Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

08 Sep 2015

OFI: New Beginnings

by Chad Peltier

It was a new beginning for college football in more ways than one. With the final seconds of Ohio State and Virginia Tech winding down, we finished Week 1 of Ohio State's attempt at a playoff championship repeat -- and everyone else's bid to snag a playoff spot themselves.

But it was new hires and new faces making themselves known across the college football landscape. From defensive coordinators -- John Chavis making his debut at Texas A&M, Will (Bill) Muschamp at Auburn, and Gene Chizik at North Carolina -- to head coaches such as Colorado State's Mike Bobo (win), SMU's Chad Morris (impressive loss), and Houston's Tom Herman (win), most of the new hires started off their new careers with plenty to feel good about. Similarly, after an offseason filled with quarterback races and controversies, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Oregon's Vernon Adams, Alabama's Jake Coker, Georgia's Grayson Lambert, Florida State's Everett Golson, and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield all performed admirably in their first starts. One not-new face at quarterback? Ohio State's Cardale Jones, who won the job over last year's fifth-place Heisman vote-getter, J.T. Barrett.

It's tough to pick a winner out of all of the successful debuts, but I want to highlight the defensive coordinators for their strong work. Chavis took last season's 58th-ranked S&P+ unit (which was 103rd in havoc rate) and managed nine sacks against last season's 27th S&P+ offense. Muschamp took the 49th Louisville S&P+ offense and orchestrated a bend-don't-break strategy that saw the Cardinals win the overall total yards battle 405-327 even in defeat. Finally, although North Carolina lost in Chizik's debut, it certainly wasn't his fault with South Carolina only totaling 17 points, five yards per pass, and 140 total pass yards.

Similarly, the three new head coaches (and former offensive coordinators) totaled 138 total points for SMU, Houston, and Colorado State. These offenses were 123rd, 98th, and 36th in S&P+ last season.

In less fun news, it was definitely Week 1 for the Pac-12 and Big Ten, who limped along with sluggish starts from all but their best teams. Yes, UCLA, USC, and Oregon rolled (minus the Ducks defense, that is) in the Pac-12 and Ohio State and Michigan State again separated themselves from the pack (joined by ... Northwestern?), but it was an abysmal showing otherwise, as Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Purdue, Colorado, Washington, Stanford, Washington State, and Arizona State all fell to out-of-conference opponents.

TOEDRAGS

  • The defending national champions played like it on Monday night, especially in the second half. The Hokies' found some success slowing down the Buckeyes and Cardale Jones early, but explosive plays on both sides of the ball and overall depth allowed Ohio State to pull ahead in the end. The question ended up being how the Buckeyes could distribute the ball to so many playmakers, but a few Braxton Miller highlights along with an early Ezekiel Elliott 80-yard scamper answered that "problem." Elliott received only 11 total carries, but made the most of them with a 70 percent success rate and 122 total yards. Elliott now has three 80-plus-yard runs, all of which have come in the Big Ten Championship game and later. While the Buckeyes seemed up and down on offense thanks to two turnovers and five non-scoring drives ending in a total of just 84 yards, they nonetheless averaged 10.2 yards per play total, which is an extreme testament to their absurd average-skewing explosiveness. Ohio State's three 50-plus-yard touchdowns illustrate the dangers of the bear cover zero front that the Hokies employ -- after a player like Elliott or Miller beat their man, it was off to the races. Similarly, when Michael Thomas beat Hokies cornerback Kendall Fuller in man coverage with a nifty stop-and-go, Thomas was standing all alone in the end zone for the easy pitch-and-catch. The Buckeyes left enough on tape for some good coaching, but Ohio State certainly looked capable of a repeat playoff bid. Now Ohio State doesn't play another game with a win expectation less than 97 percent until a mid-November match against Michigan State.
  • Alabama's front seven was widely considered the top in the country in run defense, and Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have generally built the defense to respond the best against pro-style offenses that used to be more prevalent in the SEC. That, combined with both overall physical superiority and increased team depth, made this is a poor matchup for a Wisconsin offense that was nonetheless prolific last season (29th in S&P+, tenth in rushing S&P+, and 12th in adjusted line yards). But the Badgers managed only 40 net rushing yards against the Crimson Tide, who didn't make many plays in the backfield (with only four total tackles for loss and three sacks) but managed to hold three running backs to 17 carries for 39 yards and a long of just 5 yards. Yes, Corey Clement was injured, but the Crimson Tide proved that their front seven superiority can completely shut down elite opposing rushing offenses.
  • Outside of Notre Dame and perhaps Texas A&M, maybe no other team improved their playoff stock more than UCLA. The Bruins were ranked seventh in the final preseason projected F/+ rankings, and looked every bit of that ranking in their 34-16 win over Virginia. The big story of course was freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, but the Bruins also have seen consistent year-to-year F/+ improvement under head coach Jim Mora as well as recruiting success and now some depth at multiple positions. Last year the Bruins were 115th in adjusted sack rate and were far from explosive at 84th in IsoPPP+. But that seems to have changed this offseason as the Bruins tallied up eight explosive plays.
  • So are there any bright spots for either Stanford or Texas in Week 1? Neither team had an offense to speak of, driven by inconsistent quarterback play that allowed defenses to key in on potentially solid run games. Texas was 80th in overall offensive S&P+ and 99th in passing S&P+ behind Tyrone Swoopes, while Stanford was 45th and 39th in those respective categories. And with both Swoopes and Stanford's quarterback Kevin Hogan returning, the thought was that both teams should see improved quarterback play, which was obviously not apparent. Granted, it was just Week 1. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was also running for his life and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns at this point in the season (well, against Virginia Tech) last year. Hogan averaged just 4.4 yards per passing attempt and Swoopes just 4.2. The brightest spots on offense might have been the running backs, who were fairly efficient in limited carries despite being harassed all night by defenses with no threat of retaliation from the passing games. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey had a 50 percent success rate, while Texas' Jonathan Gray had a 54 percent success rate.
  • If you're looking for something R-rated to close out your Week 1 college football review, your search can end with a quick glance at the Penn State drive chart: Field goal, touchdown, six straight punts, interception, punt, punt, downs, end of game. Yikes. After their opening field goal and touchdown, the Nittany Lions managed just 35 yards for the rest of the game. In fact, four of their drives went for negative yards.

