Unexpected Contenders LSU, TCU Defend Playoff Hopes

TCU Horned Frogs QB Max Duggan
TCU Horned Frogs QB Max Duggan
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 11 - Last week, looking ahead to a visit by playoff hopeful Alabama to an inconsistent, unpredictable LSU team, I wrote that the Tigers winning would ensure an unprecedented outcome in the SEC West. If Ole Miss didn't win out and make the College Football Playoff (which has never happened), the division would either miss the playoff entirely (which has never happened) or give the playoff a two-loss participant (which has never happened).

Well, now we're through the looking glass. For the second time this season, the Crimson Tide were taken down in a spectacular back-and-forth showdown, one that felt more like a heavyweight title match than a football game. Brian Kelly maneuvered his Tigers through a sluggish first half, played risky down the stretch as Alabama's offense woke up, and bet it all on Jayden Daniels for a two-point conversion in overtime. Alabama now has two losses before the Iron Bowl for the first time since LSU's last home win over them, a day under 12 years prior.

November is a month of the unexpected—as we also saw when Georgia took top-ranked Tennessee apart in comprehensive fashion and when Notre Dame beat up Clemson's NFL-bound defensive line, putting two teams' previously-solid CFP hopes on life support. Suddenly, TCU is in playoff position, LSU has firmly cemented itself in the chase, and the Pac-12 has three teams in play at 8-1. There are realistic playoff scenarios for almost all of the top 15 (yes, even Alabama and Ole Miss, just in case they still find a way to Atlanta), and one could dream up scenarios where 7-2 Penn State, Illinois, or Washington win out and make a convincing case amid further chaos. But in four weeks, all but four will be forgotten, and the field will be set.

Which remaining playoff chances—from those who control their destiny, such as Georgia and Ohio State, to those that need more magic down the stretch, such as those two-loss hopefuls down the rankings—will be dashed this week? Someone will emerge as the final challenge to LSU's coronation as Alabama and Ole Miss face off, while the Tigers themselves must avoid an upset in a visit to rival Arkansas. Elsewhere, Oregon and North Carolina need to win out down the stretch as they face some of their toughest competition, and Tulane has a chance to solidify their frontrunner status in the hunt for the Group of 5's top bowl bid. The remaining field, for both the CFP and for other opportunities at postseason glory, is bound to narrow, but who will survive and advance this week?

All times are listed as Eastern.

LSU Tigers (-3.5) at Arkansas Razorbacks—12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall LSU Arkansas
2022 F+ 11 31
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 14 75
2022 EPA/pass 21 101
2022 EPA/rush 15 120
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 21 17
2022 EPA/pass 49 9
2022 EPA/rush 68 28

It has been five years since the last realistic CFP bid by a two-loss team, when Auburn knocked off No. 2 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama in a three-week span to reach the top four heading into the SEC Championship Game (which they lost 28-7). Now, another team from the SEC West stands in position to make the playoff following a monumental win over Alabama: LSU, which suddenly sits at No. 7 in the CFP rankings and has the inside track to Atlanta after stunning the Tide last week. The path isn't exactly clear—the Tigers might have to jump past Tennessee, a team with a better record that they lost to decisively, to make it into the field—but it's feasible enough, especially with the chance at a titanic win over No. 1 Georgia. Whether LSU can actually pull off a win is a question to be faced if and when they secure the division title.

In the meantime, the Tigers still have to get through the remainder of their schedule unscathed, which means pulling off two road rivalry wins in three weeks. The first of those games is a visit to Arkansas, still licking the wounds of a loss to Liberty that dropped the Razorbacks' record to 5-4. Sam Pittman's team has faced a daunting schedule this season, though, and they're certainly dangerous enough to put a talented but flawed LSU team on upset alert.

