Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Week 11 DVOA Ratings

DVOA has finally climbed on board the Wentz Wagon! The Eagles move into the No. 1 spot, but they aren't the only strong, well-balanced team in the NFL this year. New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and the Los Angeles Rams make this one of the best seasons ever for multiple teams over 30% in DVOA, and Minnesota isn't far behind.

01 Oct 2015

SDA: Hurricanes and Big Games in the East

by Chad Peltier

This is the week where we should really begin to see separation in the conference races. From the Big 12 pitting upstart West Virginia against possible conference challenger Oklahoma, to Clemson taking on Notre Dame for ACC standings, to Georgia and Alabama in possibly the best matchup of the day, the conference hierarchies will be much more set by the end of the night.

A major theme of the season thus far has been the play of new starting quarterbacks, and that will continue this weekend. Baker Mayfield has thrown wild in Lincoln Riley's air raid offense, but it's possible West Virginia can slow him down. Deshaun Watson, albeit a sophomore, is hoping to play the entire season injury-free and squares off against Deshone Kizer at Notre Dame as both have varying defensive strengths -- it's easy to see either a low scoring game controlled by the ground game, or a high-flying end to the night led by Bill Fuller. Georgia's Greyson Lambert, another first-year starter, has been extremely efficient with receivers like Malcom Mitchell and Terry Godwin, but Alabama's Jacob Coker can rely more on the ground game to be the backbone for occasional strikes to Ardarius Stewart. Ole Miss has Chad Kelly, the Clemson transfer, hoping to hit big plays against a Florida defense that has two of the best corners in the game (while Florida's Will Grier hopes to hang on to his starting job for another week). UCLA is of course led by freshman Josh Rosen, who has been streaky but displayed excellent ball placement and decision-making so far in his career. Mike Bercovici is another Elite 11 product for Arizona State with some starting experience in Tyler Kelly's absence last year, but he has been less impressive than his last-season debut.

Almost every one of the top games this week features a new quarterback. In addition to the ones above, there's Skyler Howard at West Virginia, Seth Russell at Baylor… the list goes on. No wonder there has been so much chaos this season.

West Virginia (+7) at Oklahoma -- 12 p.m. (FOXS1)

Overall West Virginia Oklahoma
F/+ 20 8
When West Virginia has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 14 19
2014 FEI 62 49
Success Rate 8 16
IsoPPP 17 67
Rushing S&P+ 51 9
Passing S&P+ 33 16
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 9 11
2014 FEI 35 18
Success Rate 2 41
IsoPPP 32 36
Rushing S&P+ 2 56
Passing S&P+ 1 13

No one expected West Virginia to hit the third spot in the overall S&P+ rankings by the beginning of October. But when the defense has given up 23 total points -- even against Georgia Southern, Liberty, and Maryland -- it's time to start paying attention. Oklahoma had a prominent out-of-conference comeback win over Tennessee in Week 2 and has cruised to the 11th overall S&P+ offense thanks to the strong performance of quarterback Baker Mayfield and play-calling of new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. What could have easily have been projected to be a classic Big 12 shootout now looks to be a balanced matchup between top-20 offenses and defenses.

For the Mountaineers, the obvious issue coming in to the season was the offense. Even with Dana Holgorsen at the helm, the offense sputtered last season in to a 62nd-place finish in offensive FEI. They seem to have found the answer in three rising players. First, running back Wendell Smallwood, who somewhat shares a committee with Rushel Shell, is nothing if not consistent. With a 50 percent opportunity rate and 6.9 yards per carry, the junior has paced an efficient ground game so far for a team that nonetheless passes on 45.4 percent of standard downs (91st overall in standard downs run rate). Second, the tandem of junior quarterback Skyler Howard and sophomore receiver Shelton Gibson has provided a complimentary explosive spark through the air. The little-known Howard has been efficient, completing 69 percent of his passes at 9.5 yards per attempt with only one interception, and the West Virginia is third in the country in passing offense success rate. They are also explosive thanks to Gibson. The Ohio product, whom Ohio State sought as well, looks like the young answer to replacing Kevin White so far, averaging 27.4 yards per catch while still hauling in nearly 71 percent of his targets.

