by Chad Peltier
The lineup for the second week of college football is elite at the top end but lacks depth, which sounds oddly like the Trojans. At the top we have matchups between Stanford and USC, Ohio State and Virginia Tech, and of course the headliner of Michigan State and Oregon. It's a Big Ten- and Pac-12-heavy weekend, with many SEC teams either taking the week off (Georgia) or eating cupcakes (everyone else in the SEC). Add Florida State, Oklahoma, Clemson, and Baylor onto the list of cupcake-eaters. Regardless of the lack of depth, there's plenty for you to watch this weekend.
In the broad scheme of things, they say that teams improve the most between the first and second weeks of the season. So we'll get a chance to see whether South Carolina and Clemson can turn their seasons around, for one. Similarly, can the Buckeyes shake off a slow offensive start against a stout Hokies defense?
Meanwhile, the Oregon-Michigan State matchup could go a long way in determining the pecking order of the college football playoff. Both squads are projected to win their conferences and this weekend's matchup won't affect that, but it will give us a clue just how elite either team can be this season.
The F/+ predictions fared admirably last week , only failing to guess South Carolina's downfall and Washington State's loss to Rutgers. Similarly, the numbers predicted the closer-than-expected Oklahoma State-FSU score far better than preseason media voters could have imagined. Let's see if F/+ can best last week's 11-2 outright record.
MICHIGAN (+4) at NOTRE DAME -- 8 p.m. (NBC)
If the Fighting Irish and Wolverines have to end their historic series, then at least their final game should be a close one. Ranked 18th and 14th respectively from the Week 1 F/+ scores, both offenses should have the advantage of their defensive opponents. Part of that is because both teams return veteran quarterbacks and partly because both squads have slightly more competent offensive lines than they did last season.
Michigan faithful at least hope that's the case. If you could pick out just a single Achilles' heel for the Wolverines last season then it was the offensive line. Despite excellent recruitment and the switch to a road-grading, power-blocking scheme, the Michigan line created just the 75th-overall Rushing S&P+ performance. Many are now pointing to last week's demolition of Appalachian State as evidence that the unit has matured under first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Both running backs (who head coach Brady Hoke describes as "1 and 1a" on the depth chart) Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith easily cleared the hundred-yard mark after big 60-plus-yard runs. Meanwhile, the line held off an undersized Mountaineers front seven to give Devin Gardner enough time to toss three first-half touchdowns to Devin Funchess. This efficiency is responsible for the Wolverines' eighth-best S&P+ offense. However, the Wolverines have to prove that their ability to run the football is actually that improved over last season. Though the Wolverines offense has the edge according to this first week of S&P+, Notre Dame's 2013 Defensive FEI and Rushing S&P+ rankings top the Wolverines. If the Irish can shut down the Wolverines’ ground game, then it will be that much more difficult for Gardner to connect with his limited playmakers at wide receiver.
Notre Dame is similarly tilted more towards offense, thanks in large part to Everett Golson's return. Accounting for five touchdowns and 295 yards passing, Golson now leads the 19th-ranked S&P+ offense that looks to have balance between the air (15th Passing S&P+) and ground (23rd Rushing S&P+) games. Michigan fans should be particularly concerned about the Irish passing game, which is the largest difference in S&P+ rankings between the two squads.
F/+ Pick: Notre Dame
USC (+3) at STANFORD -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Stanford has gotten the better of USC in four out of the last five meetings, although the Trojans managed to top the Cardinals last season. That was a fairly improbable win for the short-lived Ed Orgeron regime. This year the two face off much earlier in the season, with both teams coming off of impressive opening-week victories. With USC sitting at sixth in F/+ and Stanford at fourth overall, this matchup pits two potentially elite teams in what could be just their first game this season if both win their divisions.
