by Chad Peltier
Week 7 was the first real chaos week of the 2018 season: four top-ten teams lost to unranked or lesser-ranked teams, and nearly every AP top-25 school struggled:
- Four top-ten teams -- Georgia, West Virginia, Washington, and Penn State -- lost.
- Four other top-25 teams -- Wisconsin, Miami, Colorado, and Auburn -- also lost.
- Notre Dame, Texas, Central Florida, Texas A&M, and South Florida all won by one score against unranked teams.
- Ohio State and Florida both won by double digits, but looked sloppy and vulnerable doing so.
- Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa completed just 54.5 percent of his passes (but yeah, Alabama won by 29 points).
So now literally every non-Alabama team has either lost or at least looked vulnerable this season. Let's dig in to some of those most important results.
First, Georgia's loss to LSU was reminiscent of the Bulldogs' 2017 regular-season loss to Auburn in a few notable ways, including how ineffective the offense was when playing from behind. On Georgia's second drive of the game, the Bulldogs had efficient plays on seven of nine straight runs, totaling 71 yards and averaging 7.9 yards per carry. But after two incomplete passes, Georgia opted for a gutsy fake field goal run that was sniffed out by star LSU linebacker Devin White (which was a taste of the impact Roquan Smith made for the Bulldogs last season). The Tigers would score a touchdown on their next possession to go up 10-0.
Down by 10, Georgia would then go three-and-out on its next three possessions as Jake Fromm completed just two of his first 11 passes. Fromm seemed uncharacteristically off-target against the stellar Tigers secondary, seemingly gunning for the deep pass (where he normally excels) instead of taking underneath throws. Fromm had a passing success rate under 40 percent on the day.
Even though Georgia was down 16-0 at the half, they began to claw back until turnovers did the Bulldogs in. LSU's strategy never changed -- be just efficient enough on offense to control the clock and take an occasional deep shot to Justin Jefferson -- but passing inefficiency and turnovers ensured that a comeback attempt wasn't going to work. On Georgia's second drive of the third quarter, and following incompletions on first and second down, Fromm threw a pick to give LSU the ball in the red zone. The Tigers then essentially sealed their win when Mecole Hardman fumbled on the Georgia 14-yard line on a kickoff return with nine minutes left in the game.
Georgia's turnovers were just extremely costly. Even if we ignore the interception on the Bulldogs' last possession, LSU scored 13 points off of the Bulldogs' first three turnovers, with every turnover either in the LSU red zone or giving the Tigers the ball in Georgia's red zone. LSU had +2.36 turnover luck, according to S&P+, which amounts to roughly 12 points worth of turnover luck for the Tigers. Still not enough for the win, but it certainly would have made things close for Georgia. The Bulldogs now have a week off before continuing with top-25 S&P+ opponents Florida and Kentucky.
One of the most stunning results was Iowa State's upset of West Virginia. The Cyclones defense completely dominated the Mountaineers, holding them to just 42 plays, 152 total yards, a 29 percent success rate, and a single scoring opportunity on 11 possessions. Will Grier, who was on nearly everyone's Heisman top-5 list, went just 11-of-15 for 100 yards and an interception, but he was sacked an incredible seven times.
Meanwhile, Iowa State controlled the game through a workhorse performance from David Montgomery, who had 29 carries for 189 yards. The Cyclones hit a few big plays, but they were mostly just efficient enough on offense to keep the West Virginia offense off the field -- they ran 30 more plays than the Mountaineers and had six more scoring opportunities. That will win you almost every game.
Michigan State is the king of ugly wins over top-ranked teams. Matt Brown has the full history of Mark Dantonio's ugly upset wins, including 2017's wins over Michigan and Penn State, and this was vintage Dantonio.
First of all, some basic stats about this game. Penn State had an S&P+ post-game win probability of 74 percent. The Spartans and Nittany Lions had similarly awful offensive success rates (34 and 33 percent, respectively), but Penn State was more explosive, averaging 6.2 yards per play (including Miles Sanders runs of 78 and 48 yards) to Michigan State's 4.7. And worst of all (for the Nittany Lions), Penn State's expected turnover margin was +4.11 (representing approximately 20 points), even though both teams had just one turnover apiece.
