Championship Chases Heat Up in ACC, Big Ten, SEC

UTSA Roadrunners RB Sincere McCormick
UTSA Roadrunners RB Sincere McCormick
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA - With Georgia locking up a virtually uncontested SEC East title with their definitive, 34-7 win over Florida last week, the stretch run of the season is now fully underway. November brings with it rivalries, top-10 showdowns, and perhaps most importantly, the tricky calculations of which teams will emerge from the fray to take part in their conference championship games. While some are just about certain to make it—Utah State and Fresno State have already overcome most of the competition, for example, and Utah took down each of their three pursuers in their last four games—most teams are still vulnerable if the final weeks remain as upset-heavy as the first two months have been.

Plenty of teams are walking a fine line between making a playoff push and spending the first week of December on the couch. Cincinnati is making the best case by a Group of 5 team since the start of the College Football Playoff era, but their spot in the American Championship Game is far from secure. If SMU manages to win out, including an upset in Cincinnati on November 20, they would most likely knock the Bearcats out of the top two and force a rematch of last week's thriller against Houston.

The other conference without divisions, the Big 12, is on the verge of chaos as well. The mad scramble for second has mostly resolved into a three-way fight between Oklahoma State (4-1 in the conference), Baylor (4-1), and Iowa State (3-2), but this standard free-for-all could devolve into a much more complex showdown if one or two of those teams manage to upset undefeated Oklahoma, which runs the gauntlet against all three in its final three games.

Division races offer opportunities for chaos as well. After an upset loss to Texas A&M several weeks ago, Alabama has righted the ship and looks on pace for a decisive duel with Georgia in the conference title game. But that conference loss, a rarity for the Crimson Tide, offers a tantalizingly wild possibility. If Auburn manages to win out, pulling an upset in the Iron Bowl as they so often do, they'd slip past Alabama and claim the division instead, which is chaotic enough. But if Auburn loses one of their next three games—in which they face Texas A&M and Mississippi State, both competitive opponents in the SEC West—and then stuns Alabama, it would leave every team in the conference with at least two losses and potentially set up a bizarre multi-way tiebreaker. To get really crazy, it's theoretically possible that six of the seven teams in the division could finish 5-3.

The madness of hypothetical scenarios will inevitably sort itself out in the next few weeks, with some conferences and divisions resulting in unlikely, unexpected results and others resolving in more reasonable ways. There will be shocking losses, massive matchups, and topsy-turvy tiebreakers to any fan's content across the final five weeks of the year, and the dramatic final month of the season starts this Saturday with a slate of games worth watching.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Army vs. Air Force (-2.5) in Arlington—Saturday, 11:30 a.m. (CBS)

Overall Army Air Force
2021 F+ 66 48
When Army has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 44 43
2021 EPA/pass 16 27
2021 EPA/rush 14 91
When Air Force has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 76 48
2021 EPA/pass 102 79
2021 EPA/rush 72 18

Army and potent offense aren't exactly concepts that tend to go hand in hand. The Black Knights' triple-option works well enough, but the defense is generally the star of the show. In 2020, when they went 9-3, they did so by holding opponents to just 14.8 points per game, second in FBS. In 2018, when they went 11-2, the cause was similar: 17.7 points allowed per game, 10th overall. Their offenses in those years, by contrast, were solid but unexceptional units (77th in scoring in 2020, 37th in 2018). Army, like any service academy, wins because it plays more physically and with more discipline, and that tends to be more applicable on the defensive side of the ball.

But, of course, 2021 has been nothing if not a year of exceptions. Army is averaging 34.6 points per game this year, 30th in FBS, the product of an offense that is clearly leading the way for the Knights. This seems likely to be the first year since 2014 in which Army ranks higher in offensive points per game than defensive, and the result is a solid 4-3 record with competitive losses to Wisconsin and Wake Forest, both among the top 25. Most recently, the Knights displayed their scoring prowess in a barnburner loss to the Demon Deacons, scoring 56 but allowing 70. Jabari Laws completed nine passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns, making him the first Army quarterback to reach those numbers in a game since 2007. Meanwhile, Tyhier Tyler, Tyrell Robinson, and Anthony Adkins all surpassed 90 yards on the ground for Army, the first such occurrence for a trio of Black Knights since 2016 and the first against an FBS opponent since 2012.

