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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?

05 Nov 2015

SDA: Tests for the Tigers

by Chad Peltier

This is the week of the Tigers. Between Clemson and LSU, two of the top four teams in the College Football Playoff are Tigers, and both have the chance to solidify their elite rankings with huge wins over Florida State and Alabama, respectively. This may be the most intense Saturday of this college football season so far, as three of the top four teams have big games this week after most of the top ten took the week off last week. Undefeated Oklahoma State and TCU have the first Big 12 title elimination match, and playoff hopefuls Notre Dame and Memphis will both try to fend off upset challenges from Pitt and Navy. Outside of Deshaun Watson and Paxton Lynch, it's likely to be a running back-heavy weekend with Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, Wayne Gallman, and Dalvin Cook taking center stage.

Notre Dame (-8.5) at Pittsburgh -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

Though the excitement for this matchup might have been dampened a little by Pitt's loss last week to North Carolina, the Panthers have long been seen as a potential upset spot for the one-loss Fighting Irish. With losses to just undefeated Iowa and the Tar Heels, the Panthers have "quality losses," but they are only ranked 44th in the F/+ rankings. While it's true that the Panthers are the second-best remaining team on Notre Dame's schedule behind Stanford, Pitt will need to create big plays on offense and try to limit the Irish run game's efficiency to have a chance at the upset.

The Fighting Irish do a couple of things really well on offense: create explosive run and pass plays with C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller, and run the ball with incredible efficiency. The Irish are ranked seventh in overall offensive S&P+, first in rushing S&P+ (eighth in rushing IsoPPP), and eighth in passing IsoPPP. But even last week, when Temple was able to hold Prosise under 2.0 yards per carry, DeShone Kizer was able to take the baton in the run game, hitting a 79-yard run when C.J.'s longest of the day was just 79 yards. And Will Fuller is the team's obvious big-play threat, averaging more than 20.0 yards per reception. All of this is to say, this is a bad matchup for the Pittsburgh defense. Pat Narduzzi brought his efficient cover-4 defense to Pittsburgh, and so far it has performed well, though exactly as break-don't-bend as you'd imagine (47th in defensive S&P+, but 27th in defensive success rate). Pitt ranks 115th and 90th in rushing and passing IsoPPP, meaning that allowing big plays has been an issue. With Fuller, Prosise, and now Kizer as big-play threats, it will be difficult to keep the Irish out of the end zone. While you might see a few off drives for the Irish, it's unlikely that Pitt will contain the Irish offense consistently. Their best bet is to limit the run game's efficiency -- Temple managed to bottle up Prosise last week, and that should be the goal for the Panthers as well. The Irish rank 104th in stuff rate on their offensive line.

Overall Notre Dame Pitt
F/+ 5 44
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 7 47
FEI 5 15
Success Rate 24 27
IsoPPP 10 110
Rushing S&P+ 1 81
Passing S&P+ 8 10
When Pitt has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 35 53
FEI 32 49
Success Rate 26 50
IsoPPP 120 107
Rushing S&P+ 40 48
Passing S&P+ 21 51

In a best-cast scenario where the Pitt defense limits the play-to-play efficiency of the Irish run game like Temple did last week, it's fair to expect that the Panthers' offense will still need to score at least in the mid-20s. As explosive as the Notre Dame offense is, its defense is just as vulnerable to explosive plays, ranking 113th and 117th in rushing and passing IsoPPP. The question is whether Pitt can exploit this weakness. Pitt is 87th and 86th in rushing and passing offensive IsoPPP, but leading rusher and pass catcher Qadree Ollison and Tyler Boyd are both explosive enough to find some success. Ollison averages 6.8 highlight yards per opportunity, but only a 36 percent opportunity rate. Boyd has big-play ability even if his numbers don't necessarily reflect that -- he only averages 9.0 yards per catch. In fact, fellow junior receiver Dontez Ford might be the most explosive receiving option for the Panthers even if he receivers far fewer targets than Boyd. Ford averages 20.5 yards per catch, but gets only 14 percent of the passing targets compared to Boyd's 41 percent. Ford and Boyd -- as well as quarterback Nate Peterman -- will need big games for the Panthers to get the upset win.

