Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

24 Nov 2014

OFI: Who Needs Style Points?

by Chad Peltier

We're now in the final week of the regular season, but after two weekends of a fairly static Playoff picture, teams on the bubble are beginning to get nervous. The regular season was wild for the first 11 weeks, but has slowed down to the point where we can begin to take a look at our preseason projections in advance of Rivalry Week.

Marcus Mariota is still the Heisman front-runner. Florida State, Alabama, and Oregon are Playoff contenders. Michigan and Florida are or will soon be looking for new head coaches. Auburn has been one of the nation's best teams, but one of the most difficult schedules in the country has finally caught up with Gus Malzhan and company. As expected, the Buckeyes and Spartans are on top of the Big Ten; UCLA and Oregon will likely fight for the Pac-12 crown; and Florida State is the only viable challenger from the ACC. Genuine surprises -- like Mississippi State and TCU -- were actually fairly rare, even with a myriad of early-season upsets and close calls.

Now, the conference championship picture is beginning to solidify. Missouri-Arkansas will determine whether Georgia or the Missouri Tigers reach the SEC Championship to face either Alabama or Mississippi State (depending on the outcomes of their own rivalry games, of course). Wisconsin-Minnesota will determine the Buckeyes' challenger in the Big Ten. And now TCU and Baylor have to play for style points (against Texas and Texas Tech, respectively) to try and latch on to a fourth Playoff spot. But that fourth Playoff spot might not even open. Both Alabama and Mississippi State will likely be favored next weekend, potentially sending two teams from the SEC West into the Playoff.

Toedrags

  • Is there any team with more momentum right now than Arkansas? It was easy to feel bad for the Razorbacks, who had not beaten an SEC team in 17 tries, but after back-to-back shutouts of SEC West heavyweights Ole Miss and LSU, Bret Bielema's Arkansas team is rolling. The Razorbacks rushing offense gets the hype (22nd in Rushing S&P+), but the defense carries an equal load for Arkansas (34th in Defensive F/+). The Razorbacks defense is fairly mediocre in terms of Success Rate (77th) and explosive plays (78th and 66th), but is aggressive and disruptive enough to be effective (12th in overall Havoc Rate). It was the same story against the Rebels, as the Razorbacks forced six turnovers and held Ole Miss to 1.9 yards per carry. The Rebels actually outgained Arkansas in total yards 316-311, but a -5 turnover margin destroyed any hope for Ole Miss. Even though Bielema teams are built on running the ball, Jonathan Williams averaged just 4.1 yards per carry and the team overall averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and 38 percent efficiency. They weren't passing the ball either, with quarterback Brandon Allen completing just five passes for 87 yards -- instead, the game was won with defense and a pounding, but inefficient, run game. The Razorbacks now move on to their game against Missouri this Friday, with every Georgia fan in the country eagerly watching to see if Arkansas can pick up a third-straight SEC win.
  • The Ohio State defense is much improved from last season's group of Silver Bullets that ranked 45th in Defensive F/+ and 61st in Passing S&P+. Now, after bringing co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash into the mix, the Buckeyes are 14th overall and eighth in Passing S&P+. However, the run defense still remains an issue with Michigan and either Minnesota or Wisconsin remaining. After defending Tevin Coleman, the Buckeyes have now allowed 15 runs of 20-plus yards. The problem is that the run defense is extremely streaky and prone to big plays: 62 percent of the Hoosiers' total yards came on just four plays, including three runs of 50-plus yards. However, throughout the rest of the game, the Buckeyes forced seven three-and-outs and allowed only 114 passing yards at 4.2 yards per attempt.
  • Who or what broke Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg? After throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns while completing 58.9 percent of his passes as a true freshman, Hackenberg has regressed in almost every statistic for his sophomore season. Hackenberg is averaging fewer yards per attempt (6.2 to 7.5), has thrown fewer touchdown passes (eight to 20), is completing a lower percentage of passes (55.3 percent), and has more interceptions (14 to ten) than he did during his season with Bill O'Brien. In Saturday's loss to Illinois, Hackenberg was 8-of-16 for 93 yards and a touchdown, continuing the disappointing season for the sophomore former five-star recruit. Many Nittany Lions fans blame a new offensive coordinator and philosophy under James Franklin, but at least some blame has to go to the offensive line that is 115th in Adjusted Line Yards and 106th in Adjusted Sack Rate. With numbers like that, it's easy to see that Hackenberg has no other help on offense, nor any time to think before he's fighting off defenders. So with all of the problems the Nittany Lions have had throwing the ball, why is Penn State 114th in both standard and passing downs run percentage (running 48.8 percent and 22.7 percent of the time, respectively)?
  • Along with Arkansas, the UCLA Bruins are among the hottest teams in football right now. The Bruins were left for dead after dropping consecutive games to Utah and Oregon in October, but they now have wins over Arizona, Arizona State, USC, and Texas. If they can get past Stanford on Friday, the Bruins will advance to a rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, with a possible Playoff berth on the line. The Bruins slowed Cody Kessler and Nelson Agholor, holding the latter to his season low of just 24 yards. UCLA forced the Trojans into four three-and-outs and 1.18 points per possession.

