Kansas Jayhawks, Other Underdogs Look to Stay Alive

Kansas Jayhawks QB Jalon Daniels
Kansas Jayhawks QB Jalon Daniels
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 6 - It's natural to have the idea that "it's still early" in the back of your mind while looking at the current college football landscape. With teams such as Kansas, Syracuse, and UCLA still undefeated and others such as Duke, Illinois, and Washington State sitting on one loss each, the fact that we're already nearly halfway through the regular season may have sneaked up on you. But it's true, and the fact that so many feel-good stories have survived this long is starting to be reflected outside of just win-loss records.

Those 5-0 Jayhawks not only showed up in the AP Poll for the first time since 2009, they also earned a visit from College GameDay for the first time in school history. The Orange and the Bruins also made the top 25 this week, joined by other fairly unfamiliar names in TCU and Mississippi State. And further down, new-to-FBS James Madison outranked titans of the sport such as Florida and Texas.

All this chaos is reflected somewhere else, too: conference standings. We're used to seeing teams such as Oklahoma and Oregon start as shoo-ins for their respective titles and remain prohibitive favorites throughout the season—but this year, things have been much messier. Much of the chaos is concentrated in the Big 12, where expected contender Oklahoma State shares the conference lead with Kansas, Kansas State, and TCU. Over in the ACC, Clemson and Syracuse are hurtling towards an undefeated showdown in Week 7 for the lead of the Atlantic, while the Coastal is in complete disarray and is led by rivals Duke and North Carolina. In the Group of 5, South Alabama leads a wild Sun Belt West and UNLV and San Jose State are duking it out for top honors in the Mountain West.

I know what you're thinking: surely this is all going to dissipate soon enough, right? Hot starts vanishing into cold finishes are nothing new, and it's easy to feel that the underlying stores of talent on the traditional contenders are sure to manifest soon. Ohio State will sort out its defense, while Alabama and Georgia will sort out their offenses—and none of those units look that bad even now. Oklahoma will turn one of their backup quarterbacks into a Heisman Trophy contender, Clemson will cruise after dispatching their two biggest ACC challengers, and someone will take a clear lead in the Pac-12. Right?

But we're deep enough into the season now that it's time to challenge those kneejerk reactions and wonder if some of these teams are legitimate contenders. Kansas looks like a serious threat to win the topsy-turvy Big 12, Illinois might just be the best team in the Big Ten West, and Tennessee could have the offensive firepower to beat Georgia's defense. Some of these races will resolve back to reality in the next few weeks—but some won't, and they'll bring plenty of drama for the rest of the 2022 season.

All times are listed as Eastern.

UNLV at San Jose State (-6)—Friday, 10:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

Overall   UNLV   San Jose State  
2022 F+   92   84  
When UNLV has the ball   Offense   Defense  
2022 F+   90   58  
2022 EPA/pass   61   87  
2022 EPA/rush   6   35  
When San Jose State has the ball   Defense   Offense  
2022 F+   91   104  
2022 EPA/pass   77   27  
2022 EPA/rush   24   118  

When last these two teams met, San Jose State was trying to eke out a bowl at 3-4 and UNLV was hoping to avoid their second straight winless season at 0-6. The Spartans' 27-20 win was ultimately decisive in avoiding a last-place finish in the West division of the Mountain West, as they finished 3-5 and UNLV went 2-6 in the conference. For the reigning league champions, it was quite a disappointment; for the Rebels, whose last bowl win was in 2000, it was more of the usual. Call this game a premier matchup a year ago and you'd be laughed out of the room.

You might still be by those who haven't been paying attention to the considerable upheaval out west, but all of a sudden this game looks like a battle to make the conference championship game rather than to avoid the basement. The Spartans and Rebels are combined 7-2 overall and 3-0 in the Mountain West, while their division rivals—Fresno State, San Diego State, Nevada, and Hawaiʻi—are 6-13 overall and 0-2 in conference play. There's a lot of season left, and the landscape of this league can clearly change quickly, but this looks like a showdown between the best teams in the West unless teams that lost to UConn and Arizona have something to say about it.