Watch for:

  • Pitt has a terrible pass blocking offensive line, ranking 116th in adjusted sack rate, while the Irish are 88th in adjusted sack rate on defense. Will Notre Dame be able to get any pressure even though it doesn't typically have a strong pass rush?
  • Will the Irish combo of Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise hit any big plays against the Pitt defense even if their overall efficiency is limited?
  • Will Tyler Boyd or Dontez Ford be effective in creating big plays against the Irish defense?

F/+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame

Penn State (+2.5) at Northwestern -- 12 p.m. (ESPNU)

Overall Penn State Northwestern
F/+ 40 43
When Penn State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 59 7
FEI 81 12
Success Rate 112 37
IsoPPP 7 10
Rushing S&P+ 66 37
Passing S&P+ 82 8
When Northwestern has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 16 111
FEI 9 88
Success Rate 25 120
IsoPPP 31 62
Rushing S&P+ 44 40
Passing S&P+ 4 99

Penn State and Northwestern couldn't look more alike on paper: two losses each, but to elite teams (Ohio State, Temple, Iowa, and Michigan), great defenses (16th and 7th in the S&P+), and poor offenses (59th and 111th). Their remaining schedules have two more projected losses apiece as well. But the major difference is in their statistical ratings right now. The S&P+ has Penn State at 29th overall and Northwestern at 49th, but FEI reverses these rankings, putting the Nittany Lions 50th and Northwestern 36th. Which is to say, this looks like an incredibly even matchup.

The Nittany Lions offense is confusing. It is explosive, ranking tenth in rushing IsoPPP and 17th in passing IsoPPP. Christian Hackenberg has struggled some, but hardly ever turns the ball over with just two interceptions (the team itself is +8 in turnover margin). But Hackenberg takes sacks on more than 11 percent of his dropbacks; that's 122nd in the country in adjusted sack rate. Freshman running back Saquon Barkley is the reason why the run game has some explosive potential, and his 194-yard performance against Ohio State is evidence of that. Barkley averages a 47 percent opportunity rate and 6.6 yards per carry even though his offensive line is 67th in overall opportunity rate and 119th in stuff rate. In the past two games Barkley has been fairly contained, rushing for a total of 149 yards, but that seems to have opened things up for Hackenberg, who has been even more explosive. So, given Northwestern's own defensive strengths and weaknesses, do the Wildcats opt to focus on stopping Barkley at the expense of Hackenberg's explosiveness, or vice versa? The Wildcats' pass defense is one of the best in the country, ranking eighth overall, but their run defense is worse, ranking 37th in rushing S&P+ and 52nd in success rate. So if Northwestern plays to its defensive strengths, then it's fair to expect a big day for Saquon Barkley -- though Christian Hackenberg may struggle more than he has the previous two games.

The Wildcats offense has really struggled, as teams know they can load the box against sophomore running back Justin Jackson and dare freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson to out-pass the defense -- which so far hasn't happened yet. As a result, the Wildcats' rushing offense has struggled with efficiency, ranking 119th in success rate and 107th in stuff rate as Jackson averages just 4.2 yards per carry. The bright spot, reflected in the 11th-overall rushing IsoPPP ranking, is Clayton Thorson's running ability, as he averages 9.2 highlight yards per opportunity and a much higher 42 percent opportunity rate. Penn State's defense has been excellent, but has struggled somewhat with the run game. The Nittany Lions are 90th in rushing IsoPPP and 44th overall against the run, though they have a top-five pass defense and lead the country in adjusted sack rate. The Wildcats offense might break a long run or two, but third-and-long will be a big issue for the Wildcats if they are constantly pressured and unable to throw the ball. As it is, the Wildcats are 88th in passing downs success rate, and it's hard to see that number getting any better against Penn State. But the Wildcats offense might actually find some running room if they can avoid third-and-long situations.

