SDA Week 7: Pitt, Tennessee, Texas Chasing Conference Championships

Tennessee Volunteers QB Hendon Hooker
Tennessee Volunteers QB Hendon Hooker
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

While the College Football Playoff chase is, as ever, the main talking point this season—particularly with a chaotic start to the year that has left playoff spots wide open—plenty of conference races are gathering intrigue. Alabama's shocking upset at the hands of Texas A&M has left the SEC West in complete upheaval, with every team having lost at least one game after playing no more than three apiece. The Big 12 is wide open, with two undefeated teams (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) having combined for just one win by more than 11 points. Clemson's struggles have shuffled the ACC deck, leaving Wake Forest as the lone unbeaten team and North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech their only companions with unblemished conference records.

Not all of these battles will end up with playoff implications. Indeed, the surprises responsible for these free-for-alls make it less likely that teams will emerge with top-four cases intact. But as important as the postseason is, division and conference titles are a more realistic hope for many teams. Schools such as Texas A&M and Auburn usually have an Alabama-sized roadblock in the way, but the West is up for the taking if the Crimson Tide go down again—which is always a possibility at Jordan-Hare Stadium. As for the ACC, nobody aside from Clemson and Florida State has won the conference since 2010, and nobody aside from those teams has won the Atlantic since 2008. These potential accolades may not be as prestigious as national championship glory, but plenty of teams throughout college football would love to take advantage of the opportunity to claim them.

This week, we'll take a deep dive on six games with plenty of postseason weight, even if their participants are likely on the outside of the CFP chase. In the Big 12, Oklahoma State and Texas will duke it out to see who can stake a lead in the chase for the conference championship game, while Baylor will face off with future conference rival BYU in hopes of securing bowl eligibility as they enter a difficult second half. Auburn and Arkansas will look to hang around the fringes of the top 25—and the SEC West scramble—as they meet for the first time since last year's officiating drama. Ole Miss, likewise given new life with Alabama's loss, will look to outduel Tennessee, which is staring down a pivotal slate of games (with contests against Alabama, Kentucky, and Georgia coming up). Pitt and Virginia Tech, both with a single win in conference play and thus the tenuous status of ACC Coastal leader, will look to solidify their conference standing in Blacksburg. And in the madhouse MAC, Kent State will attempt to maintain their position as the only spotless team in the East, while Western Michigan hopes to separate themselves from the five-strong pack of 1-1 teams chasing 2-0 Northern Illinois. As tumultuous as the playoff chase has become, this week's games serve as a reminder that even those who may come up short of ultimate glory still have plenty to play for in a variety of thrilling conference battles.

All times are listed as Eastern.

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

Overall Oklahoma State Texas
2021 F+ 24 14
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 57 56
2021 EPA/pass 44 90
2021 EPA/rush 67 95
When Texas has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 9 6
2021 EPA/pass 28 25
2021 EPA/rush 57 43

With most teams having only played two or three games in Big 12 competition, it's probably premature to make sweeping conclusions about the chase for the championship game. Oklahoma, winners of six straight conference titles, are a near-certain lock to make it, even with their close-game struggles this season. But the second spot, as is often the case, is open to a variety of challengers. Preseason favorite Iowa State has fallen off somewhat, but with only one conference loss and games against most contenders still to play, their path to the championship is still open. The same goes for Baylor, who delivered the Cyclones' sole conference loss and recently reached 3-1 in the Big 12 with a dominant win over West Virginia. TCU, with their only loss coming at the hands of Texas, could leap into the forefront of the conversation with an upset of Oklahoma this week.

But it's fair to say that the winner of the game between Oklahoma State (2-0 in the Big 12) and Texas (2-1), will have a significant lead in the chase. Neither team has actually made it to Arlington since 2018, when the Sooners pulled away to defeat rival Texas 39-27, but the two have hovered around the front of the league throughout the last decade, and without an upstart like 2019 Baylor or 2020 Iowa State to steal their thunder, they're the frontrunners in the chase as it stands. That makes this week's meeting critical not just to the conference race, but also to bowl possibilities and possibly even CFP hopes.

