New Year's Six Bowls on the Line for Michigan State, Baylor

SMU Mustangs RB Ulysses Bentley IV
SMU Mustangs RB Ulysses Bentley IV
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA - With college football approaching the final month of the regular season, the critical games for playoff and postseason standings are coming into focus. Some expected blockbusters have lost their luster—barring unlikely upsets, College Football Playoff contenders Georgia and Ohio State should take care of business against struggling rivals Florida and Penn State. Equally surprising are some of the games carrying high stakes this weekend, such as the top-10 showdown between Michigan and Michigan State, who finished second-to-last and last in the Big Ten East last season.

As chaotic as the scramble for the playoff has become with teams from Cincinnati to Wake Forest in the mix, the chase for the New Year's Six is even wilder and promises plenty of unfamiliar faces. The shaken-up standings in several conferences, particularly the ACC and Pac-12, have put some surprising teams in position to claim automatic bids to these prestigious bowls. The Wolverines and Spartans both have playoff hopes, for example, but a spot in the Rose Bowl is potentially on the line as well. With Michigan having gone 24 years without a win in Pasadena (their longest such streak in the modern era), a return to that venue would be a game worth watching.

There are plenty of other Big Ten teams hoping to take home a title, though, and any number of them could secure a Rose Bowl invite instead. Iowa, for instance, hasn't won that game since 1958, and has only played in it once in the last three decades. Now 6-1 and tied for the lead of the West, the Hawkeyes have an opportunity to bolster their résumé this weekend with a visit to Wisconsin. And, of course, let's not forget undefeated Michigan State, which has only one Rose Bowl appearance this century—although it was a win, and one that came a relatively recent eight years ago. The story for the Spartans, should they claim the bid, would be less about ending a drought and more about moving on from the divisive Mark Dantonio era.

Elsewhere, the Big 12 has opened up with Oklahoma's close-game struggles against a relatively light first half, providing a potential opportunity for teams such as Iowa State or Oklahoma State to make premier postseason appearances. This week could prove key to the final standings, with two championship hopefuls facing off. With only one loss in conference play—tied with the Cyclones and Cowboys for second—Baylor is in good position to make a run at the title game. But Texas, with two losses in the Big 12, is the highest-ranked team that has already faced undefeated Oklahoma, and they could still work their way into the chase. If they're to do so, taking advantage of this difficult road test will be crucial.

Postseason drama of all shapes and sizes is unfolding across the country. Ole Miss will look to set itself apart from other SEC contenders such as Kentucky and Texas A&M in the final weeks; meanwhile, SMU and Houston will duke it out in a game that will likely determine who faces Cincinnati for the American Championship Game. Out west, San Diego State is chasing its first undefeated season since 1969 and its fourth conference title in the last 30 years. With the playoff picture coming into view, teams across college football are chasing chances to defy—and make—history.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Michigan (-4) at Michigan State—Saturday, 12 p.m. (FOX)

Overall
Michigan
Michigan State
2021 F+ 4 22
When Michigan Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 10 14
2021 EPA/pass 66 29
2021 EPA/rush 25 45
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 10 51
2021 EPA/pass 28 24
2021 EPA/rush 6 64

After 78 games, six-and-a-half seasons, and no appearances in the Big Ten championship game, Jim Harbaugh's polarizing tenure at Michigan is entering a decisive stretch. The Wolverines might not make a decision on their head coach even if this season ends in disappointment, but the results of these final five games—plus whatever postseason play Michigan ends up with—could define Harbaugh's career with the team. Between now and the end of November, Harbaugh will take on three ranked teams: No. 8 Michigan State, No. 20 Penn State, and No. 5 Ohio State. For a coach who has generally come under fire for his team's shortcomings in big games, this final month might be the end of the line—or an opportunity for Michigan to finally reach their full potential.

