Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

11 Nov 2016

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 11

by Ian Boyd

Week 10 was a "rock chalk" kind of weekend -- except for the Rock Chalk Jayhawks, for whom that expression only applies in basketball -- and the favorites won big. Playoff contenders like Clemson, Michigan, Washington, Ohio State, and Louisville all totally blew away their opponents by huge margins. Alabama struggled to score on LSU's defense, but the Tigers' revamped offense was no more capable than previous iterations of making headway against this Tide defense.

Perhaps the biggest event of the weekend was the Texas A&M Aggies' defeat at the hands of Mississippi State, which included the losses of starting quarterback Trevor Knight and starting guard Connor Lanfear for the season due to injuries. Things had already looked bleak for the Aggies given that defeat juxtaposed with yet another blowout win for the Washington Huskies, but without those two starters on offense, their chances of finishing the year without even more losses is slim, as similarly beat up Ole Miss and still strong LSU remain on the schedule.

Hopefully injuries won't play too big of a role in shaping conference title races or the playoff field, but it's always a possibility. The last few Big 12 seasons have been largely impacted by injuries -- as offenses become more focused around the quarterback, there becomes a greater chance that a single injury can impact the entire season. It's possible to have two good backs on campus that can make the most of a great offensive line and blocking, but it's much harder to get two quarterbacks up to speed in the modern passing game for a single season.

There may still be more big injuries that shake up the races, but there are also some big games and rivalry weekend remaining to muddy waters that currently seem fairly clear.

All times are listed as Eastern.

West Virginia at Texas (-2) -- 12 p.m. (FS1)

Overall West Virginia Texas
F/+ 21 42
When West Virginia has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 34 46
S&P+ 30 85
IsoPPP+ 50 42
Rushing S&P+ 54
Passing S&P+ 42 52
When Texas has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 23 61
S&P+ 37 17
IsoPPP+ 30 52
Rushing S&P+ 29 45
Passing S&P+ 33 53

Both of these teams have a great deal to play for at this point in the year. West Virginia is currently ranked 11th in the nation in the AP poll, and if it wins out it could potentially win the Big 12 and perhaps even a playoff spot, if not a New Year's bowl game appearance. Any of those outcomes would guarantee that head coach Dana Holgorsen received a contract extension drawn up by his own agent.

Meanwhile, the Texas Longhorns are 5-4 and playing for a bowl game and head coach Charlie Strong's job. Losing to West Virginia at home would set 7-5 as the regular season ceiling for the Longhorns, and put Strong's hopes of retention on beating TCU to end the year.

Also making this game fascinating is that West Virginia authored a new approach to handling spread offenses, an approach that I have labelled "all or nothing," which was specifically designed for handling the Baylor offense. That exact system of offense is now the system at Texas, and the main reason for Charlie's hopes of retention. Lead running back D'Onta Foreman is second nationally in rushing with 1,446 yards through nine games and has a case to go to New York as a Heisman finalist.

This style of spread offense is all about using extreme spacing and concepts to make it very hard for the defense to get numbers at the point of attack, whether it's a throw or a run. With its superior offensive line and bruising back Foreman, this style has made Texas exceptionally formidable on offense this year. The problem has been the defense, which has been appalling against the run and tends to allow every opponent every week to hang around and make the end of the game a 50-50 tossup.

West Virginia is similar in its offensive design with a "spread to run" scheme that emphasizes balance and physical, two-back run concepts. The Mountaineers use lots of pass-options attached to their runs, utilize the quarterback as a runner, and love taking deep shots to track-star wideouts, just as Texas does. The Longhorns have more talent on their offense but are quarterbacked by a true freshman, whereas the Mountaineers have a senior. The Mountaineers also have veteran experience across their defense while the Longhorns are again more talented but again, much younger.

The game likely comes down to the impact that Foreman has running the ball on West Virginia's undersized 3-3-5 defensive front. If the Mountaineers can contain Foreman and force Texas to sustain drives and convert passing downs, then they can mix in their overwhelming pressure packages and try to generate turnovers or punts. If Texas can control the game with Foreman, then West Virginia will have to win a shootout on the road, which is a much more daunting proposition. It could be possible though, as Texas has been exceptionally vulnerable this season to two-back run games of the sort that West Virginia utilizes.

Watch for:

  • Can West Virginia contain D'Onta Foreman, or does he go for 200 rushing yards again?
  • How much damage can West Virginia do on offense with lead runs against Texas' inexperienced linebackers?
  • Special teams advantages could swing this game -- Texas punter Michael Dickson is averaging 48 yards per kick.
  • Does West Virginia's experience or Texas' energy and sheer athleticism control the outcome?

