Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

22 Sep 2014

OFI: Blowouts, Upsets, and Narrow Escapes

by Chad Peltier

This was a week of stark contrasts and few average games: teams won big, lost in an upset, or had narrow escapes. Few members of the top 25 had competitive-but-boring 7- to 14-point wins. Let's start with the blowouts. Four top-25 teams won by at least 58 points -- Wisconsin, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Michigan State -- by a combined score of 265-37. All but Wisconsin had a win probability greather than 95 percent according to the F/+ projections. These games weren't without drama, if record-breaking is your thing: Georgia had their highest margin of victory in 56 years and the most points in 20 years, Wisconsin broke the Big Ten single-game rushing record, and the Spartans scored more points than any other Michigan State squad in 25 years. (58-6 has become fairly standard for Texas A&M.)

We also had our fair share of upsets. None completely shook up the playoff race like a Florida State or Oklahoma loss, but Missouri was likely knocked out of the running with its loss to Indiana. Despite an 81.5 percent probability of winning (and a projected score of 33-20), the Tigers were upset by Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers. The two teams both had 27 first downs and almost equal total yardage (493 and 498), both ran 83 total plays, and Missouri's lone turnover didn't result in any Hoosier points. Indiana simply had the last full possession, however, scoring with just 22 seconds left. The Hoosiers have never beaten a ranked SEC team before in their history. Utah also upset Michigan, but that was hardly an upset when going by F/+ ratings. Michigan was 35th in F/+ and Utah 41st, but the Utes were also 33rd in FEI and Michigan 44th. That was primarily due to Michigan's complete inability to finish drives -- or even get into the red zone -- against Power Five teams. On a per-play basis Michigan is a decent football team, but turnovers (-10 in turnover margin, with eight interceptions) doom this offense. Georgia Tech secured a win over Virginia Tech, both bringing the Yellow Jackets to 4-0 and muddling the Buckeyes' strength of schedule. While Virginia Tech had a gaudy 16th ranking in FEI, their S&P+ ranking was 40th -- just one spot behind Georgia Tech. Finally, we had an FCS-FBS takedown, with Northwestern State (seven-point underdogs in the F/+ projections) bringing down Louisiana Tech. A lot of drama for "Tech" schools this weekend.

Finally, every one of the top four playoff contenders had a tight game last weekend. While Alabama ultimately scored 21 unanswered points in the last 20 minutes to make the final margin seem like a blowout, the Crimson Tide were tied with Will Muschamp's Gators until 5:27 in the third quarter. Florida scored all 21 of its points off of three of Alabama's four turnovers, which accounts for why a superior team (with an 88 percent F/+ win probability) was tied midway through the third quarter. The Tide are dominant once again, but the lesson seems to be that no team can be immune to the effects of turnovers. Most describe Oregon's struggles with Washington State as a result of their first conference road game, but it's likely that the Cougars simply exposed a few of Oregon's weaknesses that Michigan State had touched on earlier: a mediocre pass defense (436 passing yards allowed to Washington State and 343 allowed to the Spartans) and a patchwork offensive line (seven sacks allowed to the Cougars). Without the 14 points off of two Cougars turnovers (one a fumble and one on downs) and another following a missed Cougars field-goal attempt, Washington State had a real chance at the upset. Finally, Oklahoma and West Virginia also had almost equal total statistics: 510 and 513 total yards, 24 and 26 first downs, and 50 percent and 47 percent third down conversion rate. So despite the 49 teams separating the two in F/+ rankings and the Sooners' 77.9 percent F/+ win probability, Dana Holgorsen's Mountaineers were only undone by their minus-2 turnover margin.