This balance leaves little opportunity for the Oklahoma defense. One weakness has been Howard's propensity to take sacks behind the 79th-best line in adjusted sack yards, but Oklahoma has only recorded five sacks this season, with the 103rd adjusted sack rate. The Sooners do prevent big passing plays fairly well (34th in passing IsoPPP and 16th overall in passing S&P+) despite allowing 427 passing yards to Tulsa. Both Akron and Tennessee struggled against the Sooners through the air, but Tulsa's pass-happy offense lit up the Sooners' secondary -- and Gibson and Howard certainly have that capability. The key for Oklahoma will likely be in making the Mountaineers one-dimensional by disrupting the efficiency of Smallwood and the ground game. At 11th in rushing success rate and ninth in defensive rushing S&P+, the numbers suggest that the Sooners can at least make the Mountaineers streaky.

The Mountaineers enter their second season with Tony Gibson as defensive coordinator, and what he's done with the West Virginia defense has been fairly incredible. At ninth in the defensive S&P+ rankings, West Virginia's defense will nonetheless be challenged by Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense. Lincoln Riley installed a new air raid scheme for Bob Stoops this offseason, and the early returns are positive, unless your name is Samaje Perine. The current record holder in rushing yards per game averages a 44.6 percent opportunity rate, 4.7 yards per carry, and 3.5 highlight yards per opportunity this season despite roughly 18 touches per game. The passing game is noticeably improved, however. Mayfield is completing just over 67 percent of his throws with only two interceptions at 9 yards per attempt thanks to a strong group of receivers including senior leader Sterling Shepard and freshman running back Joe Mixon. His top five receivers all average a 70-plus percent catch rate and 12-plus yards per catch. The Mountaineers, though hardly tested by anyone on their schedule so far, currently sit on top of the opponent-adjusted passing S&P+ rankings (despite being 125th in adjusted sack rate!). So which will fold -- the Mountaineers' incredible defensive passing efficiency, or Mayfield and the Oklahoma's army of receivers? Tennessee managed to force Mayfield into a sub-50 percent completion rate and snag two picks, so it's possible to fluster the quarterback -- and with the 13th overall havoc rate, the Mountaineers might be able to do it.

Watch for:

  • The Mountaineers secondary and linebackers' ability to create havoc and force Baker Mayfield to make bad decisions.
  • How efficient Smallwood can be running the ball and whether Oklahoma can make West Virginia one-dimensional offensively.
  • West Virginia wide receiver Shelton Gibson as the X-factor and potentially the most explosive player for either team.

F/+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma

Texas Tech (+17) vs. Baylor -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Baylor Texas Tech
F/+ 14 48
When Baylor has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 1 118
2014 FEI 11 112
Success Rate 1 124
IsoPPP 12 51
Rushing S&P+ 99
Passing S&P+ 52 50
When Texas Tech has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 94 2
2014 FEI 38 34
Success Rate 41 9
IsoPPP 27 5
Rushing S&P+ 52 26
Passing S&P+ 61 82

Baylor has one of the most back-loaded schedules in the country (both Oklahoma schools, TCU, and Texas to close out the season) and the thought was that they wouldn't be tested until November, or at least until West Virginia came to town in mid-October. But Texas Tech, down from a narrow loss to TCU last week, comes to town after taking down Arkansas by double digits two weeks ago. The Red Raiders are improved enough on offense to (for now) compensate for their poor defense, with a new-found appreciation for an efficient run game leading the resurgence. Baylor has gone through another successful quarterback transition, and while they are 52nd in the early passing S&P+ rankings, they could be set for an upswing after facing more difficult pass defenses (Seth Russell is second in unadjusted passing success rate and fourth in IsoPPP, highlighting the effect of opponent adjustments). We know both teams have the ability to score -- but can one defense get a few more stops than the other?

At least the easy guess would be that Baylor has the better defense thanks to guys like Shawn Oakman and eight other returning starters. The Bears have done fairly well this season against efficient passes (18th in passing success rate) and preventing explosive runs (19th in rushing IsoPPP), but efficient run games and explosive passing offenses have hurt the Bears so far this year. Texas Tech may have the offense poised to take advantage of those two weaknesses. DeAndre Washington is just 5-foot-8, but at 200 pounds has been a steady force for the Red Raiders, averaging a 48.3 percent opportunity rate and getting to 8.2 highlight yards per carry. The Red Raiders receivers are four-deep, but Baylor's primary concern will be explosive Devin Lauderdale and Reginald Davis as much as senior reliable target Jakeem Grant (who has over twice as many receptions as either of those two receivers). One thing to watch will be whether the Bears can get to quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Baylor is currently ranked 38th in adjusted sack rate, recording an average of three sacks per game, but Mahomes has only been brought down a single time this season. Whether Baylor can apply any pressure will be critical in preventing big passing plays, where Baylor ranks 95th in passing IsoPPP.