Arkansas has managed what success they have found largely thanks to the efforts of quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim Sanders. Under Jefferson's watch, the passing attack is ninth in EPA, 42nd in success rate, and 25th in explosiveness, with Matt Landers (594 yards) and Jadon Haselwood (553 yards) atop a fairly thin receiving corps. Jefferson's 425 rushing yards are also second on the team, but they're a long way behind Sanders, whose 1,101 rushing and 1,321 total yards both lead the SEC. The offense hasn't mustered much beyond that star tandem: all other rushers have just 595 yards, and the Razorbacks' other options at quarterback have 287 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. And when one of them struggles—as Jefferson did last week amid a lingering injury, throwing two interceptions and failing to lead the offense anywhere for most of the game—Arkansas suffers mightily for it.

There remain concerns about Jefferson's shoulder, and the Razorbacks might be forced to play backups Malik Hornsby and Cade Fortin against LSU. If so, or if Jefferson is available but still limited, they'll need a much bigger game from Sanders to have a chance. Liberty's defense held him down last week, limiting him to 60 yards on 17 carries, and he was almost invisible on Arkansas' pair of late touchdown drives, taking two carries for a loss of a yard (though he did run for a vital two-point conversion). The Razorbacks can win with passing and they can win with rushing, but they're not going to get very far if both are underachieving.

As for LSU, they need their run defense to start making plays and find a way to contain Sanders, who leads the SEC with 31 runs for double-digit yardage. The Tigers have been reliable against the pass this season, allowing a mere 35.5% success rate (15th) and not allowing more than two passing touchdowns in a game thus far. Their performances against opposing rushers, however, have been far less consistent. On the upside, they stifled the elite lineup at Ole Miss for just 117 yards on 3.2 yards per carry and held a deep Auburn corps to just 101 yards on 3.3 yards per carry. On the downside, they gave up the most rushing yards Tennessee has had in a game with 263, and they managed to let Southern run for more yardage than the Jaguars managed against four FCS opponents. There is clearly some talent here, but the flashes of brilliance have been a bit too rare and unpredictable. To keep LSU's hopes of a magical playoff run alive, their run defense will need to come up big against one of its toughest tests all season.

Watch for:

  • Will Jayden Daniels (whose passing offense is just 116th in explosive-play rate) be able to exploit the Razorbacks' struggles with the deep ball?
  • Can LSU's variety of rushing threats—five players have 35 or more carries for the Tigers—take advantage of a struggling Arkansas run defense?
  • Can the Razorbacks exploit LSU's struggles in making stops (29th in success rate on standard downs, 70th on passing downs) to put together long, suffocating drives?

FEI Outright Pick: LSU by 9.7.

UCF Knights at Tulane Green Wave (-1.5)—3:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall UCF Tulane
2022 F+ 25 42
When UCF has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 31 25
2022 EPA/pass 78 73
2022 EPA/rush 19 20
When Tulane has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 33 53
2022 EPA/pass 70 77
2022 EPA/rush 25 52

There was buzz this preseason in certain AAC circles that a rebound year could be in the cards for Tulane. The Green Wave collapsed to 2-10 in 2021, but they went 0-5 in one-score games, including losses to solid Oklahoma, UAB, and UCF teams. They also brought back plenty of intriguing pieces, lining up Tyjae Spears as the best running back in the league not named Keaton Mitchell while piecing together a versatile defense led by Darius Hodges, Jadon Canady, and Macon Clark in the backfield. The conference was expected to run fairly deep with top-end talent, but picking up enough wins to reach a decent bowl seemed like a reasonable expectation.

It's also one that Tulane has completely blown past. They shocked Kansas State on the road to beat last season's win total before being defeated once, then rebounded excellently from a rivalry loss to Southern Miss by dispatching Houston and East Carolina efficiently to start an active five-game winning streak. Some of the biggest games—their season-ending stretch against UCF, SMU, and Cincinnati, plus a potential AAC Championship Game—still lie ahead, but Tulane has proven itself more than capable of hanging with the top of the league. For the first time in a quarter-century, they're ranked and hunting for a conference title.

