Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features


» Futures: Maurice Hurst

A heart condition discovered at the combine has put the Michigan lineman's career in limbo, but Hurst had the best film of any defensive tackle in this year's draft class.

23 Nov 2016

Seventh Day Adventure: Week 13

by Ian Boyd

If you read our Week 12 preview here, then you weren't shocked when Michigan State made Ohio State earn its road win in East Lansing; or when Houston relied on quick passing, defense, and special teams to manage a victory over Louisville, although the margin was surely shocking to everyone. There are virtually never any dull weeks in college football -- the game is too wild and unpredictable to allow it, and 18- to 22-year-old young men don't always act in predictable fashion when placed under pressure.

Other notable outcomes include Oklahoma and rival Oklahoma State respectively blowing past TCU and West Virginia on the road, setting up a Bedlam season finale that will serve as a de facto Big 12 championship game. Incidentally, starting in 2017 the Big 12 will have rules in place that would repeat that matchup a week later to determine the conference champion.

In the SEC, Florida clinched the East division and a chance to really upset the cart in the conference title game when it took vengeance on LSU for pushing this game and then talking trash. The Tigers controlled the ball and outgained the Gators 423 to 270, but a pair of lost fumbles and a goal-line stand by Florida were the deciding factors.

Week 13 is Rivalry Week, and it will feature some games that will determine conference championships, and a few others that will settle the playoff picture. Here's a guide to the biggest games of the week.

All times are listed as Eastern.

LSU (-6.5) at Texas A&M -- 7:30 p.m. Thursday (ESPN)

Overall LSU Texas A&M
F/+ 9 17
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 9 48
S&P+ 36 27
IsoPPP+ 18 36
Rushing S&P+ 5 62
Passing S&P+ 58 38
When Texas A&M has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 3 17
S&P+ 4 28
IsoPPP+ 3 24
Rushing S&P+ 10 29
Passing S&P+ 3 41

There's only one college game remaining to contend for America's attention during Thanksgiving. The day has largely been conceded to the NFL, save for this enjoyable new rivalry between LSU and Texas A&M. Of course, this game used to be the showcase of the "Lone Star Showdown" between Texas and Texas A&M, but petty bickering and politics ruined that tradition. Texas tried to replace A&M with whichever of TCU or Texas Tech was playing in Austin that year, but finally gave up trying to compete with Thursday night football and moved to Friday.

Meanwhile, this A&M-vs.-LSU matchup gave us a dramatic game in 2015, when Les Miles survived a coup to take his job and beat the Aggies 19-7 in front of a cheering home crowd in Baton Rouge. This year the site moves to College Station, where the Aggies are reeling in the wake of losing quarterback Trevor Knight and their last three conference games. On the bright side, star defensive end Myles Garrett is back on form and had 4.5 sacks against the overmatched UTSA Roadrunners last Saturday in a useful off week and tuneup for the Aggies before taking on this season finale.

The Tigers are reeling from the stinging defeat administered to them by Florida, and now have to recoup on a short week and travel to one of the louder and more spirited venues in all of college football. The matchups favor them in this contest, but it should be competitive.

Where the Tigers have an advantage is in the battle between their running game and the Texas A&M run defense. Despite a couple of fourth-down stops and fumbles by running back Derrius Guice, LSU ran the ball fairly well against a very good Florida defense that has better personnel up front than this A&M defense. Three of the Aggies' top four tacklers this season are defensive backs, and they have struggled to get the kind of play at defensive tackle or linebacker that you need to play dominant run defense in the SEC -- particularly against a massive and talented front such as what LSU regularly puts on the field.

The other advantage for LSU in this contest stems from A&M's loss of Knight, who was only a decent collegiate passer at best but a fantastic trigger-man in the Aggies' option run game. His replacement, Jake Hubenak, has thrown the ball fairly well, with 8.9 yards per attempt and five touchdowns to two interceptions in three games, but he offers next to nothing in the run game. The major benefactor of that exchange has been A&M slot receiver Christian Kirk, who had his finest game of the year three weeks ago against Ole Miss with a seven-catch, 144-yard receiving day.

