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20 Nov 2014

SDA: Bowl Position

by Chad Peltier

This is a weird week for most teams -- kind of like the calm after the storm, when most elite teams are getting their late-season cupcakes out of the way. Alabama has Western Carolina, Mississippi State has Vanderbilt, Georgia has Charleston Southern, Ohio State has Indiana, and TCU has a week off.

Instead, the next tier of teams faces off in a number of potentially close games. Five of the six games previewed below are between teams ranked within 12 spots of one another in the F/+. So while it's not a big week in terms of Playoff ramifications (unless Tennessee can upend Missouri, sending Georgia to the SEC Championship and keeping the Bulldogs' Playoff hopes alive), it should feature a number of closely contested games that are more than worth your while. The Vegas lines resemble the F/+ rankings, with five of the six lines at 3.5 or less.

Beyond those games, the one-loss teams and other Playoff hopefuls will be playing for style points. The Buckeyes should have an easy time managing Indiana unless Tevin Coleman finds a seam or two against a fairly average run defense. Baylor is up against 5-5 Oklahoma State, and any close score would be an obvious knock on a team that the committee hasn't liked much so far. Ole Miss has another "style points" opportunity as it hopes to hold off upset-minded Arkansas. A resounding win here could go a long way if the cards fall right for the Rebels (a win over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and Auburn taking down Alabama) next week too .

Kansas State (+2) at West Virginia -- 7 p.m. Thursday (Fox Sports 1)

Overall Kansas State West Virginia
Overall F/+ 26 28
Field Position Advantage 18 103
Offensive F/+ 30 39
Defensive F/+ 37 33
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 36 18
FEI 39 27
Rushing S&P+ 43 10
Passing S&P+ 27 36
When West Virginia has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 29 18
FEI 40 46
Rushing S&P+ 17 43
Passing S&P+ 42 11

Tonight's main event features the 7-2 Wildcats, ranked 12th by the Selection Committee, and the 6-4 unranked Mountaineers in a duel that many expect to be much closer than the Committee's rankings would suggest. The Vegas line currently favors the Mountaineers by two, which is just a nod to playing at home. The F/+ rankings similarly predict a close game, with the Wildcats at 26th and the Mountaineers at 28. Interestingly, the numbers are much less fans of the Wildcats than the Committee, likely because the Committee is impressed with the Wildcats' "quality loss" by six to Auburn, and the one-point win over Oklahoma. However, it's easier to question the Wildcats' strength of schedule now that Oklahoma has looked less impressive each week, and the Wildcats were beaten badly by TCU last week. Regardless, this week should see a tight matchup between offensive and defensive units that are all ranked in the 30s.

The Kansas State offense, led by do-everything quarterback Jake Waters, is ranked solidly in the top 40s in most areas, but it looks like the Mountaineers have a per-play and passing advantage over the Wildcats. Judging by the Wildcats' combination of Rushing S&P+ and the Mountaineers' Defensive FEI, the main concern will be Kansas State explosively moving the ball down the field on the ground and in the red zone. Interestingly, the West Virginia Defensive FEI is mixed because they are ranked 109th with a 68 percent opponent red zone touchdown rate, but tenth in the country in opponent third-down conversion rate. West Virginia has to worry about both big plays on the ground (95th in IsoPPP) and the Wildcats just handing the ball off repeatedly in the red zone (even though they have tended to pass more often than other teams even on standard downs). The Wildcats have Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton as go-to receivers, and it may be difficult for the Mountaineers to defend both of them and still put enough people near the line to defend the run. The key there may be in how efficiently Waters is able to run. Waters has the most carries on the team and is the second-leading rusher by 24 yards, so the Mountaineers will have the ever-present threat of Waters taking off.

The keys for Kansas State on defense will be in defending a short, efficient pass game. Sure, the Mountaineers have fourth-leading receiver Kevin White, but the Wildcats' issue has been defending the pass -- but not explosive plays, where their defense is fifth in IsoPPP and 24th in Explosive Drives in Defensive FEI. The Mountaineers should consider short, high-percentage pass plays, especially since they're unlikely to have an advantage running the ball against the 17th run defense that is 21st in Adjusted Line Yards. The Mountaineers are surprisingly not explosive and struggle in the red zone, so red zone efficiency and field position could play into the Wildcats' hands all night.

