Ohio State, Georgia, Tennessee Face Dangerous Foes

Georgia Bulldogs DE Nolan Smith
Georgia Bulldogs DE Nolan Smith
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 9 - One of the most common sticking points between humans and computers—the likes of SP+ and FEI—is overall record projections. Regardless of how they evaluate teams, metrics tend to be very conservative in this regard; it's fairly rare for a team to be projected as a 10-game winner, and incredibly rare for playoff contention be a virtual lock. Only one team in FEI's preseason projections had greater than 90% odds to reach double-digit wins in the regular season. Either Ohio State or Alabama, two teams that almost any human observers would consider obvious 10-win teams, finished worse than that in nearly a third of projections.

There are a number of reasons for this—the inherent uncertainty present in the preseason is perhaps the biggest—but part of the reason is a simple and unavoidable fact of probability: doing something a number of times, even if it's relatively easy, is hard. Consider a season of games which all have a 90% win probability, equivalent to a spread of over two touchdowns. Setting aside the outlier opponents such Penn State and Michigan, this is about what Ohio State's schedule looks like this season, for example. Winning any one of these games is a cakewalk ... but the odds of going undefeated, even against such a cushy schedule, are under 30%! Replace two of those games with two tougher ones with a 70% win probability and the chances at an unbeaten season fall to 17%.

These conclusions clash with our human expectations, but we see the results all the time. Half of the preseason top 10—Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Utah, Oklahoma, and Baylor—have already lost multiple games, and all have lost games in which they have seemed like an obvious favorite. The Fighting Irish's preseason bowl odds of only 99.8% may have looked low back then, but now their postseason odds are on the brink of disaster if they can't take care of Navy and Boston College. Oklahoma's 43.4% odds of winning 10 games looked dubious a couple of months ago, but that mark became unreachable as early as Week 6. Outlier results, as unlikely as they may seem in any one game, are a constant factor in college football.

There are no games between top-10 teams this week. College GameDay is visiting FCS Jackson State, and Big Noon Kickoff is attending a game with a spread of over two touchdowns. In theory, not much should shift in the playoff landscape this week—but this week, as every week, will see some 90% favorites lose and some 10% underdogs win. In theory, the likes of Ohio State, Georgia, and Tennessee should dispatch weaker opponents without much fuss, but the odds suggest that surprises will crop up, dark horses will pull off big wins, and even one of college football's most dominant teams may find itself on the brink of a stunning defeat.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Ohio State Buckeyes (-14.5) at Penn State Nittany Lions—12 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Ohio State Penn State
2022 F+ 1 10
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 1 8
2022 EPA/pass 1 14
2022 EPA/rush 2 50
When Penn State has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 5 31
2022 EPA/pass 23 65
2022 EPA/rush 6 102

Not so long ago, Ohio State was the kind of school that—for all their 10-win seasons, Heisman Trophy contenders, and Big Ten titles—almost any team in the Big Ten felt like they could beat. The Buckeyes didn't have many weaknesses, but the ones they did have were capable of turning into disasters. In 2017, when they suffered a stunning blowout loss to Iowa that dropped them to 7-2, J.T. Barrett's lurking interception woes were the culprit: he tossed four against the Hawkeyes after just two in the first eight games (and he finished the season with two more multi-pick games down the stretch). The following season, a staggering 49-20 loss to Purdue hinged on the Boilermakers' ability to throttle Ohio State's run game, which had wavered in recent weeks (3.1 yards per carry in its last three outings) and posted just 76 yards and no touchdowns in the decisive defeat.

When Ryan Day took the reins from Urban Meyer in 2019, it wasn't apparent whether fatal flaws like these would remain a problem. Ohio State only suffered two losses in Day's first two seasons, and both came against elite competition in the playoff rather than Big Ten also-rans on the road. Overcoming the likes of Clemson and Alabama, not Iowa and Purdue, seemed to be the biggest concern. But in 2021, the Buckeyes experienced a harsh return to their old struggles with putting together a complete team. Metrics saw them as one of the best teams in the nation that year, but they were undone by one critical weakness.

