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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.

17 Sep 2015

SDA: Heating Up In The SEC West

by Chad Peltier

Week one had Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Texas A&M-Arizona State, Auburn-Louisville. Week two had Oklahoma-Tennessee and Oregon-Michigan State. But week three -- this is when the action really heats up.

The focus is on the SEC West, with pivotal matchups between Ole Miss-Alabama and Auburn-LSU, but the ACC and Pac-12 have top-heavy games between Notre Dame-Georgia Tech in the East and Stanford-USC and BYU-UCLA out West. In short, the nation's conference races -- and the playoff race even further -- could be greatly affected by Saturday's matchups. That's not to mention the possible upset games in Georgia-South Carolina, Northwestern-Duke, and Miami-Nebraska. It's a good weekend, folks.

But the biggest question is really whether Ole Miss can take down the Tide for a second straight year. Chad Kelly has the Rebels playing efficient, explosive offensive football to balance their landshark defense. While it was just Fresno State, the Rebels averaged 6.56 points per scoring opportunity, and created scoring opportunities on 69% of offensive possessions. Can they continue this efficiency against the Tide and their top overall front seven run defense? Or will Kelly take advantage of a Tide secondary like Ohio State's Cardale Jones did in last year's playoff semi-final? The advanced stats call for a heck of a game, so sit back and watch the conference races begin to sort themselves out.

Clemson (-6) at Louisville -- 7:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

During the preseason this was projected to be a pivotal ACC matchup with conference title implications. Though Louisville is still searching for its first win, it still might be. While the Cardinals have fallen to Auburn (as was expected) and Houston (which was a surprise win for first-year head coach Tom Herman), both of these games were out-of-conference losses and only eliminate Bobby Petrino's squad from the playoff race, not ACC title contention. But can the Cardinals, who have rotated quarterbacks during the first two weeks, challenge a Clemson Tigers squad that ranks 15th in the current F/+ rankings?

The issue is that we don't know very much more about Clemson than we did during the preseason. The Tigers have taken down both Wofford and Appalachian State by a combined score of 100-20, and while Appalachian State is ranked 76th in their first year at the FBS level, Louisville is certainly the first real challenge for Dabo Swinney's squad this season. And even though the Cardinals have started 0-2, it appears as though they are only a quarterback away from contention with most ACC teams, ranking 36th in S&P+ through two weeks. So for a Thursday night game where one team hasn't won a game yet this season, we should get a very competitive contest nonetheless.

Something to keep in mind looking at the advanced stats tables this week -- we're still using a combination of 2014 stats and 2015 projections (with projected stats and 2014 numbers being slowly phased out). That's most interesting for me looking at the matchup between the Clemson offense and the Louisville defense. Last year's Louisville defense was clearly one of the best in the country, even leading the nation in total defense heading in to the prime time Florida State game before being eventually surpassed by Clemson's defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham lost seven starters from last years' unit, including stars like Gerod Holliman. But he replaced all of those losses with mostly experienced former transfer players like Josh Harvey-Clemmons, Shaq Wilson, and Devonte Fields, so expectations were still high.

Overall Louisville Clemson
F/+ 35 15
When Louisville has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 51 10
2014 FEI 51 1
2014 Success Rate+ 51 1
2014 IsoPPP+ 27 2
2014 Rushing S&P+ 31 2
2014 Passing S&P+ 42 1
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 37 54
2014 FEI 6 61
2014 Success Rate 9 102
2014 IsoPPP+ 26 67
2014 Rushing S&P+ 15 107
2014 Passing S&P+ 20 50

However, both Auburn (which later struggled with Jacksonville State's defense) and Houston were effective on offense against the Cardinals (Houston was less efficient but won the turnover battle and ran 96 plays, while Auburn had a 59 percent rushing success rate). The Tigers' offense is ranked poorly (54th in S&P+ this season), but it's possible that last season's inefficiencies are still contributing an inordinate amount to this season's low ranking. Deshaun Watson has averaged 9.2 yards per attempt this season and only thrown one interception, but has clearly missed Mike Williams. Artavis Scott has assumed the top receiver role, averaging 74 yards in the first two games, but senior Charone Peake and freshman Ray-Ray McCloud have been consistent second and third receiving options. Consistency was the issue for the Clemson offense last season, but it's unclear whether Wayne Gallman can keep the Tigers moving efficiently on the ground to create opportunities for big plays from Scott and Peake through the air.

