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06 Nov 2014

SDA: Conference Heavyweights

by Chad Peltier

This is one of the most anticipated weekends of the season, with top conference matchups that will have huge ramifications on the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12 conference races. For Oklahoma it's the last big game of the season, while it's Auburn's fifth of seven important games, and it is Ohio State's one and only big game of the regular season. There are five games between teams ranked within ten spots of one another in the F/+, so the Selection Committee will have even more data to work with after this weekend.

But don't expect a new top two. The Seminoles face Mike London's 4-5 Virginia squad and Mississippi State has the 5-5 UT Martin Skyhawks coming to town. The committee is placing a premium on undefeated teams over stats, but it might be hard for Florida State especially to hold off Auburn if the Tigers keep winning, considering their top F/+ ranking and three quality wins over Kansas State, LSU, and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs likely get a pass over the Tigers if both win out since they have the head-to-head win over Auburn.

Maybe the most exciting action is actually in the Big 12, where Kansas State and challenger TCU fight for the conference lead. But Oklahoma and Baylor are certainly in the mix and will be closely watching the Horned Frogs and Wildcats fight for yards this weekend.

The F/+ numbers have been very successful in selecting outright winners (with a 75-33 season total), so if that trend continues this week, then the Spartans will inch closer to a playoff spot for the Big Ten, Alabama will take the next step towards a SEC West "championship" game with the Bulldogs, and TCU will make its own case for a playoff spot.

Baylor (+5) at Oklahoma -- 12 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Overall Baylor Oklahoma
Overall F/+ 18 6
Field Position Advantage 7 20
Offensive F/+ 20 5
Defensive F/+ 23 25
When Baylor has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 22 17
FEI 21 38
Rushing S&P+ 49 14
Passing S&P+ 20 23
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 14 5
FEI 37 6
Rushing S&P+ 28 2
Passing S&P+ 28 7

Oklahoma is in the fairly unique position of having lost two games against ranked teams so far this season, but only by a total of five points, and still ranking sixth overall in the F/+ rankings. There is definitely the potential to undervalue the Sooners unless you're combing through their numbers. Baylor has been somewhat left for dead after their two-touchdown loss to the Mountaineers, despite quality wins over Texas and TCU. This game is an opportunity for both teams to say that they are for real -- for Oklahoma to get a win against a ranked team, and for Baylor to begin its tough end to the season (with Oklahoma State and Kansas State also on the horizon) on a good note.

The Sooners, surprisingly, are the higher-rated offensive team, thanks to the combination of Samaje Perine and Alex Ross and their stellar offensive line. The Sooners actually have the only offensive line in the country that is ranked in the top ten in both Adjusted Line Yards (eighth) and Adjusted Sack Rate (sixth) -- but Baylor's defensive line is also ranked in the top ten in both categories (sixth and tenth). While the battle in the trenches will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game, Oklahoma should also have all of its offensive skills players fully healthy, including Sterling Shepard, who pulled his groin last week against Iowa State, and running back Keith Ford, who is yet another weapon in the passing game for Trevor Knight. Baylor has been fairly susceptible to explosive plays this season (61st in IsoPPP), so establishing the run game could set up big plays for Shepard, Knight, and Ford. The Bears must also worry about their red zone defense, which is ranked lower than its per-play defense -- the Sooners score touchdowns on 74 percent of their red-zone trips, while the Bears allow touchdowns on 63 percent of opponent red-zone opportunities (76th overall and unadjusted for opponents). Both teams are in the top 20 in Field Position Advantage, but any turnovers in Baylor territory could be dangerous for a defense that, while excellent, is weaker in the red zone.