Since A&M has been much better this year in the run game than it has been at throwing the ball, or protecting the passer, this transition is poorly timed for dealing with Dave Aranda's ultra-effective, blitzing LSU defense.

Watch for:

  • Does LSU still have juice and motivation for this season after dropping a game to Florida and a short week of rest?
  • Can Texas A&M run the ball against LSU's defensive front without the threat posed by running quarterback Trevor Knight?
  • There's some more coaching drama in this one, with A&M's head coach Kevin Sumlin likely to return and LSU's head coach Ed Orgeron unlikely to be retained.
  • Ratings numbers -- can this game drawn enough attention to hold the line on college football taking place on Thanksgiving?

S&P+ Outright Pick: LSU

Washington (-6) at Washington State -- 3:30 p.m. Friday (FS1)

Overall Washington Washington State
F/+ 6 24
When Washington has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 6 22
S&P+ 6 76
IsoPPP+ 7 76
Rushing S&P+ 35 45
Passing S&P+ 5 99
When Washington State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 9 24
S&P+ 11 17
IsoPPP+ 5 45
Rushing S&P+ 13 44
Passing S&P+ 11 36

This has been a game with obviously big ramifications ever since both teams took down Stanford and turned the schedule into a Pac-12 North-deciding collision course between the two rivals. Washington is a clear favorite thanks to its win over Utah, but neither team really has a big, resume-building win on its schedule. The Huskies are hoping to win this game, advance to the Pac-12 title game, and perhaps get vengeance on the surging USC Trojans. That could potentially put them in the playoff if other events fall their way.

The Cougars don't have any chance at the playoff, but winning the Pac-12 North would be a huge accomplishment for their program, while a Pac-12 title would go down in the annals with the other two seasons in which Washington State has won this conference.

To pull that off, the Cougars are going to need to contend with the Washington pass-rush, which can get pressure without blitzing and has helped the Huskies' defense rank 11th in passing S&P and 15th in defending passing downs. The Cougars are all about throwing the ball and really only run it when they need short gains, or if the opponent is playing personnel or schemes that are begging to be punished with an inside hand-off.

With star inside linebacker Azeem Victor out, it's likely that Washington will embrace a defensive approach that begs the Cougars to run the ball, such as a 2-3-6 dime package that replaces Victor's linebacker position with another safety or corner to contend with Washington State's passing game. The Huskies were already prone to asking Victor to cover in space, so they could drop a safety down in the boundary -- utilizing a coverage-savvy safety in his spot would make for an easy transition in their base nickel defense.

On the other side of the ball, Washington State's run defense took a blow to its reputation when it allowed both Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay AND quarterback Sefo Liufau to run for more than 100 yards last Saturday. The Buffaloes were able to run clock and keep the Washington State offense (and their own defense) off the field, and completely dominated the second half, when they outscored the Cougars 24-7.

USC took down the Huskies by stopping their run game, but no one else in the Pac-12 has succeeded in doing so. It'll be a tall order for the Cougars to limit Washington running back Myles Gaskin in order to give themselves a chance to draw the Huskies into the kind of pass-heavy shootout where they'd be at advantage.

Watch for:

  • How far does Washington go to dare Washington State to run the ball? Dime personnel?
  • Can Washington State defend Myles Gaskin and the running game well enough to lure Washington into its kind of fight?
  • How close are these teams in overall talent and athleticism? Washington could really use a statement victory in front of the playoff selection committee to boost its chances.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington

Michigan at Ohio State (-6.5) -- 12 p.m. Saturday (ABC)

Overall Michigan Ohio State
F/+ 3 2
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 3 4
S&P+ 25 7
IsoPPP+ 15 10
Rushing S&P+ 28 20
Passing S&P+ 11 5
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 5 2
S&P+ 1 14
IsoPPP+ 2 27
Rushing S&P+ 2 2
Passing S&P+ 1 52

This is it, the big one, and possibly just the first of multiple occasions in which Urban Meyer's Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh's Michigan will play each other with the Big 10 East and playoff prospects on the line. As it happens, a Michigan victory here would clinch the Big 10 East for the Wolverines and set them up to play Wisconsin (probably) in the Big 10 title game. Since they lost quarterback Wilton Speight, who is questionable for the rest of the year but might even play this week, the Wolverines need that kind of clear path. If they finish the year at 10-2, they may not get the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee over a one-loss Washington team.

