Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

25 Sep 2015

SDA: Go West for Big Games, Young Man

by Chad Peltier

This week's slate of college football games is far less impressive than last week's or the preceding week, which only means that we're due for more upsets than we expect. The Pac-12 heats up as conference play begins, with almost the entire Pac-12 South in a major conference game this week. For many of these teams, it is their first real game against a significant Power 5 opponent. Before, opponent-adjusted rankings might not think highly of some of the teams playing this week.

But much of the country is taking a well-deserved break before hitting conference play. Alabama has Louisiana-Monroe following Ole Miss. Georgia takes Southern after besting Steve Spurrier and South Carolina. Ohio State hopes to solve its quarterback issues (!) against one of the nation's worst pass defenses in Western Michigan. Baylor didn't play anyone of note yet, but still faces Rice this week. LSU has Syracuse in what could be an ugly game. The point is, there aren't too many bbig games this weekend -- a few of the bigger ones can occupy your full attention per time slot on Saturday. That's fine, but keep an eye out for upsets when we least expect them.

BYU (+5.5) at Michigan -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall BYU Michigan
F/+ 35 12
When BYU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 35 12
2014 FEI 40 41
Success Rate 100 37
IsoPPP 52 6
Rushing S&P+ 7 16
Passing S&P+ 35 60
When Michigan has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 50 76
2014 FEI 59 82
Success Rate 88 7
IsoPPP 71 118
Rushing S&P+ 71 24
Passing S&P+ 70 48

Jim Harbaugh's Michigan team has snuck under the radar since his "Khaki Cam"-ed loss to Utah in his head coaching debut, but it has quietly taken care of business against Oregon State and UNLV. BYU, following the career-ending injury of quarterback Taysom Hill, has had the opposite -- two dramatic, close victories marked by desperation end zone passes and then a big matchup with UCLA. As it stands, BYU is the perfect test for Michigan, while BYU could gain even more national legitimacy with a win over the Wolverines. Harbaugh's defense has turned in consecutive dominating performances, leading to a 12th overall standing in the early opponent-adjusted S&P+ defense rankings, while Jake Rudock and the offense have been efficient on the ground but still struggle through the air. BYU's freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum looks to challenge a Wolverines pass defense that looks average, as well as Michigan's bend-don't-break tendencies.

Jake Rudock is a low-risk, low-reward option at quarterback for Michigan, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt and a decent completion rate (64.8 percent), but five interceptions in a system that hasn't asked a lot of the quarterback so far. We can likely predict the outcome of this game based on whether BYU can force Rudock in to more than one interception (his touchdown to interception ratio through three games is 3:5). BYU is tied with the lead for interceptions nationally after picking off UCLA freshman stud Josh Rosen three times last week in its first loss of the season. BYU has been the underdog consistently this season, but interceptions and miracle passes have kept the Cougars in or winning all of their games so far. But the defense itself has been fairly average otherwise, ranking in the low 70s in both rushing and passing S&P+. But where the Cougars excel is in the red zone, holding opponents to just four points per scoring opportunity (34th), and in preventing big plays, relative to their low efficiency rates on defense (88th in unadjusted success rate). Michigan's primary offensive strategy has been to trust running backs De'Veon Smith and Ty Issac to be steady behind an offensive line that, while still not playing up to recruiting hype levels, is much better than in previous seasons -- they rank 76th in adjusted line yards and 51st in opportunity rate. Smith was by far the better option in the first two weeks, but was held to just 33 yards on 13 carries last week against UNLV (and he averages just 1.8 highlight yards per opportunity on the season), while Issac ripped off a 76-yard touchdown run -- the longest since a Denard Robinson run in 2012. Michigan will likely rely on its offensive line to open holes against the Cougars, and then balance that efficient ground attack with the occasional pass to Jake Butt or Amara Darboh.