Most of the pieces Tulane needed to come up big have been key to this renaissance: Spears has about triple the yards and double the touchdowns of any other rusher on the team, and Canady and Clark are leading the defense in fumble recoveries and interceptions, respectively. But there have also been a number of welcome surprises, chief among them the reemergence of linebacker Dorian Williams as a game-changing threat. After ranking fourth in FBS with 15.5 tackles for loss in 2020, his stat line was only mildly spectacular last season (73 tackles, three tackles for loss, three pass breakups), but he has been the heart of a defense that's allowing under 17 points per game. His 72 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks all lead Tulane, and he has thrown in four pass breakups and a pick to complete one of the most well-rounded defensive résumés in the nation. Only six other players in FBS have at least four sacks and breakups, and none have more tackles than Williams.

The Green Wave now stand atop the AAC standings at 5-0, but as incredible as this year has been, they still have to run that gauntlet of conference foes to turn it into lasting postseason glory. Two of their remaining opponents are the two teams with 4-1 records in the conference, and the other is 3-2. Wins over the other fringe contenders, East Carolina and Houston, will help Tulane's case to an extent, but one loss down the stretch could easily drop them into tiebreaker territory. Picking up at least one win against UCF (whom they face this week) and Cincinnati (whom they visit to end the season) will be vital.

As for these Knights, they enter this game having recently rebounded from a loss to East Carolina by snapping Cincinnati's three-year conference winning streak, then followed up with a back-and-forth win in Memphis. It's doubly impressive that UCF has made it to 7-2 given how unsettled their quarterback situation has been: starter John Rhys Plumlee has three games with no touchdowns and at least one interception, and when he was injured against the Bearcats, backup Miley Keene stepped up and led the Knights to a win. Another solid game against Memphis (bringing his season line to 8.1 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and an interception) has muddled things further as Plumlee approaches his return from injury, and it's anyone's guess whom the Wave will face under center.

UCF has kept winning in either case, though, because of their strength on the ground. Plumlee—tied for the team lead with 532 yards despite his absence—is a key part of the rushing attack, but RJ Harvey (tied for second in the AAC with four yards after contact per carry) and Isaiah Bowser (third in the AAC with 129 carries) have been exceptional in their roles. The result is a well-rounded run game that takes the ball on nearly 60% of plays, yet still ranks among the top 20 in EPA and success rate and 33rd in explosiveness. They'll have a tough matchup against Tulane's defense, the national leader in explosive rush rate allowed, but this rushing corps may be enough to put a wrench in the Green Wave's magical season and reshape the AAC title chase.

Watch for:

  • Can Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt (8.7 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions) take down a dodgy UCF secondary (42.8% passing success rate allowed)?
  • Will UCF continue to capitalize on strong offensive and defensive turnover rates to create a possession advantage in a battle of two stifling offenses?
  • Is the Green Wave's swarming defense capable of keeping UCF's stable of running backs (and potentially Plumlee) in check?

FEI Outright Pick: UCF by 5.9.

Alabama Crimson Tide (-11.5) at Ole Miss Rebels—3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Alabama Ole Miss
2022 F+ 4 13
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 7 48
2022 EPA/pass 24 96
2022 EPA/rush 51 81
When Ole Miss has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 6 11
2022 EPA/pass 14 44
2022 EPA/rush 22 10

The last time Alabama played a regular-season game without title implications, Greg McElroy was their starter, the SEC still had only 12 teams, and Cam Newton was on the verge of winning the Heisman Trophy. The Crimson Tide have won 148 games and five national championships since then, but now they're doing something they haven't had to in over a decade: playing out the string on a season with nothing to play for but a mere Sugar Bowl bid. To even make a case for that, though, they must go to Oxford and take down a solid Ole Miss team which would love nothing more than to firmly, definitively bury Alabama's postseason hopes.

