by Chad Peltier
At least on paper, this is one of the weakest weekends for college football during the 2014 season. With just one matchup between top-25 teams (South Carolina-Georgia), the ESPN College Gameday crew spurned the FBS entirely for a return to Fargo, N.D., and North Dakota State University (don't ask me why Columbia, S.C., didn't get the nod, though).
Years earlier, when football schedules were being worked out, this weekend likely looked good enough to be New Year's Day. There are out-of-conference matchups between blue-blood programs like Tennessee-Oklahoma and UCLA-Texas; opportunities for the Big Ten to redeem its miserable Week 2 in West Virginia-Maryland, Illinois-Washington, and Minnesota-TCU; and Penn State's first game with the brunt of the Sandusky penalties in the rearview mirror. In short, there are plenty of interesting matchups this week, but only one with conference- and national-championship implications for both teams.
Like last week, Week 3 pits some playoff contenders (Georgia, Oklahoma, UCLA) in out-of-conference tests of varying difficulty. The real thing we can hope to take away from this weekend on a national scale is how serious of a contender the Bulldogs are. Right now, Mark Richt's Dawgs have played just 1.5 quarters of dominating football over a talented opponent (or any opponent, for that matter), but that hasn't stopped Richt's squad from joining Florida State, Oregon, and Oklahoma on most ESPN writers' projections of playoff-bound teams.
At least at the moment, Georgia's projections seem fair. Both the AP Poll and F/+ agree that Georgia has been the sixth overall team so far. Simple and unadjusted stats aren't as impressed with the Dawgs yet (53rd in total offensive yards per game and 31st in total defensive yards allowed per game), but that's exactly why we have tools like F/+. Their opponent, by the way, looks to be a bigger challenge than many in the national media make them out to be. While South Carolina is barely holding on to a top-25 ranking (24th) after the blowout loss to Texas A&M and struggles with Eastern Carolina, their F/+ ranking held steady at 18th, with consistency between FEI (also 18th) and S&P+ (17th). That's all to say that this is still a dangerous team that can make a run for the SEC East.
HOUSTON (+18.5) at BYU -- 9 p.m. THURSDAY (ESPN)
Thursday has been good to college football fans so far this season, between last week's Arizona-UTSA thriller, the opening week's Texas A&M-South Carolina surprise, and now BYU-Houston. We probably shouldn't expect this to be quite as thrilling as the last two weeks, or even the all-Cougars matchup last season (which BYU won 47-46).
This time, almost every metric favors BYU. The greatest mismatch will be when BYU has the ball, as quarterback Taysom Hill leads an offense that has yet to match last season's efficiency (their 2014 Offensive S&P+ is 54th, compared to being 14th in FEI last season), but is still dangerous enough to put 41 points on Texas last week. Houston, on the other hand, is not Kevin Sumlin or Case Keenum's team anymore, and the efficiency numbers (and Vegas spread for this game) reflect that.
BYU's strength on offense is undoubtedly the run game, where they had a Rushing S&P+ score of 118.6 (17th) compared to their below-average Passing S&P+ of 97.7. Houston's primary defensive weakness is the pass, which is one reason why Hill threw for 417 yards (14 percent of his season total) against the Cougars last year. Hill currently leads BYU in both passing yards, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns, so the team will rise and fall with his performance. Finally, Houston's offensive chances rely on their ability to finish drives. While BYU ranked eighth in the country in Defensive Red Zone S&P+, Houston was below average (86th) in Offensive Red Zone S&P+.
At this point in the season, it's worth noting that BYU has one of the clearest paths to going undefeated during the regular season. With the 100th-most difficult schedule, FEI predicts that the Cougars have 7.8 remaining wins. But unless it drops games to UCF and Boise State, BYU might challenge Power Five supremacy for a playoff spot.
F/+ Pick: BYU
GEORGIA (-6) at SOUTH CAROLINA -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
On paper (despite limited 2014 data), all signs point to Georgia winning this developing SEC Eastern Division rivalry in 2014. Most are satisfied with the outcome of the Clemson game, as well as South Carolina's struggles against Texas A&M and Eastern Carolina, to pick a winner. Even the dissenters in the media base their arguments for the Gamecocks on immaterial factors like the history of the rivalary (the 2012 disaster in particular) and home-field advantage.
