Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

21 Nov 2016

OFI: Louisville Loses

by Chad Peltier

Unlike the chaos of Week 11, this week only saw a few real upsets, though some teams -- like Ohio State and Michigan -- had closer calls than they would have liked. The biggest takeaway from Week 12 is essentially how big Rivalry Week is next week.

Ohio State and Michigan barely got past Michigan State and Indiana, respectively, but as it looks now, these two Big Ten East heavyweights are playing for a playoff spot. Things are straightforward if Michigan wins -- the Wolverines would go to the Big Ten Championship over Penn State and Ohio State. If the Buckeyes win (which, going off of early lines, they're projected to -- especially if John O'Korn is Michigan's starting quarterback again), then they will only go to the championship game if the Spartans can somehow upset the Nittany Lions. Given the Buckeyes' playoff ranking, they would likely (?) get in even without a conference championship, breaking two years' worth of precedent due to how even the mass of one- and two-loss teams looks at the top (behind Alabama).

Clemson and Washington look like locks for the playoff as well, assuming they can win their rivalry games and then their conference championship games. Washington has a tough road, with Washington State and either USC or Colorado following. Clemson can likely handle the perfectly average Gamecocks (that's somewhat of a compliment to Will Muschamp's squad based on preseason projections), but Virginia Tech looks like a tough challenger in the ACC.

If either of those two teams gets knocked out, things could get very interesting, as Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State, and potentially Colorado or Louisville could all come in to play. The Sooners are an interesting case study. The Sooners are 13th in the S&P+ right now, without wins over any top-25 S&P+ teams, and just two wins over S&P+ top-40 teams (West Virginia and TCU). The Cowboys would be the Sooners' first win over an S&P+ top-25 team next week, but they're well-positioned in the eyes of the playoff committee and have the top S&P+ offense.

So not only will it be Rivalry Week coming up, but we have at least six competitive-looking games that should determine conference championships and playoff favorites: Washington vs. Washington State, Colorado vs. Utah, Ohio State vs. Michigan, Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State, Alabama vs. Auburn, and Penn State vs. Michigan State.

TOEDRAGS

  • Ohio State was projected to win big over three-win Michigan State. But poor weather, a conservative game plan, and terrible scoring efficiency ultimately left this a failed two-point conversation away from a huge upset for the Spartans. Ohio State is ranked third in the S&P+ rankings, but has been widely volatile week-to-week. For instance, the Buckeyes' offensive percentile performances have ranged from 98 percent against Wisconsin and Nebraska to a season-low 29 percent against the Spartans. And this isn't the same Spartans defense that Michigan State fans are used to, either. The most volatile part of the Buckeyes' offense has been quarterback J.T. Barrett's performance. Here he was just 10-of-22 for 86 yards for a 29 percent passing success rate. Barrett has had those performance swings periodically and it's not all that surprising given the wind and sleet during the game. But because of that passing inefficiency, the Buckeyes averaged just 2.3 points per scoring opportunity despite entering the game averaging 5.36.
  • Well, this looks like the end for Charlie Strong. As of this writing, multiple reports have confirmed that Strong had been let go following the Longhorns' loss to Kansas, but athletic director Mike Perrin issued a statement Sunday night that Strong's job status would be evaluated following the season finale against TCU. Over the last three years, the Longhorns have gone from 33rd in the S&P+ (but a 6-7 record) to 72nd last season, to 47th this season. Unfortunately that's with 80 percent experience returning this season -- good enough for 14th-most experience returning (which also equates to roughly six points per game). Ultimately, these kind of minus-4 turnover games happen -- the Longhorns were much better than the Jayhawks in nearly every other category -- but the program certainly is at least another year away from contending for anything in the Big 12.
  • The only major upset of the week was on Thursday as Houston hammered Louisville, knocking the Cardinals out of the playoff conversation (barring total chaos this week and next). Houston's offense -- which you'd expect to be excellent, given quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and head coach Tom Herman -- wasn't what propelled the Cougars to a 26-point win. Houston's leading rusher, Duke Catalon, averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, and no one had an explosive carry on the night. Instead, it was the Cougars' suffocating, 14th-ranked defense, which recorded an astonishing 11 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. That's 23 plays out of Louisville's 83 total that went for a loss. Lamar Jackson was held to just 47 percent passing and 1.3 yards per carry. Despite a similar overall success rate to Houston, Louisville went minus-3 in turnover margin and only had half as many scoring opportunities. This all started right away, as Louisville fumbled the opening kickoff and Houston scored on the next play. Louisville is now the highest-rated two-loss team in the S&P+ at fifth, right behind Clemson. A loss this late likely eliminates them from the conversation unless Washington, Clemson, and maybe Penn State all lose next week. (then I'd imagine Ohio State or Michigan would need to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title to ensure that the Big Ten only sends one team to the playoff. Oh, and an Oklahoma loss to Oklahoma State sure wouldn't hurt, either.)
  • The SEC East champion Florida Gators upset LSU, likely ending Ed Orgeron's audition for the head coaching job. The Tigers did most things right: they outgained the Gators by nearly 140 yards, averaged 0.8 yards per play more, and had a 49 percent success rate to Florida's 39 percent. But three mistakes downed the Tigers:

