Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

08 Oct 2015

SDA: Defensive Showcase

by Chad Peltier

It's honestly kind of an off week for college football. Traditional big games like the Red River Rivalry are down this season, leaving College GameDay to choose Cal-Utah in Salt Lake City as their game of the week. It's unclear how much we'll learn about the hierarchies of teams around the country, barring unexpectedly large wins (anytime now, Ohio Stateā€¦) or upsets (Navy-Notre Dame, anyone?).

Instead, use this Saturday as a judge for several new coaches and specific players. Jared Goff faces a stingy Utah defense, but the numbers suggest he could still have an efficient day throwing the ball. Florida is coming off one of its biggest wins in years over Ole Miss, but could be challenged by a Missouri defense that still generates havoc with the best of them. Like Florida, Michigan is another blue blood program seemingly on the rise, but a defensive showdown against Northwestern could be challenging if the Wolverines have any issues running the ball.

If you're looking for a sneaky fun game of the week, tune in tonight for the first showdown between Tom Herman and Chad Morris as SMU travels to Houston. Houston is the big favorite both in Vegas and by S&P+ projections, but there should be some interesting offensive performances and plenty of scoring.

Navy (+14.5) at Notre Dame -- 3:30 p.m. (NBC)

Overall Navy Notre Dame
F/+ 29 9
When Navy has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 23 39
2014 FEI 12 54
Success Rate 7 26
IsoPPP 86 94
Rushing S&P+ 26 54
Passing S&P+ 27 13
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 36 10
2014 FEI 91 21
Success Rate 65 26
IsoPPP 3 21
Rushing S&P+ 69 7
Passing S&P+ 63 22

Notre Dame has struggled with Navy in recent years. Last year was a ten-point win that required 21 points in the fourth quarter. 2013 was just a four-point win where Navy ran for 331 yards and still needed a defensive stop with 68 seconds left in the fourth. Part of the reason might be the difficulty in preparing for the triple option, but part might also be the wear and tear of playing a physical team like Navy right after other big games. That's the situation the Irish find themselves in this week after a tough loss on a failed two-point conversion attempt against Clemson. In fact, the scheduling for this game couldn't be worse: after a rain-soaked, hard loss to Clemson, but right before the annual matchup with USC. It also doesn't help that Navy has looked great this season, racking up four wins and the 21st-ranking the S&P+.

The Midshipmen are their usual efficient selves on the ground, ranking 26th in rushing S&P+, 12th in rushing success rate, and 26th in adjusted line yards. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds needs just five scores to break Montee Ball's FBS record for total rushing and overall touchdowns. The the senior is once again the backbone of a veteran rushing offense that is led by four seniors and backed up by five juniors. You can tell the effectiveness of the Navy rushing attack by how infrequently they have needed to pass this season -- Reynolds has completed 14-of-27 passes in four games without an interception. He is the backbone of the offense, with nearly a 40 percent opportunity rate and averaging more than 7.0 highlight yards per opportunity. The running backs are decently talented -- Chris Swain is second on the team in total rushing yards and attempts, but has a lower opportunity rate and isn't as explosive, while DeBrandon Sanders has less than a fifth of Reynolds' attempts, but averages 9.5 highlight yards per carry. Unfortunately for the Irish, while the defense has been solid, especially against the pass, run defense has been somewhat concerning. The good news is that Notre Dame has already shut down the Yellow Jackets this season, holding Georgia Tech to just 4.6 yards per carry and dynamic quarterback Justin Thomas to 2.5 yards per carry. So it's not like the Irish are unprepared for what Navy is going to do on the ground. Whereas Tech struggled with rushing efficiency and took to the air (where they were similarly inefficient), Navy has a more veteran group of backs and should give Jaylon Smith and the other linebackers more of a challenge.