Of course, the matchup between the Sooners defense and Baylor offense is maybe even more anticipated. While Baylor leads the nation in both scoring and total offense, they are just 22nd and 21st in S&P+ and FEI, respectively. Quarterback Bryce Petty leads an exceptionally potent passing offense. The key for the Bears will be in not becoming one-dimensional. Running back Shock Linwood has 777 rushing yards on the season and is on pace to break the 1,000-yard mark, but the Baylor rushing game has been fairly average according to Rushing S&P+. The Bears just want to stop the Sooners defense from pinning their ears back and rushing Petty (even though the Sooners are ranked 57th in both Front 7 and DB Havoc Rate).

F/+ outright pick: Oklahoma

Notre Dame (+2) vs. Arizona State -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Notre Dame Arizona State
Overall F/+ 22 21
Field Position Advantage 27 44
Offensive F/+ 28 13
Defensive F/+ 20 38
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 17 33
FEI 35 40
Rushing S&P+ 30 49
Passing S&P+ 19 41
When Arizona State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 27 34
FEI 16 8
Rushing S&P+ 16 60
Passing S&P+ 59 23

The current Vegas spread and the Playoff Committee rankings reflect the narrow F/+ margin between the two schools. While the overall numbers make this look like a tight game going in, Notre Dame's offense looks like it could be the difference in the game, especially if Everett Golson can have a big game and take advantage of the relative disparity between the Fighting Irish passing offense and the Sun Devils passing defense. That is, of course, only if the Sun Devils passing offense can compensate for its relative weakness in running the ball. The Fighting Irish defense has opposite strengths -- in rush defense rather than passing defense. Can the Sun Devils -- who many suggest are the worst team in the Selection Committee's top ten -- be balanced enough on offense to match Golson and the Fighting Irish's scoring rate?

With such a thin margin separating these two teams no matter where you look -- Vegas, F/+, or Playoff rankings -- it's hard to find any statistical disparities even beyond the primary stats. My biggest concern for the Sun Devils is undoubtedly in their ability to run the ball and maintain any semblance of balance on offense. Not only do the Sun Devils rank 60th in Rushing S&P+, but they are also ranked 82nd in Adjusted Line Yards, while the Notre Dame defensive line is 19th in Adjusted Line Yards. It just doesn't look like D.J. Foster -- despite averaging 5.8 yards per carry -- will be able to run against the Irish defense. The Irish have been less impressive at getting to the quarterback, whether you're looking at their 89th-ranked Adjusted Sack Rate or their 86th-ranked Front 7 Havoc Rate, so maybe the Sun Devils decide to completely ignore balance and let Taylor Kelly sling the ball around. Some may point to Notre Dame's defensive performance against Navy (allowing 336 rushing yards) as evidence that inexperience and injuries -- including that to senior middle linebacker Joe Schmidt last week -- are starting to drag the Irish down, but the F/+ numbers suggest otherwise.

While Golson and the Notre Dame offense have led the way for the Irish lately, we will likely be seeing more short-yardage plays, field position, and third-down conversions (where the Irish rank 15th, converting almost 48 percent of third downs) for the Irish rather than explosive plays. The Sun Devils rank 12th in IsoPPP defense, while the Irish have just 16 percent of drives averaging more than 10 yards per play (41st). The gap between the Sun Devils defensive line and the Irish offensive line is also much closer, with the Sun Devils potentially having an advantage in Adjusted Sack Rate (19th to the Irish offensive line at 30th).

F/+ outright pick: Arizona State

Kansas State (+5.5) at TCU -- 7:30 p.m. (Fox)

Overall Kansas State TCU
Overall F/+ 15 10
Field Position Advantage 16 6
Offensive F/+ 24 22
Defensive F/+ 18 8
When Kansas State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 30 18
FEI 20 7
Rushing S&P+ 44 18
Passing S&P+ 34 37
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 21 14
FEI 11 29
Rushing S&P+ 11 4
Passing S&P+ 32 33

Few expected the Big 12 race to be this close and exciting -- even our preseason F/+ projections had this as a matchup between the No. 31 Kansas State and No. 35 TCU, not their current rankings of 15 and 10 in F/+ and 7 and 6, respectively, according to the Selection Committee. Kansas State currently leads the Big 12 race, but both only have a single loss and are in a great position for the College Football Playoff. Although they play different brands of football, the two teams are statistically very similar, with good defenses and great offenses that excel in winning the field position battle.