It has been a long road to this point for the Wolverines, but the same can't be said of their opponent. Michigan State spent most of the first half of the decade in the chase for a BCS or CFP appearance, though in six different 10-win seasons under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans only actually made it to a bowl game with title implications once, and that appearance culminated in a 38-0 blowout at the hands of Alabama. From there, Michigan State entered a precipitous decline, going 3-9 the following season and doing better than 7-6 only once for the rest of the decade. Before the 2020 season, Dantonio retired, Colorado coach Mel Tucker took the reins, and the situation became dire; in the first game of the shortened season, the Spartans lost seven turnovers and were dealt a humiliating loss by Rutgers. They ultimately finished the year 2-5, and a pair of upset wins over Michigan and Northwestern failed to lighten the mood much.

Both of these teams suffered nightmarish 2020 seasons—Michigan went 2-4 and themselves nearly lost to Rutgers—which has made their synchronized rises to 7-0 starts among this season's many unexpected stories. These in-state rivals look similar on the field, too: both Harbaugh and Tucker have pieced together contenders by leaning on excellent rushing attacks. For the Wolverines, the one-two punch of Blake Corum (729 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 10 TD) and Hassan Haskins (602 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 10 TD) has been fantastic; for the Spartans, everything revolves around Kenneth Walker III (997 yards, 6.6 yards per carry, 9 TD), who has four times as many carries as any other rusher for Michigan State. The result, in both cases, is a reliable run game, producing a success rate in the top 40 overall. Michigan hasn't been quite as efficient (34th in success rate, 72nd in rushing explosiveness), but that's largely a consequence of their high rushing rate (65.8% of plays, seventh in FBS).

As incredible as they are, however, these rushing corps are not built equally. The Wolverines' group relies on an elite offensive line, which has allowed the lowest front-seven havoc rate and second-lowest sack rate in the country. That unit only ranks 24th in line yards per carry, but that relative underperformance again has a lot to do with Michigan's frequent runs. Indeed, this line is a major reason the Wolverines can rush so often and still find plenty of success; they're generally not gunning for big gains, but rather consistent yardage underneath, which these heavy-hitting position groups combine to create perfectly. That style of play is reinforced by Michigan's rushing performance at different distances from the line of scrimmage: adequate at the second level (48th) and in the open field (39th), but dominant at the line (20th). Short, on-schedule gains are the Wolverines' bread and butter.

Contrast Michigan State, which does better at the second level (24th) and in the open field (25th) than at the line (42nd). Walker is a far more explosive running back—his 27 carries for 10 or more yards are tied for second-most in the Power 5—and it shows in the Spartans' performance. The threat of a long run is a key asset for quarterback Payton Thorne, one of college football's most explosive passers. With Thorne having thrown all but eight of their passes, Michigan State ranks 10th in yards per completion and ninth in explosiveness on passing plays. All told, the Spartans rank 24th nationally and third in the Big Ten in overall explosiveness, with Thorne and Walker leading the way.

While both teams possess excellent defenses, their rushing attacks are well-equipped to take advantage of their opponents' weaknesses. Michigan's direct rushing attack will take on a Michigan State line that struggles with allowing short gains (58th in rushing success rate allowed; 47th in line yards per carry allowed). Meanwhile, the Spartans will attempt to break the game open with big plays against a Wolverines defense which has faced problems stopping explosive plays (55th in overall explosiveness allowed; 53rd in rushing explosiveness allowed). In a duel that could decide the Big Ten East, both teams are talented across the board, but a shootout in East Lansing could be in the cards.

Watch for:

  • Michigan doesn't pass often—they rank 125th in passing play rate behind the middling Cade McNamara—but will that change against Michigan State, which has faced the highest passing rate in FBS?
     
  • Thorne has proven adept at avoiding dangerous plays, allowing only a 6.6% defensive back havoc rate (70th); can Michigan's secondary keep up their production (7.9% havoc rate, 12th)?
     
  • Will Corum (10 kick returns, 26.6 yards per return) continue to provide excellent starting field position for the Wolverines against a stingy Michigan State special teams unit?

FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 8.2

Iowa at Wisconsin (-3.5)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Iowa Wisconsin
2021 F+ 16 8
When Iowa Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 78 2
2021 EPA/pass 104 4
2021 EPA/rush 114 2
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 3 72
2021 EPA/pass 16 129
2021 EPA/rush 8 57

Iowa enters this game 6-1, still controlling their destiny to win the Big Ten West, and likely in position to make the playoff if they win out. The Hawkeyes are in an excellent position even after their disheartening loss to Purdue, but the team that has put together that excellent record has rarely looked the same from one week to the next. At times, Iowa is dominant, beating Indiana 34-6 and Maryland 51-14—but in other games, they look like a disaster waiting to happen, as in a nailbiting 24-14 win over Colorado State and that 24-7 upset by the Boilermakers. Their winning formula is strange to say the least: an elite defense, a dreadful offense, and incredible special teams play.

Wisconsin makes an interesting comparison, as the Badgers have been very similar by most metrics, but are languishing in the middle of the conference with a 4-3 record. It's hard to know what to make of this team, too, with relatively close losses to ranked Penn State, Notre Dame, and Michigan teams. While they have bounced back from a rough 1-3 start, the flaws that those opponents exploited are still apparent. Like Iowa, the Badgers rely on a rock-solid defense to overcome their offense's weaknesses (particularly in the passing game). Though these foes look similar at a glance, however, there are some key differences that will define this pivotal matchup.

While Iowa's Spencer Petras (6.7 yards per attempt, 9 TD, 6 INT) and Wisconsin's Graham Mertz (6.2 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 7 INT) have both had downright miserable seasons so far, the causes of those performances aren't quite the same. Petras, when he has a clean pocket and can get a pass off, has actually been alright—but he hasn't had that luxury often. The Hawkeyes have allowed a 7.9% sack rate this year, 100th in FBS, and the resulting problems can be seen in Petras' troubled season. While Iowa produces well on successful plays, ranking 49th in explosiveness, too many passes either fall incomplete or never get thrown at all.

By comparison, Mertz has more or less the opposite problem. The Wisconsin passer is reasonably accurate; 55.9% isn't exactly a glowing completion rate, but it's not catastrophic, and neither is the Badgers' rank in passing success rate (77th). But Mertz has captained the least explosive passing offense in all of college football, bar none. Without a significant deep threat through the air, Wisconsin has stayed on schedule well (facing passing downs only 27.1% of the time, the 15th-lowest rate in FBS), but they haven't done much more. Due to their struggles on converting third downs (28.1%, 125th), many of the Badgers' drives sputter quickly: 16.3% fail to gain yardage (111th) and 40.0% fail to gain a first down (119th).

Neither of these defenses are likely to provide a pick-me-up game for their opposing quarterbacks, which seems likely to result in a low-scoring slugfest. Iowa will deploy a fundamentally fantastic unit that does almost everything well, but particularly excels at creating havoc in the backfield (8.3% defensive back havoc rate, fifth in FBS) and getting opponents off rhythm (fifth in EPA, 10th in success rate, third in explosiveness on standard downs). Meanwhile, Wisconsin sends out a lineup that leads the nation in line yards per carry allowed (1.78) and limits successful plays at a top-three rate in both run (29.7%) and pass (31.9%) defense. These groups are the fundamental reason behind both teams' success thus far, and they're expected to prove key to this game as well.

Will either team be able to find an edge on offense? In a defensive duel, any points will be precious, and the result will probably come down to whichever team creates and capitalizes on scoring opportunities more. Iowa, while not exactly excellent in either aspect, has generally taken more advantage than Wisconsin, in large part due to avoiding turnovers and generally settling for points or punts on fourth down. Still, it's hard to say for sure whether that will be enough for the Hawkeyes to come out on top in a classic Big Ten clash. Both defenses will be out in full force as these rivals duke it out with a division title potentially on the line.

Watch for:

  • Wisconsin's rushing attack has taken a significant step up since Braelon Allen (428 yards, 7.4 yards per carry) became a primary backfield option; can they break through Iowa's solid run defense?
     