Watch for:

  • Against the top overall adjusted sack rate defense and with a poor passing game, Northwestern has to avoid passing downs and third-and-long situations.
  • Northwestern has a chance to exploit a weakness against explosive running games, but that will likely fall on quarterback Clayton Thorson, who appears to be much more effective this season than running back Justin Jackson.

F/+ Outright Pick: Penn State

Florida State (-12.5) at Clemson -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Florida State Clemson
F/+ 20 1
When Florida State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 19 4
FEI 10 5
Success Rate 33 5
IsoPPP 26 68
Rushing S&P+ 6 4
Passing S&P+ 33 6
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 25 9
FEI 46 14
Success Rate 16 9
IsoPPP 36 43
Rushing S&P+ 25 7
Passing S&P+ 22 1

The Playoff Committee agrees -- no one has looked better than Clemson so far this season. And past Florida State this week in what essentially amounts to an ACC title game, Clemson is staring down an undefeated season and the top overall playoff berth. But the Seminoles have an outside chance at a playoff run themselves, though their path includes a season-ending matchup with Florida as well. This game has become an annual battle for the top ACC spot and it's no different this season.

Former five-star quarterback Deshaun Watson has the Clemson passing offense firing on all cylinders, ranking first overall in the country as he completes 70 percent of his passes for 8.2 yards per attempt. The offensive line, though it replaced some important members in the offseason, is 10th in adjusted sack rate. In fact, one of the best things you can say about the Clemson offense is that it very rarely moves backwards. The run game is seventh overall, 30th in stuff rate, and first in adjusted line yards as Wayne Gallman is a steady and efficient performer at 5.5 yards per carry with a 42 percent opportunity rate. That might be a concern for Florida State's defense, which doesn't force many negative plays (105th in stuff rate and 103rd in adjusted line yards). If Gallman is efficient on standard downs, Watson has the potential to be explosive against the 62nd-ranked passing IsoPPP defense. Artavis Scott is Watson's go-to receiver, but freshman Deon Cain is the big-play machine for the Tigers, averaging 20.0 yards per catch and ranking second in receiving yards on the team despite getting only 22 targets. Cain and Scott will certainly keep All-American cornerback Jalen Ramsey busy.

For as good as Clemson's defense is -- and it surprisingly replaced a ton of starters but hardly missed a beat -- Florida State running back Dalvin Cook is almost certainly going to be a problem for the Tigers. Clemson ranks sixth in passing S&P+ and fourth in rushing S&P+, but 86th in rushing IsoPPP (unadjusted). This is the sole weakness that this Clemson defense seems to have -- they create a lot of negative plays with a 30 percent stuff rate and 24th adjusted sack rate, but they can allow an explosive run here and there. Dalvin Cook is the most explosive running back in the country, averaging 11.1 highlight yards per opportunity. If he's not slowed by a hamstring or ankle injury, then he should have several big runs against the Clemson defense. Whichever quarterback ends up starting for the Seminoles will have a tough matchup, though Florida State fans can be at least somewhat relieved that backup Sean Maguire looked excellent in his first limited time as the starter. One thing the Seminoles offense simply doesn't do is turn the ball over, as Everett Golson has just a single interception and Florida State running backs haven't lost the ball yet -- which is why they are +9 in turnover margin this season.

Watch for:

  • If Dalvin Cook is full-go, will he be able to break off explosive runs against really the only weak point in the Clemson defense?
  • Will Deshaun Watson exploit the 62nd-ranked passing IsoPPP Florida State defense with big passes to Artavis Scott and Deon Cain?

F/+ Outright Pick: Clemson

TCU (-5.5) at Oklahoma State -- 3:30 p.m. (Fox)

Overall TCU Oklahoma State
F/+ 10 22
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 3 44
FEI 6 34
Success Rate 2 33
IsoPPP 12 51
Rushing S&P+ 39 45
Passing S&P+ 2 32
When Oklahoma State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 56 26
FEI 73 40
Success Rate 53 42
IsoPPP 93 24
Rushing S&P+ 66 115
Passing S&P+ 49 41

Oklahoma State has quietly snuck into the ranks of the undefeated and the middle of a Big 12 title race that was supposed to just be between TCU and Baylor. The undefeated Cowboys are the lowest-ranked of the four teams vying for the Big 12 title and a playoff spot (with its back-loaded schedule, undefeated Baylor was the top-ranked Big 12 school in the initial Playoff Committee rankings). Looking at these two teams, it is easy to see parallels between two elite pass-oriented offenses with much worse defenses, though Oklahoma State is less extreme in both regards.

