Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Nov 2015

SDA: Body Blows Out West

by Chad Peltier

This is the week of the hangover in college football. Others might call it a body blow theory -- that some of the top teams in the country had big, physical games last weekend and they might be physically run down this week. LSU and Alabama are both physical opponents, while the Tide now face a Mississippi State team with a running quarterback who is having the best year of his career in Dak Prescott. But LSU has another physical matchup this week in Arkansas, so Leonard Fournette has a chance at redemption, while the defense faces another potent offense. Things aren't easy for Arkansas, though, and the hangover might be mental for them as they have their first game following a wild, overtime win over Ole Miss.

Besides potential hangover games, this is also the weekend for a few long-awaited matchups, like Stanford-Oregon (which looked much more important in the preseason), Memphis-Houston (which few could have picked out in the preseason as a big game), and Oklahoma-Baylor for the second round of the Big 12 mini-playoff.

Alabama (-8) at Mississippi State -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Fresh off a titanic win over LSU, Alabama has to immediately go on the road to 7-2 Mississippi State. The Tide may have proven themselves as one of the best teams in the country by completely eliminating Leonard Fournette and rushing for 250 yards on the Tigers defense, but taking on three top-20 F/+ teams in consecutive weeks is difficult for any team. While Alabama is almost assuredly better overall than Mississippi State, they are likely fairly worn down from their difficult slate. In comparison, the Bulldogs have faced four teams where their win expectancy was 91 percent or better, and their narrowest margin of victory was last week's 18-point win over Missouri.

Overall Alabama Mississippi State
F/+ 2 15
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 35 37
FEI 30 19
Success Rate 46 68
IsoPPP 72 3
Rushing S&P+ 19 58
Passing S&P+ 40 34
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 2 25
FEI 1 26
Success Rate 2 22
IsoPPP 54 55
Rushing S&P+ 1 60
Passing S&P+ 1 34

If Mississippi State gets this upset, it will probably come thanks to Dak Prescott. Last year the junior quarterback threw for his third-highest total of the season against Alabama -- 290 yards -- but he also had three interceptions as the Bulldogs lost by five. Prescott has the Bulldogs as the No. 30 passing S&P+ team primarily due to his efficiency, only throwing a single interception all season. His two leading targets are De'Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross, two juniors who need explosive days against the Tide for a chance at the upset. In some ways, the Mississippi State offense is a counterpoint to LSU's. Whereas the Tigers were built on a strong run game (which Alabama's front seven easily dominated) and an inefficient but explosive passing game, the Bulldogs have a mediocre rushing offense outside of Prescott, but are extremely efficient in the passing game (but not explosive). Because of their weak run game -- Prescott leads the team in carries and is the most consistent runner as well with a 45 percent opportunity rate -- the Bulldogs pass on 56 percent of standard downs. That's the third-most passing on standard downs in the country even though no one will confuse the Bulldogs for an air raid offense. But an efficient running quarterback and an efficient passing game have proven to be the only two real weaknesses for the No. 2 S&P+ Alabama defense. Though the Tide are ranked at the top of both rushing and passing S&P+ now after the LSU game, Dak Prescott will be an interesting test for what could be a vintage Crimson Tide defense.

Derrick Henry's legs might fall off after this one. Yet another week, the offensive game plan should be simple for the Crimson Tide. Their opposing defense's weaknesses match up with their own strengths, so Alabama will simply need to hand the ball off roughly 45 times and call it a day. The Tide are 19th in overall rushing S&P+, relying more on efficient runs than explosive ones (39th to 66th), though their stuff rate (20 percent, or 70th) is fairly poor. But Mississippi State is 58th against the run and 110th in opportunity rate. While they get into the backfield with surprising regularity relative to how frequently they allow 5-yard gains (34th in defensive stuff rate), the biggest concern for the Bulldogs defense will be stopping Derrick Henry. What you're likely to see is defensive coordinator Manny Diaz sell out to stop the run first and foremost. If there's one area that really favors the Bulldogs in this matchup though, it's in how well they stop opponents in the red zone. They average just 3.70 points allowed per scoring opportunity (11th) compared to the Tide at 4.66 (75th). We may be in for a fair number of field goals if this plays out as the numbers suggest.