Of course, Army also gave up 70 points, their second-worst defensive performance ever after a 77-7 shellacking at the hands of Nebraska back in 1972. But the fact remains that the Knights' offense is scoring at practically unprecedented rates for a triple option. The only real comparison to Army's incredible scoring outburst is 2007 Navy, which averaged 39.3 points per game—4.7 ahead of these Knights, though the last five games of the season are forgiving—and combined with North Texas to score 136 total points in a regulation game, an FBS record that stood for nine years. It's hard to say whether Army can surpass that performance, but they're certainly far beyond anything in their own history under the triple.

Speaking of their fellow service academies, the Knights have a chance to dispatch their closest competition for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy with a visit to Air Force. The Falcons are having a much more traditional season, with a middling offense (29.2 points per game, 63rd) and an excellent defense (16.8 points allowed per game, seventh) giving them a 6-2 record. The lone exception to their defensive standard, a 49-45 loss to Utah State, will most likely bar their path to a division title, but Air Force is still having a good season on the whole. Outside of that high-scoring contest, they haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game, and their defense holds opponents to a mere 35.6% success rate, 10th-lowest in the nation.

Will the outcome in this game be more shootout or slugfest? Well, let's look at Army's offense and examine why many opponents have struggled to handle it. The Knights' style works about the same as it always has: they run the ball relentlessly behind a plethora of rushers, then take advantage of shifts in defensive alignment to uncover secondary weakness at critical moments. It's not a bad strategy; there's a reason the two most prolific seasons of at least 100 passes, as measured by yards per attempt, both came from quarterbacks at triple-option schools. The Knights have actually employed three different quarterbacks to that end, but the results have been generally the same. Christian Anderson (16 passes, 14.1 yards per attempt) has been good when healthy, but has taken a beating this year, leading to significant action for Jemel Jones (13 passes, 10.4 yards per attempt) and Laws (17 passes, 13.4 yards per attempt). Despite the injury drama, though, Army still leads the nation in passing explosiveness. As for the rushing corps, 12 different players have toted the ball at least 10 times each, but Anderson (427 yards, 7.2 yards per carry, 5 TD), Tyler (303 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 4 TD), and Jakobi Buchanan (213 yards, 3.0 yards per carry, 6 TD) have seen the most carries.

It's not easy to slow that group down, but it's at least obvious where their strengths lie: Army gains consistent rushing yardage (17th in EPA per run, 37th in rushing success rate), prevents big defensive plays (sixth in opponent havoc rate), and capitalizes on scoring opportunities (4.84 points per opportunity, 13th in FBS).

Air Force's defensive line isn't likely to put a dent in the run game as a whole—they allow 2.66 line yards per carry, 75th overall—but the Falcons do have a hidden strength: stopping up most line carries before they can get into the second level and gain highlight yardage. Air Force allows just 0.89 second-level yards per carry (26th), which is key to holding opponents to a 33.9% rushing success rate (11th). Add a defensive lineup capable of big plays throughout, from the line (Jordan Jackson: 25 tackles, five tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) to the backfield (Milton Bugg III and Corvan Taylor: 61 tackles, 10 pass breakups, four interceptions), and the Falcons have as good a chance of slowing down this high-octane offense as anyone is likely to get.

Watch for:

  • After a decreased workload last time out (seven carries, a quarter of his 28 against Boise State), will a bye week return Brad Roberts (185 carries, 845 yards, 8 TD) to workhorse status?
  • Will the Falcons return to usual starter Haaziq Daniels (10.0 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 2 INT) or retain the switch to Warren Bryan (3-for-7, 58 yards, 1 TD) that revitalized their offense against San Diego State?
  • Will Army feature receiver Isaiah Alston more prominently after his breakout performance against Wake Forest (6 catches, 107 yards, 2 TD)?

