Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Oct 2017

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 8

by Ian Boyd

Week 7 was filled with shockers, many of which came in games with big point spreads that we didn't even cover in this space. Washington was taken down by Arizona State in a close, low-scoring affair, while Syracuse pulled the big shocker with an upset win over No. 2 Clemson. Washington State also went down against Cal, getting nearly shut out in a 37-3 defeat, while Stanford took over the Pac-12 North race after whipping Oregon.

In our featured games there were a few surprises, such as LSU coming back from 17-0 to beat the favored Auburn Tigers and stake out a place as a contender in the SEC West. Texas nearly pulled off a comeback after falling behind 20-0 against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry.

Elsewhere, Miami grabbed pole position in the ACC Coastal division by beating Georgia Tech; Boise State knocked San Diego State out of the top 25 with a big win; USC escaped against Utah; and TCU became the only undefeated team in the Big 12.

Week 8 will feature full and updated S&P+ stats for these games and a few good battles between conference contenders across the country. The final contest between USC and Notre Dame could also be a de facto playoff game between the two teams, neither of which can likely afford a second loss this season.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Memphis at Houston (-2.5) -- 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

Overall Memphis Houston
S&P+ 49 43
Special Teams S&P+ 13 52
When Memphis has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 74 18
S&P+ 22 33
IsoPPP+ 71 19
Rushing S&P+ 109 53
Passing S&P+ 54 26
When Houston has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 33 91
S&P+ 105 64
IsoPPP+ 42 123
Rushing S&P+ 60 112
Passing S&P+ 34 106

It has been an interesting season for the Houston Cougars, who had to replace head coach Tom Herman and quarterback Greg Ward Jr. this season. They had former five-star recruit and Texas A&M transfer quarterback Kyle Allen to start this season, but eventually benched him in favor of dual-threat signal caller Kyle Postma. The Cougars have one of the best players in the country on their team, nose tackle Ed Oliver, which makes for an interesting overall mix. Memphis and Houston are currently tied for second place in the American West division behind returning winner Navy, and there's a lot of football left in the year that could position one or the other to have a shot at the American title if they can pull off this victory. Add that this is a Thursday night game and you have a recipe for some excitement.

Houston has settled on a pretty dynamic formula as a team, building their defense around the tremendous disruption that Oliver causes in the middle of the field. Inside linebackers Matthew Adams and D'Juan Hines are the team's leading tacklers thanks in part to the lack of attention they get from opposing blockers while playing behind Oliver. They also have a pretty veteran secondary, headlined by safeties Kahil Williams and Garrett Davis. Williams plays their nickel position and has 6.5 tackles for loss due to his frequent blitzing off the edge, while Davis leads the team with three interceptions.

Last year Houston was taken apart by Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson and also burned on the ground by the Tigers' double-tight end formations, which caused problems on the edge for Houston's 3-4 defensive alignment. Memphis has a very balanced offense and is a difficult matchup for most defenses. The Tigers have lit up most of the defenses they have faced save for Central Florida, who overcame them largely due to Ferguson's three interceptions in that game. Still, Memphis has a turnover margin of +7 on the year and has relied on turnovers to overcome an otherwise vulnerable defense.

Houston's offense has been better of late since they inserted Postma at quarterback. The nature of head coach Major Applewhite's offense is to use a lot of run/pass option plays, particularly ones where the quarterback's read tells him either to throw the ball to the perimeter or to keep it on a gap scheme running play. Being able to mix in these plays -- and adding a now healthy D'Eriq King, their sophomore wide receiver, as a perimeter target -- has provided a major boost to the offense.

The problem has been Postma's turnovers. He has thrown five interceptions and fumbled the ball once for six turnovers in his three games as a starter. If Memphis can capitalize on that tendency, then this may not be much of a game for the Cougars.