Watch for:

  • Something strange: Mississippi State is terrible on both sides of the ball in the third quarter (dropping from a first half S&P+ average of 13th to 52nd on offense and dropping to 76th on defense), while the Alabama offense is far better in the first and third quarter relative to the second and fourth (dropping from an average of 17th to 66th). It's tough to say how that might affect the flow of the game, but I'm guessing the third quarter will be critical, especially if Alabama corrects any issues at halftime while Mississippi State struggles.
  • Mississippi State's greatest asset on offense is Dak Prescott and the efficient passing offense. He'll need to continue his season-long trends of efficient passing, a high success rate, and avoiding turnovers to move the ball on what may be the best defense in the country.
  • Finally, Mississippi State's defense has few clear advantages over the Crimson Tide offense, except in the red zone, where they might force more than a few field goals even after efficient Alabama runs for the rest of the drive.

F/+ Outright Pick: Alabama

Michigan (-12.5) at Indiana -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan Indiana
F/+ 4 64
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 43 110
FEI 41 99
Success Rate 38 79
IsoPPP 48 117
Rushing S&P+ 36 91
Passing S&P+ 27 72
When Indiana has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 1 21
FEI 5 29
Success Rate 3 40
IsoPPP 65 62
Rushing S&P+ 3 59
Passing S&P+ 13 16

Indiana rarely is the sexiest team to preview, and following five straight losses that still rings true. But three of those five losses have been by eight points or less, and they have played four teams in the F/+ top 40 in that span. It's a far stretch to call Indiana a good team -- especially the defense -- but the offense could be an interesting challenge for a Michigan team that has been excellent on defense. Despite the Crimson Tide ranking first in both rushing and passing S&P+, the Michigan Wolverines claim the top overall spot in the defensive S&P+ rankings. But with Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock fresh off of a 337-yard passing performance against Rutgers -- easily his most productive and efficient performance of the year -- can the Michigan offense put up big numbers against Indiana's defense?

All week we have heard about Jake Rudock's performance against Rutgers, which was admittedly a very impressive passing game, and how his improvements would carry through the rest of the season. The problem is that as bad as Indiana's passing defense is -- and at 72nd in S&P+, it's certainly not a shutdown secondary -- Rutgers' is far worse. The Scarlet Knights literally have the worst passing S&P+ defense in the country. But even if the Wolverines passing game regresses slightly from last week, the run game certainly has an opportunity to shine here against the No. 95 IsoPPP run defense and 91st overall rushing S&P+ defense. Big plays are not Michigan's specialty (77th in rushing IsoPPP), but Indiana allows explosive runs fairly frequently. While it's true that Michigan's top three leading rushers all average under 4.3 highlight yards per opportunity, there's a chance that one of them -- or maybe someone like Jabrill Peppers, who has been used increasingly on offense -- might break a long run or two. The biggest advantage Michigan might have in this game is field position though, as the Wolverines are in the top ten in both offensive and defensive starting field position, while the Indiana offense starts its average drive on the 28-yard line (109th overall).

But Indiana does have one of the most efficient passing offenses in the country behind senior quarterback Nate Sudfeld. At 16th overall, the Hoosiers passing offense has three big threats in Ricky Jones, Simmie Cobbs, and Mitchell Paige. Jones might be the name to know, averaging more than 17 yards per catch. While Michigan's pass defense has been the strength of the team thus far, they are nonetheless slightly worse in preventing explosive pass plays relative to efficient ones (25th and 10th, respectively). That's not to take away from the potential contribution of running back Jordan Howard, who averages 6 yards per carry and a 47 percent opportunity rate, but Michigan's run defense is even better, at third overall. But after allowing less than 3 yards per carry in six straight games, Michigan allowed 4 yards per carry in its last two. The funny thing about Michigan's run defense is that unadjusted, Michigan is third in rushing success rate and 99th in rushing IsoPPP -- there's a vast disparity in the Wolverines' overall ability to contain explosive plays. So it's fair to expect Indiana to live and die on explosive plays against an otherwise lockdown Michigan defense.

