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30 Oct 2014

SDA: Early Playoff Elimination Round

by Chad Peltier

Florida State (-4) at Louisville -- 7:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

According to numerous projections, Florida State has the best shot of any team to finish the season with one or fewer losses, but Louisville will probably be the toughest test left on their schedule. The critical comparison is between the Louisville defense and the Florida State offense -- strength on strength. Michael Dyer and the Cardinals rushing offense might have a chance to put points on the board against a lackluster Seminoles rush defense, but it falls on the Cardinals' defense to live up to their top Defensive F/+ ranking for Louisville to really have a shot at the upset.

As we saw in the Clemson game, Jameis Winston drives this Seminoles offense. Many Florida State fans decry the lack of an effective running game since the top two rushers Karlos Williams and Dalvin Cook each average fewer than 5 yards per carry. But the Rushing S&P+ is much more impressed with the run game than the fans seem to be, ranking the unit 17th in the country (they were 13th last season). It's only in the offensive line stats where you start to see a potential issue. The Seminoles offensive line is ranked 58th -- so slightly better than average -- in Adjusted Line Yards, and has almost 20 percent of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Overall Louisville Florida State
Overall F/+ 15 11
Field Position Advantage 109 85
Offensive F/+ 63 8
Defensive F/+ 1 25
When Louisville has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 43 31
FEI 72 20
Rushing S&P+ 29 84
Passing S&P+ 59 52
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 6 14
FEI 1 7
Rushing S&P+ 15 17
Passing S&P+ 9 15

The Louisville defense is solid all the way around, so you do get the sense that Florida State will need Jameis Winston to have a great game, but they will also need to be balanced because the Cardinals defensive line seems to be better at picking up sacks (10th in Adjusted Sack Rate, ninth in Front 7 Havoc, and seventh in DB Havoc Rate) than in stopping the run (52nd in Adjusted Line Yards). So Winston may very well face an intense pass rush against a defensive secondary that is capable of creating big plays and turnovers as well. That's why it will take a balanced attack to ensure that all of the pressure isn't on Winston, with the Cardinals defenders able to pin their ears back and race to the quarterback. It won't help that Louisville has the best opponent red zone touchdown conversion rate in the country, allowing just 30 percent of opponent red zone attempts to end in touchdowns.

The Seminoles defense has declined from 25.7% (first) to 10.0% (25th) this season, but it's still a fairly stout unit even though the breakdown into rush (84th) and pass defense (52nd) doesn't look very impressive. Obviously the biggest concern is that Louisville's group of running backs, including the healthy Michael Dyer, will be able to drive down the field consistently. The Seminoles have been marginally better at preventing big plays than stopping consistently efficient rushing attacks, which will help considering Louisville's offensive Success Rate is just 37.5% (106th). Louisville has been fairly balanced between the run and the pass this season, with both Standard and Passing Down Run Percentages in the middle of the pack. That kind of unpredictability will help, but it can't come at the cost of big plays from the Seminoles secondary, which is 34th in DB Havoc Rate. What's also unpredictable is the gap between the Cardinals per-play efficiency and their drive efficiency, due in part to their poor success rate, high explosive ability, and relatively high number of turnovers (15). That plays right in to the hands of the Seminoles, who seem to be a little more bend-but-don't-break.

F/+ outright pick: Louisville

Florida (+13) vs. Georgia -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Florida Georgia
Overall F/+ 56 14
Field Position Advantage 34 1
Offensive F/+ 81 11
Defensive F/+ 44 39
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 59 30
FEI 88 40
Rushing S&P+ 32 63
Passing S&P+ 49 57
When Georgia has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 34 8
FEI 44 15
Rushing S&P+ 33 2
Passing S&P+ 34 16

The big news ahead of this matchup has undoubtedly been that Todd Gurley would be suspended for two additional games, leaving the Bulldawgs with Nick Chubb and Brendan Douglas to carry the load. They will be running against a Florida team that has been fairly demoralized after yet another lackluster 3-3 start to the season, which has fueled coaching hot seat speculation and the demotion of quarterback Jeff Driskel. Can new starter Treon Harris give the Gators a spark?

