Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Nov 2014

OFI: More Close Shaves

by Chad Peltier

It was a week defined by close calls, as Florida State began the week with a surging comeback against Louisville; TCU kicked a game-winning field goal over West Virginia (undoubtedly saving the lives of hundreds of couches in Morgantown); Mississippi State intercepted a potentially game-tying pass from Arkansas with little time left on the clock; and Auburn held off Bo Wallace and Ole Miss. Last season, the national championship game was between the dominating Florida State Seminoles and a plucky Auburn team that likely punched above their weight. This year, with 12 one-loss teams in last week's College Football Playoff Top 25, close calls and narrow wins are becoming the norm.

The Selection Committee prized strength of wins on teams' resumes for their first ranking last week. That's why Mississippi State got the top nod over Florida State, why TCU is in the top seven, and why Alabama, despite being third in the F/+ rankings last week and with only four points separating them from being undefeated, is sixth. The Committee's job didn't get much easier this week, with Florida over Georgia being the only major upset (few would count Auburn over Ole Miss as much of an upset), but many other teams barely eking out wins.

One thing to watch as the next round of rankings is released this Tuesday will be how the Committee views wins like Florida State's over Louisville. In their eyes, was Louisville's formerly top-ranked defense (both overall and in F/+) exposed by the Seminoles, or was the Seminoles win impressive due to the team's tenacity? The Seminoles, by almost every metric, don't look like a top-five team, but they do one thing better than almost everyone: they keep winning. One of the only challenges to the introduction of the playoff system was that it might devalue the regular season. If you want the results of the regular season games to matter, then the Seminoles' winning should be one of the only things that matters. That is less of an endorsement for the Seminoles than a reminder of the challenges in ranking the top four teams with limited data, varying selection standards, and different philosophies on the goals of the playoff system. (Can you even pick a "best" team? What if "the best" team doesn't win all of their games? Are "best" and "most deserving" the same idea?)

But with the slate of games for next week (Michigan State-Ohio State, Baylor-Oklahoma, Auburn-Texas A&M, Notre Dame-Arizona State, Kansas State-TCU, Alabama-LSU), maybe all of those questions will just answer themselves.

TOEDRAGS

  • Not many pundits predicted the outcome of the Florida-Georgia game. What led to the record-breaking rushing performance from Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones? We'll talk about those two later on in this post, but first let's try and isolate whether it was the Florida offensive line, the Florida running backs, or the Georgia front seven that led to the Gators rushing for 418 yards despite attempting just six passes for 27 yards. While the offensive line was dominant on certain plays, the Opportunity Rate was just 47 percent, which is decent, but not great enough to account for the output. More important were the running backs gaining seven explosive runs, including two breakaway runs for touchdowns. Finally, even though Georgia's defense shut out Missouri, had an excellent first half against Arkansas, and shut out Clemson during the second half, their defensive line was just 59th in Adjusted Line Yards and 63rd in Defensive Rushing S&P+. Outside of two third downs on third-and-20 and third-and-14, the Gators averaged just 3.2 yards to go on third down, with five third downs with only one yard to go. So part of the issue was certainly in the relatively weak, but probably underplayed, Georgia rush defense.
  • TCU has been erratic, jumping from an 82-27 win over Texas Tech to a 31-30 last-second win over West Virginia. The Horned Frogs were seventh in the F/+ rankings and are a field goal away from being undefeated, but needed a last-second field goal and a +3 turnover margin to beat the Mountaineers. The Horned Frogs had two turnovers of their own, but scored 14 points on two of the Mountaineers' five turnovers. But equally as important to the Horned Frogs taking the win was the combination of TCU's fourth-quarter surge and West Virginia's conservative game plan with the lead. Clint Trickett had an off day, throwing for just 6.2 yards per attempt and two interceptions, but the Mountaineers ran the ball on 22 of 28 second-half plays and ended the game with three straight three-and-outs. While the Mountaineers defense was ranked 36th in Defensive F/+ entering the game, they were 91st in Field Position Advantage, and it showed with the number of punts, turnovers, and late defensive breakdowns. The conservative game plan to end the contest was questioned afterwards, but with little production out of Kevin White and running backDreamius Smith averaging 5.8 yards per carry (though 50 yards came on one play and he had just a 33 percent efficiency rate), maybe the focus on the run was justified. The Mountaineers' conservative game plan and weak fourth quarter combined with TCU's output in the fourth to put the Horned Frogs in a position to kick the game-winning field goal. Maybe the most telling stat was that TCU gained 164 yards in the fourth quarter while West Virginia had three possessions for a total of -7 yards.
  • It seems like each team in the top ten is trying to do their best impression of last year's Auburn team by being just impressive enough to get in a position to contend for the national championship. From Florida State's close games against N.C. State, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Clemson; to TCU's close win over West Virginia; to Auburn's best impression of itself in a 35-31 win over Ole Miss, the number of close wins this season has been unusually high. However, the Mississippi State Bulldogs are doing their absolute best impression of 2013 Auburn as well. The Bulldogs are undefeated, with wins over LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn, but needed a fourth-down stop and late interception to beat Arkansas last weekend. Arkansas, at 35th in the F/+ rankings, is on a streak of losing 17 straight SEC games, but looks closer and closer each week to beating a team it isn't supposed to. The Bulldogs were -2 in turnover margin and averaged just 1.89 points per possession. Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs offense was stymied much of the day, with two interceptions and only 3.7 yards per rush. That's difficult to overcome, especially when the offensive line averages just a 43 percent Opportunity Rate and an average starting position of the 17-yard line, with five possessions beginning within their own 10-yard line.

