Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

14 Sep 2017

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 3

by Ian Boyd

We're getting into conference play now in Week 3, with the SEC teams starting to square off in big games with national relevance. There was a little bit of that in Week 2 with the showdown between USC and Stanford, in which the Trojans cemented their status as a national contender by lighting up the Cardinal defense. Meanwhile, Georgia had a confidence-building victory on the road against Notre Dame despite starting freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, and now have some momentum heading into SEC play.

The biggest revelation from Week 2 was Oklahoma beating down Ohio State on the road behind a strong defensive effort and the brilliant play of senior quarterback Baker Mayfield. Both USC and Oklahoma established themselves as big time contenders for 2017 thanks in large part to their experienced, superstar quarterbacks, but we'll get to see a few more of those types of players in action here in Week 3.

All times are listed as Eastern.

UCLA (-3) at Memphis -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall UCLA Memphis
2017 Proj. S&P+ 32 51
When UCLA has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 52 86
2016 S&P+ 82 74
2016 FEI 105 70
2016 IsoPPP+ 103 78
2016 Rushing S&P+ 126 104
2016 Passing S&P+ 75 58
When Memphis has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 32 27
2016 S&P+ 26 37
2016 FEI 12 27
2016 IsoPPP+ 9 29
2016 Rushing S&P+ 21 44
2016 Passing S&P+ 23 41

UCLA clearly went into this season desirous of fielding a balanced pro-style offense that could run the ball with a fullback and tight end on the field and then attack teams with play-action. When the Bruins fell behind by 34 points against Texas A&M, they had to adjust and embrace their true calling as a pure pro-style passing team led by quarterback Josh Rosen and some ultra-talented receivers including Theo Howard, Darren Andrews, and tight end Caleb Wilson.

They have done so, and as a result Josh Rosen has now thrown for 820 yards at 9.8 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions on the year. Their ability to fling the ball around with that kind of efficiency and explosiveness makes them hard to count out of any game (obviously) and suggests a very high ceiling for this team if it can play defense at a high level.

Memphis is a good test for that defense, as the Tigers are bringing a highly potent spread offense into this contest led by mobile quarterback Riley Ferguson. Their passing attack struggled out of the gate in Week 1 against Louisiana Monroe, but running backs Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor both went for over 100 rushing yards at 14.1 and 8.7 yards per carry, respectively. There's potential for this game to become a shootout with UCLA struggling to corral Memphis' running backs and giving up yardage in chunks, while Memphis struggles to cover the Bruins receiving corps working with Rosen.

The other likely possibility is that UCLA's defense shows up big and clamps down on Ferguson and the Memphis offense, while Rosen lights up the Tigers defense and Memphis is just a speed bump. In that event, UCLA might indeed be a real contender in the Pac-12 this season.

Watch for:

  • Can quarterback Riley Ferguson get the Memphis passing game going?
  • How will UCLA build on its early success?
  • Can the UCLA defense stop the Memphis spread-option run game?
  • Future NFL quarterback Josh Rosen executing a pro-style passing attack at a high level.

S&P+ Outright Pick: UCLA

Tennessee at Florida (-3.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Tennessee Florida
2017 Proj. S&P+ 25 18
When Tennessee has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 31 2
2016 S&P+ 28 4
2016 FEI 28 6
2016 IsoPPP+ 9 5
2016 Rushing S&P+ 8 12
2016 Passing S&P+ 9 6
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 42 29
2016 S&P+ 52 88
2016 FEI 100 6
2016 IsoPPP+ 61 72
2016 Rushing S&P+ 85 86
2016 Passing S&P+ 43 53

This game should be interesting on many levels, not the least of which is setting the stage for which teams are best positioned to win the SEC East division at the end of the year. Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina all look like legitimate contenders, and this game will establish a potential tie-breaker between two of those teams.

Additionally, Florida still has a quarterback controversy between redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and grad transfer Malik Zaire, since both played against Michigan in Week 1 and neither stood out or seized the reigns. Franks was actually having some success before fumbling the ball away, while Zaire failed to get anything going against a fierce Michigan defense that will probably be among the nation's best again.

We haven't seen much of Zaire in the run game yet for Florida, which you would have expected was a major point of emphasis for his involvement this season, so that could be a game-changer in this game if he is turned loose on designed quarterback runs or given a green light to scramble against Tennessee's blitzes.