Watch for:

  • Michigan's excellent overall defense is somewhat more susceptible to big plays, especially on the ground, so expect Indiana to be somewhat reliant on big plays to move the ball. It's possible backup quarterback and explosive runner Zander Diamont could be involved here.
  • The Michigan offense should have excellent field position and might hit a few more big runs than usual against the Indiana run defense. Look for Jabrill Peppers to make the most of his part-time use on offense for explosive plays.

F/+ Outright Pick: Michigan

Memphis (+6) at Houston -- 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Memphis Houston
F/+ 29 27
When Memphis has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 9 53
FEI 16 23
Success Rate 12 52
IsoPPP 42 53
Rushing S&P+ 72 59
Passing S&P+ 19 84
When Houston has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 94 30
FEI 70 24
Success Rate 88 23
IsoPPP 88 29
Rushing S&P+ 69 39
Passing S&P+ 91 45

Last week was a big disappointment for Memphis as they fell to Navy by more than three scores. Houston narrowly avoided a disappointment of its own as Cincinnati came within three points of the upset. Bearcats quarterback Gunner Kiel threw for 523 yards and Houston's Greg Ward Jr. tossed two interceptions, but the Cougars managed to stay perfect. Though Houston is undefeated and Memphis' playoff dreams are likely gone, the Tigers now have three games against top-25 S&P+ teams while Houston has just one -- the three-point win over Louisville in the second game of Tom Herman's tenure. In fact, Houston has played just two games this season against top-50 S&P+ opponents, winning both by a field goal. Memphis will be Houston's third top-50 opponent.

Houston does a lot of things well -- they play top-25 field position on both sides of the ball, are excellent in the red zone on both offense and defense, and they are an astounding +16 in turnover margin. But the Cougars' success comes down to junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who leads the team in rushing as well as throwing for 8 yards per pass while completing more than 70 percent of his throws. Though he and Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch are far different -- Ward is a prototypical dual-threat, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards already with a 53 percent opportunity rate while Lynch is 6-foot-7 and an NFL prospect -- this game is likely to come down to the quarterback duel. Both defenses are inefficient and notably struggle against the pass, so this could be an exciting one. Memphis is ranked in the hundreds in both defensive passing success rate and IsoPPP, but is also 75th in rushing success rate, so it's fair to expect both Ward and running back Kenneth Farrow to break the century mark on the ground. While the Memphis pass rush is nothing to speak of -- 66th in adjusted sack rate and 115th in overall havoc rate -- Houston has some issues in pass protection common to many dual-threat quarterbacks (7.2 percent sack rate, 86th in adjusted sack rate offensively). So it will be important for Houston to prevent losses, stay on schedule, and continue season trends of maximizing scoring opportunities.

Memphis has one of the most efficient offenses in the country, though few are also as lopsided, as the Tigers' rank 19th in the passing game compared to 72nd in rushing. The Tigers more or less pass to set up the run, throwing on 45 percent of standard downs (93rd) and running on 35 percent of passing downs (50th). This fits since Lynch is a very productive quarterback, already crossing the 3,000-yard mark and averaging 8.6 yards per pass with just two interceptions. Houston has built its undefeated season at least in part by creating a great deal of havoc (17th in overall havoc rate) despite being mediocre against the run (59th in rushing S&P+) and poor against the pass (84th in passing S&P+). Though it's tough to expect Houston's defense to consistently stop the trio of Mose Frazier, Phil Mayhue, and Anthony Miller (all have at least a 16 percent target rate and average at least 12 yards per catch), Houston may be able to create some negative plays and flip the field like it has done throughout its season.

Watch for:

  • Can Houston's defense generate havoc by forcing turnovers and negative plays despite Memphis being 29th in adjusted sack rate?
  • Which quarterback will have the more efficient day? Though Paxton Lynch throws more often, can Greg Ward Jr.'s running ability keep the Cougars consistent against the Memphis defense?

