Breakouts at SMU, Kansas Define a Topsy-Turvy College Season

SMU Mustangs WR Rashee Rice
SMU Mustangs WR Rashee Rice
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 4 - In three games this season, Bryce Young is averaging 7.6 yards per pass. Among 118 qualified quarterbacks in FBS, that's 55th—behind the likes of Bo Nix, TJ Finley, and John Rhys Plumlee. In Young's defense, he has tossed nine touchdowns to just two interceptions, and he has added 144 yards on 15 carries despite a poor offensive line, but it's still a jarringly poor performance from the defending Heisman Trophy winner.

Young isn't alone in starting slow this season after a strong 2021. Will Anderson Jr., who finished fifth in last year's Heisman race and was considered by many the best player in the nation, has only two sacks in three games and was flagged thrice in a nail-biting win over Texas. C.J. Stroud, who's averaging 11.1 yards per pass and has thrown 11 touchdowns with no interceptions, has at least lived up to the hype, but most of the expected stars have struggled early on.

Bijan Robinson, expected by many to be the nation's best rusher, has been solid with 311 yards on the ground and 132 through the air, but he has been outshined by the likes of Chase Brown at Illinois and Raheim Sanders at Arkansas. Ohio State's TreVeyon Henderson has been quiet, only taking 29 carries through three games for 197 yards. And an injury to the Buckeyes' star receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, has held him to a mere 36 yards on four catches.

Not every great player has underwhelmed, and some have already established themselves as frontrunners in the Heisman race, but many of the most impressive performances this season have come from completely unexpected sources. Among quarterbacks with at least 50 passes, Stroud's 13.7 adjusted yards per pass are first—but second, with 12.6, is Todd Centeio, a two-time transfer who floundered at Temple and Colorado State but has thrived at James Madison. Meanwhile, there are two Power 5 quarterbacks with over 8 yards per pass and 200 rushing yards—Garrett Shrader and Jalon Daniels, the leaders of 3-0 football teams at Kansas and Syracuse.

Among skill players, the most dual-threat remarkable season thus far belongs not to Henderson or Vaughn, but to Evan Hull of Northwestern, who has posted over 300 rushing and 300 receiving yards so far, putting him well ahead of pace to inaugurate college football's 800/800 club. On the other side of the ball, it's not Will Anderson Jr. making a run at the first 20-sack season in 20 years, but rather Arkansas' Drew Sanders (who had one sack for his career before 2022) and Jacoby Windmon, a transfer from UNLV to Michigan State who switched from linebacker to pass-rusher just a couple of weeks ago. And the national leader in receiving yards isn't Smith-Njigba or reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison; it's Rashee Rice, who has racked up an astounding 491 yards for SMU.

Sure, some of these players will regress back towards their expectations as the season goes on and they face their strongest opponents. But for now, everything we thought we knew (aside from C.J. Stroud being good) is in upheaval. Basketball schools are off to perfect starts while football schools have stumbled, and journeymen have overtaken five-star certainties in the hunt for the Heisman. Most of the season still lies before us, and we'll all get to watch and see which of these stories will still be dazzling us by December.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Clemson (-7) at Wake Forest—Saturday 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Clemson Wake Forest
2022 F+ 7 37
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 32 54
2022 EPA/pass 72 18
2022 EPA/rush 23 49
When Wake Forest has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 6 20
2022 EPA/pass 52 42
2022 EPA/rush 7 121

As you probably know, Clemson got off to a really slow start in 2021. The Tigers lost their opener to Georgia while scoring a measly three points, were stunned by NC State in double overtime, and suffered their first multi-score regular-season loss in seven years against Pitt, dropping to 4-3. In between, they were taken to the wire by Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Syracuse in one-score games. Those results snapped streaks of 58 top-five, 97 top-10, and 107 top-25 appearances, marking the team's first season without an appearance at No. 1 since 2014. Since that low point, though, Clemson is 9-0 and has returned to the top five this season. Whether they deserve such a high ranking is a matter of debate—they took quite a while to put away Georgia Tech and Louisiana Tech, both of whom trailed by only one score at halftime—but they have looked more like their usual selves since the first half of last season.

