Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Sep 2016

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 1

by Ian Boyd

(Ed. Note: Please welcome back Ian Boyd, who is taking over Seventh Day Adventure this season. He sat in for Chad Peltier for a couple weeks last year, and helped with the college content in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016. Chad will still be writing One Foot Inbounds to review the weekend in college football, starting next Tuesday and continuing on Mondays after that.)

For all the problems college football has with weak scheduling and a lack of cross-conference match-ups to help settle regional disputes, you can always count on Week 1 to have a thunderous start. The 2016 season will begin with several good contests that will quickly determine the ceiling for a few contenders while providing some useful data for comparisons later in the year.

Besides the marquee neutral-site games like Alabama-USC and Wisconsin-LSU, some games that didn't look very interesting when they were scheduled could end up being very intriguing (and hopefully competitive) Oklahoma-Houston stands out as an exciting battle that was probably never intended to be so by the Sooners athletic department when they scheduled the Cougars two weeks in advance of a contest with Ohio State.

The SEC features heavily this weekend, and it seems likely that at least one SEC West squad will see an early setback in its hopes of being the top dog in the nation's toughest league. The ACC has a few marquee games as well, while the rest of the "Power Five" will show their wares more in the coming weeks.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Oklahoma (-10) vs. Houston at NRG Stadium in Houston -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oklahoma Houston
2016 Proj. F/+ 4 38
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
2016 Projected S&P+ 6 82
2015 S&P+ 7 58
2015 FEI 12 11
2015 IsoPPP+ 8 60
2015 Rushing S&P+ 18 43
2015 Passing S&P+ 10 76
When Houston has the ball Defense Offense
2016 Proj. S&P+ 21 30
2015 S&P+ 16 33
2015 FEI 2 15
2015 IsoPPP+ 3 47
2015 Rushing S&P+ 6 41
2015 Passing S&P+ 6 48

The numbers loved the 2015 Oklahoma Sooners and are consequently bullish on 2016 Oklahoma, but were they misguided by OU's fortuitous avoidance of most of the Big 12's starting quarterbacks a year ago? Meanwhile, the numbers looked at Houston picking their way through the AAC and shocking Florida State in a bowl game and said, "meh, let's see you do that again."

Well, both teams will have a chance to do so with Oklahoma taking on a Cougars squad that returns starting quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and a disruptive defense. This Houston team would probably be very competitive in the Big 12, which makes them dangerous for the Sooners.

On another interesting note, the Cougars return a lot of disruption up front on defense while the Sooners are replacing the most active members of their squad. Between defensive lineman Cameron Malveaux and linebackers Tyus Bowser and Steven Taylor, the Cougars return 33.5 tackles for loss and 18 sacks from last year's defense. Meanwhile, the Sooners have to replace 36 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks with lineman Charles Tapper and linebackers Eric Striker and Devante Bond moving on. The numbers are nearly identical in terms of production, and the game's outcome may well hinge on how well the Sooners reload and match what the Cougars are already bringing into this game.

While the prospects of the Oklahoma defense without some of its key players against a top flight quarterback are hard to guess at, the Sooners offense has fewer question marks. Houston will need its returning producers on defense to look good in order to handle Baker Mayfield.

The Sooners are returning two excellent running backs in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and a pair of bookend tackles in Orlando Brown and Dru Samia who were hot-and-cold freshman in 2015, but will be blooded veterans in 2016. The Sooners also moved returning guard Jonathan Alvarez inside to center to anchor the interior in the midst of turnover.

Houston will be hoping to find negative answers to the questions about Oklahoma's defense, because to win this game they may need to make it a shootout. Oklahoma needs a win here to stay in the playoff hunt, with Ohio State and a round-robin Big 12 schedule still ahead of them.

Watch for:

  • How does Oklahoma look against a running quarterback?
  • Will the inexperienced Sooners pass rush get home?
  • Can the Cougars contain Oklahoma's running game like they did Dalvin Cook?