With a 2-0 conference record and a win over (admittedly much-diminished) reigning champion Utah State, the Rebels are perhaps the more proven team in this game, though they still have a lot left to prove. Marcus Arroyo went 2-16 in his first two seasons at UNLV, and while strong recruiting and countless close calls inspired some confidence in the program, it's clear this team needed to step forward in 2022. Building off the momentum from a solid finish last year (two wins in November and a one-score loss to then-ranked San Diego State), they're 4-1 this season and took California down to the wire in their only loss.

The Rebels' rise has been led by a superb rushing corps which ranks top-five nationally in EPA per play and success rate, despite losing first-team all-conference rusher Charles Williams from last year's team. Louisville transfer Aidan Robbins has been a force at running back, leading the Mountain West with 354 yards after contact, and backup Courtney Reese is a standout as well with his 7 yards per carry. Add a breakout season from Doug Brumfield, averaging 8.2 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and two interceptions, and all of a sudden UNLV has one of the strongest offenses in the conference, a year after failing to top 20 points in most of their games.

Where the Rebels have made it to the top of the conference thanks to a number of breakout seasons, San Jose State's success has largely come from a talented defense putting it all together and making stops reliably. The Spartans allowed 26.5 points per game last season: not bad, but not their full potential, and not enough to rescue an offense that was even worse than UNLV's. Lineman Viliami Fehoko and linebacker Kyle Harmon both made the all-conference first team, and other defenders such as Cade Hall, Nehemiah Shelton, and Bobby Brown II also stood out.

There was enough talent under the surface for a truly magnificent defense last year, and with most of those players returning in 2022, that's what San Jose State has enjoyed this season. The Spartans are holding their opponents to just 15.8 points per game, and they held Auburn to just 24 in their own one-score loss to a Power 5 opponent. Fehoko and Harmon have been core elements of the unit, but Bryun Parham has broken out as the most sure-handed tackler on the team with just one missed tackle on 17 attempts. San Jose State has been solid across the board, and they have shut down offenses on one of every three red zone trips, the 12th-best rate of any defense in FBS. Sustaining that success against a Rebels offense that thrives by staying on schedule will be key for the Spartans to pull off a win in an unexpected marquee matchup out west.

Watch for:

  • Can UNLV's solid run defense (49th in EPA per play) test the depth of San Jose State's rushing attack (only one player, Kairee Robinson, over 100 yards)?
  • Will the Spartans' huge field position edge—12th-best on offense, 10th-best on defense—provide an advantage to even the offensive battle?
  • In a matchup of two of the conference's three quarterbacks with at least 20 deep passes, will Brumfield or Chevan Cordeiro make a bigger impact through the air?

FEI Outright Pick: San Jose State by 2.0.

Tennessee (-2.5) at LSU—12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall   Tennessee   LSU  
2022 F+   9   13  
When Tennessee has the ball   Offense   Defense  
2022 F+   4   11  
2022 EPA/pass   17   52  
2022 EPA/rush   22   36  
When LSU has the ball   Defense   Offense  
2022 F+   45   22  
2022 EPA/pass   97   29  
2022 EPA/rush   19   9  

Tennessee might be the most fun team to watch this season. The Volunteers' offense is a well-oiled machine, captained by the spectacular play of dual-threat quarterback Hendon Hooker. It's an unpredictable unit, capable of hammering down the field (10th in passing success rate, 12th in rushing success rate) or breaking things open using Hooker's deep ball (four touchdowns on 20-yard passes, second in the SEC). Adding to the excitement, Tennessee also kindly makes every opposing quarterback look just about as good as Hooker—they're 85th in EPA allowed per pass and 86th in passing explosiveness allowed, and last time out they gave up some 515 total yards to Florida's Anthony Richardson.

Tennessee's formula for success may not be particularly sustainable—you don't win many games when you surrender a half-thousand yards of offense to a quarterback with no previous passing touchdowns—but it's certainly entertaining to watch. That 38-33 win over the Gators featured a 99-yard drive, both teams averaging well over 80% of available yards gained, five turnovers, and an onside kick that nearly sparked a furious comeback. Now the Volunteers head to Death Valley to face LSU, fresh off a thrilling win of their own over Auburn. Do the Tigers have the pieces to take Tennessee down to the wire, or even pull off an upset win at home?