TOEDRAGS

  • As noted above, the elite playoff contenders were able to get narrow wins because of points off of turnovers. Alabama (21), Oregon (14), Oklahoma (14), and Auburn (6) combined for 55 points off of opponent turnovers. These teams capitalized on the field position and missed scoring opportunities of their opponents, underscoring the importance of field position and each drive.
  • Pitt was a one-touchdown favorite over Iowa, but the FEI scores (Pitt 32nd and Iowa 34th) suggested it could be even closer than that. Besides the Hawkeyes securing the upset and potentially finding a new starting quarterback in C.J. Beathard, this game was interesting because Iowa averaged 3.00 points and 38.9 yards per possession, while Pitt averaged just 2.22 points but 48.3 yards per possession. So, Pitt had a higher average yards per possession but lower points. The difference was in red zone touchdown efficiency, where Pitt had four trips into the Iowa red zone, but settled for field goals on two of those trips. Iowa scored touchdowns on all three of its trips. Like Bill Connelly argues with his Five Factors, red zone efficiency is critical.
  • After the Bulldogs beat the LSU Tigers, some in the media argued that it wasn't really an upset at all, but Dan Mullen's group of upperclassmen were more experienced than the young Tigers they faced. The F/+ rankings reinforce that interpretation to some degree. Mississippi State was actually ranked higher in S&P+ (11th) than LSU (14th). The Tigers had a lower S&P+ ranking because of their offense (56th, the lowest of the S&P+ top 25 teams). While the LSU offense was able to score three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes because of freshman quarterback Brandon Harris, what was surprising was how effective the Bulldogs offense was against the fearsome Tigers defense (2nd in the S&P+).
  • Clemson-FSU. In the first half, FSU quarterback Sean McGuire was sacked three times and under constant pressure. Further, the Seminoles averaged 9.5 yards to go on third down throughout the game (11.0 in the first half and 8.1 in the second). Without Jameis Winston, the Seminoles were completely ineffective on standard downs, putting the offense behind schedule and their young quarterback in dangerous situations.

TOP 25

1. Oregon
2. Alabama
3. Florida State
4. Oklahoma
5. Texas A&M
6. Stanford
7. Baylor
8. Auburn
9. Georgia
10. Ole Miss
11. Michigan State
12. Notre Dame
13. Arizona State
14. Wisconsin
15. Ohio State
16. Mississippi State
17. UCLA
18. LSU
19. USC
20. South Carolina
21. Oklahoma State
22. BYU
23. Kansas State
24. East Carolina
25. Nebraska

Alabama's win over Florida vaulted them over Florida State this week, as the Seminoles looked a lot like pre-Jameis/Fisher teams: great defense, middling offense. I don't place too much stock in the order of the top three or four, however -- the group is still the elite in college football. These rankings differ most from the AP Poll in the rankings of South Carolina and Stanford. AP voters hardly changed their vote for the Gamecocks even though they went down to the wire with Vanderbilt (91st in F/+ rankings). Stanford is three points away from being undefeated this season, and like Georgia, is still an impressive team that would likely be favored against the teams ranked below it here. Missouri and Virginia Tech both fell out of the rankings, but they are among the teams knocking on the door to be re-ranked. Some might also take issue with the Bruins at 17th instead of their AP ranking at No. 11. However, at least in terms of F/+, the Bruins are 30th and 40th in S&P+.

HONOR ROLL

  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin. The star of Wisconsin's Big Ten record-setting performance had a career day with 253 yards and five touchdowns on just 13 carries. The Badgers star had five explosive plays, and 11 of his 13 carries were successful. Even though it was just Bowling Green, we might not see a more dominating individual performance, unless it comes from someone like…
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. Cooper is doing everything he can to both displace Julio Jones as the top receiver in Alabama history and redefine the Tide offense as a pass-friendly machine. Or is it partly Lane Kiffin? On his ten receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns, Cooper said, "Coach Kiffin is a very smart offensive coordinator. He takes advantage of matchups. And he knows exactly what he's doing." Cooper's matchup came against Vernon Hargreaves III, widely thought to be one of the top corners in the game. According to ESPN, VH3 had only allowed one reception for 14 yards before the Alabama game.
  • The Indiana Hoosiers. Yes, the entire team makes the honor roll. Coming on the heels of a three point loss to Bowling Green, Kevin Wilson's team regrouped and ran for 246 yards and three touchdowns in their upset over Missouri. The defense -- something the Hoosiers have never been known for -- forced seven punts and had 11 tackles for loss as well.
  • Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. You have to feel bad for Clemson fans as this point, because no team should have to face Georgia and Florida State in their first three games. The good news is that Deshaun Watson, the freshman heir to Tajh Boyd at quarterback, staked his claim to be the starting quarterback against one of the top defenses in the country. Watson came in for Cole Stoudt (who had a just-fine 3-of-5 for 40 yards stat line) and threw for 266 yards and no interceptions. Though the Tigers have fallen out of most rankings, the future is very bright.
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska. The Big Ten may struggle to beat out of conference opponents, but they sure do have some quality running backs in the Midwest. Abdullah has a claim to be the best of them, too. While he didn't do it in 13 carries like Melvin Gordon, Abdullah rushed 35 times for 229 yards in the win over Miami.

