Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

18 Nov 2016

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 12

by Ian Boyd

Week 11 in college football proved to be "upset Saturday," with so many playoff contenders dropping big games that it may not even matter for any of them that they lost.

The craziness begun with Clemson dropping a home game to a feisty and physical Pittsburgh Panthers team that outrushed the Tigers 156-50, and was rewarded for being the more physical team when a 48-yard field goal went through the uprights to make it 43-42 with only six seconds remaining on the clock. Clemson is still in good shape provided it wins out and doesn't trip up again in the ACC championship game.

Then USC exposed Washington's vulnerability to top-tier trench talent by shutting down the Huskies' run game and picking off quarterback Jake Browning twice in a 24-13 victory. Head coach Clay Helton and freshman quarterback Sam Darnold are now lord protector and crown prince to the Trojans empire moving forward. The loss puts Washington in a very precarious state in terms of making the playoff -- the Huskies now need to win out and for other top contenders to lose.

Finally, Michigan was unable to do what North Dakota State had done earlier in the year, and was physically bested by the Iowa Hawkeyes playing in front of a home crowd. The Hawkeyes outrushed Michigan 164-98, shut down the Wolverines passing attack, and reportedly broke quarterback Wilton Speight's collarbone, which could potentially eliminate him from play for the rest of the season. Michigan can still make the playoff by beating Ohio State and then winning the Big 10 championship, but it may have to do so with a new starting quarterback.

Meanwhile, Alabama beat Mississippi State 51-3.

Week 12 offers a high-stakes game on Thursday night, and then a few games on Saturday that should prove compelling contest, some of which could determine conference championships. Here's what we're looking at:

All times are listed as Eastern.

Louisville (-14.5) at Houston -- 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2)

Overall Louisville Houston
F/+ 5 32
When Louisville has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 5 21
S&P+ 1 22
IsoPPP+ 1 24
Rushing S&P+ 1 9
Passing S&P+ 23 34
When Houston has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 8 46
S&P+ 8 66
IsoPPP+ 18 67
Rushing S&P+ 26 90
Passing S&P+ 23 48

There's a lot at stake for both of these programs in this prime-time Thursday night showdown. At 9-1 with a sole loss to Clemson that came in an exciting game, and with Washington dropping its home game to USC, Louisville could make the playoff as a second team from the ACC. Right now they're fifth in the rankings, but behind Michigan and Ohio State, who will play each other at the end of the season. If Clemson can avoid an error like losing to a scrappy Houston team on the road, it should be in position to overtake one of the Big 10 schools down the stretch.

Houston has won its last two major non-conference showdowns, shocking Florida State in the Peach Bowl and then following it up by taking down Oklahoma in the 2016 season opener. This Louisville game is a chance for the Cougars to make a mark as being an up-and-coming program, but it could also cost them their head coach. Tom Herman is in the running for some of the bigger jobs in college football, and if the state of Texas watches him take down yet another top program while their own squad stumbles to another middling season (currently 5-5) then don't be shocked if they decide to try and poach Herman to revitalize the Longhorns.

That said, ironically it'll be the Houston defense and not Herman's offense that will have the biggest say in how this game goes down. The Louisville Cardinals are ranked no. 1 in offensive S&P thanks to the explosive play of quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has already rushed for more than 1,000 yards on the year and is nearing 3,000 yards passing as well. Houston's defense has had a strong season and plays good run defense, but Lamar Jackson is a different kind of threat. If you let him loose on the perimeter more than a few times, you're pretty much done for the day. He's that electric of an athlete.

Houston will try to keep him bottled up and confused with its shifting 3-3-5 defense and lean on nickel Brandon Wilson to patrol the edge and make sure that Jackson doesn't get loose in open grass. The strength of the Cougars' defense is nose tackle Ed Oliver, a freshman sensation who already has 16.5 tackles for loss and three sacks despite regularly drawing double-teams. If he can wreck the middle of the Louisville offensive line, the linebackers and safeties behind him might be able to clean up the mess.