The playoff will almost definitely consist of the Big 10 champion, Alabama, Clemson, and then one more team from the pool of Washington, Oklahoma, and the Big 10 runner-up. The Buckeyes are also in a precarious position, as a victory here doesn't assure them of the Big 10 East division title unless Penn State loses to Michigan State. If Ohio State can beat Michigan but miss out on the Big 10 title game because Penn State wins, they would be in great position to get the nod over Washington or Oklahoma (whom they beat earlier in the year in Norman). However, they have to beat Michigan.

The challenge for Ohio State in beating Michigan is in finding ways to move the ball against a defense that will be keying in on the run game as fiercely and perhaps even more competently than did either Penn State or Michigan State, with a better secondary behind its front to boot. Last year the Buckeyes mixed in some double-tight end formations that would feature Marcus Baugh flexed out wide only to crack back inside and take out the Wolverines' inside linebackers on power-read plays. This year Michigan has proven to be more resilient against the running game under new defensive coordinator Don Brown.

Last year Michigan found a few weaknesses in the Ohio State defense throwing the ball in the seams, particularly to future NFL tight end Jake Butt, who has 460 receiving yards thus far this season. The major question is whether the Wolverines have a quarterback who can distribute the ball. Speight was having a solid season until the Iowa game, when he sustained whatever injury held him out against Indiana last week. His replacement, John O'Korn, really struggled in his stead, completing only 43.8 percent of his passes at 3.7 yards apiece with no touchdowns or interceptions.

The Wolverines got their running game back on track against the Hoosiers, leaning on running back De'Veon Smith to carry the ball 23 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Ohio State has a much better run defense than Indiana though, and if the Wolverines can't get anything going on the ground and don't have Speight to guide their passing attack, it's hard to see where they'll find enough points to beat the Buckeyes in Columbus even if they can cause real problems for the Ohio State run game.

Watch for:

  • If Jabrill Peppers is going to contend for the Heisman, he needs to score in this game, be it on defense, special teams, or offense. Michigan needs the extra offensive production this week.
  • If Urban Meyer can find weaknesses in the Michigan run defense, even if only for a few big plays, that could be the difference as the Wolverines will likely be relying on their defense to keep them in the game.
  • Who starts at quarterback for Michigan, and can they get the superior Wolverines receiving corps involved?
  • Who has the edge in Round 2 of the coaching battle between Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh?

S&P Outright Pick: Ohio State

Michigan State at Penn State (-12.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Michigan State Penn State
F/+ 64 10
When Michigan State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 64 27
S&P+ 72 13
IsoPPP+ 41 28
Rushing S&P+ 50 19
Passing S&P+ 43 26
When Penn State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 102 10
S&P+ 46 37
IsoPPP+ 82 16
Rushing S&P+ 66 66
Passing S&P+ 96 9

As I noted above, Penn State needs only to win here at home against the Spartans and for Ohio State to beat Michigan in order to secure the Big 10 East division crown. If that happens, and the Nittany Lions were to secure a victory over Wisconsin (probably) in the Big 10 title game, they could very well be selected to participate in the playoff at 11-2 with two big wins over other playoff contenders and understandable early-season losses to Michigan and Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Michigan State demonstrated last Saturday that it is coming around some on offense with its running game (running back L.J. Scott carried the ball 19 times for 160 yards against Ohio State), while its defense was back to its normal standards in holding the Buckeyes to only 17 points.