BYU's rushing offense has been nothing short of excellent through three weeks, with senior running back Adam Hine posting solid efficiency averages (43.5 percent opportunity rate) and great explosiveness scores (5.9 highlight yards per opportunity). His nearly 100 yards per game rank seventh in overall rushing S&P+ this season -- but the BYU offense is extremely thin depth-wise. Behind Hine, two running backs have received carries, and both average under a 15 percent opportunity rate and three yards per carry. Mangum has looked poised and explosive in the passing game, particularly for a freshman, and he has developed a rapport with a veteran receiving corps -- particularly Mitch Matthews, who has received nearly 30 percent of targets through the air. Michigan's defense has, like the offense, concentrated on the ground game, where they are a top-20 unit. Put simply, whichever team can run the ball more effectively can likely win the game, as Hine will face a veteran front seven that lives up to Big Ten run-stopping standards with Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan leading the charge. The Wolverines don't create many negative plays -- they just prevent you from ripping off big ones. So far, BYU's offense has needed big plays in dramatic finishes, but the main question will be whether the Cougars can be efficient enough for the rest of the game for that to matter.

Watch for:

  • The turnover margin, particularly how often BYU can force Rudock in to making mistakes
  • Which team can run the ball more effectively, as both rank in the top 25 in rushing efficiency

F/+ Outright Pick: Michigan

Oklahoma State (-3) at Texas -- 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Texas Oklahoma State
F/+ 56 34
When Texas has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 27 65
2014 FEI 108 77
Success Rate 44 24
IsoPPP 42 41
Rushing S&P+ 25 26
Passing S&P+ 24 65
When Oklahoma State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 71 28
2014 FEI 21 70
Success Rate 123 35
IsoPPP 45 19
Rushing S&P+ 36 96
Passing S&P+ 66 59

After three weeks, few can definitively say what either the Longhorns or Cowboys look like. For Oklahoma State, it's because they have cruised to three easy wins against opponents ranked in the F/+ 90s or worse. For Texas, a change at quarterback to freshman Jerrod Heard seemed to be the answer -- but it was against the Cal defense, and it's hard to say whether that unit has improved from last year's abysmal squad. What we can hope to see at least is some quality quarterback play in this Big 12 showdown. Heard, in his second career start, broke Vince Young's Longhorns record for total offense in a game in what Texas faithful is a harbinger of long-forgotten offensive success since Colt McCoy left in a national championship appearance. Heard's counterpart, sophomore Mason Rudolph, turns this in to a somewhat surprising quarterback dual, as he has averaged 316 passing yards per game, completed 69 percent of his passes, and averaged 9.7 yards per attempt with just a single interception.

The Longhorns' somewhat surprising success on offense in the second and third games of the season begins and almost ends with Jerrod Heard. An offense that managed just a field goal against an admittedly great Notre Dame defense has put up 86 points in the following two games, and actually looks to be less of an issue than the defense. Currently Heard leads the team in rushing as well as passing, averaging more than 9 yards per carry rushing, a 66.7 percent opportunity rate, and a 64 percent completion rate with just a single interception. Heard has a working receiving corps with clear top-three options in Daje Johnson (27 percent target rate, leads the team in catch rate for receivers with at least five receptions), Armanti Foreman (averaging nearly 19 yards per reception), and freshman John Burt (just a 50 percent catch rate but currently leads the receivers with a 15.2 yards per target average). Senior running back Jonathan Gray has disappointed so far with just a 3.7 yards per carry average and sub-40 percent opportunity rate, but new alternative offensive threats can likely create opportunities for Gray. The Cowboys have one of the top defensive lines in terms of creating havoc (20th), and should try to overwhelm a Longhorns offensive line that still deals with depth issues and in pass protection (107th in adjusted sack rate). Even though Heard has been a revelation in his young career (along with new play-caller Jay Norvell), will he have any time to get the ball to his receivers with Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean on the opposing line?

