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02 Oct 2017

OFI: Room for Improvement

by Chad Peltier

This college football weekend wasn't as exciting as the two that preceded it, if only because there weren't quite as many upsets. I'll cover the big two first, and then dig in to the games from most of the main playoff contenders. Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Georgia are some of the most prominent contenders through five weeks, but each team has at least one notable weak spot (except maybe Alabama).

TOEDRAGS

  • The first upset of the weekend happened late Friday night when the Washington State Cougars beat USC 30-27. USC had flirted with a loss the last two weeks, with a declining S&P+ percentile performance in each game since posting 89 percent against Western Michigan in Week 1. And the Cougars, who were only 3.7-point underdogs according to the F/+ projections, just straight-up beat the Trojans. This win was not built on something fluky, such as a last-second field goal block touchdown. Washington State's offense had a higher yards per carry, created two more scoring opportunities, and had a 3 percent higher success rate than USC. The Trojans entered the game with an average offensive success rate of 48 percent, but were held to just 33 percent by a surprisingly strong Cougars defense. And if you haven't been following Mike Leach's team in recent years, they avoided their usual first- or second-game loss to an FCS team, instead now starting 5-0 with two top-40 S&P+ wins on their resume. The biggest key of the game was limiting Sam Darnold to 15-of-29 passing and a 5.7 yards per attempt average. Aside from a single 86-yard touchdown run from Ronald Jones II, the Trojans had just a 31 percent rushing success rate. Darnold was forced to carry the offense, but inefficiency and turnovers (an interception and game-ending sack-fumble) doomed USC's performance.

  • In the most surprising upset of the weekend, LSU was beaten 24-21 by the Troy Trojans in the Tigers' homecoming game. While it's worth noting that running back Derrius Guice and three other starters (including two linemen) were out this week, the general consensus is that LSU looked "soft" on both lines. And that may be true to some extent, especially on the defensive line, where they allowed Troy running back Jordan Chunn to run for 191 yards on 30 carries, but the Tigers' offensive line still managed to generate a 52 percent rushing opportunity rate. Instead, the bigger (and connected) problems were finishing drives and turnovers. LSU had 12 drives in the game and four turnovers. One of the two fumbles gave Troy the ball at the LSU 30-yard line and set up Troy's first touchdown. The other three prevented LSU touchdowns -- one was an LSU fumble on the Troy 9-yard line, and another was during a second-half scoring opportunity. The final turnover was Danny Etling's game-ending interception. Outside of those devastating turnovers, LSU also had their second drive end on downs at the Troy 33-yard line and a missed field goal before the end of the first half. All in all, LSU averaged just 3.5 points per scoring opportunity. Moving the ball wasn't all that difficult against the Trojans defense, as they averaged a 50 percent success rate on offense, but turnovers and a failure to maximize scoring opportunities ultimately led to the loss.

    So where does LSU go from here? Now they have five-straight games against top-40 S&P+ teams, before a "break" against 52nd-ranked Tennessee, then ending with 35th-ranked Texas A&M. Only Auburn and Alabama are likely to be heavily favored, but six out of LSU's seven remaining games are against top-40 teams.

  • Clemson, with their 31-17 win over Virginia Tech, now has three top-25 S&P+ wins (including Auburn and Louisville) for what is definitely the best collection of wins in the country. They're likely to be favored in every remaining game, especially with Florida State looking so mediocre following Deondre Francois' season-ending injury. So why do we feel a little hesitant about Clemson as the leader to repeat as national champions? Their win over the Hokies typifies those concerns. Overall, Clemson had just a 33 percent success rate, five of their 14 drives were three-and-outs, and their top two running backs combined for 17 carries for 48 yards (2.8 yards per carry). Virginia Tech has a stout defense -- 11th in the S&P+ entering the game -- but there are still questions about Clemson's ability to run the ball against top opponents and Bryant's passing efficiency, which currently ranks 50th in unadjusted success rate. Bryant is the team's top runner in total yards (458) and opportunity rate (49.3 percent). Freshman Travis Etienne, who has 31 carries to Bryant's 73, is explosive, averaging 15.4 highlight yard per opportunity, but not as steady (41.9 percent opportunity rate) and needs more carries.

    There's some comparison to be made with the Ohio State offense that last year's Clemson team beat 31-0: efficient (22nd in success rate compared to 18th), not explosive (108th in IsoPPP to Ohio State's 115th), a passing game with mediocre efficiency (50th to 64th), their quarterback is their most efficient runner, and there are some problems finishing drives (45th and 39th in points per scoring opportunity). And also like the 2016 Buckeyes, the Clemson defense is absolutely among the best in the country: they allowed just a single offensive touchdown, and even that came with just five minutes left in the game with the game out of reach.