For Penn State to complete its special season, it will need running back Saquon Barkley to shine against the Buckeyes like he did a year ago, when he ran for 103 yards on just 17 carries against the Spartans as a freshman. Ohio State was able to make some headway against this exceptionally young Michigan State defensive line, with both quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Mike Weber going more than 100 rushing yards, but the Buckeyes struggled to do anything through the air.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley has been helping to drive the Nittany Lions' more explosive 2016 offense with 8.5 yards per pass attempt and only five interceptions on the year. Tight end Mike Gesicki has been a reliable chain-mover for the Lions all season, while McSorley has completed 40-plus-yard completions to seven different Penn State players, most notably leading receiver Chris Godwin, who has 627 yards and seven touchdowns on the year.

This is where Penn State is most likely to prove victorious against the Spartans: in its ability to attack their coverage down the field with a really strong ensemble cast. If the Nittany Lions can do that, they should be able to put the game out of reach of the Spartans' own plodding offense and be in position for a Big 10 title and possibly even a playoff bid.

Watch for:

  • Can Michigan State run the ball and avoid passing downs, where quarterback Tyler O'Conner is likely to struggle against Penn State's lethal pass defense?
  • How does Michigan State hold up early against the Penn State vertical passing game, and can it avoid early knockout blows?
  • Which running back dominates this game? Michigan State runner L.J. Scott, or the explosive Penn State back Saquon Barkley?

S&P Outright Pick: Penn State

Auburn at Alabama (-17.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Auburn Alabama
F/+ 8 1
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 8 1
S&P+ 34 2
IsoPPP+ 50 1
Rushing S&P+ 41 1
Passing S&P+ 39 2
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 13 1
S&P+ 10 9
IsoPPP+ 15 13
Rushing S&P+ 15 6
Passing S&P+ 35 33

Auburn has tended to play Alabama pretty competitively under head coach Gus Malzahn, taking the Crimson Tide down in 2013 and then hanging around long enough to provide a scare in 2014 and 2015. Alabama ultimately even emulated Malzahn's Auburn offense this season by rolling with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and retooling its offense as an option-heavy rushing attack.

Hurts is currently leading the Tide in carries, with 142 on the year for 803 yards and 11 touchdowns. Running back Damien Harris is next up with 114 carries for 853 yards and two more touchdowns. The Tide running game has always been difficult to stop from the time when it was paired with a dropback passing attack, to the Lane Kiffin revolution where Alabama added more spread formations and pass options, to the current year when it utilizes spread-option runs. The current unit is one of the more impressive of the Nick Saban era, in part because it has been so effective despite not being paired with one of Saban's better passing attacks.

Auburn is one of the best defenses in the SEC best equipped to deal with Alabama's offense. The Tigers are completely at home playing in a 4-2-5 nickel package, utilizing quarters coverage, and relying on team concepts to defend spread-option tactics. The Tigers opened the season against Clemson, whom they held to 3.4 yards per carry in a narrow 19-13 defeat. They also played well against Mississippi State's spread-option rushing attack, but were gashed by the Texas A&M offense. The Alabama run game is better than any of those units, but the Tigers have at least shown some aptitude for handling the concepts with a good plan.

On the other side of the ball, Auburn has managed to get its run game going with some new faces and tends to match it with passing quarterback Sean White rather than with a running quarterback as it has done in the past. White has thrown for 8.3 yards per pass with nine touchdowns and three interceptions, and clearly hasn't been a focal point for the offense. What's more, he might also be out against Alabama. This would thrust last year's starter Jeremy Johnson into the action, or perhaps electric but unreliable JUCO transfer John Franklin III.

Lead Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway is also questionable for this game, but his backup Kerryon Johnson has also been effective all year with 823 rushing yards in his own right running behind Auburn's quality offensive line and fullbacks. The Tigers are really all about their offensive line and the ability to win at the point of attack, which forces defenses to adjust and creates openings elsewhere for the passing game. If they can hold their own against Alabama's fantastic defensive front, then whomever Auburn plays at quarterback or running back will have a chance. If not, then it won't matter.

