SDA Week 8: Wake Forest, UCLA Highlight Innovative Teams

UCLA Bruins RB Zach Charbonnet
UCLA Bruins RB Zach Charbonnet
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

College football is in the middle of a dramatic season, to put it lightly. Three of the College Football Playoff's four most frequent guests (Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson) have lost at least once. Even Oklahoma, the lone familiar face to maintain an undefeated record, evaded defeat in six straight one-score games before finally putting away TCU comfortably. The Pac-12 and ACC have just one unblemished team between them: Wake Forest, which last started 6-0 in the middle of World War II. Oklahoma State is eighth overall on the strength of a suffocating defense; Michigan State is ninth thanks to a soaring offense.

It's a strange year, and there's no better time for weird and wild styles of football. In Oxford, Lane Kiffin has pieced together a futuristic, aggressive offense coming off of wins in back-to-back thrillers against Arkansas and Tennessee. Out in Los Angeles, Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet have combined to form one of the most dynamic passing-rushing tandems in modern memory. Way up in Corvallis, Chance Nolan has engineered a breakout performance with an offense that spreads the love to a wide variety of receivers.

There's plenty of defensive innovation, too. Georgia's physically dominant front and Iowa's havoc-heavy attack have earned headlines, but some more surprising groups deserve a mention. In Winston-Salem, the Demon Deacons have been led by their offense (another surprise), but the defense has created chaos up front, leading the nation in fumble recoveries per game. Over in Stillwater, Mike Gundy has punted and punted and punted some more, and the Cowboys have made the resulting defensive possessions count. And in Clemson, spare a thought for the Tigers' all-around excellent defense, among the top 20 in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness—but unfortunately saddled with a dismal offense ranking in the bottom 30 in all of those stats.

College football is as fun and unique as it has ever been, and these eccentric and exceptional teams are some of the causes for this season's chaos. This week, we'll take a closer look at how these schools are hoping to snag conference championship bids or even playoff spots. In a year for the unexpected, college football's most creative minds are thriving as they hunt for a shot at postseason glory.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Wake Forest (-3) at Army—Saturday, 12 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Wake Forest Army
2021 F+ 32 61
When Wake Forest has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 22 52
2021 EPA/pass 18 56
2021 EPA/rush 76 65
When Army has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 57 64
2021 EPA/pass 96 63
2021 EPA/rush 57 27

The madness of the 2021 season is most clearly seen in the ACC, which has ended up in complete disarray after longstanding leader Clemson and top challengers North Carolina and Miami have started the season a combined 10-9, each taking multiple losses. It's unlikely anyone will emerge from the mess to claim a place in the playoff, but what little hope remains rests largely on the shoulders of the conference's one-loss teams—North Carolina State and Pittsburgh—and of the last remaining undefeated, Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons have been flying high behind a terrific offense, scoring at least 35 points in every game and ranking 32nd overall in EPA per play. Their last two games, however, have been more dramatic than a dominant early run in which they won four straight games by at least 20 points. The reason lies, of course, with their defensive struggles: Wake Forest has allowed 34 points to 3-3 Louisville and 37 to 3-4 Syracuse. The dropoff has been jarring, considering that in the game before that stretch, the Deacons held the vaunted Virginia offense (11th in EPA per play) to just three points in the first half and 17 in total. Wake Forest is still undefeated, but with key games coming up against North Carolina, North Carolina State, Clemson, and Boston College, they'll need to find their defensive footing.

