Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Oct 2016

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 8

by Ian Boyd

The "year of the running quarterback" continued in Week 7. Alabama rolled over Tennessee behind Jalen Hurt's 12 carries for 132 yards. J.T. Barrett had 92 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Ohio State's overtime victory at Wisconsin. Deshaun Watson ran the ball 13 times and had a score in Clemson's overtime victory over North Carolina State. And Tommy Armstrong helped carry the Cornhuskers past the Indiana Hoosiers.

In Week 8 we'll get a major showdown between two of the most impactful running quarterbacks in college football when Trevor Knight and the Texas A&M Aggies take on Hurts and the Alabama Crimson Tide. We'll also spotlight Oklahoma as they take on perhaps the nation's best overall quarterback in Pat Mahomes of Texas Tech; a pair of SEC showdowns; Ohio State's second big road challenge; and surprising Big 12 contender West Virginia.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Texas A&M at Alabama (-18) -- 3.30 p.m. (CBS)

The first big game of the weekend also happens to be the biggest game of the weekend. Normally Alabama has been able to survive losing a single SEC West contest and still play for the national title, if not the SEC championship (a la 2011). However, Texas A&M is also undefeated in conference play and doesn't seem likely to drop more than one other game besides this battle with Alabama, so a defeat at home to A&M could keep the Crimson Tide out of the SEC title game and potentially out of the playoff as well.

Both of these squads have been keyed by the play of their quarterbacks, particularly in the running game. Trevor Knight has 502 rushing yards so far this season at 7.7 yards per carry and with nine rushing touchdowns. Jalen Hurts is sitting at 428 rushing yards at 5.8 yards per carry with eight rushing touchdowns.

Overall Texas A&M Alabama
F/+ 7 1
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 23 1
S&P+ 17 3
IsoPPP+ 9 2
Rushing S&P+ 40 2
Passing S&P+ 18 2
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 36 20
S&P+ 25 10
IsoPPP+ 91 8
Rushing S&P+ 109 3
Passing S&P+ 46 45

Knight is better than Hurts in terms of reading defenses and making decisions in the option game, but he is surrounded by younger players. Hurts is surrounded by absurd, developed talent in the Alabama offense, which allows the Tide to be more simple in what they ask from Hurts in terms of reading defenses and making decisions. Hurts is also a more accurate passer than Knight, though he is inconsistent in that regard. However, Alabama doesn't put him in position to make reads in the dropback passing game as often as A&M does with Knight. The battle should be a fascinating one, and A&M needs Knight to come out favorably to have a chance in this game.

Another interesting element to this game is the fact that Knight's single greatest game with the Sooners came in a shocking upset of Alabama back in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, when he threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns. That sparked major expectations for Knight's collegiate career, expectations that he never came close to fulfilling until assuming his current role as an option-trigger man in the Aggies offense.

As is always the case with Alabama, there's a chance that the Tide defense will diminish, if not smother, the A&M offense and put great pressure on the Aggies defense to keep the team in the game. The Aggies have not been quite as good on defense this year as expected, partly due to injuries to star defensive end Myles Garrett, but they have tended to make up for it with turnovers.

Star safety Armani Watts has forced two fumbles and picked off two passes while fellow safety Justin Evans has picked off another three passes. The two of them will need to be active and aggressive to take advantage of Alabama's rather simple offense and generate turnovers, which could be game-changers playing in a difficult atmosphere.

Watch for:

  • Can Texas A&M's young offensive line control the big, powerful veterans along Alabama's defensive front?
  • Texas A&M will need to be aggressive in trying to force turnovers.
  • Aggies defensive end Myles Garrett going up against Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson will be of great interest to NFL scouts -- both might go in the top 10 in 2017.
  • Does Trevor Knight have the Midas touch against Alabama, or was his victory over the Tide back in 2014 simply a one-time fluke?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Alabama

TCU at West Virginia (-6) -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN2)

Overall TCU West Virginia
F/+ 34 16
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 74 15
S&P+ 13 37
IsoPPP+ 39 33
Rushing S&P+ 60 49
Passing S&P+ 37 17
When West Virginia has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 53 32
S&P+ 65 14
IsoPPP+ 67 27
Rushing S&P+ 71 51
Passing S&P+ 60 24

This is the toughest game yet for a West Virginia team that has been shockingly good thus far in the year. Personally, I had written the Mountaineers off after they had to replace nine starters on defense from a year ago, including one that went down in fall camp, but the players they had been developing in their system for the last three years have proven up to the challenge. West Virginia is unique across the Big 12 in that it runs what I have dubbed an "all or nothing" defense that embraces the extremes of defending Big 12 spread offenses. The Mountaineers mix max coverages that drop eight defenders, with zero blitzes that bring six or seven pass-rushers while playing man coverage.

That approach has often flustered Big 12 quarterbacks who are unused to navigating the extremes of having all day to throw into coverage on one play and then zero time to find guys that are much more open the next play. It has worked out pretty well for the Mountaineers so far this year, and with TCU quarterback Kenny Hill's propensity to throw early interceptions, it could work out for them again.