  • Georgia had one of the most interesting weeks. After two years of losses to the Volunteers at the hands of Josh Dobbs, the Georgia defense held Tennessee's Quinten Dormandy to a 31 percent completion rate, 3.53 yards per attempt, and two interceptions as Georgia won 41-0. After last week's 31-3 win over then-hot Mississippi State, the Bulldogs defense was especially riding high. Georgia's Junkyard Dawgs now rank third in the country in the S&P+. But there are some concerns. First, the offense still ranks 42nd. Tennessee's defense is fine, but they still had just a 43 percent success rate, and Jake Fromm only completed 56 percent of his passes for 156 yards and an interception in non-garbage time. The run game is starting to come on behind Nick Chubb and the rest of Georgia's backs, but the offensive line as a whole could be doing more, ranking 54th in opportunity rate and 78th in rushing success rate. Nick Chubb and freshman D'Andre Swift average 6.3 percent and 8.1 percent more in opportunity rate than the team as a whole. There was also some turnover luck involved in the wide margin, with Georgia going +3 with 13.2 points due to turnover luck. And outside of their actual performance, Mississippi State's stock took a big hit with the loss to Auburn and LSU's loss to Troy, devaluing last week's big win a little. But overall, Georgia fans have to be happy: they have a true freshman who has shown extremely promising signs, their offensive line has at least improved over last year's dismal showing when not even Nick Chubb could find room to run, and the defense is playing at a championship level.
  • Now for the other big playoff hopefuls, starting with the top in contention. Alabama destroyed Ole Miss with a 66-3 beatdown that made previous upsets seem almost laughable. Like Clemson and Georgia, the defense is outstanding, ranked first in the country in the S&P+ and able to shut down a top-20 S&P+ Ole Miss offense. The offense as a whole is fourth in overall success rate, first in field position, 15th in rushing success rate, and third in passing success rate. Jalen Hurts has only thrown for 747 yards, or 149.4 yards per game, but hasn't thrown an interception. If there are any concerns about Alabama, it's that the passing game hasn't had much practice and the Tide may be over-reliant on Calvin Ridley (who has one-third of the passing game's targets so far). But Alabama's last four games have been blowouts, and they haven't needed to pass. So it's not so much that there's necessarily a problem with the passing game (third in passing success rate suggests there's not), just that we haven't had definitive proof that the Tide could pass their way to a win.

    Ohio State, ranked second in the S&P+, cruised to a 56-0 win over Rutgers and appears to have taken some steps to fix their passing game, which now ranks 25th in passing success rate. Ohio State is also tied for 17th in passes of 10-plus and 20-plus yards. But the secondary really hasn't been challenged since facing Oklahoma, and they still rank 69th in defensive passing success rate.

    Finally, Oklahoma showed defensive vulnerabilities (which Ohio State couldn't exploit!) against Baylor before taking a bye week. The Sooners are 49th overall in defensive S&P+, and mediocre against the run and pass.

HONOR ROLL

  • Bryce Love, RB, Stanford. Bryce Love has been insane this season. He's crossed the 1,000-yard mark in just five games and leads the country in rushing yards per game by more than 50 yards. He is averaging a nation-best 11.1 yards on 98 carries -- nobody else in the top ten has more than 44 runs. By his current standards, Love needs 2.5 more games to pass Christian McCaffrey's total season rushing total from last year, and that's despite the passing offense ranking 78th in success rate and second-to-last in IsoPPP. So while Arizona State definitely has an unimpressive defense, his 25 carries for 301 yards was still incredibly impressive this week.
  • Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn. In case you haven't been following Auburn since their loss to Clemson, Jarrett Stidham has improved dramatically. Against Mississippi State, Stidham went 13-of-16 for 264 yards (16.5 yards per attempt). He's averaging only 7.4 yards per attempt on the season but he now ranks 19th in quarterback rating after five games.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Tegray Scales, LB, Indiana.Tegray Scales, the best defender you might not have heard of, was insane for Indiana in their 45-14 loss to Penn State, recording three sacks out of a team-leading 11 tackles. And the defense as a whole, despite allowing 45 points, limited Saquon Barkley to 20 carries for 56 yards, or 2.8 yards per carry, with a long of just 8 yards.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 02 Oct 2017

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