Oklahoma State is looking at its first defensive challenge even though Texas' defense has so far dropped off from its elite unit a year ago. Mason Rudolph has led a dynamic passing attack, only low in passing S&P+ because of the quality of the competition so far. The Cowboys are explosive on passing downs (16th in IsoPPP), have a deep receiving corps (seven receivers have at least five catches and average more than 5 yards per reception), and protect Rudolph well (30th in adjusted sack rate). All signs point to the Cowboys being able to move the ball at will, especially given the disparity between the success rates of the two units. But the Longhorns have the potential to make the Cowboys one-dimensional by limiting the Oklahoma State run game. The Cowboys currently rank 96th in rushing S&P+, as top running backs Chris Carson and Rennie Childs average sub-40 percent opportunity rates despite decent yards-per-carry averages. While Texas' run defense averages look poor overall, their opponent adjusted numbers look far better. Of course, with only three games worth of data plus preseason projections, will the Texas run defense be able to limit Carson and Childs and force Rudolph to move the ball on his own?

Watch for:

  • The matchup between the Cowboys defensive line, ranked 20th in havoc rate, against the Texas offensive line, ranked 107th in adjusted sack rate. Will Heard have time to pass?
  • Is the Texas run defense as good as opponent-adjusted stats suggest, or as poor as the unadjusted averages? Can they stop Oklahoma State's running backs and make the Cowboys one-dimensional on offense?

F/+ Outright Pick: Texas

TCU (-7) at Texas Tech -- 4:40 p.m. (Fox)

Overall TCU Texas Tech
F/+ 10 54
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 10 120
2014 FEI 22 112
Success Rate 6 125
IsoPPP 40 26
Rushing S&P+ 28 118
Passing S&P+ 6 43
When Texas Tech has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 43 3
2014 FEI 4 34
Success Rate 53 3
IsoPPP 53 14
Rushing S&P+ 83 30
Passing S&P+ 78 90

With Texas Tech at 3-0 and fresh off an upset of Arkansas, and TCU down eight defensive starters due to injuries through three games, this otherwise unassuming Big 12 matchup has upset watch written all over it. Kliff Kingsbury's Red Raiders have looked markedly improved on offense compared to last year's squad, while the defense has still looked like one of the worst in the country. With TCU's defensive injuries piling up, this matchup looks like a shootout.

TCU has Trevone Boykin and the tenth-overall offense despite playing weak opponents for the first three weeks of the season. They've been more efficient than explosive, and tilted more towards the pass than the run, though running back Aaron Green has been incredibly efficient for the Horned Frogs, with more than 53 percent of his carries going for at least 5 yards. TCU hasn't gotten very much explosiveness out of Green, but then again they haven't needed to with the Horned Frogs sitting at the 13th-most explosive passing offense in passing IsoPPP. Boykin is averaging 9.4 yards per attempt and has thrown three picks, but he has distributed the ball well, with four receivers totaling at least 100 yards. Josh Doctson is the clear top receiver, with nearly a 74 percent catch rate and averaging almost 20 yards per reception. He's a big-play, explosive receiver, but he's also high-percentage and the most-targeted player through the air, so he has early All-American talent. And the Horned Frogs should be able to move the ball at will against the Red Raiders. While they are surprisingly efficient at stopping explosive plays, that applies less to passing plays as they are 48th in passing IsoPPP. The Horned Frogs should be able to put up a lot of points through a combination of explosive passing and efficient running under Boykin and Green.

But the Red Raiders can probably keep pace with the Horned Frogs in scoring despite Gary Patterson's usual excellent defense. One side of the ball can only take so many hits before it loses its effectiveness, and all of the youth that has been forced in to action is starting to show. Last week against SMU the Horned Frogs allowed seven scoring opportunities and 5.29 points per opportunity. The Mustangs had a fairly low success rate (38 percent) but nonetheless averaged 6.46 yards per play and picked on the Horned Frogs secondary. I would expect the same game plan for the Red Raiders, who have a similar capability with Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes hasn't been sacked yet this season and averaged nearly 9 yards per attempt with just three interceptions, but the opponent-adjusted numbers for the passing game don't nearly match the unadjusted totals. This matchup against a spent TCU linebacker corps and secondary should tell us a lot about Texas Tech's passing game. But ultimately the question will be whether the Red Raiders can maintain the balance and efficiency they have shown so far for an air raid team against a schematically sound but injured TCU defense.

