Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Sep 2014

OFI: SEC Surprises

by Chad Peltier

According to most of the media, the first weekend of the 2014 college football season was characterized by underwhelming performances from the top teams in the country. However, with the exception of Rutgers upsetting Mike Leach and Washington State, and Kenny Hill leading Texas A&M past South Carolina, F/+ outright picks nailed the first week outcomes. The underperforming top ten teams shouldn't have been so surprising -- after all, it is the first weekend of the season and there don't seem to be any complete teams with an absolutely assured place in the playoff.

For instance, F/+ picked Florida State to win, but not cover the spread against unranked Oklahoma State, who was an 18-point dog. It was supposed to be a beatdown by almost three touchdowns. Instead the ESPN headlines were read "Seminoles hold off upstart Oklahoma State" and "Florida State Survives Test." Those are not exactly what you'd imagine from the No. 1 ranked AP team against an unranked squad with a spread greater than two touchdowns. That is partly because some people under-ranked Oklahoma State and over-ranked a Seminoles team that, despite its enormous stockpiles of talent, graduated its top two receiving threats and never had a commanding ground game even during its championship run. Florida State's primary running back, Karlos Williams, was very mediocre, with 23 carries for 66 yards, 2.9 yards per carry and a 17 percent Running Back Success Rate. With only Rashad Greene giving defenses pause as a receiving threat, the Seminoles will need a running back or two to step up in order to repeat as national champions.

Another preseason national title contender, UCLA, faced a scare from unranked Virginia last weekend. No one will confuse UCLA for Florida State anytime soon, but UCLA was thought to be the class of the Pac-12 South and certainly a playoff contender. Meanwhile, UVa was a 21-point underdog, which was the second-highest spread we covered last weekend. F/+ projected a UCLA win, but for the Bruins not to cover the spread. That was primarily due to the UVa defense, which projected as the 13th-best squad in the country according to Projected Defensive F/+ scores. Sure enough, that defense harassed a leaky Bruin offensive line all night, sacking Brett Hundley and rendering the run game ineffective.

We're only coming off the first weekend, but true to F/+, no one separated themselves from the rest of the field as surefire playoff material.

TOEDRAGS

  • I don't know who could have seen Kenny Hill and the Aggies coming. Maybe we just shouldn't be surprised with Kevin Sumlin's offensive wizardry anymore. The team projected to be on top of the Offensive F/+ ranking showed it by dominating a supposedly stout South Carolina defense like it was a spring game team scrimmage. It's also hard to say if the Aggies defense improved a little or whether the Gamecocks offense was simply worse than expected. Admittedly that expectation was pretty demanding with the ninth-place Projected Offensive F/+, but it's difficult to separate the two after just this week. The Gamecocks have developed a reputation for their rushing offense, but their Rush S&P+ was only 47th last season. That showed with three yards per carry and 67 total rushing yards. The Aggies offense scored touchdowns on seven of ten offensive possessions, controlled the clock for 37:38, and ran 99 plays. Folks, this is (very unexpectedly) the Hurry Up No Huddle ball control offense.
  • LSU vs. Wisconsin turned out to be a weird game. F/+ nailed the pick by projecting LSU to win but not cover the spread, but who could have imagined the LSU rushing game to struggle or the desperate downfield heaves from the quarterbacks all night? LSU had only 14 rushes in the first half. All-world LSU freshman Leonard Fournette ended the game with only eight carries and 18 yards. While LSU was eighth in Passing S&P+ in 2013, Zach Mettenberger is long gone, so it was kind of a questionable offensive strategy. The second half saw LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron reopen the ground game, with twice as many rushing attempts and almost five times as many rushing yards. Speaking of weird strategies, Wisconsin quarterback Tanner McEvoy was only 1-of-13 on passes of more than ten yards -- and the attempts didn't seem close. Though LSU pulled out the win, both squads will have plenty to work on in the passing game, as neither quarterback ended north of a 50 percent completion rate.
  • West Virginia wasn't expected to roll over in front of Alabama like Virginia Tech and Michigan before them, but who expected Dana Holgorsen's offense to produce like it did against Nick Saban's defense? For the first time since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, his defense has allowed consecutive 300-yard passing performances. Last season the Tide defense was ranked 24th in Defensive Passing S&P+, so maybe we should have expected this game plan from the Mountaineers. Even still, West Virginia hung around despite only managing 28 rushing yards. The Alabama rushing offense had T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combine for 239 yards, looking like the sixth-best Rushing S&P+ team. Lane Kiffin's debut as the Alabama offensive coordinator was a mixed bag overall, however, since we might have expected a little more against the 55th Projected Defensive F/+ team. The Alabama offense managed touchdowns on just three of ten possessions, but did only see a single three-and-out all night.
  • Todd Gurley is just a monster. With 293 all-purpose yards, Gurley looked just like the early Heisman favorite that so many have predicted, decimating a Tigers defense that was stout against the run in 2013. Clemson had the projected edge on defense overall, with the 15th-ranked unit and the 12th-ranked rushing defense. You couldn't tell on Saturday night with the just-settled Bulldogs offensive line opening up holes for a 328-yard rushing performance from the running back fleet. Almost as surprising was the Bulldogs' defense in the second half. After tying the game at 21 at the half, the UGA defense held Clemson to a single second-half first down, 15 passing yards, an 0-for-7 third-down completion rate, and 0.7 yards per play. So the question is -- is this the Jeremy Pruitt effect on the Georgia defense or a simple Clemson offensive collapse? We should have an idea after the Bulldogs visit the Gamecocks with week after next.

