Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

04 Sep 2017

OFI: College Football Returns

by Chad Peltier

College football's first week centered on the Alabama-Florida State game, with a warm-up of Michigan-Florida. While neither of those games lived up to their promise in terms of tension and closeness -- it didn't help that not one of the four teams in those two games showed much offensively -- we did learn a fair bit about the various contenders this season. Teams could mostly be separated into three categories.

First are the teams that didn't miss a beat. Some of these teams had cupcakes, including Clemson, Penn State, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. Others -- Michigan and LSU -- had fairly tough Week 1 tests. But all of these teams can look ahead to Week 2 feeling confident. Clemson's Kelly Bryant was an efficient 16-of-22 for 236 yards, adding 77 on the ground (he was one of three Tigers players to average more than ten yards per carry). Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook looked more than a game manager with 244 passing yards (105 to stellar tight end Troy Fumagalli). Penn State's trio of Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, and Mike Gesicki rolled over Akron. And Michigan's and LSU's defenses both looked to be top-tier.

The second group are likely-elite teams that showed clear weaknesses to varying degrees. Alabama had easily the week's toughest matchup (outside of their opponent, Florida State), but failed to pass for 100 yards against an admittedly great Seminoles defense. Ohio State's deep passing game failed to connect and the Buckeyes actually trailed Indiana at halftime. The Buckeyes secondary, which had to replace three starters from last season, was picked on relentlessly by Indiana's Simmie Cobbs Jr. Florida State sadly must break in a new quarterback following Deondre Francois' injury, and also could only manage 47 rushing yards on 16 carries by its top two running backs. And USC's Sam Darnold, the presumptive preseason Heisman favorite, was limited by Western Michigan.

Finally, there were some true shockers. Maryland upsetting Texas is a big one -- and it's difficult after just one game to determine whether that's more surprising for the Longhorns or for the Terrapins. Purdue hanging close with Louisville 35-28 is another surprise. Virginia Tech's freshman quarterback Josh Jackson led the way with 101 rushing yards on 11 carries while throwing for 235 yards (nine per attempt) and no interceptions in a stellar debut. Liberty upset Baylor in Matt Rhule's first game, showing the depths from which the Bears must rebuild. And finally we saw the biggest college football upset ever according to betting line as Howard beat UNLV after entering as 45-point underdogs.

TOEDRAGS

  • Alabama vs. Florida State was billed as the greatest opening game of all time, as the preseason first- and third-ranked teams faced each other for the first time in college football history. Especially given the late-game injury to Florida State's Deondre Francois, it's tough to really argue that the game lived up to its billing in Alabama's 24-7 win. Neither offense could get anything going. For Florida State, that is likely just because they had to face the Alabama defense. Francois had 210 passing yards on 33 attempts before his injury, but those also included two interceptions. And despite two blue-chip running backs in Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick, the Seminoles couldn't run the ball either -- the two combined for 47 yards on 16 carries. As a whole, the team had a 19 percent opportunity rate and allowed nine tackles for loss on 24 non-sack carries.

    But Alabama's offense didn't move the ball consistently either -- four blue-chip ballcarrying options (Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, freshman Najee Harris, and quarterback Jalen Hurts) averaged just 4.1 yards per carry. Hurts managed just 96 passing yards as last season's 14th-ranked passing S&P+ defense improved with Derwin James' return. Alabama leaned heavily on its defense (Florida State's last four full drives: two interceptions and two three-and-outs for a total of 5 yards on nine plays), but Crimson Tide fans still have to wonder whether they can rely on the passing offense if it ever is needed. Jalen Hurts had just a 22 percent passing success rate with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's first game. Outside of Calvin Ridley, Hurts completed just three passes, both of them to running backs, for 15 yards. (He also had a reception on a tipped pass for a 1-yard loss.) It's pretty safe to chalk that up to facing an elite defense, where the strategy was clearly to focus on defense and running the ball (the old Nikc Saban standby strategy of simply out-talenting an opponent who doesn't have a Manziel-esque running quarterback), not to mention that it was the first game of the season. Further, Alabama never trailed -- there was hardly any need to pass given the Tide's defensive play.

  • Sandwiched between Alabama and Florida State in the preseason rankings, Ohio State had its hands more than full against Indiana for 2 1/2 quarters before ultimately winning 49-21. The Hoosiers have consistently played Urban Meyer's Buckeyes tough, but most thought that was a function of Kevin Wilson's game plans; now that Wilson was absorbed into the Ohio State machine, shouldn't the Buckeyes have crushed the 54th-ranked S&P+ Hoosiers? While the final score suggests that was the case, Ohio State trailed at halftime and only got things going with explosive plays in the last 20 minutes of the game. For the majority of the game to that point, Indiana's Richard Lagow looked like the superior quarterback (and he ended with an insane 410 yards on 40-of-65 passing and two interceptions, giving him the sixth-most passing yards in Week 1) and Ohio State's offense looked like it hadn't improved its passing game at all.

    Then Ohio State erupted for 36 points in the second half, including touchdowns on five of its last six drives. Two of those touchdowns stand out: a 74-yard pass to Parris Campbell and a 59-yarder to Johnnie Dixon. Those are notable not just because Ohio State's offense finally produced big pass plays -- the Buckeyes only had four pass plays of 40-plus yards all of last year -- or that two upperclassmen receivers who hadn't produced much at Ohio State finally got in the end zone. They were also notable because both were fairly short passes through the air -- the difference was in the yards after catch. The presumption all offseason was that Ohio State had one major and one minor offensive problem: primarily that they couldn't complete the deep ball (and were inefficient throwing regardless), and in a far distant second or third, that they didn't have much of an explosive run game outside of the departed Curtis Samuel. It was actually three problems -- the deep ball is one way to get explosive passing plays, but so is creating opportunities for fast wide receivers to get yards after the catch. And Kevin Wilson's wrinkles, including mesh routes that matched speedy receivers on linebackers, showed signs of fixing that problem. Ditto for J.K. Dobbins and the explosive run game. But the deep passing game remains an issue.