S&P Outright Pick: Oklahoma

UCLA at Texas A&M (-3) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Texas A&M UCLA
2016 Proj. F/+ 23 17
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
2016 Projected S&P+ 44 26
2015 S&P+ 55 51
2015 FEI 64 34
2015 IsoPPP+ 60 19
2015 Rushing S&P+ 22 54
2015 Passing S&P+ 80 19
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
2016 Proj. S&P+ 19 14
2015 S&P+ 29 23
2015 FEI 30 28
2015 IsoPPP+ 23 49
2015 Rushing S&P+ 82 64
2015 Passing S&P+ 2 47

Texas A&M's offense was defined by instability a year ago with Kevin Sumlin rotating between Kyle Allen and freshman Kyler Murray at quarterback, and struggling mightily with both. Allen was more of a pocket passer before a shoulder injury robbed him of his effectiveness, while Murray struggled to execute the passing game but brought an explosive dynamic to the Aggies run game. The juggling of the two youngsters ended with both transferring out (Allen to Houston, Murray to Oklahoma), while former Sooners signal-caller Trevor Knight transferred in to take over the mess.

With Knight's legs there's a good chance that the Aggies will maintain some of their effectiveness on the ground while hopefully also making better use of a very good cast of receivers. Their challenge will be in executing consistently against a UCLA defense that specialized in preventing big plays a year ago and returns the entire defensive backfield intact. Knight has to avoid turnovers throwing into that secondary for A&M to have a chance.

This may be a low-scoring game in general since the UCLA offense against the A&M defense is a contest of strength-on-strength. The Aggies' main vulnerability in 2015 was in defending opposing run games, but this was not the particular strength of the Bruins attack. UCLA is moving towards a more pro-style approach on offense this year (with former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone now calling the shots at A&M, interestingly enough).

The game may well come down to whether the Bruins can run the ball and thus protect their warhorse, quarterback Josh Rosen, from a blistering A&M pass-rush featuring future NFL defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall.

Watch for:

  • Can Trevor Knight reignite the Aggies passing attack against the veteran Bruins secondary?
  • Josh Rosen's tennis-based pocket footwork against Myles Garrett's pursuit.
  • The Aggies just need to find some competent linebackers and adequate replacements at cornerback to make the leap and be an elite defense.
  • Who comes out ahead in A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's battle with his former boss?

S&P Outright Pick: UCLA

LSU (-10) vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall LSU Wisconsin
2016 Proj. F/+ 2 36
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
2016 Projected S&P+ 3 7
2015 S&P+ 12 7
2015 FEI 16 6
2015 IsoPPP+ 11 7
2015 Rushing S&P+ 7 14
2015 Passing S&P+ 37 9
When Wisconsin has the ball Defense Offense
2016 Proj. S&P+ 12 94
2015 S&P+ 27 84
2015 FEI 27 67
2015 IsoPPP+ 20 63
2015 Rushing S&P+ 50 80
2015 Passing S&P+ 12 39

On the surface this looks like a game in which the Tigers could put on a suffocating defensive performance, but struggle to score enough points on the board to put the game away. However, it's possible the Badgers offense may prove a tougher challenge than the numbers would suggest.

The big story up in Wisconsin is the return of running back Corey Clement and an offensive line that returns several players with starting experience from whom to choose in creating a more typically dominant front. It's hard to believe that a Paul Chryst rushing attack will be so toothless as to once again finish 80th in rushing S&P. On the other hand, LSU just hired away his defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and may have the inside track on how to attack the Badgers' personnel thanks to his extensive experience with their roster.

At quarterback, the Tigers are hoping that a healthier and more experienced Brandon Harris is able to build on some successful moments that were had in 2015 and take the LSU offense to another level. Wisconsin is starting over with redshirt senior Bart Houston taking over for Joel Stave. Houston will be without 2015's leading receiver Alex Erickson and undoubtedly hoping that the run game roars to life again.

Assuming some measure of limited success by the Wisconsin offense, the game will come down to whether the Badgers front is able to contain LSU's powerful running back, Leonard Fournette. They had success late in 2015 against a USC Trojans offense, which portends good things, but Fournette is on another plane from most backs. The Badgers defense he will face returns a lot of good players up front but also has to replace both starting safeties, including versatile standout Michael Caputo.

