Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

31 Aug 2017

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 1

by Ian Boyd

Opening week in college football is generally pretty fantastic. There are lots of early marquee matchups, often at neutral sites, between major programs looking to grab headlines, attract recruits, and offer their fans a fun product to tide them over until conference play. There's also the unabashed optimism around every program's fan base as they excitedly tune in to see what the offseason has produced in their teams.

This season has some good openers, particularly for testing the changes that have taken place at prominent programs such as Michigan, Tennessee, and LSU. The constant turnover of college rosters and staffing means there are always big question marks around every team in the nation. Here are six games that could reveal the answers to those questions.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Michigan (-3.5) vs. Florida at A&T Stadium in Arlington -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan Florida
2017 Proj. S&P+ 16 14
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
2016 S&P+ 40 4
2016 FEI 11 6
2016 IsoPPP+ 46 5
2016 Rushing S&P+ 49 12
2016 Passing S&P+ 29 6
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
2016 S&P+ 2 88
2016 FEI 8 100
2016 IsoPPP+ 2 72
2016 Rushing S&P+ 4 86
2016 Passing S&P+ 1 53

Michigan had a fantastic Year 2 under Jim Harbaugh, going 10-3 with two losses coming by a single point and the third coming in overtime against hated rival Ohio State. Injuries were arguably the difference between a 10-win season and playoff contention as Michigan lost emerging star left tackle Grant Newsome midway through the year, and then two more stars in safety Jabrill Peppers and tight end Jake Butt for their bowl game matchup with Florida State.

Now they have to replace nine starters on defense and their top weapons on offense, including the tight end, top two receivers, and lead running back De'Veon Smith. Compounding that issue is the fact that Harbaugh's first recruiting class at Michigan back in 2015 only included 14 players, so the Wolverines are plugging in a lot of underclassmen from the 2016 and 2017 classes. Michigan is now fielding players chosen by Harbaugh, but they are very young as a result.

The upshot of all that turnover and youth is that Michigan is likely to evolve this season from a team that relied on the dropback passing game to move the ball on top defenses, to one that now looks to finally impose their will in the run game like Harbaugh's Stanford teams used to do back in the day. The defense will continue to be aggressive under defensive coordinator Don Brown but may have some growing pains having to replace four starters in the secondary, including NFL draft picks at both cornerback positions.

Florida is reaching a similar point as Michigan, with Jim McElwain also entering his third season as the Gators' head coach. McElwain has taken the opposite path of Harbaugh, first establishing his run game while scrambling to try and build out a passing attack. Florida was hit hard in 2015 when emerging quarterback Will Grier was suspended and is now choosing between Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks as it tries to add more of a passing dimension to its offense.

Both coaches have been coy about releasing depth charts or announcing starting quarterbacks, but it seems more likely than not that Florida will roll with Zaire and use his athleticism and improvisational skills to bolster an already strong run game. Meanwhile, Michigan seems nearly certain to stick with quarterback Wilton Speight and assist him more this year with the run game. Florida is at a decided disadvantage stemming from the suspension of star receiver Antonio Callaway for this game, as well as the difficulty it may have in quickly getting Zaire in rhythm after a limited offseason with the team, or getting Franks in rhythm without Callaway to carry the weight of the passing game.

Watch for:

  • Does Michigan become more of a running team without top receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson or tight end Jake Butt?
  • Does Florida go with Notre Dame quarterback transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks?
  • How does Florida overcome the loss of receiver Antonio Callaway while breaking in a new quarterback?
  • How does Michigan's defense look with nine new starters?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Florida

Appalachian State at Georgia (-14.5) -- 6:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall App State Georgia
2017 Proj. S&P+ 62 20
When App State has the ball Offense Defense
2016 S&P+ 59 34
2016 FEI 48 36
2016 IsoPPP+ 30 20
2016 Rushing S&P+ 28 28
2016 Passing S&P+ 40 29
When Georgia has the ball Defense Offense
2016 S&P+ 27 93
2016 FEI 20 80
2016 IsoPPP+ 24 93
2016 Rushing S&P+ 42 82
2016 Passing S&P+ 11 91

Georgia has been recruiting very well under new head coach Kirby Smart, and they were recruiting well previously under Mark Richt (now at Miami). They consequently have a pretty loaded roster right now, but it's very youthful on the offensive side of the ball. They're leaning on four new starters on the offensive line with their sole returning starter, Isaiah Wynn, forced to play left tackle despite lacking prototypical size for the position at only 6-foot-2.

The Bulldogs will also be hoping that sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason will be ready to make a leap after his bumpy first year in the SEC a year ago, and that sophomore tight end Isaac Nauta will be able to help him make that leap. On defense, Georgia is in better shape, but took a hit when cornerback Malkom Parrish went down with injury in fall camp.