Late last year, Clemson faced a test to see if they had really taken a step forward after rattling off three decent wins, and they passed with flying colors, rolling past a top-15 Wake Forest with playoff aspirations by a 48-27 score. Wake Forest just so happens to be their first tough out of 2022, too, and this time the Tigers are going on the road to a 3-0 Demon Deacons team that recently returned its star quarterback from injury. Both Clemson and Wake Forest have played three games and won all three, but we know very little about either team from this season—beyond the fact that they have struggled somewhat concerningly with lesser competition. (In the Deacons' case, they had to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit to escape with a win over Liberty last week.)

Hartman has been decent in his two games—though he threw two interceptions against the Flames, he also accounted for 325 yards and three touchdowns—but Wake Forest's offense hasn't inspired confidence on account of a dismal run game. The Deacons made do with Christian Beal, Justice Ellison, and Christian Turner each rushing for over 500 yards, but nobody stood out as a true lead back, and with Beal gone, Wake Forest has averaged just 128 yards per game on the ground. It could have cost them dearly against Liberty, when they put up a mere 23 rushing yards, but Hartman's arm and a dazzling day by receiver Ke'Shawn Williams (129 yards on five catches) were enough to eke out a win.

A performance like that against Clemson's shutdown defense—which ranks 35th or better in EPA, success rate, and explosive-play rate against the pass, despite facing passes on 62.4% of plays—isn't likely to go well. Hartman is a solid passer, but the Deacons can't lean entirely on him against a strong Tigers secondary. In that 48-27 loss to Clemson last year, Wake Forest racked up 370 passing yards on 44 attempts, but their rushing corps had its worst game of the season: 36 yards on 31 carries. The result was the Deacons' second-worst offensive output of the year and a decisive defeat.

Then again, while scoring 27 points was on the low end for this offense last year, what really stands out about that game is Clemson's stunning 48 points, their second-highest point total of the season, right between wins over SC State and UConn. Wake Forest's defense was hardly good last season, giving up 40 or more points in five games, but it's still surprising that the Tigers' offense put up more points on the Deacons than high-powered attacks at Pitt and NC State. They did it by limiting DJ Uiagalelei's workload—he threw 19 passes, tied for his career low in a start—and leaning on a rushing attack led by Kobe Pace and Will Shipley (303 yards, 7.0 yards per carry combined).

Shipley has been as good as ever this season, leading the ACC with 7.8 yards per carry and six rushing touchdowns. However, Pace only has 48 yards on 15 carries. Clemson's other star rusher, Phil Mafah, has also been fairly mortal, with 78 yards on 20 carries. Can they expect another phenomenal performance on the ground against Wake Forest? Perhaps, but the Deacons' run defense seems to have taken a major step forward since last season, and they may test Clemson's passing attack much more than they were able to in 2021. Both offenses in this game have been fairly one-dimensional, but to pull off a win and reach 4-0, both teams will need to fire on all cylinders.

Watch for:

  • Is Uiagalelei (7.5 yards per pass, five touchdowns, one interception) secure at quarterback, or will Cade Klubnik (7-for-15, 66 yards) be called on in case of emergency?
  • Can a dynamic Clemson secondary (five interceptions, 13th in havoc rate) create takeaways and give their offense the advantage?
  • Will AT Perry, already targeted eight times on passes more than 20 yards downfield—fourth in the ACC—be a deep weapon for the Deacons?

FEI Outright Pick: Clemson by 8.2.

Duke at Kansas (-7)—Saturday 12 p.m. (FS1)

Overall Duke Kansas
2022 F+ 89 82
When Duke has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 95 126
2022 EPA/pass 24 105
2022 EPA/rush 39 99
When Kansas has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 81 27
2022 EPA/pass 70 19
2022 EPA/rush 5 25

Last week's preview highlighted some of the darlings of college football through the first few games, a group of which Kansas—3-0 Kansas, with a win over a reigning 12-win Houston!—is the most obvious member. There have been plenty of other surprises, such as Syracuse, Tulane, and Indiana (all undefeated), but one that's flown under the radar is Duke. The Blue Devils are also 3-0, though admittedly they have only played Temple, Northwestern, and North Carolina A&T. Still, they have already matched last season's win total and could easily surpass it this week. So how have they done it?