F/+ Outright Pick: Houston

Arkansas (+7.5) at LSU -- 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arkansas LSU
F/+ 37 7
When Arkansas has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 8 33
FEI 11 28
Success Rate 6 50
IsoPPP 60 16
Rushing S&P+ 23 19
Passing S&P+ 1 7
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 97 12
FEI 97 9
Success Rate 121 31
IsoPPP 62 7
Rushing S&P+ 64 2
Passing S&P+ 115 22

LSU might still be hungover from Alabama, but now they have to face yet another physical SEC West team in Arkansas. But Arkansas also has some hangover potential following their overtime win over Ole Miss (which required a now-infamous backwards pass on fourth down). One thing is for sure: Leonard Fournette will certainly want to erase any memory of his (and his offensive line's) performance against the Crimson Tide this week. And with the Arkansas defense, he'll likely get plenty of opportunities.

Though Fournette may be highly motivated, Brandon Harris might have the most opportunity for a big game. LSU's passing offense is notoriously big-play-or-nothing (98th in success rate, fifth in IsoPPP), but Arkansas's pass defense is 115th in passing S&P+ and among the ten worst teams in getting to the quarterback. That should allow plenty of time for the Tigers' big-play duo of Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre to get open for explosive plays. (Fun fact: these two receivers command 62 percent of Harris' targets, and no other receiver has more than four catches this season.) Of course, Leonard Fournette is still likely to be a central part of the Tigers' game plan, and even with LSU's rushing performance last week, he still averages a 47 percent opportunity rate and nearly 8 highlight yards per carry. The gains just might be more efficient than explosive on the ground versus Arkansas, as they are 21st in rushing IsoPPP, but 100th in rushing success rate on defense. Interestingly, the Arkansas run defense is 63rd in opportunity rate, allowing 5-yard runs on 38 percent of opponents' carries, but they are 13th in adjusted line yards, meaning that they allow a fair number of 5-yard runs that don't get past the second level for explosive gains.

Through three quarters, there aren't too many offenses more dangerous than Arkansas's, as they are 12th, second, and seventh in offensive S&P+, until falling to 77th in offensive S&P+ in the fourth quarter. What's surprising is that the Hogs perform at a high level due in large part to Brandon Allen and the Razorbacks' deep receiving corps. Allen averages nearly 9 yards per attempt with only nine sacks allowed this season and five interceptions. The receiving corps includes the consistent Drew Morgan, who leads the team in receiving yards; Hunter Henry, who is one of the best tight ends in the country; and Dominique Read, who is the most explosive threat on the team. Of course, that's not to discount the bread-and-butter run game that Bret Bielema's teams have become known for, and Alex Collins has done well handling the load with a 44 percent opportunity rate. However, the run game is far more efficient than explosive (fifth compared to 121st in rushing IsoPPP), so any explosiveness will have to come from the passing game. Alabama showed that it is possible to run on LSU, particularly for efficient gains (the Tigers are 51st in defensive rushing success rate compared to 22nd in rushing IsoPPP), and this plays right into Arkansas's strengths running the ball. Overall, both offenses should be fairly efficient on the ground, but whichever quarterback has the more explosive day is likely to get the win.

Watch for:

  • Will Brandon Allen or Brandon Harris be more explosive through the air? Both have explosive passing offenses to balance their efficient run games.
  • How will Leonard Fournette respond to being completely shut down last week?

F/+ Outright Pick: LSU

Oregon (+10) at Stanford -- 7:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Oregon Stanford
F/+ 48 9
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 18 41
FEI 20 51
Success Rate 19 40
IsoPPP 24 52
Rushing S&P+ 6 36
Passing S&P+ 41 52
When Stanford has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 96 14
FEI 90 5
Success Rate 94 7
IsoPPP 72 69
Rushing S&P+ 115 21
Passing S&P+ 63 13

It has been a little while since Oregon has been in the national spotlight. As it is, this is still a game against an unranked, 6-3 opponent for Stanford on their way to a likely Pac-12 North championship. So does Oregon have any chance of getting the upset? The Cardinal want to slow down the Ducks as much as possible, keeping them from running as many plays or squeezing as many drives into the game as they'd like. However, the key will be whether Oregon can take advantage of scoring opportunities and hit some explosive runs against the Stanford defense.