The matchup to watch, naturally, will be the Texas offense against the Oklahoma State defense. The Longhorns have scored some 44.5 points per game, ranking fifth in the nation, and the advanced stats back up their impressive performance. Texas has produced the 13th-most EPA per play of any offense, in large part due to their ninth-ranked passing performance led by star quarterback Casey Thompson (10.0 yards per attempt, 14 TD, 3 INT). Their play-to-play success rate (46.3%, 42nd overall) drags a bit, but the Longhorns make up for it with an incredibly explosive offense, capable of breaking off big plays behind the third-highest passing explosiveness in the nation. Thanks to a rushing attack headlined by Heisman contender Bijan Robinson (789 rushing yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 8 TD), they gain the 24th-most line yards per carry. And when they get downfield, they consistently cash in, averaging 4.84 points per scoring opportunity (14th). Simply put, they're good at just about everything and only getting better, averaging 548 yards of total offense across the last four games.

If there are any concerns with all that Texas firepower, it's their strength of schedule. While the Longhorns have put up numbers against good opponents such as Louisiana, TCU, and Oklahoma, most of them have been similar, offense-first teams. The Ragin' Cajuns give up chunk plays in critical situations (116th in opponent EPA on passing downs), the Horned Frogs can't stop anything up front (130th in opponent line yards per carry, 129th in opponent second-level yards per carry), and the Sooners are susceptible to big plays if they can't get their foe off schedule (130th in opponent explosiveness on standard downs). These defenses aren't horrible, but they all have clear weaknesses that the well-rounded Longhorns offense exploited in order to run up the score.

Oklahoma State poses a different challenge. Across EPA/play, success rate, and explosiveness, broken down by down (standard or passing) and by play (rushing or passing), the Cowboys' defense ranks among the top 50 in 10 of 12 situations. If Texas is defined by doing everything well on offense, Oklahoma State is defined by doing the same on defense. While not exceptional in many particular aspects—ranking top-10 in just one of those measures mentioned before, namely EPA per play on passing downs—the Cowboys are equipped to handle almost anything a defense throws at them.

When the Longhorns go through the air, they'll tangle with a secondary that has allowed just 0.09 EPA per pass, 14th nationally. Should they take to the ground, they'll be up against a front seven that has allowed just 2.74 line yards per carry (32nd) and a minuscule 0.70 second-level yards per carry (fifth). In either case, they'll go up against one of the best red zone defenses in the country, with Oklahoma State allowing just 2.63 points per opportunity (eighth). The Cowboys have playmakers at every level, with Malcolm Rodriguez (54 tackles, 5 TFL) and Devin Harper (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL, two fumble recoveries) causing football's 24th-highest havoc rate in the front seven while Kolby Harvell-Peel (27 tackles, two interceptions) and Jarrick Bernard (21 tackles, five pass breakups) help limit production through the air with the 14th-lowest EPA per pass.

To secure the upper hand in the Big 12's championship chase, the Longhorns will need to identify and exploit what weaknesses the Cowboys' defense does possess—most notably, the nation's 100th-ranked havoc rate in the defensive back corps. Strength will meet strength in Austin as both Texas, moving into the second half of Steve Sarkisian's first season, and Oklahoma State, shifting to an uncharacteristic defense-focused formula, enter new and unfamiliar eras.