  • With key defensive back Riley Moss (4 interceptions, 3 pass breakups) still out due to injury, can the Hawkeyes secondary compensate better than in their last game against Purdue?
     
  • Can Iowa continue to produce good starting field position behind punter Tory Taylor (46.2 yards per punt) and create short, successful drives as a result?

FEI Outright Pick: Iowa by 1.3

Texas at Baylor (-2.5)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall
Texas Baylor
2021 F+ 17 19
When Texas Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 11 17
2021 EPA/pass 54 42
2021 EPA/rush 59 83
When Baylor Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 45 37
2021 EPA/pass 87 38
2021 EPA/rush 79 7

With Baylor soaring back to the top of the Big 12 after a near-complete collapse in 2020, it's easy to assume that these Bears are similar to the ones that made the conference championship game two years ago. But with the coaching transition from Matt Rhule to Dave Aranda, Baylor's profile has shifted dramatically. Where the 2019 team was led by its passing—which made up 48.7% of the team's plays and 60.5% of offensive yards—this year's roster emphasizes rushing. Baylor has run on 59.2% of its plays this year, gaining 50.5% of their yardage on the ground. The Bears' rushing performance ranks seventh in EPA per play and sixth in explosiveness, and in their most recent game, a 303-yard, four-touchdown day from their running backs helped deliver a comfortable win over BYU.

Under the guidance of offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, hired from BYU over the offseason, the Bears have pushed physicality in the run game. Abram Smith (785 yards, 7.5 yards per carry, 10 TD) is a former linebacker who has taken the heaviest workload for Baylor, leading the team with 105 carries and rushing 27 times against the Cougars alone. Trestan Ebner (496 yards, 6.4 yards per carry) has been a staple in the Bears' backfield for years, but 2021 has marked a huge step up in his rushing rate as well—after just seven games, he has rushed a career-high 77 times. Both Smith and Ebner are NFL-sized running backs, and quarterback Gerry Bohanon (181 rushing yards, 10.6 yards per carry) is no lightweight either.

This philosophy extends to the rest of the offense, too. Every player on the offensive line towers at least 6-foot-2 and weighs at least 305 pounds, again matching NFL averages better than college ones. This physical advantage has helped Baylor piece together one of college football's best lines: the Bears rank 23rd in line yards per carry, 12th in sack rate allowed, and fourth in opportunity rate. Thanks to that performance, the rushing corps has been more efficient (5.5 yards per carry, Baylor's best average since 2015) despite rushing more often.

This bruising lineup will look to lead a crucial victory against Texas, whose defense has struggled to stop opposing offenses this season. Through four Big 12 games, the Longhorns have yet to hold an opponent under 27 points, and they have allowed three different foes to put up at least 470 yards and 7.0 yards per play. The run defense has come through at times, but their best-rushing opponents (Arkansas and Oklahoma) combined for 672 yards, 7.6 yards per carry, and eight touchdowns when facing Texas.

When it comes to raw size, the Longhorns' line is a bit of a mixed bag, too: nose tackle Keondre Coburn is one of the most imposing linemen in football, but edge Alfred Collins and defensive tackle Moro Ojomo are par for the course at their position, and it shows in the line's stats. Power runs—third-and-short or fourth-and-short rushes—depend more on physical play at the line than any other play in the game, and Texas allows a 90.5% conversion rate on such plays, fourth-worst in FBS. The defense does have some heavy hitters, such as linebackers Demarvion Overshown (56 tackles, four tackles for loss) and Luke Brockermeyer (54 tackles, five tackles for loss), but most of them lurk further from the line of scrimmage.

What the Longhorns lack in defensive might, however, they make up for on the other side of the ball. The Texas offensive line is among the best in the nation, averaging 3.01 line yards per carry (14th) and converting 76.5% of power runs (34th). The rushing attack has several unheralded stars, but the bulk of the carries and the praise rightfully go to Heisman contender Bijan Robinson, who has put up 1,131 total yards, 6.3 yards per carry, and 13 total touchdowns. Robinson's heavy workload has been the only problem for Texas on the ground, arguably leading to some second-half struggles, but with the Longhorns seeking to prioritize secondary rushers such as Roschon Johnson (234 yards, 6.9 yards per carry) and Keilan Robinson (176 yards, 7.3 yards per carry), they should be able to keep up a solid performance throughout this game. To pull off an upset in Waco, they'll have to.