Although the two teams are ranked very similarly on both offense and defense, the Horned Frogs have the slight edge on defense, particularly when it comes to rush defense. The Wildcats take rushing yards where they can get them, whether that's from quarterback Jake Waters, who is the team's second-leading rusher, or running back Charles Jones, who leads a committee of backs with 29 percent of the team's carries. There's not a standout back, nor is the run game all that efficient (and that is mostly on an offensive line that is ranked 96th in Adjusted Line Yards), but they do an excellent job of moving the ball nonetheless, picking up a first down on more than 73 percent of drives (21st overall). It's likely due to a variety of play-calling on standard downs, where they run just 59 percent of the time. But now they'll face an excellent defense, and more specifically, an excellent defensive line that is ranked 18th in Adjusted Line Yards. The Horned Frogs have been very disruptive on defense (except against Baylor), but Jake Waters will certainly challenge their 37th-ranked pass defense.

Trevone Boykin and the Horned Frogs offense is second overall in scoring offense, but just 22nd in Offensive F/+, mainly due to a relatively weaker FEI rating. The lower FEI ranking goes back to a boom-or-bust offense that goes three-and-out on 30 percent of drives (44th) and one that isn't built for sustaining long drives (98th). It's likely that the Wildcats will use the strength of their defense -- a defensive line that's 13th in Adjusted Line Yards and defensive backs that are 14th in DB Havoc -- to try and limit the fourth-ranked rushing offense. Like the Wildcats offense, the Horned Frogs are led by a running back in B.J. Catalon who has slightly more yards than the quarterback (493 to 423), but they are far more efficient rushing than Kansas State. If Kansas State can limit the Horned Frogs ability to run the ball, then the Wildcats can use their defensive backs to confuse and limit Boykin in the pass game and pull the upset.

F/+ outright pick: TCU

Alabama (-6.5) at LSU -- 8 p.m. (CBS)

Overall LSU Alabama
Overall F/+ 9 5
Field Position Advantage 21 99
Offensive F/+ 19 7
Defensive F/+ 14 6
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 11 1
FEI 28 17
Rushing S&P+ 27 1
Passing S&P+ 11 18
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 7 4
FEI 21 12
Rushing S&P+ 19 20
Passing S&P+ 5 2

Rebuilding year? What rebuilding year? The LSU Tigers may be 7-2, but most programs would love to have a rebuilding year where the team is ranked in top ten of the F/+. This has become one of the most important annual games in determining the overall national championship picture, and it's no different this season as the Tide hold on to a fifth ranking from the Playoff Selection Committee. The Tide only need to win out to ensure a spot in the SEC Championship and playoff. However, they will first need to get past a Tigers team that beat Ole Miss, the only team to put a blemish on the Tide's record this season.

LSU and Alabama have similarly effective run games, with household names like T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, and Leonard Fournette, but Alabama also has the benefit of Blake Sims at quarterback. Sims leads the second-ranked passing attack thanks to Amari Cooper and his ability to take a screen for 75 yards (the second-leading receiver for the Tide has roughly a third of Cooper's total receptions). But if there's any team that matches up well with Cooper and that passing offense, it's the Tigers. The Tigers are fifth in Passing S&P+ on the strength of their defensive backs like Jalen Collins, pushing them to fourth in DB Havoc Rate. If the Tigers can contain Cooper, who has only been held to under 90 receiving yards in one game against Arkansas, then they have a chance. Otherwise it's strength-on-strength in terms of the Alabama offense versus the Tigers defense.