Watch for:

  • Will Jaylen Warren's high-flying form (552 total yards, four touchdowns in the last three games) continue against a susceptible Texas defensive line?
  • Can Spencer Sanders bounce back from a miserable three-interception day against Baylor?
  • Despite the heavy load of 125 rushing attempts (including 55 in the last two weeks), will Bijan Robinson continue to excel?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 6.9

Auburn at Arkansas (-4.5)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Auburn Arkansas
2021 F+ 21 27
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 43 25
2021 EPA/pass 81 21
2021 EPA/rush 41 51
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 20 34
2021 EPA/pass 67 46
2021 EPA/rush 41 33

Arkansas wouldn't rank highly (or, for many fans, at all) on Auburn's list of rivals, but there will be no love lost between the two teams when they meet in a rematch of a dramatic, controversial 2020 showdown. Going into that game, the Tigers had won six of their last seven against Arkansas by at least 18 points, but a blatantly missed fumble in the final minute proved the difference as Auburn won with a subsequent field goal. Both teams, after exceeding preseason expectations during September, are coming off a pair of letdown performances—losses to Georgia (37-0) and Ole Miss (52-51) for the Razorbacks, a narrow win over LSU (24-19) and loss to Georgia (34-10) for the Tigers. Both are 4-2 and mired in the middle of the wild SEC West, and both enter this game with a lot to prove.

There's no better example of that than Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, who has struggled to approach the numbers he put up earlier in the season (9.8 yards per attempt, 5 TD against Akron and Alabama State). Nix has just one passing touchdown in the last four games, a span in which the Tigers have lost to Penn State and Georgia and survived Georgia State and LSU after trailing in the fourth quarter. He's averaging 5.6 yards per attempt in that stretch with a 101.1 passing efficiency rating, which would put him fourth-worst among all players with at least 100 attempts in that stat. Even with his early flashes of success, Nix ranks 88th among 105 such passers. Suffice it to say that even with the occasional highlight play, he has struggled.

What makes Nix such a frustrating player, for Auburn and neutral fans alike, is the obvious potential underlying his subpar performances. That single touchdown pass in the last four weeks was an absolute gem, an unlikely scramble in which Nix evaded six tacklers across 12 seconds before delivering a perfectly placed pass while falling out of bounds. The junior is fantastically athletic and can make pinpoint throws. Even his reads, the most frequently criticized element of his game, have the capability of making him look like a veteran. But the highlight-reel plays aren't frequent enough to offset the rest of Nix's play. The potential has always been there for him to turn the corner, but he hasn't yet.

This game may not be the pivotal moment of Nix's career, but a solid performance against the treacherous Arkansas pass defense would go a long way towards inspiring confidence in his role as the starter. The Razorbacks have been dominant against the pass, allowing just 0.12 EPA per pass and a 35.5% success rate through the air. Arkansas has boosted its sack rate significantly as well, from last year's 3.5% (116th) to 7.1% (49th) this season. That combination makes them deadly on long downs, ranking second in FBS in EPA per play and opponent success rate on passing downs.

Absurdly athletic free safety Joe Foucha and physical cornerbacks Montaric Brown and Jalen Catalon form the core of a strong secondary, but the key to the Razorbacks' elite pass defense lies up front, with a trio of grad transfers on the line and a pair of defensive leaders in the linebacker corps. Bumper Pool (61 tackles, 4.5 TFL) and Grant Morgan (50 tackles, 4.5 TFL) are among the best players and prospects Arkansas has, and the two have contributed three combined pass breakups in addition to frequently disrupting opposing quarterbacks.

However, as up-and-down as Nix is in the passing game, he has been consistently adept at avoiding sacks. Auburn has suffered just seven sacks in six games, tied for the 18th-lowest rate in FBS, and their rate of sacks allowed per dropback (2.9%) ranks ninth nationally. While Nix has passed out of the pocket more this season—with six rushing attempts per game, compared to 9.8 last year—he still clearly has a knack for scrambling, as that superb play against LSU demonstrates. If he can stay on his feet and let plays develop, as is his usual style, the Tigers could gain the upper hand against a relentless Razorbacks defense.