Well, it depends what you look at. Tennessee's defense is strongest against the run—top-10 in success rate and explosiveness allowed on the ground—which hasn't helped them much due to most of their opponents playing from behind. The Volunteers have faced a 57.4% passing play rate, fourth highest in FBS, and 41.4% of those passes have been successful plays (66th), with 29.2% turning into explosive plays (86th). Richardson didn't seem like the right quarterback to take advantage of that defense, but he passed for more yards on the Volunteers than in his first three games combined. If that's any indication, the weakness of LSU's own passing game (83rd in EPA per play) may not matter much when it comes to picking on the Tennessee defense.

On the other hand, Florida didn't enjoy much success on the ground against the Volunteers' strong rushing attack. That wasn't much trouble to handle due to their offensive balance, but LSU—third in rushing EPA, 83rd in passing EPA—might have more difficulty relying on Jayden Daniels or Garrett Nussmeier. Daniels, the Tigers' starting quarterback, has been solid but inefficient this season: he passed for over 200 yards in their first three FBS games and has yet to throw an interception, but he's averaging only 7 yards per attempt. Against Auburn, however, Daniels was dreadful (8-for-20, 80 yards), and after a minor injury, Nussmeier was no better in relief (2-for-6, 5 yards). A three-turnover advantage and a solid rushing attack were enough for LSU to escape with a win despite being outgained 438 yards to 270, but they need their passing game to step up and take advantage of Tennessee's susceptible secondary.

LSU's receiving depth is something of a liability—of their top seven pass-catchers, only two are averaging more than 10 yards per reception—but lead receiving duo Malik Nabers (290 yards on 22 catches) and Brian Thomas Jr. (186 yards on 11 catches) have been an excellent one-two punch. Volunteers corner Kamal Hadden has emerged as a capable defender, allowing just 6.3 yards per target with two interceptions, but finding a second option to limit the Tigers' other top receiver is another matter. Top Tennessee cornerback Warren Burrell has been reasonably good, allowing 103 yards on 20 targets, but he's out for the rest of the season, and limiting Nabers in the slot has been a tall task for any defense this season. And, of course, all of this is without mentioning Kayshon Boutte, who's only averaging 8.8 yards per catch but remains one of the most athletic players in the nation. If LSU can unlock his potential, they'll have more than enough pieces to go toe-to-toe with Tennessee through the air.

Watch for:

  • Can a Volunteers offense that stays on schedule (fourth in standard-down success rate) beat an LSU defense that has kept opponents behind the sticks (seventh in standard-down success rate)?
  • Will the Tigers find a way to create turnovers against Tennessee, which ranks sixth in total havoc allowed?
  • How well will LSU stop the run behind a strong defense at the line (15th in yards per carry) and the second level (10th)?

FEI Outright Pick: LSU by 1.5.

TCU (-6.5) at Kansas—12 p.m. (FS1)

Overall   TCU   Kansas  
2022 F+   17   60  
When TCU has the ball   Offense   Defense  
2022 F+   11   101  
2022 EPA/pass   23   111  
2022 EPA/rush   1   106  
When Kansas has the ball   Defense   Offense  
2022 F+   44   26  
2022 EPA/pass   90   2  
2022 EPA/rush   70   51  

The dubious distinction of being a Power 5 school that has never hosted College GameDay is shared by just eight teams. The show has never travelled to California in the Pac-12; to Syracuse, Duke, or Virginia in the ACC; or to Illinois, Maryland, and Rutgers in the Big Ten. While GameDay is just one show among many, it's emblematic of the struggles many of these programs share—even when they find sparks of success, it's hard to win national attention in the face of their established history as a bottom-feeder. Syracuse didn't get to host in 2018, despite going 10-3 and finishing in the top 15; Rutgers was denied the privilege in 2006, when they went 11-2 and peaked in the top 10. Sustaining success has always been difficult for these teams, and missing an opportunity to draw more attention to their best seasons only makes things more difficult.

You may notice one team missing from that group of eight, and that's because this Saturday, the Kansas Jayhawks will join the long list of teams to host College GameDay. They had a decent case as the best game of Week 4 (when they met Duke in a surprise battle of 3-0 teams), but despite that bid falling short, they have carried a perfect record through two more games and now welcome another unbeaten team to Lawrence in TCU. Sure, their early success has been aided by the schedule—taking advantage of a West Virginia team that might be terrible and a Houston team that was lucky not to start 0-3. There's a reasonable argument to be made that all they have proven is that they're better than two of the Big 12's worst teams.