Duke ended last season by allowing 47 or more points in six straight games, which made Texas A&M's standout defensive coordinator a natural hire. Mike Elko isn't calling plays on defense—that role belongs to Robb Smith, who got Rutgers from 123rd in points allowed per game to 56th in two seasons—but he deserves a share of the credit for the Blue Devils' staggering turnaround this season. The schedule isn't inspiring, admittedly, but Duke has held their opponents to just 14.3 points per game, and their run defense has been among the best in the nation at every level. They're third in yards allowed per carry at the line, ninth in the second level, and sixth in the open field (where they have given up just 4 yards all season). And the Blue Devils have also brought plenty of pressure, creating havoc at a top-five rate with both the pass rush and the secondary. There's a reason they're tied for 13th nationally in takeaways per game, and even that figure is a bit lower than it should be based on expected turnovers.

Duke's defensive success has been led by the expected standouts up front: DeWayne Carter and RJ Oben combined for 57 tackles and 13 tackles for loss last season, and they lead the team with 86 and 78 pass-rush snaps, respectively. More surprisingly, Aeneas Peebles has emerged as a force at defensive tackle, with six pressures on 61 pass-rush snaps. Against the run, the linebackers have been key in locking down potential breakaway carries—led by Shaka Heyward and Dorian Mausi, they have made 26 tackles in run defense and missed just one. The pass defense hasn't been as strong overall, but it's third nationally in havoc rate, with Heyward (four pass breakups) and corner Joshua Pickett (three pass breakups) at the forefront.

All of this is tempered by the weakness of Duke's opponents: an FCS team, a Temple team that went 3-9 last year, and a Northwestern team that lost to Southern Illinois the week after playing the Blue Devils. This team did start 3-1 last season, after all, beating the same group but with Temple exchanged for Kansas. It's understandable that questions about how real Duke is remain prevalent, especially by comparison to an opponent that has beaten West Virginia and Houston. But it's not impossible to see them taking it to the strong Jayhawks offense, for which big runs (19.3% gaining 10 or more yards) have been a critical element of the attack.

The Blue Devils will still have to score fairly often to keep up, but they hold a clear advantage when they have the ball. One of just nine FBS teams with a higher rate of explosive runs than Kansas, Duke has two running backs with over 170 yards each and a combined 6.5 yards per carry, as well as dual-threat quarterback Riley Leonard (11.0 yards per pass, 6.7 yards per carry). Jaylen Coleman already has more than thrice as many yards in 2022 than in the first three seasons of his college career, and Jordan Waters needs only 23 more yards to mark his best season on the ground yet. The offensive line has been massively successful on a committee approach, anchored by Graham Barton—one of eight tackles in the Power 5 who hasn't allowed a pressure while taking at least 150 snaps.

Can Duke actually pull off the upset? They're extremely unproven, and it's possible their defense can't do more than those before it against Jalon Daniels (8.1 yards per pass, 8.8 yards per carry) and a mighty Jayhawks attack. But they do have the ability to match much of what Kansas does on offense, and they bring a quietly talented defense led by two excellent coaches who can make a major stand against the run. In any case, this sets up as one of the most exciting, intriguing games this Saturday, a chance for two traditional bottom-feeders to reach 4-0 and show off their emerging superstars in the process. Who would have seen that coming a few weeks ago?

Watch for:

  • Can the Jayhawks' defensive backfield step up and limit Duke's deep rushing corps beyond the line?
  • Between two offenses running a bottom-10 rate of plays per game, can either team put together longer drives by leaning on their reliable passing attack?
  • Can Duke's special teams (seventh in opponent starting field position) win the field position battle against Kansas (ninth in starting field position)?

FEI Outright Pick: Duke by 0.4.

TCU (-2) at SMU—Saturday 12 p.m. (ESPNU)

Overall TCU SMU
2022 F+ 43 42
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 28 59
2022 EPA/pass 29 85
2022 EPA/rush 20 82
When SMU has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 68 33
2022 EPA/pass 27 68
2022 EPA/rush 36 103

This sets up as a really strong game on paper—two solid opponents and hopeful conference contenders, both led by strong offenses—but some of the intrigue here comes not from the on-field matchup, but from the circumstances surrounding this game. It is, of course, the Battle for the Iron Skillet, a historically close rivalry series that TCU leads 51-42-7 thanks to winning 16 of 20 meetings this century. That alone would make it worth watching, but adding to the drama is the way tensions have heightened over the last few seasons.