Watch for:

  • Can Arkansas' middling run prevention handle the one-two combo of Auburn rushers Jarquez Hunter (465 yards, 9.9 yards per carry) and Tank Bigsby (458 yards, 5.5 yards per carry)?
  • Will K.J. Jefferson be able to generate big plays against Auburn's shutdown defense, which leads the nation in preventing explosiveness?
  • Arkansas has struggled to capitalize on successful drives, ranking 104th in points per opportunity; can Auburn, allowing the 39th-highest scoring average, take advantage?

FEI Outright Pick: Arkansas by 0.7

Pittsburgh (-5) at Virginia Tech—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Pittsburgh Virginia Tech
2021 F+ 19 43
When Pittsburgh has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 22 36
2021 EPA/pass 32 23
2021 EPA/rush 7 98
When Virginia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 27 55
2021 EPA/pass 61 66
2021 EPA/rush 18 101

Of all the teams to put together an elite offense, Pitt wasn't on the radar of many before the season. The Panthers scored a mere 29 points per game last year, with Kenny Pickett looking average (7.3 yards per attempt, 13 TD, 9 INT) and only one rusher, Vincent Davis, clearing 300 yards on the ground in the team's 11 games. But fast forward a year and Pickett has transformed into one of college football's best quarterbacks. Through five games, he's comfortably outdoing his previous highs across four seasons as the starter in completion rate (72.0% to 61.6%), yards per attempt (10.3 to 7.3), touchdowns (19 to 13), and interceptions (one to six). He's even rushing better than ever, averaging 3.6 yards per carry after sitting below 2.0 in each of the previous three seasons. The Panthers are fourth nationally in EPA per pass, third in success rate on passing plays, and first in all of FBS in points per scoring opportunity—and per game.

What has led to this renaissance, the first season with better offensive than defensive performance at Pitt since the days of Nathan Peterman? Part of the secret lies behind Pickett's increased scrambling prowess: he's playing lighter on his feet, adjusting delicately in the pocket and firing without fully setting beforehand. A much-improved offensive line, which produced the 16th-fewest line yards per carry and allowed the 14th-highest success rate last year, has helped make that style adjustment a successful one. Experience and confidence have come together well for Pickett, who has demonstrated an impressive ability to make plays under demanding circumstances. The Panthers have some of the most striking splits between standard and passing downs—a drop in success rate in exchange for a rise in explosiveness—and that's no coincidence. The fifth-year senior has demonstrated a knack for making high-risk, high-reward plays when the situation requires them.

Enter Virginia Tech, which presents an intriguing defensive contrast. While Pitt loves creating big plays on long downs, the Hokies do well to prevent just that: they rank 38th in opponent success rate and only 62nd in opponent explosiveness on standard downs, but those numbers swap on passing downs, when they accept a drop to 57th in success rate while jumping to 44th in explosiveness. To put it briefly, Virginia Tech gets much better at preventing explosive plays when an opponent's offense most direly needs them.

The Hokies prevent such plays as well thanks in large part to a chaotic defensive attack. Virginia Tech creates plenty of havoc in both the front seven (14.6% of plays, 21st in FBS) and the secondary (7.7%, 19th), producing an 8.6% sack rate (26th) and 1.8 interceptions per game (second behind only Iowa). Deep position groups, in both cases, have helped produce such numbers, but the best exemplars of the Hokies' havoc are linebacker Dax Hollifield (38 tackles, 4.5 TFL, three sacks) and defensive back Jermaine Waller (27 tackles, four interceptions, two pass breakups). For a team that has endured its fair share of struggles, losing games to West Virginia and Notre Dame and dancing with disaster against Richmond, the defense's significant improvement from 2020 has been a bright spot.