FEI Outright Pick: Air Force by 3.6

Wake Forest at North Carolina (-2.5)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Wake Forest North Carolina
2021 F+ 16 34
When Wake Forest has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 7 82
2021 EPA/pass 4 96
2021 EPA/rush 52 89
When North Carolina has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 57 8
2021 EPA/pass 98 67
2021 EPA/rush 76 15

2021 hasn't been a banner year for expected superstar quarterbacks. Spencer Rattler, considered by many the heir apparent to Oklahoma's run of first-overall picks, struggled through four straight one-score wins before being benched against Texas. Nevada's Carson Strong has been good, but he hasn't taken the next step some pundits were hoping for, and his star is being outshined by Fresno State's Jake Haener. Malik Willis of Liberty has been inconsistent against a mediocre schedule; Kedon Slovis of USC has struggled and may soon lose his starting job to Jaxson Dart; and JT Daniels, ostensibly the starting quarterback for top-ranked Georgia, hasn't played since September and may have fallen behind Stetson Bennett on the depth chart. As these names have slid down draft boards, surprising new ones have soared into the discussion: now in the discussion are Matt Corral of Ole Miss, Kenny Pickett of Pitt, and perhaps even Bennett himself.

Amidst the chaos, however, one expected leader has managed to maintain his position as one of the best quarterbacks in the class. Sam Howell's season began in dreadful fashion, with 208 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions in a loss to Virginia Tech, but since that opener, he has been just as good as in his lauded 2020 campaign. The North Carolina passer has only thrown four interceptions since, compared to 18 touchdowns, and he has averaged 9.4 yards per attempt—not to mention 80 rushing yards per game and and 5.5 per carry. The Tar Heels' disappointing 4-4 record doesn't reflect that performance, but there's little Howell can do about his defense surrendering 35 or more points in five of the last six games.

With Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler (829 total yards, 10 TD) joining Howell to create an elite rushing attack (15th in EPA per rush, sixth in success rate, 11th in explosiveness), North Carolina has barely missed a beat from last year's offensive outburst, despite the loss of three thousand-yard players. That dreadful defense has held them back, but the Tar Heels still have opportunities in front of them to put some positive spin on a lost season. In the next two weeks, they face the leaders of the ACC's Coastal and Atlantic divisions, Wake Forest and Pitt, and neither team has much of a chance to slow down Howell's resurgence. The next two weeks of action for North Carolina don't have the highest of stakes—though getting a win in at least one game, with Wofford and North Carolina State still down the road, would be nice to virtually secure bowl eligibility—but Mack Brown's squad can prove that their rise isn't over just yet.

Beating Wake Forest, an undefeated in-state rival, would be a particularly pointed way to deliver that message, even if the game isn't actually a conference matchup. But the Demon Deacons are a tough challenge, perhaps the toughest North Carolina has faced yet. Ranked in the top 10 for the first time in school history, their offense is flying even higher than the Tar Heels', scoring some 43.4 points per game behind Sam Hartman (9.9 yards per attempt, 22 TD, 3 INT) and a legion of four rushers with at least 50 carries and 200 yards (Hartman, Christian Beal, Christian Turner, and Justice Ellison). Wake Forest has scored at least 35 points in every game so far, and as mentioned before, they recently put up 70 on Army—their highest-scoring game since 1940, and their best-ever score against an FBS opponent, breaking a record set in 1975.

The Deacons' success is the product of Dave Clawson's offbeat offense, most notable for its off-putting (but remarkably effective) extended handoff that allows Wake Forest to adjust to defenses as the play progresses. More or less every team in college football uses run-pass options, but generally they read defenses before the snap or in the immediate moments after. The Deacons, by contrast, adjust tempo within the play until the quarterback feels comfortable with a decision. Hartman, a cool, calculating quarterback who adeptly avoids disaster, is the perfect player to place at the heart of Clawson's system, and the results speak for themselves. In his last five games, he has averaged 357 passing yards, 10.7 yards per attempt, 3.2 touchdowns, 0.4 interceptions, and 1.2 rushing touchdowns. Add an offensive line capable of protecting Hartman while he adjusts on the fly, allowing sacks on just 3.7% of plays (16th in FBS) and front-seven havoc on just 6.5% (fourth), and Wake Forest has one of the best offenses in all of football.

With all this firepower, it's hard to expect much from either defense, and another game along the lines of Wake Forest's 70-56 barnburner with Army or North Carolina's 45-42 showdown with Miami isn't out of the question. Conference stakes may not be on the table, but there's still plenty to play for, from bowl hopes to bragging rights to respect in a shaken-up ACC—and perhaps even a spot in the playoff for the unbeaten Demon Deacons. The final month of an unlikely bid for perfection pits them against some of the toughest competition the conference has to offer, and it all starts with an in-state battle that any fan should consider appointment viewing.