S&P+ Outright Pick: West Virginia

Baylor at Oklahoma (-16) -- 12 p.m. (ABC/ESPN2)

Overall Baylor Oklahoma
F/+ 41 18
When Baylor has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 26 69
S&P+ 29 78
IsoPPP+ 53 77
Rushing S&P+ 39 31
Passing S&P+ 70 66
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 60 8
S&P+ 34 2
IsoPPP+ 39 3
Rushing S&P+ 76 29
Passing S&P+ 50 1

In the wake of a 62-22 defeat at the hands of TCU, playing to a home crowd that included many who were showing support for deposed former head coach Art Briles, it's possible that Baylor is going to enter a tailspin for the rest of the year. This trip to Norman to face the suddenly healthy and still undefeated (in conference play) Oklahoma Sooners should prove a worthy test of whether or not the Bears are going to finish the season strong.

Normally this game would look entirely winnable for the Bears, as the Sooners have really struggled in pass defense and have been relentlessly attacked all year at their second cornerback position. However, this Bears offense has been totally atypical of the Briles era teams in that they simply aren't that dangerous throwing the ball.

Quarterback Seth Russell broke his neck midway through the year in 2015, and while he brings a ton of athleticism to the position, his accuracy on the deep passes that used to make this offense terrifying simply hasn't been there. The last two weeks Russell has completed 36 of 70 pass attempts for 508 yards (7.3 yards per pass), three touchdowns, and two interceptions. The lack of accuracy is notable and has kept the team's passing game from being as explosive as normal. Against Texas, the Longhorns were unable to stop Baylor's run game until the Bears reached the red zone, but then Texas would send zero-blitzes and dare Russell to beat them throwing against man coverage. On three drives into the Texas red zone late in that game the Bears came away with only six points and subsequently lost a 35-34 ballgame.

The Sooners have generally been more conservative than that in their blitz package, but they're also a much better run defense than Texas and it could prove difficult for the Bears to score a lot of points against them playing in front of a raucous home crowd.

On the other side of the ball the Sooners are returning running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon to this game with the Bears, and wide receiver Dede Westbrook has had six consecutive 100-yard receiving games going into this contest. That includes 200-yard days against both Texas and Texas Tech. The Sooners have been over-stressing every defense they have faced this year and no opponent has managed to keep their run game and passing game both in check. If both Mixon and Perine are healthy and ready to go, that task becomes even more difficult.

The Bears' problems this year have stemmed from lack of experience and size up front along their defensive line, and the Sooners should be poised to exploit that with their own big offensive line and brilliant running backs.

The match-ups in this game heavily favor the Sooners, perhaps even moreso than the 14.5-point spread indicates, especially if Baylor is starting to unravel from within over the distractions and losing streak. However, the Bears are still in position to compete for the Big 12 title, or at least spoil it for Oklahoma, so they could rally and put together a fight on the road.

Watch for:

  • Can Baylor hold up against the Oklahoma rushing attack, or does it give up early, big runs to the Sooners' running backs?
  • How aggressively does Oklahoma play the Baylor run game, and can Bears quarterback Seth Russell make them pay? A few deep shots landing early for Baylor and this is anyone's game.
  • Will Baylor come out focused and aggressive? Nothing less will be enough to beat Oklahoma in Norman with the Sooners playing for a Big 12 title.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma

South Carolina at Florida (-11) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall South Carolina Florida
F/+ 80 24
When South Carolina has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 108 8
S&P+ 114 6
IsoPPP+ 111 7
Rushing S&P+ 115 12
Passing S&P+ 99 7
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 54 96
S&P+ 40 91
IsoPPP+ 29 99
Rushing S&P+ 77 112
Passing S&P+ 35 79

Until they faced Arkansas last Saturday in Fayetteville, it appeared that the Gators were in great position to win the SEC East division and have a chance to play spoiler in the conference title game. Then the Razorbacks whipped them 31-10, intercepting Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio twice and running for more than 200 yards on the Florida defense.

If the Gators defense is giving up days like that on the ground, their offense is not good enough to recover, nor is that offense good enough to recover from committing multiple turnovers. Now they return home to face the surging South Carolina Gamecocks, who are steadily climbing up the rankings and are better than many of their stats indicate.

Against UMass three weeks ago, the Gamecocks turned to a pair of freshmen in quarterback Jake Bentley and running back Rico Dowdle in an attempt to salvage a 2-4 season that was heading nowhere in a hurry. In the three games since, Bentley has averaged 8.4 yards per pass while throwing six touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Meanwhile Dowdle has run for more than 100 yards each of the last two games against Missouri and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Florida's quarterback Luke Del Rio is out for this game with a shoulder injury, and it's unclear if Austin Appleby or one of two freshmen will get the call. Neither of these defenses are fun ones to face for freshman quarterbacks, but Bentley has played well under heavy pressure all year (he was sacked four times against Missouri) and would seem to have the edge despite facing a brutal Florida defense.