Can the Hokies successfully limit Pickett and turn his opportunistic spectacles into the occasional disaster in the backfield? That's a tall order; by the numbers, Pickett is having a significantly better season than any quarterback Virginia Tech has faced thus far. But there's reason to believe he's overachieving to some extent, especially with the relative lack of pressure he's faced. The only teams to hold Pitt under 50 points this year both created plenty of turmoil. Against the Panthers, Tennessee made 10 tackles for loss, Western Michigan made eight, and Pitt's other three opponents had three, four, and two. Tennessee and Western Michigan both hurried Pickett five times and sacked him twice; the other teams combined for seven hurries and four sacks. Making gains against this dynamic offense isn't easy, but there's a clear blueprint to be followed, and the Hokies are a good fit for that plan. They'll need to deliver the pressure and key-play production in order to pull an upset—and take the lead of the ACC Coastal in the process.

Watch for:

  • How much of an impact will the Hokies' special teams, holding opponents to the ninth-worst field position, have against Pitt, averaging the 28th-best?
  • Will Braxton Burmeister's relatively disappointing start to the season continue, or can he break out against an average Pitt pass defense?
  • Can any member of Pitt's three-strong stable of running backs (Vincent Davis, Israel Abanikanda, and Rodney Hammond Jr.) emerge as a clear top rusher?

FEI Outright Pick: Virginia Tech by 1.1

BYU at Baylor (-6)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall BYU Baylor
2021 F+ 34 23
When BYU has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 16 17
2021 EPA/pass 36 36
2021 EPA/rush 59 77
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 52 45
2021 EPA/pass 60 42
2021 EPA/rush 76 9

BYU's defense faces 6.73 plays per drive, the second-most in college football. That, on paper, seems bad—it puts them in company with defenses such as those of Western Kentucky (123rd in EPA/play), Ohio (104th), Kent State (93rd), and Illinois (121st). But the Cougars have actually been decently effective on this side of the ball, ranking 69th in EPA per play and 41st in defensive FEI. How has BYU weathered these long drives and come out ahead so often?

One key, naturally enough, is ensuring their opponents start as far downfield as possible. Thanks to a solid offense, plus superb punter Ryan Rehkow (50.3 yards per punt, 39th in FEI punting efficiency), BYU's foes average a starting field position just shy of their own 25, the 18th-best mark by any special teams unit. When it comes to the defense itself, the Cougars rank a little below average in most situational metrics, but one number stands out: opponents have averaged just 1.30 EPA per successful pass, giving BYU the 20th-best rank in opponent explosiveness on passing plays. That's a surprising performance from a secondary that has otherwise been unremarkable (48th in EPA per pass, 80th in passing success rate) and has allowed 7.0 yards per opponent attempt, up from 6.2 last year.

The defense's step back from last season, when they held opponents to 15.3 points per game (fourth nationally) and helped lead an 11-1 season, is understandable. After all, BYU lost stars at every level, from nose tackle Khyiris Tonga to linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi to safeties Zayne Anderson and Troy Warner. The Cougars' defensive structure is built around experience and versatility, and losing the most experienced and versatile players from 2020 was bound to be a blow. Throw in a tougher schedule and it was reasonable to expect a pedestrian performance. But the basic and advanced stats agree: BYU has been decent defensively, perhaps even good. With the offense yet to top 35 points in a game, it's the defense that has keyed their 5-1 start, holding four opponents to 20 points or fewer—among them, then-ranked Utah and currently ranked Arizona State.

Given these numbers, one might be inclined to turn the initial question on its head: if BYU's defense is generally solid, why have opponents been able to move the ball so effectively? The answer is relatively simple: third-down stops simply haven't been there for the Cougars. They have allowed a 41.8% conversion rate, 85th overall, and their 69.2% conversion rate allowed on fourth downs (97th) isn't much good either. The defense has made stands later in drives, allowing only 3.55 points per scoring opportunity, but letting teams move that far downfield usually results in some scores, and it's no surprise that BYU is one of the nine teams to allow at least two field goals per game. Still, the Cougars have performed well on the whole in spite of their third-down struggles, and they're coming off an excellent game in the loss to Boise State—the Broncos' sole touchdowns came on short fields of 24 and 23 yards, and they were forced to settle for four field goals and nothing more when the defense had room to work.