Easier said than done, though, considering how one-dimensional these Rebels have been. Alabama is a heavy favorite in Vegas not just because of their reputation as the SEC's perennial powerhouse, but also because Ole Miss has found their way to 8-1 in spite of some rather glaring deficiencies. Most obvious is defense: this unit has come a long way from giving up 38.3 points per game in 2020, but they have surrendered 34 to Auburn, 45 to LSU, and 28 to Texas A&M in their last few games. An inability to limit short plays—at the line against runs and in the slot against passes—has let opposing offenses put together lengthy drives and stay ahead of schedule. On the upside, when Ole Miss has an opportunity to make a stop, they take it: the Rebels are 23rd in EPA and 38th in success rate when their opponent faces a passing down.

Alabama's attack has shortcomings that could have been damning at any point this season, most notably an offensive line that ranks 61st in yards per carry and 63rd in havoc rate allowed. But thanks to the unflappable Bryce Young (7.1 yards per attempt on pressured dropbacks) and the explosive Jahmyr Gibbs (771 yards, 386 after contact), they have found a way to score 30 or more points against seven of their nine opponents. Perhaps the most pointed summary of how they have scraped out offensive scores: Alabama is 59th in EPA and 60th in success rate on standard downs, but keeps drives alive by ranking fifth and 10th respectively on passing downs.

The main reason the Tide are favored by so much, though, is the imbalance of Ole Miss' offense. The Rebels are a solid group, top-25 in EPA and success rate and second nationally with a 17.8% explosive-play rate, but their passing attack has been a far cry from last year's success under Matt Corral. Jaxson Dart (8.8 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns, seven interceptions) has put up a decent stat line, but he has been called upon less than almost any other passer in college football. The Rebels' 64.3% rushing play rate is the ninth-highest in the nation, and their 35.7% passing play rate is correspondingly the ninth-lowest.

Outside of wins over Troy, Central Arkansas, and Vanderbilt that were rarely in much doubt, Ole Miss has only seen Dart throw more than 25 passes twice this season: once in a low-scoring win over Kentucky (15-for-29, 213 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception), and once in a definitive loss to LSU (19-for-34, 283 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception). The Rebels are most comfortable when they can avoid taxing Dart's arm and instead use him as a deep threat, where he has led the passing offense to the 10th-highest explosive play rate in FBS. That allows them to make better use of their running backs, a mighty group led by breakout star Quinshon Judkins (1,036 yards, 13 touchdowns as a freshman) and big-play threat Zach Evans (680 yards, 25 carries of 10 or more yards). Much like in their meeting with LSU, if Ole Miss can create and hold a lead, they should be able to maintain it well enough. Keeping pace with Alabama's offense long enough to get ahead, though, requires a big step up from the Rebels' defense in this game.

Watch for:

  • Can the middling Ole Miss defensive front (82nd in line yards per carry allowed) get push and pressure against Alabama's line?
  • Will the Tide's defense (sixth in explosiveness allowed) find a way to limit the Rebels' variety of offensive deep threats?
  • Can lead Alabama pass rushers Will Anderson and Dallas Turner carry forward their momentum from last week's performance against LSU (2.5 combined sacks)?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 14.4.

Washington Huskies at Oregon Ducks (-13.5)—7 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Washington Oregon
2022 F+ 35 7
When Washington has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 21 51
2022 EPA/pass 5 116
2022 EPA/rush 22 52
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 69 2
2022 EPA/pass 126 8
2022 EPA/rush 83 1

The consensus top offense in college football last week, Ohio State as judged by most computers and humans, scored just 21 points on a pitiful Northwestern team. The most popular pick at No. 2, Tennessee, mustered a mere 13 against Georgia. If you're looking for a new attack to consider the nation's best, then, you probably wouldn't look further than Oregon. The Ducks eked out just three points in a season-opening blowout loss to that tenacious Bulldogs defense, but they have since scored over 40 points in every game—the longest such streak by any team since 2020—and elevated themselves to second in EPA per play and first in success rate across all of FBS.

