by Chad Peltier
Week 1 went largely by the book. Ranked teams dominated unranked teams, and the favored team generally won their matchups with other ranked teams. There were some exceptions, though: LSU beat Miami (although the game was actually about as close as the Vegas line and F/+ projections expected it to be), Maryland again upset Texas, and the Big Ten East had a lackluster day overall.
The Big Ten was a popular pick for the toughest conference heading into 2018, with five teams ranked in the F/+ top 12, and the same five in the preseason AP Poll's top 14. For four of those top five teams -- Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan -- it wasn't exactly a smooth debut (so good job, Badgers).
Michigan State narrowly avoided an upset by Utah State, a team that went 6-7 last season and ranked 78th in the preseason F/+ rankings. The Spartans couldn't get much going on the ground, with leading running back L.J. Scott averaging 3.7 yards on 23 carries, while Aggies quarterback Jordan Love threw for 319 yards, including passes of 28, 21, and 25 yards. The Aggies actually led 31-30 until the Spartans managed a 75-yard scoring drive with two minutes left in the game. On that drive, Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke came alive, completing five passes in a row for 54 yards to avoid a home upset.
Penn State was in an even more dire situation, with Appalachian State taking a 38-31 lead with 1:47 left to go. The Mountaineers were attempting to repeat what was probably the biggest upset of all time, their 2007 upset over fifth-ranked Michigan. Penn State found themselves fighting for their lives after going three-and-out four times and allowing the Mountaineers to score 28 points in the fourth quarter. Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley went 5-of-6 for 47 yards on a game-tying scoring drive. The Mountaineers had a chance to knock off another top-ranked Big Ten team in the final seconds, but missed a 56-yard field goal. Without offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead (now head coach at Mississippi State), top running back Saquon Barkley, and top receiving targets DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki, it was clear that the Penn State offense has some growing left to do. Hamilton was one of just 24 receivers with at least 80 targets last season who ranked in the 50th percentile in both marginal efficiency and marginal explosiveness last season. The national average marginal efficiency was 9.5 percent -- Hamilton's was 21.3 percent.
Ohio State was never in upset alert, but their defense did underperform relative to expectations. Oregon State was the worst Power 5 team in the country last season, going 1-11 and ranking 127th in overall S&P+ and 103rd in offensive S&P+. New Beavers head coach Jonathan Smith may have breathed some life into a listless offense over the offseason, but the Buckeyes defense also suffered some noticeable breakdowns, with linebackers filling the wrong gaps, defensive backs on the wrong assignments, and safeties taking poor pursuit angles. Part of the Buckeyes' defensive struggles could be attributed to so many new faces -- they started an entirely new linebacker corps and two new safeties, with starter Jordan Fuller sitting out the first game. With that much inexperience, the breakdowns led to the Beavers gaining 316 of their 392 total yards on just seven plays, including 78- and 80-yard touchdown runs.
Despite their struggles, Ohio State nevertheless won 77-31. The same can't be said for archrival Michigan, who faced Notre Dame (sixth in the preseason F/+, 12th in the AP Poll) and lost 17-24. Despite the addition of former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson and his immediate eligibility, the Michigan offense showed many of the same issues that it has for years -- a porous offensive line and ineffective passing. The Wolverines managed to create scoring opportunities on four of their 11 possessions (36 percent), but negative plays doomed most of those drives, resulting in the Wolverines averaging only 2.5 points per scoring opportunity (one Wolverine touchdown was a 99-yard kickoff return). Michigan allowed seven tackles for loss and three sacks.
I fully expect the Big Ten East to improve throughout the season, but it's worth keeping an eye on if these struggles pop up again in division play.
One of the more surprising results of the first week was LSU's big win over Miami. The Hurricanes were 0.9-point favorites by the F/+, with a 52.1 percent win probability, but ended up losing 33-17. Despite the points difference -- which was even more stark considering that LSU was up 33-3 until the fourth quarter -- the two teams were actually fairly evenly matched. Miami actually had the edge in total yards (342-296), was more efficient on third downs (6-of-16 compared to 3-of-16), and averaged more yards per play (5.0 to 4.6). But Miami was -2 in turnover margin and failed to take advantage of its scoring opportunities compared to LSU. Both Miami and LSU had five scoring opportunities, but Miami only averaged 3.4 points per scoring opportunity, while Tigers averaged a strong 5.2 points on their four scoring opportunities. However, if you count LSU's two drives that advanced to a first-and-10 at the Miami 41-yard line, instead of inside the 40, then the Tigers would have generated scoring opportunities on a robust 64 percent of their total drives but averaged just 3.7 points per scoring opportunity, which was similar to Miami. LSU's kicker managed field goals from 43 and 54 yards on a perfect 4-for-4 day. In contrast, Miami's kicker missed a 45-yard attempt. While the LSU kicking game was solid, the Tigers managed touchdowns on only one of their four red zone trips of the night. Maybe that's not too surprising, since Miami's defense was 24th in finishing drives last season, holding opponents to just 3.9 points per trip inside the 40.