BYU's opponents haven't capitalized well—not just against BYU, but all season. Arizona ranks 126th in points per scoring opportunity, Utah 54th, Arizona State 30th, USF 111th, Utah State 94th, and Boise State 69th. Baylor is another story altogether, averaging some 4.65 points per opportunity (21st). The Bears have generated 2.28 EPA per drive, sixth-highest in FBS, behind a terrifying two-pronged rushing attack and the skillful passing of breakout quarterback Gerry Bohanon. Abram Smith (597 yards, 7.7 yards per carry, 7 TD) and Trestan Ebner (401 yards, 6.1 yards per carry) have led the Bears to 0.43 EPA per rush, the second-best mark in college football. Meanwhile, Bohanon (9.2 yards per attempt, 11 TD, 0 INT, 6 rush TD) has added to the ground game while also putting up 0.42 EPA per pass (34th) and a 48.1% passing success rate (23rd).

That's an intimidating force for any defense to deal with, but like BYU, the Bears have a glaring weakness—and interestingly enough, it's in the same area. Baylor has converted just 34.4% of third downs this season, 90th overall. The Bears don't get off schedule very often, with the 36th-lowest rate of passing downs faced by any offense, but when they do, they have struggled. On such downs, Baylor averages just 0.30 EPA (85th), a 30.8% success rate (79th), and 1.75 EPA per successful play (103rd), all well below the average for FBS teams in that situation. To come away with a key non-conference win and punch their bid to the postseason, both BYU and Baylor will have to overcome their third-down woes and translate their success this season into critical plays when it matters most.

Watch for:

  • Can either team generate chaos in the secondary against quarterbacks who have astutely avoided defensive back havoc thus far?
  • Baylor is at their best when Bohanon gets the ball to top receiver Tyquan Thornton (463 yards, 17.1 yards per catch, 5 TD); will BYU be able to limit his impact?
  • Will the aptly named Baylor Romney (11.0 yards per attempt, 5 TD, 0 INT) take over from BYU starter Jaren Hall (7.1 yards per attempt, 8 TD, 3 INT) if the latter's struggles continue?

FEI Outright Pick: Baylor by 3.2

Kent State at Western Michigan (-7)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

Overall Kent State Western Michigan
2021 F+ 99 79
When Kent State has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 69 90
2021 EPA/pass 104 65
2021 EPA/rush 44 66
When Western Michigan has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 116 51
2021 EPA/pass 59 49
2021 EPA/rush 114 48

For a player from the unrenowned MAC, the expectations placed on the shoulders of Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum have been staggering. An unregarded two-star recruit from northern Ohio, Crum joined the Golden Flashes in 2017, won the starting job in 2019, and promptly threw 20 touchdowns with just two interceptions. In 2020, facing a four-game conference-only schedule, his numbers rose still further, as he improved from 8.4 to 10.5 yards per attempt while throwing 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. That put him fifth nationally in yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt and fourth in passer rating, an incredible performance in his senior season.

Crum has received plenty of much-deserved media attention for his impressive performances, which have led the Golden Flashes into a golden age and put them in the hunt for their first conference title since 1972. But while Crum was garnering accolades and NFL speculation, another MAC quarterback with glittering numbers was matching him blow-for-blow from beyond the spotlight. Over in Kalamazoo, Western Michigan had seen Kaleb Eleby develop into one of the nation's most prolific passers. During that same pandemic-shortened season, Eleby stepped into the starting role for the Broncos after redshirting in 2019, and the results were spectacular. The sophomore averaged 11.2 yards per attempt, passing for 18 touchdowns and two interceptions. Those numbers placed him second in yards per attempt, just behind Alabama's Mac Jones, and first in adjusted yards per attempt—not to mention second in college football history, a hair behind Kyler Murray in 2018.