Watch for:

  • Can Houston protect the ball against Memphis' opportunistic defense?
  • Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a sophomore who otherwise would have been a top 10 NFL draft pick this year.
  • Memphis quarterback throwing under pressure against Houston's veteran secondary.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Houston

Oklahoma State (-7) at Texas -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oklahoma State Texas
S&P+ 4 40
Special Teams S&P+ 90 67
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 1 17
S&P+ 2 42
IsoPPP+ 7 48
Rushing S&P+ 20 24
Passing S&P+ 8 50
When Texas has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 31 87
S&P+ 44 43
IsoPPP+ 10 81
Rushing S&P+ 22 64
Passing S&P+ 13 70

Last week in the Red River Rivalry, the Oklahoma Sooners drastically adjusted their defense around a nickel package designed to exploit Texas' lack of a running game and exceptionally young and tattered offensive line. The Sooners built a 20-0 lead with those strategies, then true freshman Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger took over the game with 278 passing yards, 22 carries for 110 rushing yards, and two total touchdowns. If not for a few crucial fourth-quarter plays he spent in a medical tent going through the concussion protocol after a sideline tackle, Ehlinger might very well have led Texas to victory. As it was, they fell just short in a 29-24 loss.

Now they have to take on Oklahoma State, which is fresh off a 59-16 pounding of the Baylor Bears. The Cowboys are currently ranked by S&P+ as the second best offense in the country after Oklahoma, and quarterback Mason Rudolph has been devastating defenses with his deep bombs to receivers James Washington and Marcell Ateman. Adding for more drama here is the fact that Texas' secondary has had major coverage busts against Kansas State and Oklahoma in recent weeks, which led to big scoring plays in the passing game.

A potentially mitigating factor is that Oklahoma State has had some offensive line injuries that could leave them vulnerable to Texas' potent defensive front and pressure package. A Longhorns victory is probably one in which Mason Rudolph spends a considerable portion of the game throwing off balance and Texas' secondary failings aren't exposed as badly.

The Texas offensive line has its own issues. The Longhorns have struggled to produce a 100-yard rusher this year against a FBS-level opponent, save for Ehlinger doing so off both designed quarterback runs and scrambles. Texas will want to save their freshman from yet another 20-carry day and will need to get a run game going against the Oklahoma State defense to have a good chance in this game.

The compelling point in this game is that Oklahoma State is still fighting for a Big 12 championship and even a Playoff berth if it can win out this season and tally some impressive wins in conference play. The numbers suggest this is possible, but Texas has an overall athletic advantage in this game and is playing at home. Ehlinger has proven to be an equalizer against other top opponents such as USC and Oklahoma.

Watch for:

  • Texas freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who combines elements of Russell Wilson and Tim Tebow in his play.
  • Can Oklahoma State protect quarterback Mason Rudolph against Texas' blitz package?
  • Will the Texas secondary give up freebies to the explosive Oklahoma State passing game?
  • How much do Texas' athletic advantages on defense come into play against Oklahoma State's spread offense?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma State

Central Florida (-7.5) at Navy -- 3:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

Overall Central Florida Navy
S&P+ 9 57
Special Teams S&P+ 19 97
When Central Florida has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 4 63
S&P+ 4 94
IsoPPP+ 5 83
Rushing S&P+ 35 28
Passing S&P+ 3 94
When Navy has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 20 32
S&P+ 48 23
IsoPPP+ 21 83
Rushing S&P+ 68 42
Passing S&P+ 10 95

Despite losing to Memphis, Navy has a shot at winning the American West division for a second consecutive year and competing for the crown in the league championship game. If they do so, there's a chance their opponent will be the Central Florida Knights, whom they draw at home this Saturday.

Navy has had a pretty typical season. Their flexbone offense has been a great riddle for most opponents, and quarterback Zach Abey already has a thousand rushing yards on the season, with 5.6 yards per carry and 12 rushing touchdowns. If not for five turnovers a week ago, they probably would have rolled over the Memphis Tigers, and they have tended to be a headache for the rest of the American under head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

In preparation for this offense, Central Florida head coach Scott Frost has been reliving his glory days as the quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers back in the '90s and running the scout team offense as the practice quarterback. Frost and the Knights are becoming a major story this season, partly because they've been dominating their schedule, with an average margin of victory of 34 points per game in their 5-0 season. S&P+ says the Knights are playing top-10 football on both sides of the ball, and top-20 on special teams to boot. They are also getting national attention due to the 3-4 record of Frost's alumnus, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who just lost a game 56-14 against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Frost is an obvious contender for the job should Nebraska determine to fire Mike Riley and hire a new head coach.

The biggest issue in this game, other than the normal questions regarding whether Navy's opponent is prepared to defend triple-option football, is the ability of Navy's defense to hold up against the explosive Central Florida offense. Triple-option teams often seem to struggle when defending conventional offenses, likely due to lack of reps as they mostly face option plays in practice. Central Florida is an offense that could really get after them.