Baylor's offense is almost a given at this point. The Bears are tops in the early overall S&P+ rankings, with the most efficient offense and 12th-most explosive, and the biggest surprise early has been the efficiency of the run game. Three running backs have more than 20 carries through three games, and all average at least a 53.7 percent opportunity rate, with starter Shock Linwood hitting 66.7 percent and 8.6 yards per carry. The passing game has been par for the course even with new starter Seth Russell, who averages 12.3 yards per attempt. But the Bears are just 52nd in passing S&P+ through three games -- is this due to the quality of their opponents (SMU, Lamar, and Rice) affecting their opponent adjustments, or are there otherwise hidden issues in the Baylor aerial attack? Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham has a 17 percent sack rate and Russell has thrown four picks, but there aren't very many other black marks on the Baylor offense. For its part, Texas Tech's defense is far from formidable itself. Ranking 50th in passing S&P+ and 99th in rushing S&P+, Baylor could just send a heavy dose of Linwood and Terence Williams and likely run through the Red Raiders' defensive line. That's not great news for the Red Raiders, and they don't have the pedigree to consistently create turnovers on defense either, with no unit ranking higher than 54th in havoc rate and the defense as a whole just 118th in adjusted sack rate. This is likely to be a track meet-style, traditional Big 12 matchup, and while Texas Tech is certainly trending up this season, expect Baylor's defense to force just a few more stops to win a shootout.

Watch for:

  • Baylor's consistent rushing attack against a poor Texas Tech run defense.
  • Can Texas Tech force any turnovers from Seth Russell -- who has already thrown four interceptions -- despite ranking poorly in adjusted sack rate and havoc rate?
  • Will the Red Raiders' mix of Grant, Davis, and Lauderdale at receivers create enough explosive plays to keep up with Baylor's scoring?

F/+ Outright Pick: Baylor

Alabama (+2) at Georgia -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall UGA Alabama
F/+ 7 1
When UGA has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 10 1
2014 FEI 9 8
Success Rate 5 11
IsoPPP 13 74
Rushing S&P+ 28 3
Passing S&P+ 1 10
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 21 12
2014 FEI 15 5
Success Rate 8 53
IsoPPP 18 67
Rushing S&P+ 31 9
Passing S&P+ 15 14

The Crimson Tide's 72-game streak of being favored has come to an end with Alabama traveling to Athens as a two-point underdog against Georgia. In the run up to one of the biggest games of the early season, we've heard little about either the infamous 2008 blackout blowout, when Alabama last came to Athens and also as an underdog, or whether Georgia can ever win the big one with Mark Richt leading the team. Of course, that pessimism has been matched by a glut of "is the Alabama dynasty over?" articles that pop up for every loss Nick Saban suffers. But while Alabama passed an opening-week test by out-muscling Wisconsin and then failed in a five-turnover loss to Ole Miss, Georgia has yet to be tested at all this season. South Carolina was expected to be a challenge, but new Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert instead just set the NCAA record for completion percentage in a single game. Despite Alabama's loss and road underdog status, the Crimson Tide are nonetheless the top overall team in F/+ and present the Dawgs with easily their toughest challenge to date.

There are a lot of parallels between the Tide and Bulldogs. Both entered the season needing to replace first-year starting quarterbacks from a year ago. Both have new starting running backs as well, but Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry hardly needed introductions and have lived up to their promise, recording 8.3 yards per carry and a 52.8 percent opportunity rate, and 6.3 yards per carry and a 41.8 percent opportunity rate, respectively. And both were picked by many to win their divisions and potentially meet in the SEC Championship game once again in Atlanta. The ties don't end there. Georgia second-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is a former Alabama assistant coach and a Saban devotee. Both teams are within the top ten of the F/+ rankings, with Alabama leading and Georgia at seventh, despite the Vegas odds slightly favoring the Bulldogs on their home turf.