F/+ outright pick: West Virginia

Minnesota (+10.5) vs. Nebraska -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Minnesota Nebraska
Overall F/+ 35 23
Field Position Advantage 12 3
Offensive F/+ 51 38
Defensive F/+ 42 32
When Minnesota has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 47 37
FEI 48 26
Rushing S&P+ 41 77
Passing S&P+ 59 17
When Nebraska has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 40 26
FEI 38 40
Rushing S&P+ 32 19
Passing S&P+ 38 34

Who knew that the Minnesota Golden Gophers would be the arbiters of the College Football Playoff? The Committee was tasked with evaluating Baylor, TCU, and Ohio State as one-loss Playoff contenders, and Minnesota was a mutual opponent for TCU and Ohio State (so sorry, Baylor, but you're out of luck since you didn't schedule Minnesota). The Cornhuskers are reeling after allowing 408 rushing yards to the country's leading rusher last week, and now Nebraska is rewarded with the seventh-leading rusher in Minnesota's David Cobb. A loss would almost certainly re-warm Bo Pelini's hot seat.

Forget what Bo Pelini said earlier this week about Nebraska losing because his players were "playing not to lose" -- the Cornhuskers have more talent and are better-rated in the F/+. The keys will be in containing David Cobb's explosive runs and making their offense drive methodically down the field, and running Ameer Abdullah over and over again. As the Gophers showed last week against Ohio State, they are an experienced team that creates turnovers and limits mistakes, and (as a result) they can flip the field with a balanced defense and offense.

The first goal should be to stop David Cobb from breaking away. The defense will have to quickly forget last week's effort against Melvin Gordon and prepare to stop Cobb, who had three touchdown runs and 11 runs of 5-plus yards last week against the Buckeyes. The Gophers' rushing offense moved methodically down the field last week, but the big concern all year for the Cornhuskers has been in stopping explosive plays -- they're 104th in Defensive IsoPPP and 81st in Defensive Explosive Drives. Stop Cobb and quarterback Mitch Leidner doesn't have the firepower to win the game with his receivers (though he can be involved in the run game, which is also dangerous for the Cornhuskers).

The second thing Nebraska needs to do to avoid an upset is run Abdullah and trust in field position football. The Gophers aren't an explosive offense. They rely on field position, efficiency, and capitalizing on opponent mistakes to win, so a similar game plan is likely to be effective against the Gophers' defense. Ameer has gone over 200 yards rushing in four games this season, but against the two best defenses he's faced -- Michigan State and Wisconsin are both top-25 in Defensive Rushing S&P+ -- he's totaled 42 carries for 114 yards, or 2.7 yards per carry. So the concern will be whether the Cornhuskers can avoid a similar fate against the 32nd-ranked run defense.

F/+ outright pick: Nebraska

Ole Miss (-3) at Arkansas -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Ole Miss Arkansas
Overall F/+ 4 30
Field Position Advantage 6 56
Offensive F/+ 16 29
Defensive F/+ 4 34
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 11 20
FEI 23 37
Rushing S&P+ 45 8
Passing S&P+ 7 36
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 4 20
FEI 5 3
Rushing S&P+ 10 22
Passing S&P+ 2 35

Ole Miss has an outside shot at the SEC Championship (and by extension, the Playoff), but they have to get past the dangerous Razorbacks first. Arkansas undoubtedly has the edge in intangibles: they're playing at home the week after their first SEC win under Bret Bielema. Arkansas also defeated LSU last week, the same team that shut down the Ole Miss offense in their first loss of the season October 25.

The Rebels' defense is worthy of its renown, but there is a divide between its pass defense and run defense. They allowed 97.1 rushing yards per game until they played LSU. The Tigers gashed Ole Miss for 264 rushing yards (113 by Leonard Fornette). A week later, another ambush of Tigers* struck Ole Miss when Auburn ran for 248 yards, with Cameron Artis-Payne picking up 138 himself. You have to imagine that trend has Arkansas running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams licking their chops despite the Rebels' defensive reputation. It could be a tough game for quarterback Brandon Allen to find much through the air, but that might not matter considering Arkansas' running ability. But the best hope I can give the Rebels might be in the trenches, where Auburn, despite having a great rushing attack, has an offensive line that is just 49th in Adjusted Line Yards, while the Rebels' defensive line is 14th in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards. So the advantage definitely goes to Robert Nkemdiche and the Ole Miss defensive line and the pressure is on Williams and Collins to pick up where Fournette and Artis-Payne left off.

