by Ian Boyd
Week 4 was a crazy one in college football, and S&P+ had a tough time getting the big picks right amidst the craziness. Beyond the big upset of winless Old Dominion taking down ranked Virginia Tech, Stanford pulled out a late win over Oregon while Texas continued to build steam and pulled away from favored TCU. Texas Tech continued to put up huge numbers on offense and even showed off some defense taking down the Oklahoma State Cowboys on the road 41-17. After the Cowboys' big win over Boise State, they now host West Virginia in a big-time Week 5 game. Another surprise was surging Kentucky taking down Mississippi State. Finally, Wisconsin took care of business on the road at Iowa in an impressive win, while Notre Dame surprised by pulling undefeated quarterback Brandon Wimbush for back-up Ian Book and were rewarded when the signal-caller produced five touchdowns in a 56-27 rout of Wake Forest.
Week 5 will feature some big-time conference battles, including several that have produced major drama and great games in recent years. Ohio State has to take on Penn State in State College, where they've struggled the last few rounds. Dan Mullen is going back to Starkville to lead the Gators against his old team, Mississippi State, in a big-time SEC battle, while Ole Miss travels to Baton Rouge to play LSU. Then we have the Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry game, with someone due to take their first loss of the season.
All times are listed as Eastern.
West Virginia (-3.5) at Texas Tech -- 12 p.m. (ESPN2)
|Overall||West Virginia||Texas Tech||F/+||18||35||When West Virginia has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||6||90||2017 S&P+||26||88||2017 IsoPPP+||44||46||2017 Rushing S&P+||37||59||2017 Passing S&P+||39||89||When Texas Tech has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||49||12||2017 S&P+||96||25||2017 IsoPPP+||60||35||2017 Rushing S&P+||68||15||2017 Passing S&P+||33||35|
This game has all the makings of a really fun shootout. Lubbock, Texas, is a tough place to play, and these two teams usually engage in shootouts when they face off. Head coaches Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech) and Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia) are both disciples of Mike Leach who also coached together at Houston under Kevin Sumlin. They know each other well and have played out this game several times this decade, with Holgorsen usually emerging on top.
The Mountaineers are defined mostly by senior quarterback Will Grier, who has thrown for 1,117 yards through three games with 14 passing touchdowns and three interceptions. In particular he's deadly when throwing to 6-foot-4 senior David Sills V, who had three touchdown catches last week against Kansas State. Sills is a terrific route-runner who is basically an automatic six points in the red zone if defenses don't double him. The Mountaineers run game has been less effective this year but West Virginia really wants to throw the ball around anyways, until you make them run the ball with ultra-conservative coverages.
Naturally Texas Tech still mostly follows the "stop the run, force passing downs, bring pressure" formula that has typically defined college defensive strategy. They've been successful at that strategy because they've been good at creating turnovers. When the Red Raiders played Oklahoma State, Cowboys running back Justice Hill ran for over 100 yards on only 12 carries, but otherwise Tech successfully encouraged Oklahoma State to throw the ball around, which was less effective. That won't be the case in this game -- West Virginia will be happy to throw the ball 50 times or more.
The Texas Tech offense this year is as crafty and explosive as it's ever been under Kingsbury. They've turned to true freshman quarterback Alan Bowman, a skilled pocket passer who has thrown for 1,557 yards and 10 touchdowns through four games. They have a normal ensemble cast around him, including a few waterbugs at slot receiver and running back who are lethal on quick routes, screens, and occasionally slipping by safeties down the field. Outside they have a pair of big targets to throw jump balls to when teams play man coverage in 6-foot-5 junior Antoine Wesley and 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore T.J. Vasher. They also have a more developed running game that will mix in a fullback at times and is heavy on misdirection, much like the rest of their offense.
The West Virginia defense is designed to handle this kind of system. They run a 3-3-5 defense that features converted safeties at middle and strongside linebacker. Speed is the name of the game, and the Mountaineers have a lot of it on the field to try and counter Texas Tech's knack for getting quick skill players the ball in space with formations, misdirection, and precision passing.
- Lots and lots of points -- both of these teams are going to air the ball out early and often.
- Will Texas Tech's emphasis on stopping the run work against West Virginia's pass-heavy attack?
- Can Texas Tech freshman quarterback Alan Bowman protect the ball well enough to keep up with the Mountaineers?
- Will Grier throwing to David Sills V in the red zone, perhaps the most lethal connection in the country.
