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28 Sep 2017

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 5

by Ian Boyd

At this point, prime-time games at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City may need some kind of statistical adjustment to account for how well the Hawkeyes play in that setting. Iowa nearly disrupted Penn State's currently perfect season last Saturday and forced a last-minute touchdown pass that sailed perhaps one inch over the outstretched arms of a Hawkeyes defender before they went down in defeat. Other fun games included Oklahoma's near-disaster in Waco, Texas, against the Baylor Bears; TCU's surprising upset over Oklahoma State; and Florida's second consecutive dramatic fourth-quarter victory, this time coming against the Kentucky Wildcats.

Florida remains a regular in this weekly fixture due to its difficult schedule and knack for playing in a lot of close games. That is partly due to a lack of superior quarterback play, which prevents their otherwise superior team from blowing out their competition. This week will also see a few conference frontrunners travelling to difficult road environments in a slate that will likely be the final word on a few teams' hopes of winning their conferences.

We begin with a road trip on Friday night out in Pac-12 country...

All times are listed as Eastern.

USC (-3.5) at Washington State -- 10:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN)

Overall USC Washington State
2017 S&P+ 10 21
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 9 30
2016 S&P+ 11 64
2016 FEI 22 43
2016 IsoPPP+ 6 75
2016 Rushing S&P+ 15 44
2016 Passing S&P+ 3 104
When Washington State has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 19 22
2016 S&P+ 20 24
2016 FEI 37 20
2016 IsoPPP+ 15 34
2016 Rushing S&P+ 17 45
2016 Passing S&P+ 13 34

Washington State has come off a solid 2016 season with an improved defense and an offense that continues to build with fourth-year starting quarterback Luke Falk. The Cougars put an emphasis on their run defense a year ago, hoping that if they could lure opponents into passing-intensive shootouts it could only favor their own passing-based offensive attack. It worked out reasonably well, but the Cougars are playing solid defense overall this season. They're also doing more damage with their ground game, with running back Jamal Morrow averaging 6.9 yards per carry so far in a run game that's primarily a constraint for teams that try to stop the Washington State attack with conservative pass defenses.

USC doesn't really play conservative pass defense. They like to keep their linebackers on the field and give their free safety a chance to make an impact in the run game or rob intermediate routes. They also lean heavily on outside linebackers Porter Gustin, Uchenna Nwosu, and Christian Rector to supply their pass rush, with some zone blitzing mixed in as well. Washington State uses Mike Leach's patented Air Raid offense, which is notoriously difficult to get a pass rush against due to the wide splits of the offensive line, the quick pace at which they get the ball out, and Leach's knack for developing big linemen who are hard to get around. The best path to disrupting the offense is normally with quick inside pressures that can leave the middle of the field vulnerable to crossing routes. If USC can get some pressure up the middle from defensive tackle Josh Fatu or on inside stunts, it could go a long ways towards protecting the middle of their defense from the Cougars offense.

The main reason USC hasn't pulled away from opponents this year, and why they aren't commanding a bigger spread against Washington State, is their issue with turnovers. Quarterback Sam Darnold has already thrown seven interceptions this year working behind a shaky offensive line with an inexperienced wide receiver corps.

Playing in front of a wild collection of fans in a night game against an improving defense could easily be a recipe for more turnovers, and that would be all the Cougars need to make this a ball game.

Watch for:

  • Can USC run the football on Washington State and play keep-away from their offense?
  • How will USC pressure Washington State quarterback Luke Falk?
  • Can Sam Darnold clean up his game and avoid throwing interceptions?

S&P+ Outright Pick: USC

Vanderbilt at Florida (-9.5) -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Vanderbilt Florida
2017 S&P+ 51 23
When Vanderbilt has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 98 10
2016 S&P+ 89 4
2016 FEI 98 6
2016 IsoPPP+ 83 5
2016 Rushing S&P+ 58 12
2016 Passing S&P+ 87 6
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 17 69
2016 S&P+ 40 88
2016 FEI 42 100
2016 IsoPPP+ 49 72
2016 Rushing S&P+ 54 86
2016 Passing S&P+ 40 53

Part of the reason for Florida's comeback against Kentucky was the stabilizing presence of junior quarterback Luke Del Rio, who started half of Florida's games a year ago and was able to manage the offense on several late drives against the Wildcats. The bigger factor was Kentucky committing several major errors on defense and gradually wearing down against Florida's punishing run game, but Del Rio was able to keep the offense on track and make the right checks and reads to avoid missing on those opportunities.