The Louisville defense is very good in its own right and also utilizes a 3-4 style defense complete with a tremendous blitz package that can overload and overwhelm an offensive line. As it happens, Houston quarterback Greg Ward is beat up as a result of getting repeatedly sacked playing behind a beat-up offensive line. The Cougars are going to have to hope for a strong defensive performance, to make some plays on special teams, and to have a game plan on offense oriented around getting the ball out quickly and playing ball control with the passing game.

Watch for:

  • Can Houston block Louisville's defensive front well enough to have a chance on offense?
  • How do the Cougars seek to contain Lamar Jackson?
  • Jackson landing deep passing shots on a Cougars defense that's rushing hats to the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
  • Is Houston quarterback Greg Ward healthy enough to go toe-to-toe with Jackson?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Louisville

Ohio State (-22.5) at Michigan State -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Ohio State Michigan State
F/+ 2 64
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 3 102
S&P+ 8 55
IsoPPP+ 21 78
Rushing S&P+ 2 63
Passing S&P+ 42 105
When Michigan State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 4 38
S&P+ 6 77
IsoPPP+ 5 43
Rushing S&P+ 13 61
Passing S&P+ 5 36

It has been a tough season for Michigan State, and it may get even rougher this week with star defensive tackle Malik McDowell likely to miss his second consecutive game. But don't be fooled by the spread and the lopsided matchup -- Michigan State playing in Lansing is a dangerous foe for Ohio State, and a potential tripwire in the Big 10 title race.

The crux of the matter is that Ohio State is a dominant running team with an iffy passing game, while Michigan State always fields a very aggressive run defense and has been giving the Buckeyes fits for years. Last year the Spartans rode a rotation of quarterbacks and gritty overall play to a shocking upset win over Ohio State that was made possible by the manner in which they shut down the Buckeyes' run game.

The secret to their success against Ohio State is aggressive play on the edges by their outside linebacker (Chris Frey this season) to the wide side of the field and the strong safety (Montae Nicholson) to the short side of the field. Those guys will trigger downhill at the hint of a run and squelch anything Ohio State wants to do while the Spartans dare the Buckeyes to punish them by throwing the ball outside.

Last year in a cold, rainy day in Columbus, Ohio State was not up for it. The forecast for this game is 30-degree weather with a chance once again of precipitation that could be rain or even snow. In that environment, in front of 75,000 fans screaming for a chance at a win that would redeem an otherwise sloppy season, against a Spartans defense that still has some senior leadership, there's a chance that the Buckeyes could really stumble.

However, the Buckeyes' own defense may carry the day. Michigan State has been very inconsistent with its running game and consequently has not been able to give its quarterbacks the support it needs as it tries to replace Connor Cook and everything he did for the offense back in 2015. Ohio State has a very difficult defensive line to move the ball against, and if the Spartans can't find some angles and plays to give their own blockers an advantage, then there won't be much hope even if the Spartans defense plays well.

Watch for:

  • Has Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer found any solutions to Michigan State's aggressive run defense?
  • Will the weather turn this into an ugly game in which Michigan State has a chance to steal a win?
  • Can Michigan State move the ball well enough to get on the scoreboard and protect its defense from facing short fields?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State

Oklahoma State at TCU (-4.5) -- 12 p.m. (FS1)

Overall Oklahoma State TCU
F/+ 39 28
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 35 19
S&P+ 14 43
IsoPPP+ 34 25
Rushing S&P+ 87 44
Passing S&P+ 29 35
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 63 76
S&P+ 88 22
IsoPPP+ 96 53
Rushing S&P+ 88 55
Passing S&P+ 90 57

TCU has fielded a fairly strong team this season but it has been defeated in multiple games due to its own quarterback Kenny Hill having a propensity to turn the ball over (10 interceptions on the year) and its young defense failing to force enough turnovers to make up the difference. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, has been a flawed team that has made the most of its advantages each week and relied on the play of star quarterback Mason Rudolph to put it in position to win the Big 12 down the stretch.