The Horned Frogs offense couldn't get much better. TCU is obviously heavily pass-oriented (passing on 46 percent of standard downs), but Aaron Green and Trevone Boykin are both highly efficient, with 41 percent and 51 percent opportunity rates, respectively. But the passing game is really where TCU does their damage and why you can hardly ever truly count the Horned Frogs out of a game. Second overall behind Clemson in passing S&P+ and first in passing success rate, the Horned Frogs rarely allow sacks (fifth) and Boykin hardly ever throws interceptions (just five on the year), though he completes almost exactly two-thirds of his passes as well. Josh Doctson is the star here, averaging 17.6 yards per catch and as many targets as the next three receivers combined. Though Boykin has taken just six sacks this season, he'll have to get the ball out quickly nonetheless, as Oklahoma State has a fierce pass rush led by Emmanuel Ogbah. Boykin may not have seen a pass rush like the Cowboys' this season.

Regardless, it's probably a smart call to expect a shootout. TCU's defense has been hurt more than maybe any other unit in the country, and consequently ranks 73rd in defensive FEI. Even the strength of the TCU defense, which according to the S&P+ is their pass defense, is susceptible to big plays as they rank 123rd in passing IsoPPP.
The Cowboys' run game has been largely ineffective -- leading rusher Chris Carson averages 3.8 yards per carry and a 35 percent opportunity rate. Oklahoma State has needed to rely on Mason Rudolph, and he has been efficient. Rudolph will likely target James Washington and David Glidden with backup running quarterback J.W. Walsh coming in infrequently to add an explosive running dimension to the offense. No matter who is behind center, it's hard to imagine the TCU defense -- and really, either defense -- stopping the opposing offense consistently. This game might be decided by turnovers, or simply who has the ball at the end of the game.

Watch for:

  • Will Oklahoma State be able to score at the same pace as TCU even with a less effective run game, considering TCU's defensive struggles?
  • Will the Cowboys' pass rush affect Trevone Boykin despite the TCU offensive line being solid so far against most pass rushes?

F/+ Outright Pick: TCU

Navy (+8) at Memphis -- 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Navy Memphis
F/+ 24 21
When Navy has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 35 84
FEI 11 66
Success Rate 19 73
IsoPPP 86 100
Rushing S&P+ 31 61
Passing S&P+ 92 88
When Memphis has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 38 5
FEI 64 16
Success Rate 69 13
IsoPPP 28 37
Rushing S&P+ 20 88
Passing S&P+ 92 18

This one might get overshadowed between giants like Clemson-Florida State and LSU-Alabama, but it's likely to be a compelling matchup nonetheless. Memphis has already played (and beaten) both Bowling Green and Ole Miss, its two top-30 (or so) opponents so far this season. But now, beginning with Navy, Memphis faces three straight opponents ranked in the top 40, with projected margins all around a field goal in each game. No matter how good Paxton Lynch and the Memphis offense are, it will be tough to outpace Navy, Houston, and Temple. Navy has just one loss (to Notre Dame) to its name, but it also has Houston left on the schedule as well.

