Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Nov 2016

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 10

by Ian Boyd

Week 9 lived up to all of its promise with multiple exciting, competitive games to offer fans of the sport.

Michigan State predictably proved a tough out for Michigan thanks to some fire and game planning that led to very strong initial drives against a great Wolverines defense. Elsewhere in the conference, Wisconsin laid claim to being the best team in the Big 10 West by taking down Nebraska in overtime.

Clemson vs. Florida State was a compelling slugfest that came down to the wire, and ultimately to Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher's ability to prepare a young quarterback to execute down the stretch vs. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables' ability to coach a young defense to attack and thwart a passing game. With several sacks down the stretch, Clemson proved victorious.

Utah did exactly what was described in this space: it tried to shorten the game and use its phenomenal punting unit to negate Washington's talent advantages. Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky averaged 53.7 yards per kick and was pinning the Huskies all day long until Washington returner Dante Pettis took one back for a touchdown, and that was all she wrote.

In Big 12 country, all the undefeated went down, virtually ensuring that no team in that league will enter the playoff.

There's more to be sorted out in Week 10, including outside shots at the playoff for a few key teams.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Louisville (-25) at Boston College -- 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Louisville Boston College
F/+ 6 80
When Louisville has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 2 27
S&P+ 1 18
IsoPPP+ 3 26
Rushing S&P+ 1 3
Passing S&P+ 19 52
When Boston College has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 13 125
S&P+ 10 123
IsoPPP+ 14 116
Rushing S&P+ 45 116
Passing S&P+ 16 93

This game is a must-watch, mostly for the fact that Louisville still has an outside shot at the playoff if it wisn out and finishes the year 11-1, with its only loss coming against a Clemson team that might be the undefeated ACC champions. There's a good chance that the committee would welcome in the possibility of a rematch if the contenders from the Big 10, Pac-12, or SEC falter and take on losses. There's also a chance that Lamar Jackson could win the Heisman, so Louisville still has a lot to play for as it journeys up to Massachusetts to take on the always dangerous Golden Eagles.

Boston College has been a trap team for opponents in the past, upsetting USC a few years back with a stifling defense and an option rushing attack, and then giving Florida State a scare last year when it shut down Dalvin Cook with that same defense. The Golden Eagles' formula this year will look similar, but the matchup is more difficult.

In short, Louisville is a phenomenal team with good players executing strong concepts on both sides of the ball, whereas Boston College is excellent on defense and horrendous on offense. The Golden Eagles are built around their usual power-based, option-heavy rushing attack that asks quarterback Patrick Towles to be the triggerman and help carry the load on the ground.

Their problem this year, as in most years, is a lack of explosiveness. The Golden Eagles love to operate from big formations with lots of tight ends on the field rather than from the spread, despite their usage of some of the same types of spread run game concepts as Urban Meyer or other offensive gurus. As a result, they don't do a lot of damage in their passing game due to the lack of speed on the field, and they don't break runners loose regularly enough due to the lack of spacing.

The Boston College defense is still very stout, despite losing defensive coordinator Don Brown to Michigan. They have very good defensive linemen up front and have stockpiled some good coverage defenders on the back end in the Brown era. Those are crucial ingredients for stopping Louisville, which requires committing numbers to stop the run, containing Lamar Jackson on the edge with disciplined defensive ends and linebackers, and being able to hold up in man coverage on the back end.

Watch for:

  • Can Boston College get its run game going against Louisville or is it shut down?
  • How does Boston College control Lamar Jackson on the edges?
  • Will the numbers it takes to stop the Louisville running game prevent Boston College from being able to handle the Cardinals passing attack?
  • Every time Lamar Jackson gets loose in space is must-see television.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Louisville.

Syracuse at Clemson (-27) -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN2)

Overall Syracuse Clemson
F/+ 71 3
When Syracuse has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 42 4
S&P+ 43 5
IsoPPP+ 61 8
Rushing S&P+ 91 29
Passing S&P+ 45 3
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 80 22
S&P+ 87 16
IsoPPP+ 106 23
Rushing S&P+ 95 41
Passing S&P+ 95 10

This game would seem to have an obvious outcome, but two factors that could make for a wild and surprising ride in Clemson. The first is that the Tigers are coming off a big, physical, and emotional game against Florida State, and are very unlikely to be as sharp again this week against the Orangemen.