So on paper, this looks like a contest where TCU has enough advantages to put the Cowboys away, but Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy and Rudolph tend to find ways to win games. Between receivers James Washington (1,132 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) and Jalen McCleskey (720 receiving yards, seven touchdowns) the Cowboys have an ability to put more receiving threats on the field than opponents can account for, and then make their living throwing to whomever is left in an advantageous spot.

TCU has started to work out how to handle opponents that can overstress its young cornerbacks by using more odd fronts with three defensive linemen and an extra linebacker on the field. In that configuration, the Horned Frogs have been able to show even greater versatility in which receivers they bracket with double-teams and keep offenses guessing about where they will find advantages to throw the ball after the snap. This set also allows them to bring a wide variety of blitzes. The Horned Frogs are ranked 35th on passing downs and 25th in IsoPPP by S&P+, indicating their ability to eliminate big plays and get after the quarterback this season.

Baylor utilized a similar strategy to give Oklahoma State trouble earlier in the year when the Bears overcame the Cowboys 35-24. In that game, Oklahoma State tried to punish them with double-tight end sets and running the football, but was thwarted due to Baylor making big-time stops on the goal line that wasted long Cowboys drives. Against TCU, it would be facing a superior defensive front that may be able to achieve similar results.

On offense, TCU has moved the ball very well, but has struggled to avoid turnovers by Kenny Hill. In recent weeks TCU has utilized the running game more to help Hill get loose and take pressure off the passing game. Hill had 11 carries for 85 yards against Baylor while TCU running back Kyle Hicks added 26 carries for 195 yards and five touchdowns. That kind of two-pronged rushing attack gives TCU its best chance of matching Mason Rudolph and the Oklahoma State passing attack while minimizing mistakes.

Watch for:

  • TCU ignoring the threat of the Oklahoma State running game by utilizing its 3-3-5 defense to cause problems for quarterback Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys passing game.
  • Can Oklahoma State pick off TCU quarterback Kenny Hill, or do the Frogs lean on their running game and protect the ball?
  • Neither team has exceptional cornerbacks and whichever offense best exploits this fact could win this game in a shootout.

S&P Outright Pick: TCU

Florida at LSU (-13.5) -- 2 p.m. (SECN)

Overall Florida LSU
F/+ 29 9
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 93 3
S&P+ 90 5
IsoPPP+ 89 3
Rushing S&P+ 115 6
Passing S&P+ 64 3
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 7 32
S&P+ 4 33
IsoPPP+ 6 19
Rushing S&P+ 11 4
Passing S&P+ 8 67

The interesting dimension to this game was that it was rescheduled after Hurricane Matthew hit Florida and LSU insisted on rescheduling the game, ultimately leading to it being set up for this weekend in Baton Rouge, LALouisiana. There i's already some rivalry in this game without that shake-up and the added anticipation around this game. LSU will be playing for pride and for interim hHead cCoach Ed Orgeron's job, while Florida still has a chance at winning the SEC East division, because someone has to.

This game may simply come down to whether or not Florida can defend Leonard Fournette and the LSU running game or not. If they it can't, the Tigers will blow the Gators out of the water, and this game will be over fairly quickly. Florida is probably going to struggle to move the ball against this defense, and LSU defensive end Arden Key was confident enough in that likely outcome that he was quoted labelling the Florida offensive line as the weak link in the Gators offensive attack.

Key's scouting tip was that the Gators offensive line can't protect any of their quarterbacks, and that they make their living running behind the big right side -- , the latter point has probably been true for two years now. The Gators like to line up a tight end or two along with their right tackle and run inside zone for steady gains as much as they can. Unfortunately for them, LSU has a smart defensive coordinator and a big, smart defense that won't struggle to "key" in on that feature.