With such a supposedly even matchup, it's a surprise that the S&P+ projected margin favors the underdog Tide by nearly two touchdowns with a 75 percent win probability. To better understand that line, it's important to look at the Crimson Tide's relative strengths. First, they are third nationally in defensive rushing S&P+, fifth in overall success rate, and 35th in IsoPPP. While they're still tenth in defensive passing S&P+, they are much more susceptible to explosive passing plays (57th in passing IsoPPP), with secondary troubles similar to those they had last season. Chad Kelly and Ole Miss exploited these holes for big gains (along with short fields from turnovers) in their upset win. Unfortunately, Georgia's presumed relative strength -- its offensive run game led by Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and a veteran offensive line -- plays right in to the Tide's hands. The Alabama front seven might be the nation's best by season's end, and the Georgia offense will have to be balanced to score on the Tide. Short fields and turnovers will help, too.

The recipe for beating the Tide is well known, and it involves throwing the ball, a lot: currently the Tide's defense is 112th in standard downs run rate and dead last in passing downs run rate, meaning that opponents are throwing the ball against the Tide on nearly 50 percent of standard downs and only running once every ten opportunities on passing downs. So that all leads to Greyson Lambert needing another career day in efficiency, while Georgia receivers will need to create separation against Alabama defensive backs. Lambert, much like Hutson Mason last season, has led the Bulldogs to a top passing S&P+ offense (they're also tops in passing success rate, 68th in passing IsoPPP) due to remarkable efficiency. In the last two games, Lambert has missed on only two passes. He'll need that level of efficiency again against the Tide, but also to connect on some explosive pass plays, as that's where the Tide are relatively weaker. So far Alabama has been decent but unspectacular at getting to the quarterback, and their job will be harder with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's new twist of integrating quick run-pass options into the traditional two-back Georgia offense. Lambert has been adept at making the correct read (albeit against poor competition) and distributing the ball to a host of Georgia receivers. Malcom Mitchell is the established star and primary threat, but Sony Michel, Terry Godwin, and Isaiah McKenzie are all young, explosive receiving options. Lambert will absolutely need a big day in order to open things up for Nick Chubb and the Georgia ground game. If Lambert comes out throwing early in the first quarter and finds some success, that is Georgia's best chance to get Chubb and Michel running to close out the second half. The two average 7.8 and 9.1 highlight yards per opportunity respectively, and are more than capable of turning an arm tackle in to six points. It's unlikely that the pair will be as explosive as usual against the Tide unless Lambert first opens things up through the air.

Even though Georgia's defense has improved significantly under Pruitt and they rank 15th in passing S&P+ and 31st in rushing S&P+, you get the sense that Alabama could have a simple game plan of just trusting Henry to get the job done with 30 or so carries. The run game hasn't been explosive for the Tide -- even the speedster Kenyan Drake averages just 3.7 highlight yards per opportunity -- but it matches up well against a Georgia defense that has opted more for speed than size relative to the Tide's monstrous defense. It will be important for Georgia to rotate guys in the front seven so that Alabama is unable to grind down Georgia like it did against Wisconsin. Of course, that theory falls apart if Lane Kiffin moves away from the run game or the Bulldogs can generate havoc or negative plays. Put simply, Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, and Jake Ganus need to be creating big plays on early downs so that Jacob Coker and the Tide are forced to throw on traditional passing downs. Coker hasn't found a go-to receiver yet, though Ardarius Stewart looks like the best candidate, followed by freshman blue chipper Calvin Ridley.

One final factor -- with a nasty hurricane hitting the East coast, there's an 80 percent chance of rain for this game. It's fair to think this plays into Alabama's hands, as Georgia should be more reliant on the passing game to win. But with increased chances for turnovers, this one could be heavily dependent on the turnover margin.