Both Crum and Eleby, of course, play in a league of a demonstrably worse caliber than the likes of Jones and Murray. But there's no denying that their numbers are impressive, and it's not as if Kent State and Western Michigan have a massive talent advantage over the MAC field otherwise. Neither quarterback is likely to start in the NFL, and naturally neither has any chance of leading their team to the playoff. But there are still records to be set, titles to be won, and wins to be cherished. Kent State is chasing their first championship in nearly 50 years; Western Michigan is hoping to secure their second in the last three decades. The high honors pursued by elite quarterbacks such as Matt Corral, Bryce Young, Kenny Pickett, and Grayson McCall aren't within the reach of these MAC stars, but they still have the opportunity to enshrine their names in college football history.

Crum's relative struggles early in the season meant he wasn't in form to knock off Texas A&M, Iowa, or Maryland, but he rebounded dramatically against Buffalo. The Bulls' defense is nothing special (113th in opponent EPA per pass), and Crum victimized it for 407 yards on 36 passes, three touchdowns, and no interceptions (plus 72 rushing yards and two more touchdowns on the ground). Eleby, by comparison, has struggled with efficiency throughout the season—he's averaging only 7.7 yards per attempt, only beating 8.5 yards per attempt in his game against Illinois State. However, he has produced plenty of yards and touchdowns, passing for 337 yards and three scores in a dramatic upset win over Pitt. Last week's game against Ball State, the defending MAC champion who narrowly avoided falling prey to the Broncos' 15-lateral touchdown in 2020, was a letdown for Eleby; he threw his first two interceptions of the season, and the Cardinals piled on four touchdowns in the last 20 minutes to pull away and win 45-20. Nevertheless, Western Michigan has most of the season ahead of them and still has a chance to knock off MAC West leader Northern Illinois.

Both Kent State (51st in opponent EPA per pass, 75th in opponent success rate on passing plays) and Western Michigan (80th and 34th, respectively) have middling pass defenses, so it's likely this game will come down to which of two brilliant quarterbacks can outduel their opposite number. With Crum and Eleby looking to cap their careers with an ever-elusive conference championship, who will lead their team to a key victory as the battle royale in the haywire MAC approaches the final stretch?

Watch for:

  • Will the one-two punch of Broncos rushers Ladarius Jefferson (435 yards, 4.1 yards per carry, 8 TD) and Sean Tyler (414 yards, 5.2 yards per carry, 2 TD) be enough against Kent State's mediocre run defense?
  • With the Golden Flashes having stepped up from among FBS' worst to merely below-average on defense, can Western Michigan successfully deliver on scoring opportunities?
  • Will Kent State start to incorporate stellar senior Keshunn Abram (315 yards, 18.5 yards per carry) in the passing game more often?

FEI Outright Pick: Western Michigan by 9.6

Ole Miss (-2.5) at Tennessee—Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (SECN)

Overall Ole Miss Tennessee
2021 F+ 16 22
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 3 37
2021 EPA/pass 4 80
2021 EPA/rush 19 37
When Tennessee has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 84 20
2021 EPA/pass 119 76
2021 EPA/rush 116 7

You couldn't write a much better script for Lane Kiffin's return to Knoxville. Over a decade after Kiffin's outrageous one-year stint at Tennessee, the offensive mastermind has been in and out at USC, helped piece together an elite offense at Alabama, led FAU to two C-USA titles with a 5-7 season in between, and is now building Ole Miss into a contender in the SEC West. Drama has never been too distant, but nowadays, things are a little more tame. The most exciting elements of Kiffin's tenure with the Rebels have come on the field, as he has built an advanced offense captained by Heisman contender Matt Corral.