The second is that the Clemson defensive philosophy of "ATTACK!" could potentially spell trouble against Syracuse's variety of spread formations, which punishes mistakes with deep strikes that can bring six quick points. All it would take is a slow start from the Clemson offense and a few early shots landed by Syracuse and this thing could become a ballgame.

Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey has taken quickly to head coach Dino Babers' "veer and shoot" offense, with 2,631 yards on the year at 7.6 yards per attempt. The Orangemen run game is still a work in progress, with neither lead back Dontae Strickland nor Dungey reaching 4 yards per carry on the year so far.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables once held the same position at Oklahoma, where he faced Robert Griffin III at Baylor in 2010 and in 2011, so he is more experienced in dealing with this style of offense than most ACC coaches. Of course, Venables' defense ended up getting sent to New York as a featured part of Griffin's highlight film. The Sooners' strategy then was likely the same as it will be for Clemson on Saturday -- Venables attacked Griffin and brought a wide variety of pressures from different angles. He had success until the Baylor quarterback started making plays off schedule by eluding pass-rushers and either scrambling for yardage or finding receivers downfield.

It may be a long shot that Dungey can navigate a pressuring defense like Clemson's in his first year in this system, or that the Syracuse defense will play well enough for this to even matter, but it could still make for some interesting drama midday Saturday.

Watch for:

  • Does Brent Venables bring pressure like normal, or does he play it safe this week and try to make Syracuse work its way down the field?
  • Is Eric Dungey effective enough in this system yet to handle an aggressive and effective blitzing team?
  • How much energy and focus do the Tigers have for this game after a draining victory over Florida State?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Clemson

Florida (-5) at Arkansas -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Florida Arkansas
F/+ 13 64
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 63 72
S&P+ 71 85
IsoPPP+ 81 122
Rushing S&P+ 84 125
Passing S&P+ 72 58
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 6 49
S&P+ 3 39
IsoPPP+ 5 64
Rushing S&P+ 10 93
Passing S&P+ 5 22

While they haven't been particularly impressive this year, the Florida Gators keep chugging along thanks to a brilliant defense and an offense that somehow manages to find some points every week. Their secret against Georgia last Saturday was exploiting the Bulldogs' horrendous passing down defense, with quarterback Luke Del Rio converting four of seven attempts on third-and-long.

This week they'll face an even worse defense in the Arkansas Razorbacks, who have been hanging on this year with their passing game as everything else on the team is stumbling. The Razorbacks' "bend don't break" stratagem has struggled mightily due to the surprising inability of their defensive line to disrupt offenses and the hopelessness of their back seven in constricting space and limiting big plays.

They'll have an easier time with the Gators, but while Florida has not been particularly explosive on offense this year, it has generally pretty steady at picking up yardage in the run game and targeting opposing weaknesses to the best of its ability.

The Arkansas offense going up against the Florida defense will be a most interesting battle, since it will feature good units playing at a high level in a contest that could decide the game. The Gators will want to keep tabs on the Razorbacks receivers on standard downs, when Arkansas will mix in a lot of play-action to create easy leverage for its receivers and tight ends to get open.

Playing Arkansas is largely a matter of being disciplined on standard downs against its offensive attack, which hits opponents with so many false keys between the play-action passes, running back draw plays, and trap blocks. If you can stay sound against all of that, you can kill the Razorbacks' drives and run clock on the other side of the ball operating against their broken defense.

Florida should be able to do exactly that, and perhaps open a big enough lead in the SEC East to make things interesting at the end of the year when they face LSU and Florida State.

Watch for:

  • If either team can find some explosiveness on offense, it will be primed to win what should be a low-scoring slugfest.
  • How disciplined is the Florida defense against Arkansas's confusing offense and lethal passing attack?
  • Can Arkansas's offensive line protect quarterback Austin Allen against Florida's exotic third-down blitz packages?