The Gators will be turning back to Purdue transfer quarterback Austin Appleby in this game and hoping he can make enough plays against LSU's defense to keep the Gators around. LSU has been getting a little better on offense each week, although that wasn't obvious from the 10-0 thrashing they suffered against Alabama, and quarterback Danny Etling made the most of his 15 passes last week against Arkansas throwing for 9.8 yards per pass. That game was defined, however, by LSU running backs Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette combining for 38 carries for 360 yards and five touchdowns. The Tigers want this one, the Gators better come with their chinstraps buckled in tight.

Watch for:

  • Can Florida hold up to the LSU running game?
  • How much will LSU key in on Florida's offensive line, and can the Gators mix up their play calls enough to keep the Tigers off balance?
  • Which team most wants to be here? Are the Gators serious about competing for the SEC East or will they roll over against a physical team?

S&P Outright Pick: LSU

Washington State at Colorado (-4.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Washington State Colorado
F/+ 24 65
When Washington State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 10 6
S&P+ 17 9
IsoPPP+ 46 16
Rushing S&P+ 56 20
Passing S&P+ 33 12
When Colorado has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 22 34
S&P+ 67 35
IsoPPP+ 70 37
Rushing S&P+ 33 76
Passing S&P+ 103 10

The stakes in this game were diminished when USC took down Washington, reducing the playoff ramifications of the Washington vs. Washington State end-of-year rivalry showdown, and decreasing the chances that a Pac-12 team would be making an appearance in the playoff. That said, here are two good teams on the rise that will be playing in one of the best games that this Saturday has to offer.

This game is going to pit two longtime coaches against each other in what should be a very compelling matchup. On one side you have Washington State head coach and offensive guru Mike Leach, who popularized the pass-heavy "Air Raid" offense and has it humming in Pullman right now. On the other side you have Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who has revitalized the Buffaloes program by getting this defense playing at a very high level. The Buffaloes shocked Michigan in Ann Arbor earlier in the year with a near upset and have been shutting down Pac-12 offenses on a weekly basis.

The Buffaloes play a 3-4 defense, but they sub in defensive backs as liberally as they sprinkle in blitzes from all directions. They will be looking to confuse the Washington State offensive line and create pressure while only sending four pass-rushers so that their defensive backs can focus on playing coverage against the Cougars' spread passing attack. There are some really good players in the defensive backfield for the Buffaloes, including linebacker and leading tackler Kenneth Olugbode; safety Tedric Thompson; and coverage players Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon, who have combined to defend 20 passes this season.

The Cougars don't have a single wide receiver who is particularly dominant, but they spread the ball around and target the slot receivers regularly so the Buffaloes will have to rely on all of those figures in the backfield holding up in the middle of the field against their quick passing attack

The Buffaloes' offense is also at its best throwing the ball, and quarterback Sefo Liufau will run or throw but did the latter for 213 yards and three touchdowns a week ago when Colorado was blowing out Arizona. This is far from a dominant offensive attack, but it has usually been able to take advantage when its own defense is playing well.

The Washington State defense has been a revelation this year and is coming off a 56-21 beating of California. Their strategy in that game was to shut down the Bears' running game and then key in on the passing game on third downs. Cal threw for 425 yards but only managed to go 4-of-14 on third downs; it was 2-for-9 going for third downs with its passing game, with an interception. The Cougars like to stop the run at all costs and then set up their defense to play Tampa-2 on passing downs. They often yield passing yardage as a result, but they like to take their chances beating opponents in a shootout rather than allowing the other team to run the ball, run clock, and keep their own offense on the sideline.

If they can stop the Buffaloes' run game, it will put a great deal of pressure on Leavitt's defense to keep Colorado in this game.