Tennessee doesn't really have any major questions at quarterback as Quinten Dormay has been effective each week in making some plays and creating space for running back John Kelly. Tennessee has also played well along the offensive line. The big question for the Volunteers is their defense, which struggled much of last year and fizzled against Georgia Tech in Week 1. The Volunteers need a strong defense to keep pace in the East with Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Watch for:

  • What will Florida do at quarterback? Will Malik Zaire be featured more in the running game?
  • How will Tennessee's offense fare against Florida's athletic defense?
  • Can the Volunteers right the ship on defense against an offense without a proven quarterback and missing star players?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Florida

LSU (-7) at Mississippi State -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall LSU Mississippi State
2017 Proj. S&P+ 4 33
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 13 74
2016 S&P+ 22 73
2016 FEI 31 106
2016 IsoPPP+ 13 99
2016 Rushing S&P+ 6 56
2016 Passing S&P+ 32 103
When Mississippi State has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 7 15
2016 S&P+ 3 32
2016 FEI 4 37
2016 IsoPPP+ 3 21
2016 Rushing S&P+ 3 7
2016 Passing S&P+ 3 58

Nick Fitzgerald is somehow one of the more unheralded quarterbacks in college football despite rushing for more than 1,000 yards a year ago and bringing some big-play dynamism to an offense that thrives with a running quarterback. Despite replacing Dak Prescott, who left some pretty big shoes to fill, Fitzgerald has been very effective for Mississippi State and is growing to allow them to continue to run the quarterback and to mix in spread passing concepts. When combined, those two dimensions make for a very balanced offense that can become impossible for a defense to safely scheme against. At some point the defense just has to pick their poison and hope they can tolerate it.

Of course, LSU has some highly skilled and athletic defensive backs, so it's not hard to guess which poison they'll opt to swallow. They'll almost certainly lean on man coverage outside while bringing in extra defenders to keep Fitzgerald and the running game under wraps. But at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, it can be hard to stop a guy like Fitzgerald just by dropping safeties closer to the action.

On the other side of the ball, Mississippi State has looked improved thus far on defense from a year ago, when they were pretty weak and vulnerable. LSU will provide a stiff test with their multiple formations, option plays, sweeps, and all the ways they can use to get the ball to star running back Derrius Guice. It's hard to keep LSU from running out clock and moving the chains on the ground, which in turn makes it harder to attack their defense because you get limited opportunities to do so.

If Fitzgerald can overcome LSU's formula of running the ball, controlling the clock, and playing excellent defense, then Mississippi State could be in for an exciting year in the SEC.

Watch for:

  • How well does Nick Fitzgerald throw the ball against LSU's man coverage?
  • Star pass-rusher Arden Key returns for LSU but faces a big, mobile quarterback.
  • All the different ways that LSU will use to hand the ball to Derrius Guice.
  • Is Mississippi State back to playing good defense?

S&P Outright Pick: LSU

Kansas State (-4) at Vanderbilt -- 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

Overall Kansas State Vanderbilt
2017 Proj. S&P+ 34 58
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 15 41
2016 S&P+ 43 40
2016 FEI 45 42
2016 IsoPPP+ 77 49
2016 Rushing S&P+ 25 54
2016 Passing S&P+ 99 40
When Vanderbilt has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 74 71
2016 S&P+ 43 89
2016 FEI 34 98
2016 IsoPPP+ 45 83
2016 Rushing S&P+ 29 58
2016 Passing S&P+ 62 87

In 2016 Kansas State was a good running team with a non-explosive offense held back by a limited passing game. The Wildcats had to win by playing good defense and maintaining long drives with their quarterback run game. Now they return most of their offensive line, add an improved running back to the mix in Alex Barnes, and bring back quarterback and 1,000-yard rusher Jesse Ertz. They're also adding a much more explosive passing game this season. Over the course of 2016, Ertz built some strong chemistry with transfer wide receiver Byron Pringle, who's back in 2017, and now they've added another speedy threat on the outside in 5-foot-8, 166-pound Isaiah Harris. Kansas State has a rich history of turning diminutive skill players into explosive playmakers, and Harris seems just the most recent player in that line. The upshot of all of this is that Kansas State still has the capacity to run the ball and control the clock, but now they can also score in a hurry by throwing the ball if they so desire.

Vanderbilt will test that, of course, as the Commodores have a pretty tough defense under head coach Derek Mason. They also have an overall philosophy of looking to run the ball, control the clock, and playing good defense. The difference is that they approach it more conventionally than do the Wildcats, with typical pro-style running plays with sprinkles of play-action. Kansas State's biggest question mark this year was whether they could replace some defensive stars from a year ago. If the answer to that question is positive and they can shut down Vanderbilt while lighting up the scoreboard on offense, then they might be a challenger to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12.

Watch for:

  • Can Kansas State's unproven new players on defense match up to Vanderbilt's pounding run game?
  • How will Vanderbilt handle Kansas State's quarterback run game and new additions outside at receiver?
  • Can Vanderbilt control the lines of scrimmage and overcome Kansas State's talented wide receivers and defensive backs?
  • Is Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur's hot start for real?

S&P Outright Pick: Kansas State

Clemson (-3) at Louisville -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Clemson Louisville
2017 Proj. S&P+ 6 18
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 29 15
2016 S&P+ 6 19
2016 FEI 6 19
2016 IsoPPP+ 20 46
2016 Rushing S&P+ 30 16
2016 Passing S&P+ 6 65
When Louisville has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 6 20
2016 S&P+ 6 10
2016 FEI 9 13
2016 IsoPPP+ 12 3
2016 Rushing S&P+ 26 1
2016 Passing S&P+ 4 22

This matchup was one of the better games of the season in 2016, with Clemson barely eking out a victory over the Cardinals due to a late Deshaun Watson touchdown drive. The Cardinals are back and as dangerous as ever, with Lamar Jackson back after his Heisman season. Louisville put up 705 yards of total offense against North Carolina last week, with Jackson accounting for 525 yards on his own. They are one of the ultimate tests for Clemson's defensive coordinator/guru Brent Venables and his unit.