The Tigers defense also took a lot of hits from last year's top-rated squad, namely pass rusher Vic Beasley. But the Cardinals' offensive line has struggled to protect whatever quarterback Petrino has rolled out in the first two games, allowing consistent pressure to both Houston and Auburn. Kyle Bolin gave the Cardinals their best chance last week as Houston excelled in edge contain, but what's worse -- a lack of a rhythm from flip-flopping quarterbacks, or just making the wrong choice but sticking with it? Clemson hopes to follow that game plan, but fears that depth, particularly at linebacker, will be an issue. Last year's offensive line was ranked 100th in adjusted sack rate, so Clemson can hope to pressure Bolin and prevent big plays by constantly being in the Cardinals' backfield.

Watch for

:

  • Can the Louisville offensive line hold up against the Clemson front seven, or will constant pressure force another quarterback rotation for Louisville?
  • Whether Clemson's Wayne Gallman can be efficient.
  • The Louisville secondary versus a thinner Clemson receiving corps.

F/+ Outright Pick: Clemson

Ole Miss (+6.5) at Alabama -- 9:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Ole Miss Alabama
F/+ 7 1
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 5 7
2014 FEI 46 8
2014 Success Rate+ 15 7
2014 IsoPPP+ 42 6
2014 Rushing S&P+ 89 1
2014 Passing S&P+ 21 17
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 27 8
2014 FEI 3 5
2014 Success Rate 6 2
2014 IsoPPP+ 3 6
2014 Rushing S&P+ 7 3
2014 Passing S&P+ 6 7

This week's premier matchup could go a long way in determining the playoff race for the SEC. Both Ole Miss and Alabama -- the latter of whom just took over the top spot in the F/+ rankings from Ohio State -- have the statistical profiles of playoff contenders, but now have to slog through a brutal SEC West schedule to get there. The Rebels have back-to-back 70-plus-point wins this season, the country's most efficient quarterback according to QBR in Chad Kelly, and last year's upset win to their name. Alabama has the country's most impressive front seven and run defense, a juggernaut at running back in Derrick Henry, and an offensive line that can give Jake Coker -- or Cooper Bateman -- enough time in the pocket. Put simply, both teams pass the eyeball and the advanced stats tests, but the questions are whether the Ole Miss offense is a pretender after two cupcakes; whether the Alabama offense can really be relied on against an elite defense without a proven go-to like Amari Cooper last season; and whether the Tide secondary has improved from last year against what looks to be a competent Ole Miss quarterback.

Going in to the season, Alabama looked like it had the highest concentration of recruiting talent, but it also had clear issues in the secondary, nobody to take over for Amari Cooper, and an un-won quarterback battle. Jake Coker eventually won that job, but Cooper Bateman has attempted enough passes to keep Coker on his toes (24 passes per game to 13). But in all likelihood, Coker really has wrapped this up, as he averages a full 3 yards per attempt more than Bateman. Along with Coker, the offensive line and Derrick Henry at running back are rock solid. The bigger question on offense will be whether there is a go-to playmaker in the passing game on which Lane Kiffin can rely. No one got a higher percentage of his team's targets than Amari Cooper last year at nearly 40 percent. After two games, a running back (Kenyan Drake) and a tight end (O.J. Howard) lead the team in receiving yards, while sophomore Robert Foster appears to be the No. 1 receiver. But can any of these receiving threats get separation against the land sharks? After posting the sixth-rated passing S&P+ defense last season and particularly removing explosive plays from opposing play books, it's not clear whether the Tide have an offensive weapon that can open up the Ole Miss defense. Maybe it's Kenyan Drake, or possibly Robert Foster, but with Robert Nkemdiche and the Rebels' stout front seven, it will be a tough challenge regardless.