Watch for:

  • Can Casey Thompson (9.3 yards per attempt, 15 TD, 5 INT) take over against a middling Bears pass defense (63rd in EPA per pass, 86th in passing explosiveness)?
     
  • Will Baylor's defensive have the benefit of the excellent field position it has enjoyed this year (eighth-best in FBS) against dangerous kick returner D'Shawn Jamison (24.1 yards per return)?
     
  • How will the Longhorns' defense adjust to limit rushing yardage in the open field, where their 2.0 yards allowed per carry rank 119th in football?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 0.5

Ole Miss at Auburn (-3)—Saturday, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Ole Miss Auburn
2021 F+ 13 18
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 3 19
2021 EPA/pass 18 70
2021 EPA/rush 4 39
When Auburn Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 55 32
2021 EPA/pass 90 70
2021 EPA/rush 110 61

As Ole Miss reaches the end of a daunting five-game stretch—which previously featured visits to Alabama and Tennessee and home games against Arkansas and LSU—their all-world offense prepares to tangle with a fascinating, hot-and-cold Auburn defense. The Tigers, unlike the Rebels, still control their destiny in the SEC West, but to win the division, they'll need to claim tough victories against both Ole Miss and Alabama. Handling those high-powered offenses is a tall task, and while Auburn has shown flashes of potential on defense, their stretch run will demand that they display their improvement against two of college football's finest.

Where the Tigers excel defensively, and where they can stack up against those superb offenses, is in preventing explosive plays, particularly explosive passes. Auburn has allowed just 1.19 EPA per successful pass and 1.03 EPA per successful play, both sixth-lowest in FBS. Their harrowing defensive line, holding opponents to 2.29 line yards per carry (15th) and producing a 7.8% sack rate (41st), has been key to this big-play prevention. The Tigers haven't converted this shutdown performance into an all-around elite defense, however, because they bleed yardage when they get into favorable situations. Auburn allows a middling 42.0% success rate overall, 64th in FBS, but that only drops to 35.5% on passing downs (101st), when the Tigers' opponents are behind the sticks and need to gain more yardage. The defense creates opportunities to get off the field, but it struggles to capitalize, which is why Auburn faces an average of 5.8 plays per drive, 96th in FBS.

While it has its flaws, though, this bend-don't-break is largely effective, and it worked to perfection against Arkansas. The Razorbacks ran a staggering 89 plays against Auburn, the most faced by the Tigers' defense this year and the second-most by Arkansas in a game (after their 93 in the 52-51 showdown against Ole Miss). But those plays went for only 486 yards, a far cry from their 706 yards in that Rebels game. Auburn didn't limit standard downs well (allowing a 50% success rate), but it didn't really matter, because they created those long-yardage situations frequently (on 34 of 89 plays) and didn't allow many big plays at critical moments. Of the five Arkansas plays that produced the most EPA, only one started within Auburn territory, and only one other ended in it.

But what worked against the Razorbacks, whose 3.3 points per scoring opportunity rank 104th in FBS, likely won't against the Rebels, whose 4.8 points per scoring opportunity are a far better 12th. And if there's any team that can find explosive plays against the impregnable Tigers defense, it's Ole Miss, which ranks third in the nation in EPA on successful plays. This matchup sets up well for the Rebels' dynamic offense, but there is one point of concern: they're merely good, not great, at converting standard downs and staying on schedule. The underlying cause is primarily through the air, where Matt Corral has led the passing offense to 0.45 EPA per play (14th) and 1.81 EPA per successful play (10th), but lags a bit in reliably converting his passes for meaningful yardage, with a mere 45.4% success rate (45th).