The biggest thing to watch will be an early lead for Memphis, which they're absolutely capable of creating. Lynch has completed 70 percent of his passes for more than 2,700 yards and just a single interception, leading the 18th overall passing S&P+ offense, which is also 26th in passing IsoPPP. Sophomore leading receiver Anthony Miller averages more than 17 yards per catch and leads the Tigers' ability to create big scores quickly. If that happens, then it's hard to see Navy's rushing offense catching up. The good news is that the Navy defense is classically bend-don't-break, 108th in passing success rate but 23rd in passing IsoPPP (albeit 92nd in overall passing S&P+). If Navy can limit big passing plays early on, then that's a start. Next will be defending the red zone, as Lynch is likely going to be able to drive the ball with efficient passing even if game-breaking explosive plays aren't open early on. There, Navy is 21st in allowing just 3.9 points per trip inside their 40, while Memphis averages 5.9 (second in the country). While Navy's defense gets better in the red zone, few offenses score touchdowns more consistently in the red zone than Memphis does -- and that's despite having just the 88th-ranked S&P+ rushing attack! While Navy should control the game on the ground, Memphis will likely be both efficient and explosive through the air.

Navy is an interesting team in that its first-half defensive S&P+ performances are terrible -- 82nd and 97th (which is bad news against the Memphis offense) -- while their first half offensive performances are excellent -- 35th and eighth. Oh, and then they completely flip-flop at the half, ranking 114th and 93rd on offense after the half and 60th all the way to 20th in the fourth quarter for the defense. I'd guess this again favors the Tigers, especially if they can get a stop or two in the first half. But Navy's offense is still extremely formidable with Keenan Reynolds still at the helm. Reynolds will likely break the career touchdown record this week against Memphis, and he leads the 14th-ranked rushing success rate offense. Memphis has been much more vulnerable to opposing passing attacks than rushing attacks, but that may just mean that a Navy receiver like Jamir Tillman has the chance to have an explosive reception or two as Navy is nonetheless efficient running the ball. Navy's biggest asset is that they rarely have negative plays and always win the field position battle on offense (sixth in average field position and second in stuff rate and adjusted line yards). So controlling the field position and being efficient early is likely Navy's recipe for success.

Watch for:

  • Can Memphis jump out to an early lead with efficient passing and great red zone success against a Navy defense that is typically much worse in the first half of games?
  • Can Navy control the field position and be efficient enough running the ball to break a few explosive plays and keep the score close early on?

F/+ Outright Pick: Memphis

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

Overall Alabama LSU
F/+ 2 3
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 36 34
FEI 26 23
Success Rate 49 51
IsoPPP 69 14
Rushing S&P+ 27 12
Passing S&P+ 31 5
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 3 6
FEI 1 9
Success Rate 3 20
IsoPPP 42 9
Rushing S&P+ 3 9
Passing S&P+ 1 25

Watch for:

This is the big one. No. 2 against No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season and the battle of two elite running backs in Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry. The thought is that if anyone can run on Alabama's defense, then it's probably Leonard Fournette -- this is a chance for Fournette to cement his position at the front of the Heisman race and to legitimize the playoff ranking for whichever team gets the win. Outside of this titanic matchup, we should note that while LSU controls its destiny in the SEC West, Alabama does not, needing to win here and also needing Ole Miss to lose another game (potentially in their matchup with LSU soon?) to advance to the SEC Championship. It's unlikely that two SEC teams make the Playoff, assuming an undefeated Big 12 team is still in the mix, so this really is a must-win for both teams. Though LSU sat higher in the first rankings, Alabama is second in the country in S&P+ and third in FEI, so it cannot be overstated how even these two teams appear to be.

As solid as the Crimson Tide have been post-Ole Miss, they do have a weakness for explosive plays on both sides of the ball. Ranking 69th in offensive IsoPPP and 42nd in defensive IsoPPP, Alabama is not an explosive rushing team and sometimes allows big passing plays as well. But there's just about where the weaknesses end for the Tide. Alabama has been efficient with Derrick Henry, just not that explosive -- and occasionally stuffed. Actually, close to 21 percent (83rd) of the Tide's runs are stuffed, something LSU's run defense will certainly be shooting for. But for as good as the Tigers' front seven have been (twelfth in rushing S&P+) they're pretty poor in both high-pressure situations and stuffing the run (117th and 111th), so it's fair to expect Henry to be fairly efficient against the Tigers. It almost goes without saying, though, that the Tigers' pass defense is among the best in the country, ranking fifth in passing S&P+ compared to the Tide at 31st. It's possible that Alabama can make something happen with emerging No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley (who now leads the team in target rate and yards per catch), but don't expect the most efficient performance from Jake Coker. Instead, the Crimson Tide will need to maximize field position and scoring opportunities when they get them. Alabama has actually struggled in the latter, but they have been excellent in average field position, with an average start at the 34-yard line. This could be the biggest factor favoring the Tide -- LSU has not only been mediocre in defensive average starting field position (59th), but it has been poor surrendering touchdowns from scoring opportunities, allowing an average of 5.1 points per opportunity (101st).