Obviously, players' mindsets matter in their performance, as would history if it factors into the coaches' game plans. That might be why Georgia has practiced this week with the techno song Sandstorm blaring, or why Mark Richt insists that the game "could get a little bloody." But these things are tough to quantify and should matter less than talent, preparation, and game-planning, where Georgia seems to have the edge. According to all but three of the metrics, Georgia has the edge over South Carolina (overall F/+ is 21.2% to 15.9%, respectively).
South Carolina's switch to the 3-4 has been less than smooth so far, leaving them 123rd in yards allowed per game and lowering their Defensive S&P+ to 100.2 (58th in the country) after ranking 22nd last season. Both Texas A&M and Eastern Carolina do run varieties of the air raid offense, however, so it's possible that their defensive weakness is less to do with the 3-4 transition or the lack of effective defensive ends (i.e., Jadeveon Clowney) and more to do with the particular offenses it has seen this season. Maybe.
Regardless, that probably will affect Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's offensive strategy and South Carolina's defensive strategy. It could turn into a cat-and-mouse game where Georgia knows that the Gamecocks will be heavily stacking the box against Heisman-candidate Todd Gurley and the fleet of running backs behind him, so Bobo instead opts for an air raid-lite attack with screens and packaged play passes to freshmen Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie and intermediate, middle-of-the-field strikes to Michael Bennett and Chris Conley. Or not, and Bobo simply dares the Gamecocks defense to beat his running backs.
The South Carolina offense has been extremely productive through the air but less so on the ground. Neither Mike Davis nor Brandon Wilds averages more than 4.8 yards per carry, and the Gamecocks sit at 106th in rushing yards per game. South Carolina still boasts the sixth-rated offense according to Offensive S&P+. In short, unless Jeremy Pruitt can call the South Carolina game like he did during the second half of the Clemson game, this could turn into a shootout.
F/+ Pick: Georgia
UCLA (-7.5) vs. TEXAS -- 8 p.m. (FOX)
Despite losing to BYU 41-7 last week,Charlie Strong's Longhorns are just 7.5-point dogs against UCLA. The question is whether that is confidence in Strong to keep it close or some doubt on the Bruins.
My guess is that it says more about the Bruins than the Longhorns. While ranked 12th in the country by the media, the Bruins just barely crack the F/+ top 25 after falling nine spots following their 42-35 win over Memphis. In fact, the Bruins have won by just 15 points, total, across their two games against Virginia and Memphis. UCLA has underwhelmed primarily on offense, where they bring the 63rd-ranked S&P+ attack, just a year removed from ranking eleventh in Offensive FEI. The difference between the Bruins' yards per possession (38.6) and points per possession (3.0) illustrate their boom-and-bust offense lately. Despite averaging almost four first downs per drive and not kicking any field goals against the Tigers, they still averaged three points per possession. Part of that may be due to the poor running game, which led to nine of their 16 third-down attempts to be passes (for a 50 percent conversion rate), even in short-yardage situations. The Longhorns defense, while carrying the brunt of the load for the whole team, is talented and athletic enough to pose problems for the Bruins.
The problem for the Longhorns, then, is whether they will be able to score any points. With the 76th-ranked Offensive S&P+, redshirt freshman Tyrone Swoopes will likely be without second-leading receiver Jaxon Shipley in his second-ever start. In a defensive struggle like we're likely to see, expect Brett Hundley to be the difference for the Bruins.
F/+ Pick: UCLA
TENNESSEE (+20.5) at OKLAHOMA -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
The 2013 Sooners had two main problems that kept them out of the championship conversation: the rush defense (where they were 72nd in Defensive Rushing S&P+, with a propensity for allowing explosive plays) and the relatively ineffective passing game (32nd in Passing S&P+ and 41st in Passing Downs S&P+). Trevor Knight emerged against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, so that problem looks to be fixed (14th in Offensive S&P+ in 2014), while the defense looks to be coming along as evidenced by the top overall Defensive S&P+ so far this season.