Watch for:

  • The battle of two great minds when Mike Leach's Washington State offense has the ball against Jim Leavitt's Colorado defense.
  • Can Colorado run the ball on the Washington State defense, or will it be lured into a shootout with the Cougars' more deadly passing attack?
  • How well does Washington State quarterback Luke Falk navigate Colorado's shifting, blitz-happy 3-4 defense?
  • There's rematch potential here if Colorado wins the Pac-12 South, while Washington State goes on to beat Washington and the Pac-12 North.

S&P Outright Pick: Washington State

Oklahoma (-3) at West Virginia -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oklahoma West Virginia
F/+ 15 20
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 9 18
S&P+ 2 37
IsoPPP+ 2 29
Rushing S&P+ 23 32
Passing S&P+ 1 27
When West Virginia has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 56 49
S&P+ 64 30
IsoPPP+ 62 56
Rushing S&P+ 29 80
Passing S&P+ 54 49

This is likely to be the toughest challenge for the Sooners as they seek Bob Stoops' 10th Big 12 championship at Oklahoma. They still have an end-of-year date with Oklahoma State at home, but West Virginia has the best defense that Oklahoma has faced this year from any Big 12 opponent.

The Mountaineers just had a successful outing holding the explosive Texas Longhorns to 20 points in Austin last Saturday. They play a versatile 3-3-5 defense that is largely a "bend don't break" type unit despite their heavy usage of zero blitzes that gives them a very aggressive edge. A "bend don't break" strategy is probably the best way to go facing Oklahoma's deadly passing game, which is keyed by quarterback Baker Mayfield throwing either to speedster Dede Westbrook (68 catches, 1,254 yards, 14 touchdowns) or big tight end Mark Andrews (27 catches, 412 yards, six touchdowns). Their backfield is loaded with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, and there are simply too many threats on the field to keep them all under wraps. Instead, the Mountaineers will have to try and hang on and tackle well, and then use their big blitzes to blow up Oklahoma on third down when they get their chances.

Beating Oklahoma will probably also require scoring at least 30 points if not 40, as the Sooners are pretty hard to completely shut down. However, there's a chance for success here against an Oklahoma defense that has been targeted and exploited all season long. In particular, the Sooners have really struggled at cornerback opposite Jordan Thomas, and the Mountaineers definitely have a wide receiver corps that can make the most of it.

The top three targets for West Virginia are Shelton Gibson (deep threat burner), Ka'Raun White (a big possession receiver on the outside), and Daikiel Shorts (a mid-sized veteran who excels at getting open over the middle). Whoever draws the second Sooners cornerback will likely be targeted heavily all night long. They have a very solid running game and spread the ball around pretty well to all of their skill players, making them a difficult team to key in on for a defense.

Oklahoma has been getting freshman outside linebacker Caleb Kelly more involved of late and between him and Obo Okoronkwo they'll need to find some pass-rush to disrupt the Mountaineers' rhythm because they don't want to get into a close game on the road in Morgantown against this veteran West Virginia team.

Watch for:

  • Can West Virginia make red zone stands to keep Oklahoma's potent offense off the scoreboard like they did against Texas?
  • How well does Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield handle West Virginia's heavy blitzing on the road?
  • Can Oklahoma's pass-rush blow up West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard?
  • Neither Baker Mayfield nor Skyler Howard are big guys -- how well do they handle a cold weather game?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 12

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread
Louisville 14.5 Houston Louisville Louisville
Ohio State 22.5 Michigan State Ohio State Ohio State
TCU 4.5 Oklahoma State TCU TCU
LSU 13.5 Florida LSU LSU
Colorado 4.5 Washington State Washington State Washington State
Oklahoma 3 West Virginia Oklahoma Oklahoma

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

S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 26-40

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 18 Nov 2016

1 comment, Last at 17 Nov 2016, 6:48pm by hoegher

Comments

1
by hoegher :: Thu, 11/17/2016 - 6:48pm

Think the F/+ ranking for Colorado is off, probably not #65 in the country.