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Defenses have taken a wide variety of responses to the rise of 11 personnel. Is any one system better than another? And how has the rise of the "moneybacker" changed defensive philosophy?

23 Oct 2014

SDA: From Death Valley to Happy Valley

by Chad Peltier

There is little to separate many of the one-loss teams behind Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Florida State from one another, but don't look for that to change this week. While some of those teams will play this week -- including Ohio State, Kansas State, and Michigan State -- none face particularly difficult challenges in their pursuit of a playoff spot. So unless this is a week of upsets, the action will do more to determine conference champions than the national champion. Miami vs. Virginia Tech gets it started later tonight, with rivalry games in Happy Valley and East Lansing on Saturday, then an SEC West showdown in Death Valley on Saturday night.

Miami (-2.5) at Virginia Tech -- 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

Tonight's primetime game is also one of the most exciting in the ACC. Despite their twin 4-3 records, Miami and Virginia Tech are each in the top 30 of the F/+ rankings because of one strong unit. For Virginia Tech, it's the No. 1 defense; Miami, behind new starting quarterback Brad Kaaya and healthy running back Duke Johnson, has the 16th-ranked offense. With Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer struggling with turnover issues, the strength-versus-strength matchup of the Hokies defense against the Hurricanes offense will be one to watch.

Overall Miami Virginia Tech
Overall F/+ 26 20
Field Position Advantage 80 47
Offensive F/+ 16 87
Defensive F/+ 47 1
When Miami has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 22 6
FEI 13 1
Rushing S&P+ 57 10
Passing S&P+ 11 1
When Virginia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 22 82
FEI 62 88
Rushing S&P+ 22 108
Passing S&P+ 23 90

The Bud Foster-coached Hokies defense is strong across the board, ranking in the top ten across almost all S&P+ categories except for IsoPPP. The Hokies have allowed 41 plays of 20-plus yards (that's 115th in the country) even though opponents go three-and-out on 42 percent of their drives and convert only 26 percent of their third-down attempts. Miami is actually third-best overall in IsoPPP, meaning that big plays (perhaps passes from Kaaya to receiver Phillip Dorsett) could decide the game. Dorsett is averaging 34.4 yards per reception this season and leads the team in receiving yards despite averaging barely two catches per game.

The Hokies have had a poor rushing offense that only got worse with Shai McKenzie's knee injury. Brewer compensated for a deficient rushing offense by throwing efficiently, if not for many yards, in their upset win over Ohio State, but has been sporadic since. Brewer has 11 interceptions this season, which is among the highest totals in the country. If he can play a mostly mistake-free game like he did against Pitt last week, then the Hokies have a good chance. As we saw last week, though, even that may not be enough as the offense becomes increasingly unbalanced.

F/+ outright pick: Virginia Tech

Texas (+10) vs. Kansas State -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Texas Kansas State
Overall F/+ 63 23
Field Position Advantage 105 18
Offensive F/+ 83 36
Defensive F/+ 28 16
When Texas has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 63 28
FEI 90 15
Rushing S&P+ 52 9
Passing S&P+ 65 56
When Kansas State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 38 39
FEI 24 32
Rushing S&P+ 55 58
Passing S&P+ 13 52

Like Michigan vs. Michigan State (see below), the long-time underdog in this matchup is now widely favored against the historic conference hegemon. Kansas State is favored by ten points and has a 40-spot rankings advantage over the Longhorns in Charlie Strong's first season as head coach. The Wildcats are playing to preserve an extremely narrow lead in the Big 12 race (though the numbers favor TCU, Oklahoma, and Baylor to finish with more conference wins). The Longhorns, again like Michigan, are 3-4 and rebuilding, but playing some quality defense and should make life difficult for Jake Water and company.

If there's one part of the team that is playing with the kind of grit and toughness that Strong preaches, it is his defense, and specifically his pass defense, which is 13th in Defensive Passing S&P, tenth in IsoPPP, and 55th in Front 7 Havoc. So what you've got is a tough front seven that is 15th in the country averaging 3.29 sacks per game that has severely limited opponents' explosive plays. The Wildcats are fairly balanced between rushing and passing, so a lot will ride on Jake Waters and his star wide receiver Tyler Lockett to get what it can, while Waters and running back Charles Jones move the ball on the ground. As you might imagine, given that their quarterback is averaging fewer than 5 yards per carry but still leads the team in rushing, the Wildcats lack a bell cow running back and will instead rely on a committee approach to attack a still fairly average Texas rush defense.