If Wisconsin can force Brandon Harris to win the game with his arm, we'll all get a glimpse into whether the "LSU as national contenders" talk is real or not based on how he responds. Otherwise, this may just be a game that provides some highlight clips for Fournette to take to New York.

Watch for:

  • The return of a traditional Wisconsin running game?
  • Is Brandon Harris finally in command of LSU's pro-style passing attack?
  • The always brutal contest between the LSU run-blockers and Wisconsin's own physical defensive front.
  • Leonard Fournette highlights.

F/+ Outright Pick: LSU

Georgia (-3) vs. North Carolina at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta -- 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Georgia North Carolina
2016 Proj. F/+ 8 28
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
2016 Projected S&P+ 34 7
2015 S&P+ 70 67
2015 FEI 57 56
2015 IsoPPP+ 23 62
2015 Rushing S&P+ 14 106
2015 Passing S&P+ 29 65
When North Carolina has the ball Defense Offense
2016 Proj. S&P+ 85 16
2015 S&P+ 11 17
2015 FEI 21 10
2015 IsoPPP+ 28 12
2015 Rushing S&P+ 23 15
2015 Passing S&P+ 23 23

Georgia may very well be starting true freshman Jacob Eason in this game a year after Greyson Lambert was unable to adequately punish opponents for how they played Nick Chubb and the devastating Bulldogs run game. That will be less of an issue, though, against North Carolina, whose coach's "bend don't break" approach is evident from its woeful run defense numbers but strong IsoPPP performance in 2015. Gene Chizik doesn't like to load the box if he can at all help it.

The smart money would be on the Dawgs rolling with the freshman quarterback and just running the ball with impunity on a Tar Heels front that will be replacing both linebackers from the 2015 unit and desperately hoping its safeties can keep Chubb under wraps.

Meanwhile, Mitch Trubisky is taking over a potentially lethal North Carolina offense against Kirby Smart's Bulldogs defense. Smart has been coordinating elite defenses for some time now but always under the watchful eye of Nick Saban. This is his big chance to prove that he can generate similar results on his own, and he inherits plenty of talent with which to do so. North Carolina will be a stiff test of the sort that regularly gave Smart and Saban fits at Alabama: a spread offense with a quarterback who can get involved in the run game.

Watch for:

  • How different does a Kirby Smart defense look without Nick Saban peering over his shoulder?
  • North Carolina defensive backs trying to corral Nick Chubb in open grass.
  • Does the Jacob Eason era began now or later?
  • Mitch Trubisky might be about to step on the national stage in a big way.

S&P Outright Pick: Georgia

Alabama (-10.5) vs. USC at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Alabama USC
2016 Proj. F/+ 1 12
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
2016 Projected S&P+ 23 25
2015 S&P+ 25 42
2015 FEI 11 25
2015 IsoPPP+ 26 44
2015 Rushing S&P+ 13 35
2015 Passing S&P+ 28 41
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
2016 Proj. S&P+ 1 13
2015 S&P+ 1 15
2015 FEI 1 14
2015 IsoPPP+ 1 38
2015 Rushing S&P+ 1 34
2015 Passing S&P+ 1 38

Alabama was completely dominant on defense in 2015, but with the return of all its star pass-rushers and some key linebackers and defensive backs, it seems very likely that they could be even better in 2016. Since defenses are usually ahead of offenses early in the year, that spells trouble for USC, which is breaking in a new quarterback in this game.

One reason this could still make for a compelling game is that the Trojans are built around their run game, and many of the key pieces up front and in the backfield return for USC. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide are losing stud nose tackle Jarron Jones, inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, and run-supporting free safety Geno Matias-Smith. Yes, they'll probably reload and be fine here, but there's at least a glimmer of hope here for USC that they can find some room to run.

The other reason for optimism in Los Angeles is that the Trojans own defense figures to be very good, with several top athletes back and now under the direction of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who crafted a very good defense last time he was on staff at USC. Alabama is breaking in new starters at both running back and quarterback against this defense, and there's always the chance that youthful turnovers could swing the game in either direction.