Watch for:

  • Can Wake Forest, which has struggled in the stretch run in recent years, get November off to a good start with a key win?
  • Will Hartman go to Jaquarii Roberson (27 catches for 492 yards in October) or A.T. Perry (19 catches for 424 yards) as his top receiver?
  • Can North Carolina's unreliable defensive line (three or more sacks against Virginia, Duke, and Miami; one or fewer in all other games) pressure the Deacons' backfield?

FEI Outright Pick: Wake Forest by 7.0

Auburn at Texas A&M (-5)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Auburn Texas A&M
2021 F+ 14 7
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 22 9
2021 EPA/pass 78 7
2021 EPA/rush 46 29
When Texas A&M has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 16 37
2021 EPA/pass 59 83
2021 EPA/rush 48 35

Outside of a shocking 41-38 upset of Alabama, defense has generally led the way for Texas A&M this season. With vaunted recruit Haynes King lost to injury in the second game of the season, the Aggies have had little choice but to start Zach Calzada (6.6 yards per attempt, 12 TD, 7 INT), whose 122.7 passing efficiency rating ranks 68th among the 73 quarterbacks with at least 200 passes. The offense has occasionally shown sparks of hope, such as scoring 41 on the Crimson Tide behind a career day for Calzada (285 yards, 9.2 yards per attempt, 3 TD, 1 INT) or totaling 79 points across their last two contests thanks to consecutive 100-yard games by running backs Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achance. But inconsistency has plagued the group: Texas A&M rushed for just 94 yards against Alabama, with neither Spiller nor Achane surpassing 50, and Calzada averaged a pedestrian line in the rushing corps' recent breakout (168 yards, 6.8 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 1 INT). While the offense has improved from its early-season struggles—it has been a while since they looked like the team that escaped Colorado by a 10-7 score, after all—if the Aggies are to take down Auburn and maintain their hopes of an SEC West title, the defense will likely lead the way.

On that side of the ball, Texas A&M is elite across the board: they rank fourth nationally in EPA allowed per play, 17th in success rate, 13th in explosiveness, sixth in points allowed per scoring opportunity, and fourth in EPA allowed per drive. The defensive line, allowing only 2.50 line yards per carry (46th) and a 6.6% sack rate (64th), has earned most of the praise for this performance, standing out as one of college football's biggest and most imposing units behind lineman DeMarvin Leal (35 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks). But quality play on the Aggies' line has been a given lately; where the group has made strides from last year, and the reason they can potentially knock off Auburn, is in the secondary.

Lauded defensive coordinator Mike Elko coached defensive backs at nearly every job he held before arriving in College Station, so it's no surprise that his secondary has developed into one of college football's best. If anything, it's surprising that it took so long, with the Aggies sitting roughly in the middle of the pack in yards allowed per attempt (7.3, 57th) and interceptions per game (1.0, 34th) during last year's CFP-contending season. The pass defense has surged this year, however, allowing just 5.9 yards per attempt (ninth) by virtue of a substantial improvement in yards allowed per completion (from 11.5, ranking 39th, to 9.8, ranking fourth). In short, the Aggies are tackling more efficiently and preventing explosive passes much better (ranking eighth in that stat). 

Texas A&M's entire backfield is playing well, with safety Leon O'Neal Jr. (33 tackles, five pass breakups, two interceptions) standing out, but the key to the group's success is undoubtedly nickel Antonio Johnson. After sporadic appearances in 2020 as a freshman, Johnson earned a starting role for 2021 and immediately became one of the most versatile defenders in college football, keying the Aggies' superb bend-don't-break defense by shortening the field and targeting receivers in the slot. He has made 94.6% of his tackles this year and is allowing just 5.5 yards per reception, limiting the middle of the field and giving the rest of the secondary better matchups on the outside.

That winning formula makes freewheeling Auburn quarterback Bo Nix a fascinating matchup for the Aggies. For all his ups and downs in college, Nix has taken a step forward this year, averaging a career-high 7.3 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. His penchant for trying to make something out of nothing—at times spectacular or disastrous—is reflected in the fact that he doesn't pass up the middle often, preferring to attempt more difficult (but potentially more explosive) plays to the outside, often well downfield. Whether that quality is for the best is debatable, but it should make things interesting against a Texas A&M defense that relies on winning the line of scrimmage and the heart of the field. Nix is comfortable out of the pocket, and he's comfortable ignoring (or simply not having) a go-to receiver in the slot, which might require adjustments in the Aggies' game plan.