While the Longhorns' defense may win slightly more battles than it loses against the Wildcats offense, Tyrone Swoopes will need to continue his excellent play in order to give Texas a shot at the upset. Texas has been average in the red zone and extremely poor at producing explosive plays, but Swoopes has improved his completion percentage and the offense's total output while only throwing two interceptions over the last two weeks. Swoopes will continue to develop and should have some opportunities against the 56th-ranked passing defense. The problem might be in remaining balanced, as the Wildcats' great run defense might limit Malcom Brown and Jonathan Gray and destabilize the Longhorns offense. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, it's difficult to be so poor in explosive plays and also be poor in Field Position Advantage, but that's where Texas is right now.

F/+ outright pick: Kansas State

Michigan (+13) at Michigan State -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan Michigan State
Overall F/+ 55 18
Field Position Advantage 84 17
Offensive F/+ 72 32
Defensive F/+ 42 13
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 61 8
FEI 74 23
Rushing S&P+ 24 7
Passing S&P+ 80 11
When Michigan State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 23 13
FEI 44 45
Rushing S&P+ 6 40
Passing S&P+ 40 7

This one should not be close on paper. Michigan State has entirely shaken off the "Little Brother" moniker that former Michigan running back Mike Hart gave them back in 2007, and has now won five of the last six games against the Wolverines. The Spartans are a veteran group with an efficient quarterback and one of the best defensive minds in coordinator Pat Narduzzi. The Wolverines are a good contrast, with their 3-4 record and coaching instability. As roughly two touchdown underdogs, the question is whether Michigan has any chance of an upset, or whether the Wolverines will have to wait until next year -- the first year in the post-Gardner and likely post-Hoke era -- for another shot.

If the Wolverines can hang their hat on anything, it has been the rush defense, which is currently ranked sixth in the country overall. The Spartans have run hard behind Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill (who are both averaging better than 5 yards per carry), but they are also surprisingly explosive with senior receiver Tony Lippett, who is averaging more than 20 yards per reception (an increase of more than 6 yards per catch compared to what he did last season). Maybe the biggest knock on the Spartans offense has been their predictability, running on more than two-thirds of standard downs and passing on more than 75 percent of passing downs. That predictability hasn't hurt them in the red zone, where they score touchdowns on nearly 74 percent of their opportunities, but it has led to a lower possession efficiency relative to their per-play success rate (seventh overall at 50.4 percent). Michigan excels in preventing explosive plays and in rush defense, but that likely won't stop the Spartans from seeking to establish the run game and then mixing in intermediate passes and play action from Connor Cook.

What's more concerning for the Wolverines' chances is whether they can produce any offense against the 13th-best F/+ defense. Without Derrick Green, who is lost for the season to injury, Michigan hasn't been as productive running with De'Veon Smith despite the offensive line improving to 39th in Adjusted Line Yards. With the Spartans offense outperforming preseason projections (58th in Projected Offensive F/+), the defense hasn't needed to play as well as the record-breaking group from last season even though it has almost matched last year's incredible efficiency. One thing to keep an eye on will be whether the Wolverines can manage any explosive plays against the Spartans, who rank 124th in Defensive IsoPPP despite their eighth Defensive S&P+ ranking. Devin Gardner has led just the 94th IsoPPP offense, so there's no guarantee that they can take advantage, but there's always the chance that Devin Funchess can make some big plays.

F/+ outright pick: Michigan State

Ole Miss (-3.5) at LSU -- 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall LSU Ole Miss
Overall F/+ 27 1
Field Position Advantage 14 8
Offensive F/+ 42 19
Defensive F/+ 31 4
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 18 1
FEI 54 5
Rushing S&P+ 26 5
Passing S&P+ 20 2
When Ole Miss has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 13 8
FEI 49 23
Rushing S&P+ 21 31
Passing S&P+ 12 5

It's a night game in Death Valley, and that seems to be the only reason why Ole Miss is favored by just 3.5 against LSU. The Rebels have the advantage in all but one statistical comparison, but LSU is coming off of two wins over SEC East teams, including a dominating 41-3 win over Kentucky. The Tigers upped their rushing output to 303 total yards with 45 percent rushing efficiency against Kentucky's 79th-ranked rushing defense. However, just two weeks before, the Tigers averaged just 3.8 yards per carry while being completely shut down by Auburn. Ole Miss, with maybe the country's best defense, will give the Tigers their best competition yet.