* (Editor's note: "Ambush of tigers" is the correct term when referring to more than one tiger. How cool is that? --Ed.)

The Rebels' offense is much more efficient according to F/+ statistics than either their scoring offense (42nd) or total offense (38th) would suggest, and especially has the upper hand when it comes to Passing S&P+. They will likely have to rely on Bo Wallace -- even without Laquon Treadwell due to injury -- because the run game matchup looks pretty grim. The Rebels are 58th in rushing yards per game and not much better at 45th in Rushing S&P+. The Razorbacks, meanwhile, have been effective at shutting down almost everyone but Nick Chubb and Georgia, so don't expect Jaylen Walton or Jordan Wilkins to do much against the second-ranked defensive line against the run (by Adjusted Line Yards). That puts a lot of pressure on Wallace, who will likely throw more than he is used to on standard downs and with a big target on his back on passing downs. But for the Rebels to avoid being Coach Bielema's second SEC victory, they'll need to take advantage of the Razorbacks' propensity to allow big plays (78th in IsoPPP).

F/+ outright pick: Ole Miss

Arizona (+3.5) at Utah -- 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arizona Utah
Overall F/+ 32 29
Field Position Advantage 11 14
Offensive F/+ 37 72
Defensive F/+ 39 13
When Arizona has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 49 35
FEI 28 4
Rushing S&P+ 77 38
Passing S&P+ 82 13
When Utah has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 47 79
FEI 29 72
Rushing S&P+ 35 68
Passing S&P+ 55 73

Utah and Arizona have been upset specialists this season -- Arizona knocking off Oregon and Utah taking down Michigan, UCLA, and USC -- so it's only fitting that the spread between them is small and they are ranked within three spots of each other by F/+. Utah's success this season has been almost entirely due to its aggressive defense that is 17th in Defensive IsoPPP, leads the country in total sacks with 47, and is third in tackles for loss at 86 (which explains their 20th ranking in Havoc Rate). Arizona has been fairly balanced between offense and defense, and is ranked in the top 25 in only Field Position Advantage.

The key to the game will likely be in how much success Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon has against the 13-ranked pass defense. The Utes have been decent on a per-play basis, but their specialty has been in bend-but-don't-break defense, where they limit explosive drives. Solomon is 14th in passing yards per game, but just 82nd in passing efficiency (Arizona is eighth in total pass attempts this year, but 69th in yards per attempt). So the WIldcats are prolific passers, but not efficient. So the real question will be whether the Arizona offense can stay on the field long enough and throw enough passes to wear out the Utah defense. At fourth in Adjusted Pace, Rich Rodriguez's offense knows how to move quickly, so the goal will be to move fast, pass a lot, and avoid turning the ball over. While Arizona won their last two meetings thanks to Ka'Deem Carey breaking 200 yards in both games, the Wildcats now pass far more than they run, running on just 51.6 percent of standard downs.

The Arizona defense is also in the bend-but-don't-break mold and is led by Scooby Wright III -- third in sacks and second in tackles for loss this season -- and an aggressive secondary that is 16th in Havoc Rate. The Utes haven't shown much on offense, no matter which quarterback has played, ranking in the high 60s or 70s in most offensive categories. The worry for Arizona would be in an efficient passing game, but it's unclear whether Utah can muster that kind of attack. Field position might be both team's best friend here -- the winner of the turnover margin likely wins the game since both are highly rated in Field Position Advantage.

F/+ outright pick: Utah

Louisville (+3.5) at Notre Dame -- 3:30 p.m. (NBC)

Overall Louisville Notre Dame
Overall F/+ 16 24
Field Position Advantage 92 35
Offensive F/+ 43 23
Defensive F/+ 5 29
When Louisville has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 24 43
FEI 51 21
Rushing S&P+ 18 34
Passing S&P+ 42 87
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 12 16
FEI 3 31
Rushing S&P+ 26 26
Passing S&P+ 20 19

Notre Dame tumbled out of the rankings with their overtime loss to Northwestern last week, while Louisville is getting settled at quarterback after a season-ending injury to Will Gardner. The good news for Louisville is that at least freshman backup Reggie Bonnafon has started three games earlier this season in place of Gardner, so he should be comfortable in the role. Notre Dame's problems have been more systemic, with a productive but turnover-prone offense (23 total turnovers lost, tied for 116th in the country), and a defense that is weak against the pass. With a 60 percent chance of rain and temps expected in the low 40s in South Bend this Saturday, ball security will be at a premium for both teams. With the weather, the Notre Dame defense, and both Bonnafon and Everett Golson's history of ball security issues, the main goal might just be to keep this game from getting sloppy.