What has gone wrong? Well, to begin with, it's arguably worth pinpointing that Virginia game as the start of Wake Forest's struggles. While the surface-level boxscore reflects a blowout win in which the Cavaliers were held back until garbage time, that's not entirely accurate. Each of Virginia's third-quarter touchdowns cut the lead to 10 points with plenty of time on the clock, and more critically, unapparent factors led to a somewhat less impressive performance than the offense actually produced. The Cavaliers were saddled with extremely poor field position, starting on average at their own 19. They put together slightly longer drives than the Deacons, an impressive feat considering Wake Forest averages the most plays per drive of any team in the country. They even won the yardage battle, 521 to 477, and stayed within arm's reach in EPA, 13.53 to 16.97. But turnovers and a lack of fourth-down conversions (three attempts, none successful) meant they came up short on scoring opportunities again and again. Their first drive ended in a turnover on downs within 5 yards of the end zone; their second ended on a chip-shot field goal from 4 yards out. That set the tone, and further turnovers (on fumbles, interceptions, and fourth-down tries alike) put the game out of reach.

This isn't, of course, to say that the Deacons don't deserve credit for limiting Virginia in these ways. They lead the nation in opponent fourth-down conversion percentage and are tied for second in takeaways per game, after all. But it's reasonable to question just how sustainable those performances are. They're winning on 82.5% of fourth-down plays, an absurdly high rate; in 2019, the last season in which every team played a full schedule, leader Cincinnati only managed 73.7%. Likewise, forcing 2.6 turnovers per game is incredibly difficult to maintain, with only one team (Florida Atlantic, with 2.5) managing more than 2.2 per game in 2019. And as the season has progressed, such numbers are starting to come back down to earth. Iowa, still leading the pack in takeaways per game, found their luck running out against Purdue last week, losing five turnovers despite expecting only 2.3 based on underlying numbers. When you produce numbers as good as this, some regression is to be expected.

The clock hasn't struck midnight for Wake Forest yet, but it has come awfully close, and backsliding turnover and fourth-down numbers on the defense have been a major factor. In narrow wins over Louisville and Syracuse, the Deacons only managed two takeaways (they should have expected 2.8). Their fourth-down defense was unable to come to the rescue, for the simple fact that neither opponent attempted to convert any. Wake Forest thrives when given opportunities to turn the momentum of a drive on its head—with a pick, a fumble recovery, a fourth-down stop, a goal-line stand, whatever it may be. Having passed just 39 times all year and run one of the nation's most all-around reliable offenses behind Christian Anderson (431 rushing yards, 7.4 yards per carry; 187 passing yards, 12.5 yards per attempt), Army isn't an opponent likely to provide too many chances.

Can they get Wake Forest's luck to run out and avoid those key plays enough to win? The Black Knights are quietly 4-2, albeit with back-to-back losses and no particularly impressive wins. But as you would expect, they have lived and died by the triple option. Army goes for plenty of fourth downs, but they convert most of them—an impressive 75.0% rate, tied for 17th in FBS. And by virtue of their no-nonsense offense, they don't give the ball away often, with their 0.7 turnovers lost per game tying for ninth nationally. It's not easy to take on a defensive front with playmakers such as Caelen Carson (20 tackles, six pass breakups, two interceptions) and Ja'Sir Taylor (26 tackles, three pass breakups, two recovered fumbles) with confidence, but Army should be able to avoid taking the brunt of this defense's potential blow. Will that be enough to pull off an upset? Perhaps not, but whatever Wake Forest can muster against this rock-steady Army offense will tell us plenty about their chances of staying perfect down the stretch.

Watch for:

  • Sam Hartman (8.8 yards per attempt, 14 TD, 3 INT) has been reliable for the Deacons, particularly when their offense gets behind schedule; can Army get past a tough offensive line to throw him off?
  • Will the relentless Black Knights secondary be able to limit A.T. Perry, Hartman's favorite target and the key to Wake Forest's offensive explosiveness?
  • With the aforementioned Christian Anderson returning after a shoulder injury kept him out for two games, can the Army offense find a spark on the ground?