Meanwhile, the Appalachian State Mountaineers have a pretty veteran team that's coming off a 10-3 season that began with an overtime loss against the Tennessee Volunteers. The trouble that Tennessee fell into was that it had a Week 2 matchup with the Virginia Tech Hokies at Bristol Motor Speedway that was going to be played in front of the biggest live crowd in college football history. With such a huge matchup looming, the Volunteers seem to have overlooked the Mountaineers, and it nearly cost them deeply. Georgia is facing a similar situation with a premier Week 2 contest at Notre Dame coming after this game.

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they return eight starters on defense and can still hand the ball to star running backs Nick Chubb (1,130 rushing yards in 2016) and Sony Michel (840). Even for a strong, veteran defense like the one Appalachian State will bring into this game, the sheer athleticism of this tandem is pretty hard to handle, especially without big time playmaking along the defensive front. Appalachian State's hopes will rest on being able to run the ball with its unbalanced formations and option tactics.

Watch for:

  • Appalachian State's tricky run game could give Georgia issues in Week 1.
  • Have Georgia sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason and his young teammates made a leap this offseason?
  • Appalachian State played strong defense a year ago, but can it hold up against Nick Chubb and Sony Michel for four quarters?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Georgia

Alabama (-7) vs. Florida State at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Alabama Florida State
2017 Proj. S&P+ 1 3
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
2016 S&P+ 9 10
2016 FEI 19 41
2016 IsoPPP+ 10 22
2016 Rushing S&P+ 2 30
2016 Passing S&P+ 25 14
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
2016 S&P+ 1 2
2016 FEI 1 10
2016 IsoPPP+ 1 4
2016 Rushing S&P+ 1 4
2016 Passing S&P+ 2 12

This is THE compelling matchup of Week 1, as these teams are both appearing regularly as playoff picks among college football pundits. Vegas tends to impose a penalty on Alabama bets, and many of their opponents are too overmatched to allow sharps to make the most of it, but Florida State presents some really interesting problems for the Crimson Tide.

The Seminoles arguably have fewer question marks coming into this season thanks to a loaded defensive roster that will reintroduce star safety Derwin James, who missed most of 2016 with injury and may be the best football player on the field in this contest. With James returning along with nine other defensive starters, Florida State may be able to field the best defense in college football. Their biggest question marks are on offense, particularly in replacing star running back Dalvin Cook.

The Seminoles offensive line has multiple returning starters. Key skill players such as wide receivers Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate and tight end Ryan Izzo are all back and a year older, and Deondre Francois enters his second year as the starting quarterback. There's a lot of pieces in place here that could be primed for major improvements if they don't face too much of a dropoff in their run game with Cook moving on to the NFL. Towards that end, Florida State will be turning to junior Jacques Patrick (350 rushing yards in 2016) and star freshman Cam Akers, who may be the most explosive athlete on the team. This is a team loaded with athletes that could be coming into their own after a few years in the program.

Meanwhile, Alabama has its normal array of massive, highly touted players who have also been benefitting from multiple years of Nick Saban coaching. Their offense has the potential to make a sizable leap thanks to the return of freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, three starting offensive linemen, running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, and receivers Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster. Defense is where the questions marks are for the Tide, as they have to replace three star pass-rushers who departed for the NFL along with top linebacker Reuben Foster. The replacements are mostly juniors who were once blue-chip recruits, so it's very likely that Alabama will continue to feature star defensive linemen and linebackers, the names will just be different. That said, this Florida State team is a really challenging opening game for a relatively unproven defense.

The game will likely hinge on two particular areas of focus. The Seminoles have to be able to hold up in the trenches against the Alabama run game. If they can force the Tide to convert multiple passing downs against their pass rush and secondary, the Tide could get into real trouble. The other area is out wide when the Seminoles have the ball. There have been teams now and again that have been able to run the ball on the Tide, but the far better path to victory is throwing it, like Clemson did in the National Championship Game. Alabama is rebuilding its pass rush this season, and if the Seminoles have made a leap in their own passing game, that could allow them to edge the Tide on the scoreboard.

Watch for:

  • How much has Jalen Hurts improved as a passer at Alabama, and how much will the offense change with Lane Kiffin gone?
  • Will star freshman Cam Akers have the chance to replace Dalvin Cook in Florida State's run game or will the Seminoles turn to an older veteran?
  • How does Alabama replace all of its losses on defense, particularly along the line?
  • Can Florida State's star power on defense give is a chance to knock out mighty Alabama?