The Irish offense struggled against Clemson, but most offenses struggle against the Tigers. DeShone Kizer has been decently efficient, but has thrown three interceptions and averages 2 full yards less per attempt than Malik Zaire. Will Fuller is the team's explosive threat, and he averages 6 yards per catch more than any other receiver on the team and is targeted on nearly 30 percent of Kizer's passes. But Navy's defense, while not up to the level of its offense, does one thing well, and that's preventing big plays. The Midshipmen are 14th in rushing IsoPPP and seventh in passing IsoPPP, bending but not breaking, especially in the red zone (14th in defensive points per scoring opportunity). So the Irish will need to be efficient and then make the most of any scoring opportunities rather than relying on big plays to score on Navy. An early lead would help immensely here, as Navy's offense is less oriented towards comebacks. Running back C.J. Prosise has been a pleasant surprise for the Irish in his first year at the position, with an opportunity rate higher than 50 percent and 7.3 highlight yards per opportunity. His backup is freshman Josh Adams, a slightly less efficient, but slightly more explosive option in the run game. Expect these two to be heavily utilized as the Irish grind out a game that could be closer than the Vegas spread.

Watch for:

  • The Irish must be efficient, especially running the ball, against a Navy defense that has bent-but-not-broken as well as anyone.
  • Navy's Keenan Reynolds is closing in on both the rushing and total career touchdown records at the FBS level.
  • Does the Irish defense look tired? They have been only OK in the red zone (47th in defensive points per trip in the 40) and struggle with explosive runs, so the Irish will have to be on point to prevent long runs.

F/+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame

Georgia Tech (+7) at Clemson -- 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Georgia Tech Clemson
F/+ 23 2
When Georgia Tech has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 39 5
2014 FEI 1 1
Success Rate 31 18
IsoPPP 122 29
Rushing S&P+ 34 1
Passing S&P+ 42 29
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 35 29
2014 FEI 51 61
Success Rate 74 28
IsoPPP 90 96
Rushing S&P+ 94 59
Passing S&P+ 31 19

This had the all the makings of one of the top three or so ACC games of the year during the preseason. The Yellow Jackets were fresh off of a huge bowl game win over Mississippi State, and Clemson had Deshaun Watson. Now this game has lost some of its luster as the Jackets have underperformed on the way to three losses, but if anything, Clemson has overshot expectations already by starting 4-0 with a win over Notre Dame. But despite the record, the advanced stats still like Georgia Tech, who sit at 35th in the S&P+, the fourth-highest ranked three-loss team. An upset here would be huge in the ACC race and prove that this is a big year for parity not just in the ACC, but in almost every conference.

Clemson's defense has continued its excellent play even if the offense is still finding its way post-Chad Morris. It has been a while since Clemson had a notable running back threat (59th in rushing S&P+ behind sophomore Wayne Gallman), but even the passing game has had its ups and downs with Watson. At 19th overall, the Tigers lack much explosive ability following Mike Williams' season-ending injury (86th in passing S&P+). Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud are the top two receiving threats, but they have been mostly high-percentage, shorter-yardage specialists. For their part, the Georgia Tech defense has performed better than most Tech defenses do in pass defense, ranking 31st in passing S&P+ and 59th in passing IsoPPP. Clemson likely needs a greater run threat to open up the deep game, but Artavis Scott has shown his speed and agility on kick and punt returns, so it's possible either he or McCloud can open things up for Clemson. Where the Jackets really struggle is in run defense. Gallman has been consistent, if not explosive (3.9 highlight yards per opportunity), but there's no cure for a milquetoast run game like the country's 116th-ranked rushing IsoPPP defense.

The Yellow Jackets' offensive production has been down this season as the Jackets have been far less efficient on third down and have turned the ball over quite a bit. Justin Thomas has six total fumbles (three lost) and two interceptions, but most of Tech's young backs have a fumble to their name. But more surprising has been Tech's reliance on the passing game -- Thomas has 79 attempts in five games! -- and poor third-down conversion rate, which has led to poor drive efficiency. Tech currently converts a little more than one-third of third downs (96th) after being top-five in that category for the last two seasons and leading the country with a 57.9 percent rate last season. Poor opportunity rates for the leading rushers (Patrick Skov joins Justin Thomas here) are partly to blame, but so is an inefficient passing game (which isn't explosive either!). Clemson's defense, which is the best in the country against the run, is relatively worse against the pass, so watch for explosive pass plays as maybe Tech's biggest threat against the Tigers.