But the notion that Kansas is going to fade back into mediocrity has become less and less believable as the season has gone on. Five wins is their most in a season since 2009, and they have returned to the rankings for the first time since that season; one more win this year would snap a postseason drought that dates to 2008, when they played in a bowl that has been renamed six times since then. Visions of a Big 12 title hunt and a New Year's Six bid may be fanciful, but the Jayhawks' success thus far is already real. It's something worth celebrating on its own merit, and the college football world is finally starting to pay attention.

This week should, however, offer us more clarity on whether Kansas is a team to be feared in the Big 12 scramble, or one to watch as they try to put together the last pieces of a bowl bid. The Jayhawks' innovative offense has been impressive for the most part, using heavy motion and versatile play calling reminiscent of a triple option while still featuring the quarterback prominently. This group sits 14th in EPA per play and averaged 48.5 points per game in the first four weeks of the season—but it ran into a brick wall against Iowa State, scoring just 14 points and requiring a brilliant defensive effort to avoid a loss. The Cyclones held that dynamic offense in check with surehanded defensive play (they made 34 of 46 attempted tackles) and playing tight coverage that gave defenders freedom to adjust to the Jayhawks' option-inspired offense.

While Iowa State wasn't able to take advantage of their defense's excellent effort, they did provide a blueprint for keeping Kansas from scoring at will. If you can keep Jalon Daniels (9.2 yards per pass, 7.3 yards per carry) from breaking off big plays, the Jayhawks will have to put pressure on their run game to move the sticks—and while they're fourth in passing success rate, they're just 87th in rushing success rate. The more predictable Daniels is a passer, the more Kansas has to rely on him and their other rushers to pick up yardage—which, despite their option tendencies, isn't really their preferred plan of attack until they can put the opposing defense at a disadvantage.

TCU isn't as good as Iowa State when it comes to locking down big passing plays—ranking 63rd in explosiveness allowed on passes—but they are good at preventing opposing quarterbacks from picking up easy yardage. TCU has allowed a mere 54.9% completion rate, a mark which handily leads the Big 12 over the Cyclones themselves, and their 34.8% passing success rate allowed is 19th in FBS. If they can keep Daniels from creating a reliable threat through the air, their exceptional offense (second in EPA per carry, fifth in EPA per pass) should be enough to pull out a victory on the road and rain on the Jayhawks' parade.

Watch for:

  • Can Kansas (fourth in rushing explosiveness allowed) lock down Kendre Miller and a dynamic TCU run game (fourth in rushing explosiveness created)?
  • Will the Horned Frogs' reliance on big offensive plays (second in overall explosiveness, but 25th in success rate) continue to pay off?
  • How well can star corner Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson—allowing just 5.8 yards per target—handle Lawrence Arnold (13.9 yards per reception), the Jayhawks' deep threat?

FEI Outright Pick: TCU by 12.9.

Oklahoma vs. Texas (-9) in Dallas—12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall   Oklahoma   Texas  
2022 F+   10   5  
When Oklahoma has the ball   Offense   Defense  
2022 F+   5   24  
2022 EPA/pass   15   88  
2022 EPA/rush   5   62  
When Texas has the ball   Defense   Offense  
2022 F+   37   8  
2022 EPA/pass   48   65  
2022 EPA/rush   81   64  

The Red River Shootout may be the only matchup of unranked Big 12 teams on this week's schedule, but it's still a game worth watching. For one thing, metrics see both teams as better than their 3-2 records—Texas in particular, which makes sense given that the Longhorns nearly beat Alabama and lacked starting quarterback Quinn Ewers in their loss to Texas Tech. Oklahoma's definitive losses to Kansas State and TCU are less explicable, but the Sooners have had their own injury woes over the last two weeks (some of which will carry into this game). It's also worth recalling the history of this rivalry: whether it's a ranked showdown, a heavy mismatch on paper, or a squabble between struggling teams, it almost always delivers a worthwhile game, especially lately. Eight of the last nine meetings between Oklahoma and Texas have been decided by a single score, and the last two have consisted of a four-overtime thriller and a remarkable comeback led by then-backup Caleb Williams.

