Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

27 Oct 2014

OFI: Reckoning in the Valley

by Chad Peltier

Both primetime matchups in the Valleys -- Happy Valley in State College, Pennsylvania, and Death Valley in Baton Rouge, Louisiana -- lived up to the hype this weekend. The former featured a double overtime win for the visiting and heavily favored Buckeyes, while the latter saw the third-ranked team in the AP Poll (and top team in the F/+ rankings) fall to the LSU Tigers. The Tigers' win shook up the playoff picture once again and made life difficult for the College Football Selection Committee, who are set to release their initial rankings Tuesday night. Even looking at the statistical data it's difficult to differentiate the bevy of one-loss teams, especially as Ole Miss joins the crowded group.

What is clear after nine weeks is that parity is the norm and no team is immune from upset. Even in last week's F/+ rankings, there were less than four percentage points separating the second-ranked team (Oklahoma) from the eighth-ranked team (Ohio State). The Rebels, the former number one F/+ team, were narrowly ranked above Oklahoma.

One thing that has stood out to me this season is how many of the best teams have elite Field Position Advantage rankings. Georgia, Ohio State, Utah, Nebraska, Ole Miss, TCU, Baylor, Michigan State, and Oklahoma are all in the top 20, while teams like Minnesota, Duke, and Marshall have relied on field position and winning the turnover margin to produce surprisingly successful seasons.

TOEDRAGS

  • The final 1:19 of the Ole Miss game is well worth analyzing in more detail. Ole Miss started with the ball at its own 25-yard line down 10-7. Quarterback Bo Wallace faced the 12th-ranked Defensive Passing S&P+ LSU Tigers, who were also ranked 17th in Defensive Back Havoc Rate. While Wallace has developed a bad reputation for inconsistency, he had yet to turn the ball over and had passed for 151 yards against the stout Tigers secondary at that point in the game. Wallace then converted a pass on fourth-and-8,followed by another 13-yard gain on the next play to get the Rebels to the Ole Miss 39. LSU defensive back Jalen Mills then intercepted a pass on second-and-10, but it was wiped away by a pass interference call. After an 8-yard scramble by Wallace, the game really got interesting. The Rebels were in excellent field position (the LSU 25) on first down with an excellent kicker in freshman Gary Wunderlich, the top rated kicker in the last recruiting class according to Rivals.com. However, the Rebels then took a delay of game, backing them up to the 30 and leading LSU to call a timeout with nine seconds left. This was a debatably bad decision by LSU both because it gave the timeout-less Rebels a chance to win the game instead of just tying it, and also because icing the kicker is statistically ineffective. However, Hugh Freeze decided to then take Wunderlich off the field and give Wallace one last pass attempt. He was told to either hit a receiver in the flats or throw the ball away. Instead, Wallace's loss averse-motivated risk acceptance kicked in and he threw for the end zone. The ball was intercepted. Game over. It all ultimately came down to Wallace's predisposition towards risk and his perception of the Rebels' chances in overtime. It's debatable whether Wallace should ever have been put in that situation in the first place given Freeze's knowledge of the LSU secondary, but Wallace ultimately decided to pull the trigger on the pass.
  • That wasn't the only interesting note from the LSU-Ole Miss game. Ole Miss entered the matchup fifth in Defensive Rushing S&P+, but the Tigers gashed the Rebels for 264 rushing yards on 4.8 yards per rush and 53 percent efficiency. These were mostly steady 4- to 8-yard gashes with a few explosive 20-yard gains mixed in, rather than a few big rushing plays. With that kind of production you might have expected LSU to blow the Rebels out of the water, but the Tigers were -4 in turnover margin until the final Wallace interception. The Tigers also struggled in possession efficiency, getting only ten points off of four drives of 60-plus yards.
  • So what do we take away from TCU's record 82-point win over Texas Tech? First of all, the offense had incredible efficiency, only punting twice and averaging .95 points per play. That is a lot of points, incredible efficiency, and a great deal of explosive plays -- 12, by my count. But Texas Tech was also ranked 103rd in Defensive F/+ (and 122nd in Front 7 Havoc Rate), so Trevone Boykin was expected to have plenty of time in the pocket and any number of holes in the defense to break big plays. So the offensive output was somewhat expected (not to take anything away from Boykin's performance, however). Another big factor in that offensive production was the Horned Frogs' average starting field position. While they forced four turnovers, their average starting field position was all over the place (average start at their 38-yard line), but they also had five possessions start on Texas Tech's side of the field.
  • Steve Spurrier knew his Gamecocks were overmatched against Auburn, so he drew up a game plan that included multiple trick plays and gambles to help give his struggling South Carolina team a chance at another upset. They converted five of six fourth-down attempts and only lost by a single touchdown, so you have to think the plan worked. Auburn is 18th in Defensive F/+, but is relatively weak in Front 7 Havoc (58th), IsoPPP, Adjusted Sack Rate (110th), and Power Success rate (72nd), all of which played in to the Gamecocks converting those fourth downs and having some success passing the ball.