TOP 25

1. Alabama
2. Oregon
3. Florida State
4. Mississippi State
5. Ohio State
6. TCU
7. Baylor
8. Georgia
9. Michigan State
10. UCLA
11. Auburn
12. Arizona State
13. Ole Miss
14. Kansas State
15. Georgia Tech
16. Wisconsin
17. Arizona
18. Marshall
19. LSU
20. Oklahoma
21. Minnesota
22. Louisville
23. Arkansas
24. Clemson
25. Colorado State

There wasn't much movement in the Playoff picture this weekend. Lots of close wins or cupcake blowouts made for a fairly static top 25 overall. Oregon, Ohio State, Florida State, and Alabama all had unimpressive wins, while TCU was off. In fact, the most impressive teams were by either fringe teams -- like Mississippi State and UCLA -- or by teams not in the picture at all, like Arkansas and Michigan State.

Honor Roll

  • Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma. What's a record anymore, anyway? Barely a week after Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon set the FBS rushing benchmark for single game rushing yards, another running back -- and a freshman at that -- broke Gordon's record. Perine, who didn't even start against Kansas, ran for 427 yards, on 12.6 yards per carry and 59 percent efficiency.

  • Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State. The senior receiver continues to be dynamic in every opportunity with the ball. Lockett had ten catches for 196 yards to go along with a 43-yard punt return for a touchdown.
  • Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana. The Hoosiers runner was Indiana's only offensive spark for most of the season, and that didn't change against the Buckeyes. Coleman carried the ball 27 times for 228 yards, including breakaway runs of 90 and 52 yards, with 41 percent efficiency.

Demerits

  • The Virginia Tech Offense. I'm giving Wake Forest a pass here. The Demon Deacons were already ranked 126th in Offensive F/+ before their game with Virginia Tech, so being shut out at the end of regulations is fairly expected. But the Hokies (80th in Offensive F/+) don't get nearly as much leeway for their poor offensive performance. The game ended 6-3 with Wake Forest stealing the double overtime win thanks to Mike Weaver's two field goals. The game featured a total of 18 punts, and as you'd imagine, the team with the higher punt average -- Wake's Alexander Kinal averaged 44.7 yards per punt even with four landing inside the 20 -- won the game. The Hokies averaged 3.74 yards per play in the loss.

Lowsman Watch

  • Blake Martinez, LB, Stanford. Stanford has had a disappointing season, with the stellar Cardinal defense unable to carry a mediocre offense past a 5-5 record. However, the Stanford defense is still full of playmakers like Martinez, who recorded two interceptions of Cal's Jared Goff -- previously one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country -- and a forced fumble in the Big Game win.
  • Markus Golden, DE, Missouri. It's a shame that Golden has been slowed by a hamstring injury this season, because it's incredible to think what he could do at full strength each week. Golden took advantage of a Tennessee offensive line that was ranked 112th in Adjusted Sack Rate for two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery, and two quarterback hurries.
  • Marquel Lee, LB, Wake Forest. The Hokies offense was abysmal, but only because guys like Marquel Lee made them look that way. In the Deacons' 6-3 win over Virginia Tech, Lee had twelve tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. You might not know it otherwise, but Lee is part of a front seven that is 24th in Front 7 Havoc Rate this season.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 24 Nov 2014

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