The big question here is how large of a step the USC offense has taken under Steve Sarkisian. Despite piling on 701 yards of total offense on Fresno State for the opener, the Trojans carry some of last season's inefficiencies in their 53rd-overall Offensive S&P+ ranking. Because of Cody Kessler's maturation and apparent rapport with his receivers (all ten with receptions last week), the Trojans are likely to rise in this ranking as the season progresses. Otherwise, the Cardinal defense vs. USC offense matchup looks like the biggest statistical disparity. Though ending the season as the top overall FEI defense, their early-season S&P+ score is less efficient, at 34th overall.
The USC defense also has a slight advantage over the Stanford offense. The Trojans secondary in particular is full of elite athletes that might give Kevin Hogan a hard time. This is an excellent matchup of strength-on-strength, with both teams initially oriented more to the passing game. Interestingly, the one clear advantage USC has on defense is in FEI, where the Cardinals fall behind their lofty S&P+ score. This could be because the Cardinals were relatively less efficient in the red zone, with the 54th overall Offensive Red Zone S&P+ ranking last season. The name of the game for the Trojans will be in forcing field goals against a team that is better at grinding out yards (15th in Offensive Success Rate+) than in picking up big chunks of yards (34th in Offensive IsoPPP+). Likewise, Stanford will attempt to maintain a decisive field position advantage, which they did often last season, ranking third overall. Ultimately, a game like this could come down to an ill-timed turnover.
F/+ Pick: Stanford
OLE MISS (-20) at VANDERBILT -- 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Speaking of Stanford, although Derek Mason's first game as Commodores head coach did not go as planned (a 37-7 loss to Temple -- Temple!), Vanderbilt has the opportunity to turn around a season that could quickly get out of hand. On the surface, Ole Miss has a huge advantage, with the 20th overall F/+ ranking versus the 72nd for Vanderbilt. However, Ole Miss has a tendency to be fairly erratic behind Bo Wallace and took far longer to put Boise State away than was necessary. If Vanderbilt hopes to win this game -- in which there is clear disparity in talent levels -- it'll have to be by capitalizing on turnovers and the Rebels' offensive droughts.
In particular, the Commodores should focus on limiting Wallace. Ole Miss will likely have the advantage rushing the ball, but the 'Dores will likely have the chance to create interceptions and limit the Rebel aerial attack. Things don't look as promising for the Vanderbilt offense, however. Temple shut Vanderbilt out during the second half due to a complete inability to run the football (104th in Rushing S&P+) and little to no explosive ability (118th in IsoPPP+ in 2013). In all likelihood Ole Miss will walk away with this game, but some luck on defense might allow Vanderbilt an outside chance.
F/+ Pick: Ole Miss
MICHIGAN STATE (+11.5) at OREGON -- 6:30 p.m. (FOX)
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This week's big game has the potential to be one of the best of the season, as it features one of the most elite offenses in Oregon against the new standard for defensive excellence against spread-to-run teams in Michigan State. In what might pass for an early Rose Bowl game, the storylines really write themselves: Midwestern defense and three-star recruits versus West Coast speed and offense. Of all the matchups this weekend, this has the potential to be the tightest game, with just Stanford separating the two teams in F/+ rankings.
While Oregon has more head-to-head statistical advantages (6-to-2, with six more too close to call), there are so many close calls that it's difficult to project a decisive advantage. Looking at the 2013 stats, Oregon should have a clear advantage on defense, outranking the Spartans in Rushing and Passing S&P+ by an average of 30 positions. However, the Ducks have two notable (semi-) weaknesses: defensive Rushing S&P+ and Defensive Red Zone S&P+ (where they ranked 68th last season). Unfortunately for the Spartans, it's unclear whether they'll be able to seize their red zone opportunities with the 73rd overall Offensive Red Zone S&P+. However, all of this could change with Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford emerging late last season. Cook had an insanely efficient 12-of-13 for 285 yards against the talented Jacksonville State and should challenge elite Oregon corner Iko Ekpre-Olomu.