S&P+ Outright Pick: West Virginia
Florida at Mississippi State -- 6 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Florida||Mississippi State||F/+||31||14||When Florida has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||32||13||2017 S&P+||108||19||2017 IsoPPP+||100||26||2017 Rushing S&P+||57||16||2017 Passing S&P+||87||4||When Mississippi State has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||32||21||2017 S&P+||54||63||2017 IsoPPP+||49||61||2017 Rushing S&P+||25||18||2017 Passing S&P+||29||37|
Florida has predictably taken off on offense under new head coach Dan Mullen, who has found it relatively easy to translate an experienced offensive line, quarterback, and speedy skill players into an effective spread offense. Quarterback Feleipe Franks isn't quite the runner that Mullen has had in the past (Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott, or this week's opponent, Nick Fitzgerald), but he has proven willing and adept at running the ball situationally in short-yardage scenarios while the Florida running backs handle the rest of the load.
Their defense is also clicking under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who brought his usual array of disguises and blitzes to Gainesville, producing nine sacks on the year so far. The Gators have looked strong against every opponent on the schedule thus far save for Kentucky, who ran over them to the tune of 303 rushing yards in a 27-16 win for the Wildcats. Last week the Wildcats also ran roughshod over Mississippi State in a 28-7 victory.
The Bulldogs had been surging this season with a blowout win over Kansas State on the road and a pair of impressive victories over standard SEC non-conference fare that couldn't compete. Against Kentucky their run game got stopped up, and the inability of Fitzgerald to get the passing game going doomed the Bulldogs to a low offensive output. Mississippi State's defense has still been effective this year, keyed by the play of their line. The battle up front between Mississippi State's defensive line and the Florida offensive line will be a focal point in this contest.
Both of these teams want and need to run the football, but the Gators are better equipped to punish the defense for overloading the box with Franks throwing to a solid collection of wideouts. If Grantham can get his aggressive defense in position to make stops against the Bulldogs option run game, then this could be a fascinating matchup.
- Can Mississippi State's defensive line control the game against a big, veteran Gators offensive line?
- Which team will be able to throw the ball most effectively in this game?
- Can the Gators defense play sound assignment football against the Mississippi State option run game?
- A raucous "welcome" for head coach Dan Mullen, who left Mississippi State for the Florida job.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Mississippi State
Ohio State (-3.5) at Penn State -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Ohio State||Penn State||F/+||2||10||When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||2||22||2017 S&P+||7||12||2017 IsoPPP+||4||21||2017 Rushing S&P+||2||18||2017 Passing S&P+||4||13||When Penn State has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||18||5||2017 S&P+||8||10||2017 IsoPPP+||6||2||2017 Rushing S&P+||2||4||2017 Passing S&P+||12||5|
The last two times Ohio State went to State College to take on the Nittany Lions, they lost (24-21 in 2016) and were taken to overtime (31-24 victory in 2014). Last year Penn State took them to the wire in Columbus, with the Buckeyes barely emerging with a 39-38 victory. This has been a very difficult matchup for the Buckeyes, and Penn State has been the next best program in the stacked Big 10 East over the last two seasons since Trace McSorley was made the starting quarterback.
Part of the difficulty for the Buckeyes has been Penn State's very sound and tough defensive fronts, which Ohio State finally overcame in 2017 by beginning to transition their offense to include more and newer passing game concepts installed by new offensive coordinator Ryan Day, a former Chip Kelly assistant. This season the Buckeyes have really been rolling on offense thanks to the infusion of new quarterback Dwayne Haskins into the mix with a veteran cast of receivers and offensive linemen. On the other side, the Nittany Lions haven't been quite as sound up front after replacing three starting defensive linemen, two linebackers, and both safeties from a year ago.
Penn State will definitely come into this game fired up on defense and zeroed in, but the Buckeyes have a lot of talent and experience working together on offense to make for a pretty imposing group. Of course the same is true on the other side of the ball, where Ohio State will need to hold back an explosive Nittany Lions offense. Last year Ohio State put their focus on stopping the run, and from there were able to limit the efficacy of the Nittany Lions offense, but this season that may prove more challenging.