    1. Two critical fumbles put the Tigers at minus-2 in the turnover battle.
    2. The Tigers only averaged two points per scoring opportunity.
    3. LSU running back Derrius Guice was stood up one at the 1-yard line on fourth-and-goal as time expired.

    All of these are surprising for different reasons. First, LSU has had awful turnover luck this season, losing an average of 2.5 points per game due to random turnover luck -- they would rank 29th in expected turnover margin (plus-3.9), but are minus-1 in actual turnover margin (75th). Second, it's not too much of a surprise that LSU struggled to convert drives into touchdowns -- the Tigers are 69th in finishing drives, averaging 4.5 points per scoring opportunity on the season. So against Florida's excellent defense, it's not too much of a surprise that they'd struggle to get points from their scoring opportunities. The turnovers were a factor here, too -- LSU's first fumble was at the 7-yard line on first-and-goal. Their first drive of the second half ended on downs at the Florida 2-yard line. So Florida's final goal-line stand wasn't exactly unexpected. Digging in to that goal-line stand, LSU has converted similar situations just 70.3 percent of the time this season, which is 52nd overall, despite ranking fifth in overall rushing S&P+. While the Tigers run the ball as good as anyone in the country, they can struggle in obvious running situations.

  • Another dark horse playoff candidate is Colorado, who sits at 9-2 after a decisive win over Washington State this week. The Buffaloes had a stellar performance from quarterback Sefo Liufau, who passed for 345 yards and ran for 108. Colorado ran an astounding 25 more plays than the Cougars and averaged a 23 percent higher success rate. If Colorado can get by Utah and then either Washington or Washington State in the Pac-12 Championship game, then they might get a look as a two-loss team (though Oklahoma is in a better position with a similar record). Regardless of their playoff status, it's just astounding that the Buffaloes are even contending for a spot.

HONOR ROLL

  • Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford. It has been a while for Christian McCaffrey, but he decided to take out a relatively under-the-radar season on a porous Cal run defense. With 284 yards on 31 carries (58 percent success rate, four explosive carries, including a 90-yard touchdown run), McCaffrey set his career single-game high.
  • Josh Dobbs, QB, Tennessee. Josh Dobbs closed out his career at Neyland Stadium with maybe the best game of his tenure. Missouri had no answer for Dobbs as he threw for 223 yards and ran for 190 on just ten carries.
  • Justin Crawford, RB, West Virginia. Sure, it was in a losing effort, but Justin Crawford ran for a career-high 331 yards against the Sooners. The junior running back has averaged 7.6 yards per carry and has broken the 100-yard mark four times in his lone season with the Mountaineers.
  • L.J. Scott, RB, Michigan State. L.J. Scott was essentially the Spartans' entire offense against Ohio State -- and that's not an overstatement at all. His 160 rushing yards and 76 receiving were 71 percent of the Spartans' total. He had three huge plays -- including a 64-yard screen pass and a 61-yard run -- that set up the Spartans' three scores.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Ed Oliver, DE, Houston. Many argued that freshman Ed Oliver was the most complete recruit in the country last year. Oliver had the stage all to himself on Thursday night against Louisville, dominating in the upset with two sacks, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and two pass breakups. The Houston defensive line completely dominated the line of scrimmage, and Oliver was at the center of it all.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 21 Nov 2016

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