Whichever team emerges from this matchup with a mere two conference losses will be in prime position to snag the division title—most likely, in both cases, by way of an upset in the Iron Bowl. It's too early for the Tigers or Aggies to look that far ahead, but the key to winning on Saturday will be the same as the key to winning out and, quite possibly, sneaking into the conference title game: both Auburn and Texas A&M must find the missing pieces to complement their existing excellence and emerge as a complete contender.

Watch for:

  • Can Auburn's solid offensive line (20th in line yards per carry, 18th in sack rate) hold off the Aggies' swarming defense?
  • The Tigers have deftly avoided havoc this year (10th-lowest front-seven rate, 21st-lowest defensive-backs rate); will that continue against a Texas A&M defense that somewhat struggles to create it?
  • Given Tank Bigsby's history of dropping off in the weeks after a particularly heavy workload, will Auburn use him sparingly after a 23-carry, 140-yard performance against Ole Miss?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas A&M by 1.9

Wisconsin (-13) at Rutgers—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (BTN)

Overall Wisconsin Rutgers
2021 F+ 6 72
When Wisconsin has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 71 34
2021 EPA/pass 129 71
2021 EPA/rush 76 18
When Rutgers has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 2 97
2021 EPA/pass 2 117
2021 EPA/rush 2 111

It's high time Olakunle Fatukasi receives the respect he's due. The Rutgers linebacker has wreaked havoc on school and conference records alike, leading the Big Ten in tackles last year. This season, he has already put up 75 tackles, 11 for loss, in the Scarlet Knights' first eight games, making him the first Big Ten defender to notch both totals at this point in the season since 2008. With Fatukasi leading a defense that has performed respectably against solid competition (allowing only 20 points to Michigan and 31 to Michigan State), Rutgers has scraped together a 4-4 record and needs just one more win to secure their best record since 2014—their last bowl season.

The Knights are still mapping out their path for a return to relevance, but if there's a model to imitate, it might just be that of the team they'll face this week. Wisconsin is one of college football's most reliably great programs: they haven't missed a bowl since 2001, before some of their current players were even born, and with a 5-3 record this year, that streak will likely continue. A win over rival Minnesota at the end of the year would, in all likelihood, provide their fifth Big Ten West title in eight years. But it's easy to forget that even the Badgers once had to find their way out of the conference basement. After claiming the mantle of conference leader from the fading Minnesota dynasty in the 1950s and reaching their best-ever finish at No. 2 in 1962, Wisconsin went on to more winless seasons (two) then bowl wins (one) in the next three decades. Until the arrival of Barry Alvarez—who swiftly built the team into an annual contender, returned to bowl season with a Rose victory in 1993, and pioneered an era of constant success as a coach (1990-2005) and athletic director (2004-21)—the Badgers occupied a place now reserved for lowly Rutgers.

The comparisons aren't exact—the Big Ten of the 1970s and 1980s was a very different league from that of the last decade, and the Knights had a relatively successful era in the late 2010s—but there are few better examples of the success Rutgers hopes to achieve, and perhaps that's part of the reason this team looks so similar to the standard the Badgers have followed over the past 30 years of glory. The Knights don't have much going under center, as all five players to attempt at least one pass have averaged 6.4 yards per attempt (the mark of starting quarterback Noah Vedral) or worse. The rushing attack, while still in development, is approaching a reasonable level, with Isaih Pacheco (433 yards, 3.7 yards per carry) featuring prominently. And, of course, the defense steals the spotlight, winning situational battles with surprising frequency (it holds opponents to an impressive 37.7% success rate, 19th overall) and shutting down offenses enough to level the playing field. While not nearly as prolific as the Badgers' current unit—a high mark to beat, considering only Georgia is clearly above it—this Rutgers defense, and the team as a whole, is evidently built in imitation of Wisconsin.

In theory, the Badgers' offense is very beatable, given their miserable statistical profile: 121st in EPA per play, 121st in points per scoring opportunity, and dead-last in overall explosiveness. They at least move the ball downfield at a decent clip, with a 44.7% success rate that ranks a decent 53rd, but a severely lacking passing game has given them trouble when they fall behind the sticks, which has led to the Badgers ranking only 84th in success rate and 129th in EPA per play on passing downs. Doing anything against the Wisconsin defense is, of course, another matter, but on paper, any team with a defense worth its salt should be able to hold the Badgers down and win a low-scoring game.