Golson has led the 19th-most efficient passing offense in the country this season even though he has turned the ball over 19 times in the last seven games. That's not good news going up against the Cardinals, who rank first in the country in interceptions (22) and third in overall Havoc Rate. After the loss to Northwestern, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters that "We're looking for answers. You've got some good ones, I'm all ears." But the Fighting Irish are among the most efficient offenses in the country -- except when it comes to turnovers. That makes Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's job fairly easy -- mix, match, and disguise coverages and bring pressure to confuse Everett Golson and force turnovers.

Of course, even if the Cardinals can force the Fighting Irish to turn the ball over, they still have to score themselves. The Irish have been typically efficient on defense, except in pass defense, where they have struggled, at least partially as a result of suspensions to key defensive backs. In addition to turnovers, Bonnafon's play will go far in determining the winner. The freshman averaged 7.2 yards per attempt for most of the season, with up-and-down completion percentages week-to-week, but he was on target filling in after Gardner was injured last week against Boston College, going 4-of-5 for 69 yards and two touchdowns. If Bonnafon has turned the corner in his accuracy, then Louisville could absolutely pull the upset.

F/+ outright pick: Louisville

USC (+3) vs. UCLA -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall USC UCLA
Overall F/+ 21 17
Field Position Advantage 45 52
Offensive F/+ 22 10
Defensive F/+ 25 43
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 28 38
FEI 22 43
Rushing S&P+ 67 48
Passing S&P+ 17 24
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 34 29
FEI 24 5
Rushing S&P+ 66 23
Passing S&P+ 33 26

This cross-town rivalry exemplifies the best of the slate of games for this weekend. Only one team -- UCLA -- has even the smallest Playoff aspirations (UCLA could sneak in if they win out with victories over the Trojans and Stanford, then defeat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship), but F/+ has the two teams in a dead heat for the Pac-12 South championship. The Bruins and Trojans are similar statistically, with two excellent quarterbacks and defenses that have been suspect at times.

Desite having Brett Hundley under center, the Bruins may be best served by running Paul Perkins early and often. The Trojans are much weaker against the run -- they allowed 452 rush yards to Boston College in their first loss of the season -- and have a thin defensive line that is 79th in Front 7 Havoc Rate. If UCLA can keep it close, then Perkins could likely wear down the Trojans defensive front enough to ice the game. Hundley is a talented veteran, but the Trojans are much more dangerous in their secondary, with aggressive players like Su'a Cravens. The Trojans' defensive line, even with Leonard Williams, hasn't gotten to the quarterback effectively this season, ranking 113th in Adjusted Sack Rate. So Hundley may have time to pass and take advantage of play action in a run-heavy offensive game plan.

Cody Kessler has been one of the bright spots for this Trojans team, especially with his ball security. Kessler averages an interception just every 149 passes, which is second in the country in turnovers-to-passes ratio. Running back Buck Allen has crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, but the run game is fairly inefficient at 67th overall. Like the defensive line, the Trojans offensive line is just average (66th) in Adjusted Line Yards, so the inefficiency isn't on Allen necessarily. Regardless, Allen may have to step up and carry the load against a top-25 Bruins secondary.

F/+ outright pick: UCLA


Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Kansas State 2 West Virginia West Virginia West Virginia
Indiana 34.5 Ohio State Ohio State Ohio State
Minnesota 10.5 Nebraska Nebraska Nebraska
Boston College 19.5 Florida State Florida State Florida State
Arkansas 3 Ole Miss Ole Miss Ole Miss
Arizona 3.5 Utah Utah Utah
Louisville 3.5 Notre Dame Louisville Louisville
Oklahoma State 27 Baylor Baylor Baylor

Record last week outright: 5-5
Record last week against the spread: 1-9
Season record outright: 85-42
Season record against the spread: 60-70

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 20 Nov 2014