Both Kiffin and his opposite number, first-year head coach Josh Heupel, have crafted excellent offensive attacks, but their styles are markedly different. Ole Miss doesn't actually pass quite as often as you might expect, with the 37th-highest rushing play rate in FBS, but no matter how they attack, it's effective. Henry Parrish Jr. (332 yards, 6.1 yards per carry, 1 TD), Snoop Conner (247 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, 7 TD), and Jerrion Early (206 yards, 5.2 yards per carry, 1 TD) have led a remarkably underrated rushing attack, which leads college football with 0.51 EPA per rush and ranks fifth in explosiveness on rushing plays. Through the air, of course, they rely on the preposterously good Corral (10.3 yards per attempt, 12 TD, 0 INT), who has the Rebels seventh in EPA per pass and fourth in passing explosiveness.

Tennessee rushes about as often as Ole Miss—they rank 33rd in rushing play rate—but with Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker (9.5 yards per attempt, 13 TD, 1 INT) taking the reins at quarterback, a significant chunk of that rushing has come from his scrambles. A bevy of running backs have contributed for the Volunteers, with seven players toting the ball at least 20 times, but two have gotten the bulk of the carries: Jabari Small (231 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 2 TD), the original starting back, and Tiyon Evans (482 yards, 6.6 yards per carry, 6 TD), who came out of nowhere with a 116-yard debut against Bowling Green and soon took up the top spot. But an ankle injury to Evans will likely keep him out of the game, temporarily reinstating Small as the first option. Small has been good—though not as good as Evans—but his status as a backup in the last two games meant he took just three carries against Missouri and none against South Carolina.

Both teams have stunningly good offenses, but in a game that will likely be defined by rare stops rather than frequent scores, their lackluster defenses could be just as critical. Tennessee has been prone to lengthy stretches of defensive instability; for example, Pitt scored 27 of their eventual 41 points against the Volunteers in the second quarter alone, and two games later, the Florida game got out of hand as the defense faltered. Ole Miss, by comparison, gives up lengthy scoring drives, preventing explosive plays but allowing successful play after successful play—and often, their own ultra-explosive offense scores quickly and hands the ball right back to their exhausted defense.

Both offenses have a winnable mismatch in this game; the question is which group will win those mismatches more often. Tennessee has put up big offensive numbers in the last two weeks, but as they enter the toughest stretch of their schedule (Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky, and Georgia), they still need to prove they can score well enough to hang with top teams. Ole Miss proved that beyond any doubt last week, outlasting Arkansas 52-51, but their defense has left much to be desired. A pair of SEC upstarts hoping to establish offensive preeminence in college football's top conference, with a coach making his return to a school he departed amidst chaos years ago? Well, in the words of Kiffin himself: get your popcorn ready.

Watch for:

  • With Navy transfer Jake Springer (70 tackles, 16 TFL, eight sacks in 2019) finally getting on the field for the Rebels, can their defense take a major step forward?
  • Can the dynamic Volunteers front seven, led by high-flying linebacker Jeremy Banks (33 tackles, 7 TFL, 3.5 sacks), continue to produce havoc against a stalwart Ole Miss offensive line?
  • Will the Rebels target Velus Jones Jr. (342 yards, 15.5 yards per catch, 3 TD) on defense and attempt to limit Hooker to other options in the passing game?

FEI Outright Pick: Ole Miss by 0.8

FEI Picks: Week 7

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick ATS Preston's Pick ATS
at Texas -4 Oklahoma State Texas Texas Oklahoma State
at Arkansas -4.5 Auburn Arkansas Auburn Auburn
Pitt -5 at Virginia Tech Virginia Tech Virginia Tech Pitt
at Baylor -6 BYU Baylor BYU BYU
at Western Michigan -7 Kent State Western Michigan Western Michigan Western Michigan
Ole Miss -2.5 at Tennessee Ole Miss Tennessee Tennessee

FEI's picks ATS in Week 6: 5-1

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 21-15

Preston's picks ATS in Week 6: 5-1

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 19-17

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