The Rebels defense features standout defensive back Senquez Golson, who has seven interceptions on the season and is a big reason why the Rebels are fifth in the country averaging +1.43 in turnover margin per game (and leading the country with 15 interceptions overall). The Rebels held Tennessee and standout freshman Jalen Hurd to zero total rushing yards, which does not forecast well for LSU. While there is a big difference between Tennessee and LSU in their ability to run the ball (66th vs. 26th), the Rebels have shut down each opponent they've faced. Despite being efficient throwing the ball (with the 20th passing offense and 28th on passing downs), they haven't been very prolific behind either Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris, throwing the ball on fewer than 27 percent of standard downs and on just 62 percent of passing downs. The Tigers will need to be less predictable -- particularly on standard downs -- if they want to avoid becoming one-dimensional. FEI is less impressed with the Tigers offense (and defense, for that matter), in large part because the Tigers have gone three-and-out on 41 percent of drives and really struggled stringing together methodical drives. Methodical drives are less important when you win the field position battle, which the Tigers usually do, and they are also efficient when they do get in the red zone (scoring touchdowns on nearly three-quarters of their opportunities).

The Rebels offense lives and dies on the play of quarterback Bo Wallace, who has led the team to an astounding top-5 ranking in Passing S&P+. His six interceptions haven't been detrimental this season, and a combination of the defense, field position, and varied offensive play-calling has fueled a surprisingly efficient offense. That doesn't mean that the Rebels have steamrolled opponents on offense -- their offensive line is much better in passing protection (37th in Adjusted Sack Rate) than run blocking (123rd in Standard Downs Line Yards), which makes junior running back Jaylen Walton's efforts that much more impressive. Their unpredictability in standard downs play-calling (running on 60 percent of standard downs) has kept defenses guessing, however. The Tigers are at least built to handle the Rebels offense with the 12th-overall passing defense, almost never allowing methodical drives, and forcing three-and-outs on 41 percent of opponents' possessions. If you were looking for a game that really showcases the importance of field position (I see you, Jim Tressel), this SEC West showdown is it.

F/+ outright pick: Ole Miss

Ohio State (-13) at Penn State -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Penn State Ohio State
Overall F/+ 42 8
Field Position Advantage 101 2
Offensive F/+ 86 12
Defensive F/+ 9 26
When Penn State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 59 19
FEI 94 28
Rushing S&P+ 54 61
Passing S&P+ 66 16
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 16 5
FEI 9 20
Rushing S&P+ 8 28
Passing S&P+ 29 3

The Buckeyes are coming off of four straight 50-plus-point games and opened as 11.5-point favorites over the Nittany Lions. While Urban Meyer's Buckeyes have gotten back on the national radar of one-loss teams, those four wins have come against the 103rd-, 91st-, 32nd-, and 73rd-ranked Defensive F/+ teams. Penn State, while lower ranked than 35th-ranked Maryland and fresh off of a loss to middling Michigan, gives the Buckeyes a legitimate defensive challenge. At ninth in Defensive F/+ (including top-ten rankings in Rushing S&P+, Defensive Efficiency, First Down rate, and Explosive Drives rate), the Nittany Lions are a great test for the renewed Buckeye offense.

After six games the Buckeyes have almost met their preseason offensive F/+ projection (eighth) despite losing Braxton Miller after the projections were made. Since the Virginia Tech loss where quarterback J.T. Barrett completed only nine passes and threw three interceptions, Barrett has led the third most efficient passing offense in the country. The Buckeyes are also top overall in Offensive Success Rate and top ten in Available Yards. The Buckeyes are slightly less efficient on a per-drive basis (a hangover stat from turning the ball over several times in the red zone early in the season) and "only" 32nd in IsoPPP, but the Buckeyes finally have an offense that is capable of converting third downs (converting 49 percent of attempts) through the air. And it's the passing game where the Buckeyes hope to do the most damage against the Nittany Lions. Even though the Penn State defense is top ten against the rush -- led by star linebacker Mike Hull -- they are 29th in Passing S&P, 38th in IsoPPP, and 88th in DB Havoc Rate. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman will look to test this secondary with the emerging Buckeyes receivers Mike Thomas, Corey Smith, Jalin Marshall, and Dontre Wilson, especially if the offensive line gives Barrett as much time to pass as it did against the Rutgers front seven. The Nittany Lions lead the nation in average rush defense, allowing just 61 yards per game, and they are only slightly less efficient in Defensive S&P+. The biggest key will be for the Buckeyes not to get one-dimensional with the passing game.