TOP 25

1. Auburn
2. Mississippi State
3. Oregon
4. Florida State
5. Alabama
6. Ole Miss
7. TCU
8. Michigan State
9. Oklahoma
10. Ohio State
11. Notre Dame
12. Kansas State
13. Baylor
14. Arizona State
15. LSU
16. Clemson
17. Georgia
18. Nebraska
19. Marshall
20. Louisville
21. Miami
22. West Virginia
23. USC
24. UCLA
25. Duke

This week sees a new leader on top of my rankings, as the combination of Auburn's impressive wins over Ole Miss, LSU, and Kansas State, as well as their dominance in the F/+ rankings, boosts them to the top spot. I had some difficulty ranking teams where one appears to be better statistically, but lost the head-to-head matchup, or has played more impressively since. That was the case for Georgia and Clemson as well as Ole Miss and Alabama. I gave Alabama the nod because of the Rebels' recent downward trend in weighted scoring average and two losses to LSU and Auburn. That Texas A&M win in Week 6 doesn't look quite as impressive anymore either. Alabama also has an undefeated adjusted record according to the S&P+.

HONOR ROLL

The Honor Roll is nice and long this week, so get ready:

  • James Conner, RB, Pitt. Paul Chryst's Wisconsin 2.0 certainly has its bell cow in running back James Conner. Despite losing in double overtime, the nation's leading rusher had 263 yards rushing on 38 carries. Conner's longest run was only 19 yards, but an incredible 87 percent of his carries were successful as he repeatedly gashed the Blue Devils for seven yards per carry.
  • Shaq Thompson, RB/LB, Washington. Thompson could start on both sides of the ball for the Huskies. The junior can impress equally whether running the ball himself or tackling the guy with it instead. Against Colorado, Thompson rushed 15 times for 175 yards, including a 56-yard breakaway explosive carry.
  • Cody Kessler, QB, USC. The Trojans signal-caller has had a heck of a year, despite little attention nationally. Against the 94th-ranked pass defense, Kessler completed 66 percent of his passes for 400 yards, including 220 to his star wide receiver, Nelson Agholor.
  • Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee. Volunteers fans will begin to wonder how Justin Worley beat out Dobbs for the starting quarterback spot if Dobbs can continue with performances like this one. Dobbs ran for 166 yards and threw for 301 in the overtime win over South Carolina. Particularly impressive was his strike to receiver Jason Croom with 11 seconds left to force overtime.
  • Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones, RBs, Florida. Georgia entered the Cocktail Party as the 63rd–ranked rush defense, but will likely be ranked much lower after these two Gators shredded the Bulldawgs defense for 197 and 192 yards, respectively. The Gators offensive line deserves a lot of credit for bullying an undersized Georgia front seven and likely preserving Will Muschamp's tenure in Gainesville for a while longer.