In Week 2 of that season, Ohio State's run defense went up against one of the few teams that was able to compete with them physically—Oregon—and was burned for 269 yards, 7.1 yards per carry, and three touchdowns. Then they got two-and-a-half months to think about it before facing their next physical matchup—Michigan—and were beaten even worse for 297 yards, 7.2 yards per carry, and six touchdowns (their most allowed in a game this century). In 2022, however, Ohio State seems to have taken a legitimate step forward when it comes to both their run defense (which is top-five in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness) and to avoiding susceptibility in general.

The season opener against Notre Dame—which we now know is a much worse team than the No. 5 ranking they held at the time—is the kind of game the Buckeyes of 2017, 2018, or 2021 might have lost. The Fighting Irish identified a blueprint to shut down Ohio State's offense: limit C.J. Stroud with an imposing pass defense led by a versatile, talented linebacker corps. That strategy worked to perfection, as they held the quarterback to just 6.6 yards per attempt and two touchdowns. But Ohio State took that blow and countered by turning to their other strengths, outrushing the Irish 172 yards to 76 on just five more carries. The ability to fall back on any element of this well-balanced team—which is top-six in passing offense, passing defense, rushing offense, and rushing defense by EPA—is the reason Ohio State has started an utterly dominant 7-0.

So: is there a game plan for a lesser team to beat the Buckeyes, as there so often has been in the past? This is easily the most complete attack they have put together under Day, and odds are a CFP-caliber team will be a requirement to take them down. Then again, Notre Dame had the Buckeyes within a score for most of that game, so there may be an opportunity for an underdog—such as Penn State, which takes on Ohio State at home this week—to strike.

If the Buckeyes' offense (first in EPA, second in success rate, ninth in explosiveness) has an Achilles heel, it's the potential for interceptions. Much like in 2017, Ohio State's quarterback has gotten away with some dangerous throws: Stroud is one of five Big Ten passers with at least 10 turnover-worthy plays, per PFF, and the other four have an average of 7.8 interceptions thrown, nearly double his four. Overall, the Buckeyes are 34th with a 4.7% havoc rate allowed in the secondary, a relative concern when compared against Penn State's elite defensive backs. The Nittany Lions are fourth in defensive back havoc rate, with star safety Ji'Ayir Brown (three interceptions, 9.0 yards per reception allowed) leading the way. If they can create turnovers, they may just have a chance to put Ohio State to their first significant test in months.

Watch for:

  • Can the Nittany Lions' defensive line (27th in line yards per carry allowed) hold back Ohio State's rushing attack up front (second in line yards per carry)?
  • Is Sean Clifford (sixth-highest average depth of target in the Big Ten) capable of punishing the Buckeyes' suspect secondary (46th in passing explosiveness allowed, 65th in havoc rate)?
  • Will Ohio State's defense, 73rd in points allowed per scoring opportunity, be able to hold Penn State back at critical points?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 19.0.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Syracuse Orange (-2.5)—12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Notre Dame Syracuse
2022 F+ 41 32
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 58 31
2022 EPA/pass 25 19
2022 EPA/rush 112 110
When Syracuse has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 23 47
2022 EPA/pass 62 31
2022 EPA/rush 83 37

Offense doesn't tend to get better on passing downs. Being predictable is, after all, one of the worst problems a team can have—and passing downs are defined by the predictability of (usually) needing to pass. The average success rate on such situations this season is just 31.6%, compared to 48.8% on standard downs. And for the few offenses that perform well when behind schedule, most do so simply because they're great offenses in general: four of the top five in passing-downs success rate (Georgia, UCLA, Ohio State, and Oregon) are also in the top 10 of standard-downs success rate.