Bo Nix's nascent Heisman campaign, which has gained more steam following those unimpressive games by C.J. Stroud and Hendon Hooker's offenses, is a key part of the story of the Ducks' rise. Of course, the run game—in which the three lead rushers, Nix among them, are all averaging well over 6 yards per carry—has been spectacular as well, but the pieces were always there for it to succeed. It was far from obvious that Nix could have a season of this caliber; he averaged 6.9 yards per attempt with 39 touchdowns and 16 interceptions across three seasons at Auburn, and he showed little progression across those years.

A change of scenery has done wonders, however, and Nix is now at the helm of a top-10 passing attack in the nation based on EPA. The Ducks' 58.1% passing success rate is the best in college football, while their 14.2% explosive pass rate is 18th. Only seven quarterbacks have a better mark in adjusted yards per attempt than Nix's 9.9, and none of them have even a third of his 13 touchdowns on the ground, which lead all qualified passers in FBS. Suddenly, he's in play for the Heisman and has Oregon in play for the CFP, with both having completely turned the season around after their opening-week loss (in which Nix averaged 4.7 yards per attempt with two interceptions).

Oregon has only played one currently ranked team in that stretch of post-Georgia dominance, however, and they run a gauntlet down the stretch. Utah, Oregon State, and a potential Pac-12 Championship Game opponent lurk down the road, but first is a home date with rival Washington. The Huskies have their own transfer quarterback enjoying a stunning late-career resurgence: Michael Penix Jr., once famed for his heroics at Indiana. Penix led the Hoosiers as they put together a 14-7 record across 2019 and 2020, but a shoulder injury nagged him throughout 2021 as he threw four touchdowns and seven interceptions and the team went 2-10. Now healthy and leading a much more complete offense, Penix is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt with 23 touchdowns and five interceptions for the Huskies, who are passing at the fifth-highest rate in FBS and being rewarded with 0.383 EPA (fifth) and a 53.3% success rate (sixth) when they do.

Both teams bring miserable pass defense into this game—Oregon's is 116th in EPA despite facing the highest pass rate in FBS, and Washington's is perhaps even worse, ranking 126th in EPA. A big game from each team's respective breakout quarterback is crucial to victory, considering how back-and-forth this matchup is likely to be. On the ground, the Huskies will need Wayne Taulapapa and Cameron Davis (860 combined yards, 5.0 yards per carry) to match that powerful Oregon trio of rushers, facing off against a fairly strong Ducks run defense that ranks 41st in success rate and 47th in explosiveness. Washington's offense has been solid this season (though it has fallen below 30 points for the first time in its last two games), but keeping up with Oregon will be a daunting task.

Watch for:

  • Can two defenses that rank 104th and 105th in points allowed per scoring opportunity find stops against two offenses that rank third and fourth?
  • Will the Ducks' defense be able to hold down Penix's deep passing and force Washington to use their run game more heavily?
  • How well will Oregon's running backs (second and first in yards per carry at the line and second level, 38th in the open field) pick up additional yardage on long runs?

FEI Outright Pick: Oregon by 10.0.

TCU Horned Frogs at Texas Longhorns (-7)—7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall TCU Texas
2022 F+ 9 6
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 8 17
2022 EPA/pass 10 79
2022 EPA/rush 9 33
When Texas has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 39 12
2022 EPA/pass 100 34
2022 EPA/rush 45 62

In over 40 years of FBS football, no top-five team has ever entered a matchup with a non-top-10 team as an underdog of seven points or more. If this line holds—and so far, it has—that will change when No. 4 TCU takes its unbeaten record to Darrell K Royal Stadium to face No. 18 Texas, whom Vegas currently favors by a touchdown. On paper, that line makes sense, given how complete the Longhorns have been statistically: they're among the top 25 in success rate on offensive passes, offensive rushes, and defensive rushes, with the secondary (71st) their only real point of concern. Compare that to TCU (63rd when passing, 35th when rushing, 27th against the pass, 58th against the run), and it's obvious why Texas is favored; the question is why they're not favored by more.