DEMERITS

  • Maryland captains refusing to shake the Penn State captains' hands. Whether this is a demerit or not will likely depend on whether you see this as normal rivalry behavior (for two non-rivals) or whether it's just poor sportsmanship. The Nittany Lions captains attempted to shake the three Terrapins' hands, but were rejected. It's not quite clear what the direct cause of the snub was, but it likely had something to do with the pre-game fight involving Maryland captain Stefon Diggs and James Franklin's offseason comments about Maryland being "in-state."
  • East Carolina fumbles five times in loss to Temple. The Pirates outgained the Owls 428-135, but Temple was +5 in turnover margin. Temple's leading rusher had just 29 yards on 2.4 yards per carry, but even that was enough to defeat the sloppy Pirates 20-10.
  • South Carolina's disappointing season. The Gamecocks have fallen far below their media and statistical projections this season. After last week's overtime loss to Tennessee, which brought the Gamecocks down to 4-5, Steve Spurrier excused himself from the post-game news conference in less than a minute, saying "I don't need to take any questions. You guys watched it. I just need to get out of here for a while."

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona. With another 19 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks, I don't think there is a more productive lineman in the country this season. Scooby is second in the country with 2.31 tackles for loss per game, third in the country with 11 total sacks, and fourth in total tackles per game, averaging 12.13.
  • Kevin White, CB, TCU. The other Kevin White in the Big 12 shut down West Virginia's Kevin White, holding the nation's fourth-leading receiver to just 28 yards and three receptions. White also added two tackles for loss and a pass breakup in the Horned Frogs' last-second win over the Mountaineers.
  • Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M. Sure it was only against Louisiana-Monroe, but Garrett set the sack record for SEC freshman with 3.5, bringing his season total up to 11. That's past Jadeveon Clowney, for those of you keeping track at home.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 03 Nov 2014

3 comments, Last at 04 Nov 2014, 1:45pm by HaveSomeIntegrity

Comments

1
by big10freak :: Mon, 11/03/2014 - 6:16pm

Here's hoping WI can stay focused and take care of the Boilers. Because I think playing at home with Herring back at nosetackle the Badgers can clean Nebraska's clock.

2
by AdamNole :: Tue, 11/04/2014 - 11:52am

FSU hasn't looked like a Top 5 team but Miss St. has with lackluster performances the last two weeks against unranked Kentucky and Arkansas? While the last two weeks FSU has beat Top 10 defenses and ranked opponents? How about Oregon actually losing a game and only beating average Wash St by seven? So Oregon losing at home to two loss Arizona makes them better in your eyes over a FSU team who has beat 4 ranked opponents(start of the game) including one without the top player in college football?

3
by HaveSomeIntegrity :: Tue, 11/04/2014 - 1:45pm

Kind of hard to take someone seriously that has Ole miss at #6 after back to back losses. When you schedule 4 cupcakes/ no power-5 conference games in your OOC, then lose all your inter-conference matchups, you don't get to stay ranked that high. Reminds me of the SEC bias that led to A&M being ranked as high as #6 this season after beating one of the worst South Carolina teams we've seen in awhile (also ranked in the top 10 earlier this season). But then again, LSU was ranked in the top ten also. Why not just have everyone in the SEC be ranked in the top 10 while you're at it? It's too inconceivable that they'd be a top heavy conference like the ACC or B1G this year, than stacked like the Big12 appears to be for the first time in a very long time. Having FSU ranked #4 is just a bash on the overall credibility of this writer. If you watched Thursday's game, you'd note that the Cardinal's defense earned that #1 ranking, having caused 4 turnovers. Yet, FSU's offense still beat them by two scores while the defense pulled things together immediately after half time. They're the reigning Champions and have won 25 games in a row. Not to mention they scheduled a Big 12 team, SEC team, and playoff contender ND in their OOC schedule.

Honestly, the only thing on here that looks right is Oregon at #3 since they're the only 1-loss team that has appeared to get it together and look more dominant as they've progressed through their schedule.

Top 4:

1. FSU
2. Miss State
3. Oregon
4. Auburn