This is the best Penn State offensive line of the James Franklin era, and running back Miles Sanders has been more than adequate replacing Saquon Barkley, with 71 carries for 495 yards at 7.0 yards per carry thus far on the year. Five different Penn State receivers have 100 receiving yards or more, including new tight end Jonathan Holland. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes really struggled to control TCU's spread run game just a few weeks ago. In that contest the Buckeyes tried to use slanting and gap exchanges with their defensive line and linebacker to shut down the zone-read game, only to lose gaps and then watch the Horned Frogs running backs go wild on a secondary playing man-free. Ohio State hasn't had the discipline at linebacker or the rangy tackling at deep safety to make their anti-spread strategies work thus far on the year.
Ohio State should be well-prepared to handle the challenge of this game after another week to watch film and make corrections, but night games in State College are about as tough as it gets in the Big 10 and the Nittany Lions will be ready to scrap.
- How will Penn State's young defense handle Ohio State's growing passing game?
- Can Ohio State clean up their run defense and tackling against Penn State's spread offense?
- Running backs Miles Sanders of Penn State and J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State may be the class of the league.
- How will Ohio State and their new quarterback handle the raucous atmosphere of a night game in State College?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State
Stanford at Notre Dame (-5.5) -- 7:30 p.m. (NBC)
|Overall||Stanford||Notre Dame||F/+||15||8||When Stanford has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||56||6||2017 S&P+||29||27||2017 IsoPPP+||19||5||2017 Rushing S&P+||46||13||2017 Passing S&P+||34||7||When Notre Dame has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||11||46||2017 S&P+||59||24||2017 IsoPPP+||51||9||2017 Rushing S&P+||58||5||2017 Passing S&P+||69||65|
In the season opener against Michigan, Notre Dame looked like a world-beater thanks to excellent running quarterback Brandon Wimbush regularly hitting receivers down the field and on third down in a big Fighting Irish victory. Between their improved ability to involve a very talented receiving corps and a defense that seems to have made a leap to becoming elite, Notre Dame looked like a playoff team. Then they struggled to get the offense going again in subsequent weeks until last week against Wake Forest, when Irish head coach Brian Kelly pulled Wimbush for Ian Book. The former back-up Book is the much better passer and threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for three more as the Irish beat down Wake Forest 56-27.
Now Book seems safely cemented as the starter heading into another big home game, this time against Stanford. For their own part, the Cardinal appeared to be significantly improved on offense from a year ago thanks to the addition of a better passing game with quarterback K.J. Costello finding J.J. Arcega-Whiteside early and often to start the year. Yet amidst their success throwing the ball, the run game with Bryce Love has been less effective, with the 2017 Pac-12 offensive player of the year averaging only 4.3 yards per carry this season.
It's a tough matchup for the Cardinal and perhaps tougher than the numbers indicate. The Irish run game didn't seem remotely diminished with Book providing a passing constraint than it was when Wimbush was operating option-keepers, while their passing game is clearly a highly explosive dimension with Book's more accurate passing. This could a test similar to what Oregon confronted them with and Stanford barely survived that game in overtime after a costly Ducks fumble.
The bigger challenge though is the Notre Dame defense, which has been consistently excellent in every game this year. The Irish safeties and weakside linebacker Drue Tranquill have swarmed opponents this season and made explosive gains hard to come by. The Notre Dame secondary is a tough draw for Stanford, although whether they'll be able to stop Arcega-Whiteside from picking up some big conversions is another matter.
- Can Stanford finally get Bryce Love going again on the road at Notre Dame?
- Will Notre Dame maintain an explosive passing attack this week now that Ian Book is the quarterback?
- Jump balls -- both teams have large possession receivers they like to throw fades to against man coverage and each team is likely to play quite a bit of man coverage.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame
Ole Miss at LSU (-12) -- 9 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Ole Miss||LSU||F/+||51||12||When Ole Miss has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||4||10||2017 S&P+||9||18||2017 IsoPPP+||7||20||2017 Rushing S&P+||42||24||2017 Passing S&P+||14||20||When LSU has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||108||51||2017 S&P+||113||42||2017 IsoPPP+||92||18||2017 Rushing S&P+||76||7||2017 Passing S&P+||70||16|
Ole Miss has continued to show well on offense this year, but the fact that they were absolutely squashed by Alabama has led to a lot of questions about how well they can hold up against the rest of the SEC West, including LSU. The Crimson Tide put up points early and often and the Rebels couldn't even begin to keep up, finishing with seven points while starting quarterback Jordan Ta'amu finished 7-of-22 passing on the day with two interceptions.