Watch for:

  • Which new quarterback handles the bright lights in AT&T Stadium better?
  • USC star cornerback Adoree Jackson against Alabama star receiver Calvin Ridley.
  • Can USC push Alabama around at all up front with its run game?
  • Who takes over for Derrick Henry? Whoever that is becomes a Heisman contender.

S&P Outright Pick: Alabama

Florida State (-4.5) vs. Ole Miss at Camping World Stadium in Orlando -- 8 p.m. Monday (ESPN)

Overall Florida State Ole Miss
2016 Proj. F/+ 5 7
When Florida State has the ball Offense Defense
2016 Projected S&P+ 9 27
2015 S&P+ 21 21
2015 FEI 25 18
2015 IsoPPP+ 15 30
2015 Rushing S&P+ 9 18
2015 Passing S&P+ 30 30
When Ole Miss has the ball Defense Offense
2016 Proj. S&P+ 18 8
2015 S&P+ 10 9
2015 FEI 25 5
2015 IsoPPP+ 5 2
2015 Rushing S&P+ 33 23
2015 Passing S&P+ 5 2

The best has been saved for last, as these two teams are really quite evenly matched and should put on a show in college football's big shot at Monday night prime time. The main difference here is that Ole Miss is plugging in talent that has been developed in the program around a remaining anchor in quarterback Chad Kelly, while Florida State is plugging in redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois amidst an anchor of returning starters across the offense and defense.

Florida State was close to being an elite team in 2015 but lacked a typical Jimbo Fisher passing game to get after opponents that had to load the box to stop Dalvin Cook. Now they're plugging in wide receiver Auden Tate and Francois in the hopes of matching the magical 2013 season, when redshirt freshman Jameis Winston led a talented team to a title.

Ole Miss is counting on being able to reload after an exodus of NFL talent, with Kelly providing identity and stability as a returning starter. Thanks to his strong arm and wheels, the Rebels' spread-option attack was able to create a lot of conflicts for opposing defenses a year ago and plenty of space for receiver Laquon Treadwell to run wild. This year they'll have different skill players looking to take advantage, but those advantages should still be there.

That said, those spaces may close up more quickly against a speedy Seminoles defense led by sophomore sensation Derwin James, a big rangy safety who also serves as a pass-rusher on third down. The 'Noles tend to use James to erase positive gains from a deep safety alignment on first and second down, and then get after the quarterback on third down. Even for an athlete like Kelly, this may prove quite the challenge. If the Rebels gunner is up for it, this could be the most exciting game of opening weekend.

Watch for:

  • Which new receivers will take over in Laquon Treadwell's wake?
  • While all eyes are on Dalvin Cook, Deondre Francois may be the story of the 2016 Florida State season.
  • The Rebel defensive front minus defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche against a veteran FSU offensive line.
  • That play where Dalvin Cook hits the second level and sees open grass ahead of him.

S&P Outright Pick: Florida State

S&P PICKS: WEEK 1

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread
Oklahoma 10 Houston Oklahoma Oklahoma
at Texas A&M 3 UCLA UCLA UCLA
LSU 10 Wisconsin LSU LSU
Georgia 3 North Carolina Georgia Georgia
Alabama 10.5 USC Alabama USC
Florida State 4.5 Ole Miss Florida State Ole Miss

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 01 Sep 2016

4 comments, Last at 06 Sep 2016, 9:08am by Aaron Brooks Good Twin

Comments

1
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 09/02/2016 - 10:59am

The Wisconsin defense should be pretty used to the LSU offense, seeing as it's almost identical to the Wisconsin offense of the last 20 years, excepting Russell Wilson's season.

Whichever team can pass will win.

4
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 09/06/2016 - 9:08am

I have to admit, I didn't expect it to be Wisconsin who could pass.

Houston got a little turnover happy, but a QB who can run a little sure makes that Wisconsin offense look a lot more effective.

2
by IrishBarrister :: Fri, 09/02/2016 - 4:38pm

Ian's first article of the year on SDA didn't discuss Notre Dame at Texas? Color me baffled.

3
by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Sat, 09/03/2016 - 4:31pm

off to a smashing start, I see.

--------------------------------------
The standard is the standard!