Don't completely count the Volunteers out for an upset. Tennessee maintained a strong rushing attack last season (30th in Rushing S&P+) and though Jalen Hurd runs a little too upright and averages just 3.3 yards per carry so far this season, the Volunteers might be able to take advantage of the Sooners' weakness from last season. Meanwhile, Tennessee returns a strong pass defense (23rd last season) that has limited opponents to a 23 percent third-down conversion rate. With a steadier hand at quarterback in Justin Worley (currently maintaining a 5:1 touchdown to interception ratio), the Volunteers aren't a hopeless disaster under Butch Jones.
But while I could see taking Tennessee to beat the spread, Oklahoma has the highest FEI FBS Means Wins for a reason -- they're an excellent team.
F/+ Pick: Oklahoma
KENTUCKY (+18) at FLORIDA -- 7:30 p.m. (SEC NETWORK)
Why preview an in-conference matchup between the 31st and 66th-ranked teams in F/+? Because this is just the Gators' second game of the season and we might get a better look at whether Florida's 65-0 win over Eastern Michigan means anything or not. At this point in Will Muschamp's career at Florida, there is simply too much accumulated recruiting talent for the Gators not to at least contend for the SEC East. Last season the Gators were decimated by injuries even more than their Bulldawg rivals, leaving a revolving door offensive line, inconsistent quarterback play, and inefficient running backs. Oh, and a very solid defense, especially against the pass (third in Passing S&P+).
Kentucky has made great recruiting strides, but still rates as a fairly middle-of-the-road team. The Wildcats struggle most when their defense is backed up in their own red zone. With the 98th-ranked Defensive Red Zone S&P+ score (and an equally-bad Defensive Success Rate), any opposing offense could count on a red zone trip ending in points. That problem was compounded by the fact that the Wildcats had extraordinarily bad field position for most of the year, ranking 102nd in Field Position Advantage. While the Gators had plenty of problems moving the football last season (especially rushing, where they were 102nd), at least they won the field position battle more often than not.
However, I'm not convinced in the hype behind Jeff Driskel just yet. While the Gators misleadingly rank first in both points scored and against and fourth in passing yards, Driskel averaged just 5.5 yards per pass against Eastern Michigan. Those short passes and screens inflated his completion percentage, but didn't demonstrate much in the way of an improved overall passing attack.
F/+ Pick: Florida
PENN STATE (-3) at RUTGERS -- 8 p.m. (BTN)
You've got to feel bad for Rutgers. Already picked to finish among the bottom of the Big Ten in their first season, the Scarlet Knights get to face Penn State -- who just learned that they are playing for a bowl bearth once again following the reduction of NCAA penalties -- in their Big Ten opener. It's not that Penn State is the class of the Big Ten, but it's hard to imagine a more fired-up team than you'll see storming the field at High Point Solutions Stadium.
The numbers already don't favor the Scarlet Knights. In fact, one of the lone bright spots might be the Rutgers rushing defense, which was a surprising 22nd in Rushing S&P+ last season. But as good as the rush defense was, the pass defense was just as bad. It takes a very poor pass defense to go from ranking 22nd in one defensive category to 96th in overall Defensive F/+. And unfortuantely, that plays to the Nittany Lions' strength with Christian Hackenberg, who is arguably the Big Ten's best quarterback as a sophomore (though I'm not sure that's really much of a distinction).
If Rutgers wants to have a chance, they'll need to count on big plays from their special teams (8th) and maintaining solid field position (18th overall).
F/+ Pick: Penn State
F/+ PICKS: WEEK 3
|Underdog||Spread||Favorite||F/+ Pick||F/+ vs. Spread Pick|
|SOUTH CAROLINA||6||GEORGIA||GEORGIA||SOUTH CAROLINA|
|RUTGERS||3||PENN STATE||PENN STATE||PENN STATE|
|BOSTON COLLEGE||17||USC||USC||BOSTON COLLEGE|
|ECU||11||VIRGINIA TECH||VIRGINIA TECH||VIRGINIA TECH|
Record last week outright: 7-2
Record last week against the spread: 5-4
Record outright overall: 17-5
Record outright against the spread: 12-10