The exception, and the national leader in success rate on passing downs at 45.7%, is Syracuse. The Orange aren't bad as a whole (23rd in success rate on standard downs, 11th in success rate overall), but the way they have escaped from defenses that put them on the ropes has been Houdini-like. The difference is even more stark when it comes to EPA: Syracuse is second on passing downs with 0.80 per play, trailing only Ohio State, but 65th on standard downs with just 0.15. Throughout their magical 6-0 start, extending drives and wearing down defenses this way was critical.

Against Clemson—not an exceptional passing-downs defense, ranking 32nd in success rate and 57th in EPA on such plays—that advantage evaporated. The Orange were successful on just four of their 13 passing downs (30.8%) in a scoreless second half, including three times in a row (one negated by a penalty against them) on their first drive of the third quarter, which started and ended at their own 4-yard line. Garrett Shrader, in particular, nosedived after a strong start (9-for-11, 80 yards, one touchdown), going 9-for-15 for 87 yards, an interception, and four sacks in the second half (5-for-9 for 23 yards before the game-ending desperation drive).

The ACC Atlantic is no longer up for grabs—Syracuse would need to win out and see Clemson lose out in conference play to win it—but there's still a lot of season left to go. To the Orange's credit, they picked up an impressive win over NC State a week before heading to Death Valley, and they're clearly capable of beating anybody down the stretch (though winning at Wake Forest will be tough). An 11-1 season, perhaps capped with a win in the New Year's Six, is entirely achievable if they can rebound from the devastating loss to Clemson. That task starts with a return home to face this week's opponent: a reeling Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish have been a difficult team to pin down this season. They have faced two then-ranked teams (Ohio State and BYU) and another, North Carolina, which has since risen into the rankings, but their 4-3 record hasn't come through losses to those teams. Notre Dame took down both the Cougars and the Tar Heels away from home, and while they lost to the Buckeyes, they put up far more of a fight than any other team. The other two losses were dealt, instead, by Marshall (otherwise 3-3) and Stanford (otherwise 2-4). The main culprit for these bewildering defeats has been turnover margin: the Irish threw three interceptions against the Thundering Herd and lost two fumbles against the Cardinal while failing to produce a takeaway in either game.

That lack of defensive production, in particular, is a point of concern; Notre Dame has failed to force a turnover in four games this year, already tied for their most in a season since at least 2000. The Irish's pass rush has been unspectacular (64th in havoc rate, five forced fumbles), but the secondary is the most glaring reason for their turnover troubles, with just a single interception thus far and the second-worst defensive back havoc rate in the nation. While otherwise a solid unit (ninth in passing success rate allowed), its precipitous drop from 17th in interceptions per game last year to dead last this year has severely limited its effectiveness. With a get-right game vital for Shrader, this might be an opportunity to break open the Notre Dame pass defense—or a chance for that unit to shut him down and turn the Irish's season around.

Watch for:

  • Which return group, both of which have put their offense top-10 in starting field position, will have a bigger impact in this game?
  • Can Syracuse (fifth-fewest offensive and defensive drives per game) slow down the pace and limit Notre Dame's opportunities?
  • Will Drew Pyne find enough success against a fantastic Orange secondary (top-10 in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness) to keep the Irish's offense running?

FEI Outright Pick: Syracuse by 0.8.

Oklahoma State Cowboys at Kansas State Wildcats (-1.5)—3:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Oklahoma State Kansas State
2022 F+ 14 18
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 19 10
2022 EPA/pass 46 8
2022 EPA/rush 66 73
When Kansas State has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 29 37
2022 EPA/pass 95 92
2022 EPA/rush 53 48

At long last, the hierarchy of the Big 12 this season has begun to settle. The likes of Iowa State, West Virginia, and Kansas are entrenched at the bottom of the conference; Baylor and Texas Tech share the middle tier with enigmatic programs at Texas and Oklahoma. At the top, TCU is 4-0 and has dealt each of their top rivals their lone conference loss, putting them in excellent position to cruise to the Big 12 championship game even if they slip up along the way. That leaves, in all likelihood, one open spot in the title game, and the two teams with the best shot at it square off this week in Manhattan.