Watch for:

  • Georgia Tech has thrown more than expected and been neither explosive nor efficient -- but with Clemson so good against the run, does that trend continue nevertheless? Can Tech get a few explosive passes by the Clemson defense?
  • Clemson's offense will likely need an efficient performance from Gallman to set up big pass plays from Scott and McCloud. Will Deshaun Watson be able to hit big gains for either of these two receivers?

F/+ Outright Pick: Clemson

Northwestern (+7.5) at Michigan -- 3:30 p.m. (BTN)

Overall Northwestern Michgian
F/+ 17 7
When Northwestern has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 100 3
2014 FEI 81 41
Success Rate 109 5
IsoPPP 82 1
Rushing S&P+ 85 5
Passing S&P+ 64 2
When Michigan has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 6 53
2014 FEI 36 82
Success Rate 17 48
IsoPPP 16 57
Rushing S&P+ 50 30
Passing S&P+ 7 61

Few would have expected Northwestern-Michigan to be one of the top two games of Week 6, but here we are as the undefeated Wildcats and 4-1 Fighting Harbaughs have one of the most exciting, but also most Big Ten, games of the week. It's got everything that a stodgy Big Ten matchup could need: excellent defenses, solid rushing attacks, and little to no quarterback play.

Both defenses are playing at a top-ten S&P+ level right now. Northwestern completely shut down Kevin Hogan and Stanford while Michigan stymied Tanner Mangum and the Cougars. But the difference between the Wildcats and the Wolverines is in the offenses. Northwestern is 100th in overall offensive S&P+ compared to Michigan at 53rd. Michigan's offense obviously isn't great, but they are led by De'Veon Smith and a solid (if not particularly spectacular) rushing attack. It's tough to exactly pin down what's happening with the rushing attack. Smith isn't particularly explosive or efficient (averaging 4.6 highlight yards per opportunity with just a 38.6 percent opportunity rate) but he is backed up by two former five-star recruits in Derrick Green and USC transfer Ty Issac. But the latest news out of Ann Arbor has senior Drake Johnson assuming the second spot on the depth chart ahead of Issac and Green; Johnson averages 4.2 highlight yards per carry and a 41.7 percent opportunity rate. But no matter who is carrying the ball, they might find some success against an otherwise stingy Wildcats defense, which is 50th in rushing S&P+ compared to seventh in passing S&P+. Don't expect Rudock to make very much noise against Northwestern -- Michigan's offense will likely need to be carried by the running backs. This matchup has the potential to turn in to a field goal kicking frenzy. If Michigan enters the red zone against Northwestern, it will do so with the 85th-ranked offense in points per trip inside opponents' 40 (averaging 4.48), but it will be going against the top-ranked defense in finishing drives, which allows 1.94 points per scoring opportunity. Any red zone success may be all that's needed to win the game.

Speaking of the red zone, it's the same situation for Michigan's defense. Sixth overall in preventing points from opponent scoring opportunities, Northwestern is 92nd in finishing drives, averaging 4.4 points per opportunity. This might have something to do with mediocre quarterback play from freshman Clayton Thorson. Thorson is completing a little more than 50 percent of his passes, with three interceptions on the season. His go-to receiver is Dan Vitale, who receives roughly a quarter of Thorson's targets and averages 13.1 yards per catch. The passing game hasn't been great in either efficiency or explosiveness, and Michigan's pass defense is second in the country. Like Michigan, Northwestern will have to do their damage on the ground with sophomore Justin Jackson, the second-leading rusher on the team who averages 5.5 highlight yards per opportunity. With a heavy ground game, little in the way of explosive passing ability, and troubles in the red zone for both teams, it's fair to think that the first team to 14 points has a good shot of winning the game.