On defense, Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has plenty of experience limiting spread-to-run teams. He held Ohio State, a similar offense, to just 0.38 points per play and 101 total passing yards in the Big Ten championship. The Spartans don't actually have the advantage in any defensive matchup because the margins are too narrow. While controlling the red zone will be important for the Spartans, the key matchup appears to be in the Spartans defense's ability to limit explosive plays. Though second overall in Defensive F/+ last season, the Spartans were relatively susceptible to big plays as a result of Narduzzi's aggressive scheme (ranking 74th in IsoPPP+). The Ducks, on the other hand, were fifth in the country in creating those explosive plays. Between Heisman candidate Marcus Mariotta and the stable of Byron Marshall, Royce Freeman, and Thomas Tyner, the Ducks have plenty of personnel to make those explosive plays happen, and that might be the critical difference here.
F/+ Pick: Oregon
VIRGINIA TECH (+11) at OHIO STATE -- 8 p.m. (ESPN)
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In the second best out-of-conference matchup of the weekend, the Hokies travel to the Horseshoe to take on the Buckeyes. Though the Buckeyes maybe under-performed against Navy offensively behind a somewhat lackluster offensive line that replaced four starters, they'll be facing a much tougher test in Bud Foster's Virginia Tech defense. This is the major matchup: can the Buckeyes protect new quarterback J.T. Barrett in his second career start?
Last season the Buckeyes relied an insanely efficient running game to dominate the field position battle while also capitalizing on almost every red zone visit they got (top overall in Red Zone S&P+). It's unclear what this year's version of the Buckeye offense will look like, however. Without Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde, and four offensive linemen, we might expect lower production, but I don't think every Buckeyes fan expected to see the strategic shift that we saw against Navy. In 2012 and 2013 the offense was essentially a power run unit operating out of a shotgun set. The passing game was largely play action and completely predicated on an established run game. To open against Navy, however, offensive coordinator Tom Herman came out calling multiple short passes and screens to loosen the perimeter of the Midshipmen’s front seven. Part of this is personnel: after recruiting athlete after athlete and now lacking an elite inside power running back, it's to be expected that the offense would look a little more like Urban Meyer's Gator squads. However, in the second half, Herman and Meyer turned back to play action standbys to great effect, increasing Barrett's yards per attempt by 23.8 yards.
The Buckeyes will need to settle on an identity sooner rather than later against a typically stout Virginia Tech defense. Though 25th in Defensive S&P+ after the first game, the unit is headlined by well-coached and disciplined players who know their assignments. The Hokies offense, on the other hand, is rebuilding after Logan Thomas's departure, but looks to be in the competent hands of Michael Brewer. If his debut against William & Mary is indicative of his performance throughout the rest of the season, then Hokies faithful can expect an efficient, risk-averse passer who distributes the ball well. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, were gashed by Navy's triple option and it's not necessarily predictive of how they will fare against a more traditional offense, but Shai McKenzie will hope to turn around a rushing "attack" that ranked 105th in Rushing S&P+ in 2013. If the Buckeyes see the 2013 Hokies rushing offense, then things could get out of hand for Virginia Tech. The keys for the Buckeyes will be in remaining solid against McKenzie while not allowing easy passes to receivers in space from Brewer -- the Hokies offense was much more effective in explosive plays rather than consistent gains (89th in offensive success rate and 110th in Red Zone S&P+). That might lead to a more risk-averse strategy from Buckeyes defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash.
F/+ Pick: Ohio State
F/+ PICKS: WEEK 2
|Underdog||Spread||Favorite||F/+ Pick||F/+ vs. Spread Pick|
|Iowa State||12.5||Kansas State||Kansas State||Iowa State|
|Vanderbilt||20||Ole Miss||Ole Miss||Vanderbilt|
|Michigan||4||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Michigan|
|Virginia Tech||11||Ohio State||Ohio State||Virginia Tech|
|Hawaii||10.5||Oregon State||Oregon State||Hawaii|
Bolded pick is the Pick of the Week
Record last week outright: 10-3
Record last week against the spread: 7-6
Record outright overall: 10-3
Record against the spread overall: 7-6