Neither Oklahoma State nor Kansas State quite expected to get this far, but they're now in a position to control their own destiny for the Big 12 championship, and in the Cowboys' case, arguably for the College Football Playoff as well. Both teams have found strange paths to success in the face of rosters that have plenty of weak points, ones that could easily have held them back in a conference where any team can pull an upset on any given Saturday. But for all their unlikely, dramatic, and unexpected wins, their chances at turning this charmed season into a historically momentous one will likely come down to this meeting.

Oklahoma State has made it to this point with offense—the driving force behind their strong 2010s, but a unit that has struggled recently and been picked up by defensive coordinator Jim Knowles' excellent defenses. But where the offense has come from, exactly, is a bit hard to pin down. Veteran quarterback Spencer Sanders got off to a brilliant start in non-conference play, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns and one interception, but he has averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and three interceptions against Big 12 foes, albeit while struggling with a shoulder injury. The Cowboys' offense is inconsistent at best through the air, and it's simply ineffective on the ground, where lead rusher Dominic Richardson has only 3.7 yards per carry and the team as a whole is bottom-25 in yards per carry at the line, at the second level, and in the open field.

What has clearly driven Oklahoma State's attack, averaging the third-most points per game in FBS, is taking advantage of scoring chances. The Cowboys average 4.98 points per scoring opportunity (which encompasses all drives past the opponent's 40-yard line), the sixth-highest mark in the nation. There are varying reasons underlying that figure, but perhaps the most important is the way Sanders has managed the offense, leading it to a 46.3% success rate on passes (37th overall) and contributing significantly to a 35.0% success rate on passing downs (42nd). The versatility of receiving options—five players have at least 200 yards on at least 20 receptions—gives Sanders a lot of freedom to pick his best read and pick up must-have yardage, keeping drives alive and doing just enough to get the Cowboys downfield.

Keeping offenses accountable when they're behind the chains, however, is what Kansas State (eighth in EPA and 12th in success rate allowed on passing downs) does best. Their own attack may be a bit hit-or-miss, with possibly injured starting quarterback Adrian Martinez most effective as a rusher and backup Will Howard far from a sure bet, but the Wildcats' defense is excellent at getting off the field and giving their offense a chance to succeed. Depth is as much a strength in the Kansas State secondary as in the Oklahoma State receiving corps; five defenders have covered at least 20 targets for the Wildcats, and they have averaged just 6.6 yards allowed per attempt. If they can limit Sanders in key situations and hold the Cowboys' offense to field goals, they should be capable of pulling out a defining win in the mad scramble for the Big 12 championship.

Watch for:

  • Can Deuce Vaughn (fourth in the Big 12 with 20 runs for 10 or more yards) punish Oklahoma State's flimsy deep run defense?
  • Will Oklahoma State's heavily-used pass game or Kansas State's heavily-used run game suffer from a game that should feature plenty of drives and plays?
  • Will the Cowboys' special teams lend them a field-position edge, as they often have this season (31st in offensive and 29th in defensive starting field position)?

FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 2.7.

Georgia Bulldogs (-22.5) vs. Florida Gators in Jacksonville—3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Georgia Florida
2022 F+ 2 36
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 4 64
2022 EPA/pass 15 85
2022 EPA/rush 7 117
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 1 22
2022 EPA/pass 25 94
2022 EPA/rush 4 4

Georgia hasn't gotten to where they are—7-0, first in the AP Poll, and in prime position to defend their national title in the playoff—by relying on big plays. The Bulldogs have just eight passes for 30 or more yards (tied for 12th in the SEC) and just one for 40 or more yards (tied for last); their rushing is a bit more explosive, but still nothing spectacular, tied for sixth in 30-yard runs and tied for eighth in 40-yard runs. Overall, Georgia has gained 40 or more yards on just three plays from scrimmage, second-to-last in the SEC and less than the totals of Vanderbilt and Missouri. The deep run game in particular is unrecognizable from what it was a year ago, when the Bulldogs were one of two teams in the conference to have multiple running backs produce multiple 40-yard runs. This season, they're one of just three SEC teams that hasn't had a single 40-yard carry by a running back.