Now Del Rio is getting the nod at quarterback against the Vanderbilt defense, which is a tougher unit than what Kentucky put on the field and will load the box while playing man coverage, daring Del Rio to beat them down the field with his questionable arm strength and vision. Between that limiting factor on Florida's offense and the fact that Vanderbilt is legitimately good on defense, you have a recipe for a very interesting game in "The Swamp" at Gainesville, Florida.

If things go poorly with Del Rio at the helm, it's possible Florida could turn back to dual-threat transfer Malik Zaire for an extra spark, or ask redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks to step back in if the issue is Del Rio's inability to hit open windows down the field in the passing game.

On the other side of the ball, things are less interesting and promising for the Commodores. Florida has been playing lights-out defense this season, largely due to fielding one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the nation. Vanderbilt's offense is built around running the football and throwing on play-action rollouts. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur has been very effective there this year, throwing eight touchdowns with only one interception while averaging 8.58 yards per pass, but their run game has struggled to get going and they aren't explosive enough in the passing game to score if they can't run the ball.

Like just about every other week, watch for Florida's defense to keep them in the game despite a weak offensive performance until the fourth quarter or so, when they start wearing their opponent down with runs.

Watch for:

  • How long of a leash does Florida give to quarterback Luke Del Rio?
  • How will Florida attack Vanderbilt when the Commodores load the box against the run?
  • Can Vanderbilt run the ball on Florida's defensive line?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Florida

Georgia (-7.5) at Tennessee -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Georgia Tennessee
2017 S&P+ 14 31
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 43 41
2016 S&P+ 93 52
2016 FEI 80 100
2016 IsoPPP+ 93 61
2016 Rushing S&P+ 82 85
2016 Passing S&P+ 91 43
When Tennessee has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 8 40
2016 S&P+ 34 28
2016 FEI 36 28
2016 IsoPPP+ 20 9
2016 Rushing S&P+ 28 8
2016 Passing S&P+ 29 9

Georgia has been improving every week on offense with freshman quarterback Jake Fromm under center. Due to his arm strength and increasing comfort and command of the offense, they've been able to mix in more play-action passing, which led to a blowout victory over Mississippi State last week when Fromm connected on 9-of12 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.

The Bulldogs have a tremendous running game with running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and they have been mixing in receiver D'Andre Swift very effectively as well on jet sweeps attached to inside runs. They also have an improving young offensive line, a vertical threat in receiver Terry Godwin, and multiple versatile tight ends and fullbacks. The missing piece for them has been a quarterback who can stretch the field and take care of the ball while distributing to all of their weapons. If Fromm can become that guy, this team becomes very formidable.

Tennessee has been missing effective quarterback play with their own signal-caller Quinten Dormady struggling, with three interceptions in their loss to Florida and then averaging only 6.9 yards per pass in their next game against UMass. The Vols have been carried by the play of running back John Kelly, who has 450 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns along with 182 receiving yards. Kelly is devastating in the open field and the Vols' screen and swing passes to him are some of the deadlier components of their offense.

The Volunteers like to get into double-tight end sets this year to create a wall up front and put Kelly in position to find open grass against safeties who are trying to tackle him in space. However, that will invite aggressive run defense from Georgia that load the box with big outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, who will aim to contain the ball inside, where the Bulldogs' defensive line and inside linebackers have feasted this season. Without some creative problem-solving this week from Tennessee, it will be hard to see them doing much on offense against Georgia.

Watch for:

  • Can Tennessee throw the ball on Georgia's pass rush and talented secondary?
  • How will Georgia handle star Tennessee running back John Kelly?
  • Will Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm continue to improve and take over the job?
  • Late game mismanagement by the Tennessee coaching staff.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Georgia

Mississippi State at Auburn (-9) -- 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Mississippi State Auburn
2017 S&P+ 24 13
When Mississippi State has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 37 5
2016 S&P+ 32 9
2016 FEI 37 14
2016 IsoPPP+ 21 17
2016 Rushing S&P+ 7 14
2016 Passing S&P+ 58 31
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 27 48
2016 S&P+ 73 31
2016 FEI 106 32
2016 IsoPPP+ 99 49
2016 Rushing S&P+ 56 27
2016 Passing S&P+ 103 43

The excitement around Mississippi State began to disappear as quickly as it arrived after Georgia blew them out 31-3 last Saturday. Now they have to travel on the road to face a fellow SEC West contender in Auburn, with a second conference loss likely eliminating them from winning the division. Auburn hasn't had a fantastic start to the year and put a pretty bad offensive performance on film early in the year against Clemson, but they're still playing good defense and haven't accrued any SEC losses yet.

