by Chad Peltier
We began to get some separation in Week 4, as the overachievers and underperformers have started to really stand out. Wisconsin (with two upsets over then-top ten ranked LSU and Michigan State), Louisville (with a Heisman leader at quarterback and the Florida State upset), Texas A&M (up to seventh in the F/+ rankings and past both TCU and Arkansas in four games), and Miami (which has performed about as well as possible against an admittedly weak schedule) headline the overachievers.
LSU (which just fired Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron), Notre Dame (which is now 1-3 after a loss to 64th F/+-ranked Duke), and Southern Cal (who moved to backup quarterback Sam Darnold this weekend but still lost to Utah) lead the underperforming blue blood teams through four weeks.
Then there’s the group of undecideds: Tennessee, which finally beat Florida behind Josh Dobbs’ second-half performance; Ole Miss, which absolutely demolished Georgia after two previous losses; and Michigan State, which lost a sloppy game to potential Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin.
- The Wisconsin Badgers now have wins over two top-ten teams (at the time of the game) in LSU and Michigan State. The Badgers certainly didn’t overwhelm the Spartans according to most traditional statistics -- the Spartans outgained the Badgers by 8 yards and had six more first downs, while neither team could run the ball effectively at 3.0 and 2.8 yards per carry. But the Spartans were strangely the sloppier team, turning the ball over four times to go minus-2 in turnover margin compared to Wisconsin. Michigan State was entirely shut out of the second half, with two turnovers on downs, two interceptions, and a fumble that was returned for a Wisconsin touchdown. The turnovers were all killer for the Spartans: besides the fumble return for a touchdown on their opening second-half drive, the Spartans had a muffed punt that gave the Badgers the ball on the 5-yard line, then three turnovers in Badgers territory (including one on downs). You don’t often hear this about a Mark Dantonio-coached team, but the Spartans were simply the sloppier squad on a night when neither was particularly efficient.
- Entering the season we expected Clemson and Florida State to contend for the ACC Championship, with the winner likely making a playoff run as well. Then Louisville demolished the Seminoles to join the race against Clemson, with Florida State seemingly relegated to third place. But they might actually be fourth in the conference behind another Florida school: Miami. Louisville, Clemson, and Miami are fourth, fifth, and sixth in the latest S&P+ rankings (Florida State is tenth to Miami’s 16th in the combined F/+ rankings), which are 70 percent based on 2016 season play and 30 percent based on preseason projections. Louisville, led by September Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, looks more or less like a complete team, but has its relative strengths and weaknesses. First, Louisville is now favored in all of their remaining games, with just two games where they have an S&P+ win probability under 87 percent: next week at Clemson, and their penultimate game against Houston. Louisville looks well-rounded through four games, but are minus-3 in turnover margin and seem to have trouble with red zone defense, allowing an average of 5.29 points per opponent scoring opportunity (97th).
The Tigers have been surprisingly sluggish on offense, ranking 125th in overall IsoPPP. The run game has been mediocre, with just under 40 percent of rushes going for more than 5 yards, and Deshaun Watson has averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt as the passing game is 39th in success rate. Clemson has instead relied on its top-ranked S&P+ defense.
Miami has played the weakest schedule of the three -- by far -- but has performed about as well as could be expected given the level of competition. The big surprise has been the run game, which has three players averaging over a 47.9 percent opportunity rate and 7.3 highlight yards per opportunity.
Finally, Florida State certainly has a chance to win the ACC (though the Playoff seems a longshot -- 63-20 might just be too much for the Committee to overlook), but must face three teams ranked above them in the S&P+, and do so with a defense that is 120th in passing IsoPPP and 121st in rushing success rate. It’s never good when opposing offenses can both consistently run the ball against you and complete big passes. Between these four teams (at least!), the ACC race might join the Big Ten as the most exciting and tight competition this season.
- If you want one game to clearly demonstrate why winning the time of possession battle doesn’t matter, look no further than Arkansas-Texas A&M. The Razorbacks held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game -- 39:45 to 20:15 -- but lost by three scores. If you’d rather just have a single drive to make that point, take a look at Arkansas’s first drive in the second half: 19 plays, 89 yards, and zero points. Starting at their own 5-yard line, the Razorbacks drove all the way to the Aggies’ 1-yard line, but failed to punch it in from first-and-goal from the 2. Scoring opportunities and the Razorbacks’ strangely poor performance in short-yardage situations made the most difference in this one. The Aggies scored their 24 points from six scoring opportunities, meaning that they averaged just 4.0 points per scoring opportunity, with two failed fourth-down conversions in the red zone. The Aggies also held Arkansas’s typically-strong run game to just 3.0 yards per carry. The Razorbacks were forced to rely on their passing game because they now rank 122nd in power success rate, converting just 47.6 percent of short-yardage situations.
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- LSU fired Les Miles on Sunday following its last-second loss to the Auburn Tigers. Most will remember the chaos in the final seconds -- where LSU’s Danny Etling originally appeared to complete a game-winning 15-yard touchdown pass with no time left on the clock, only to have that call overturned -- but the end-game clock mismanagement wasn’t the major reason that the LSU administration made their move. Instead, it was Les Miles’ inability to evolve on offense and the perception that the Tigers were getting lapped by their SEC rivals (Alabama, especially). Nick Saban’s success is hardly a fair measuring stick for SEC division rivals, but the Tigers’ preseason reference point was set at the fifth-ranked team in the country. Miles’ final game was about as even of a matchup as you could imagine: both sets of Tigers had a 32 percent offensive success rate, they both had one turnover, their average starting field position was within 2.2 yards of one another, and they were within .03 average points per scoring opportunity. The only difference was that Auburn created two more scoring opportunities -- and averaging just over 2.5 points per scoring opportunity, Auburn won by five points.
- Steven Montez, QB, Colorado. This space is usually reserved for Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. While Jackson threw for more than 400 yards last weekend, we’re omitting him here because of his competition and because another quarterback certainly deserves the lead-off Honor Roll spot as well: Colorado backup quarterback Steven Montez. The Buffaloes upset the Oregon Ducks despite the injury to dynamic starter Sefo Liufau, who carved up Michigan’s defense last week. In the win, Montez threw for 333 yards and ran for another 135 on 21 carries. While he threw two interceptions, he led the Buffaloes offense to a 5 percent higher offensive success rate than the Ducks. As in other games this week -- i.e., Auburn-LSU -- a single additional scoring drive made all the difference: the Buffaloes averaged 0.5 more yards per play, but 0.3 less average points per opportunity and a worse average starting field position. However, it managed to generate an additional scoring opportunity compared to the Ducks.
- Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State. If the Seminoles are going to challenge for the ACC title then they likely need some outside help from Clemson this coming week, but they will also need Dalvin Cook to play like he did against South Florida for the rest of the season. Dalvin Cook ran for 266 yards and led the team with 62 receiving yards. After taking his first carry 75 yards for a touchdown, Cook finished with a 71 percent rushing success rate.
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- Josh Dobbs, QB, Tennessee. Between Josh Dobbs, Trevor Knight, and Chad Kelly, it was a good weekend for the much-maligned quarterbacks in the SEC. Josh Dobbs gets the nod here for his second-half play, which was indicative of the Volunteers’ win overall. After recording just a 36 percent overall success rate in the first half, he had a 52 percent success rate in the second half and recorded seven explosive plays on Tennessee's 38-0 run to down the Gators.
- T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin. T.J. Watt did his best to look like his older brother (a comparison I’m sure he’s tired of hearing already) by recording 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. The Badgers have the twelfth-overall havoc rate in the country.