FEI Outright Pick: Wake Forest by 1.3

LSU at Ole Miss (-9)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall LSU Ole Miss
2021 F+ 37 18
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 11 74
2021 EPA/pass 11 102
2021 EPA/rush 61 113
When Ole Miss has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 71 4
2021 EPA/pass 104 14
2021 EPA/rush 80 8

This game is, to put it simply, appointment viewing. The hosts: Lane Kiffin's Ole Miss Rebels, winners of two on the trot in thrilling fashion. Two weeks ago, Henry Parrish Jr., Snoop Conner, and quarterback Matt Corral outlasted Arkansas by each rushing for over 90 yards on the ground, eventually surviving to win a 52-51 nailbiter. Then Kiffin returned to the scene of his infamous one-year tenure at Tennessee, a game that culminated in a just-shy fourth-and-24 stop, a hail of mustard bottles and golf balls from an overly rowdy crowd, and a 31-26 victory—which was, once again, decided on the last play of the game.

Ole Miss has produced wild finishes in back-to-back weeks, and their opposite number is intimately familiar with that kind of drama. Three of LSU's last four games have come down to one score: a relatively even-keeled 28-25 win over Mississippi State, a dramatic 24-19 loss to Auburn, and most recently a 49-42 escape from Florida in which the Tigers nearly let a huge lead slip away. That surprise victory made the timing of Sunday's news a bit awkward, but the announcement went forward nonetheless: head coach Ed Orgeron, two years removed from a national title, would finish the season and then take his leave.

The Tigers now find themselves at a crossroads, with the chance to alter the trajectory of their program for years to come. The fact that they now face Ole Miss—perhaps an ideal future for LSU, contending in the SEC West behind a high-flying offense like the one Joe Burrow fielded not so long ago—provides plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast. For one thing, both teams lean on elite passing attacks, but only Ole Miss can claim a top-tier run game as well. When the Rebels can't find yardage through the air on Corral's NFL-caliber arm, they can either keep it with him or hand it off to one of three rushers totaling more than 300 yards from scrimmage this year. LSU, by contrast, has only one such player (Tyrion Davis-Price), and only two running backs with more than 75 total yards. Their offense has a tendency to go quiet for this reason: in the first half of the season, they averaged only 83.5 yards per game on the ground, and 2.9 yards per carry.

But LSU's 49-point explosion against Florida, tying their best offensive performance of the season, came by virtue of a 323-yard showing on the ground. When the Tigers get production like that, they can knock a team out of the top 25. Indeed, if they had a rushing corps as good as the Rebels', LSU would profile about the same as their soaring opponent on the whole. The problem is that they don't have that kind of attack, at least not with any consistency; 287 of those 323 yards came from Davis-Price, which isn't something you can count on every Saturday. To make such games the norm rather than the exception, LSU needs to find ways to get the ball in the hands of players such as Corey Kiner (171 yards on 36 carries), Armoni Goodwin (56 yards on 11 carries), and Josh Williams (64 yards on 10 carries).

Ole Miss is a good opponent to make that a focus against, because the Rebels' run defense leaves much to be desired. The front seven rank 118th nationally in line yards per carry and 121st in second-level yards per carry. The last three teams to face Ole Miss have produced the three best scoring efforts on their defense so far, and the run game has led the way: all three teams rushed at least 50 times against them while passing no more than 25 times. Each averaged more than four yards per carry and around 260 total rushing yards, gaining 45.8% of their first downs on the ground. Run well against the Rebels and the rest, at least on offense, will follow.

Davis-Price's 36 carries against Florida were a career high by 12, so it's not likely he'll be able to take a heavy workload again. The Tigers will need to bring talented backs into their rushing attack to complement Max Johnson (7.7 yards per attempt, 20 TD, 4 INT) and match Ole Miss on both sides of the ball. Whether this SEC West showdown turns into a shootout or a blowout will come down to LSU's ability to adjust and add a new angle to their improving offense.

Watch for:

  • Can Damone Clark, whose 79 total tackles lead college football, help a struggling LSU front seven build on last week's performance (3.9 opponent yards per carry, five tackles for loss)?
  • Will a solid LSU secondary be able to prevent Corral from dominating through the air—while still limiting him on the ground?
  • How much will Ole Miss be able to do against a beleaguered run defense that ranks 126th in EPA allowed per rush (despite facing FBS' 10th-lowest rush rate)?