Watch for:

  • Touchdowns from scoring opportunities should be rare, meaning the rare red zone drives will be extra critical and field goal kicking accuracy (Northwestern's Jack Mitchell is 10-of-13 and Michigan's Kenny Allen is 6-of-8) will be crucial.
  • Explosive plays will be rare, so efficient rushing will be the primary statistic to watch. Look for early high success rates from either team to go a long way in determining the winner.
  • Don't figure either quarterback to be a star against two tough pass defenses, but again, efficiency will be king, especially on third downs.

F/+ Outright Pick: Michigan

Florida (-4.5) at Missouri -- 7:30 p.m. (SECN)

Overall Florida Missouri
F/+ 16 70
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 15 43
2014 FEI 97 13
Success Rate 35 24
IsoPPP 55 10
Rushing S&P+ 63 25
Passing S&P+ 13 64
When Missouri has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 12 124
2014 FEI 5 48
Success Rate 22 123
IsoPPP 83 77
Rushing S&P+ 18 127
Passing S&P+ 20 105

The Gators are fresh off of their surprise victory over Ole Miss and the talk of the college football world right now. Quarterback Will Grier seemed to come in to his own against the Rebels' Land Sharks defense, to the point where Florida is 13th in overall passing S&P+. The Gators defense was expected to be excellent; it was the offense -- and particularly the passing game -- that was never up to snuff in the Will Muschamp era. If Grier is the long-term answer in Gainesville, then that projects the Gators to quite a bit of long-term success. Missouri has gone 4-1 this season in the ugliest way possible, winning by a touchdown over Arkansas State, a field goal over Connecticut, and with a loss to Kentucky on the books. But there's hope for Missouri too with freshman Drew Lock starting after Maty Mauk's mysterious suspension. Lock has been far more consistent in limited action that Mauk, though it's still unclear what to expect out of the talented freshman. Of course, going up against Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor is not an ideal way to start.

One of the biggest questions will be whether Will Grier and the Florida offense can keep it going against Missouri. The Tigers have churned out some of great defensive linemen and pass rushers specifically over the last few years, with names like Markus Golden, Shane Ray, Michael Sam, and Sheldon Richardson being drafted into the NFL. The Tigers seem to have a rising star in freshman defensive end Walter Brady (7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks this year) as the Tigers have the seventh overall havoc rate even with all of the personnel losses. This should be a concern for Grier, who has been sacked nine times (105th in adjusted sack rate). But for as much disruption as the Tigers cause on the defense, the unit as a whole has been surprisingly mediocre, 43rd in overall S&P+ and 64th in passing S&P+. Grier has the chance to be efficient with high-percentage throws to Demarcus Robinson, Jake McGee, Brandon Powell, and Antonio Callaway.

But the jury is still out whether Drew Lock is the answer for the Tigers' offense. His completion rate is solid and he has a lower interception rate than Mauk, but so far there hasn't been a significant upgrade in average yards per attempt and he's more liable to take a sack (7 percent sack rate) than Mauk. Like Missouri, Florida is excellent at making opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable -- they're first in overall havoc rate thanks to Hargreaves, Antonio Morrison, , and especially Jonathan Bullard in the middle of the defensive line. Neither sophomore Ish Witter or Russel Hansbrough has shown much of ability to run effectively (they average 35.7 percent and 25.0 percent opportunity rates, respectively), and that's likely to continue against the Gators. As you might expect, this has led to issues in the red zone (117th in finishing drives) and is due to a number of stuffed runs (122nd in stuff rate). The Missouri offensive line is going to get more than it can handle against the Florida front seven.

Watch for:

  • Missouri's best chance for success will be to play to their strengths and make Grier as uncomfortable as possible. With two young quarterbacks and two top-ten havoc rate defenses, quarterback play might be pretty ugly.
  • Florida likely has the upper hand thanks to Grier and a more efficient run game with Kelvin Taylor. But can either team find success in the red zone?