Much less has been said about the Nittany Lions offense versus the Buckeyes defense, where the Buckeyes look to have a strong advantage. However, Penn State does look to have a narrow advantage on the ground. The Buckeyes allowed a staggering 370 rushing yards to Navy, but haven't allowed over 149 yards or 4 yards per carry since. If there's one area where the Buckeyes absolutely have improved, it's in new co-defensive coordinatorChris Ash's pass defense, where the Buckeyes have moved up to 16th from 61st last season. Christian Hackenberg will likely have a tough time remaining upright due to a combination of the fifth-best Front 7 Havoc defense (which combines tackles for loss, forced fumbles, pass defensed, and sacks) and his offensive line's 104th-ranked Passing Downs Sack Rate (at 10.5 percent, that's a sack every ten passing downs). The Nittany Lions' best hope is to try for methodical drives using a balanced mix of rushes and passes on standard downs, then mixing in big pass plays to try and recreate some of the success Maryland and Cincinnati receivers had against the Buckeye secondary. The Buckeye defensive backs are 104th in Havoc Rate, so there could be opportunities downfield with manageable risk for Hackenberg.

F/+ outright pick: Ohio State

USC (-1) vs. Utah -- 10 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Overall USC Utah
Overall F/+ 21 31
Field Position Advantage 62 4
Offensive F/+ 11 84
Defensive F/+ 37 11
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 19 36
FEI 11 8
Rushing S&P+ 30 28
Passing S&P+ 12 46
When Utah has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 37 92
FEI 36 83
Rushing S&P+ 53 68
Passing S&P+ 35 102

Southern Cal is in a fight with Arizona State for control of the Pac-12 South, but the Trojans undoubtedly have the tougher draw this weekend. The Utes have surprised many by climbing into the top 25 after victories over UCLA and Michigan this season. In fact, the Utes would be undefeated if not for a one-point loss to Washington State last month. A victory for the Trojans keeps them in the running for the South, but with the Sun Devils holding the tiebreaker, they will need some help with Arizona State losses.

Vegas bettors see this game going either way, and there's definitely an argument to be made for either team. One of the main swing factors will be Utah's quarterback play. The Utes are the quarterback carousel standard-bearers this season, with both Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson leading the Utes to victory after the other struggled early in consecutive games (Thompson upsetting UCLA, then Wilson getting the double-overtime win after starting the second half against Oregon State). Wilson has the edge as a passer and Thompson as a runner, but Utah is undoubtedly a run-based team. The Utes are just over average rushing the ball overall (68th), but they do it quite a bit, as the 19th run-heaviest offense on standard downs. Against UCLA -- 44th in Defensive F/+ to USC at 37th -- the Utes ran for 45 percent efficiency, especially picking up steam as the game went on. The Trojans' pass defense is full of stars like edge rusher Leonard Williams and Su'a Cravens, but the run defense has been worse than expected. Boston College was able to upset the Trojans by rushing for an astounding 452 yards on 54 carries. The Utes, while not as efficient rushing as Boston College, may try to follow that same blueprint this week.

While the Trojans should have the edge when the Utes are on offense, it's a much more even matchup when Cody Kessler and his offense are on the field. The Trojans offense has been consistent, with Kessler distributing the ball between star receiver Nelson Agholor, freshman JuJu Smith, and running back Javorius Allen. Between all of those receiving threats and the Trojans converting 75 percent of red-zone trips to touchdowns behind Buck Allen's hard running, the Trojans offense has been balanced and efficient, likely posing a tougher test than any the Utes have seen this season. One thing to watch is that the Trojans are more apt to throw on standard downs -- which they do roughly 45 percent of the time -- than most teams, which could play in to the Utes' relative defensive weakness.

F/+ outright pick: USC


Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Virginia Tech 2.5 Miami Virginia Tech Virginia Tech
Texas 10 Kansas State Kansas State Kansas State
Kentucky 13 Mississippi State Mississippi State Mississippi State
West Virginia 1 Oklahoma State West Virginia West Virginia
LSU 3.5 Ole Miss Ole Miss Ole Miss
Tennessee 17 Alabama Alabama Alabama
South Carolina 17.5 Auburn Auburn Auburn
Penn State 13 Ohio State Ohio State Ohio State
Washington 3 Arizona State Arizona State Arizona State
Michigan 17.5 Michigan State Michigan State Michigan State

Record last week outright: 7-4
Record last week against the spread: 6-5
Season record outright: 61-30
Season record against the spread: 45-46

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 23 Oct 2014