S&P Outright Pick: Florida

Nebraska at Ohio State (-17) -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Nebraska Ohio State
F/+ 21 4
When Nebraska has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 40 7
S&P+ 37 7
IsoPPP+ 60 9
Rushing S&P+ 83 18
Passing S&P+ 24 8
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 24 11
S&P+ 23 14
IsoPPP+ 42 27
Rushing S&P+ 69 3
Passing S&P+ 24 50

Nebraska gave Wisconsin all it wanted on the road in Madison last Saturday, taking the Badgers to overtime before finally succumbing to the Wisconsin run game and defense. The Cornhuskers are now in a tough spot, needing a win on the road in Columbus to have a good chance of winning the Big 10 West, but they just proved they're a better team than some might have guessed.

Ohio State is facing a lot of its own troubles right now as teams have discerned that a disciplined and aggressive response to its option run game isn't likely to be punished by quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes passing game. Ohio State's approach is basically to plod along on the ground and hope to finish enough drives to win low-scoring battles while its own defense controls the game and creates short fields.

To upset the Buckeyes, Nebraska will need a strong performance from quarterback Tommy Armstrong and his top receivers. The quick passing game is the strength of the Nebraska offense and the biggest weakness for the Buckeyes, while the Cornhuskers run game isn't terrific, nor the Ohio State run defense weak.

Because Ohio State likes to play the run aggressively and field big run-stoppers, it is possible to make a living throwing the ball around if you can block Buckeyes blitzes. It's difficult to land big shots though, and moving the ball down the field via the quick passing game is always more difficult in college than doing so with the running game because of the greater skill involved. Nebraska is going to need Tommy Armstrong to be a playmaker and do things out of the pocket to get points on the board.

On the other side of the ball, Nebraska has a fair chance at keeping Ohio State below 30 and giving itself a chance to win a close game. The Cornhuskers aren't a run-stopping team per se -- they play a bend-don't-break strategy with deep safeties and careful leverage to the ball, aiming to make stops in the red zone or by waiting for their opponents to make mistakes. However, they're a better run defense than you'd realize based on the numbers because they are happy to absorb a few 5-yard runs if they can stop you from doing anything in the passing game or getting a running back loose in space.

Against Ohio State, they'll probably trigger their safeties downhill a little faster and dare the Buckeyes to make them pay with play-action. If their young defensive line can hold their ground at the point of attack without allowing creases too big for their linebackers and safeties to control, then Nebraska can rope-a-dope the Buckeyes, force field goals, and get back into the driver's seat in the Big 10 West. Of course, Ohio State's playoff hopes will be effectively extinguished.

Watch for:

  • Can the Buckeyes finally make someone pay for loading up to stop the run with deep passes?
  • How aggressively is Nebraska willing to play the Ohio State run game, and will it be enough to stop the Buckeyes from marching down the field with bite-sized gains?
  • Can Tommy Armstrong single-handedly will this Nebraska offense over an outstanding Ohio State defense on the road in a night game at the horseshoe in Columbus?

S&P Outright Pick: Ohio State.

Alabama (-7.5) at LSU -- 8 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Alabama LSU
F/+ 1 8
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 19 3
S&P+ 3 6
IsoPPP+ 11 4
Rushing S&P+ 5 5
Passing S&P+ 34 4
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 1 27
S&P+ 2 18
IsoPPP+ 2 6
Rushing S&P+ 1 2
Passing S&P+ 2 59

Up until Les Miles was removed as head coach, this game didn't look like it would be particularly interesting. The Tigers were woeful on offense early in the year, nearly helpless against a good defense like Wisconsin (or Alabama) could bring into a game, and wasting good defensive efforts.

Then the Tigers sacked Miles, promoted defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to interim head coach, and changed up their offensive strategies to include more option and more passing on standard downs. Now their offense is a legitimate threat and running back Leonard Fournette can't be shut down by defenses with good players that make him the focus of their game plan. Their defense is great, as it normally is, and is loaded with veterans that have played Alabama in the past.

Another interesting dimension to this game is that LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has experience in dealing with quarterback run games like the Crimson Tide are utilizing this season with freshman Jalen Hurts. Aranda faced this approach for a few years in the Big 10 against Urban Meyer and Ohio State and even in a bowl game against Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers. LSU will have a game plan to attack and confuse Hurts when he's executing option plays and try to force Alabama to throw the football against a very good secondary.

If the Tigers can either shut down the Alabama attack or generate turnovers by mixing in blitzes and stunts designed to create havoc in the backfield against the option, they could create some great opportunities for their offense and potentially win this game.