The Rebels' offense has worked to address that shortcoming, though, and Corral's 56% success rate against LSU last week marked a noticeable improvement. Ideally, the Rebels would like to run a successful passing offense that still produces big plays—Corral only had one against the Tigers—but it's nice to have more variety in the playbook if Ole Miss needs to avoid falling behind. Auburn is a different level of competition in that department, but not by a huge margin, and the Rebels should be able to create some consistency on offense.

So what caused this stylistic switch, however temporary it ultimately ends up being? In his first three SEC games this season, Corral spread the love to numerous receivers, completing multiple passes to seven, five, and seven players, respectively. Against LSU, though, Dontario Drummond completely stole the show, catching eight passes for 93 yards. The Rebels didn't entirely ignore their other options, as the rest of the receiving corps added 16 more receptions, but the increased emphasis on their most reliable and productive pass-catcher was a marked change from the rest of the season. All eyes will be on Corral and Drummond this week, as the way Ole Miss uses their key offensive players will set the tone for a battle between two of the conference's best units.

Watch for:

  • Can Auburn's excellent run defense limit the breakout potential of the Rebels' deep rushing room, led by Henry Parrish Jr. (405 yards, 5.5 yards per carry) and Snoop Conner (388 yards, 5.8 yards per carry)?
     
  • Will a dangerous Ole Miss front seven (37th in havoc rate) be able to pressure Bo Nix behind Auburn's solid offensive line?
     
  • After his 18 carries against Arkansas (a significant rise from his 9 against LSU and 10 against Georgia), will Tank Bigsby continue to feature in the Auburn run game?

FEI Outright Pick: Auburn by 3.6

SMU at Houston (-1)—Saturday, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall
SMU Houston
2021 F+ 50 59
When SMU Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 24 27
2021 EPA/pass 5 2
2021 EPA/rush 80 7
When Houston Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 77 82
2021 EPA/pass 113 68
2021 EPA/rush 54 72

With Cincinnati likely to cruise to the American Championship Game, the battle to face them for the title will probably come down to SMU and Houston, which would make this game decisive. Both teams have yet to take a loss in conference play, and Houston's season-opening defeat against Texas Tech is the only overall loss on their records. Both have largely impressed thus far, but have encountered some snags—a narrow win over Navy for the Mustangs, an overtime escape from East Carolina for the Cougars. While these teams are in similar positions, however, the ways they have made it to this point haven't looked the same.

SMU is riding with the marvelous performance of Tanner Mordecai, who transferred in from Oklahoma and immediately proved to be one of football's most prolific passers. Through seven games, the junior has completed 71.1% of his passes for 8.8 yards per attempt and an FBS-leading 29 touchdowns. The Mustangs are averaging 42.7 points per game (sixth overall) and rank among the top 10 in EPA per play, success rate, and explosiveness. The offense is firing on all cylinders, which has made up for an unremarkable defense (92nd in EPA allowed per play, 127th in opponent explosiveness).

Houston, meanwhile, is all about defense. They create a high rate of passing downs (33.4%, 44th-highest) and rarely let the opposing offense off the hook, holding them to 0.05 EPA per play (fourth) and a 17.8% success rate (first) when their opponent is behind schedule. In their current six-game winning streak, the Cougars haven't allowed more than 24 points in a game, and opponents are averaging just 262.7 yards per game, which would rank fourth in FBS. Behind key playmakers such as Logan Hall and David Anenih (both having produced eight tackles for loss and four sacks), the Cougars' defense has helped compensate for a middling offense (61st in EPA per play, 43rd in explosiveness).

What happens when SMU's unstoppable force meets Houston's immovable object? The key question is whether Mordecai can continue to produce at elite levels across the board against a Houston defense that doesn't often lose out through the air (ranking third in EPA allowed per pass and eight in passing success rate allowed). The Cougars' dominant defensive line will seek to produce pressure often; their 4.2 sacks per game are third in FBS, and their 14.6% sack rate is second. But the Mustangs lead college football in sack prevention, allowing only 0.3 per game (0.8% of plays). Houston has a deep group of dangerous linemen to throw at SMU, with five different players who have produced at least 3.5 sacks this year, but few have gotten past the line protecting Mordecai this season.

