by Chad Peltier
This year's college football kickoff was advertised as the greatest first week ever, with multiple matchups between ranked and Power 5 teams. It lived up to the hype with its share of huge upsets (Wisconsin over LSU, Houston over Oklahoma, Texas over Notre Dame), elite performances (Alabama over Southern Cal, Ohio State and Michigan rolling), and close games (Texas’ dramatic two-overtime victory, Florida State’s second-half comeback, Georgia’s 19-point run over North Carolina).
No, the SEC is not dead. Yes, the SEC East endured two upsets to non-Power 5 schools in Mississippi State’s loss to Southern Alabama and Kentucky’s loss to Southern Mississippi. And yes, two SEC West top-tier challengers lost their premium non-conference matchups, with Ole Miss falling to Florida State and LSU losing to Wisconsin. But the SEC is far from dead. There are some specific situations and broad trends at work here. First, there seems to be greater parity in college football this year, whether between Group of 5 and Power 5 teams or just within Power 5 conferences. The SEC’s games against non-Power 5 schools -- including Arkansas escaping Lousiana Tech with a 21-20 home win and Tennessee needing overtime to beat Appalachian State -- all disappointed, despite F/+ win likelihoods of more than 92 percent. Second, there is increasing stratification within the SEC itself, with Alabama in more or less a league of its own (though, critically, far from unbeatable) and the bottom tier no different than any other group of Power 5 teams.
Finally, the SEC scheduled a few premier matchups, so losses were to be expected. For instance, Ole Miss had just a 54 percent F/+ win likelihood against Florida State. Auburn's chances against Clemson were just 15 percent, Texas A&M had just a 44 percent shot against UCLA, and Missouri had a 38 percent chance in their loss to West Virginia. Yes, F/+ gave LSU an 85 percent win likelihood over Wisconsin, but that was the only real upset the SEC faced in Power 5 conference matchups. The conference went 7-7 this week, but Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, and even Ole Miss can feel good about their performances.
We should know by now not to put too much stock into Week 1 performances. With an upset over Notre Dame, it sure looks like Texas Is Back -- and certainly expectations should be higher this year in Austin -- but it’s too soon to expect consistency from the Longhorns or their freshman quarterback Shane Buechele. Ohio State and Michigan both rolled, but it’s unfair to expect 63-plus points every week until The Game. Alabama absolutely dominated a Power 5 opponent who has the second-highest total team talent rating in the 247 Composite, but it could still be tripped up by Ole Miss, Texas A&M, or even LSU just in its own division. And don’t sleep on LSU despite a big upset loss to a seemingly inferior Wisconsin team that ranked just 36th in the preseason F/+ projections. Nearly every playoff team has faced an early season loss -- it’s just a matter of these teams turning it around quickly. So don’t count out LSU, Ole Miss, or Oklahoma from playoff runs just yet.
- There were both good and bad examples of how to handle a quarterback competition that extended into the season. Texas was the clear example of a successful two-quarterback system (albeit for one game), with Shane Buechele and Tyrone Swoopes filling defined, complementary roles. Georgia and Alabama managed their games successfully without necessarily committing to a single quarterback. Other new starting quarterbacks -- including Deondre Francois, Kenny Hill, Trevor Knight, and Dakota Prukop -- all had unquestioned success.
But there were less successful examples of quarterback management as well, particularly from Auburn and Notre Dame. The Irish only played Malik Zaire in three series, but they were seemingly wasted series as Deshone Kizer was clearly more effective running the offense. Worse was Auburn, where starting quarterback Sean White was rotated with Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III. White had a 33 percent passing success rate, while Johnson had three of six successful passing attempts (including an interception). Franklin III didn’t complete his single attempt. In short, the trio were rotated seemingly at random with none able to generate an efficient passing attack.
- The offense’s role in Texas’ upset of Notre Dame was the result of two big factors. First, Shane Buechele brought a new aspect to the Texas passing game that has been missing for some time -- explosive, field-stretching passes. With four explosive plays, including two passes of more than 68 yards to John Burt and converted quarterback Jerrod Heard, the Texas offense picked on a Notre Dame secondary that was 39th in defensive PPP+ last season. Buechele averaged 17.5 yards per completion, showing his willingness to go deep and keep the secondary from creeping into the box.
Second, although Texas running backs didn’t pick up many explosive plays, they were incredibly efficient. D’Onta Foreman had a 54 percent success rate, while Tyrone Swoopes was a third-down machine. The trip of Foreman, Swoopes, and Chris Warren III was more than capable of keeping the chains moving: combined they were six-for-eight in power situations -- third or fourth down and 2 or fewer yards to go.
This is absolutely not the end of Notre Dame’s chances to make the playoff. With games against Michigan State, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech, and USC left on the schedule, a three-point loss in the first week doesn’t change anything for the Fighting Irish. The quarterback race appeared to be decided a well, which should help moving forward, as Malik Zaire’s three series included two three-and-outs and his overall success rate was just 38 percent. Deshone Kizer, on the other hand, had a 58 percent passing success rate that included three explosive plays.