Predictably, South Carolina's defense has improved considerably under head coach Will Muschamp's watchful eye. Without Del Rio executing on passing downs -- which has been one of the few bright spots for the Florida offense -- it's not clear that Florida will have the firepower to really challenge the Gamecocks or get points on the scoreboard.

Both defenses will be looking to keep the score down and to create short fields or even points for their offenses in a low-scoring brawl in the Swamp. It should be a competitive game and an interesting test of whether the young Gamecocks on offense can eventually help Muschamp break through as a head coach and finally field a winning offense to complement his always stout defenses.

Watch for:

  • Any special teams plays could break this game open one way or the other, because both defenses are strong and both offenses need help.
  • Can quarterback Jake Bentley and running back Rico Dowdle be the foundation of a future SEC East-winning offense in South Carolina?
  • Who does Florida turn to at quarterback, and can he execute against a defense whose strength is against the pass?

S&P Outright Pick: Florida

LSU (-7) at Arkansas -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall LSU Arkansas
F/+ 8 46
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 40 51
S&P+ 34 55
IsoPPP+ 15 114
Rushing S&P+ 2 125
Passing S&P+ 69 48
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 2 33
S&P+ 5 39
IsoPPP+ 3 49
Rushing S&P+ 6 83
Passing S&P+ 4 16

While neither of these teams have a good chance at winning the SEC (thanks Alabama!), this is a pair of very strong teams jockeying for bowl berths and position in the nation's most competitive division. LSU interim head coach Ed Orgeron is also shooting for a chance to become the head coach in Baton Rouge.

Orgeron has been making a case for what LSU could look like under his leadership, and it's similar to how things have looked at USC recently, in terms of strategy. In limited time, he has added greater diversity to the offense and mixed in some option concepts to create a sort of "pro-style spread" attack in Baton Rouge, which helped the Tigers surge until they faced Alabama and were completely shut down.

Arkansas proved that many of its struggles this season have been related to level of competition rather than simply their own issues when it smashed Florida. The Razorbacks' season has been back-and-forth with the running game coming and going, the run defense largely disappointing, and the passing game generally keeping them competitive.

Arkansas lead running back Rawleigh Williams' last four games went 46 yards on 3.8 yards per carry; 180 yards on 6.7 yards per carry; 22 yards on 1.7 yards per carry; and then 148 yards on 5.7 yards per carry against Florida. The Razorbacks went 2-2 in those four games, and you can probably guess which ones they won and which they lost. That makes their prognosis against LSU fairly grim, as the Tigers just did a credible job of containing an Alabama rushing attack that's more multi-faceted and talented than the Arkansas run game. However, this always comes down to a matter of how disciplined the defense plays against all of the Razorbacks' misdirections and false keys.

Florida didn't handle it all very well and was gashed, and the Tigers will have to focus hard in film study and practice this week to adjust. They will also have to do so after a draining week and physical contest against Alabama. Therein lies Arkansas's chief hope: that LSU isn't up for the unique challenges Arkansas's run game brings a week after playing LSU.

On the other side, Leonard Fournette is likely to find a good deal of running room against Arkansas's 125th-ranked rushing S&P defense. Arkansas was hoping to lean on its defensive line this season to set up its conservative coverages and styles on defense, but it really has not seen the kind of impact it needed to hold up against the better offensive fronts in the SEC. If that doesn't change, then it will find itself back in the losing column this Saturday.

Watch for:

  • How much energy and focus does the LSU defense have for handling Arkansas's unique and confusing offense?
  • Will LSU's running backs Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice run over Arkansas's defensive front, or have the Hogs finally made strides?
  • Can Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen be the most influential offensive player in this game and keep things close with the passing attack?

S&P Outright Pick: LSU

USC at Washington (-8.5) -- 7:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall USC Washington
F/+ 17 6
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 25 9
S&P+ 24 12
IsoPPP+ 14 5
Rushing S&P+ 13 21
Passing S&P+ 6 11
When Washington has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 45 3
S&P+ 23 3
IsoPPP+ 19 2
Rushing S&P+ 15 23
Passing S&P+ 21 2

This game will be a fascinating test for Washington for the simple fact that this will be the first time this season they play a team with playoff-caliber talent. Now, let me be clear, USC isn't the best team the Huskies have faced this year, but the Trojans have a roster filled with players that have NFL measurables, whether they get the most out of them or not. If Washington wins this game big, it could be an important indicator that it can hang with teams like Clemson, Michigan, Ohio State, or Alabama if it meets them in the playoffs in January.

The Trojans have been playing pretty good football since their 1-2 start, which included losses to Alabama, Stanford, and Utah. The consistent underlying theme to USC's success since then has been freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, who was given the reigns after the Stanford loss and has thrown for 1,874 yards at 8.72 yards per pass with 20 touchdowns, only four interceptions, and only three sacks. At its best the USC offense is a "pro-style spread" that runs the ball with physicality but can make teams defend the whole width and depth of the field with option concepts and play-action passing.

