Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett along the defensive line?
  • Will the Virginia Tech offensive line improve in the run game despite losing three starters?
  • Can Ohio State's offense exploit a weakness to explosive runs or pass without three rotational starting wide receivers?

F/+ Outright Pick: Ohio State

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 1

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Virginia Tech 14 Ohio State Ohio State Virginia Tech
Arizona State 3 Texas A&M Arizona State Arizona State
Wisconsin 12 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Texas 10 Notre Dame Notre Dame Notre Dame
Virginia 19.5 UCLA UCLA Virginia
Louisville 11 Auburn Auburn Louisville
BYU 7 Nebraska Nebraska BYU
Northwestern 12 Stanford Stanford Northwestern
Minnesota 17 TCU TCU Minnesota
Michigan 6 Utah Utah Michigan
North Carolina 3 South Carolina South Carolina South Carolina

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 03 Sep 2015

2 comments, Last at 04 Sep 2015, 8:19am by nalbritton

Comments

1
by Will :: Fri, 09/04/2015 - 12:20am

F/+ Picks UCLA vs Spread in the game between Louisville and Auburn. Nice.

RE: Ohio State, Noah Brown, who would have started given the suspensions, broke his leg last week and will miss the season. This likely leaves either Curtis Samuel or Braxton Miller as the #2 receiver.

Will

2
by nalbritton :: Fri, 09/04/2015 - 8:19am

Curious where I can find an explanation on how the "F/+ vs spread is determined" - basically trying to understand the inflection point between teams with a higher F+/ compared to the spread to see how accurate the spread number is.
Also, under the Louisville/Auburn matchup there is an error on the team projected as spread pick - shows UCLA.
Thanks