  • Should it be much surprise that last year's second-ranked S&P+ defense held last year's 88th-ranked S&P+ offense to just a field goal? Especially when leading returning receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett didn't play? Well, even considering that Michigan replaced nearly all of its starting defense, it's nevertheless impressive that the Wolverines completely shut down the Florida offense, ultimately winning 33-17. The Gators' 17 points are deceptive considering that two of those touchdowns came from back-to-back pick-sixes. Neither Malik Zaire nor Felipe Franks could get the Gators offense moving consistently -- not that they had much help from the run game. Florida's top two running backs combined for 12 carries for 21 yards. The Wolverines defense appeared to pick up where it left off last season with six sacks and 11 tackles for loss (for a total of a 32 percent havoc rate -- meaning Florida's offense went backwards about once every three plays on average). Michigan's offense, on the other hand, was inconsistent, but did find some explosive plays. Ty Issac led the way on the ground with 114 yards on just 11 carries and the run game managed seven explosive runs, while the new receiving corps produced four explosive plays, including two to freshman Tarik Black of 46 and 37 yards.
  • I think most expected more out of Texas, even in Tom Herman's first game as head coach. Instead the Longhorns were beaten in a 51-41 shootout by Maryland, of all teams. We knew that Maryland running back Ty Johnson was as dangerous as anyone in the country (132 yards on 12 carries, including a 50-yarder), but few expected the Terrapins to bust out for 51 points and ten explosive plays out of 58 total (17 percent explosive rate). Texas' defensive woes are nothing new from how much recruiting has fallen off for the Longhorns in recent years. According to SB Nation's Bud Elliott, the Longhorns have gone from a 60 percent blue-chip ratio in 2014 (the percentage of four- or five-star recruits to lesser-rated commits) to a 46 percent ratio in 2017. That 14 percent drop was the second-worst in the time period behind Florida. What was surprising was Texas' offense. Much like Herman's offense at Houston, where quarterback Greg Ward Jr. did everything (throwing for 3,557 yards and leading the team in rushing with 746 yards), Shane Buechele threw for 375 yards on 52 attempts, while leading running back Chris Warren III had 31 yards on just six attempts. Ward was seventh in the country in passing attempts per game last year with 39; Buechele is seventh after Week 1 with 52.

HONOR ROLL

  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State. One of the leading preseason Heisman candidates, Saquon Barkley solidified his spot at the top of voters' running lists despite only receiving 14 carries in the blowout win over Akron, gaining 172 yards on the ground despite such limited opportunities. You might hope that Barkley would have success against an Akron run defense that was 107th in defensive S&P+ last year, but his 64 percent rushing success rate with three explosive runs of 80, 30, and 25 yards (along with 54 receiving yards!) is nonetheless extremely impressive.
  • Traveon Williams, RB, Texas A&M. Some consolation for Texas A&M's astounding fourth-quarter collapse: the Aggies have a stud at running back. Trayveon Williams ran for 203 yards despite no hope of offensive balance as Aggies quarterbacks combined for 89 yards on 30 attempts. The downside is that the runs were largely explosive runs between several duds. Williams had just a 36 percent success rate and was often stuffed for short gains in between his breakaway runs.
  • J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State. It was a surprise that J.K. Dobbins got the start at running back at all, as last year's starter Mike Weber was held out after a re-aggravated pulled hamstring from this week. So all Dobbins did was run for 181 yards with a 50 percent rushing success rate and a 13 percent explosive run rate. Dobbins' opportunity rate was a little low (30 percent), but the offensive line seemed to have a little trouble opening big holes for most of the game against an Indiana defense that ranked 22nd in rushing S&P+ last season.
  • Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. Through three quarters there was no way anyone could have predicted that Josh Rosen (who made his return from an injury that cost him much of last season) would end with one of the most incredible performances of the week, let alone one of the best fourth quarters by any college player, period. In the first half against Texas A&M, Rosen had 114 yards and was 9-for-23. In the fourth quarter alone he threw for 292 yards. Starting with four minutes left in the third quarter, Rosen led five straight touchdown drives with a 65 percent passing success rate, finishing the game with 491 passing yards. And he did that without help, once again, on the ground -- his running backs combined for 63 yards on 25 carries.
  • Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. I try to concentrate on players who had elite games against at least decent opponents. But I must make an exception for Sooners' quarterback and Heisman contender Baker Mayfield, who completed an insane 19-of-20 passes for 329 yards against UTEP -- in just one half of action. His backup, former blue chip and transfer quarterback Kyler Murray, went 10-of-11 in a similarly impressive day. The Sooners didn't seem to miss Dede Westbrook, at least in Week 1.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Sione Takitaki, DL, BYU. LSU may have looked incredibly impressive in the shutout against BYU, but the best defensive player was on the other team. Sione Takitaki racked up an incredible two sacks and four tackles for loss.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 04 Sep 2017

1 comment, Last at 04 Sep 2017, 11:05pm by JoeyHarringtonReigns

Comments

1
by JoeyHarringtonReigns :: Mon, 09/04/2017 - 11:05pm

I know it probably wouldn't have made a difference but as far as momentum goes, the referees missed a blatant psss interference before the half in the bama-florida st game.

The call would've put Francois and State at the 1 only down by a TD. That aside too bad Francois is out for the year.

The next guy up is a freshman who ranked 17th as a qb in this year's class. Let's hope for them the defense lead by Dirwin James can keep games close.