DEMERITS

  • Mid-tier ACC teams. The Big Ten and ACC are fighting to avoid being the weakest of the Power Five conferences, and the Big Ten got the better of three ACC teams Saturday: Pitt (which lost to Iowa), Miami (Nebraska), and Syracuse (Maryland). It was a tough day for the meat of the ACC, making it difficult to see a real challenger for the playoff outside of Florida State.
  • Michigan's turnovers. Michigan picked up its second loss of the season to Utah (now 3-0), but it's less the loss and more how the Wolverines managed to lose. Yet again, the Wolverines were brought down because of a completely ineffective offense -- one that hasn't seen the red zone against Power Five teams -- and turnovers. Michigan is last in the country with a minus-10 turnover margin. No matter how solid the team itself is (35th in the F/+ rankings before the Utah loss), Michigan won't win as many games as it should until it can fix its turnover issues. So is Michigan down and out? On the one hand, the Wolverines' losses were to the 15th and 41st ranked F/+ teams in Notre Dame and Utah. Those are two quality football teams. Second, Michigan seemed much more effective on a per-play basis, so it's reasonable to think that cleaning up the interceptions would significantly improve Wolverines' possession efficiency. However, interceptions are less random than fumbles and may just be part of Devin Gardner's and Shane Morris' games. While Brady Hoke has to be worried about his job security at this point, it's reasonable to see this Wolverines team knocking off a stronger opponent if it can put together a turnover-free game.
  • Injuries. Two high-profile players were lost for the season, including Maryland's starting defensive end Quinton Jefferson and Rutgers running back Paul James, both to knee injuries. Speedy recoveries, guys.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Jeremy Cash, DB, Duke. So how about those Blue Devils? The Duke defense has allowed no more than 17 points in a game in their four wins this season. Headlining that unit is Jeremy Cash, who racked up 11 tackles, 1.5 for loss, and one of their four interceptions. The former Buckeye is making a name for himself among ACC defensive backs, and Duke overall is challenging East Carolina as North Carolina's football school.
  • Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland, OL, Arkansas. The Razorbacks seems to have success no matter who is running the ball largely because of these two linemen. The unit as a whole averaged a 44 percent Running Back Block Success Rate against the Huskies.
  • Oklahoma's offensive line. It wasn't just Samaje Perine doing all of the work for the run-heavy Sooners. The Sooners’ offensive line made big holes for Perine and Ross to average more than 7 yards per carry. The unit's 37 percent Running Back Block Success Rate was a little low, but the line paved the way when necessary.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 22 Sep 2014

1 comment, Last at 23 Sep 2014, 3:07pm by RickD

Comments

1
by RickD :: Tue, 09/23/2014 - 3:07pm

"Big Ten got the better of three ACC teams Saturday: Pitt (which lost to Iowa), Miami (Nebraska), and Syracuse (Maryland)"

I hate conference re-alignment. So now Maryland is a Big Ten team, and Syracuse is an ACC team? (sigh)

It's just..so..WRONG!

Funny that all three of the ACC teams cited are Big East refugees. The only school that seems correctly placed out of the six is Iowa.