The Auburn defense is the biggest issue for Mississippi State, which just got taken down by Georgia and wasn't able to do much of anything aside from featuring Nick Fitzgerald on direct snap quarterback runs. That's a powerful component to their offense, but it doesn't work well outside of situational use in the red zone or on third downs because otherwise Fitzgerald has to carry an enormous load for the offense in throwing and running that would likely see him injured. If they can run and throw the ball to set up third-and-4, a direct snap run to Fitzgerald is a near guarantee to pick up a first down. If they can get into the red zone, his running can allow them to finish drives with touchdowns. Against Georgia though they weren't able to do much of anything else. Auburn already has experience in defending a similar sort of offense from the Clemson Tigers and held that team to 14 points.

Auburn's offense has had issues of its own though, as they always seem to without an explosive runner at quarterback in head coach Gus Malzahn's offense. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham was supposed to bring a play-action passing element that could complement the Tigers' already strong running game, but he has struggled to find the end zone, with only three touchdown passes in four games. A bigger issue has been Auburn's ability to protect him as he has already been sacked 15 times this year! Much of that came against Clemson's brilliant defense, but the Bulldogs defense under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is certainly capable of turning up the heat on a suspect offensive line.

If this becomes a defensive struggle, there are any number of factors that could make the difference. Neither team has many explosive skill players who have shown a penchant for big plays at crucial moments, with Fitzgerald standing out as the likely difference-maker in a competitive game. In addition to his ability to run the ball between the tackles, the Bulldogs quarterback also has some long speed to break free on runs.

Watch for:

  • Can Auburn protect quarterback Jarrett Stidham against Mississippi State's pressures?
  • Will Mississippi State be able to execute their spread-option run game on Auburn's defense?
  • How many carries will Mississippi State be willing to give Nick Fitzgerald to guarantee offense against Auburn's stingy defense?

S&P Outright Pick: Auburn

Clemson (-7.5) at Virginia Tech -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Clemson Virginia Tech
2017 S&P+ 6 20
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 25 11
2016 S&P+ 6 17
2016 FEI 9 18
2016 IsoPPP+ 20 14
2016 Rushing S&P+ 30 36
2016 Passing S&P+ 6 10
When Virginia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 3 56
2016 S&P+ 6 51
2016 FEI 9 61
2016 IsoPPP+ 12 85
2016 Rushing S&P+ 26 95
2016 Passing S&P+ 4 39

Clemson's title defense has stayed on schedule thus far with big early victories over Auburn in their non-conference slate and then over ACC rival Louisville. Their road game with Virginia Tech could quite possibly prove to be the biggest challenge on their path back to the playoffs since they draw the struggling Florida State Seminoles at home.

Clemson has been chugging along thanks to a run game that has put three different ballcarriers over 200 rushing yards, including quarterback Kelly Bryant and running backs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster. Their passing game has been a little shakier with Bryant averaging more than 8 yards per pass, but so far throwing only two touchdown passes vs. three interceptions while taking 10 sacks. The defense has been dominant, much like every other year since coordinator Brent Venables came from Oklahoma, and they have already shut down Auburn and Louisville this season.

Virginia Tech has one of its normal strong defenses under coordinator Bud Foster, and its offense has been remarkably potent in Year 2 under offensive-minded head coach Justin Fuente. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson has been a revelation in Fuente's offense, throwing 11 touchdowns already to only one interception while averaging 9.8 yards per pass and adding another 144 yards on the ground.

Fuente likes to mix a spread passing attack that has unbalanced receiver sets and quick reads for the quarterback with a running game that involves option plays, and Jackson has taken very well to the system very quickly. It helps that Virginia Tech has a veteran offensive line and an explosive senior receiver in Cam Phillips (523 receiving yards and five touchdowns).

Clemson has been very good under Venables at managing spread-option offenses with disciplined defensive line play and aggressive safety involvement against the run game, but Virginia Tech is bringing in one of the more balanced offenses that Clemson has seen in recent seasons. If Kelly Bryant struggles to sort out the Hokies' defense and Josh Jackson is allowed to get into a rhythm, this could be the game where Clemson feels the loss of Deshaun Watson.

