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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?

10 Oct 2016

OFI: New Elite Teams

by Chad Peltier

This week marked the apparent decline of some of the biggest recent national powers, including Oregon, Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Stanford. Oregon was embarrassed at home by Washington, 70-21, with a zero percent win probability for the game and an 11th percentile performance. Notre Dame lost in a literal hurricane (again!) but didn't allow an offensive score to North Carolina State. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio had the quote of the week following a loss to BYU, noting that, "The ride up the mountain's very difficult at times, and that ride down sometimes is very quick." Stanford's decline isn't as steep as those of the others, but the Cardinal lost its second non-competitive game in a row (the Cardinal had zero percent S&P+ win probabilities in both games), and Washington State was able to out-rush Stanford.

If current S&P+ win probabilities for the rest of the season hold, then both Michigan State and Notre Dame will miss out on bowls this year, while Oregon will barely make a bowl game at 6-6.

The reasons for each team's decline are different. Notre Dame is 2-4 and has an equal likelihood of going either 5-7 or 6-6, but its offense and defense are both ranked in the top 32 in the country. For Notre Dame the issues are primarily with the pass defense, which is 110th in the country. It is one of the country's worst teams (124th) at pressuring the quarterback, and frequently allows big plays (114th in passing IsoPPP).

Oregon has similar defensive problems as it had last season, despite bringing in new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke. The Ducks are 127th in defensive success rate and 124th in rushing S&P+. For as productive as their rushing offense has been since Chip Kelly was hired, opposing running backs are equally as successful against the 2016 Ducks, no matter what type of offense they run.

Stanford has struggled in two areas on offense: running the ball consistently (109th in rushing success rate) and creating explosive pass plays (124th in passing IsoPPP). Christian McCaffrey has had to be the bulk of the offense, so when he has been shut down, the entire offense is as well.

For Michigan State, poor line play on both sides of the ball might be the biggest factor. The Spartans are 85th in offensive adjusted line yards and 88th in adjusted sack rate, allowing Tyler O'Connor to get sacked ten times so far this season. The defensive line has also underwhelmed, at 84th in rushing S&P+, 94th in havoc rate, and 114th in adjusted sack rate. That said, the Spartans have also faced four teams in a row ranked 45th or better in the S&P+ -- from Indiana at 45th to BYU at 22nd, their losses are due in part to relative decline and in part to a sneaky-difficult schedule. Unfortunately for them, it really won't get much better, as Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State are all ranked in the top 17.

That is a major point for most of these teams – their losses have been to quality teams. Oregon's four-loss streak includes losses to three teams ranked 34th or better in the S&P+. Stanford has lost to the seventh-ranked Washington Huskies and the 56th-ranked Washington State Cougars (who now have wins over both Stanford and Oregon this season!).

But while those schools have declined this season, others have risen. Washington (sixth in the F/+), Louisville (fifth), Texas A&M (eighth), Wisconsin (13th) and Nebraska (16th and undefeated) have all been nice surprises this season. These teams were 22nd, 36th, 24th, 23rd, and 27th in Program FEI last season, so they have all seen a bump up in national relevance so far this season.


  • Alabama has the fifth-ranked S&P+ defense. It forced five turnovers against Arkansas and is tenth in overall havoc rating. But there are a few issues that opposing offensive coordinators will try to exploit moving forward. First, the Crimson Tide are extremely break-don't-bend. They lock down the red zone, ranking 16th in finishing drives and second overall in defensive efficiency, but are susceptible to big plays, ranking 126th in unadjusted IsoPPP. This is mostly a standard downs issue (128th in standard downs IsoPPP compared to 27th in passing downs IsoPPP), but it is from both opposing rushing (123rd) and passing (116th). So who on Alabama's schedule can exploit that potential weakness? Probably just Texas A&M, who ranks tenth in rushing IsoPPP.
  • Michigan completely dominated a Rutgers team that has been shut out in consecutive weeks by the two best teams in the conference. The Wolverines' 78-0 win was incredibly impressive regardless of the difficulty of the opponent (I'm sure Jim Harbaugh was motivated in part just to win by a wider margin than Ohio State last week). The only statistic you need to know about this blowout is that Rutgers had 14 three-and-outs. But it's also worth noting that the Wolverines won by the margin they did largely without a passing game to speak of. Wilton Speight had just four successful passes out of 12 attempts. Instead, Michigan ran for nearly 500 yards with Ty Issac just 1 yard away from being the team's third running back to go over 100 yards on the day.
  • Houston really has two problems on offense that finally caught up to them in its loss to Navy. First, Greg Ward Jr. is far and away the centerpiece of the offense, so the offense's performance is largely dependent on what kind of day he has. So when Ward throws two interceptions and loses a fumble on a sack, there aren't too many other players to pick up the slack on offense. Navy had 14 points off of turnovers, including a pick-six, as well as a safety. Related, the run game is weak outside of Ward and running back Duke Catalon, but Catalon didn't play due to injuries. Really the entire run game is inefficient due to the offensive line, which is 101st in opportunity rate and 64th in adjusted line yards. No back on the team has an opportunity rate higher than Ward's 38.6 percent
  • Tennessee's luck finally ran out, even though it looked like another late turnover would lead the way for yet another second-half comeback against the Aggies. Tennessee's Malik Foreman forced a fumble in the fourth quarter as Texas A&M's Trayveon Williams broke away for what had been a 71-yard run with just two minutes left. There is only one team in the country with worse expected turnover margin than Tennessee (they're at minus-6.42 expected turnover margin and minus-3 actual), but fourth-quarter offensive surges have been the Volunteers' standard this year. They rank first in the country in fourth-quarter offensive S&P+ -- which they need, considering they are also 75th in first-quarter defensive S&P+. The Volunteers lost their toughest matchup to date, but now have Alabama next week. The Crimson Tide are still their only projected S&P+ loss, which likely sends them to Atlanta for a potential rematch with either the Aggies or Crimson Tide.


  • Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee. In a losing effort, Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara gets a nod here for leading the team in both rushing and receiving for a total of 288 yards on 26 touches. Kamara was a steady contributor with a 54 percent offensive success rate.
  • Dede Westbrook, WR, Oklahoma. Dede Westbrook broke the single-game Oklahoma receiving record with 232 yards on just ten catches in Oklahoma's win over Texas. Almost anyone can score on the Texas secondary, but that doesn't detract from Westbrook's impact when healthy.
  • Trayveon Williams, RB, Texas A&M. Trayveon Williams has led a rushing resurgence with quarterback Trevor Knight for the Aggies. Williams had 28 carries for 217 yards as a freshman, proving he can shoulder the load for his team while still ripping off explosive plays, like his 71-yard run (that was unfortunately fumbled with under two minutes left) against the country's 22nd-ranked rushing IsoPPP defense. He is the centerpiece of an Aggies rushing offense that is tenth in rushing IsoPPP and 19th in opportunity rate this season. He also leads all freshmen running backs with 704 rushing yards.


  • Marquel Lee, LB, Wake Forest. Wake Forest is 43rd in defensive S&P+ this year and 20th in front seven havoc rating, and a big part of that is linebacker Marquel Lee. Lee had 15 tackles including 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Wake Forest is now one win away from bowl eligibility after holding the 43rd-ranked Syracuse offense to just a single offensive touchdown.
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama. Minkah Fitzpatrick had three interceptions of Arkansas's Austin Allen, which proved pivotal in the 19-point win.

    Posted by: Chad Peltier on 10 Oct 2016