Not many teams have done that lately, however, and Wisconsin mustered 27 points despite a whopping -14.0 EPA against their most recent victim (Iowa, then ranked ninth) by turning the Hawkeyes' key field position advantage on its head. The Badgers started about 8 yards closer to the end zone on average—a big difference for a team only gaining around 30 yards per drive. By avoiding mistakes (only one turnover lost and positive penalty EPA), Wisconsin was able to take advantage of critical opportunities against Iowa while denying their opponents any possibility of doing the same until the game was out of reach. It has taken a while for the Badgers to get to this point, but with Graham Mertz finally looking decent and a typically dominant run game and defense leading the charge, they're back to their winning ways.

This test is, in all likelihood, not one the Knights are quite ready to tackle. They have a talented defense—beyond Fatukasi, other standouts include freshman defensive back Max Melton (five pass breakups, two interceptions) and the experienced duo of linemen Julius Turner and Ifeanyi Maijeh (combined: 34 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks)—but the team is still young, and another near-upset of a conference leader isn't necessarily a reasonable expectation. Still, it'll be a game worth watching, if only for a glimpse of a team that might just take the Big Ten by storm.

Watch for:

  • Rutgers nearly stunned Michigan by limiting their superstar rushing lineup; can they do the same against Wisconsin's, led by impressive but inconsistent running back Chez Mellusi (740 yards, 4.7 yards per carry)?
  • How much damage can the Badgers' elite defensive line (first in line yards per carry and stuff rate, fifth in sack rate) deal against a mediocre Rutgers offensive line?
  • Will Vedral and Mertz be able to keep steady under pressure and keep their offenses humming along against difficult defensive challenges?

FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 11.2

Mississippi State at Arkansas (-4)—Saturday, 4 p.m. (SECN)

Overall Mississippi State Arkansas
2021 F+ 33 30
When Mississippi State has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 45 27
2021 EPA/pass 57 34
2021 EPA/rush 48 43
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 13 35
2021 EPA/pass 69 53
2021 EPA/rush 22 43

After a forgettable 2020 season in which Mississippi State went 4-7 and struggled mightily on offense, all eyes were on Mike Leach to see how he'd shake things up in 2021. Some form of the pass-heavy Air Raid would certainly remain in effect; Leach ran it successfully in Lubbock and Pullman, and it would be an overreaction to give up on it after one year in Starkville. And indeed, after eight games, the Bulldogs are passing a whopping 73.3% of the time, a rate that leads the nation by over five percentage points. Mississippi State's reliance on their performance through the air hasn't changed a bit.

What has changed, however, is what the Bulldogs do with all those passes. In 2020, they completed a solid 67.0% of those attempts, 14th overall—but for only 8.7 yards per completion, just behind Kansas and UMass for the worst mark in FBS. Leach's teams generally fall well below average in this stat, in large part because defenses know to expect a pass on the vast majority of plays, but it's simply not possible to win with a passing game as inefficient as that. Yet skip forward to 2021 and, once again, Mississippi State lies at the bottom of the yards-per-completion leaderboard, averaging just 8.9. The solution, or at least the cause of the Bulldogs' rise to merely average on offense, lay not in breaking off bigger passes, but in emphasizing quarterback Will Rogers' best attribute and raising the success rate.

With Rogers having thrown 435 of Mississippi State's 442 passes, the Bulldogs rank first nationally with a 75.1% completion rate. The overall passing offense still isn't lighting up the scoreboard on a play-to-play basis; the Bulldogs average just 6.7 yards per attempt, 96th overall. But Rogers' consistency accounts for his other shortcomings, as his 49.7% passing success rate (16th) has helped Mississippi State achieve the same 49.7% success rate overall (15th). In the most basic sense, the Bulldogs are using their passes like rushes: establishing a reliable means of gaining yardage to set up attempts at bigger plays. While explosiveness has proven elusive—the team averages just 1.38 EPA on successful plays, 128th in FBS—the steady passing game has come through to keep Mississippi State on the field, putting together the 14th-longest drives in college football and producing 52 total scoring opportunities (tied for 25th). The offense is far from perfect, and it has some obvious weaknesses that opposing defenses can attack, but behind it, the Bulldogs have quietly risen to the middle of the SEC this year. With two ranked wins, they have established themselves as a presence to be contended with.