LSU has the talent and the scheme to actually compete with Alabama and give them a tough fight, but this is still Alabama. The Tide have another suffocating defense this year, and if they can keep Leonard Fournette bottled up they'll be eager to attack LSU quarterback Danny Etling with their devastating pass rush.

The Tigers are new to playing diverse offenses and their quarterback isn't a genius who can navigate a difficult Alabama defense. They'll need him to make enough plays to give Fournette some breathing room so he can be the one to take down the Tide. It's possible that could happen, but the Tide have bottled up Fournette in the past. A low-scoring slugfest a la 2011 shouldn't be shocking in this one.

Watch for:

  • Can LSU quarterback Danny Etling make enough throws against Alabama to set up running back Leonard Fournette to win the game for LSU?
  • How does Dave Aranda attack the Alabama running game, and can Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts figure it out and keep the offense on schedule?
  • Leonard Fournette against the Alabama defense, which is loaded with future NFL players, is a heavyweight bout that will have the keen interest of professional scouts.
  • If Ed Oregon can win this game for LSU, will he be given the head coaching job?

S&P Outright Pick: LSU.

Washington (-16.5) at Cal -- 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Washington Cal
F/+ 5 53
When Washington has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 5 103
S&P+ 4 108
IsoPPP+ 2 91
Rushing S&P+ 16 109
Passing S&P+ 2 60
When Cal has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 10 31
S&P+ 9 13
IsoPPP+ 6 43
Rushing S&P+ 23 28
Passing S&P+ 27 54

Washington has repeatedly proven over the course of the year that it is an elite team, capable of overpowering just about anyone in the Pac-12 and finding ways to win on the road. When the Huskies blew out Oregon in Eugene and found a way to win a low scoring battle with Utah in Utah, they proved they're an elite squad that can find multiple ways to win.

But it's hard to keep finding ways to win on the road against diverse challenges, and Cal will test them in new ways -- which will foreshadow Washington's end-of-year rivalry bout with Washington State. Like the Cougars, Cal is an Air Raid team led by a veteran quarterback in Davis Webb, but with a suspect defense as opposed to Washington State's stout unit.

There's not much chance of Cal stopping the Washington offense, but if Washington can't stop Cal then this could just be a shootout that comes down to one or two possessions. The home team is in good shape in a situation like that.

Washington went down against Cal a year ago when it couldn't stop Bears quarterback Jared Goff, and its own quarterback Jake Browning through a pair of interceptions. Later in the year it smashed Washington State, which was playing a back-up quarterback.

The surest way to beat a team like Cal on the road is to score early and score often, ideally while running clock, so that the Golden Bears grow increasingly desperate and inefficient and don't have a chance to storm back later in the game by finally hitting some passes. It's hard to keep these Air Raid teams that can score in a hurry out of a game unless you have enough firepower on your own end to stay ahead and keep the pressure on them. Washington has the ability to rush the passer without blitzing, the ability to score in the 40s and 50s, and the ability to run the football, so it has a lot of good paths to victory.

But all it takes is one slip-up on the road and it's in trouble, especially with Texas A&M already strangely placed ahead of them in the playoff rankings.

Watch for:

  • Can Cal protect Davis Webb from Washington's 2-4-5 defense that brings twists and stunts up front while playing conservative coverage on the back end?
  • Will Washington score enough to put Cal away, or can the Golden Bears linger into the fourth quarter?
  • Cal has to be able to stop Myles Gaskin and the Washington run game or it won't have a shot.
  • Washington may need to win by a wide margin, because it doesn't seem the selection committee is staying up to watch these games and they need to be impressed by the box score.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington.

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 10

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread
Louisville 25 Boston College Louisville Louisville
Clemson 27 Syracuse Clemson Clemson
Florida 5 Arkansas Florida Florida
Ohio State 17 Nebraska Ohio State Ohio State
Alabama 7.5 LSU LSU LSU
Washington 16.5 Cal Washington Washington

S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 2-4

S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 18-36

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 03 Nov 2016

1 comment, Last at 04 Nov 2016, 8:35am by Aaron Brooks Good Twin

Comments

1
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 11/04/2016 - 8:35am

Re: UW vs Cal -- yeah, but Cal's defense.