Watch for:

  • Can Josh Jackson stay calm and composed against Brent Venables' aggressive Clemson defense?
  • Can Virginia Tech force Kelly Bryant to beat them by throwing the ball on standard downs?
  • How will Virginia Tech's veteran offensive line fare against Clemson's monster defensive line?
  • Clemson's freshman running back Travis Etienne is averaging 12.7 yards per carry and might be the most explosive playmaker on the field. Does he finally get 10 or more carries?

S&P Outright Pick: Clemson

Oklahoma State (-9.5) at Texas Tech -- 8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Oklahoma State Texas Tech
2017 S&P+ 15 55
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
2017 S&P+ 2 119
2016 S&P+ 8 125
2016 FEI 23 123
2016 IsoPPP+ 24 123
2016 Rushing S&P+ 65 120
2016 Passing S&P+ 21 118
When Texas Tech has the ball Defense Offense
2017 S&P+ 61 3
2016 S&P+ 66 4
2016 FEI 47 24
2016 IsoPPP+ 72 39
2016 Rushing S&P+ 77 103
2016 Passing S&P+ 67 24

Texas Tech has ranked as one of the most elite offenses in college football ever since head coach Kliff Kingsbury took over back in 2014. In his first year at Tech they managed to go 8-5 with a walk-on freshman quarterback named Baker Mayfield starting most of the season. Mayfield then transferred to Oklahoma, where he has been dominant, but Tech has actually improved on offense since he left. This year their signal-caller is former Iowa transfer Nic Shimonek, who is averaging almost 10 yards per pass with 1,248 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, and only one interception after just three games. Shimonek has been developing under Kingsbury's tutelage and behind current NFL quarterback Pat Mahomes for the last three seasons and is now executing the offense at a high level.

Tech always has great slot receivers, and this year it's Keke Coutee leading the way at that position with 446 receiving yards already. They've been better on the ground as well, with three running backs at 100 rushing yards or better and lead back Justin Stockton averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

Normally when Oklahoma State encounters explosive Big 12 offenses like this one they focus on red zone defense and turnovers while trusting their own offense to finish drives with touchdowns, then beat opponents with higher efficiency over the course of the game. It has been a good strategy for them and they have won 10 games three of the last four seasons. Texas Tech is a challenge though, and the Red Raiders lost to the Cowboys by only one point (45-44) last year in Stillwater and took Oklahoma to the wire in a 66-59 thriller in Lubbock a year ago.

If Texas Tech is playing any defense whatsoever, their own offense is going to be a bit much for anyone to keep up with, with its lethal passing attack and ability to run the ball this season against teams that sell out to stop that dimension. That's saying a lot given how explosive the Cowboys have been on offense this year, but Tech has been very efficient on offense. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State got in its own way against TCU, throwing three interceptions and costing themselves the win.

This game is going to be a high-scoring contest with neither team likely to stop the other for long. If one team is turnover-prone that will likely be the difference.

Watch for:

  • Will Oklahoma State have a hangover from their loss to TCU going on the road to Lubbock, Texas?
  • Points -- the over/under on this game is 81, and I'd take the over.
  • Can Tech finally play good enough defense to give their own offense a chance against top teams?
  • Who protects the football? OSU will give up points and yards, but they also force turnovers and Tech's defense is designed to do the same.

S&P Outright Pick: Oklahoma State

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 5

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread Ian's Pick against the spread
USC 3.5 Washington State USC USC USC
Florida 9.5 Vanderbilt Florida Florida Vanderbilt
Georgia 7.5 Tennessee Georgia Georgia Georgia
Auburn 9 Mississippi State Auburn Auburn Mississippi State
Clemson 7.5 Virginia Tech Clemson Clemson Clemson
Oklahoma State 9.5 Texas Tech Oklahoma State Oklahoma State Oklahoma State

S&P+ Picks against the spread last week:

S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 15-9

Ian Picks against the spread last week: 1-5

Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 6-18

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 28 Sep 2017

2 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2017, 1:20pm by Pen

Comments

1
by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Sat, 09/30/2017 - 11:35am

well, the USC hype machine should be officially dead now.

--------------------------------------
The standard is the standard!

2
by Pen :: Sat, 09/30/2017 - 1:20pm

Trojans haven't looked that good all year. And Cougars? Well, like the radio announcers said at halftime: WSU is just the better team.