The other big question for the game is whether the Ole Miss offense is legit. Chad Kelly and the Rebels offense have looked like world-beaters against UT-Martin and Fresno State, but Alabama possesses likely the best front seven in the country and a fierce run defense. The Rebels currently average 9.3 yards per play and score touchdowns on more than two-thirds of their offensive possessions. But the run game hasn't really been tested -- Jaylen Walton and Eugene Brazley combine for 19 touches but average more than 10 yards per carry each -- and they certainly will against Reggie Ragland and A'Shawn Robinson in Alabama's front seven. While the absence of left tackle Laremy Tunsil might not have mattered for the first two games, it certainly will against the Tide. Further, Chad Kelly looks like a Heisman contender after completing more than 72 percent of his passes at nearly 14 yards per attempt with just one interception, but he too has yet to be tested. Looking at the metrics, the passing game looks like the Rebels' best option, as they ranked 21st last season behind Bo Wallace and the Tide rank 17th in pass defense -- evident as Cardale Jones exploited man coverage for explosive gains in the Sugar Bowl. This will likely be a great litmus test for not only both offenses (since both defenses are proven elite units), but for the SEC West as a whole after last week's debacle. The Tide and Rebels look to be the cream of the crop in the West, so it will be interesting to see if they're able to find and exploit holes that lesser opponents couldn't find.

Watch for:

  • Do the Tide have a go-to receiver?
  • The 89th-ranked rushing S&P+ Ole Miss offense against the nation's best rush defense.
  • Whether Chad Kelly, minus Laremy Tunsil once again, is efficient against an unproven but talented Alabama secondary.

F/+ Outright Pick: Alabama

BYU (+16) at UCLA -- 10:30 p.m. (FOXS1)

Overall BYU UCLA
F/+ 33 6
When BYU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 32 13
2014 FEI 40 47
2014 Success Rate+ 42 49
2014 IsoPPP+ 25 16
2014 Rushing S&P+ 24 46
2014 Passing S&P+ 33 21
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 66 28
2014 FEI 59 6
2014 Success Rate 65 10
2014 IsoPPP+ 58 22
2014 Rushing S&P+ 29 8
2014 Passing S&P+ 79 24

Is BYU a legitimate playoff contender? They have one of the best resumes of the early season thanks to hail mary wins over Nebraska and Boise State, but now face an even tougher opponent in UCLA, the sixth-ranked team in F/+. UCLA has been mostly legitimized as a playoff threat themselves as true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen has looked as good as his preseason camp hype suggested. BYU isn't to be outdone at quarterback, as freshman Tanner Mangum was a blue chip recruit himself and has averaged nearly 11 yards per attempt -- even outplaying the injured Taysom Hill through two games. Both offenses appear to be explosive enough to score on one another, but the biggest question will be whether the BYU offense can match UCLA score for score based on how much of a mismatch its defense appears to be for Josh Rosen and the Bruins offense.

Even with a headlining freshman like Josh Rosen at quarterback, the BYU defense might be nearly as worried about the UCLA rushing offense led by Paul Perkins. The junior has averaged more than 6.5 yards per carry this season -- but so have his two freshmen backups, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo. At eighth in the country in rushing S&P+ last season, the Bruins three-headed monster at running back should at least make the UCLA offense consistent against the BYU defense. Last season the Cougars were mediocre against explosive plays (58th) and worse against efficient offenses (65th), but much worse against the pass (79th) than in run defense (29th). It's possible that a short and intermediate efficient passing game from Josh Rosen will be all the Bruins need to consistently drive on the Cougars. While Jordan Payton is the clear number one receiving threat for the Bruins, Rosen has distributed the ball to ten other receivers and running backs with at least two receptions or twenty receiving yards in the first two games. If you're looking for a defense (outside of star safety Kai Nacua, who had three interceptions of Boise State) to make Josh Rosen play like a true freshman, BYU probably isn't it.