On the other side of the ball, the TCU defense has really struggled to play up to its old standard against the spread offense, largely due to cornerback play that hasn't been up to its normal standards. The Frogs are hoping to be a more aggressive defense coming off their bye week. With only one loss in conference play, they still have a chance to win the league if they can get a win in Morgantown. The playoffs seem a longshot for any Big 12 team, save for West Virginia or Baylor if one of those schools should manage to go undefeated.

Watch for: West Virginia

  • West Virginia likes to use wide splits and bunch formations to get a free release for blazing fast wideout Shelton Gibson.
  • TCU has played solid run defense, but how does it hold up against West Virginia's formidable rushing attack?
  • Can TCU quarterback Kenny Hill avoid costly mistakes playing in a hostile road environment against a blitz-happy defense?
  • There's a chance that ultra-fast TCU wideout/return man Kavontae Turpin could be back for this game.

S&P+ Outright Pick: West Virginia

Arkansas at Auburn (-9.5) -- 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arkansas Auburn
F/+ 40 8
When Arkansas has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 33 10
S&P+ 31 10
IsoPPP+ 65 7
Rushing S&P+ 78 15
Passing S&P+ 33 9
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 40 15
S&P+ 62 26
IsoPPP+ 80 30
Rushing S&P+ 108 28
Passing S&P+ 50 11

It's a hard knock life being Arkansas in the SEC West. The Razorbacks are in a featured match-up virtually every week against another team with major talent, and that tends to take its toll on their win-loss records.

Last week the Razorbacks rode Austin Allen's arm (and an improved run game) to victory over the Ole Miss Rebels to improve to 1-2 in conference play. Now they draw the Auburn Tigers, who have been surging on their own as head coach Gus Malzahn fights to preserve his job. The main difference is that the Razorbacks have already faced most of the best teams in the SEC, while Auburn's 2-1 start has come against Mississippi State and LSU, two teams that have floundered this year. Both have played Texas A&M, and both came up well short of victory.

The Tigers' season has been all about the play of their defense, which is in Year 2 under a Muschamp disciple, if only in Year 1 under current defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Auburn is very sound in coverage and knows how to shrink passing windows with pattern-matching zone coverages, and it features some truly great defensive linemen up front that make everything come together. Arkansas has really struggled to win in the trenches like it has in past seasons and will likely struggle to find much running room against the Tigers.

On the other side of the ball, Auburn has had pretty good offensive line play but until recently couldn't make the most of it. In the last few weeks, quarterback Sean White has managed to get the Tigers' vertical passing game going, which could potentially do even more for their running game than having another stud running quarterback like they've had in the past.

Watch for: Auburn

  • The battle between Auburn's always large and fierce defensive line and the Arkansas offensive line.
  • Can Auburn keep tabs on all of Arkansas' wide receivers in the midst of their play-action and misdirection?
  • John Franklin III sightings -- the former "Last Chance U" quarterback occasionally comes in for Auburn and runs the ball at quarterback.
  • Can Arkansas clean up its run defense this week?

S&P Outright Pick: Auburn

Ohio State (-19.5) at Penn State -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Ohio State Penn State
F/+ 4 27
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 8 43
S&P+ 11 17
IsoPPP+ 18 40
Rushing S&P+ 2 33
Passing S&P+ 34 40
When Penn State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 7 38
S&P+ 7 37
IsoPPP+ 15 1
Rushing S&P+ 30 6
Passing S&P+ 7 2

If the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes were done in by one factor, it was all the attention and focus that came from returning a loaded roster with national championship rings on their fingers. Playing multiple prime-time contests against worthy opponents in consecutive weeks requires real focus and often a good deal of experience that you don't consistently find in college students. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett should understand this matter well now as a senior and veteran of both seasons, and the Buckeyes will be counting on his leadership to guide them through this road challenge against Penn State.

Wisconsin really caused problems for the Buckeyes last week by combining a physical offensive attack with an aggressive run defense that effectively clamped down on the Ohio State spread-option game until the second half. It takes a sound defense with sturdy players up front to have a prayer against the Ohio State run game, but a team with that dimension has a puncher's chance because the Buckeyes passing game can't necessarily carry the team.

Penn State has been fairly sturdy on defense this year, but was absolutely mauled by the Michigan run game a few weeks ago and will need a much stronger showing to have a chance in this one. The Penn State offense found a way to attack the Michigan State brand of press-quarters defense a year ago and could cause problems for Ohio State in a similar fashion thanks to a new commitment to the spread offense.

In all likelihood, the Nittany Lions will be overmatched, but there's always the chance of catching the Buckeyes in some malaise after their slugfest with Wisconsin the week before. Bruce Feldman calls this the "body blow theory," when college teams sometimes struggle to bounce back after a physical game against a grueling opponent.

Watch for:

  • Can Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley find creases in the Ohio State coverages like Wisconsin did?
  • How much juice do the young Buckeyes have to compete on the road if the Nittany Lions play this game with physicality?
  • Can Penn State force Ohio State to throw the ball, or will the Buckeyes roll over them?