FEI Outright Pick: Ole Miss by 5.2

Clemson at Pittsburgh (-3.5)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Clemson Pittsburgh
2021 F+ 8 13
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 45 16
2021 EPA/pass 121 32
2021 EPA/rush 115 9
When Pittsburgh has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 4 21
2021 EPA/pass 13 20
2021 EPA/rush 13 77

The offensive numbers for Clemson don't paint a pretty picture. They rank below average in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness on passing and rushing plays alike, and in the bottom 20 of FBS in passing for each stat. They average just 0.26 EPA per drive (123rd), and the result is a miserable 20.5 points per game (113th). Even that number is generous, including their 49-point performance against South Carolina State that briefly augured for a return to normal. In five FBS games, the Tigers have amassed just 74 points. For comparison, they scored 73 points last year—against Georgia Tech alone. Clemson has yet to score more than 21 points against any FBS opponent; in the previous three seasons, they never scored fewer than 21 points.

The reason this horrific dropoff hasn't completely cratered Clemson's record is a superb defense, the effective mirror image of its struggling counterpart. The Tigers rank among the top 25 in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness allowed on passing and rushing plays alike, allowing just 0.10 EPA per drive (seventh) and 1.59 points per scoring opportunity (third). This team has scored 14, 21, 19, and 17 points across its last four games—and has won three of those four, in each case allowing just 14 points or fewer. The only qualm is strength of schedule, as Clemson hasn't faced an offense ranking in the top 80 in EPA per play since Georgia.

What better test for the retooling stalwarts than high-scoring Pittsburgh? As the conference's best-known quarterbacks (Clemson's own D.J. Uiagalelei, as well as North Carolina's Sam Howell and Miami's D'Eriq King) have been limited, Kenny Pickett has transformed into not just the ACC's top quarterback, but quite possibly all of college football's. His stats have been otherworldly all year (351 total yards per game, 9.4 yards per attempt, 21 TD, 1 INT) and he has shown no sign of slowing down. He had his worst game of the season at Virginia Tech last week—and still threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 38 more yards and another score, and led a comfortable 28-7 win. Jordan Addison (586 yards, 17.2 yards per catch, 9 TD) has led the way, but Pickett has spread the love, completing at least 10 passes to eight different players.

Pickett's schedule has been reasonably impressive—his last three FBS opponents all rank in the top 50 in EPA allowed per play—but Clemson's top-10 defense is a clear step up in competition. Pittsburgh will lean on its star quarterback, of course, but this offense needs to be as multidimensional as possible to pull off a win, which means the Panthers will lean on a run game that has buoyed their rise in the rankings. While they don't run much (only 45.6% of offensive plays, 110th overall), the rushing corps has been generally effective (72nd in yards per carry; 77th in EPA per rush) and has improved significantly in the last few games.

Pittsburgh got almost all of its offense through the air in its first two meaningful games of the season: 301 of 397 yards against Tennessee and 415 of 490 against Western Michigan came courtesy of Pickett (as well as backup Nick Patti and receiver Jared Wayne). The Panthers averaged just 2.1 yards per carry on 45 rushing attempts against the Volunteers, which is likely why they only ran 24 times against the Broncos. But the running backs broke out for 252 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, and five touchdowns against New Hampshire, and Pittsburgh featured them much more prominently in their road trip to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, rushing more than they passed in both games. The results speak for themselves: 389 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, and four touchdowns, all in a pair of confident wins.

The Panthers have settled on Israel Abanikanda as their feature back, giving him 36 total carries for 200 yards across the last two games (compared to just one against Western Michigan). Vincent Davis (233 yards, 3.5 yards per carry) has settled into his role as a versatile backfield weapon and run-blocker, and even Pickett has stretched his legs, rushing a season-high 12 times against Virginia Tech. The offense has grown much more effective on the ground, and when everything clicks, it can be one of the best in the nation.