The Tigers offense has been a little bit of a roll recently, rushing for 264 yards against the Rebels two weeks ago. The strategy hasn't changed much on a macro-level -- run the ball as much as possible (on over 75 percent of standard downs) and win the field position battle -- but the Tigers have been more successful recently. Against Ole Miss, LSU averaged 4.8 yards per carry with 53 percent efficiency, and could have been even more effective if they had scored more than ten points off of four 60-plus-yard drives. They'll likely have even more trouble against the Tide's country-leading rush defense, so Anthony Jennings will need to be efficient if not prolific against the Tide's secondary. The Tide's front seven is not a unit that even LSU's fleet of running backs should take lightly, being tops in Rushing S&P+, third in Front 7 Havoc, and second in Adjusted Line Yards. The Tide are equally productive per-play and per-possession as limiting explosive plays (11th in both success rate and IsoPPP and 17th in FEI), so Jennings can't just throw bombs to big-play sophomore wide receiver Travin Dural.

Ultimately, despite the character of both teams' rushing attacks, this clash of titans will likely come down to which team can more effectively throw the ball. LSU has to have Jennings be a positive factor and shut down Amari Cooper at all costs; the Tide just need to have backups ready to catch the ball if Cooper is limited by an increased focus from the Tigers secondary.

F/+ outright pick: Alabama

Ohio State (+3.5) at Michigan State -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Ohio State Michigan State
Overall F/+ 7 11
Field Position Advantage 1 19
Offensive F/+ 15 18
Defensive F/+ 17 7
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 6 4
FEI 26 19
Rushing S&P+ 13 3
Passing S&P+ 4 8
When Michigan State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 12 3
FEI 22 32
Rushing S&P+ 57 5
Passing S&P+ 11 6

November 8 has been circled on Ohio State's and Michigan State's calendars since before the season started, and the two one-loss teams are essentially playing both a playoff elimination game and a Big Ten Championship rematch. While last season the pregame storyline was the top Spartans defense against a juggernaut Buckeyes offense, this season the roles aren't quite as clear. As Urban Meyer said in a recent interview, their offense has gone from "good to great" and they have "Good players in a good schemeā€¦ [that] can play in any conference on any level anywhere." Essentially, the challenge for the Buckeyes is that the Spartans look like a very complete team. And the metrics reflect that, with the Spartans in the top 20 in both Offensive and Defensive F/+. But then again, so are the Buckeyes. LSU-Alabama is the only other matchup this week that features two teams with top-20 rankings in both Offensive and Defensive F/+.

Despite how good Connor Cook, Tony Lippett, and the rest of the Spartans offense have become, much of the pregame media focus will still be on the matchup between the Buckeyes offense and the Spartans defense. Last season the Buckeyes were controlled at the line of scrimmage and Braxton Miller was often sacked before he could get the ball to his wide receivers. The Buckeyes passing attack is completely different this year, with new starters at two wide receivers spots, J.T. Barrett at quarterback, and four new starting offensive linemen. It has also been much more productive than it was last season, rising to fourth in Passing S&P+. The offense is still less explosive than successful and the offensive line is geared more towards run blocking than pass blocking (that 89th-ranked Adjusted Sack Rate is a glaring weakness against the seventh-ranked Spartans Adjusted Sack Rate), but it has been roughly as prolific as last season's group that featured Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. But the issue will still be the same this season against the Spartans: Michigan State's run defense has the potential to limit Ezekiel Elliott and the Buckeyes run game, but a pass-happy offensive game plan risks the Michigan State front (sixth in Havoc Rate) adding to their sack total. It doesn't help that J.T. Barrett has struggled in two games against the fifth- and ninth-ranked Defensive F/+ teams this season. The key will be whether the Buckeyes can avoid both third-and-long, where they struggled last year against the Spartans, and short-yardage situations, where they have struggled this season.