SMU went on the road and snapped a seven-game losing streak in the rivalry in 2019, a game that put them on the map en route to an 8-0 start and 10-win season. The teams didn't meet in 2020 due to the pandemic—skipping over a game that would have been in Dallas—but the Mustangs returned to Fort Worth in 2021 and took another one-score win in another long undefeated start. This season, the rivalry is back at SMU for the first time in four years, and Gerald J. Ford Stadium is sold out as the Mustangs try to reach their longest winning streak against TCU since the 1980s. Oh, and if that wasn't enough, the game also marks Sonny Dykes' return to SMU in just the third game of his tenure at their biggest rival.

With all the off-field drama setting up a crowd that's sure to be raucous, it's easy to forget that this is also an intriguing game on the field. The Mustangs went to Maryland last week and played the Terrapins down to the wire, carrying a 27-20 lead into the fourth before ultimately falling 34-27. Meanwhile, TCU is a dominant 2-0 behind an offense that has put up 97 points on Colorado and Tarleton State. This is undoubtedly a game both teams have had circled all offseason, and it could prove a key inflection point for their trajectories going forward.

TCU's passing offense hummed along nicely last year whether Max Duggan (9.0 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns, six interceptions) or Chandler Morris (9.4 yards per attempt, three touchdowns, no interceptions) was at the helm. The two were embroiled in a lengthy quarterback competition over the offseason, which Morris ultimately won, but the first two games of this season have thrown that outcome into immediate doubt. Morris started the opener against Colorado and passed for 111 yards on 20 attempts, but a late injury held him out against Tarleton State, and it was recently announced that he'll miss the SMU game as well. In Morris' absence, Duggan has made as strong of a case as possible (albeit against a middling FCS opponent) to reclaim his starting role: he threw 29 passes against the Texans for 390 yards and five touchdowns, leading the Horned Frogs' offense in a 59-17 blowout. Were Morris healthy this week, you'd have to figure there would be some question about how the quarterback room would be handled; as it is, Duggan will have another big opportunity to prove himself and give Dykes a difficult decision.

In any case, it's probably not passing that TCU has to worry about. Their offense has put up plenty of magnificent numbers so far—third in EPA per play, top-10 in rushing and passing explosiveness, first in havoc rate allowed—but their ineffective line rushing stands out like a sore thumb. The Horned Frogs' run game has been solid overall, as five different players (Morris among them) have totaled 40 or more yards, but they're averaging just 2.6 yards per carry up front, 117th in the nation. SMU's defense has faced plenty of runs (on 55.7% of plays) and dealt with them decently (55th in line yards per carry allowed), which could give them an edge to make TCU's offense lean more on Duggan.

The Mustangs haven't put up offensive stats as impressive as the Horned Frogs', though that's somewhat understandable with a quality Power 5 team among their opponents. Still, it's evident that they have some potent weapons to play with: Tanner Mordecai has already passed for over a thousand yards, while Tre Siggers, TJ McDaniel, and Velton Garner have each run for over 120 in a rushing corps where depth has been an unexpected strength. Rashee Rice, though, is the biggest offensive standout—with 491 receiving yards, he accounts for nearly half of SMU's passing attack and leads the nation through three weeks. TCU does have a shutdown corner to cover him, though: Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who allowed just 2.2 yards after catch per target last season and has allowed a minuscule 1.3 yards after catch per target this year. It's one of the best one-on-one matchups we'll see all season, and the outcome could decide a high-octane rivalry meeting deep in the heart of Texas.

Watch for:

  • Can TCU stifle the Mustangs' rushing attack at the second level (where they're 16th in yards allowed per carry) and open field (where they're 23rd)?
  • How much pressure can Elijah Chatman (2.5 sacks) and the SMU pass rush bring against the Horned Frogs' strong offensive line?
  • TCU has handily won the field position battle this season, starting 12.1 yards closer to the end zone than their opponents; will they do so again against the Mustangs?

FEI Outright Pick: SMU by 0.2.