Watch for:

  • The Alabama offensive line and Derrick Henry can likely wear down the Georgia front seven unless Lane Kiffin tries to do too much, Georgia rotates frequently, the Bulldogs generate turnovers and negative plays. Watch for a rising success rate as the game will likely be in doubt in to the fourth quarter, as well as whether the Dawgs can create negative plays on standard downs.
  • Turnover margin is maybe the most important stat in a game where the weather is a factor. In what should be a close game anyway, a slippery ball could lead to more turnovers for both teams.
  • A good proxy for how the game is going is to look at the passing attempts for each quarterback. If Lambert has a lot, then it's likely due to a high success rate and the occasional explosive play since the Tide's run defense is excellent. But if Coker has a lot of passing attempts, then that is likely because the Bulldogs were fairly successful in limiting Henry and forcing the Tide into third-and-long scenarios. Put simply, the Dawgs will pass because they want to, Alabama should only pass if they have to.

F/+ Outright Pick: Alabama

Ole Miss (-7.5) at Florida -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Ole Miss Florida
F/+ 3 36
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 8 28
2014 FEI 46 5
Success Rate 40 21
IsoPPP 9 89
Rushing S&P+ 32 24
Passing S&P+ 3 31
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 15 38
2014 FEI 3 97
Success Rate 32 46
IsoPPP 8 76
Rushing S&P+ 37 74
Passing S&P+ 29 48

This Florida-Ole Miss matchup looks like one of the sneaky-good games of the week. Jim McElwain has the Gators undefeated and playing notably better offense than a season ago -- whether that's due to play calling or giving Will Grier an opportunity at quarterback. Ole Miss looks like one of the best teams in the country, however, with Chad Kelly a high-risk, high-reward player like former Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, but with a much higher ceiling for explosive plays. The Gator defense, while solid, has been more lax in allowing explosive passing plays -- does this create opportunities for Kelly, Laquon Treadwell, and Cody Core?

It's good that Florida returns cornerback Jalen Tabor after his one-game suspension last week, as he'll be needed as a part of the best corner tandem in college football (along with Vernon Hargreaves III) against the Ole Miss trio of Treadwell, Core, and sophomore Damore'ea Stringfellow. The three average more than 15 yards every time they get the ball in their hands, and they are targeted frequently. The Rebels pass on more than 47 percent of standard downs because of that wide receiver depth and Kelly's accuracy. What Kelly has to work on, however, is his decision making. With three picks on the year -- and one of his most exciting touchdowns a fluke tipped pass as he was getting sacked against the Tide -- Kelly won't have much room for error against Hargreaves and Tabor. The Gators have also maintained a solid pass rush (15th in adjusted sack rate) behind Jonathan Bullard, Alex McCalister, and Joey Ivie (who combine for ten sacks between them). Ole Miss hasn't proven it's very capable of a very effective run game -- starter Jaylen Walton has just a 38.1 percent opportunity rate -- but they might find the occasional hole for a big play as Florida is 102nd in unadjusted rushing IsoPPP, especially if Florida is concentrating on defending the pass.

The Ole Miss landsharks defense is headlined by Robert Nkemdiche and is 15th in defensive S&P+, but has been bend-don't-break. If not for the defense's excellent ability to stall drives in the red zone (13th in defensive points per drive inside the 40), then opposing offenses might have more success. Ole Miss has been excellent in shutting down big passing plays, but less efficient against the pass. It's the opposite for the run defense, which is better in efficiency than against big plays (61st). The question is whether Florida has the offensive weaponry to take advantage of any Ole Miss deficiencies. Florida is certainly playing better offensively since McElwain got to Gainesville, but the Gators are still 74th in rushing S&P+ and haven't totally settled on a quarterback. While there aren't many superstars that the Gators can point to, look out for freshman Antonio Callaway, who leads the team in receiving despite his 45 percent catch rate. Callaway averages 19 yards per catch and is a good foil for the more reliable Demarcus Robinson and Brandon Powell. All signs point to this being a low scoring game driven by good defenses, but this could turn into a statement game for Ole Miss if the offense can find much traction against an excellent Florida defense.

Watch for:

  • The battle between Treadwell/Hargreaves and Core/Tabor will be some of the most exciting wide receiver-cornerback battles we'll see all year.
  • Can Ole Miss take advantage of the Gators' relatively lax run defense against explosive plays?