Oregon is an entirely different team when Vernon Adams is the quarterback. Adams averages over 2 yards per passing attempt more than Jeff Lockie despite completing a lower percentage of his passes. Even though the Oregon offensive line hasn't been kind to either quarterback in terms of pass protection, the Stanford defense has struggled to pick up sacks itself, ranking third-last in the FBS in adjusted sack rate. Give Adams time to throw and he is far deadlier with the deep ball than Lockie or Taylor Alie. A healthy Adams also helps the run game, even though Royce Freeman is having a quietly stellar season, averaging a 46 percent opportunity rate and 6.6 yards per carry. Stanford's defense has been surprisingly mortal this season, reinforcing the perception that this game could turn in to a shootout. Stanford is 52nd in passing S&P+ and 36th in rushing S&P+ on defense, but 98th in rushing IsoPPP, so Oregon has an opportunity to hit on some explosive runs -- potentially from backup freshman running back Taj Griffin if not Royce Freeman (Griffin averages nearly 15 highlight yards per opportunity!).

Though Oregon should be fairly explosive against the Cardinal defense, Stanford should produce some fireworks of its own. Stanford's offense can be plodding, but per-play efficiency, maximizing scoring opportunities (averaging 5.6 points per scoring opportunity), and playing excellent field position (11th in offensive starting field position) lead to a very efficient offense that has overwhelmed all but Northwestern and Washington State this season. Christian McCaffrey is the driving force for the offense, with a 47 percent opportunity rate and 6.1 rushing yards per carry. He's also the most consistent and second-leading pass catcher, taking nearly 17 percent of Kevin Hogan's targets with an 82 percent catch rate. Receiver Michael Rector and leading receiver and tight end Austin Hooper are more explosive, but together the trio keeps Stanford's offense very consistent. The Cardinal is likely to do the most damage on the ground because Oregon's run defense struggles to stop almost anyone, ranking 115th in rushing S&P+. The pass defense is ranked fairly mediocre as well (63rd), but at least keeps most receptions from becoming big gains (22nd in passing IsoPPP). So it's likely that both teams will find success running the ball in a ground-and-pound shootout -- but there's no question that Stanford's defense is more efficient overall.

Watch for:

  • Efficient, but possibly not very explosive, performances from both Christian McCaffrey and Royce Freeman. Any dropoff in production or efficiency will greatly affect the overall offensive production of their team.
  • How will the offenses finish drives? Stanford excels at finishing drives at eighth in points per trip inside the 40, while Oregon ranks 49th -- but Oregon's run game is also far more explosive than Stanford's too.

F/+ Outright Pick: Stanford

Oklahoma (+2.5) at Baylor -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oklahoma Baylor
F/+ 6 10
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 11 79
FEI 17 59
Success Rate 9 35
IsoPPP 19 63
Rushing S&P+ 44 28
Passing S&P+ 10 65
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 20 1
FEI 2 3
Success Rate 24 1
IsoPPP 11 1
Rushing S&P+ 20 13
Passing S&P+ 8 7

Watch for:

Baylor vs. Oklahoma is really the premier matchup of the day. Though the Baylor passing offense didn't see any dropoff as Jarrett Stidham took the reins from injured Seth Russell, the Bears nonetheless won by just a touchdown over Kansas State last Thursday night. This marks the beginning of a loaded Big 12 slate for both teams, as Baylor has to turn around and play Oklahoma State and TCU following this matchup with Oklahoma. The Sooners too must face TCU and Oklahoma State to close out their season, so the fun is just getting started in the Big 12 (much to the chagrin of the Playoff Committee). If any one-loss team outside of Alabama and Notre Dame is going to make the Playoff as things stand now, it's likely an Oklahoma squad that wins over Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU.