The Gators defense has never been a question during the Will Muschamp era. This year's edition is full of highly sought after recruits like usual and has been solid against the run and the pass. That's due in large part to the secondary, with star defensive backs like Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tarbor who have combined to put Florida at the top of the DB Havoc ratings. While Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason has led the 16th-best passing offense according to S&P+, he has yet to be asked to pass Georgia back in to a game. Georgia's passing attack is efficient, but merely to balance the strong running game and fuel an offense that wins on field position (where they're the best in the country) and limiting turnovers (they only have four on the season). That won't likely change against the Gators.

But the problem for Florida under Muschamp is the offense, which is decently efficient running the ball, but has had poor play from its quarterbacks. Treon Harris does average 14.6 yards per attempt, but he only has 18 passes all season to this point. Harris will have a limited number of plays to run, but the bye week before this game should benefit both his command of the existing offense and the number of looks he can present to the Georgia defense. The Bulldawgs defensive statistics are somewhat misleading, however. While they rank near the middle of the pack in both Rushing and Passing S&P+, they were able to shut out Missouri, shut Clemson down for the second half, and cruise to a win over Arkansas after a strong first-half performance. The Georgia defense has a habit of looking like the best defense in the country for a half, then cruising or letting their feet off the pedal. That has likely deflated their defensive rankings. The concern for Georgia fans shouldn't necessarily be in Florida's offense or Georgia's talent, but in whether the Georgia defense is overconfident after two wins without Todd Gurley. Overconfidence is "fuzzy" and hard to quantify, but that doesn't mean it won't be a factor in this game. If the Georgia defense plays to their talent level -- particularly if the front seven can step up (74th in Havoc Rate) -- then this will be a third comfortable Gurley-less Georgia victory.

F/+ outright pick: Georgia

TCU (-5.5) at West Virginia -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall West Virginia TCU
Overall F/+ 25 7
Field Position Advantage 91 4
Offensive F/+ 18 16
Defensive F/+ 36 12
When West Virginia has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 17 20
FEI 25 11
Rushing S&P+ 45 20
Passing S&P+ 11 42
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 17 18
FEI 47 22
Rushing S&P+ 31 6
Passing S&P+ 10 32

College Gameday has chosen Morgantown, West Virginia, as its landing spot this week after both Big 12 teams have had surprisingly solid starts to their seasons. Dana Holgorsen's defense has been maybe the most surprising, holding Baylor and Oklahoma State to just 37 combined points. The strength has been in the Mountaineers pass defense, which is surprisingly tenth in the country despite having the 109th-ranked DB Havoc Rate and the 94th-best Adjusted Sack Rate. Instead, the pass defense has been geared around efficiency (26th in Success Rate) and preventing methodical drives. They will certainly have their hands full as Trevonne Boykin comes to town to further his nascent Heisman campaign.

The Mountaineers defense seems like it's just waiting to be exposed despite two very solid performances over the last two games. With a mediocre sack rate, no real big-play numbers from the secondary, an average ability to slow explosive plays, and mediocre rankings across most of the FEI metrics, it's hard to imagine that it all sums together to create the tenth overall Passing S&P+ defense. TCU's Boykin absolutely eviscerated Texas Tech last week after going 2-1 against Oklahoma, Baylor, and Oklahoma State. Most of it was through solid field position and the defense creating turnovers, giving the Horned Frogs a shorter field to work with. But it also helps that they are among the most explosive offenses in the nation, sixth in IsoPPP and 10th in Explosive Drive Rate (one-fifth of their drives are explosive). That will be a huge problem for a Mountaineers defense that has lacked consistency preventing explosive drives.