Watch for:

  • The Red Raiders passing success rate against the TCU defense, particularly the linebackers, who are 127th in havoc rate.
  • Turnover margin -- in a potential shootout, turnovers and creating scoring opportunities will matter a great deal more than they already do.
  • Can Trevone Boykin increase the explosiveness in the TCU passing game?

F/+ Outright Pick: TCU

UCLA (-3) at Arizona -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall UCLA Arizona
F/+ 12 12
When UCLA has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 34 94
2014 FEI 6 27
Success Rate 20 48
IsoPPP 83 89
Rushing S&P+ 65 62
Passing S&P+ 94 126
When Arizona has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 18 14
2014 FEI 47 23
Success Rate 26 19
IsoPPP 31 67
Rushing S&P+ 30 69
Passing S&P+ 18 84

It's safe to say we know a lot more about UCLA than we do about Arizona. The Bruins have faced two big opponents in Virginia and BYU, coming out on top in freshman quarterback Josh Rosen's first three starts despite up-and-down performances by last year's top high school quarterback recruit. Arizona hasn't played anyone ranked higher than 87th in the F/+ rankings and has percentile performances ranging from 44 percent to 81 percent, but just posted 77 against Northern Arizona in its final out-of-conference tune-up game. With College GameDay on site to cover the night kick off, the key question is which quarterback/running back duo will out-dual the other -- Arizona sophomores Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson, or UCLA's Josh Rosen and Paul Perkins?

At first glance, the Bruins defense seems to have the vast upper hand against the Wildcats offense. At 30th in rushing S&P+ and 18th in passing S&P+, the Bruins defense looks like one of the best in the nation, and is facing just the 69th and 84th rushing and passing S&P+ offenses in Arizona. But it's possible that a big part of those low offensive rankings for Arizona is due to the level of competition so far, while UCLA has now lost both Eddie Vanderdoes and linebacker Myles Jack for the season -- likely the two best players on the defense. Yes, star cornerback Ishmael Adams returns from suspension, but Arizona will nonetheless have every opportunity to gash the Bruins on the ground with a steady dose of the efficient and so-far explosive Nick Wilson at running back. Wilson has a 50 percent opportunity rate and has improved his explosiveness in limited quality action so far this season. Few offenses have higher team opportunity rates for the offensive line, but opponent adjusted rushing totals temper expectations for the Arizona offensive line and run game. Similarly, the passing game isn't explosive even by unadjusted statistical standards (94th in IsoPPP), but it is efficient in unadjusted success rate.

Of course, the Bruins aren't the only ones dealing with injury issues. One of the most disruptive players in the country, the Wildcats' Scooby Wright, is still out with a knee injury. Outside of Rosen's fast start, the Bruins offense has needed to rely on Paul Perkins and a deep stable of efficient running backs shouldering the load on offense as Rosen gets up to speed. Rosen's four picks have been concerning, but the offensive line has played well, only allowing a single sack so far this season. Rosen is still looking for his core group of receivers after distributing the ball to 11 players with at least two receptions through three games. If Rosen is going to get back to his Virginia levels of efficiency, he should find some holes in the Arizona defense that ranks 126th in overall passing S&P+ and 111 in IsoPPP specifically.

Watch for:

  • Will UCLA injuries allow the Wildcats to be efficient on the ground and through the air?
  • Are Arizona's lackluster opponent-adjusted statistical rankings a function of the level of competition so far or an accurate assessment of where the team is at?
  • Josh Rosen get back on track against one of the worst opponent-adjusted pass defenses in the country.