TOP 25

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

Thank goodness there are still three to five games left for each team, because otherwise the calls for an expanded eight-team playoff would be unbearable. Mississippi State and Florida State are locked in for two spots right now by virtue of being undefeated, but little seems to separate them statistically from their one-loss counterparts. The Bulldogs looked very mortal against Kentucky while the Seminoles escaped Clemson and Notre Dame. The next 11 teams can all stake a claim as one-loss playoff contenders, and it's difficult to rank them easily. One other team worth keeping an eye on is Miami. The Hurricanes have two conference losses in Georgia Tech and Louisville, but looked very solid defeating Virginia Tech on Thursday.

HONOR ROLL

  • Duke Johnson, RB, Miami . Virginia Tech was just the top ranked team in the Defensive F/+ rankings, as well as the tenth-best in Defensive Rushing S&P+. So Duke Johnson's 249 rush yards are all the more impressive. After a horrible ankle injury that caused him to miss the end of last season, Johnson has returned and posted four straight 100-yard games. Considering Florida State currently ranks 81st in Defensive Rushing S&P+, Johnson versus the Seminoles' rush defense will be a matchup to watch later this season.
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska. In what's become a weekly occurrence, Abdullah ran for 200-plus yards again, this time gaining 225 yards against the 59th-ranked Rutgers rush defense. Apart from McNeese State and Michigan State, Abdullah has run for at least 110 yards in each game while averaging more than 5.8 yards per carry. Against the Scarlet Knights, Abdullah ran with 79 percent efficiency (which is insane) and had four explosive runs on just 19 carries. That's an average of a 15-plus-yard run every five plays.
  • Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU. Boykin has been on fire this season in TCU's revamped offense, and this week against Texas Tech was no different. Boykin threw for 433 yards and seven touchdowns in three quarters of action against the 80th-ranked Defensive Passing S&P+ defense.
  • Josh Robinson RB, Mississippi State Dak Prescott is currently the Heisman contender, but the Bulldogs beat the Wildcats because of Robinson's hard running. His 198 rushing yards don't do justice to his ability to bounce off of defenders for yards after contact on every play. Robinson averaged 8.6 yards per carry and 61 percent efficiency, and according to ESPN, 142 of his rushing yards (or 72 percent) came after contact.