But this might be the quarterback dual that no one would have predicted in the preseason. Tanner Mangum has most notably completed two late-game bombs for big wins, but he's also played well outside of the fourth quarter too (in fact, Mangum has been least efficient in the fourth quarter going by completion percentage and total yards). BYU has been surprisingly explosive through the air, with two receivers going over 100 yards last week against Boise State and junior Mitchell Juergens averaging more than 25 yards per catch (including 174 yards last week). The run game has been an issue for the Cougars this season as they have averaged just 3.1 yards per carry (though starter Adam Hine averages 5.7 yards per carry). The UCLA pass defense, which held UNLV to just 56 yards through the air last week, ranked 21st in passing S&P+ last season. The issue may be in run defense where they were 46th last season and also must deal with the loss of Eddie Vanderdoes for the season. But the pressure will likely be on BYU's offense to keep pace with Josh Rosen and UCLA -- can Mangum continue his explosive passing, and can Hine do enough to make BYU efficient on the ground where the UCLA defense is most susceptible?

Watch for:

  • Can the BYU defense force enough stops, particularly through the air?
  • The UCLA defense is weakest against the run, but can BYU make them pay, particularly in the center of the defensive line where Eddie Vanderdoes' loss will be felt the most?
  • Can BYU's suddenly explosive receivers keep pace with UCLA's scoring?

F/+ Outright Pick: UCLA

Georgia Tech (-2.5) at Notre Dame -- 3:30 p.m. (NBC)

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Overall Georgia Tech Notre Dame
F/+ 11 14
When Georgia Tech has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 14 38
2014 FEI 1 54
2014 Success Rate+ 3 64
2014 IsoPPP+ 3 80
2014 Rushing S&P+ 2 70
2014 Passing S&P+ 5 96
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 26 9
2014 FEI 51 21
2014 Success Rate 111 23
2014 IsoPPP+ 76 14
2014 Rushing S&P+ 94 27
2014 Passing S&P+ 84 13

Notre Dame was on many playoff short lists, but a rash of early-season injuries threatens to derail Brian Kelly's playoff run. No injury was worse than Malik Zaire's season-ending broken ankle against Virginia last week, causing DeShone Kizer to prematurely take the starting spot. Much like Ohio State last season, Kizer was the third string during preseason practice before Everett Golson's transfer and Zaire's injury. Georgia Tech presents easily the toughest challenge for Notre Dame so far this season, but at least the Tech defense is far worse than its triple-option offense. The Yellow Jackets ranked 111th in success rate+ and were 94th against the run in S&P+ last season, so Kizer can look for running back C.J. Prosise to handle a large amount of the offense.

While Prosise, a converted wide receiver, has outperformed expectations after averaging 6.84 yards per carry and taking 19 carries per game, the depth behind him is minimal. Two freshmen, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, round out the three-deep. Kizer is the only active quarterback to attempt a pass this season, and star receiver Will Fuller is the only receiver to total double-digit receptions. That is, Notre Dame's offense has top-end talent but minimal depth. The Yellow Jackets were one of the worst teams in success rate last season and didn't generate much of a pass rush with the 83rd front seven havoc rate. Based on last season's Yellow Jackets defense and at least the Kizer-Fuller-Prosise trio, the Notre Dame offense should move the ball with decent efficiency. While their overall success rate against Virginia (19th in defensive S&P+ last season) wasn't great (.37), they did generate eight scoring opportunities. Better red zone efficiency -- driven by an offensive line that was 32nd in adjusted line yards and 24th in opportunity rate last season -- will be critical for keeping up with the Yellow Jackets.