How much of a concern is that? Not as much as it may appear—Georgia is still fairly explosive on shorter scales (ranking fourth in the conference with 46 plays for 20 or more yards), and while they're not going to break drives open on a single play often, they don't need to. The luxury of having an offense that ranks among the top five in both rushing and passing success rate is being able to take time and move the ball downfield consistently. The Bulldogs may not have anything as flashy as Alabama's deep rushing or Tennessee's deep passing, but their offense is capable of dominating games by other means.

The Bulldogs' offensive tendencies probably won't be a problem against Florida, whose defense is poor across the board and particularly awful in success rate (108th against the run, 110th against the pass, 121st overall). But the Gators' relatively solid big-play defense (104th in explosiveness allowed, 77th in open-field yards per carry) provides a fairly interesting test as Georgia approaches teams such as Tennessee and Kentucky, both among the top 30 in explosiveness allowed. Displaying explosiveness in this game may not be necessary, but it would go a long way towards showing the Bulldogs are ready to match those teams on offense.

For Florida to hang around with Georgia—and perhaps make them show they can win games with big plays as well—they need to make use of their own weapons. The Gators' dynamic offense has had its ups and downs, but thanks to breakaway threats in the run game (27th in explosiveness) and through the air (14th in explosiveness), they have been able to move the ball quickly and effectively at times. The Gators' run game is second nationally in open-field yards per carry, and three different players have at least eight carries of 10 or more yards—including quarterback Anthony Richardson, second in the SEC with 304 yards on scrambles. Richardson is also the heart of Florida's dangerous passing attack, one of three SEC quarterbacks with an average depth of target over 11 yards and one of two with over 500 yards on deep passes. It's worth noting that Hendon Hooker, whom this Georgia defense will try to contain a week later, is one spot above Richardson in both of those stats.

The Bulldogs have been excellent at shutting down opposing offenses, particularly when it comes to explosiveness—they have allowed minuscule rates of 6.1% through the air (fifth in FBS) and 7.9% on the ground (12th), for an overall average of 6.9% that ranks second in the nation. But the schedule they have faced has hardly been imposing, and the best quarterback they have gone up against—Oregon's Bo Nix—isn't much of a deep threat, with the second-lowest aDOT in the Pac-12. Richardson and Hooker, as well as Kentucky's Will Levis to a lesser extent, are much more capable of testing Georgia's secondary than the Bulldogs' first seven opponents. The Bulldogs should dispatch a struggling Florida without much difficulty, but how they do it could provide valuable insight into how they'll fare in their key games down the stretch.

Watch for:

  • Can Florida's strong rushing corps (fifth in EPA per play), led by Richardson and Montrell Johnson (425 yards), keep the pressure on Georgia's untested run defense?
  • How well will the Bulldogs ( 10th in line yards per carry) handle Florida's defense (93rd in line yards per carry allowed) up front?
  • Will Georgia, averaging nine more plays per game than their opponents, have an edge in volume over Florida, averaging 10 fewer plays per game than their opponents?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 26.7.

Cincinnati Bearcats at UCF Knights (-1.5)—3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Cincinnati UCF
2022 F+ 29 28
When Cincinnati has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 53 36
2022 EPA/pass 55 50
2022 EPA/rush 59 14
When UCF has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 19 33
2022 EPA/pass 21 81
2022 EPA/rush 76 16

After years of the AAC typically coming down to two or three top contenders, the current scramble for the conference championship game is refreshingly dramatic. Tulane and Cincinnati, 4-0 and 3-0 respectively, stand atop the league standings, the former with an impressive win over Kansas State and the latter riding a lengthy six-game winning streak. Those Bearcats are defending their position in the top two against UCF (whom they play this week) and Houston, both 2-1 in conference play, as well as East Carolina, 3-2 but with a chance to hold the tiebreaker against every non-Tulane contender by season's end. The standings are a bit of a mess, which provides a wealth of intriguing games down the stretch. Five of the eight games between those top five teams are yet to be played—including this critical matchup between Cincinnati and UCF.