The Mountaineers offense should find some room to work, though. The Horned Frogs are rated as the 12th-best defense in the country, but are weaker against the pass (42nd) and susceptible to explosive plays (57th in IsoPPP and 96th in Explosive Drives). That's good news for both quarterback Clint Trickett and the nation's leading receiver Kevin White, who even had 143 yards in the ten-point loss to Alabama. They will absolutely need as many big plays as they can manage, since there is a vast disadvantage in the Mountaineers' average field position and special teams play compared to TCU. The Horned Frogs will just need to prevent big plays by keeping everything in front of them, because the Mountaineers don't have a great ability to string together longer drives.

F/+ outright pick: TCU

Auburn (+2) at Ole Miss -- 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Auburn Ole Miss
Overall F/+ 2 1
Field Position Advantage 29 6
Offensive F/+ 3 22
Defensive F/+ 10 2
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 3 1
FEI 5 3
Rushing S&P+ 8 8
Passing S&P+ 1 1
When Ole Miss has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 12 10
FEI 13 35
Rushing S&P+ 6 50
Passing S&P+ 21 7

It's a surprise that College Gameday didn't decide to head down to Oxford, Mississippi, to see the clash between the Playoff Selection Committee's third- and fourth-ranked teams, but I guess they're a little tired of the state of Mississippi this season. The F/+ rankings are even more fond of the Rebels and Tigers than the Selection Committee is, so there's no doubt that this should be at the top of your viewing list this weekend. While Ole Miss is ranked one spot higher in F/+, a look at the numbers makes Auburn look like the slightly more complete team since the Rebels have relatively struggled to produce an efficient rushing attack. But with the way the defense and special teams are playing, you only need a relatively competent passing offense to put the Rebels in the thick of the race for a playoff spot.

The strength-on-strength matchup is when the Tigers are on offense. While no team has scored more than 20 points against the Rebels, two things would make me a little nervous to be a Mississippi fan. First, the loss of linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche is a tough blow (but his brother Robert and safety Cody Prewitt are expected to play). Second, despite their similar rankings, the Tigers offense has the statistical edge over the Rebels defense. Without a decisive advantage on either offense or defense, special teams and field position become more important to the Rebels. One thing you can count on is the Rebels preventing explosive plays, not only due to the Rebels defense and their second-rated DB Havoc score, but because Gus Malzhan's offense has been more tilted towards efficiency than explosiveness. Of course, Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne are capable of big plays on the ground, but it's more of a grind-it-out style of offense right now. The concern will likely be if the Rebels are able to shut down the Auburn rushing offense and force Nick Marshall to throw the ball. He has obviously been efficient when asked to pass, but like Georgia's Hutson Mason (who has similar efficiency numbers), he hasn't needed to pass very much for the Tigers to win.

The Tigers also have one of the top defenses in the country, despite allowing 38 points to Mississippi State and 35 to South Carolina. It's certainly not a good trend, but Auburn remains one the most efficient defenses both on a per-play and per-drive basis. The Rebels have a prolific quarterback -- Bo Wallace has passed for nearly twice as many yards as Nick Marshall so far this season -- but is only average in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on just 65 percent of red-zone opportunities. The concern for the Rebels, and the biggest talent differential in the game, looks to be between the Auburn rush defense and the Rebels rushing offense. The Tigers are elite in rushing defense, not only because of the sixth overall Rushing S&P+, but also because the defensive line is 11th in Adjusted Line Yards and the secondary is third in DB Havoc. However, that's balanced by the 110th Adjusted Sack Rate, so maybe Bo Wallace will have plenty of time to throw and keep the Tigers from getting too aggressive in stopping the run.

F/+ outright pick: Ole Miss

Arizona (+6.5) at UCLA -- 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arizona UCLA
Overall F/+ 27 24
Field Position Advantage 9 63
Offensive F/+ 20 12
Defensive F/+ 42 43
When Arizona has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 37 45
FEI 16 42
Rushing S&P+ 65 44
Passing S&P+ 51 25
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 53 34
FEI 28 6
Rushing S&P+ 52 24
Passing S&P+ 49 38

This matchup between the Bruins and Wildcats will go a long way in determining the final outcome of the Pac-12 South, even though the concurrent game between the Utes and Sun Devils is probably slightly more important. However, this could be the better game, with only two teams separating the two in the F/+ rankings. Both teams have surprised this season, but in different ways: the Bruins were supposed to fairly easily wrap up the South, while no one gave much thought to Rich Rodriguez's Arizona team. So they're certainly trending in opposite directions.

