Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Oct 2017

OFI: Chaos Turns Top Ten Upside Down

by Chad Peltier

Chaos Week finally happened. We've had echoes of the crazy 2007 season earlier this year, but it took a Week 7 with no ranked-versus-ranked matchups to finally give us a Thursday-to-Sunday stretch of absolutely crazy games. In those three days, four top-ten teams (Clemson, Washington State, Auburn, and Washington) lost to unranked opponents, and three other ranked teams (Texas Tech, Navy, and San Diego State) lost as well. That's on top of former top-ten Oklahoma losing to Iowa State last week and five other ranked teams getting scares with wins by one score. That's seven ranked teams falling to unranked opponents and five who nearly did -- or, in total, half of the AP top 25.

All four of the top-ten losers had some problems on offense. Clemson's loss on Thursday night kicked things off, but there's not a specific explanation for why the Tigers lost to Syracuse -- they were just simply outplayed. The Tigers were outgained by 123 yards, created two fewer scoring opportunities, averaged nearly half a point less than Syracuse on those scoring opportunities, and had roughly the same overall success rate (39 percent to 36 percent). Quarterback Kelly Bryant going down certainly didn't help, but he also had the same yards per attempt as he did last week against Wake Forest, essentially equal to his season average of 6.7 yards per attempt. His backup, Zerrick Cooper, nearly replicated his performance, completing 71 percent of his passes but averaging 6.3 yards per attempt. Clemson's two talented running backs, Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster, both had 35-plus-yard runs, but combined for only 12 carries. Part of the problem may have been that Bryant wasn't able to be part of the run game. Entering the game he had a team-leading 84 carries, only 21 below the combined attempts from Etienne and Feaster. But Cooper and Bryant together had nine carries for -18 yards after sacks, with a long of just 5 yards. Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey also had a great night against the Clemson secondary, going 20-of-32 for 278 yards (8.7 yards per attempt).

Washington State was similarly straight-up beaten by Cal, but the Cougars had the additional issue of turnovers. Unlike Clemson, which had a narrow edge in offensive success rate, Cal was +9 percent in success rate, while also leading in yards per play, scoring opportunities, and points per scoring opportunity. The real killer here was turnovers, where Washington State was an insane -7, including five interceptions from Luke Falk. Nearly all of the turnovers were consequential, as reflected in the Cougars' 0.6 points per scoring opportunity average and in their -15 difference in average field position. Cal scored 16 points off of turnovers, and had three other turnovers during Washington State scoring opportunities in Cal territory.

Auburn looked like they were on the road to a blowout win over LSU. After kicking a field goal with just under 13 minutes left in the second quarter, Auburn went up 20-0 while LSU had managed two punts and a fumble. But then two 75-plus-yard drives in the second quarter allowed LSU to take a manageable 23-14 deficit into halftime, and after that LSU completely shut down the Auburn offense. Starting the second half, both teams combined for nine consecutive punts, with the only score being LSU's D.J. Chark returning a punt 75 yards for a touchdown. Chark, outside of his lost fumble on the Tigers' first possession, was the star of the show, adding five catches for 150 yards to his punt return touchdown. In the second half Auburn was held to five straight punts followed by two drives that ended on downs, with a rushing success rate of just 35 percent. But the bigger problem was the Auburn passing game, where the Tigers managed just six passing yards on 14 attempts in the second half.

In the last of the four biggest upsets, Washington was completely stopped by an Arizona State defense that, to that point in the season, had been almost offensively bad. The Sun Devils defense ranked 119th in opponent-adjusted S&P+, but held the Huskies to a single touchdown -- on their last possession of the night -- and forced four three-and-out drives. Jake Browning averaged just 4.6 yards per pass as the Sun Devils prevented Dante Pettis from breaking any plays longer than 13 yards.

So what do those four games -- along with the other upsets and close calls -- mean for the rest of the season? Well, maybe not too much, depending on whether these teams pick up a second loss. Most of these one-loss teams aren't out of their conference championship races, and are still in the Playoff hunt as well. Clemson can run the table the rest of the way to be a strong contender. Oklahoma is absolutely still in it if they can beat TCU and Oklahoma State. Washington's loss looks pretty bad, and so does Washington State's, so a one-loss Pac-12 champion may finish on the outside of the Playoff looking in. Auburn, at two losses, can still technically win the SEC, but a two-loss SEC champion would probably put the committee in a tough position.