F/+ Outright Pick: Florida

TCU (-10.5) at Kansas State -- 7:30 p.m. (Fox)

Overall TCU Kansas State
F/+ 20 31
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 11 31
2014 FEI 22 63
Success Rate 2 69
IsoPPP 32 34
Rushing S&P+ 60 41
Passing S&P+ 18 62
When Kansas State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 77 72
2014 FEI 4 15
Success Rate 39 68
IsoPPP 102 63
Rushing S&P+ 58 70
Passing S&P+ 36 52

With TCU's crazy run of defensive injuries, it seems only a matter of time before they get upset. Is Kansas State the team to do it? The Wildcats have a solid defense, but not much of an offense to speak of. With the way Trevone Boykin has been playing, opposing offenses are still having trouble keeping up with his scoring despite all of the defensive injuries for the Horned Frogs. Yes, the Frogs allowed Texas Tech to score 52 points, but have held two opponents to just a touchdown each -- it's actually respectable that the Horned Frogs rank 77th in defensive S&P+. Things are just about to get tough for TCU in their push to a playoff spot with West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Baylor all in the coming weeks.

To put it lightly, Kansas State has quarterback issues post-Jake Waters. Due to a rash of injuries, senior wide receiver Kody Cook was needed at quarterback last week at Oklahoma State, though starter Joe Hubener was able to return after passing a series of concussion tests. But no matter who has been behind center, they have been fairly ineffective and inefficient. The run game has leaned on freshman Justin Silmon, who has a solid 51 percent opportunity rate, but no one besides Kody Cook offers much in the way of an explosive threat. TCU's defense has had the most issues with explosive pass plays (the Horned Frogs are third-to-last in the FBS in explosive pass defense). Texas Tech could exploit that. It's not clear whether Kansas State can, but if they do, look for Cook to be responsible. He leads receivers with at least 100 receiving yards with an average of 18.5 yards per catch. So whether he's behind center or split out wide, Cook will likely be the top threat to pick on the TCU defense.

There's not much to be said for the TCU offense. Boykin has done nothing but continue his explosive play from last year, throwing 19 touchdowns with just three picks and averaging 9.3 yards per attempt. Aaron Green has led an efficient (if plodding) rushing attack that is fourth in unadjusted success rate and 110th in IsoPPP. Kansas State won't likely allow any big runs for Green (ninth in defensive rushing IsoPPP), but the efficient runs could be a problem as the game goes on, particularly as the 62nd passing S&P+ defense takes its hits from the explosive Josh Doctson (second in the nation with 722 yards) and freshman KaVontae Turpin. Though Doctson is targeted on almost a third of all passing attempts, Turpin and sophomore Desmon White make it impossible to just cover Doctson alone. Though Kansas State has likely the second-best defense that TCU has seen this year, it's still fair to expect an efficient passing performance from Boykin once again.

Watch for:

  • Efficiency will likely be the name of the game for TCU's passing offense, as Kansas State is 38th in passing IsoPPP but 80th in passing success rate on defense.
  • Kansas State will need a big day from Kody Cook either as a quarterback or a receiver, as they hope to exploit an injured TCU defense that allows big passing plays.

F/+ Outright Pick: Kansas State

California (+7) at Utah -- 10 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall California Utah
F/+ 51 11
When California has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 30 30
2014 FEI 32 12
Success Rate 15 75
IsoPPP 50 19
Rushing S&P+ 31 17
Passing S&P+ 26 92
When Utah has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 70 31
2014 FEI 85 69
Success Rate 91 42
IsoPPP 32 106
Rushing S&P+ 107 15
Passing S&P+ 93 8

Raise your hand if you picked College GameDay to go to Salt Lake City for Cal-Utah in Week 6. That's what I thought. But here we have a matchup of two surprisingly undefeated teams that have both taken down well-known Power 5 opponents in Texas, Oregon, and Michigan between them. The draw for Cal is of course likely future NFL Draft pick Jared Goff against the Utes defense. Goff has been nothing short of spectacular in Sonny Dykes' system, completing 70 percent of his passes while averaging more than 8.0 yards per attempt. While junior Kenny Lawler is his go-to receiver, he spreads the ball around to six total receivers with double-digit receptions this year. The Utes offense has begun to match its defense, as evidenced by its 62-20 win over Oregon two weeks ago. With a week off to prepare for a tough October slate (Arizona State and USC loom on the horizon), the defense will hope to bend but not break against Cal this week.