TOP 25

1.Florida State (1-0)
2.Alabama (1-0)
3.Oregon (1-0)
4.Stanford (1-0)
5.Auburn (1-0)
6.Oklahoma (1-0)
7.UGA (1-0)
8.Michigan State (1-0)
9.Texas A&M (1-0)
10.USC (1-0)
11.LSU (1-0)
12.Ohio State (1-0)
13.Baylor (1-0)
14.UCLA (1-0)
15.Ole Miss (1-0)
16.Notre Dame (1-0)
17.Wisconsin (0-1)
18.Oklahoma State (0-1)
19.South Carolina (0-1)
20.Arizona State (1-0)
21.Louisville (0-0)
22.Missouri (1-0)
23.Clemson (0-1)
24.Washington (1-0)
25.Virginia Tech (1-0)

The challenge for opening week is dealing with extremely limited data. For our first week I kept close to the F/+ vest, keeping the Projected F/+ rankings largely intact. The most difficult dilemma was in how far to drop the talented teams who lost last weekend, like South Carolina, Clemson, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma State. These teams likely deserve to be ranked, but I think there is probably a tendency to over-punish these teams for their losses in the short term. Conversely, it's barely September, so it's too early to declare both Texas A&M and UGA as playoff-bound, elite squads just yet. However, I rewarded USC, UGA, Texas A&M, and Auburn for strong play against quality opponents.

HONOR ROLL

  • Five-Star Wide Receiver Recruits: Not every five-star recruit was exceptional on opening week, but a few demonstrated why recruiting rankings still matter. Texas A&M's Ricky Seals-Jones ended his first game back from injury with five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, and fellow Aggies freshman Speedy Noil had five catches for 55 yards. Laquon Treadwill at Ole Miss had seven catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. USC freshman Juju Smith had four catches for 123 yards.
  • Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: No honor roll for Week One could leave out Texas A&M's new starting quarterback Kenny Hill. Hill had impressed Aggies faithful in his limited relief opportunities for Johnny Manziel, but few expected such efficiency in his near-flawless starting debut last Thursday night. Hill passed for 511 yards and three touchdowns, completing on 44-of-60 attempts. So is Hill -- or Manziel -- a "system quarterback" or is Kevin Sumlin just the luckiest quarterback recruiter? You got the sense that the Aggies have yet another playmaking gem in Hill, as he looked to be in quiet command of the offense and made good decisions.
  • Cody Kessler, QB, Southern California: This is not a name I expected to be typing for the first Honor Roll, but Lane Kiffin-less Trojans quarterback threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns against Fresno State. Fresno State was projected to have a fairly mediocre defense according to F/+, and his receivers did a lot of work too, but Kessler was nonetheless extremely efficient and accurate for Steve Sarkisian's debut at USC. If you squinted, you might have thought you were watching a vintage Pete Carroll and Matt Leinart performance.