The Spartans offense is nothing to disregard either, even though they're much better on a per-play basis than in drive efficiency. In particular, there's a large differential in the Spartans Rushing S&P+ and their offensive line. From the comparisons of Adjusted Line Yards (where Michigan State's offense ranks 42nd and the Buckeye defense's ranks 82nd) and Rushing S&P+, you get the sense that Jeremy Langford should be able to run all over the Buckeyes. For the Buckeyes, then, the name of the game will be in shutting down that run game (and not getting in to a hole early) so that Connor Cook and the passing game isn't able to take advantage on play action. The Buckeye defense has improved in shutting down the short passes and screens that Cook ran so effectively last season, but now they have to disrupt the Spartans' balanced offensive attack. They can do that by either limiting Tony Lippett (who has three times more receptions than the second leading receiver) and the passing game, or by limiting the run game first so that play action isn't an option. Regardless, the goal is to make the Spartans one-dimensional. The Spartans offense is much more average according to FEI, so the goal may be to just limit big plays (where the Spartans are fifth in IsoPPP) and play quality field position football.

F/+ outright pick: Michigan State

Texas A&M (+21) at Auburn -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Texas A&M Auburn
Overall F/+ 61 1
Field Position Advantage 93 33
Offensive F/+ 44 3
Defensive F/+ 86 10
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 24 13
FEI 58 10
Rushing S&P+ 18 13
Passing S&P+ 28 21
When Auburn has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 60 2
FEI 89 4
Rushing S&P+ 92 8
Passing S&P+ 24 1

This game had much more hype during the preseason and after the first week of the season when the Aggies were fresh off of an upset of South Carolina, but this SEC West showdown still has national implications. The Tigers are newly at the top of the F/+ rankings while the Aggies have slid way down the rankings thanks to poor offensive performances and an abysmal rush defense. The Tigers are nothing but consistent -- where other teams have variations between S&P+ and FEI, or gaps between the offense and the defense, Auburn is ranked highly in almost every category.

The numbers suggest that the Aggies will only have a chance at the upset if they are able to do two things. First, the Aggies must not turn the ball over on offense while maintaining their usual consistency (10th in Success Rate). Texas A&M has turned to freshman Kyle Allen at quarterback after demoting (and then suspending) Kenny Hill, but that alone doesn't explain the disparity between the Aggies Offensive S&P+ and FEI. And it's not red-zone inefficiency either -- the Aggies are fourth in the country in red-zone touchdown rate, scoring six points on more than 75 percent of red-zone trips. Instead, the Aggies have low drive efficiency due to a -8 turnover margin, which is one of the worst margins in the country. Turnovers can decide almost any game, but that's doubly true for the Aggies against the Tigers. Auburn's defense, and particularly its secondary, has been very disruptive (fifth in DB Havoc Rate), so Allen and the run game will need to be consistent and, above all, not waste possessions with turnovers.

Secondly, the Aggies must do something to stop a top-ten rushing attack from Auburn. The biggest statistical disparity between the teams is in the Aggies' rush defense, which is far worse than Auburn's rush offense. While the Tigers have the top rated passing offense, I think the Aggies will be comfortable forcing Nick Marshall to beat them with his arm, especially if he has defensive end Myles Garrett in his face all night. Of course, that's easier said than done, especially when the Tigers offensive line is second in Adjusted Line Yards and 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate.

F/+ outright pick: Auburn


Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Baylor 5 Oklahoma Oklahoma Oklahoma
Texas A&M 21.5 Auburn Auburn Auburn
Kentucky 10 Georgia Georgia Georgia
Texas 3.5 West Virginia West Virginia West Virginia
Washington 4.5 UCLA UCLA UCLA
Ohio State 3.5 Michigan State Michigan State Ohio State
Notre Dame 2.5 Arizona State Arizona State Arizona State
Utah 8 Oregon Oregon Oregon
Kansas State 6 TCU TCU TCU

Record last week outright: 6-3
Record last week against the spread: 3-6
Season record outright: 75-33
Season record against the spread: 53-58

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 06 Nov 2014