The Rebels are running an Air Raid offense these days that's heavy on RPOs, which is no longer as mysterious to a team like LSU as in the past when those tactics were more cutting edge. The Tigers handled them last year with a combination of man coverage and usage of their "tite front" which stacks the inside like the Chicago Bears' vaunted 46 defense of the '80s and then utilizes speed elsewhere along with regular inside blitzes from star linebacker Devin White.
The Tigers defense has been excellent this year, even after losing star outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson. His replacement Michael Divinity, Jr. already has three sacks on the year. Safety Grant Delpit has also had a big year with two sacks while moving all over the backfield in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's defense. They'll trust their corners to play lockdown, man coverage outside and bring different combinations of safeties and linebackers into the mix in the middle of the field against the Rebels.
Ole Miss' big hope is that LSU won't be able to pull away on offense until the Rebels can figure out the LSU defense and start to wear them out over the course of the game. LSU has yet to decisively blow an opposing defense off the field. Quarterback Joe Burrow is under 50 percent in his completion rate on the year and running backs Nick Brosette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are averaging only 4.9 and 4.5 yards per carry respectively despite a schedule that has included Louisiana Tech and Southeastern Louisiana. Of course the Ole Miss defense has been an absolute wreck for the second year in a row, but if they can keep things close this might be interesting down the stretch.
- Can Ole Miss stop the run and keep LSU from pulling away before the Rebels can unlock the Tigers defense?
- Will this be the week LSU quarterback Joe Burrow finally starts to connect in the passing game?
- Ole Miss' explosive Air Raid offense against a LSU defense filled with NFL prospects.
S&P+ Outright Pick: LSU
Oregon (-2.5) at Cal -- 10:30 p.m. (FS1)
|Overall||Oregon||Cal||F/+||40||52||When Oregon has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||19||5||2017 S&P+||32||79||2017 IsoPPP+||34||43||2017 Rushing S&P+||33||79||2017 Passing S&P+||51||66||When Cal has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||77||118||2017 S&P+||61||84||2017 IsoPPP+||47||104||2017 Rushing S&P+||23||90||2017 Passing S&P+||32||89|
When head coach Justin Wilcox took over at Cal for the 2017 season, it looked as though the team was going to completely fall apart. Multiple impact players transferred out to go spend their final seasons in Air Raid offenses like the one that previous coach Sonny Dykes had run. Meanwhile the Golden Bears defense had been a wreck under Dykes and seemed unlikely to come together anytime soon. But now the Golden Bears appear to have made a leap, currently ranking fifth in the country in defensive S&P+. They're much stronger up front and are relying on the formula of playing "bend don't break" alignments with their defensive backs and keeping their inside linebacker 5 yards off the ball before the snap but then sending numbers to stop the run after the snap. The result is a defense that can get numbers to the ball when they recognize a play but also get depth in their coverage drops to take away easy windows for throwing the ball down the field.
That should make them a good challenge for Oregon and their quarterback Justin Herbert, who has been making throws this season that have him at the top of the NFL draft rankings for quarterbacks. If he can force the ball past Cal's conservative drops, then that'll be an impressive feat and make this game nearly impossible for Cal to win.
The Oregon defense is still growing and improving under defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, but they are a ways from being as good as the Colorado defense he coordinated before landing Ducks job. The Ducks simply haven't had the personnel to execute defense at a high level yet. In the meantime, though, they're facing a Cal offense that is trying to be a balanced spread with a dual-threat quarterback in Chase Garbers, but he's still just a freshman and they are prone to errors and turnovers that nearly cost them a week ago against BYU in a narrow victory. If Garbers and the offense play a clean game, they have some firepower though, certainly enough to make things interesting if the Cal defense continues to perform at a high level.
- Can Justin Herbert use his NFL arm to beat Cal's conservative drops and coverages?
- How will freshman Cal quarterback Chase Garbers handle a growing Oregon defense?
- Will Oregon have a hangover from their narrow loss to Stanford or come out punching?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oregon
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 5
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ pick
against the spread
| Ian's pick
against the spread
|West Virginia||3.5||Texas Tech||West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia|
|Mississippi State||8||Florida||Mississippi State||Mississippi State||Florida|
|Ohio State||3.5||Penn State||Ohio State||Penn State||Ohio State|
|Notre Dame||5.5||Stanford||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
|LSU||12||Ole Miss||LSU||Ole Miss||LSU|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 3-3
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 15-9
Ian's Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 14-10