DEMERITS

  • Referee errors. In Penn State's opening drive against the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw a pass for which Buckeyes safety Vonn Bell dove and initially appeared to intercept on the Penn State 39-yard line. However, the replay clearly showed that the ball bounced off the ground and into Bell's hands, yet the call stood. Apparently, due to "technical difficulties with the equipment," the replay booth didn't see all of the available footage for the play, so the call stood despite being obviously incorrect. That interception led to the first Buckeyes touchdown in a game that went in to double overtime. But that wasn't the only major missed call of the day, or even that game. Later, the Buckeyes kicked a field goal despite the play clock already at zero. Also, SEC refs issued an apology that they missed a final Auburn penalty that would have given South Carolina one more shot at a Hail Mary to tie the game.
  • Michigan planting the stake. The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry added another chapter this weekend when an inspirational prop -- a tent stake meant to symbolize commitment to the program -- fueled a vengeful Mark Dantonio and embarrassing apology from Brady Hoke. Before the game Wolverines linebacker Joe Bolden planted the stake in the Spartans field. This made some Spartans, including Dantonio, angry, and directly influenced the decision to tack on another touchdown in the closing minute of the game. Hoke later apologized and took responsibility for the incident, but the damage to Michigan's reputation was done.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Joey Bosa, DL, Ohio State. Bosa is the star on a stout Buckeyes defensive line that ranks fifth in Front 7 Havoc Rate. Against Penn State, the sophomore tallied 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss, including the game-ending sack on fourth down in double overtime. On that play, Bosa simply drove the offensive linemen backwards into Christian Hackenberg like he was run blocking.
  • Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona. If you haven't heard of Scooby before now, take note. The Wildcats linebacker had three sacks and three forced fumbles against Washington State, bringing his forced fumble total for the season up to five.
  • Sebastian Tretola, OL, Arkansas. Tretola is likely the biggest football player ever to throw a touchdown, stealing the record from former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen. The Arkansas offensive guard threw a touchdown pass to the long snapper on a fake field goal attempt against UAB. While his throwing mechanics likely don't have him on Todd McShay's Big Board, the 350-pound offensive guard proved that Bret Bielema really does put his offensive lineman in a position to get national recognition.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 27 Oct 2014

4 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2014, 2:28pm by Pat

Comments

1
by Dennis :: Mon, 10/27/2014 - 11:06pm

The partial (and easiest) solution to the playoff dilemma is to only allow conference champions (and indepenedents) into the playoff. There isn't enough interplay between the big five conferences. Plus it will eliminate the absurd situation where teams are better off finishing second in their division than winning their division and losing in the conference championship.

I know I'm in the minority and I'm sure I'll get slammed for it. There simply are not enough games among the teams in the big five to justify putting in the second-play SEC west team over two conference champions.

The ultimate solution, which will never happen, and I know I'll get slammed for suggesting, is a 16-team playoff with automatic bids for all 10 FBS conference champions.

2
by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 10/28/2014 - 2:16am

You won't get slammed for that ultimate solution, because that's what all the other divisions of NCAA football do. The fact that it's taken this long to just get a 4 team playoff shows how corrupt the whole bowl system is.

3
by TomKelso :: Tue, 10/28/2014 - 11:11am

This is the problem with trying to solve January's potential problems in October.

Right now, there are 17 teams (2 unbeatens and 15 one-loss -- I'm being generous to Utah and Nebraska) that could make the argument that if they win out, they deserve a place at the table. In the next month, every one of these teams will play at least one of the others, most two or more, and a couple of them possibly TWICE.

Unless you're Florida State, but is anyone going to keep an unbeaten Seminole team out, despite the ACC generally being crap on a cracker, even with 14 teams?

Let November play out... every year we get predictions of a train wreck or imminent disaster, and yet November seems to settle things out nicely. Sit back, relax, and watch some highly entertaining football to come.

And, as a TCU alum, it would be REALLY nice if someone else beat Baylor, just to remove that ache from the core of my soul.

4
by Pat :: Tue, 10/28/2014 - 2:28pm

Big Ten officiating has been really, really bad for a few years now, but really, Sunday was the worst I've ever seen. Why? Because *both* of the major mistakes were acknowledged to just be total failures after the game. Not poor judgement calls, not someone misinterpreting rules, but the officiating crew just not doing their jobs.

The interception couldn't be overturned because the replay feeds weren't working. In modern football, the replay crew has to be considered part of the officiating, so this should be totally unacceptable. This isn't rocket science - having at least *one* contingency plan (a backup feed, like the in-house feed) would eliminate this as an issue in all practical cases.

For the field goal the officials said it was a "breakdown in mechanics," which also should never happen, and apparently that's not reviewable (which, since it's easy to identify indisputable evidence that it was a mistake, means they must think that it never happens).

So you've got 2 problems that they have no method of correcting. Both of which occurred in one game. That's awful.

The last time I remember Big Ten officiating having a stretch this bad, they implemented instant replay. I hope something happens again this time.