From the S&P+'s perspective, there are two clear top teams in Ohio State and Alabama, and then a mass of 11 teams that fall within the same S&P+ margin as the difference between second-ranked Alabama and third-ranked Penn State. These 13 teams all have one or no losses and represent the real group of Playoff contenders. That's also the breaking point where two-loss teams Auburn and Stanford come in. Of these 13 teams, only Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, and Notre Dame have blue-chip ratios over 50 percent, meaning that their rosters are at least half composed of players that were rated as four- or five-star recruits in high school. Penn State and Oklahoma aren't far behind, in the 40s. Alabama and Georgia will likely play each other in the SEC Championship as an effective Playoff elimination game. For comparison, 538's playoff simulator currently gives 12 teams more than a ten percent chance of making the Playoff, with Alabama and Ohio State leading the way as national title favorites.

TOEDRAGS

  • Five ranked teams had extremely close calls over the weekend. Michigan went to yet another overtime with Indiana, managing just a 30 percent success rate on offense. John O'Korn averaged just 2.9 yards per pass. The Wolverines likely would have lost if not for a +2 turnover margin and 200 yards rushing from Karan Higdon. Miami was saved by a miraculous completion on fourth-and-10 from Malik Rosier to Darrell Langham. While the Canes had exactly 200 more yards than Georgia Tech, they had nearly the same success rate -- 40 percent to 41 percent. Oklahoma continued its bizarre stretch of games post-Ohio State, winning 29-24 over a Texas team that they outgained by an average of 1.5 yards per play. Finally, Utah was a failed two-point conversion away from upsetting USC.
  • Speaking of teams that squeaked by, is Michigan State for real this year? The Spartans beat Minnesota 30-27, with roughly equal numbers to the Golden Gophers. But the Spartans are up to 26th in the updated S&P+ rankings, and are at least 68 percent favorites (+7.9 points by the S&P+) in all remaining games except against Penn State and Ohio State. That gives them equal chances of going either 8-4 or 9-3, which are both a far cry from their three wins a season ago.
  • Staying in the Big Ten, Ohio State absolutely dismantled Nebraska. The Buckeyes had nine drives, and scored on the first eight of them. They had a success rate margin of +28 percent, and their second-highest per-play efficiency since the 2014 Big Ten Championship win over Wisconsin on the way to the national title.

HONOR ROLL

  • Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona. Khalil Tate may be the second coming of Pat White for Rich Rodriguez. Against now 3-3 UCLA, Tate completed 9-of-13 passes for 148 yards (11.4 yards per attempt) and ran for 230 yards on just 15 carries. In the last two games -- the only two of his career where he's had more than six rushing attempts -- Tate has rushed for 557 yards and gone 21-of-26 through the air for 302 yards. He's now 23rd in total rushing yards this season.
  • J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State. For a guy who has led the Buckeyes to two playoff appearances and has broken a string of Big Ten and school records, J.T. Barrett gets an insane amount of blame for his offense's problems. And sure, there are issues with double-clutching passes, refusing to take shots, and occasional accuracy issues, but you can say that about every single quarterback in college football. Against Nebraska, Barrett continued his string of incredible performances, going 27-of-33 for 325 yards through the air along with ten carries for 48 yards on the ground. Barrett was about as efficient as possible, with ten Buckeye players catching at least two passes. Barrett hasn't thrown an interception since the Oklahoma game, but has thrown 18 touchdown passes.
  • A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College. Boston College hasn't had a ton to celebrate as a football program in a while. A.J. Dillon's lead in the upset over Louisville helped change that. Dillon had 39 carries for 272 yards in true workhorse fashion, giving the Eagles three wins and easily setting the freshman's career high.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Clelin Ferrell, DL, Clemson. It seems like Clemson defensive linemen take turns stepping up for incredible statistical days. This week it was Clelin Ferrell, who had 3.5 sacks and two other tackles for loss, along with nine total tackles. Clemson has three defenders in the top 50 for sacks and the same three in the top 100 for tackles for loss.
  • Kylan Wilborn, DL/LB, Arizona. Arizona was all about incredible individual performances, with Khalil Tate on offense and Kylan Wilborn on defense. The pass rusher fulfilled his role against Josh Rosen, notching four sacks, five tackles, and a forced fumble. Rosen averaged just 6.4 yards per pass and had three interceptions in the loss.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 16 Oct 2017

4 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2017, 8:31am by Aaron Brooks Good Twin

Comments

1
by Raiderfan :: Mon, 10/16/2017 - 4:39pm

"Staying in the Big Ten, Ohio State absolutely dismantled Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had nine drives, and scored on the first eight of them."
I think you mean Buckeyes.

2
by Vincent Verhei :: Mon, 10/16/2017 - 6:11pm

Gah. My fault. Fixed.

3
by big10freak :: Mon, 10/16/2017 - 8:51pm

If Wisconsin could do the whole Wisco package that included minimal penalties and turnovers that offense would be far more effective

4
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 8:31am

MSU squeaked by MIN in the sense that MIN was within one score for about 60 seconds. They never had the ball within one score in the last 44 minutes of the game.