Continuing the SEC's solid opening weekend, Auburn edged Washington in a game where neither team could take advantage of scoring opportunities. The two teams were close in total yardage (398 for Washington, 420 for Auburn) and in yards per attempt -- and in their inability to finish drives. Auburn created six scoring opportunities (60 percent), including every drive of the first half, but averaged just 3.5 points per opportunity after drives repeatedly stalled out into field goal attempts. In fact, Auburn was tied for the most field goal attempts in the country for the week with five vs. Washington (the Huskies had just one fewer, and tied for fourth-most). Washington actually had one more scoring opportunity (64 percent of their drives), but averaged only 2.3 points per opportunity thanks to a missed field goal, a fumble on the Auburn 3-yard line, and a failed fourth-down attempt on their final drive (and that doesn't count an additional interception with the Huskies at midfield). While neither team was very efficient at maximizing their scoring opportunities, the Huskies' two turnovers were deadly in such a close game. Despite getting the win, it's fair to say that Auburn didn't answer one of their biggest questions heading into the season -- whether Kam Martin could shoulder the load at running back. Martin ran for 80 yards on 22 carries (3.6 yards per attempt).
- After an offseason of dominating headlines, Nick Saban ultimately went with Tua Tagovailoa as his starting quarterback. Tagovailoa was as successful as you would have expected against a Louisville defense that ranked 97th in projected defensive S&P+, going 12-of-16 for 227 yards (14.2 yards per attempt). Jalen Hurts played as well, going 5-of-9 for 70 yards (7.8 yards per attempt). But as Alex Kirshner notes, the difference in outcomes for their drives is staggering: Tua's drives averaged 57.7 yards and 5.8 points, while Jalen's drives averaged 39.8 yards and just 0.8 points.
- West Virginia seemed to get more offseason hype than the advanced stats suggested that they should. They ranked 45th in the F/+ projections despite getting a lot of top-25 love from the preseason magazines. But they had a stellar showing against Jeremy Pruitt's Tenessee Volunteers, winning 40-14 as Heisman candidate Will Grier threw for 429 yards on 12.6 yards per attempt. The defense was disruptive as well, managing a crazy 12 tackles for loss. The depth chart is a little thin in Morgantown, but the Mountaineers' top-end talent should have them challenging Oklahoma for the Big 12 title, assuming everyone stays healthy.
- Speaking of the Big 12, it was another disappointing upset loss to Maryland for Tom Herman's Texas Longhorns. Sam Ehlinger got the start and averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt with two interceptions. But the bigger surprise is that the Texas run game still looks like it hasn't improved. The Terrapins ranked 85th in defensive S&P+ last season and projected at 59th this season, but the Longhorns averaged only 3.9 yards per attempt. Texas has time to improve, but this is undoubtedly a demoralizing loss.
- J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford. Stanford's passing game has been inconsistent for a while now, ranking 34th, 92nd, and fifth in passing S&P+ over the last three years. While San Diego State's defense is not the toughest that the Cardinal will see this year, Stanford fans have to be encouraged about the K.J. Costello/J.J. Arcega-Whiteside combo. Costello threw for 332 yards (10.7 per attempt), while Arcega-Whiteside had an incredible six catches for 226 yards. And that's on a night when Bryce Love averaged just 1.6 yards per attempt!
- Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue. Rondale Moore was one of Purdue's highest-rated recruits in a long time; he is currently their only former four-star recruit. He played like it against Northwestern, with two carries for 79 yards and a team-leading 11 catches for 109 yards and two total touchdowns. The freshman was electric and hinted at how exciting his career could be playing for Jeff Brohm's squad.
- Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State It wasn't Ohio State's best day defensively due to the aforementioned seven explosive plays allowed, but Nick Bosa made it clear that he has his sights set on sack records this season. Bosa had two sacks and four total tackles. He also had two fumble recoveries, one of which stopped a promising Beavers drive, the other resulting in a touchdown.