Watch for:

  • Will Scott Frost's work as a scout team quarterback prepare Central Florida to defend Navy's triple-option offense?
  • How will Navy's defense handle Central Florida's offense?
  • Central Florida's dual-threat quarterback McKenzie Milton, who has 16 total touchdowns to two interceptions.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Central Florida

LSU (-6.5) at Ole Miss -- 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall LSU Ole Miss
S&P+ 26 56
Special Teams S&P+ 106 92
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 37 98
S&P+ 57 104
IsoPPP+ 30 101
Rushing S&P+ 13 118
Passing S&P+ 35 48
When Ole Miss has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 65 40
S&P+ 17 20
IsoPPP+ 49 3
Rushing S&P+ 54 67
Passing S&P+ 35 2

Ole Miss has chugged along despite seeing head coach Hugh Freeze fired in disgrace before the season in the wake of NCAA scandals and a contentious lawsuit between the university and former head coach Houston Nutt. Their offense has former five-star quarterback Shea Patterson at the helm, and he has thrown for more than 2,000 yards already this year. The defense has suffered majorly, either from the tumult around the program or else the decline in talent and coaching since defensive coordinator Dave Wommack retired.

On the surface, the Rebels seem a poor matchup for a top team, but LSU might be vulnerable due to their inability to put opponents away and insistence on playing close, low-scoring games. Additionally, LSU has played consecutive big-time matchups against Florida and Auburn that were nearly must-win games may be due for another Troy-like letdown.

The Tigers' offense is mostly comprised of running the ball from a variety of zone and gap schemes while leaving the backside defensive end unblocked, and attaching jet sweeps to all of their runs. Opponents then have to determine if they want to stop the sweeps with their defensive ends or account for the runners with a linebacker or defensive back. If the defensive ends start charging upfield to stop the sweeps, then running backs can exploit the cutback lane; if they chase the running back, then they risk getting flanked on the perimeter by the sweep. It's a difficult scheme to account for but it's also the main thrust of the LSU offense and the only thing they do particularly well.

The LSU defense has been strong this season but certainly not as good as a year ago, due no doubt to losing so many NFL players and having to plug in underclassmen across multiple positions. It's reasonable that they could have a big day against Ole Miss, but it's also reasonable that the Rebels passing game could get some points on the board and make this a competitive game if LSU fails to score 30 points again.

Watch for:

  • Can Ole Miss defend the jet sweeps LSU attaches to all of their runs?
  • Does Shea Patterson have the potential to be an equalizer in this game throwing the ball against a young LSU defense?
  • How will LSU's effort and focus look after playing consecutive big-time matchups?

S&P Outright Pick: LSU

Michigan at Penn State (-9.5) -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan Penn State
S&P+ 16 3
Special Teams S&P+ 48 91
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 98 4
S&P+ 76 8
IsoPPP+ 75 11
Rushing S&P+ 55 44
Passing S&P+ 90 5
When Penn State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 6 22
S&P+ 2 13
IsoPPP+ 8 15
Rushing S&P+ 11 19
Passing S&P+ 1 26

The point spread in this game is partly a reflection of how well Penn State tends to play in these major "white out" prime-time games against premier Big 10 East opponents, and partly a reflection on how hapless Michigan has been on offense this season. Quarterback John O'Korn appeared to be the solution for the Wolverines when he led a comeback against Purdue, but he did not play as well against better opponents like Michigan State or Indiana. The Wolverines have really struggled on offense this season.

Much of the issues can be chalked up to a very young offensive line that isn't particularly comfortable in pass protection paired with a very young wide receiver corps that struggles to get open. None of these issues are likely to get much better going up against a Penn State defense that has yet to surrender even 20 points in a game this season, and will be amped up playing in front of a loud crowd. The Nittany Lions defense has leaned on a veteran defensive backfield and an ability to bring pressure from multiple angles to squeeze opponents this year.

As good as the Penn State defense has been, though, Michigan's defense has a claim to being the best defense in the nation. Linebacker Devin Bush and defensive end Chase Winovich have 4.5 and 5.5 sacks respectively, and the team has 20 sacks on the year with 47 tackles for loss. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has been very aggressive, bringing pressure from the linebackers. Winovich and fellow defensive end Rashan Gary have been highly effective in their own right. Michigan has also made the most of defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, a highly disruptive player who already has seven tackles for loss on the year.