- So how did Houston upset Oklahoma, a team that returned its Heisman-contending quarterback after a playoff run last season? Just looking at the overall box scores, their total numbers are nearly identical. They both had 50 percent third-down efficiency, were within 17 total yards of one another, were within 2 passing yards and 0.5 yards per rush, and had similar penalty yardage. The only notable box score statistic that was drastically in favor of the Cougars was turnovers, and even there the margin was just plus-1 in Houston’s favor. Interestingly, the running back duo of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine only received 12 carries in the game despite Mixon’s relative effectiveness (three successful carries out of six, with one going for an explosive touchdown). Houston just seemed to do all of the little things right to get the upset.
First, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was harassed by the Houston front seven for most of the night, with the Oklahoma offensive line allowing five sacks and seven hurries. Second, the Cougars played pretty excellent bend-don’t-break defensive football. The Sooners were largely kept out of the red zone, with just one true red zone attempt (resulting in a field goal). Instead, they had three three-and-outs and two drives end in fumbles. That’s five drives that either ended quickly, putting the Sooners defense back on the field with a short break, or that gave Houston solid field position. With just 12 total drives, that means the Sooners wasted 42 percent of their drives. Mayfield threw for 323 yards, but 124 of those yards came on two passes. Finally, the Sooners gave up the critical special teams score with the kick-six missed field goal.
So, the lesson for upstart underdogs? Pressure the quarterback, force turnovers, win the field position battle, and create big plays on special teams.
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- Wisconsin threw two interceptions and only averaged 4.3 yards per rush, but still managed one of the most statistically improbable upsets of the week against LSU. One reason is that Wisconsin managed to contain Leonard Fournette -- likely because the defense didn’t fear anything else that Brandon Harris or the LSU offense could do. Fournette had a 48 percent rushing success rate, but only had three explosive runs with a long of 30 yards. For a normal running back, Fournette had an excellent game. But the standard is a little higher for Fournette and there aren’t really any other options for the Tigers besides a dominating performance from their star running back. Harris had a 43 percent passing success rate, but the bigger issue was that the Tigers couldn’t trust him on passing downs. On third downs, Harris converted just two of ten attempts through the air.
- Few games deserve the “tale of two halves” cliché as much as the Florida State vs. Ole Miss Labor Day night matchup. In the first half, Florida State looked disjointed -- like it was still in a preseason practice (that was going badly). The Seminoles had 15 penalties for 127 yards, many of which came in the first half. In six first-half drives, the Seminoles had two three-and-outs and then struggled to get touchdowns in the red zone, kicking two field goals in three attempts. But beginning with their first touchdown drive with just three minutes left in the first half, the Seminoles would go on to score on every single remaining drive. The Rebels would turn the ball over three times in the second half while Deondre Francois proved he was the answer at quarterback, throwing for 419 yards without an interception and without much help from an atypically sluggish run game. Francois finished with a 52 percent passing success rate.
- Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia. Less than a year removed from tearing almost every ligament in his knee against Tennessee last year, Nick Chubb returned for one of the most dominant returning performances in recent memory. With 222 rushing yards on 32 carries, Chubb proved that the Georgia offense could do exactly what it wanted to -- lean on maybe the most consistent running back in the country. With a 50 percent success rate and five explosive runs, Chubb blends efficiency and explosiveness better than most, if not all, of an elite class of running backs around the country this year. Chubb has now rushed for more than 113 yards in every game he’s started at Georgia.
- Tyrone Swoopes, QB, Texas. There are a number of deserving quarterbacks that could be here, including the actual starting Longhorns quarterback, Shane Buechele, or Florida State’s Deondre Francois. But Swoopes gets the nod here for his leadership and hard running, including a 54 percent overall rushing success rate and a 75 percent success rate on third down.
- Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville. Lamar Jackson only played in the first half of a blowout win over Charlotte. Granted, the Cardinals were only playing Charlotte, but their offensive dominance was surprising as Jackson piled up 286 passing yards and 119 rushing yards. In 34 snaps, Jackson had an incredible 11 explosive plays as the offense scored touchdowns on all but one first-half possession.
- Curtis Samuel, HB, Ohio State.This could easily go to quarterback J.T. Barrett for his seven-touchdown, 349-passing yard performance, but Samuel gets the nod for his go-to versatility. With nine receptions for 177 yards and 13 carries for 84 yards, he justified Urban Meyer’s praise as the first true H-Back the coach has had at Ohio State. Samuel had a 92 percent rushing success rate (18 efficient touches on 22 overall) and four explosive plays.
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- Ed Oliver, DE, Houston. Ed Oliver was the highest-ranked recruit not only for Houston, but the entire Group of 5. No five-star recruit had ever signed with a school outside the Power 5 conferences, and Oliver made an immediate impact against Oklahoma. Oliver harassed the Oklahoma offensive line all night, recording two of Houston’s five sacks and two tackles for loss. Oklahoma’s offensive line ranked 101st in adjusted sack rate last season and lost its only two all-conference performers.
- Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State.Returning production in the secondary is the metric that has the highest correlation with defensive S&P+. With three new starters in Ohio State’s secondary, that typically means bad news. But Malik Hooker alleviated many fears by recording two interceptions, including one athletic tipped pass while he fell to the ground.
- Anthony Nelson, DE, Iowa.Iowa had the country’s 31st-ranked S&P+ defense last year and reloads with Anthony Nelson along the defensive line. Nelson, who made his collegiate debut, recorded 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and a pass breakup.