That doesn't make the Bruins much less formidable in this game, however, especially on offense. Brett Hundley isn't at the top of the Heisman board, but he still leads a solid passing attack and an offense that is far better maximizing drive efficiency than on a per-play basis. In line with the high drive efficiency, the Bruins are geared towards efficiency than explosiveness, picking up a first down on more than 75 percent of offensive drives. The Wildcats are fairly mediocre defensively, and equally average against the run and the pass. They are more bend-but-don't-break, however, so it will be on Hundley and company to continue their perfect red-zone scoring rate.

The Wildcats offense has thrived under Anu Solomon, and his matchup against the Bruins pass defense will be one to watch. The Bruins passing defense is very strong despite having a poor Havoc Rate and Adjusted Sack Rate. Give Solomon enough time to pass and the Wildcats could turn this into a shootout, especially if they can continue their solid play in terms of winning the field position battle and avoiding turnovers.

F/+ outright pick: UCLA

Utah (+6) at Arizona State -- 11 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Overall Utah Arizona State
Overall F/+ 32 18
Field Position Advantage 5 44
Offensive F/+ 79 14
Defensive F/+ 11 35
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 91 42
FEI 78 31
Rushing S&P+ 83 54
Passing S&P+ 102 44
When Arizona State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 38 29
FEI 5 10
Rushing S&P+ 24 57
Passing S&P+ 59 21

As I mentioned above, this game will go a long way in determining the Pac-12 South race. Arizona State is the team to beat, but they still have the November 28 game against the Wildcats to likely determine the southern representative for the Pac-12 Championship. The Utes have been one of the big surprises of the season, taking down Michigan, UCLA, and the Trojans last week. However, Utah has still been a little of an enigma: they have often won despite their offense, the defense is extremely bend-but-don't-break and poor against the pass, and they lost to Mike Leach's 2-6 Washington State team. Can they continue their impressive streak with a win over the Sun Devils?

The Utes' defense has really carried this team to several wins, especially off the strength of their run defense and in preventing explosive plays. That actually shouldn't be much of a problem for the Sun Devils, who are more effective through the air anyway. Quarterback Taylor Kelly might still be shaking off the rust from his return from injury, but Mike Bercovici's play in his absence proves that the Sun Devils can be effective no matter who is under center. The Sun Devils have had a very difficult four-game stretch against UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Washington (with Utah and Notre Dame on the docket), but they've averaged a consistent 29 points in those four games.

I'd imagine that four touchdowns might be enough to beat the Utes based on their offensive efficiency rankings. Utah is neither efficient nor explosive per-play or per-possession, their offensive line is average rushing (66th) and extremely poor (117th) in preventing sacks, and the offense picks up a first down on a little less than two-thirds of their possessions. Part of that inefficiency is because the offense lacks much in the way of variety: the Utes run on more than two-thirds of standard downs and almost 36 percent of passing downs. That should benefit the Sun Devils, who aren't great at stopping the run, but should benefit in trying to make the Utes offense one dimensional.

F/+ outright pick: Arizona State


Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Louisville 4 Florida State Louisville Louisville
Florida 13 Georgia Georgia Georgia
West Virginia 5.5 TCU TCU TCU
Auburn 2 Ole Miss Ole Miss Ole Miss
Arkansas 10.5 Mississippi State Mississippi State Mississippi State
Stanford 8 Oregon Oregon Oregon
Tennessee 7 South Carolina Tennessee Tennessee
Arizona 6.5 UCLA UCLA UCLA
Utah 6 Arizona State Arizona State Arizona State

Record last week outright: 8-3
Record last week against the spread: 5-6
Season record outright: 69-30
Season record against the spread: 50-52

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 30 Oct 2014