F/+ Outright Pick: UCLA

Utah (+11.5) at Oregon -- 8:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Utah Oregon
F/+ 36 9
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 66 58
2014 FEI 69 14
Success Rate 74 68
IsoPPP 122 86
Rushing S&P+ 20 68
Passing S&P+ 73 81
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 35 5
2014 FEI 12 3
Success Rate 83 10
IsoPPP 20 100
Rushing S&P+ 35 16
Passing S&P+ 73 81

The undefeated Utes come to Autzen as 11.5-point underdogs, but maybe more momentum following three steady out-of-conference wins. The Ducks are hoping starting quarterback Vernon Adams will return after being held out of last week's win over Georgia State with a reportedly broken finger. But Utah hasn't been immune to quarterback injuries either, as starter Travis Wilson separated his shoulder but is expected to play in this conference opener. Wilson's status appears to be slightly less important than Adams', as Utah backup Kendal Thompson is an experienced, viable option with nearly identical numbers to Wilson through three games, but Oregon backup Jeff Lockie is a low-risk, low-reward backup who averages 6.8 yards per attempt to Adams' 7.7. Either way, both teams' rushing attacks look to be far more potent than their passing attacks through three games, with both in the top 20 for rushing S&P+.

Lockie got his first start of the season against Georgia State as Adams was held out with his finger injury. While fan perception rates Lockie himself as maybe serviceable at best, the offense's other weapons (and Georgia State's extremely poor defense) ensured an efficient performance with a 48 percent overall success rate and 5.22 points per scoring opportunity. Utah's defense is much tougher than Georgia State's -- particularly against the run, where both teams have their strength on offense -- but the point is that Oregon's offense is diversified, with both Royce Freeman and Adams rushing for nearly a 50 percent opportunity rate, while freshman backups Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin are the prototypical "high-efficiency/low-explosiveness and vice versa" pair. The receiving corps' top four option all have at least a 60 percent catch rate and average more than 14 yards per catch. Utah's defense, one of the most bend-don't-break units in the country (holding opponents to just 3.44 points per scoring opportunity, which is 16th overall), is built to stop big plays and stop the run, but has issues with defending efficient passing attacks (91st in passing success rate to 35th in passing IsoPPP). Look for Oregon to lean heavily on short-yardage throws and efficient running to drive the length of the field, then on Adams to step up in the red zone.

The latest reports on Travis Wilson indicate that he's expected to play, but Utah has been just as efficient with backup Thompson this season. (In fact, if Wilson was limited, that might be felt more in his running ability, where he averages a high 43.8 percent opportunity rate and 7.7 highlight yards per opportunity.) The core of the Utah offense has been and will be running Devontae Booker as much as he can handle it. Booker actually has a surprisingly low opportunity rate (26.2 percent) despite averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 115 yards per game. Booker is the workhorse not only running the ball, but also in the passing game, where he is the second-most targeted receiver (20.8 percent of targets) and averages 9 yards per catch and an 87.5 percent catch rate. Booker pretty much is the Utah offense, so stopping him will be the Ducks' primary goal. The Oregon defense looked unfocused against Georgia State and is vulnerable in the secondary (81st in passing S&P+), but it's not clear whether Wilson or Thompson could take advantage of this weakness with a deep passing game. But one thing that does lean towards the Utes' favor is that Wilson should have plenty of time to pass -- the Utes are third in adjusted sack rate while Oregon Is just 108th in defensive adjusted sack rate and 50th in overall havoc rate.

Watch for:

  • Vernon Adams' efficient passing game, particularly on standard downs, against a Utah pass defense that is poor in passing efficiency and solid in preventing big pass plays.
  • Whether the Utah front seven can stop efficient running back Royce Freeman and then make the most of scoring opportunities.
  • Oregon's pass defense has looked vulnerable and the pass rush hasn't gotten to the quarterback often this season -- can Utah's quarterback take advantage?