Florida at Tennessee (-10.5)—Saturday 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Florida Tennessee
2022 F+ 35 9
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 37 34
2022 EPA/pass 127 50
2022 EPA/rush 12 9
When Tennessee has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 35 6
2022 EPA/pass 32 18
2022 EPA/rush 104 33

On paper, this line makes a certain amount of sense. Florida went 6-7 last year and got worse as the season went on, and in their last two games they have lost to Kentucky and eked out a win over a bad USF team. Meanwhile, Tennessee went 7-6 last year (four of the losses coming against eventual New Year's Six teams) and is 3-0 this season, having outslugged Pitt and dominated two MAC opponents. Add in the considerable homefield advantage of a sold-out Neyland Stadium and you end up with a consensus betting line that favors the Volunteers by about 10 points.

But recent history in this rivalry invites understandable skepticism. The Gators have won 16 of the last 17 meetings, and the drought since Tennessee last beat them by 11 points or more is older than their true freshmen. Yes, this shapes up as one of the better teams the Volunteers have had, and yes, the Gators have looked mightily unimpressive since their Week 1 upset over Utah, but it makes sense that just about nobody is as confident in Tennessee as Vegas seems to be.

Still, the Volunteers should have the advantage in this game, in theory. Key to their winning chances is a high-tempo offense that rests on the shoulders of quarterback Hendon Hooker. Tennessee runs 93.9% of their snaps with at least three receivers, well above the FBS average, and Hooker is a major reason for that—both for featuring the pass and for being able to use the run lightly. He has been one of the best passers in the nation since transferring out of Virginia Tech after 2020, averaging 9.7 yards per attempt with 36 touchdowns and three interceptions at Tennessee. It makes sense that the Volunteers build around his arm, but as a dual-threat quarterback who has rushed for over 600 yards in back-to-back seasons, he also gives them an additional threat on the ground.

The Volunteers lost running back Jabari Small early against Akron, but he's expected to return against Florida. In his absence, Jaylen Wright put up 96 yards on 23 carries, extending his team lead with 231 rushing yards and solidifying a strong second option at running back for Tennessee. The passing offense also runs deep, with Jalin Hyatt breaking out last week for 166 yards and two touchdowns, while Bru McCoy has been a solid piece as the Volunteers' Z receiver. But the heart of the receiving corps is Cedric Tillman, who carried the offense with 162 yards in the win over Pitt, and he's questionable for this game after an ankle injury last week.

Tennessee has the depth to handle Tillman's potential absence, but their passing attack is what the Gators will match up best with on defense, so it's not a given that Hooker can run roughshod over Florida and rack up points with ease. Corners Jason Marshall Jr. and Tre'Vez Johnson have combined to allow 126 yards on 17 targets, and linebacker Amari Burney has doubled as a force in coverage, with only 106 yards allowed on 17 targets himself. Holding down this passing offense is always a tall task, and the Gators' poor run defense (110th in EPA allowed per rush) will still be a problem, but they have the weapons to go after Tennessee's top receivers.

To match the Volunteers' offensive output, Florida will feature their rushing corps prominently. Only four players have taken carries for the Gators, but all four have rushed over 20 times for at least 100 yards. With Montrell Johnson (240 yards, 9.6 yards per carry) spearheading the attack, the Gators are 21st in EPA per rush and ninth in explosive run rate; they also rank among the top 25 in yards per carry at the line, the second level, and in the open field. But Florida has been held back by a dismal passing game, ranking 117th in EPA per pass and dragging the overall offense down significantly. Quarterback Anthony Richardson is averaging more yards per carry (5.6) than per pass (5.5), and he has thrown two interceptions in back-to-back games. Xzavier Henderson has been largely ineffective as Florida's primary receiver (94 yards on 15 receptions), and outside of Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall's 120 yards on seven catches, the Gators don't have a spark through the air. Against a Tennessee defense that's most vulnerable to the pass, they'll likely have to find one to emerge from Knoxville with an unlikely win.

Watch for:

  • Can the Volunteers' strong run defense (10th in line yards per carry allowed, 20th in second level yards per carry allowed) limit the Gators up front?
  • How much will Tennessee lean on their rushing attack against a Florida run defense that has been hammered for a 49.2% success rate on the ground?
  • In a meeting between two teams that avoid allowing havoc at a top-25 rate, will either find an edge in the turnover battle?

FEI Outright Pick: Tennessee by 6.9.

Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (-2) in Arlington—Saturday 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arkansas Texas A&M
2022 F+ 26 16
When Arkansas has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 11 5
2022 EPA/pass 32 58
2022 EPA/rush 31 70
When Texas A&M has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 48 68
2022 EPA/pass 78 113
2022 EPA/rush 90 42

Third-down conversion rate is one of those pesky statistics that is obviously meaningful, but hard to break down into smaller pieces. Obviously, it's strongly tied to overall offensive success; it's no accident that Alabama's dominant attack has ranked among the top three in this metric four years in a row. But there's more to it than that; it's easy to point to things that would logically help pick up more third downs, such as a reliable short-yardage run game or, for those who ascribe value to it, an offense that does well in the clutch. Perhaps less obviously (until it's pointed out, anyway), one of the strongest predictors of third-down success is distance to go. Last year, for example, Army led the nation with the shortest average distance to a first down on their third-down plays—4.1 yards—and were 12th in third-down conversion rate despite not being in the top 50 in total offense. Makes sense, when you think about it.

All of this is to say that third-down conversion rate is quite useful for telling why a team can't put together long drives, but also that it's very difficult to identify how much of it is evidence of a real problem and how much is just small-sample-size noise. In the case of Texas A&M, the story of their struggles this season has its roots in a massive step back in third-down percentage on both offense (from 37% to 30%) and defense (33% to 41% allowed). Not surprisingly, the Aggies are dead last in the nation in plays run per game and 97th in plays faced per game. Letting your opponent take 19 more snaps every week is an easy way to put yourself in a hole, and it was a critical deficit when Texas A&M lost to App State, with just 38 plays on offense and 80 on defense. But will that be a persistent problem, or is the Mountaineers loss just a huge outlier? The answer is far from obvious.

Arkansas is, in many ways, just the opposite of the Aggies. They have soared in third-down conversion rate this season (38% to 53%), and their defense has stepped up in a major way as well (47% to 36%). We have seen what the Razorbacks can do with the advantage that has created as they picked up nine of 16 third downs against South Carolina and used the resulting 85 plays to outgain the Gamecocks despite losing the yards-per-play battle 6.1 to 5.3. On the other hand, we have also seen what it looks like when they can't pick up third downs, and it's not pretty: they went 5-for-13 against Missouri State and had to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit despite handily outgaining the Bears on a per-play basis, 8.9 yards to 5.5. Again, it's clear that third downs are a key piece of Arkansas' success this season—and, last week, their relative lack thereof—but what causes that success is rather hard to say.

One of the most intuitive reasons for offensive success on third downs is a strong balance between rushing and passing. It stands to reason that being able to pick up reliable short yardage both on the ground and through the air would make it harder for defenses to make third-down stands, and that tracks with what we have seen from Arkansas and Texas A&M. The Razorbacks have run at a very high rate due to being in the lead often—62.7% of plays, ninth in FBS—but their success rate is almost exactly the same on both rushes and passes (48.6% when rushing, 48.1% when passing, ranking 41st and 44th respectively).

Compare the Aggies: their run game, while nothing special so far (105 yards per game on 3.9 yards per carry), has been a decent threat to opposing defenses, but the passing game hasn't done much to pick up short yardage. Haynes King (9.0 yards per attempt on 51 passes) and Max Johnson (6.8 yards per attempt on 24 passes) have combined for a mere 33.3% success rate, 112th in FBS; they have combined to complete just 68.3% of passes less than 10 yards downfield. Even with the strong secondary and able run defense they'll bring to face KJ Jefferson and Raheim Sanders' dynamic offense, that has to change if they're to make things happen against Arkansas in a critical SEC West matchup.

Watch for:

  • Will vaunted rusher Devon Achane continue his week-over-week improvement and lead a dangerous run game against the Razorbacks?
  • Can Texas A&M's elite pass defense (14th in EPA per play, 10th in success rate) shut down the talented Jefferson (9.9 yards per attempt, leading the 23rd passing offense by EPA)?
  • Are the Aggies capable of getting pressure against Arkansas with a pass rush that has posted only four sacks and a 5.1% havoc rate (126th in FBS)?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas A&M by 3.5.