But, as you'd imagine, the biggest matchup will be between the Crimson Tide's third-ranked rushing S&P+ defense against Leonard Fournette. Fournette is rarely stuffed (15 percent stuff rate for the team) averages 7.6 highlight yards per opportunity, and has a 51 percent opportunity rate. Alabama's front seven is excellent, but like in the Tigers' matchup against Florida, it's tough to bet against Fournette still getting 150 yards on the ground. Add that to his backups in Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams and it's difficult to bet against the Tigers on the ground. Quarterback Brandon Harris hasn't been terribly efficient, ranking 85th in success rate through the air, but he has yet to turn the ball over and has the Tigers' offense fifth in passing IsoPPP thanks to big plays from receivers like Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre. The passing game is almost entirely those two receivers for LSU -- they average roughly 18 yards per catch and make enough explosive plays to balance Fournette and keep the offense humming. The Crimson Tide's pass defense a year ago was a liability, though they are now the top-ranked unit in the country. And since none of LSU's other receivers come close to the targets that Dural and Dupre have gotten (roughly 65 percent of Harris' passes), the Tide can almost only worry about covering these two, which absolutely favors the Tide. With so much contingent on both rushing attacks, expect one of the hardest-hitting, man-ball games of the season in this one.

Watch for:

  • Will Leonard Fournette still be efficient on the ground against the third-ranked Crimson Tide rushing defense or will Alabama be able to shift its focus on to stopping him given that LSU only has two proven receivers for Brandon Harris?
  • Can Alabama make the most out of red zone opportunities despite averaging just 4.7 points per scoring opportunity? Relatedly, can they ride an excellent average offensive starting field position to more scoring opportunities overall?

F/+ Outright Pick: Alabama


Baylor at Kansas State: This is Baylor's first game without Seth Russell leading the offense, and in his place is former five-star true freshman Jarrett Stidham. But even though Kansas State has a losing record, how will Stidham perform on the road in his first start? Can the Wildcats' 49th-ranked S&P+ defense force stops on a rolling Baylor offense? This might be the Bears' easiest remaining game of the season.

Minnesota at Ohio State: Speaking of quarterbacks, the Buckeyes have swung back to Cardale Jones after J.T. Barrett's recent one-game suspension for an OVI during their bye week last weekend. The offense was going strong with Barrett at the helm and in the red zone, so how will Jones affect the play of the offense? Will Braxton Miller be involved in the red zone and in the passing game, as he is purportedly the second-string quarterback behind Jones?

Auburn at Texas A&M: This looked like a much more important matchup in the preseason, but now Auburn is at .500 and the pair have six losses total. Sean White appears to be the answer at quarterback for Auburn, and it's possible Kyler Murray is the same for the Aggies, but will White be healthy enough to go for the Tigers?


Favorite Spread Underdog F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Baylor 17 at Kansas State Baylor Baylor
Notre Dame 8.5 Pitt Notre Dame Notre Dame
at Northwestern 2.5 Penn State Penn State Penn State
at Clemson 12.5 Florida State Clemson Clemson
TCU 5.5 at Oklahoma State TCU Oklahoma State
at Memphis 7.5 Navy Memphis Navy
at Texas A&M 7.5 Auburn Texas A&M Texas A&M
at Alabama 6.5 LSU Alabama Alabama
at Ohio State 23 Minnesota Ohio State Minnesota

Picks against the spread last week: 5-3

Picks straight up last week: 7-1

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 05 Nov 2015