Watch for:

  • Does Gus Malzahn have another Alabama game plan ready that can give Nick Saban fits?
  • Will the Auburn offensive line be able to create running lanes against Alabama's fantastic defensive front?
  • Who plays quarterback for Auburn?
  • Can the Auburn run defense stay disciplined and deny the explosive Alabama runners a chance to get loose into space?

S&P Outright Pick: Alabama

Florida at Florida State (-7) -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Florida Florida State
F/+ 29 12
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 29 59
S&P+ 88 31
IsoPPP+ 83 34
Rushing S&P+ 103 30
Passing S&P+ 56 41
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 7 12
S&P+ 5 5
IsoPPP+ 6 9
Rushing S&P+ 7 4
Passing S&P+ 9 22

The Florida Gators have a little extra pep in their step after taking down LSU in a heated battle and clinching the SEC East division. Florida State has had a strong year but fell short of winning the ACC Atlantic division thanks to losses to the two teams that finished above them, Louisville and Clemson.

There's a little bit of drama in this game stemming from the fact that Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has been linked to the LSU vacancy, and so this could potentially be his final game in charge of the Seminoles program he led to a national title just a few short years back. At any rate, there aren't many conference or playoff implications from this game's outcome, but it is still a fierce rivalry featuring a pair of very strong teams, and it could have some impact on the always important recruiting scene in Florida.

The biggest matchup in this game is between Florida's run defense, fresh off surviving against Derrius Guice and LSU, going up against Florida State's star running back Dalvin Cook. At 1,467 yards on the year at 6.1 yards per carry, Cook has been the main engine for the Seminoles' offense and has been healthier and more explosive down the stretch then he was earlier in the year. The Gators have a really strong run defense, geared around solid fundamentals and led by upperclassman linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Their preference is to make stops on standard downs via execution of their base defense and then to bring exotic pressures on third down.

Florida State's passing game has been hot and cold with redshirt freshman Deondre Francois at the helm, but it is capable of some major output on the right day, and when Cook (400 receiving yards on the year) is involved they can become very explosive. This battle will be won on first down unless the Seminoles can catch the Gators in a bad blitz with screens to Cook.

On the other side of the ball, Florida head coach Jim McElwain and his staff will have to get to work finding ways to move the ball against a Florida State defense that has been improving down the stretch. Defensive end DeMarcus Walker has led the way and has 13 sacks on the year while leading the team in tackles. The Seminoles will likely move him around to either deny the Gators their preferred running lanes or to attack the weaker spots in their pass protections.

Austin Appleby will once again be the man at quarterback for Florida, and when the offense stalls and he is inevitably asked to try and convert third downs under pressure, he'll want to avoid cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, who has eight interceptions already this season. Positive turnover margin has been essential to Florida in winning eight of 10 games this year despite having a rather weak offense.

Florida has found ways to get some points all year long -- if it can keep Dalvin Cook from blowing this game open then there's a chance it can do so again.

Watch for:

  • Can Florida keep Dalvin Cook under wraps?
  • DeMarcus Walker's alignment for Florida State -- he could be crucial to crushing what Florida wants to do on both standard and passing downs.
  • Florida quarterback Austin Appleby has to avoid McFadden and turnovers to give the Gators a chance.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Florida State


Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread
LSU 6.5 Texas A&M LSU LSU
Washington 6 Washington State Washington Washington
Penn State 12.5 Michigan State Penn State Penn State
Ohio State 6.5 Michigan Ohio State Michigan
Alabama 17.5 Auburn Alabama Auburn
Florida State 7 Florida Florida State Florida

S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 1-5

S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 27-45

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 23 Nov 2016

3 comments, Last at 30 Nov 2016, 4:05pm by almasdar


by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Sun, 11/27/2016 - 2:33am

the officials in the Michigan- tOSU game should never work another game. totally incompetent.

and if we can't have more sideline cameras, can these stupid f'n networks at least implement parallax correction graphic overlays?

The standard is the standard!

by big10freak :: Sun, 11/27/2016 - 3:34pm

Yesterday was par for the course in collegiate football officiating. It's several steps below the pro level and everyone complains about the pro refs constantly. Why should it be surprising that the college refs are less than impressive?