Both teams have rebounded well following early one-score losses to underwhelming Power 5 opponents (Arkansas and Louisville, respectively), going a combined 10-1 since, including wins over P5s Indiana and Georgia Tech. The Bearcats haven't lost a conference game since 2019, but following a stretch of narrow wins over Tulsa, USF, and SMU, they head to the Bounce House as a narrow underdog. Cincinnati has leaned heavily on its defense, a fantastic unit that ranks among the top 10 in EPA, success rate, explosiveness, and havoc rate. In particular, their pass rush—led by Miami-Ohio transfer Ivan Pace Jr., whose 14.5 tackles for loss lead FBS—has been spectacular, spearheading a group that leads the nation in sacks per game and havoc rate.

UCF's quarterback protection has been dodgy (7.5% sack rate and 28.6% pressure rate allowed), but their offense has otherwise been a fairly strong unit. EPA takes a fairly dim view of John Rhys Plumlee, largely due to his six interceptions, but he has moved the ball well outside of turnovers: the Knights are 35th with a 46.6% passing success rate and 24th with a 14.0% explosive-pass rate. The run game is even better, with Plumlee (506 yards, seven touchdowns) a key component alongside short-yardage rusher Isaiah Bowser (10 touchdowns) and big-play threats RJ Harvey and Johnny Richardson (564 yards on 74 carries, 17 runs for 10 or more yards). UCF ranks in the top 20 in rushing EPA and success rate, which has helped them face passing downs on less than 25% of offensive plays, the ninth-lowest rate in FBS. Altogether, while the Knights average a low 8.9 drives per game, they run the third-most plays per game in the nation and average nearly 20 more plays than their opponents.

Shutting down that multifaceted rushing attack is a big test for the Cincinnati defense, which has faced a high rush rate but has handled it well. The Bearcats have held opponents to a 34.0% success rate on runs, and their linebacker corps has stifled the potential for explosive plays, allowing just 0.86 yards per carry at the second level (20th) and a 7.4% rushing explosiveness rate (ninth). While Cincinnati has a stable of swarming linebackers, such as Wilson Huber and Byron Threats (326 snaps in run defense, three missed tackles combined), Pace is the defining force in the defensive backfield. His 44 tackles and 34 stops of ballcarriers both lead the AAC, and they're the best totals on the Bearcats by more than double those of the runners-up in each category.

Cincinnati's defensive line, which ranks 20th in line yards per carry allowed and 30th in opportunity rate allowed, should hold its own against UCF's run game. But the Knights will find ways to get their deep rushing corps to the second level, and Pace's ability to shut down those big runs before they turn into huge ones will be pivotal. The Bearcats' offensive counterattack is a fairly weak one, with Ben Bryant's emergence as a solid passer not enough to offset a thin rushing corps behind Charles McClelland (631 yards, 6.9 yards per carry). Cincinnati will need every defensive stop it can get to stay on top of the crowded conference standings, which means they'll need a particularly stellar performance from Pace to keep UCF's dynamic offense in check.

Watch for:

  • Can the Bearcats' defense keep up with UCF's high offensive pace and their massive advantage in play rate?
  • Will UCF (21st in standard-downs success rate allowed, 77th in passing-downs success rate allowed) be able to get off the field effectively on defense?
  • Can Plumlee protect the ball and avoid throwing costly interceptions against a Cincinnati defense averaging one pick per game (tied for 28th)?

FEI Outright Pick: UCF by 4.4.