The Washington defense will be facing its toughest challenge of the year in this game, but they have cleared similar hurdles already by stuffing the Stanford run game and handling spread attacks from Oregon and Cal. The big test will be whether the Trojans can get after them with their run game to the extent that Utah did in its narrow defeat at the Huskies' hands two weeks back. If Washington can handle the USC rushing attack, that will be a good sign that they won't be overmatched when facing other physical, talented fronts later in the playoff if they reach that point.

The other big test for Washington in this game is whether or not its own offense can create enough advantages for its players when facing this kind of athleticism on defense. The foundation of the Washington offense is to create space and angles for the running backs and receivers by using misdirection, formations, and stretching concepts so that their speed can dominate the outcome. That can work against athletic units like those USC fields, but the windows and the opportunities can become decreased by the size and speed that is on the field.

If USC can be disciplined and containment-oriented on defense, then that could really shrink the windows and angles that Washington's offense is accustomed to enjoying. There's also the challenge of blocking USC's defensive line and linebackers, which would be just a taste of what's to come if Washington played a team like Alabama or Michigan.

And of course, USC's head coach Clay Helton is fighting for his job, and a big win over Washington would set the Trojans up nicely for a very strong end of the year heading into a bright future with a young quarterback. This could be a signature "we're back!" win for USC that they'll be eager to try and earn.

Watch for:

  • Can Washington create space and angles for their skill players against USC's speedy and aggressive defense?
  • The two young quarterbacks in this game -- Jake Browning for Washington and Sam Darnold for USC -- may represent the foreseeable future of Pac-12 football.
  • Which team wins in the trenches? Will USC's talent prove to be the most important feature, or will Washington prove that it can play with the bluebloods?
  • How does freshman Sam Darnold handle a prime time game against a top tier foe in a hostile environment?

S&P Outright Pick: Washington

Cal at Washington State (-14.5) -- 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Cal Washington State
F/+ 52 25
When Cal has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 27 20
S&P+ 10 62
IsoPPP+ 26 76
Rushing S&P+ 28 40
Passing S&P+ 30 108
When Washington State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 109 13
S&P+ 115 25
IsoPPP+ 93 44
Rushing S&P+ 94 67
Passing S&P+ 71 33

The end-of-year rivalry game between Washington and Washington State is looking increasingly interesting and important in both the Pac-12 conference race as well as the national playoff rankings. A big part of what has made this Wazzu team and season so interesting is the fact that the Cougars have managed to field a respectable defense.

Air Raid teams like Washington State have always struggled to match their potent, passing offenses with defenses that can handle playing alongside up-tempo teams that tend to send them back on the field over and over again. These defenses also often struggle to handle physical rushing attacks, either due to lack of talent or lack of experience in playing against a physical opponent in practice, as the offense is geared around pass protection and throwing the ball quickly to small, speedy receivers.

However, Washington State head coach Mike Leach found a defensive coordinator and approach that is generating pretty positive results. Most importantly, they have been generating turnovers and rank sixth nationally in turnover margin thanks to an offense that protects the ball well and a defense that has been picking off a lot of passes and forcing a lot of fumbles.

Cal runs a similar Air Raid offense with a greater emphasis on running the ball but a much weaker defense to boot. The Bears don't force a ton of turnovers with their own defense and are ranked 94th nationally in rushing S&P, while the Cougars are ranked 40th. But this game is likely to come down not to which team runs the ball, but rather which passing offense can generate scores more efficiently.

Cal quarterback Davis Webb has had a mixed season with 11 interceptions thrown on the year, while Washington State quarterback Luke Falk has been part of a more explosive passing attack while throwing only five interceptions on the year. Webb trying to out-execute Falk in a shootout in Spokane is not likely to end well for the Bears. Cal will need its run game to make headway against the Cougars defense to aid Webb and help the Bears control the game's tempo.

The upshot of a victory here would be greater hype around the upcoming Washington-Washington State rivalry matchup, as well as calling attention to Leach's success in pairing one of his typical offenses with a good defense.

Watch for:

  • If Washington State can continue to play good defense, that could definitely swing this game.
  • Will Cal be able to run the ball and control the game on the road?
  • The transitive property doesn't work in college football, but it will be interesting to see how Washington State handles Cal in comparison to how Washington played the Bears last week.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington State

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 11

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread
Texas 2 West Virginia West Virginia West Virginia
Oklahoma 16 Baylor Oklahoma Oklahoma
Florida 11 South Carolina Florida Florida
LSU 7 Arkansas LSU LSU
Washington 8.5 USC Washington Washington
Washington State 14.5 Cal Washington State Cal

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

S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 22-38

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 11 Nov 2016

0 comments