But, of course, games aren't played on paper, and the team that the data suggest is inferior happens to have won quite a few of those games. Unranked and overlooked in the preseason, the Horned Frogs have soared to 9-0 with six wins by 10 points or less, including a defining stretch in October where they outlasted No. 19 Kansas, No. 8 Oklahoma State, and No. 17 Kansas State to surge from 17th to seventh in the AP Poll. Meanwhile, Texas has lacked for much of the close-game luck that has blessed TCU, dropping three games by a combined 11 points while winning six by a total of 140. (Notably, though, the Longhorns are 4-1 at home, with their only loss coming on a walkoff field goal against Alabama.)

For the analytically minded, however, there is more reason to believe in TCU than the tried-and-true method of trusting wins and losses. Texas has had one of the most prolific early offenses in the nation this year—something which has quickly become a hallmark of Steve Sarkisian's attack—ranking fifth with 23.0 points per game in the first half. But the Longhorns fall nearly 10 points to 13.1 points per game in the second half, just 66th in the nation. TCU is largely the opposite: a decent 15th in first-half points per game with 19.6, but tied for fifth with 19.9 points per game in the second half.

Scoring is always valuable, but doing so later is often worth more because of increased knowledge about what points are necessary for a win (compare to the edge gained by having the ball second in overtime, or deferring to start the second half with possession). And from a more narrative perspective, it stands to reason that pitting a team notable for second-half collapses against a team notable for second-half comebacks would turn out well for the latter.

Those unusual splits aren't happenstance, but a consequence of what these offenses have and how they approach the game. For the Longhorns, part of the problem is obvious enough: they lack size and physicality on the offensive line, where the two-deep features just a single upperclassman, and they have been worn down as games have gone on. There have also been situational issues that have cropped up, like quarterback play against Oklahoma State or injuries against Alabama. A key piece of the problem, however, is the fact that Texas has failed to take advantage of mounting play counts in the way the Horned Frogs have.

TCU's penchant for second-half surges has hinged on Max Duggan, perhaps the most talented deep passer in the nation. Duggan has thrown 41 passes of 20 or more air yards—the third-most in the Big 12—and has connected for an astonishing 14 touchdowns on those passes, leading all qualified quarterbacks in FBS. The ability to take advantage of worn-down secondaries (which Quinn Ewers—10-for-33 with three touchdowns on deep passes—hasn't demonstrated nearly as much) is a key reason the Horned Frogs have been able to score quickly and get back in games. If the Longhorns are to create and hold a lead, they're going to need to be prepared when TCU starts throwing haymakers, and they'll need to find a way to punch back.

Watch for:

  • Can Ewers find his footing against a troubled TCU secondary (117th in passing explosiveness allowed) to keep the Longhorns' offense humming?
  • Will standout Horned Frogs rusher Kendre Miller (1,009 yards, 6.6 yards per carry) find a way past a strong Texas run defense (14th in success rate, 23rd in explosiveness)?
  • How much of a threat can Bijan Robinson, who has over 120 yards in seven straight games, pose to a TCU defense that has struggled to make tackles at all levels?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 4.8.

North Carolina Tar Heels at Wake Forest Demon Deacons (-4.5)—7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall North Carolina Wake Forest
2022 F+ 43 37
When North Carolina has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 9 71
2022 EPA/pass 1 65
2022 EPA/rush 60 37
When Wake Forest has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 114 18
2022 EPA/pass 117 26
2022 EPA/rush 101 100

It's often said that even a great quarterback can't carry an otherwise-awful team to success, but Drake Maye is doing his utmost to prove that theory incorrect. The highly touted redshirt freshman has been even better than Sam Howell was for North Carolina last season, averaging 9.5 yards per attempt with 31 touchdowns and three interceptions amid an 8-1 start. That impressive record stands in spite of the Tar Heels' struggles in nearly every other category: their run game is painfully average (60th in EPA, 52nd in success rate) with Maye comfortably leading the team in rushing yards, and their defense is downright awful (114th in EPA, 126th in success rate).