In the same vein, Houston will need to target SMU's solid rushing group in order to keep them limited offensively. Tre Siggers (474 yards, 4.7 yards per carry) has been a workhorse back for the Mustangs, comfortably leading the team with 101 carries, while the elusive Ulysses Bentley IV (405 yards, 7.4 yards per carry) has provided a change of pace. All told, it's a solid enough position group, producing a 47.6% success rate (42nd) and 5.2 yards per carry (23rd), but it's not as unstoppable as the SMU passing offense, and Houston is capable of holding down the fort against the run. While their line has stopped opposing rushers up front, though (17th in line yards per carry, seventh in second-level yards per carry), the defense gets significantly more porous in the backfield. The Cougars have allowed 1.05 open-field yards per carry (51st), and they rank only 87th in preventing rushing explosiveness.

To get the offensive edge, SMU will need to win that matchup and break off big runs, which happens to be the only offensive area where they're not particularly adept—they only produce 1.14 EPA per successful rush, ranking 105th. The Mustangs have a talented rushing attack, but they haven't produced as many game-changing plays as they're capable of, particularly given the wealth of opportunities that their offensive line has created. To come away with a key win in the American chase, both Houston and SMU will look to win a pivotal battle in the trenches.

Watch for:

  • Can improving Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune (7.4 yards per attempt, 12 TD, 6 INT) avoid turnovers and keep Houston's offense humming along?
     
  • How heavily will Houston feature running back Alton McCaskill (463 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 9 TD) against an SMU defense which is better against the run than the pass?
     
  • Will Houston's excellent third-down defense (stopping 72.2% of attempts, fifth in FBS) win out against SMU's solid third-down offense (converting 46.3% of attempts, 21st in FBS)?

FEI Outright Pick: Houston by 4.9

Fresno State at San Diego State (pick'em)—Saturday, 10:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

Overall
Fresno State San Diego State
2021 F+ 57 52
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 60 5
2021 EPA/pass 36 3
2021 EPA/rush 123 4
When San Diego State Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 53 118
2021 EPA/pass 17 128
2021 EPA/rush 40 43

Good defense is more or less a given at San Diego State, but this year's group is one of the best they have ever fielded, and it's the main reason they have made it to 7-0 and have a serious shot at going undefeated. The Aztecs rank second in EPA allowed per play, fourth in opponent success rate, and first in explosiveness allowed. They rank 12th or better in each of those stats on both rushing and passing plays; create the 16th-highest havoc rate in the front seven and seventh-highest among defensive backs; allow the 10th-fewest points per opportunity; and surrender the second-fewest EPA per drive. It's hard to find anything this defense does poorly, or even just adequately.

The group has come up big across San Diego State's last two games, as they have defeated San José State and Air Force by low scores of 19-13 (6-6 in regulation) and 20-14. The Aztecs' offense isn't bearing quite as much of the burden, to put it lightly. Jordan Brookshire (6.6 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 1 INT) and Lucas Johnson (4.9 yards per attempt, 4 TD, 1 INT) have both contributed to the passing offense's dismal statistical profile (128th in EPA per play, 123rd in success rate, 117th in explosiveness). The run game has been better, mostly thanks to super-senior Greg Bell (603 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 5 TD), but it hasn't been enough to elevate the overall offense too much. Overall, the Aztecs' 4.5 plays per drive rank dead-last in FBS, and they have yet to run more than 65 offensive plays in a game.