F/+ Outright Pick: Oregon

USC (-5.5) at Arizona State -- 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall USC Arizona State
F/+ 14 20
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 1 30
2014 FEI 26 22
Success Rate 4 62
IsoPPP 21 19
Rushing S&P+ 9 51
Passing S&P+ 7 31
When Arizona State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 61 46
2014 FEI 20 16
Success Rate 75 72
IsoPPP 52 76
Rushing S&P+ 82 104
Passing S&P+ 91 29

Once again, the Trojans are coming off a loss that they really shouldn't have based on the numbers. USC is the eighth-ranked team in the S&P+ and had two 99 percent performances with 100 percent win expectancy before their loss to Stanford last week. Arizona State, meanwhile, has underwhelmed in a loss to Texas A&M and in games against Cal Poly and New Mexico. Quarterback Mike Bercovici, who had starting experience as a freshman last season, has led an offense that is efficient passing, but not as explosive -- and that's impressive considering how often they throw the ball (100th in the country in standard downs run rate at 47.6 percent). And while the defense has been fine (30th in S&P+), there isn't much in the way of explosiveness driving the offense as sophomore starting running back Demario Richard has a decent opportunity rate (41.1 percent) but poor explosiveness (5 highlight yards per carry). So will USC's top-ranked S&P+ offense be too much for the solid Arizona State defense at home, or will the Sun Devils' efficient but unexplosive offense be able to drive on the 75th-ranked success rate Trojans defense?

Looking at the Trojans offense, it's unbelievable they didn't light up Stanford, even considering how good the Cardinals defense appears to be. Kessler has completed nearly 79 percent of his passes without throwing an interception at 9.3 yards per attempt, while the top two running backs both average a 50 percent opportunity rate and more than 7.5 highlight yards per opportunity. You could argue that Juju Smith-Schuster is the team's only explosive receiver, and that would be fair (he averages 19.7 yards per catch while the second-most targeted receiver is just at 6.7). But so far the run game and Smith-Schuster has been explosive while Kessler has been accurate and efficient, distributing the ball around the field -- 14 Trojans players have caught at least two passes this season! But despite the number of players that get involved in the passing game, Juju is still targeted on a quarter of all passing attempts. Lock down Smith-Schuster and you lock down a large portion of the Trojans offensive attack. Who knows if Arizona State has that capability, though, with the 104th-ranked passing IsoPPP score. Look for a few long receptions from Juju and a diversified passing attack to continue.

Watch for:

  • Can Arizona State lock down Juju Smith-Schuster and prevent his explosive passing plays?
  • Will the Trojans defense be able to counter a decently efficient Sun Devils passing game and put any pressure on Bercovici and the 44th-best line in adjusted sack rate?
  • Can the Sun Devils run game get going or find any explosive plays?

F/+ Outright Pick: USC

OTHER GAMES

Georgia Tech vs. Duke Georgia Tech looks to shake off a surprise loss to Notre Dame, while Duke feels the same way about last week's loss to Northwestern. Duke's 37th-ranked rushing S&P+ defense may not be up to the challenge of stopping the Yellow Jackets rushing offense that ranks eighth in opportunity rate.

Florida vs. Tennessee The SEC East rivals square off after Tennessee was humiliated by Oklahoma. Can Tennessee receivers, who were highly recruited but have struggled with explosive plays (none are averaging more than 10 yards per catch, and the passing offense is 105th in IsoPPP) take advantage of cornerback Jalen Tarbor's suspension?

Texas A&M vs. Arkansas The SEC's way-western matchup sounded like a big game in the preseason, but Arkansas has disappointed only slightly less than Auburn through three games. Arkansas still ranks just outside the top 25 in S&P+, however, and has a surprisingly efficient passing offense that is second in passing S&P+ behind senior Brandon Allen. Allen has yet to take a sack this season. Aggies defensive end Myles Garrett, part of the top overall havoc rate in the country, will probably change that.

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 4

Favorite Spread Underdog F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
at Michigan 6.5 BYU Michigan Michigan
at Georgia Tech 8.5 at Duke Georgia Tech Duke
Oklahoma State 3.5 at Texas Texas Texas
at Florida 1.5 Tennessee Tennessee Tennessee
TCU 7 at Texas Tech TCU TCU
Texas A&M 7.5 Arkansas Texas A&M Arkansas
UCLA 3.5 Arizona UCLA UCLA
Oregon 11 at Utah Oregon Oregon
USC 5.5 at Arizona State USC USC

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 25 Sep 2015

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