DEMERITS

  • The Seminoles Rushing Offense: Florida State did not look like a team with a settled running back situation, with many fans now calling for Mario Pender to replace Karlos Williams. Too often Williams ran tentatively, without the vision or decisiveness to burst through holes. But Pender only picked up three carries, so it seems a little premature to anoint Pender as the should-be starter.
  • The UCLA Offensive Line: Many knew that UCLA's strength would not be in its offensive line, but fewer expected UVa to pile up four sacks and 11 TFLs while limiting UCLA to three yards per carry rushing.
  • The South Carolina offense: Steve Spurrier said at halftime that his team was simply less talented, the Aggies better prepared, and he was being outcoached. The Ol' Ball Coach is known for being candid, so I'll take him at his word -- especially since it only got worse in the second half. Despite being projected as ninth overall in Offensive F/+, the South Carolina offense could only find a few explosive plays due to apparent breakdowns in the Aggies defensive backfield. Dylan Thompson sure had the arm for those big plays, but it became clear the Gamecocks faithful will certainly miss Connor Shaw this season.

LOWSMAN WATCH

The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. Daquan Romero -- Linebacker, UVa: The senior linebacker led the way for a stiff Cavaliers defense against UCLA with eight tackles, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and a sack. The UVa defense held the Bruins offense to just seven points and you might see a member of the Cavaliers' front seven here each week with performances like that.

2. Amarlo Herrera -- Inside Linebacker, UGA: A lot of members of the UGA defense that could have occupied this spot, but few were as unexpected as Amarlo Herrera. The senior has been consistently good and the leader of the defense, but never the flashy player that Leonard Floyd or Jordan Jenkins is. However, Herrera was big with two sacks, 12 tackles, and 3.5 TFLs. His teammate Leonard Floyd had an equally impressive two sacks, two TFLs, and one forced fumble.

3. Leonard Williams -- Defensive Lineman, USC: The Junior All-American was on fire for the start to the 2014 season with seven tackles, a surprise interception, and two pass breakups. These are great numbers for a safety, let alone a 290-pound defensive end!

4. Jonathan Allen -- Defensive Lineman, Alabama: Allen didn't put up the same outrageous numbers as the other players this week, but his four tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack were commendable against the quick-hitting Mountaineers offense. Even moreso, Allen anchored the defensive line that held West Virginia to 28 yards rushing.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 01 Sep 2014

4 comments, Last at 02 Sep 2014, 12:22pm by JIPanick

Comments

1
by big10freak :: Mon, 09/01/2014 - 1:32pm

LSU was able to get the running game going thanks to two veteran WI d-linemen go out with injury coupled with the offense repeatedly going 3 and out. The Badgers defense was undermanned and gassed by the 4th quarter.

3
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Mon, 09/01/2014 - 5:24pm

The defensive line injuries were certainly a factor, but LSU also exploited some things that looked like weak spots in the first half. They had receivers open in the 10 - 20 yard range that Jennings wasn't connecting with or at times trying to hit. Though there were a few bombs that he connected on. In the 2nd half they were taking some of those mid range passes, and they were attempting more rushes against the depleted front. Had they kept trying to run outside and throw it deep like they did a lot in the first half they wouldn't have won even with the depleted D line.

The WI offense started going 3 and out, as well as turning the ball over, because LSU was stacking the box daring WI to pass, and they failed to. Another thing WI didn't do was use two backs all that much in the 2nd half, something that worked well for them in the first. That can also help against a stacked box. The Badgers o-line is good enough that even against a stacked box they can open some cracks, a lead blocker can then open that crack enough for a 5 yard gain and Gordon or Clement are good enough to occasionally make someone miss and get even more. The WI punter didn't help the cause in the 2nd half either. But two or three more first downs for WI in the 2nd half could have changed the outcome.

2
by younes10 :: Mon, 09/01/2014 - 3:32pm

nice pic

4
by JIPanick :: Tue, 09/02/2014 - 12:22pm

"So is Hill -- or Manziel -- a "system quarterback" or is Kevin Sumlin just the luckiest quarterback recruiter?"

The Aggies have had pretty good QBs for a while. The last pre-Sumlin QB, Ryan Tannehill, showed enough to be a first round pick, and the guy before that, Jerrod Johnson, was considerably better than Tannehill before his injury.

Add to that that Manziel was actually recruited by Sherman, having redshirted a year before Sumlin's arrival, and I don't think that Sumlin's recruiting can be considered the key factor in A&M's recent QB success.