Kentucky Wildcats at Tennessee Volunteers (-11.5)—7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Kentucky Tennessee
2022 F+ 17 5
When Kentucky has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 52 43
2022 EPA/pass 47 111
2022 EPA/rush 104 7
When Tennessee has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 7 2
2022 EPA/pass 20 8
2022 EPA/rush 34 18

Tennessee's offense does a whole lot of things well. Sure, it may not be quite as well-rounded as Ohio State's, but it's a very solid second overall and has plenty of threats to throw at opponents. A rushing corps in which Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright have traded the lead role, averaging 4.6 yards per carry between them, has led the Volunteers to a 56.1% success rate on the ground (fourth in FBS). Tennessee's line play has been understatedly excellent, ranking 19th in line yards per carry allowed and 111th in front-seven havoc rate allowed. Their ability to stay ahead of schedule, with the second-best EPA and fourth-best success rate on standard downs, has been a standout element of their all-around excellence.

That being said, so much of what the Volunteers do traces back to quarterback Hendon Hooker. As a consistent, explosive passer whose 10.8 yards per attempt leads the nation, and as an adept runner whose 243 scrambling yards are third in the SEC, Hooker has brought everything together and kept this offense humming along nicely. As we saw ahead of the Volunteers' momentous matchup with Alabama, keeping him contained is critical to prevent Tennessee from scoring at will. And as we saw when Hooker passed for 385 yards, five touchdowns, and an interception against the Crimson Tide, that's easier said than done.

Alabama's path to shutting down Hooker required their secondary to step up and limit his big plays, which didn't work. But Kentucky, the Volunteers' first major test since that emotional rivalry win, has a different approach. The Wildcats are the mirror image of that Alabama defense in many ways: they struggle with explosiveness (32nd in big-play rate against the run, 33rd against the pass), but excel in success rate (seventh against the run, 14th against the pass), and in most measures of disciplined play. Kentucky's defense in the open field is somewhat suspect, but their front seven is phenomenal at ensuring few plays make it that far. Linebackers DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones, who have combined to make 83 tackles and miss just four, have been key pieces of that defensive style (though Jones is currently injured).

What does this look like in practice? As a blueprint to stifle the awestriking Tennessee offense, it is perhaps a bit simple. Keeping Hooker from scrambling effectively and following through on big runs and passes to prevent breakaway scores is a good way to avoid disaster, but keeping the Volunteers from moving the ball will require more than that. That's why Kentucky's excellence at putting opponents behind schedule (10th in standard-downs success rate)—and keeping them behind schedule (111th in passing-downs success rate)—is so important to their winning chances.

Tennessee's fatal flaw on offense, at least from what we have seen, is that ending up behind the sticks limits a lot of what they can do to keep defenses on their toes. The Volunteers are just 54th in EPA per play and 39th in success rate on passing downs; they have managed to keep that from being a problem only by being so brilliant at staying ahead of the chains, which they do at the third-highest rate in FBS. But the Wildcats' defense is built to put Tennessee in those tough situations and challenge them to keep drives going, a method of attack that the Volunteers haven't faced much this season. The most comparable defense they have gone up against is Pitt's, which forces opponents into passing downs on some 40.4% of plays (second in FBS). That game was their worst offensive output of the season, and if the Wildcats can replicate that defensive effort, they might just be capable of bringing Tennessee's undefeated run to an abrupt end.

Watch for:

  • Can Hooker and his talented receiving corps stretch the Kentucky defense to open up shorter runs and passes near the line of scrimmage?
  • Will Kentucky (122.0 total plays per game on offense and defense) be able to slow down the game, or can Tennessee (151.6 total plays per game) maintain their high tempo?
  • How well will the Wildcats (sixth in points allowed per opportunity) lock down Tennessee (seventh in points per opportunity) on key drives?

FEI Outright Pick: Tennessee by 11.6.

FEI Picks: Week 9

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Pick ATS
Ohio State -14.5 at Penn State Ohio State Ohio State Penn State
at Syracuse -2.5 Notre Dame Syracuse Notre Dame Syracuse
at Kansas State -1.5 Oklahoma State Oklahoma State Oklahoma State Kansas State
Georgia -22.5 Florida Georgia Georgia Georgia
UCF -1.5 Cincinnati UCF UCF Cincinnati
at Tennessee -11.5 Kentucky Tennessee Tennessee Kentucky

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

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 14-31-1.

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

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 25-22-1.


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