F/+ Outright Pick: Ole Miss

Arizona State (+14) at UCLA -- 7:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Arizona State UCLA
F/+ 28 12
When Arizona State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 49 24
2014 FEI 16 24
Success Rate 16 47
IsoPPP 72 26
Rushing S&P+ 88 39
Passing S&P+ 99 18
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 44 17
2014 FEI 22 6
Success Rate 61 15
IsoPPP 55 59
Rushing S&P+ 23 40
Passing S&P+ 30 77

All signs point to this being a blowout in favor of the Bruins. UCLA is favored by two touchdowns at home, against a 2-2 team that has underwhelmed significantly relative to preseason projections. In two games against teams ranked higher than 111th in the F/+ (!), the Sun Devils have lost by at least three touchdowns. Even against Cal Poly, who isn't given an F/+ ranking, the Sun Devils still allowed 21 points.

However, the Sun Devils still have a few things going for them in their upset bid. First, UCLA is increasingly thin on defense as season-ending injuries have taken their toll -- Myles Jack and Eddie Vanderdoes among the biggest names. Second, there's reason to think Mike Bercovici can get the passing game to be better than where it's at currently (99th in passing S&P+). To be fair, the Bruins have largely escaped feeling the effects of injuries, and we said the same thing about Auburn's Jeremy Johnson until he was benched.

So for Arizona State to win this game, Bercovici will need to play his best game of the season, reaching the potential that we saw in his time filling in for Tyler Kelly last year. He has plenty of decent (if not explosive) receivers to turn to, like former running back D.J. Foster and current running back Demario Richard. As those are his top two targets, it's understandable why the passing game has lacked an explosive or downfield dimension (the Sun Devils sit at 100th in passing IsoPPP).

But really the Sun Devils might benefit most from just a poor game from quarterback Josh Rosen. Rosen has looked like an elite player in games against Virginia and Arizona and worthy of his top overall quarterback recruit status, but he looked far more mortal against UNLV and BYU. The passing game sits at just 77th in passing S&P+, though it's not due to the offensive line, which has given Rosen plenty of time to pass -- he's taken just three total sacks (fifth-best in adjusted sack rate). But the key for Arizona State will be in covering senior receiver Jordan Payton, who so far has nearly a quarter of Rosen's targets and averaged almost 17 yards per reception. Paul Perkins and freshman running back Soso Jamabo have proven to be an extremely solid running back tandem (each averaging a roughly 45 percent opportunity rate and more than 6.1 highlight yards per carry), but the Arizona State run defense might be the best part of the entire team, ranking 23rd in rushing S&P+.

Watch for:

  • Can UCLA hold up against all of their injuries and keep Arizona State receivers from being explosive?
  • Arizona State's run defense is the best part of the team statistically, but it has to deal with Soso Jamabo and Paul Perkins, who have been explosive and fairly efficient. If these two are efficient against the Sun Devils then that is likely all you need to know to determine the outcome of the game.
  • Can Arizona State, which is 11th in linebacker havoc rate, force Josh Rosen into freshman mistakes like he had in his second and third games of the season?

F/+ Outright Pick: UCLA

Notre Dame (+1.5) at Clemson -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Clemson Notre Dame
F/+ 11 9
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 47 40
2014 FEI 61 54
Success Rate 15 23
IsoPPP 90 112
Rushing S&P+ 31 50
Passing S&P+ 61 17
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 9 6
2014 FEI 1 21
Success Rate 10 21
IsoPPP 23 14
Rushing S&P+ 2 34
Passing S&P+ 54 23

The final big game of the weekend sees the Irish travel to Clemson in what is essentially a pick-'em. This is an interesting matchup featuring two young but very talented quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson and Deshone Kizer and two great defenses. However, the Irish have been hampered by injuries on defense, which has particularly affected their run defense (50th in rushing S&P+). The main questions will be whether either quarterback will be able to pass, and if Clemson can run effectively against the Notre Dame defense.