The Yellow Jackets are currently 14th in offensive S&P+ after easy wins over Tulane and Alcorn State. Georgia Tech had to replace an insane amount of skill talent, with their top five running backs as well as eight of their top nine receiving targets gone from last season. But with quarterback Justin Thomas returning and two cupcake games to work out the kinks, the Yellow Jackets seem set with freshman Marcus Marshall and Stanford graduate transfer Patrick Skov in the top A and B back roles, while a number of young receivers are available to catch the requisite explosive pass plays in the Tech offense. While Notre Dame has one of the best linebackers in the country in Jaylon Smith and corners in KeiVarae Russell, the defense was surprisingly poor last season, ranking 70th in rushing S&P+ and 64th in success rate. Those are ominous stats against the Tech offense that specializes (almost entirely) in efficient rushing that eventually leads to the occasional explosive run or pass after a defender breaks contain and their assignment. Notre Dame's best hope, both for Kizer and for the defense, is likely to get out to an early lead as the Jackets aren't built for quick comebacks.

Watch for:

  • Whether Notre Dame can get to an early lead.
  • Yellow Jackets offensive rushing efficiency against a poor Notre Dame run defense.
  • How Kizer performs in his first career start against an admittedly poor pass defense.

F/+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame

Stanford (+10) at USC -- 8:00 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Stanford USC
F/+ 17 12
When Stanford has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 87 64
2014 FEI 44 20
2014 Success Rate+ 65 48
2014 IsoPPP+ 48 28
2014 Rushing S&P+ 61 34
2014 Passing S&P+ 39 31
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 2 3
2014 FEI 11 26
2014 Success Rate 5 26
2014 IsoPPP+ 1 36
2014 Rushing S&P+ 3 73
2014 Passing S&P+ 4 20

Just how good is this Trojans offense? Stanford may not be eliminated from the Pac-12 championship hunt, but an opening week loss to Northwestern will make it difficult for the Cardinals to break into playoff contention. Cody Kessler and the Trojans have received plenty of hype, and look to justify it against a still-excellent Stanford defense. But after Kevin Hogan and Stanford generated some offense against Central Florida last weekend, are the Trojans on upset watch?

The Trojans offense seems to have found some balance with the running back duo of senior Tre Madden and freshman Ronald Jones II. Jones has averaged more than 12 yards per carry through two games, actually leading Madden in yardage despite fewer touches. That renewed run game (albeit against limited competition) has balanced Cody Kessler, who has so far increased his averaged yards per attempt from 8.5 to 11.4, while throwing for seven touchdowns and no interceptions. The Trojans will need both efficient balance and explosiveness to counter a Stanford defense that ranks second overall in defensive S&P+ through two weeks and led the country in bend-don't-break defense that prevents explosive plays. Stanford so far has only allowed five plays from scrimmage of more than 20 yards, and just two more than 30. While Stanford has replaced nine starters from last season, they look to still limit star receiver Juju Smith and the deep group of offensive skill talent from being too explosive. So far, that looks difficult, as Smith has 14 receptions and averages more than 20 yards per catch.

Stanford's Kevin Hogan found some success through the air last week against UCF, averaging 12 yards per attempt and turning two-thirds of Cardinal drives in to scoring opportunities. While a 34 percent success rate isn't anything to write home about, it's still a marked improvement over its performance against Northwestern. Sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey is the go-to offensive threat, but so far he's only averaged 3.9 yards per attempt. If the Trojans can contain McCaffrey, Hogan doesn't have a go-to receiving threat. In fact, it's likely McCaffrey through the air too, as he leads the team with nine receptions. However, the team's leading receiver yardage-wise is freshman running back Bryce Love, with two receptions and 135 yards. The Trojans were surprisingly inefficient on defense last season, ranking 48th in success rate+, but it's unclear whether Stanford can exploit that, particularly with Adoree Jackson and Su'a Cravens patrolling on defense. If the Trojans can generate any pass rush (they've only recorded two sacks this season), then it's unlikely the Stanford offense can exploit any Trojans defensive inefficiency.