It'll take a unit on that level to perform against the Tigers. This interdivision showdown might not be the last time we see Pickett, Abanikanda, Addison, and the rest of Pittsburgh's offense against James Skalski (42 tackles, three pass breakups), Xavier Thomas (5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks), and the rest of the stalwart Clemson defense. In any case, their duel at Heinz Field should serve up one of the best battles of the season.

Watch for:

  • Can the Clemson offense get anything going against an underrated Pittsburgh defense, which allows just -0.07 EPA per play (18th) and 4.19 plays per drive (first)?
  • Only three receivers have more than five catches for the Tigers (Joseph Ngata, Justyn Ross, and Davis Allen); will they make use of other options in the passing game?
  • Will the Panthers find an edge on special teams, where they have averaged the 19th-best field position on offense and 33rd on defense?

FEI Outright Pick: Pittsburgh by 0.8

Oregon at UCLA (-1)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oregon UCLA
2021 F+ 28 31
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 29 62
2021 EPA/pass 71 98
2021 EPA/rush 13 30
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 36 12
2021 EPA/pass 65 33
2021 EPA/rush 32 21

With all the discussion about quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson—well-deserved, in fairness—it may come as a surprise that rushing, not passing, is the highlight of UCLA's excellent offense. Of course, Thompson-Robinson himself is part of the reason for that, ranking third on the Bruins with 329 yards (4.0 yards per carry, five rushing touchdowns). The stars of the show, however, are Zach Charbonnet (697 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 7 TD) and Brittain Brown (468 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 4 TD), who have produced about 93% of the rushing yardage by UCLA running backs. Their emergence as key offensive pieces has been key to the group's leap, and crucially, to its increased versatility.

In 2019, neither Charbonnet nor Brown were in the rushing room, which consisted almost entirely of Joshua Kelley (1,060 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 12 TD). Those numbers are impressive, but the lack of attack behind Kelley, along with the nascent Thompson-Robinson's middling performance, held the offense back. Beyond their top rusher, only Thompson-Robinson and Demetric Felton (splitting time between rusher and receiver) took more than 25 carries. The Bruins' one-dimensional run game produced just 3.7 yards per carry (99th overall) and 150.2 rushing yards per game (71st).

For the next season, UCLA added Brown, a Duke transfer, and immediately set him to a heavier workload than he had ever taken in Durham. There, Brown had averaged 10.0 and 8.9 carries per game in his two full seasons; the Bruins saddled him with 11.7 per game across their half-season slate, including a 29-carry finale against Stanford that shattered his previous high of 18. Yet thanks to an upgrade on the offensive line and the cast around him—led by top running back Felton and much-improved scrambler Thompson-Robinson—Brown was more efficient than ever, soaring past his average of 5.1 yards per carry at Duke with a 6.6 mark at UCLA. The two-pronged rushing attack, plus the efforts of a quarterback proving his dual-threat pedigree, proved effective, as the Bruins surged to 5.1 yards per carry (25th) and 227.6 rushing yards per game (12th). With Felton off to the NFL, UCLA has filled his role with talented Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet (again taking on a much heavier workload than for his previous team), and their offense has kept humming along.

Does Oregon present a good matchup to tackle that dangerous trio? Well, EPA would suggest so, as the Ducks rank 32nd in per-play run defense. The standard surface-level numbers back that up: the Ducks are 42nd in yards allowed per carry and 44th in rushing yards allowed per game. But for all the national attention Oregon's defensive line has earned, it has been a bit porous on the ground. While they prevent explosive runs well, ranking 25th in open field yards allowed per carry, the line has surrendered consistent gains underneath, ranking 60th and 50th in line and second-level yards per carry, respectively. It's this weakness that opponents have targeted on key downs, with the Ducks allowing a 52.9% overall success rate on rushing plays (122nd overall).

