by Chad Peltier
It wasn't supposed to be a big week. Without a single matchup between ranked teams, the best we could have hoped for was an upset or two and potentially an unranked team giving a ranked team a brief scare. But what Week 2 lacked in hype it more than made up for in surprises. Georgia only beat Nicholls State by two points. Clemson struggled with Troy. Oklahoma State was upset by Central Michigan on an incorrect final Hail Mary. TCU lost in double overtime to Arkansas. And Utah eked out a win over BYU in the Holy War by one point. Without many ranked matchups we didn't get much more clarity about who the playoff contenders might be this year -- that comes next week -- but we did get a lot of entertainment and close games.
- Is 2016 Clemson the new 2015 Ohio State or 2014 Florida State? The similarities between those three teams is obvious -- two had won national championships the previous season, and 2015 Clemson finished second -- but the national media spent all offseason building hype in all three cases. This weekend Clemson scraped a 30-24 win over Troy, with neither side of the ball matching its potential. The offense's performance was particularly jarring given how much talent the Tigers returned. With Deshaun Watson, Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman, and Mike Williams, Clemson looks like it should roll over its opponents. But so far, Clemson is averaging just 3.5 points per scoring opportunity (114th) and has just a 38 percent offensive success rate overall (101st). Wayne Gallman has failed to pick up any big runs (averaging 2.2 highlight yards per opportunity) even when there are holes for him to run through (with a 35.9 percent opportunity rate). Watson has thrown three interceptions already.
Finally, outside of Mike Williams, Watson hasn't had much luck connecting on explosive passes. Williams averages 18 yards per catch, but only has a 55 percent catch rate. Watson's other top receivers, Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud, average just 10.1 and 10.4 yards per catch (but with notably higher catch rates). Big passing plays weren't a problem last season, even without Williams as a big-play threat, as the Tigers were fourth overall in PPP+, with the tenth-most 20-plus-yard passes in the country. So poor rushing efficiency could be tied to replacing three starters on the line this season, but it could also be due to fewer explosive plays through the air, which allow defenses to key on the run.
- Nick Saban was as angry as we've ever seen him, calling his tirade against Lane Kiffin "an ass-chewing" instead of an argument, and saying that he didn't "know that I've ever been this disappointed after winning a game, maybe ever." So what went so wrong for the top-ranked F/+ Crimson Tide? Overall the team had a 44 percent offensive success rate, which was the 50th-best performance of the weekend in terms of offensive efficiency, and averaged 4.43 points per scoring opportunity (84th this weekend) against the 87th-ranked S&P+ defense.
Red zone scoring efficiency was a little poor, particularly in the first half, but the biggest concern was likely the run game. The box score is a little surprising. Alabama is replacing Heisman Trophy-winning Derrick Henry, but they're doing so with three blue-chip players in Damien Harris, the top-ranked running back recruit in the 2015 class; Bo Scarbrough, the second-ranked athlete in the 2014 class; and B.J. Emmons, the second-ranked running back in the 2016 recruiting class. However, these three totaled just 105 rushing yards on only 22 attempts against Western Kentucky. The trio's longest run was 14 yards for a total of two explosive carries, and they managed a 45 percent rushing success rate.
On the one hand, the relatively low efficiency is concerning, but so is the lack of explosive plays -- wouldn't you expect a trio of backs with that pedigree to break off a few big runs against a team like Western Kentucky? Well, maybe, but it's worth noting that going into the Alabama matchup, Western Kentucky's run defense was actually 26th in rushing success rate (based primarily off of preseason projections and not opponent-adjusted). Against USC and Western Kentucky, Alabama's unadjusted rushing success rate is now 106th. This will obviously change, but it's worth keeping an eye on to see whether the focus has just been in identifying and developing a new starting quarterback (where it's looking like Jalen Hurts) or if the run game really did take a hit after the departures of Henry and center Ryan Kelly.