S&P Outright Pick: Alabama

LSU (-16.5) vs. BYU at Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall LSU BYU
2017 Proj. S&P+ 4 46
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
2016 S&P+ 22 29
2016 FEI 31 23
2016 IsoPPP+ 13 26
2016 Rushing S&P+ 6 7
2016 Passing S&P+ 32 77
When BYU has the ball Defense Offense
2016 S&P+ 3 64
2016 FEI 4 70
2016 IsoPPP+ 3 88
2016 Rushing S&P+ 3 35
2016 Passing S&P+ 3 90

The BYU Cougars and LSU Tigers are both pretty fascinating teams this coming season due to their evolving strategies and coaching staffs. LSU finally fired Les Miles last year after a contentious couple of seasons and promoted recruiting guru Ed Orgeron to head coach. Orgeron then recruited star defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to return, and hired hotshot offensive coordinator Matt Canada from Pittsburgh to bring his creative run game to the bayou.

For years LSU's strategy has been to line up, pound opponents in the run game with a deep stable of amazing running backs, and then throw it over their heads when they crept up. It became stale, and evolving defensive strategies started to put LSU behind the chains on offense despite its consistently powerful run game. Canada is going to bring the same strategy but with modern tactics that include plays like the jet sweep or pass option to prevent defenses from being able to concentrate their resources on stopping star running backs like Derrius Guice.

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is also bringing a more modern style to the way LSU plays defense, but in Year 1, when he was inheriting a depth chart filled with NFL-bound upperclassmen, he chose to keep things simple and pummel opponents with sheer execution of simple tactics. This year the Tigers will get more exotic, mixing in more of his zone blitzes and 2-4-5 defensive formations that get two outside linebacker/defensive end hybrids on the field at the same time. The star of the show will be defensive end/outside linebacker Arden Key, but he'll miss this game due to a suspension.

That opens up a major opportunity here for the BYU Cougars, who fared a poor chance of keeping pace with LSU if Key had been on the field terrorizing quarterback Tanner Mangum. The Cougars are moving towards becoming more of a pro-style offense, mixing outside zone running with dropback passing, and Mangum is a good signal-caller for that approach. Their offensive line is very solid as run-blockers, but they need to develop more dangerous receivers to find openings against LSU's bevy of future NFL defensive backs.

If the Cougars can run the ball, their own talented and pressuring defense could keep them in the game and give them a chance to steal a victory late. If not, then the Tigers will have a nice start to the Ed Orgeron era.

Watch for:

  • LSU might feature a more aggressive, pressuring defense this season in Year 2 under defensive coach Dave Aranda.
  • Can BYU run the ball on LSU's young linebackers?
  • LSU's new creative ways to execute a run-centric offense.
  • Does the absence of star defensive end Arden Key allow BYU to handle LSU's blitzing and pressures and throw the ball?

S&P Outright Pick: LSU

Virginia Tech (-4) vs. West Virginia at FedEx Field in Landover -- 7:30 p.m. Sunday (ABC)

Overall Virginia Tech West Virginia
2017 Proj. S&P+ 25 69
When Virginia Tech has the ball Offense Defense
2016 S&P+ 51 37
2016 FEI 61 16
2016 IsoPPP+ 85 35
2016 Rushing S&P+ 95 31
2016 Passing S&P+ 39 36
When West Virginia has the ball Defense Offense
2016 S&P+ 17 27
2016 FEI 18 47
2016 IsoPPP+ 14 44
2016 Rushing S&P+ 36 70
2016 Passing S&P+ 10 36

Virginia Tech has a big problem for the 2017 season. The Hokies made big strides last year on offense under new head coach Justin Fuente, who has long specialized in developing spread quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and Paxton Lynch at stops like TCU and Memphis. Fuente had early success with JUCO transfer Jerod Evans, but then Evans decided to leave early for the NFL, leaving Fuente to start redshirt freshman Josh Jackson.

Jackson is a good fit for Fuente's offense due to a solid arm and his ability to run the ball, but Fuente has a long track record of willingly enduring losing seasons with freshman quarterbacks in order to build for the future. Longtime defensive coach Bud Foster may be able to help the offense stay in games, but the Hokies are probably a year or two away from realizing the full potential of this marriage between spread offense and defensive guru.

West Virginia is a bad team to draw in an opener for a young quarterback. They use a constantly shifting 3-3-5 defense that is designed to allow the Mountaineers to get numbers wherever they are needed most. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson often embraces the extremes of what the 3-3-5 allows, mixing coverages that drop eight defenders into zone with blitzes that bring the house and leave no safeties deep. It's a difficult defense to sort out for a young quarterback.

West Virginia does have to replace all of its defensive linemen and star cornerback Rasul Douglas (eight interceptions in 2016), but it faced a similar challenge a year ago when it had to replace its entire defensive backfield with eight new starters. Head coach Dana Holgorsen also has to replace multiple starters on offense, including receiver Sterling Gibson and quarterback Skyler Howard, but Florida transfer Will Grier is stepping in at quarterback after sitting out in 2017 and could bring new upside to the Mountaineer offense.