Take Stanford, a team which is hardly running at all this year—chalk that up as another stylistic surprise, with their 27.3 rushes per game ranking fifth-lowest in FBS—but one which ran 35 times against Oregon in an upset win, and for good reason. Over 40% of those Cardinal carries went for at least 4 yards, and the rushing corps put up 124 yards and 3.5 yards per carry, both their third-best performances of the year (after Vanderbilt and USC). When California, a team which actually rushes at a reasonable rate, took to the ground against the Ducks last week, they nearly found enough performance to pull a top-10 upset while averaging 5.5 yards per pass. The run game didn't produce a single explosive play on 34 carries, but it gained 4 or more yards on 47% of those attempts. Allowing 2.68 line yards per carry (84th) and a 79.0% success rate up front (99th) isn't a recipe to maintain playoff hopes, and Oregon has work to do in shoring up that weakness.

Oregon's defense is talented enough that it feels like a breakout game—displaying the big plays and havoc creation we have been waiting for—is constantly just around the corner. With players such as Noah Sewell (54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) and Kayvon Thibodeaux (13 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks) lurking in the backfield, this group is capable of hitting a groove and rolling from there. If anyone can keep them reeling, though, it's a thrilling lineup of rushers looking to lead UCLA to the top of the Pac-12.

Watch for:

  • Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown (7.9 yards per attempt, 8 TD, 1 INT) has been quietly solid so far, but will he avoid the jitters that contributed to the Ducks' loss to Stanford?
  • With CJ Verdell (397 yards, 5.2 yards per carry, 5 TD) out for the season, can Travis Dye (527 yards, 6.7 yards per carry, 4 TD) hold up the Ducks' run game?
  • Will UCLA's terrific defensive line (2.29 line yards per carry allowed, 21st) make a stand and pressure the Oregon backfield?

FEI Outright Pick: UCLA by 1.7

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (-7)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (Fox)

Overall Oklahoma State Iowa State
2021 F+ 23 9
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 65 13
2021 EPA/pass 54 33
2021 EPA/rush 83 35
When Iowa State has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 8 14
2021 EPA/pass 16 13
2021 EPA/rush 46 39

One Big 12 team leaning on its defense is rare enough; two facing off, in a game with a protected scoring total of just 47 points, is practically unheard of. Oklahoma State, at least, isn't a massive surprise in the short term; the Cowboys' defense led the way last year and returned more than their offense, after all, and the main shock has been just how little that side of the ball has contributed to their 6-0 start. But Iowa State was expected to lead with the one-two punch of Brock Purdy at quarterback and Breece Hall at running back, bringing back just about everybody on the attack and landing four players on the all-conference offense. The defense was expected to be good, too—part of the reason the Cyclones opened the season at No. 7, the best ranking in school history—but Iowa State had scored 32.9 points per game against an all-Big 12 slate, and that was with Purdy struggling.

In 2021, true to expectations, it has all come together. The defense is our focus here, as they have allowed just 16.3 points per game (12th nationally) and -0.02 EPA per play (26th), but the offense has been excellent as well. The scoring average has ticked up to 33.7 points per game, thanks in part to Purdy's rebound (8.5 yards per attempt, 9 TD, 4 INT), and as a whole, the Cyclones have averaged 0.23 EPA per offensive play (15th). On paper, this is one of college football's best teams, with phenomenal performances across the board. Put together a resurgent quarterback, one of the game's best running backs, a dynamic receiving corps, and an elite defense, and what do you get?

Well, the Cyclones have ended up with 4-2. It's easy to jump from that fact to the dissection of what has gone wrong—potential topics include the secondary's struggles to create big plays, the rushing room's difficulty adding on opportunity yardage, and the general fiasco that has been Iowa State's special teams. But it's also reasonable to take a step back and allow that this team has been painfully unfortunate, with turnover luck providing an estimated 23.3-point swing against Iowa and a 98-yard kickoff return providing key points for Baylor in their 31-29 victory over the Cyclones. There's room for improvement, but it's fair to say that some of the fault lies with the overambitious expectations placed on this team before the season began.