We're all but guaranteed a dramatic, well-played game in Dallas, which is reason enough to tune in. But there's more at stake than just bragging rights, especially for a Texas team with hopes of reminding the ascendant Big 12 underdogs that it's still a force to be reckoned with. Ewers is expected to return in this game, and with only one loss in conference play, the Longhorns still have a reasonable chance of jumping into the title hunt. The toughest stretch of the schedule—four ranked games in five weeks, three of them on the road—still lies ahead, but getting past a vulnerable Oklahoma this week is a critical first step. If Texas is to be a legitimate contender in the scrum for the Big 12 title, they need to show it this week.

Even without Ewers, the Longhorns have been strong through the air. Hudson Card wasn't as good against Alabama, but he has improved in his three games as the starter, and he passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns on 27 passes last time out. He may not have outshined the dazzling performance Ewers put up in his two starts, but he's a great second option—and more importantly, his recent showings inspire plenty of confidence in the receiving corps. Top target Xavier Worthy has picked up right where he left off last year, once again averaging 15.8 yards per catch, but Jordan Whittington returning from injury in great form wasn't a given. Even more impressive has been the emergence of the non-receiver options: tight end Ja'tavion Sanders has 212 yards in his first season on the offense, and vaunted running back Bijan Robinson has 188 yards on just 10 catches.

All in all, the Longhorns' passing game ranks 23rd nationally in EPA per play and third in success rate, and now they're returning a quarterback whom the staff considered (and who looked, in limited time) like the better of their two starting options. The rushing attack has been somewhat underwhelming—Robinson (515 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry) is as good as advertised, but Roschon Johnson is the only player with even a tenth as many yards on the ground, and Texas is outside the top 30 in rushing EPA, success rate, and explosiveness. The offense is perhaps a bit one-dimensional, which might be a problem in dealing with a Sooners defense that has been strongest against the pass.

Oklahoma was beaten pretty soundly last week by Max Duggan, who completed 23 of 33 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns, but he has looked like a Heisman candidate all season, and the Sooners had been excellent at defending quarterbacks before that game. Their previous four opponents (UTEP, Kent State, Nebraska, and Kansas State) averaged under 6 yards per attempt, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. If Oklahoma's going to manage a defensive rebound, a decent secondary is a good place to start, though safety Billy Bowman (77 yards allowed on 14 targets) likely being out will hurt. The offense can probably keep up with Texas if the defense makes a stand—doing so without Dillon Gabriel (11 touchdowns, no interceptions) would be tougher, though there's a ton of talent to lean on in the run game—but the Sooners need to keep Texas' passing attack in check to extend their winning streak in this rivalry.

Watch for:

  • Can the Sooners run their offense through Eric Gray (460 yards, 7.0 yards per carry) and Jovantae Barnes (223 yards, 5.1 yards per carry)?
  • Will receiver Marvin Mims have as big an impact against Texas as he did last year (136 yards, his career high against a Power 5 opponent)?
  • How well will the Longhorns' run defense (30th in EPA, 15th in success rate, 20th in explosiveness) handle Oklahoma's deep, talented rushing attack?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 4.5.

Utah (-3.5) at UCLA—3:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall   Utah   UCLA  
2022 F+   6   24  
When Utah has the ball   Offense   Defense  
2022 F+   13   57  
2022 EPA/pass   28   28  
2022 EPA/rush   38   20  
When UCLA has the ball   Defense   Offense  
2022 F+   20   10  
2022 EPA/pass   15   16  
2022 EPA/rush   80   94  

The Pac-12 is rather muddled right now, but Utah and UCLA's next two games should clear things up significantly. First, the Utes will visit the Bruins this week, a matchup that will offer some initial clarity on the conference standings. Then, Utah will take on USC next week in the biggest test yet for the 5-0 Trojans. A week after that, UCLA will travel to Oregon following a bye, meeting a Ducks squad that has rebounded well after a crushing defeat at the hands of Georgia. At the end of it all, at least two of the four teams without a loss in conference play will be blemished, and the odds are that only one or two legitimate CFP contenders will remain.