Deshone Kizer has been put in a tough situation. The third-string quarterback over the summer until Everett Golson transferred and Malik Zaire got injured, Kizer at least has the benefit of clear No. 1 receiver big Bill Fuller to throw to. Fuller has received nearly a third of the team's passing targets this year, averaging an insane 20.6 yards per catch. Senior Chris Brown is not far behind at 23.4 percent of targets, so the two receivers together command more than half of the passing game's total targets for Notre Dame. Clemson's No. 1 challenge might be tying both of these elite receivers up for a full game, especially since the Tigers' pass defense has regressed after Vic Beasley's graduation (the Tigers are now 37th in adjusted sack rate, though they're still 12th in overall havoc due to the number of tackles for loss the line racks up in run defense). Right now Clemson is 54th in overall passing S&P+ and slightly worse in allowing big plays (49th in IsoPPP), so look for Fuller to have a few big catches. Clemson is still elite against the run (second in rushing S&P+) so I'm anxious to see C.J. Prosise and the 34th-ranked Notre Dame rushing S&P+ offense against the Tigers. Prosise has been a revelation with a 54.1 percent opportunity rate and impressive 7.8 yards per carry, though he's getting good support from freshman Josh Adams, who has stepped up at 8.7 highlight yards per carry. If Clemson can lock down the Irish on the ground -- and especially limit big plays from Prosise and Adams -- then it will open up more options for covering Fuller and Brown. That's a big "if" though.

The Irish on defense are led by linebacker Jaylon Smith, who has excellent athletic ability and is likely a big reason why the Irish are 28th in linebacker havoc rate (4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and three pass breakups this season). Clemson of course has Deshaun Watson at quarterback, but he's fighting through an opening slump. He has fought to stay upright, with the 46th-ranked adjusted sack rate line. Watson has thrown three picks this season, but is completing nearly 75 percent of his passes otherwise. But the key may actually be in the Tigers establishing a ground game first, as the Irish defense is 50th in rushing S&P+. While Wayne Gallman has been acceptable, with a high opportunity rate (50.9 percent), he's not explosive (3.8 highlight yards per opportunity) and that's where it seems you can do the most damage against the Irish (108th in rushing IsoPPP). Without a solid ground game from the Tigers and the lack of Mike Williams as a deep threat for Clemson, Notre Dame's job is much easier in shutting down Deshaun Watson again this season.

Watch for:

  • Bill Fuller as an explosive passing threat against a somewhat suspect Clemson pass defense against explosive plays.
  • Whether Clemson can get any ground game going behind Wayne Gallman. Though Notre Dame is susceptible to big runs, it's not clear Gallman can break these runs.

F/+ Outright Pick: Clemson

OTHER GAMES

Arkansas vs. Tennessee: Can either coach end a disappointing slide in what was supposed to be a breakout year? The 1-3 Razorbacks have struggled with pass defense (104th in passing S&P+) and Joshua Dobbs and the elite group of (so far underachieving) Volunteers receivers should challenge the Razorbacks once again.

Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State: The Aggies have looked fairly sluggish on offense despite the wealth of talent in the receiving corps. The Mississippi State pass defense has been mediocre, however, so look for more big receptions from Christian Kirk. The main issue for the Bulldogs here is their inability to run the ball (105th in rushing S&P+).

Texas vs. TCU: One thing that could really turn the Longhorns around would be a win over the beat up Horned Frogs. Injuries have mounted against TCU's defense to the point where Jerrod Heard might threaten to break his own total offense record. The problem is that TCU's offense is almost certainly better.

Ohio State vs. Indiana: Indiana's run game has been efficient behind UAB transfer Jordan Howard, but its passing game has been equally successful. However, Ohio State's defense has been lockdown this season, and it doesn't look like the Hoosiers can create enough explosive opportunities to change that. Ohio State's Cardale Jones should have a field day against a poor Hoosiers passing defense -- and if he doesn't, then we may need to reset our expectations for the Buckeyes.

F/+ PICKS: WEEK 4

Favorite Spread Underdog F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
at TCU 15 Texas TCU Texas
at Oklahoma 7 West Virginia Oklahoma West Virginia
Ohio State 21 at Indiana Ohio State Indiana
Baylor 17 Texas Tech Baylor Texas Tech
at Georgia 2 Alabama Alabama Alabama
Ole Miss 7.5 at Florida Ole Miss Ole Miss
at Tennessee 6.5 Arkansas Tennessee Arkansas
at UCLA 13.5 Arizona State UCLA UCLA
at Texas A&M 7 Mississippi State Texas A&M Texas A&M
Notre Dame 0 at Clemson Clemson Clemson

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 01 Oct 2015

2 comments, Last at 02 Oct 2015, 9:02am by Chad Peltier

Comments

1
by slipknottin :: Fri, 10/02/2015 - 7:26am

When did we start calling Will Fuller Bill? I have never seen or heard anywhere else call him Bill.