Stripping those away as best we can, there's another angle to take on Iowa State. This is a flawed-but-fun team, one that isn't going to dominate its schedule and is probably going to lose a couple more games along the way. But in the full context of this team's history, 2021 should still be a very enjoyable season, even if the prospect of a playoff spot down the line has been thoroughly dispelled. This visit from Oklahoma State isn't a must-win game, not for hopes of postseason glory or of settling the recent score. For the Cyclones, it's a chance to take down a conference rival in the midst of a Big 12 title chase that is its own reward.

To accomplish that, Iowa State will have to match their foe in what will likely be a defensive battle. The Cyclones' defense is excellent across the board, but particularly so when it comes to limiting offenses' explosiveness: they allow just 0.79 EPA on successful runs (12th in FBS) and 1.23 on successful passes (11th). That excellent performance is primarily thanks to a fantastic front seven, led by Mike Rose (43 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss) and Will McDonald (14 tackles, six tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks), which has produced the seventh-highest havoc rate of any defense up front. The Cowboys' offensive line, which allows a 12.3% havoc rate (101st) and averages just 2.62 line yards per carry (121st), could be a ripe mismatch for that group.

The Cowboys have restructured their offense on the fly to scrape out several wins—they broke out an effective triple option at times against Boise State and Texas, for example—and they'll need to adjust to handle the Cyclones' swarming defense. Iowa State doesn't leave many avenues of attack open, and the ones they do—caused by struggles on passing downs and a lack of havoc from defensive backs—might not be areas Oklahoma State can punish. In a conference famed for its frequent offensive outbreaks, two of the top teams are set to duke it out in a good old-fashioned slugfest.

Watch for:

  • Spencer Sanders has shown flashes of his potential quality this year, but can he turn in a more reliable performance against an Iowa State defense he typically plays well against?
  • Will Purdy's recent run (453 yards, 9.6 yards per attempt, 5 TD in his last two games) continue against a Cowboys defense that has been beatable in the passing game?
  • After a season-high 30 carries and career-high 197 yards against Kansas State, how prominently will Hall feature in the Cyclones' run game?

FEI Outright Pick: Iowa State by 5.7

Utah (-3) at Oregon State—Saturday, 7 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)

Overall Utah Oregon State
2021 F+ 24 59
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 41 102
2021 EPA/pass 67 97
2021 EPA/rush 24 82
When Oregon State has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 21 17
2021 EPA/pass 47 52
2021 EPA/rush 52 10

The Pac-12 has something of a reputation for its chaotic nature, and it's little surprise that this conference has embraced the madness of 2021 like no other. Case in point: Oregon State. The last coach to pull off a winning season in Corvallis was Mike Riley, who has since been hired and fired at Nebraska, brought back to Oregon State as a consultant, and selected as a coach for the AAF's San Antonio Commanders and an offensive coordinator for the XFL's Seattle Dragons. Meanwhile, the Beavers have won 21 games in the last seven seasons, with two winless Pac-12 performances thrown in for good measure. Jonathan Smith, formerly the offensive coordinator for division rival Washington, had established something resembling an upwards trajectory before the pandemic—Oregon State went 5-7 in 2019, their best record since Riley's last season—but the Beavers suffered through a weird, disheartening 2020 season, in which their first six games all went down to the wire but ended up producing only two wins.

They wouldn't be your first pick for a breakout in the west, but what better time than the wildest season in over a decade? So in the wake of an opening loss to Purdue, the Beavers ripped off four straight wins, dispatching USC and Washington to reach 4-1 and claim sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 North for the first time ever. This conference being as topsy-turvy as it is, they promptly dropped a game at Washington State, which was two days away from firing its coach for off-field reasons. Still, the Beavers are in prime position in their division, and the remaining schedule pans out decently well. It might not be crazy to call their visit to rival Oregon in the final week of the season the division's decisive showdown.