When it comes to those weaknesses, though, the Bulldogs could be in for trouble when they take on an Arkansas defense hoping to find its footing. Before a much-needed visit from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the Razorbacks had lost three straight games while allowing 37, 52, and 38 points. This year is still a success no matter what happens, considering their five wins are their most in a season since Bret Bielema coached the team, but Arkansas could use some confidence that they can keep the best of the conference from running up the score. While recent weeks have been difficult, though, there's still a lot to like about the Razorbacks' defense. For one thing, they allow just 0.08 EPA per play (fourth) and a 19.9% success rate (first) on passing downs, qualities that should serve them well against a team that doesn't generally disguise its intentions in such situations.

On the other hand, Arkansas hasn't generally faced teams that play anything like the style of football Mississippi State will bring to the table. The Bulldogs' 55 passes per game are leagues beyond the highest total the Razorbacks' defense has faced in a game (36 by Texas A&M), and the Arkansas defense as a whole has faced a towering 57.0% rushing play rate, the 13th-highest in the nation. With last week's comfortable win, the staff has had more time to prepare for this change of pace, but it's still difficult to predict what will work and what won't when the Razorbacks take on a foe that hopes to redefine the essence of offensive success.

Watch for:

  • Mississippi State defends the run well (15th in EPA and success rate), but can they hold up against the run-heavy Razorbacks (eighth in rushing play rate)?
  • Can a solid Bulldogs defensive line (29th in line yards per carry, 78th in sack rate) beat out Arkansas (16th in line yards per carry, 45th in sack rate) in the trenches?
  • Can the Razorbacks get past Mississippi State's sturdy outside linemen (holding opponents to the 12th-lowest front-seven havoc rate) and pressure Rogers?

FEI Outright Pick: Arkansas by 3.6

UTSA (-11) at UTEP—Saturday, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN2)

2021 F+ 60 105
When UTSA has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 61 80
2021 EPA/pass 8 20
2021 EPA/rush 58 1
When UTEP has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 54 115
2021 EPA/pass 30 2
2021 EPA/rush 16 121

Conference USA has generally struggled against other conferences in recent years, and impending shifts in membership may bring its illustrious history to an end, but it doesn't intend to go out without providing one of the best all-around title chases in football. In the East, FAU, Marshall, and Western Kentucky are all deadlocked at 3-1 in conference play, with all three games between the trio set to take place in the final month of the season. Over in the West, undefeated UTSA is 4-0 in C-USA and holds a narrow lead over UTEP and UAB, both 3-1. As in the East, all three games between the top contenders are yet to be played, and along with FAU-Marshall, this in-state showdown between the Roadrunners and Miners provides a critical opportunity to claim the first critical tiebreaker.

Jeff Traylor, hired in 2019 on the strength of his impressive recruiting record in the state of Texas, has lifted UTSA to unprecedented heights, matching their best-ever win total in FBS with a third of the season yet to be played. The Roadrunners are ranked in the AP Poll for the first time ever, and they'll have an opportunity after the season to take home the first win in program history. As good a story as that is, though, UTEP has an even better tale. The Miners have played a whopping 84 seasons of football and have made just 14 bowls. Their last bowl win came in 1967; their last postseason appearance was a New Mexico Bowl loss in 2014, and they followed up that particular act by cratering to 0-12 within three years. The Miners promptly hired Dana Dimel, who had spent nearly a decade at Kansas State and who had been run out of town at Houston in his last coaching job after going 3-8, 0-11, and 5-7. And now, on the strength of a soaring defense and a relatively cushy schedule, UTEP is bowl-bound again.

The stakes in this showdown aren't nearly as high as can be found elsewhere. UTSA and UTEP aren't battling for a playoff bid, and a New Year's Six spot looks unlikely after the CFP committee left the Roadrunners out of their first rankings altogether. With all the competition for the C-USA crown, even the road to a conference title will remain long for whichever team comes out ahead. But the sheer unlikeliness of a meaningful game between UTSA (a program that celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its FCS debut earlier this year) and UTEP (a longsuffering team that labored through year after year of blowouts and disappointments) is, in and of itself, is worth watching.