These teams have both played five games, but we have only recently started to get a feel for how good they actually are. The Utes lost their opener at Florida by a narrow margin, but they have been every beat the playoff-caliber team that was expected since, outscoring opponents 184-43 in their four-game winning streak. The toughest team they faced in that stretch was only Oregon State (whom they dismantled last week in a decisive 42-16 win), but their dominant consistency has nevertheless been impressive. UCLA's emergence has come as more of a surprise, as they had only received six total votes in the AP Poll before beating Washington last week and jumping to No. 18. However, the Bruins are quietly 13-4 since the start of 2021 and have earned their spot as a contender in the conference chase, though they'll have to perform well in their next two games to keep that status.

The Bruins' offense hasn't been particularly explosive, which has kept them from being as dominant as they could be. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who has been exceptional overall (8.7 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns, one interception), has only thrown deep seven times all season, dead last among Pac-12 staters. The run game doesn't have a lot of big-play punch, either: Zach Charbonnet's 3.80 yards after contact per carry are excellent, but backup Keegan Jones is averaging just 2.29, and the rushing corps' 34.3% explosive-play rate (32nd in FBS) lags behind their top-five success rate. The Bruins are hardly incapable of breaking a game open this way, and they do still rank 18th in overall explosiveness, but it's a relative weakness for an offense that otherwise excels in moving the ball.

Utah's defense, though, has its own problems with big plays. The secondary, a strong group led by the superb Clark Phillips III (four interceptions, tied for the FBS lead), is top-15 in EPA per pass and success rate, but it's giving up a 26.1% explosive play rate, 50th nationally. Safeties Cole Bishop and RJ Hubert (156 yards on 16 targets, but three interceptions) have been boom-or-bust, and the Utes have dismal coverage from linebackers Mohamoud Diabate and Lander Barton (7.1 yards after catch allowed per reception). It's a far cry from the elite pass defense Utah had up the middle last year with Devin Lloyd, Nephi Sewell, and Vonte Davis, and it has given opposing offenses a clear angle of attack against an otherwise excellent defense. Florida's Anthony Richardson picked up 116 of his 165 yards against Utah on plays between the numbers, and the Gators also took advantage of the Utes' run defense up front—Bishop, Hubert, and linebacker Karene Reid all missed multiple tackles on rushing plays.

The middle of the defense hasn't been that big of a problem for Utah since, but it's still the biggest weakness on a team that has otherwise lived up to its playoff hype at most positions. Last week, Oregon State's passers picked up 117 yards on 12 passes up the middle, though the run defense has taken a step forward; the Utes' linebackers and safeties only missed three total tackles on runs in that game. Nevertheless, the secondary play beyond the corners remains a liability, and one that Thompson-Robinson—who threw 19 passes between the numbers last week and picked up some 253 yards on them—is capable of exploiting. If Utah can't shut down those explosive plays, their remaining chances at a playoff bid may not make it past this pivotal showdown.

Watch for:

  • How well will UCLA (15th in explosive play rate allowed) limit adept passer Cameron Rising and a deep Utah rushing attack?
  • Will the Utes be able to bring pressure against an excellent Bruins line that ranks fifth in front-seven havoc rate allowed?
  • Can star running back Charbonnet (417 yards, 6.4 yards per carry) take advantage of Utah's mediocre run defense (65th or worse in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness)?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 11.0.

Florida State at NC State (-3)—8 p.m. (ACCN)

Overall   Florida State   NC State  
2022 F+   36   32  
When Florida State has the ball   Offense   Defense  
2022 F+   32   13  
2022 EPA/pass   8   36  
2022 EPA/rush   61   27  
When NC State has the ball   Defense   Offense  
2022 F+   39   68  
2022 EPA/pass   60   60  
2022 EPA/rush   98   75  

Last week was, as expected, a clarifying one in the previously crowded ACC Atlantic. Clemson dispatched NC State, securing a sweep of the division's two top-15 teams and putting themselves firmly in the driver's seat to win the conference. Meanwhile, the strongest remaining challenger—Florida State, which had started 4-0 and was one of the two remaining unbeaten ACC teams beyond Clemson—fell to Wake Forest at home. The Coastal remains up for grabs, but it's now clear that the Tigers are already heavy favorites to win the Atlantic, thanks to their massive advantage in the early standings. Catching them is still possible, but it'll likely take Florida State winning out, Syracuse finding a way to beat Clemson and go 11-1, or NC State or Wake Forest winning out with Clemson losing twice. Needless to say, none of those scenarios are particularly likely to come to fruition.