USC (-5.5) at Oregon State—Saturday 9:30 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)

Overall USC Oregon State
2022 F+ 22 48
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 9 87
2022 EPA/pass 14 28
2022 EPA/rush 7 108
When Oregon State has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 57 19
2022 EPA/pass 36 50
2022 EPA/rush 124 48

It's only natural that, in a season when everything beyond the top three looks likely to change—and when Oregon and Utah have already been saddled with a loss apiece—USC has emerged as a dark-horse candidate for the College Football Playoff. The Trojans are as exciting as any team in the nation, with an offense led by one of the few preseason Heisman candidates who has started strong. Caleb Williams has completed a remarkable 64 of 86 passes, racking up 874 yards, eight touchdowns, and no interceptions. Perhaps even more impressive is star running back Travis Dye, who's averaging 7.6 yards per carry (eighth among all rushers with 30 or more attempts), half of it after contact. Jordan Addison rounds out a fantastic leading trio, tied for second in FBS with five receiving touchdowns despite only 20 targets. All told, the offense is top-10 nationally in EPA per play and success rate, and it trails only Alabama in explosiveness, with 10-yard gains on 31.6% of plays.

The defense has been ... less exceptional, to put it mildly. USC has held opposing passers down for the most part, having picked off seven passes and allowed only two touchdowns through the air; they're among the top five in FBS in EPA allowed per pass. But they have also been subject to a high success rate (39.2%, 59th among defenses) and a glaring explosive-play rate (32.3%, 110th). Against quarterbacks at Rice, Stanford, and Fresno State (which lost Jake Haener, the only strong passer the Trojans have faced), that's bound to raise questions about their ability to make open-field tackles.

USC's dismal statistics against the run confirm all those suspicions, and then some. They're fifth-worst nationally with 0.44 EPA allowed per rush, the result of a run defense that's poor at the line (104th in line yards per carry allowed) and gets worse in the second level (123rd) and the open field (130th, last in the Power 5). The Trojans have given up 4.8 yards per carry to three teams that averaged 3.6 last season. There's no way around it: USC has been among the worst in the nation in every rate statistic against the run, and it has happened against three teams that were average to terrible last season on the ground.

In summary, if you were to draw up the ideal team to win a track meet against USC, it would be one with an explosive offense, excellent deep passing, and a strong run game at all levels. As it happens, that's precisely the kind of team they'll face this week in a visit to Oregon State. The Beavers are top-30 in explosiveness both on the ground and through the air, and quarterback Chance Nolan—while he's not used all that often in a run-first offense—has dazzled, with 9.9 yards per pass, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions. Add Deshaun Fenwick, who has taken over from lead 2021 rusher BJ Baylor without missing a beat, and you have got a team that's practically built to beat USC, at least on offense.

The Trojans' offense hasn't really been stopped yet, though, so even in a bad defensive matchup, they clearly have the ability to win a shootout. Oregon State has a solid pass defense led by Rejzohn Wright (41 yards and five catches allowed on 16 targets, two interceptions), so it's possible they can hold Williams in check, but the Trojans will pick up plenty of yardage on the ground. The Beavers are 107th in EPA allowed per carry, and while their open-field tackling isn't as uniformly poor as USC's, their linebackers haven't locked down the run nearly as much as they had hoped. Both Dye and Austin Jones—another transfer within the conference, who has stormed to 196 yards on 24 carries this season—should find easy gains against this defense, but will it match what Oregon State can do on offense? The answer should reveal just how far the Trojans can go this season.

Watch for:

  • Will USC use the depth of their rushing attack to overwhelm the Beavers' defense by lining up with both Dye and Austin in position to take carries?
  • How often can Williams beat the strong Oregon State secondary for big gains to keep the Trojans' offense rolling?
  • Can the Beavers continue to capitalize on scoring chances (where they have 5.4 points per opportunity, 13th in FBS) to keep the pressure on USC?

FEI Outright Pick: USC by 8.9.

FEI Picks: Week 4

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Preston's
Pick ATS
Clemson -7 at Wake Forest Clemson Clemson Clemson
at Kansas -7 Duke Duke Duke Duke
TCU -2 at SMU SMU SMU TCU
at Tennessee -10.5 Florida Tennessee Florida Florida
Texas A&M -2 Arkansas Texas A&M Texas A&M Arkansas
USC -5.5 at Oregon State USC USC Oregon State

FEI's picks ATS last week: 1-5.

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 6-12.

Preston's picks ATS last week: 3-3.

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 7-11.

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