On the field, UTSA has been the more complete team this season. Both the offense and defense are top-20 in overall scoring and top-40 in EPA per play. The cornerstone of the Roadrunners' attack is, of course, the preposterously good Sincere McCormick, who should extend his lead as UTSA's most prolific career rusher to a thousand yards this week. McCormick has already rushed for 891 yards and 4.7 yards per carry this year, and he has maintained a remarkably dependable statline despite his massive workload. In seven FBS games, the Roadrunners have given him the ball 184 times (26.3 per game), and he has rushed for at least 85 yards in every game—at least 100 in all but one. Add Frank Harris' transformation from mediocre starter in 2020 (6.5 yards per attempt, 12 TD, 6 INT) to genuine star in 2021 (8.1 yards per attempt, 16 TD, 3 INT), and it's easy to see how the Roadrunners' offense has launched into orbit. UTSA holds onto the ball (only one giveaway per game, tied for 25th) and gets it downfield (47.0% success rate, 33rd). The unexpected development of this disciplined, deliberate offense is a credit to Traylor's rebuild, and with a decade-long, $28-million contract, the Roadrunners are evidently hoping the architect of this rise sticks around as their ascent continues.

The story isn't as simple for UTEP, which has received much more skepticism on account of their paper-thin schedule. The Miners' offense, by contrast to UTSA's slow burn, runs hot and cold: they rank 124th in overall success rate and second-to-last in rushing success rate, but fifth in overall explosiveness and second in passing explosiveness. Gavin Hardison (9.2 yards per attempt, 9 TD, 9 INT) leads a feast-or-famine passing attack that breaks off some huge plays through the air, but also clearly struggles with interceptions and generally courts danger. In some respects, that quality serves the Miners well; when Hardison is on his game, they can hang with anybody in the conference, even if their opponent is clearly superior on paper. On the other hand, it also makes for an easy scapegoat when UTEP plays down to teams like Bethune-Cookman (a 38-28 win) and Old Dominion (28-21).

Still, the Miners' offensive potential has produced enough highlight-reel moments and game-changing plays to secure a postseason bid, and that could make the difference against UTSA. If the Roadrunners struggle to score against a phenomenal defense (sixth in EPA allowed per play, 12th in success rate), UTEP could deliver a pivotal upset and shake the foundations of the chaotic C-USA championship chase.

Watch for:

  • After an impressive freshman campaign (592 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 9 TD), can UTEP rusher Deion Hankins build on his rebound against FAU (72 yards, 6.5 yards per carry)?
  • Can UTSA's elite pass protection (2.2% sack rate allowed, fourth in FBS) hold off Praise Amaewhule (28 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) and a tenacious Miners pass rush?
  • Will versatile UTSA safety Rashad Wisdom (46 tackles, three tackles for loss, three pass breakups) control Harris' downfield passing and prevent big plays?

FEI Outright Pick: UTSA by 8.8

FEI Picks: Week 10

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI
at Air Force -2.5 Army Air Force Air Force Army
at North Carolina -2.5 Wake Forest Wake Forest Wake Forest Wake Forest
at Texas A&M -5 Auburn Texas A&M Auburn Auburn
Wisconsin -13 at Rutgers Wisconsin Rutgers Rutgers
at Arkansas -4 Mississippi State Arkansas Mississippi State Arkansas

FEI's picks ATS in Week 9: 2-4

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 26-28

Preston's picks ATS in Week 9: 2-4

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 29-25


2 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2021, 10:50pm

#1 by justanothersteve // Nov 05, 2021 - 7:38pm

After claiming the mantle of conference leader from the fading Minnesota dynasty in the 1950s and reaching their best-ever finish at No. 2 in 1962, Wisconsin went on to more losing seasons (two) then bowl wins (one) in the next three decades. 

Badgers fans would have been thrilled if there were only two losing seasons in the three decades post-62 Rose Bowl. I'm not sure what you were trying to say, but Wisconsin once went over two years without winning a game in the late 60's or early 70's. (Sorry. Those seasons of pathetic football outside the McClain years tend to blur together in awfulness.) 

Points: 0

#2 by Preston Pack // Nov 06, 2021 - 10:50pm

Ah, that was meant to say "winless" rather than "losing". Thanks for the note, I've corrected that now.

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Preston
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Preston Pack. Use promo code PRESTON to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Preston.