First, though, this surprising team needs to dispense with the wins over freefalling name brands and beat a legitimate contender. Enter Utah, which dropped non-conference visits to BYU and San Diego State—but might be the Pac-12's leader after a three game-winning streak, capped with last week's victory against top-20 Arizona State. The Utes are now the only team in either division without a conference loss, and their game against UCLA next week looks likely to decide the South. First, though, they'll need to deal with this up-and-coming Oregon State squad.

The matchup to watch will be the Beavers' dependable offense against the Utes' solid defense. Oregon State isn't going to blow the doors off of their opponents—they rank 108th in overall explosiveness, 92nd on runs, and 71st on passes—but they don't need to. This offense is built to stay on schedule and put together good play after good play, and it works beautifully under the command of quarterback Chance Nolan (8.6 yards per attempt, 9 TD, 5 INT) and running back B.J. Baylor (678 yards, 6.8 yards per carry, 9 TD). The Beavers average a staggering 53.0% success rate on offense, fourth overall, including a 58.1% success rate on runs that leads the nation. They studiously avoid big plays, especially tackles for loss and sacks, to keep ahead of the chains behind a fantastic offensive line (3.40 line yards per carry, first overall). This offense puts together long drives (6.15 plays per drive, 16th) and capitalizes with unerring consistency (5.32 points per scoring opportunity, third).

To counter this all-around brilliance, Utah has a similarly sound defense. The unit ranks no higher than 33rd on EPA, success rate, or explosiveness, either overall or split by rushing and passing plays. The closest to truly exceptional that the Utes get is in creating havoc: the front seven ranks 39th, while the secondary ranks 19th. On the other hand, the defense is no worse than 71st in any of the aforementioned splits and ranks in the top 50 on most of them. Utah simply does everything well, a quality that has emerged more as the season has gone on. It's for this reason that they have taken on offenses as diverse as USC (123rd in rushing play rate) and Arizona State (41st) in back-to-back weeks and still put both on the back foot.

To varying degrees, the possibilities now on the table for both Oregon State and Utah are more exciting than they had expected before the season. The Beavers have nearly secured bowl eligibility, and a spot in the conference title game (possibly earned by knocking their most hated foe out of the playoff chase) is on the table as well. Meanwhile, the Utes are in position to reestablish themselves as one of the Pac-12's preeminent powers after briefly wavering in 2020, and they could jump back into the rankings and the lead of the conference with wins across their upcoming pair of games. The turmoil of 2021 has opened the door for the stunning Beavers and recovering Utes to claim position in the free-for-all of the Pac-12, and this game is a key opportunity for both teams to assert their position at the forefront of the league.

Watch for:

  • After a hot start, Nolan has hit a cold streak in his last two games (206 yards, 5.2 yards per attempt, 3 INT); can he bounce back against the Utes' trusty pass defense?
  • Will Utah's offense stay in the gear it has hit under Cameron Rising (7.4 yards per attempt, 9 TD, 2 INT), the starter across the last three games?
  • How much of a transformative force will Devin Lloyd (62 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four sacks, three pass breakups, two interceptions) be against Oregon State's line up front?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 3.1

FEI Picks: Week 8

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI
Pick
FEI
Pick ATS
Preston's
Pick ATS
Wake Forest -3 at Army Wake Forest Army Army
at Ole Miss -9 LSU Ole Miss LSU LSU
at Pittsburgh -3.5 Clemson Pittsburgh Clemson Pittsburgh
at UCLA -1 Oregon UCLA UCLA Oregon
at Iowa State -7 Oklahoma State Iowa State Oklahoma State Oklahoma State
Utah -3 at Oregon State Utah Utah Oregon State

FEI's picks ATS in Week 7: 2-4

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 23-19

Preston's picks ATS in Week 7: 4-2

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 23-19

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