- One of the stranger scores this weekend, particularly in light of their satisfying victory over North Carolina, was Georgia's 26-24 win over FCS Nicholls State. As you heard over and over during the broadcast, Nicholls went 3-9 last year, so their domination of both lines was surprising to say the least. The performance overall was similar to Clemson's poor showing against Troy, but Georgia doesn't have the excuse that the media influenced preseason expectations like Clemson might have. The offensive line's showing was poor enough that Kirby Smart said "We can't change guys out. We've got no free agency. We've got no cuts. So we have to take what we've got, and we've got to get those guys better. They've got to play better."
That poor play was evident in Nick Chubb's statline -- 20 carries for 80 yards, with a long of 18. Chubb recorded his first sub-100-yard rushing performance as a starter against Nicholls State. His per-rush performance wasn't that bad at a 45 percent success rate. His overall opportunity rate on the year is 40.4 percent however, which is a step down from his 47.3 percent opportunity rate last season. With limited data (and a more qualitative look at the line run-blocking), the line looks like the problem, not Chubb necessarily. Last year both Sony Michel and Chubb were plenty explosive, averaging 7.2 and 8.7 highlight yards per opportunity and ranking 15th in rushing IsoPPP. But the team's rushing opportunity rate was just 38.0 percent (81st in the country). Chubb, before his injury, was consistent enough (again, a 47.3 percent opportunity rate) that he made up for the offensive line, but the 22nd-ranked run game overall relied on running backs turning opportunities into explosive runs rather than consistently good blocking. Against Nicholls State, Chubb often didn't have time to get out of the backfield before he hit the front seven, as they recorded six stops at or behind the line of scrimmage. Of course, a quick passing game would help take some pressure off of the line.
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- LSU's Les Miles finally made a switch at quarterback against Jacksonville State, where Brandon Harris was pulled after two poor offensive drives for Purdue transfer Danny Etling. Etling was far from perfect, completing just six of his 14 passes, but he did have one explosive pass for a touchdown and averages 1.5 yards per attempt more than Harris (though against much weaker competition than Harris faced in Wisconsin).
- Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville. Lamar Jackson put up video game numbers: 411 passing yards and 199 rushing yards against Syracuse. He's third in the country and first among quarterbacks in total rushing yards this season (and he sat out the second half of his first game). Jackson may be the leading candidate for the (meaningless) September Heisman, but he'll have every opportunity to prove his playmaking ability this coming weekend against Florida State. Currently Jackson is leading the fourth-most explosive and fifth-most efficient offense in the country (unadjusted IsoPPP and success rate). In terms of creating explosive plays, Louisville now has three receivers who average more than 24 yards per catch (and more than 15.9 yards per target!).
- Drew Lock, QB, Missouri. Missouri quarterback Drew Lock faced an Eastern Michigan pass defense that was 78th in passing S&P+ last season, but he threw for an astounding 450 yards with a 65 percent completion percentage, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. In fact, Lock has yet to throw an interception this season after throwing eight last year. The highly recruited sophomore makes the Honor Roll because of how much progress it appears he and the passing offense have made through two games. Lock already has more than half as many passing yards as he had in all of 2015. He has managed this primarily through explosive passing plays rather than efficiency -- his leading receiver has just four catches for 126 yards (!) and the passing offense is 72nd in success rate but 14th in IsoPPP -- but some explosiveness and an ability to avoid turnovers have really helped Missouri's outlook this season on offense.
- Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon. With Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, and Leonard Fournette as competing elite running back this year, Royce Freeman seems to get somehow overlooked. But Freeman had 21 carries for 207 yards against Virginia this weekend, recording a 76 percent rushing success rate and three big explosive runs.
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- Big Ten defenses. Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan have all looked impressive on defense, so they all get a Lowsman shout-out this week. Ohio State's defense has yet to allow a touchdown against the high-flying offenses of Bowling Green and Tulsa. The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers forced six turnovers each last weekend and now lead the country in turnovers forced. Finally, Wisconsin and Iowa also kept their opponents out of the end zone on Saturday.
- Dan Skipper, OT, Arkansas. Arkansas had a huge win over TCU, but offensive tackle Dan Skipper gets the award this week by blocking the potentially game-winning field goal.
- Florida secondary. Florida always seems to have an elite pass defense, ranking 11th in passing S&P+ last season, but they limited starting Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker to just two completions for 10 yards in ten attempts with three interceptions in a dominating performance.