S&P Outright Pick: Ohio State

Oklahoma (-19.5) at Texas Tech -- 8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Oklahoma Texas Tech
F/+ 22 59
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 9 127
S&P+ 2 116
IsoPPP+ 4 111
Rushing S&P+ 9 124
Passing S&P+ 3 87
When Texas Tech has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 54 4
S&P+ 56 4
IsoPPP+ 36 34
Rushing S&P+ 12 62
Passing S&P+ 37 22

Texas Tech has played top-10 defense per S&P each of the last two seasons thanks to the presence of wunderkind quarterback Pat Mahomes, who's an absolute monster in head coach Kliff Kingsbury's brand of Air Raid offense. Mahomes is on pace for a 5,000-yard passing season and has already thrown for more than 500 yards in two games this year.

The Red Raiders have several targets in the passing game who have been beneficiaries, and Mahomes' ability to throw the ball down the field from the pocket or on the move requires that defenses cover everyone if they want to have a chance at success. Mahomes has been nursing a bum shoulder that seemed to affect him in a loss last Saturday against West Virginia, and if it limits his accuracy or ability to find rhythm against Oklahoma, that could be a game-changer.

The Sooners have been chugging along in Big 12 play and got their nickel defensive back Will Johnson back last week, adding to an already athletic defensive backfield for Oklahoma. Between their coverage range in the middle of the field and the pass-rush they have been getting from outside linebacker Obo Okoronkwo (six sacks on the year), the Sooners have been very effective this year at limiting the spread offenses on their schedule. Most spread teams make their living throwing in the middle of the field, but this is probably the strength of the Oklahoma defense.

However, the Sooners have been burned very badly when opponents have gotten after their second cornerback (whoever is playing opposite star player Jordan Thomas) and their interior run defense, which has been devastated by injuries to multiple starting linebackers and defensive linemen. Texas Tech probably won't be able to make much headway running the ball on Oklahoma, but if Mahomes is feeling healthy and in rhythm he can definitely expose Oklahoma's young cornerbacks.

Oklahoma has an outside shot at the playoffs if they can go undefeated in Big 12 play, and avoiding trip-ups on the road in Lubbock is very often an important part of that process. In Bob Stoops' 17-year tenure at Oklahoma he has only gone 4-4 against the Red Raiders in Lubbock.

Watch for:

  • Is Pat Mahomes' shoulder healthy enough to attack the Sooners' young cornerbacks on the outside?
  • Can Texas Tech protect Mahomes from Obo Okoronkwo and the Sooners pass rush?
  • Will Texas Tech try to attack Oklahoma's beat-up defensive fronts with the run game?
  • Oklahoma will be relying on youth at running back with Samaje Perine injured.

S&P Outright Pick: Oklahoma

Ole Miss at LSU (-3) -- 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Ole Miss LSU
F/+ 9 10
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 7 5
S&P+ 3 9
IsoPPP+ 10 9
Rushing S&P+ 45 10
Passing S&P+ 7 5
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 39 28
S&P+ 53 29
IsoPPP+ 24 14
Rushing S&P+ 54 5
Passing S&P+ 39 66

Ole Miss was on track to still have a great season despite losses to Florida State and Alabama. If it could have navigated a demanding SEC schedule, it would have potentially finished in the top 10 and gone on to a New Year's Day bowl. Then it lost at Arkansas and the dream was burst. Now the Rebels have decreased stakes for this season other than playing for pride and the best finish they can manage.

That gives them something in common with their opponent this weekend, the LSU Tigers, who are basically trying to make the most of a lost season with Ed Orgeron at the helm as interim head coach in place of the fired Les Miles.

Since LSU fired Miles it has gone 2-0 with blowout wins over hapless Missouri and Southern Mississippi. This game will be Orgeron's first chance to build a resume for why he should be given the LSU head coaching job permanently. He'll get powerful running back Leonard Fournette back this week to help him achieve that end, which could be a game-changer considering Ole Miss' spotty play against the run this year.

Another fascinating subplot to this game will be how well LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda handles the Ole Miss spread passing attack. Aranda made his name coaching at Wisconsin, where he never faced an up-tempo passing spread of this caliber, and he could be a coach who draws interest this offseason if his LSU defense passes this test.

Watch for:

  • How well does Dave Aranda's LSU defense handle the Ole Miss spread offense?
  • Does Leonard Fournette play and carry the load or does he save himself for the NFL draft?
  • Can Ed Orgeron continue to "fix" the LSU offense and make a bid for retention as head coach?

S&P+ Outright Pick: LSU

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 8

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread
Alabama 18 Texas A&M Alabama Texas A&M
West Virginia 6 TCU West Virginia TCU
Auburn 9.5 Arkansas Auburn Auburn
Ohio State 19.5 Penn State Ohio State Penn State
Oklahoma 14 Texas Tech Oklahoma Oklahoma
LSU 3 Ole Miss LSU LSU

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

S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 13-29

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 20 Oct 2016

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