Both Baylor and Oklahoma have passing attacks that could rival anyone in the country. Baylor's Jarrett Stidham may have just one game as a starter under his belt, but he has completed more than three-quarters of his passes at nearly 11 yards per attempt without an interception thus far. And while Stidham may not throw an interception against Oklahoma (the Sooners are 90th in defensive back havoc rate and 199th in passes defended-to-interception ratio), it is likely that the Sooners take away some of Baylor's explosive passing plays. Oklahoma leads the country in defensive passing IsoPPP and has only allowed 18 pass plays of 20 yards or more (tied for seventh-fewest in the country). While the Sooners' schedule hasn't been back-breaking, Texas Tech, Tulsa, and West Virginia all have explosive passing offenses. But Baylor isn't just about big pass plays -- they have the most efficient rushing offense in the country according to rushing success rate and opportunity rate, and only get stuffed on 13 percent of carries. Shock Linwood averages nearly 8 yards per carry with a 56 percent opportunity rate. In fact, Baylor's top three running backs all have opportunity rates over 52 percent. Kansas State was only able to hold Baylor to 31 points by limiting their offensive possessions (nine drives with just 67 total plays) and limiting Baylor to field goals on several occasions. Oklahoma's offense is generally much faster paced (they are 26th in adjusted pace), so it will be interesting to see if Oklahoma adopts a similar strategy since that Kansas State performance was the closest anyone has come to stopping the Bears on offense.

In all likelihood, Oklahoma will likely need to win a shootout, but they seem to have the firepower necessary to do the job. The team's weak point seems to be the rushing offense, though that might be a function of play calling and overall offensive direction rather than talent or execution, as Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon make one of the best rushing tandems in college football. It's true that the offensive line struggles somewhat in pressure situations (only a 68 percent power success rate) and is stuffed on 18 percent of carries (52nd in the country), Baylor actually allows a 40 percent rushing success rate (50th), so it's possible that Oklahoma's ground game can complement Baker Mayfield and his trio of wide receivers. The Bears are worst on defense at allowing explosive plays, ranking 124th in passing IsoPPP and 77th in adjusted sack rate. Expect the Sooners to try and connect with leading receiver Sterling Shepard as frequently as possible on big plays.

Watch for:

  • Can Oklahoma use big plays to exploit the Baylor pass defense and keep pace with Baylor's scoring?
  • How effective will the Baylor defense be in stopping Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon? Will this turn in to a shootout or will Oklahoma's pass defense limit Baylor's explosiveness?

F/+ Outright Pick: Baylor

OTHER GAMES

Washington State at UCLA: Mike Leach's Cougars have now swept the Arizona and Oregon schools, and their three losses were all by a touchdown or less. While UCLA is projected to win big here, can Luke Falk be efficient enough through the air to get another upset for Washington State?

Minnesota at Iowa: It's looking like the Hawkeyes are going to go undefeated during the regular season in one of the surprise success stories of the year so far. But Minnesota has a stout pass defense and made its game against the Buckeyes much closer than expected. If Minnesota gets the win, it will likely be due to the Gophers' offense and a productive day from quarterback Mitch Leidner.

Ohio State at Illinois: The Buckeyes return J.T. Barrett, so expect to see the offense at full capacity against the Illini. Illinois will need explosive runs from Josh Ferguson and to catch the Ohio State secondary sleeping for explosive passes to score the upset.

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 11

Favorite Spread Underdog F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Ohio State 16 at Illinois Ohio State Illinois
Alabama 7.5 at Mississippi State Alabama Mississippi State
Michigan 13 at Indiana Michigan Michigan
at Houston 7 Memphis Houston Memphis
at LSU 7.5 Arkansas LSU LSU
at Stanford 10 Oregon Stanford Stanford
at Iowa 12.5 Minnesota Iowa Minnesota
at Baylor 2.5 Oklahoma Baylor Oklahoma
at UCLA 9.5 Washington State UCLA UCLA

Picks against the spread last week: 5-4
Picks straight up last week: 5-4

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 12 Nov 2015

1 comment, Last at 14 Nov 2015, 5:09pm by drillz

Comments

1
by drillz :: Sat, 11/14/2015 - 5:09pm

(When Alabama has the ball)adjustment needed on gragh chart