Watch for:

  • Can Kessler and the running back duo of Madden and Jones continue their extreme efficiency against one of the best defenses in the country?
  • Whether Stanford can generate any consistent efficient run game with Christian McCaffrey when the Trojans defense was 48th in success rate last season.
  • Will Kessler be as efficient and Juju Smith be as explosive against a Stanford defense that relaced nine starting players?

F/+ Outright Pick: USC

Auburn (+7.5) at LSU -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Auburn LSU
F/+ 18 10
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 25 28
2014 FEI 2 18
2014 Success Rate+ 9 4
2014 IsoPPP+ 4 7
2014 Rushing S&P+ 15 18
2014 Passing S&P+ 1 5
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 24 11
2014 FEI 45 43
2014 Success Rate 24 39
2014 IsoPPP+ 53 53
2014 Rushing S&P+ 23 29
2014 Passing S&P+ 59 63

Auburn and LSU -- the first Tiger-on-Tiger showdown of the year -- is the second, suddenly less hyped SEC West matchup of Week 3 behind Ole Miss-Alabama. Though both teams are undefeated, Auburn's near-loss to Jacksonville State and two offenses plagued by quarterback inconsistency led many to project this as a low-scoring defensive effort -- that is, unless Leonard Fournette continues his sophomore Heisman push. Fournette had a slow start to his college career considering his top overall recruit status and his offensive line that was 15th in adjusted line yards last season, but picked it up towards the end of the season. This year, albeit through just a single game, he has delivered on his recruiting promise with a 46 percent success rate and several explosive carries against a stout Mississippi State defense. He may be the only proven offensive weapon on either team -- and with Auburn's defense still having a ways to go under Will Muschamp's lead, he may prove to be the deciding offensive factor.

Auburn's Jeremy Johnson entered the season with some Heisman buzz, but has yet to deliver on that hype with five interceptions. Guz Malzhan has taken relatively inefficient offenses to late-season success before, but the Tigers are just 25th right now in offensive S&P+. A big part of that, in addition to passing inefficiency and turnovers, has been a relatively inefficient run game. Auburn hasn't had a superstar back in a little, while but Cameron Artis-Payne more than got the job done last season. Now the sophomore committee of Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas takes over, but Barber appears to be running away with the starting job, averaging 5.1 yards per carry to Thomas' 3.5. LSU's defense is typically stout, though it struggled last season with the run relative to its pass defense -- that may continue this year with blue chip freshman cornerback Kevin Toliver II shutting down Mississippi State receivers. While Jeremy Johnson certainly hasn't buried himself after just two poor starts, LSU's secondary likely isn't the best position group for him to try and right the ship, particularly if fellow freshman pass rushing defensive end Arden Key (one sack, one tackle for loss, and two quarterback hurries against Mississippi State) can pressure Johnson in to throwing ill-advised passes.

Watch for:

  • Can Jeremy Johnson make better decisions passing against last season's fifth-ranked passing S&P+ defense?
  • Is the LSU offense just the Leonard Fournette show, or can Brandon Harris pass on last year's 59th-ranked Auburn passing S&P+ defense?
  • Can Auburn's front seven, led by several blue chip defensive linemen, improve on last year's 65th-ranked front seven havoc rate against LSU's 110th-ranked adjusted sack rate offensive line?

F/+ Outright Pick: LSU

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 3

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
at Louisville 6.5 Clemson Clemson Louisville
at Boston College 7.5 Florida State Florida State Florida State
Auburn 7 at LSU LSU Auburn
at Notre Dame 3 Georgia Tech Notre Dame Notre Dame
Nebraska 3.5 at Miami Miami Miami
South Carolina 17 at Georgia Georgia South Carolina
at Texas 6.5 California California Texas
Stanford 10 at USC USC Stanford
Ole Miss 7 at Alabama Alabama Alabama
BYU 17 at UCLA UCLA BYU

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 17 Sep 2015

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