A year ago Clemson relied on limiting explosive plays against the Cardinals' offense and forcing a pair of fumbles and an interception. Presumably their strategy will remain consistent, and they'll hope that Louisville can't sustain and finish enough drives with points if the Tigers keep their safeties back and force multiple third-down conversions. Louisville has been mixing in more under-center formations for Jackso,n but that could be a weak spot that Clemson exploits as Venables has long been good at getting his defenses to attack offensive tendencies.

On the other side of the ball, Louisville's defense has been vulnerable to the pass this year, but Clemson is more of a running team with Kelly Bryant taking over for Watson. If the Cardinals can match up to the Tiger's spread-option schemes like Auburn did, then they have a chance to hold the Tigers' score low enough that they can't keep up with Lamar Jackson. This game likely comes down to turnovers -- last year's contest featured three from Louisville and five from Clemson -- but if Jackson can protect the ball and Louisville can force third-and-long, then that dimension could work in Louisville's favor.

Watch for:

  • How will Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables adjust his strategy for handling Lamar Jackson?
  • Can Louisville play with balance on offense and over-stress Clemson's defense?
  • How will Louisville's defense look against Clemson's run game?
  • Does Clemson grow as a passing team in the wake of its struggles against Auburn?

S&P Outright Pick: Clemson

Texas at USC (-15.5) -- 8:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Texas USC
2017 Proj. S&P+ 17 7
When Texas has the ball Offense Defense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 11 14
2016 S&P+ 30 20
2016 FEI 85 37
2016 IsoPPP+ 71 15
2016 Rushing S&P+ 59 17
2016 Passing S&P+ 67 13
When USC has the ball Defense Offense
2017 Proj. S&P+ 37 4
2016 S&P+ 60 11
2016 FEI 45 22
2016 IsoPPP+ 29 6
2016 Rushing S&P+ 41 15
2016 Passing S&P+ 38 3

For the Texas Longhorns, it's not even clear if they intend to bring back injured sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele for this game or turn to freshman Sam Ehlinger. Ehlinger is a much stronger runner who could allow the Longhorns to surprise the Trojans with some option plays and quarterback runs and potentially lean on a defensive front that just took a pounding last Saturday from the physical Stanford Cardinal offense.

The Longhorns are loaded with talent on offense but are in Year 1 of a new offensive system under head coach Tom Herman. They haven't yet fit all of the pieces together on offense in a way that can leverage that talent on the field. The dual-threat abilities of Ehlinger may help alleviate that issue, but it would also require asking a true freshman to play a nationally competitive USC team on the road in his second ever start. A tall order, obviously.

Meanwhile, USC has been plugging along and has shown an ability to overcome its lack of established receivers opposite slot receiver Deontay Burnett by simply running the ball behind its veteran offensive line. Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr both ran for more than 100 yards against Stanford in Week 2. The Texas defense struggled very badly to stop the run in Week 1 against the Maryland Terrapins' spread-option run game, and will be in for a major challenge trying to improve enough to keep the USC running backs under control.

Then there's Sam Darnold, who flashed his Heisman-caliber abilities against Stanford while completing 21-of-26 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns. He's an exciting playmaker who will be going up against an inconsistent but talented and aggressive Texas defense.

Watch for:

  • Does Texas turn to the dual-threat freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger to try and run on USC?
  • Can Texas stop USC's burgeoning run game?
  • How does Sam Darnold handle Texas' blitz package?
  • Does Texas' talent finally show on the field?

S&P+ Outright Pick: USC

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 3

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread Ian's Pick against the spread
UCLA 3 Memphis UCLA UCLA UCLA
Florida 3.5 Tennessee Florida Florida Tennessee
LSU 7 Mississippi State LSU LSU Mississippi State
Kansas State 4 Vanderbilt Kansas State Kansas State Kansas State
Clemson 3 Louisville Clemson Clemson Louisville
USC 15.5 Texas USC Texas USC

S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 5-1

S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 8-4

Ian Picks against the spread last week: 3-3

Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 4-8

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 14 Sep 2017

3 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2017, 11:34pm by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by LionInAZ :: Fri, 09/15/2017 - 11:45pm

All this effort spent on games that no one cares about, including the overhyped Texas-USC "revenge" game.

2
by rssilverman :: Sat, 09/16/2017 - 10:17am

Lol, sweet troll job buddy

3
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 09/16/2017 - 11:34pm

Trolling? I was deadly serious.

It's also curious that I clicked twice to reply to this post and got redirected to Amazon ads. Getting sick of this.