HONOR ROLL

  • Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Keith Marshall, RBs, Georgia. Georgia was a run-heavy offense last season, ranking 17th in adjusted run percentage, and that trend looks to continue this season. Nick Chubb, an early Heisman candidate as a sophomore, leads the pack, while two former five-star recruits in Sony Michel and Keith Marshall back him up. The Louisiana-Monroe defense was just 63rd in rushing S&P+ last season, but these three backs' production was right where new Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer wants it to be. Nick Chubb rushed with a 44 percent success rate, a 50 percent opportunity rate, and three explosive carries out of 16 total (19 percent explosive carry ratio). Keith Marshall made the most of his ten carries with a 100 percent success rate, a 100 percent opportunity rate, and two explosive carries (20 percent). Finally, Sony Michel was used all over the field, sometimes joining Nick Chubb in the backfield, with a slightly lower 33 percent success rate, 50 percent opportunity rate, and two explosive receptions (leading the team with 79 receiving yards).
  • Malik Zaire, QB, Notre Dame. Quarterback was really the one unknown position group for the Fighting Irish. Sure, Zaire completed 80 percent of his passes in a bowl win over LSU last season, but he did it with primarily short passes (averaging 6.4 yards per attempt). But against a Texas defense that was third in passing S&P+ a season ago (albeit with heavy personnel losses, especially in the secondary), Zaire was maintained his astounding efficiency (86 percent) but increased his yards per attempt to 14.2 (throwing for 313 total yards). The Irish are a contender so long as Zaire plays at the elite level he showed this week. Of course, with minimal running back depth following Greg Bryant's academic ineligibility and Tarean Foster's injury, Zaire might have to shoulder a larger load this season than may have been otherwise expected.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. Count me among the group that thought Alabama had a significantly greater chance to beat Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl last season had they just stuck with Derrick Henry and the ground game during the second half. In limited work against Wisconsin, Henry ran for 147 yards on just 14 carries with a 77 percent success rate and two explosive carries. The Badgers defense was 28th in rushing S&P+ last season, so Henry has earned as many carries as Kiffin will give him.
  • Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. This offseason seemed to have more quarterback races than normal, with major programs not announcing a starter until just last week. Out of all of the new starters, maybe none were more hyped than true freshman Josh Rosen. Rosen was a top quarterback recruit coming out of high school, and he showed why against a Virginia pass defense that was 28th in passing S&P+ a season ago and includes elite free safety Quin Blanding. Rosen threw for 351 yards and no interceptions against the Cavaliers, in many ways mirroring Jameis Winston's first career start against Pitt in 2013: Rosen threw 351 yards with an 80 percent completion rate, three touchdowns, and no interceptions against the 28th-ranked passing S&P+ defense. Winston faced the 29th-ranked Pittsburgh defense and threw for 356 yards (93 percent completion rate), four touchdowns and no interceptions.
  • Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State. It wasn't just Braxton's yards, but the way he got those yards that puts him on the Honor Roll in his first college game since an Orange Bowl loss to Clemson at the end of the 2013 season. Miller finished with 62 yards rushing on six carries combined with 78 yards from two receptions. Not only did Miller show the kind of lateral quickness, balance, and short-area burst that made him famous as the Buckeyes' starting quarterback, but he also demonstrated that he has an evil spin move in his arsenal. Calling it "Madden-esque" doesn't do it justice:

WHAT HAPPENED?

  • Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma. Let me start by saying that Samaje Perine is an elite running back who ran for 6.5 yards per carry, 7.2 highlight yards per opportunity, and a 41 percent opportunity rate. Oh, and he holds the FBS record for rushing yards in a single game, which he set last season. But either the Akron Zips' 66th-ranked rushing S&P+ defense from a year ago got much better during the offseason or Perine was off his game in Week 1, as he ran for just 33 yards on 11 carries. Oklahoma brought in Lincoln Riley and his air raid offense during the offseason, leaving many to wonder whether the running back talent would be underutilized in Norman. It's just Week 1 so it would be rash to generalize based on a single game's worth of opportunities, especially when Perine wasn't needed to do more than that.
  • Penn State and USC offensive lines. We knew throughout the whole offseason that both Penn State and USC could have issues on the offensive line that could significantly determine the trajectory of their respective seasons (a darkhorse Big Ten title contender in the Nittany Lions and a playoff challenger in USC), so why were we surprised when the two lines gave up a total of 15 sacks (ten on Christian Hackenberg, five first-half sacks on Cody Kessler) to Temple and Arkansas State (who were 34th and 54th in havoc rate last season)? While both quarterbacks have sky-high talent, neither will be able to take their teams to their potential if they're constantly running for their lives.
  • Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn. Johnson is Gus Malzhan's first quarterback to start after being in the system for a while. He is built like Cam Newton, looked good in limited action against a strong Arkansas defense last season, and has a much better arm than his predecessor Nick Marshall, which is why preseason expectations revolved around Heisman and playoff talk. So what happened against Louisville? Johnson threw three interceptions and barely completed 50 percent of his passes in Week 1, deflating expectations that had grown all summer. It's probably time to pump the brakes. First, it's Week 1, where the kinks certainly need to still be ironed out. Second, it was Week 1 against Louisville, a defense that was 20th in passing S&P+ and eighth in havoc rate last season.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, DEs, Texas A&M. So is this the Chavis Effect or what? The neutral-site favorite Aggies covered the spread and then some against the dark horse Pac-12 South candidate Sun Devils with a strong performance from their front seven. Totaling nine sacks as a team and 6.5 between the pair of Garrett and Hall, this kind of play could allow Texas A&M's defensive production (103rd in havoc rate last season) to finally match its prolific offense. It's worth noting that the Sun Devils offensive line was ranked 116th in adjusted sack rate last year -- but no matter the opponent, nine sacks is impressive.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 08 Sep 2015

5 comments, Last at 09 Sep 2015, 6:28pm by tsmonk

Comments

1
by Travis :: Tue, 09/08/2015 - 2:31pm

How bad was Penn State's offensive line on Saturday? So bad that Hackenberg got sacked on a 2-man rush.

2
by Will Allen :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 12:40pm

There is nothing abysmal about a middling team like Minnesota losing a competitive game to a team as highly ranked as TCU.

3
by tsmonk :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 3:20pm

Not one bit. Minnesota gave them everything they could handle. TCU is an explosive team and Gophers forced them to play their game. My favorite (non-dog-in-the-hunt)game of the week.

4
by Will Allen :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 5:10pm

Minnesota has two corners that may very well end up being NFL starters, so that defense will match up well against any spread offense team. If they had competent quarterbacking, by upper echelon college standards, they'd be able to beat anybody.

5
by tsmonk :: Wed, 09/09/2015 - 6:28pm

I do think this is the year we'll see more of the same - defenses catching up to the gimmickry of the HUNH/spread and creating something that resembles football a tad more. Some of these games are getting out of hand. When TCU played Baylor, I'm guessing they outscored their basketball counterparts.