Penn State will probably need to lean on star running back Saquon Barkley making something out of Michigan's explosive defense, and they may need to do it via the passing game since the Wolverines probably aren't going to give Penn State much room up front to generate a running game. Michigan will crowd the line and then dare Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley to beat press coverage and blitzes in the passing game.

It's hard to see that adding up to much in the way of points, but if Michigan's own offense is regularly punting or turning the ball over, then Penn State will eventually get the ball rolling and could cover the spread without even having to break 20 points.

Watch for:

  • Can Michigan run the ball effectively enough to stay in the game?
  • How will Michigan account for Penn State running back Saquon Barkley?
  • How well Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley protects the ball against Michigan's pressure and coverage.

S&P Outright Pick: Penn State

USC at Notre Dame (-3.5) -- 7:30 p.m. (NBC)

Overall USC Notre Dame
S&P+ 17 12
Special Teams S&P+ 14 66
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 18 12
S&P+ 18 13
IsoPPP+ 34 9
Rushing S&P+ 48 15
Passing S&P+ 27 6
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 46 5
S&P+ 31 19
IsoPPP+ 25 6
Rushing S&P+ 34 1
Passing S&P+ 21 76

USC started the year as national championship hopefuls, and Notre Dame is starting to get there even as both teams sit at 5-1 with narrow losses to Washington State and Georgia, respectively. The Fighting Irish have found an identity as a power running team with multiple future NFL offensive linemen working with a strong cast of tight ends, running backs, and dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush. They'll face a battered opponent in the USC Trojans, who lost star defensive linemen Kenny Bigelow and possibly Josh Fatu and Porter Gustin to injury already this season.

The Trojans have also been beat up on the offensive line. They welcome back right tackle Chuma Edoga this week, but are still missing left tackle Toa Lobendahn. Sam Darnold has been under a ton of pressure as a result, and thrown nine interceptions to go along with five lost fumbles while trying to carry the Trojans on his back all year.

However, tight end Tyler Petite has been emerging as a weapon for the Trojans, with 245 yards and three touchdowns. Star receiver Deontay Burnett has been torching opponents with 626 yards and six touchdowns. The Trojans run game has also rolled along reasonably well with Ronald Jones II at 6.3 yards per carry and backup Stephen Carr at 5.9. If USC can hold onto the football, they are still pretty explosive on offense this season, even with a beat up offensive line.

The Notre Dame defense has been very strong in its own right, and Boston College's 20-point outing has been the most they've surrendered all year. Their linebacker corps has been swarming the ball all season, and nickel linebacker Drue Tranquill has been a very versatile weapon for them in defending spread offenses. The defensive line has mostly focused on keeping them clean, but Jerry Tillery has also contributed three sacks in addition to presenting imposing size at 6-foot-7 and 306 pounds.

The battle between Darnold and the Notre Dame defense is the heavyweight bout of this game, but the main question may simply revolve around the health of key players involved when Notre Dame is on offense. Wimbush is said to be healthy and ready to go for this game, but Notre Dame will need him to take down the Trojans. If he's ready to go, then it becomes a question of how well USC can hold up to Notre Dame's pounding run game for four quarters. Left guard Quenton Nelson is playing at an All-American level, and running back Josh Adams is sitting at 776 yards and 9.0 yards per carry thus far on the year.

If USC's defense isn't up for playing sound and physical defense against the Irish, then Notre Dame may just roll over them while accumulating turnovers and turning this into a rout. If the game is close, then USC may be able to lean on Darnold to deliver some winning shots late.

Watch for:

  • Can Sam Darnold avoid turnovers against Notre Dame's defense?
  • How will the USC defensive front hold up against the Notre Dame offensive front?
  • Can either of these two teams stake a claim as a playoff caliber team?

S&P Outright Pick: Notre Dame

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 7

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread Ian's Pick against the spread
Houston 2.5 Memphis Houston Houston Houston
Oklahoma State 7 Texas Oklahoma State Oklahoma State Texas
Central Florida 7.5 Navy Central Florida Central Florida Central Florida
LSU 6.5 Ole Miss LSU LSU Ole Miss
Penn State 9.5 Michigan Penn State Penn State Penn State
Notre Dame 3.5 USC Notre Dame Notre Dame Notre Dame

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

S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 22-20

Ian Picks against the spread last week: 3-3

Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 14-28

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 19 Oct 2017

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