The Mountaineers already had a solid running game that they can now pair with an aggressive passing game that spreads out defenses and makes it hard to concentrate numbers. Virginia Tech has more talent overall than does West Virginia, but the Mountaineers' combination of scheme and veteran players tend to even out those odds and may very well be the difference in a Week 1 contest.

Watch for:

  • Can Virginia Tech's freshman quarterback handle West Virginia's confusing 3-3-5 defense?
  • How does Florida transfer quarterback Will Grier look in West Virginia's spread offense?
  • Is this a shootout between spread teams or a slow-paced game between two tough defenses?

S&P Outright Pick: Virginia Tech

Tennessee (-3) vs. Georgia Tech -- 8 p.m. Monday (ESPN)

Overall Tennessee Georgia Tech
2017 Proj. S&P+ 24 31
When Tennessee has the ball Offense Defense
2016 S&P+ 28 57
2016 FEI 28 94
2016 IsoPPP+ 9 67
2016 Rushing S&P+ 8 100
2016 Passing S&P+ 9 75
When Georgia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
2016 S&P+ 52 44
2016 FEI 65 21
2016 IsoPPP+ 61 14
2016 Rushing S&P+ 85 17
2016 Passing S&P+ 43 10

The Tennesse Volunteers thought they were about to enjoy a breakout season in 2016. They were returning star quarterback Joshua Dobbs to lead the offense while bringing in Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to turn a talented unit into an aggressive, swarming squad that could stand out in a loaded SEC. Then Dobbs struggled early to hit receivers in the passing game, running back Jalen Hurd struggled before leaving the team and ultimately transferring to play a different position at Baylor, and the defense was rocked by injuries at linebacker that left them lost and vulnerable.

This season they're looking at some dramatic changes after some changes to the offensive staff, including the hiring of a quarterbacks coach, and the infusion of pocket passer Quinten Dormady in place of the graduating Dobbs. Their offense is going to look different with an emphasis on passing to supplement a running game that was the heart and soul of the team in 2016. Meanwhile the defense is hoping that improved health and another year in Shoop's blitz-heavy system will make a bigger difference than losing star defensive end Derek Barnett (13 sacks in 2016).

First they'll have to prove they can play disciplined and well prepared defensive football against Georgia Tech's flexbone offensive attack. The Yellow Jackets are notorious for giving opponents fits with their cut blocks, triple-option plays, and confusing play-action strikes down the field. On the bright side for the Vols, Tech's new starting quarterback Matthew Jordan is much less explosive running the football than his predecessor. It's still a nasty attack to prepare for and head coach Paul Johnson knows well how to tweak it to create maximal confusion against different styles of opponents.

The game could also turn on the state of readiness of the Vols offense. Georgia Tech has never played good defense under Johnson and probably won't be particularly strong in that regard this season, although they do return several key players from a year ago. You have to wonder if facing the unique triple-option in practice every week makes it hard for a defense to learn how to stop more conventional offenses and engrains unhelpful habits. Regardless, Tennessee will need to put points on the board to avoid a situation where Georgia Tech is keeping the game close and dominating time of possession while wearing out the Vols' defensive front. If Dormady and the passing game can put some points on the board early, then Tennessee could make a statement win to begin a season that finally makes good on the promise that head coach Butch Jones has had over the last few years.

Watch for:

  • How explosive can the Georgia Tech quarterback be in the run game?
  • Can Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady match his predecessor Joshua Dobbs throwing from the pocket?
  • Does the Tennessee defense get back on track now that it's healthy?
  • Is Tennessee ready to handle Georgia Tech's confusing option attack after fall camp?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Tennessee

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 6

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread Ian's Pick against the spread
Michigan 3.5 Florida Florida Florida Michigan
Georgia 14.5 Appalachian State Georgia Georgia Appalachian State
Alabama 7 Florida State Alabama Florida State Florida State
LSU 16.5 BYU LSU LSU BYU
Virginia Tech 4 West Virginia Virginia Tech Virginia Tech West Virginia
Tennessee 3 Georgia Tech Tennessee Tennessee Tennessee

S&P+ Picks against the spread last year: 47-72

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 31 Aug 2017

1 comment, Last at 02 Sep 2017, 2:41am by Subrata Sircar

Comments

1
by Subrata Sircar :: Sat, 09/02/2017 - 2:41am

I think that S&P is ignoring that over 10% of Florida's roster is suspended and that their top QB not only didn't win the job outright in camp, he is transferring from a 4-8 team.

But (in raspy-voice)That's Why They Play The Games!