There's plenty to play for aside from the division title, though—and at least for the Seminoles, there is still a clear path to it if they can beat their two toughest foes this week and next week, when Clemson comes to Tallahassee. Setting that aside, the runner-up in the Atlantic has a good chance to win 10 or more games, and if things break their way, a New Year's Six bowl may still be on the table for either of these teams (or for the Demon Deacons or the Orange). And for one of the teams involved in this matchup, just getting to bowl eligibility is a milestone to track closely. Florida State has missed the postseason in three of the last four years after making it 36 straight times, and they haven't won a bowl since 2017.

So while the division chase is a long shot for anybody not named Clemson, the way the rest of the top five resolves will still be fascinating to watch. And if the Tigers are to face a challenge in the Atlantic, we'll know after this week whether Florida State is in position to provide it. For the Seminoles to beat NC State and pose a pivotal threat in the division hunt, the rushing attack will need to improve from last week. Quarterback Jordan Travis has led the way for the offense, averaging 9.7 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and an interception, and he was in fine form against Wake Forest (23-for-35, 281 yards, three touchdowns). But with the exception of lead running back Treshaun Ward, who gained 87 yards on 13 carries, Florida State mustered very little on the ground—their other rushers combined for just 25 yards and 1.7 yards per carry.

The Seminoles' lack of a rushing attack was all the more glaring because of the mismatch Wake Forest created with their own run game. Thanks in part to a Florida State fumble early in the second quarter, the Deacons built a quick 21-7 lead and then cruised the rest of the way thanks to Justice Ellison and Christian Turner gaining consistent yardage. During Wake Forest's last drive, Turner solidified a one-score advantage by carrying the ball some 12 times on a drive that last over six and a half minutes and ended in a field goal that effectively clinched the win. Florida State's run defense, susceptible to short gains due to a tenuous defensive line (112th in line yards per carry), was part of the reason for that stifling possession.

NC State may not seem like a team that's built to take the Seminoles' run defense apart so effectively, but Wake Forest was even less suited to that role—they're top-30 in passing EPA, success rate, and explosiveness, but bottom-30 in each corresponding stat for rushing. The Wolfpack are more balanced offensively, though the lynchpin of the offense is still quarterback Devin Leary (6.6 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns, three interceptions). While NC State's passing game hasn't been as efficient as last year on a per-play basis, Leary has been reliable enough for the offense to move steadily, and he has taken key weight off of the running backs, a group without much depth behind starter Demie Sumo (262 yards, 6.0 yards per carry). This offense is good enough to get the Wolfpack ahead if their superb defense—ninth in success rate allowed—can get some stops against Florida State, but they'll need to put much more pressure on their run game to maintain that lead and establish themselves as the next-best team in the chaos of the ACC Atlantic.

Watch for:

  • Can NC State's elite defensive front (sixth in line yards allowed per carry, third in stuff rate) limit Ward and Trey Benson (278 yards, 6.8 yards per carry)?
  • Will the Seminoles (17th in success rate on standard downs) be able to stay on schedule against NC State (fifth in success rate allowed on standard downs)?
  • Can Florida State's defense stand firm at the end of drives after allowing 5.10 points per scoring opportunity in their first five games (128th in FBS)?

FEI Outright Pick: NC State by 0.5.

FEI Picks: Week 6

Favorite   Spread   Underdog   FEI Pick   FEI
Pick ATS
  Preston's
Pick ATS
 
at San Jose State   -6   UNLV   San Jose State   UNLV   UNLV  
Tennessee   -2.5   at LSU   LSU   LSU   Tennessee  
TCU   -6.5   at Kansas   TCU   TCU   TCU  
Texas   -9   Oklahoma   Texas   Oklahoma   Oklahoma  
Utah   -3.5   at UCLA   Utah   Utah   UCLA  
at NC State   -3   Florida State   NC State   Florida State   NC State  

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

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 8-19-1.

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

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 13-16-1.

Comments

1 comment, Last at 07 Oct 2022, 7:17pm

#1 by sharky19 // Oct 07, 2022 - 7:17pm

Never thought I'd live to see the day UNLV football showed up on this article. Go Rebs!

Points: 0

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