There are few defenses in the country that bend-don't-break to the extent Utah does. 19th in IsoPPP and 75th in success rate, the Utes lock up the red zone with the 18th-ranked defense in finishing drives. Defensive back Marcus Williams leads the defense with three interceptions, but the Utes are 15th overall in interceptions per game as well. The issue here is that while the defense as a whole is great against the run and preventing explosive pass plays, the pass defense frequently gives up successful shorter receptions (82nd in defensive passing success rate). Opposing teams now pass on 49 percent of standard downs against the Utes (115th in standard down run rate). This is where Cal specializes. Goff is in control of the fifth-ranked passing success rate offense, making a critical mismatch in favor of the Golden Bears. There are two issues for Cal, though. First, despite Goff's effectiveness and high completion percentage, his offensive line has let him down with the 96th-ranked adjusted sack rate (12 sacks allowed this season). While Utah isn't the most fearsome overall in havoc rate, the line is 27th in defensive line havoc rate. Second, Cal must be effective in the red zone as well, where the Utes typically clamp down. Vic Enwere and Khalfani Muhammad have shared primary rushing duties this season, and while explosive (both average at least 7.9 highlight yards per opportunity) they are variably efficient and the offensive line is poor when it matters the most; they convert critical plays only 43.5 percent of the time (127th!) and get stuffed on 24.3 percent of plays (110th).

Utah's passing attack has been surprisingly efficient. Travis Wilson barely held off Kendal Thompson for the starting role but has completed 68 percent of his throws with a number of high-percentage receivers. None are particularly explosive (none average more than 10.7 yards per catch) and the passing offense ranks just 108th in passing IsoPPP, but they might find some holes in a Cal pass defense that has allowed efficient passers to flourish (74th in passing success rate). Devontae Booker has been the workhorse once again, carrying the ball an average of 25 times per game this season, but with both a low opportunity rate (29 percent) and not very much explosiveness. Cal's run defense has been very poor though, so still expect the Utes to pound the rock early and often until things open up for Wilson in the passing game.

Overall, while Utah has shut down its toughest opponents this season, Cal is the first team they have played with a legitimate passing attack. Expect this one to hinge on the margins, like the red zone, turnovers, and special teams.

Watch for:

  • Whether Cal can still be efficient in the red zone against Utah, where the Utes typically clamp down.
  • Whether the Utes defense improves its pass defense enough to limit Jared Goff's efficiency.
  • How much do special teams and field position come in to play? Defensive touchdowns? These smaller aspects of the game could play a larger role this week.

F/+ Outright Pick: Utah

OTHER GAMES

Oklahoma vs. Texas: The Red River Rivalry has lost its luster with Texas' current position, but the Longhorns' best chance of an upset lies in generating explosive runs against Oklahoma's 102nd-ranked rushing IsoPPP defense.

Georgia vs. Tennessee: The Vols have struggled to throw the ball, so Georgia will likely need to focus on stopping Jalen Hurd, Josh Dobbs, and Alvin Kamara's decently efficient rushing attack (40th in rushing S&P+). Most analysts argue that Georgia will get Tennessee's best because of their desperation, but with the 83rd-ranked rushing IsoPPP defense, Nick Chubb figures to have a big day in Knoxville.

Alabama vs. Arkansas: Arkansas made progress with a win over Tennessee last week, but things aren't looking good for Bret Bielema's team against Alabama. Like last week's matchup with Georgia, the fourth-ranked rushing S&P+ Crimson Tide defense is built to stop teams like Arkansas.

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 6

Favorite Spread Underdog F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Oklahoma 17.5 Texas Oklahoma Oklahoma
at Clemson 7 Georgia Tech Clemson Clemson
Georgia 3 at Tennessee Tennessee Tennessee
at Michigan 7.5 Northwestern Michigan Michigan
at Notre Dame 14.5 Navy Notre Dame Navy
at Alabama 17 Arkansas Alabama Alabama
Florida 6 at Missouri Florida Florida
TCU 9.5 Kansas State Kansas State Kansas State
at Utah 7.5 California Utah Utah

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 08 Oct 2015

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