San Diego State has one of the most extreme splits between offensive and defensive performance in college football, which makes a fascinating contrast to the balanced Fresno State. The Bulldogs have areas of weakness on both offense (123rd in EPA per rush, 119th in line yards per carry) and defense (106 in opponent passing explosiveness), but both units have been fundamentally sound, and both sit around the middle or upper half of FBS in most metrics. Offensively, Fresno State is led by rising star Jake Haener (8.5 yards per attempt, 22 TD, 6 INT), an extensive cast of receivers (five with at least 15 catches), and the rushing duo of Ronnie Rivers (573 yards, 5.0 yards per carry) and Jordan Mims (318 yards, 5.9 yards per carry). Defensively, the Bulldogs have key stars up front, such as Kevin Atkins (10.5 tackles for loss, six sacks) and Arron Mosby (10 tackles for loss, four sacks), and in the secondary, such as Elijah Gates (27 tackles, five pass breakups) and Evan Williams (56 tackles, two pass breakups, two interceptions).

As deep as Fresno State's lineup is, however, it's not unassailable. Rivers and Mims have good surface-level numbers, but the advanced stats are more skeptical, placing the Bulldogs only 80th in rushing success rate and 90th in rushing explosiveness. Part of the problem is their troubled offensive line, which is averaging only 2.43 line yards per carry (101st) and a 56.5% power success rate (110th). It also doesn't help that Fresno State has no convincing rushers beyond the top two, with only Haener (31 yards, 0.7 yards per carry) having run the ball more than 12 times. There's evident top-level talent, though, and it could be the key to vanquishing the undefeated Aztecs.

San Diego State's run defense has been awe-inspiring, holding opponents to -0.11 EPA per run (fourth) and a 29.8% rushing success rate (fifth), but if you're looking for something to exploit about this defense, you could do worse. The concern for the Aztecs is that, until recently, they hadn't faced any opponents who leaned on the run for their offensive success; only 41.6% of the plays against this defense have been runs, the sixth-lowest rate in FBS. San José State and Air Force were the first two teams to run more than 40 times against San Diego State, and while they didn't produce staggering offensive numbers (117 yards and 2.8 yards per carry for the Spartans; 192 yards and 4.0 yards per carry for the Falcons), it did provide a new challenge that the Aztecs may not be quite as equipped to handle. With their pass defense looking better with every game, the best chance at taking down San Diego State is on the ground, and Fresno State has a lineup that could pull off the upset.

Watch for:

  • Haener is capable of putting up gaudy numbers no matter the opponent, but will he have a career performance or an off day in a difficult matchup against the Aztecs?
     
  • Can a strong Fresno State defensive line create havoc up front and swing the turnover margin in their favor?
     
  • Will the Bulldogs be able to use their edge in total plays and time of possession to wear down San Diego State's formidable defense?

FEI Outright Pick: San Diego State by 2.6

FEI Picks: Week 9

Favorite
Spread
Underdog
FEI
Pick
FEI
Pick
ATS
Preston's
Pick
ATS
Michigan -4 at Michigan State Michigan Michigan Michigan
at Wisconsin -3.5 Iowa Iowa Iowa Wisconsin
at Baylor -2.5 Texas Texas Texas Baylor
at Auburn -3 Ole Miss Auburn Auburn Ole Miss
at Houston -1 SMU Houston Houston SMU
at San Diego State Pick'em Fresno State San Diego State San Diego State San Diego State

FEI's picks ATS in Week 8: 1-5

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 24-24

Preston's picks ATS in Week 8: 4-2

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 27-21

Comments

4 comments, Last at 29 Oct 2021, 6:36pm

1 Ohio State-Penn State

No preview for Ohio State vs. Penn State?  BTW, Ohio State fans do not consider Penn State to be a rival.  Ohio State will beat its real rival, the Wolverines, in a few weeks and win the Big Ten again.

3 Ohio State-Penn State

Honestly, I don't expect Penn State to play too close after last week. I could be wrong, but I think Ohio State's most interesting games are still to come.

2 Divisive?

That's a really odd choice to describe Dantonio's tenure.  Sure, things fell off at the end, but I would hardly describe the tenure of most successful head coach at MSU since the 60's "divisive."

4 Dantonio

In reply to by Flounder

I went back and forth on that description—I don't think it's fair, but I've gathered from some MSU fans that the last few years of the program still sting. There are a lot who'd disagree with that, though, and he'll certainly go down as one of the best coaches they've had.