North Carolina has made it deep into the season with one loss, though, thanks largely to the efforts of Maye—and a lengthy series of one-score escapes from Appalachian State, Georgia State, Miami, Duke, and Virginia (though not Notre Dame, who dealt their only loss). They're staring down a tough finish to the season with games against Wake Forest, NC State, and potentially Clemson for the ACC title, but if they can run the table, the Tar Heels might have a serious case for the CFP. That starts with a visit to the Demon Deacons, an in-state rival with a similar emphasis on the passing attack.

Sam Hartman had just about the worst third quarter a player could possibly experience against Louisville—he threw three interceptions (including two pick-sixes) and lost three fumbles—and struggled against NC State, throwing three more interceptions in a loss. That spate of turnovers has raised some questions about Hartman's ability under center, but it's worth noting that he had been one of the best in the nation at protecting the ball before the last two games, with 21 touchdowns to just three interceptions. His overall numbers remain strong, and if he can avoid passing as much as he has lately (41 attempts per game in the last three weeks), he should be more than capable of handling North Carolina's dreadful secondary.

But games aren't won through the air alone, and while the Tar Heels' rushing attack is uninspiring, the Deacons' is utterly unsightly. Wake Forest ranks 100th in EPA, 102nd in success rate, and 107th in explosiveness on rushing plays, and they're 115th or worse in yards per carry at the line, at the second level, and in the open field. The unit lacks for depth—only two backs have reached 30 carries—and lead rusher Justice Ellison has been completely unreliable, scattering days of 80, 73, 114, and 96 yards among tepid outings of 29, 4, 36, 22, and most recently -1. Wake Forest hadn't rushed for less than a yard per carry once in the seven seasons preceding this one; they have now done so twice in less than two months.

That stoppable force meets an exceptionally movable object in North Carolina's run defense. Thanks to being ahead more often than not, the Tar Heels haven't had to deal with rushes quite as much as the average team, but they have still been completely unprepared for anything on the ground. Five teams have run for over 180 yards on this defense, including two Sun Belt teams and 3-6 Virginia. Improvements in the secondary, which is allowing only 7.4 yards per attempt with one touchdown and two interceptions over the last three games, have kept North Carolina treading water lately, but they have given up 614 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in that span. The Deacons might not have the players they need to take advantage of that struggling defense, but if they can find a way to do so, they stand a solid chance at dashing the Tar Heels' playoff hopes.

Watch for:

  • Will Wake Forest's pass defense—particularly susceptible to deep throws (91st in passing explosiveness allowed)—be able to limit North Carolina's receivers?
  • Can the Deacons' strong pass rush, led by Rondell Bothroyd's five sacks and two forced fumbles, get past a beatable offensive line and put pressure on Maye?
  • In a matchup of superstar receivers, can Josh Downs (63 receptions, most in the ACC) or A.T. Perry (47 receptions, fourth) break the game open with an exceptional performance?

FEI Outright Pick: Wake Forest by 3.7.

FEI Picks: Week 11

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Pick ATS
LSU -3.5 at Arkansas LSU LSU Arkansas
at Tulane -1.5 UCF UCF UCF Tulane
Alabama -11.5 at Ole Miss Alabama Alabama Alabama
at Oregon -13.5 Washington Oregon Washington Washington
at Texas -7 TCU Texas TCU TCU
at Wake Forest -4.5 North Carolina Wake Forest North Carolina North Carolina

FEI's picks ATS last week: 4-2.

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 21-36-1.

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

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 30-29-1.


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