What does -4.11 turnover luck look like in a real game? Well, it equates to Michigan State fumbling four times and recovering every one of them, and Penn State totaling 14 passes defensed but only getting one interception (on average, you'd expect four or so interceptions). That's just absurdly unlucky. So now Penn State has two losses and is almost assuredly eliminated from playoff contention.
Speaking of playoff hopes being dashed, Washington's -- and maybe the Pac-12's as a whole -- ended with Oregon's overtime upset of the Huskies. This was the kind of gritty, tough game that you might not associate with the Ducks, but this kind of progress should be incredibly encouraging to Oregon fans.
Washington has embarrassed Oregon two years in a row -- 70-21 in 2016 and 38-3 in 2017 -- so the win means even more than a win over just any top-ten team. And the two teams were neck-and-neck throughout regulation, with neither team managing more than a touchdown lead throughout the entire game. When one team scored, the other scored on the following possession. The two teams even ended up within one percentage point of each in success rate, 48 to 49 percent. So it's only fitting that the game went to overtime due to a last-second Huskies missed field goal. Oregon won in overtime by relying on its two constants on offense: big plays from receiver Dillon Mitchell (who caught a 17-yard pass on third-and-11 from the 26) and C.J. Verdell, who had 29 carries and 111 hard-fought yards.
Despite Oregon's big win, S&P+ doesn't love the Ducks. They rank 34th, with the 91st-rated opponent-adjusted defense, and had an under-50 percent post-game win expectancy against both Washington and Stanford. Otherwise they've played three teams with S&P+ ratings of 126th or worse (San Jose State, Bowling Green, and Portland State). S&P+ expects Oregon to still drop games against Washington State and Utah, although the expected margins in both of those games are less than a touchdown.
That's just a summary of the top-ten upsets -- Wisconsin, Miami, Colorado, and Auburn also lost this week, too.
So after seven weeks, undefeated Alabama (88 percent S&P+ probability of going 11-1 or better), Ohio State (60 percent), Clemson (83 percent), and Notre Dame (74 percent) all have favorable regular season schedules for playoff contention. One-loss Michigan (17 percent chance of winning out), Texas (3 percent), Oklahoma (27 percent), Georgia (25 percent), LSU (5 percent), Oregon (5 percent), and Florida (14 percent) all have a shot, too.
That's a lot of traditional powers, to be sure. But there's also the interesting sub-plot in here about fallen national powers attempting to return to national prominence -- Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas, Oregon, and Florida more or less fit the bill here. While there aren't any truly shocking playoff contenders, there's still enough parity among that group of playoff contenders to keep things interesting.
- Let's use the toedrags to dig in to a few other big upsets from this week. First, we need to talk about Auburn. Auburn was ninth in the first AP preseason poll, and had a big Week 1 win over Washington (in a game where it actually had just a 45 percent post-game win probability), but just dropped its third game of the season. Its offense is a complete wreck, ranking 97th compared to second for the defense. Tennessee, who has lost almost every meaningful game they've played for a few years, used a +3 turnover margin to counteract a 13 percent success rate margin (and -1.5 average points per scoring opportunity margin) to come out with the win.
Auburn's offense as a whole has been terrible in 2018 -- they're 100th in marginal efficiency, 102nd in marginal explosiveness, and 105th in points per scoring opportunity -- but it wasn't really the problem against the Volunteers, outside of the turnovers. After all, they had a 45 percent offensive success rate. But surprisingly, the Auburn defense has shown a weakness against the pass, because Jarett Guarantano had the game of his life against the Tigers, throwing for 328 yards even though the run game averaged 2.6 yards per carry by the top two Tennessee backs. We'll get to more about Guarantano below.
- Instead of focusing on the team that got upset, let's take a second to talk about the Wolverines. Michigan sat on a 21-7 lead after the first drive of the second half, using dominating defense and a steady, ball-control offense to keep the Badgers at arm's length. Wisconsin was made completely one-dimensional offensively, with Alex Hornibook going just 7-of-20 for 100 yards and two interceptions, one of which was a pick-six that cemented the Wolverines' win. And 63 of those passing yards came on two plays on the Badgers' final touchdown drive of the game, well in to garbage time. With five minutes left in the game, Hornibrook had just 25 total passing yards. No one on Michigan's offense stood out -- Shea Patterson averaged just 5.9 yards per attempt and totaled 124 yards -- but the two Michigan quarterbacks broke big touchdown runs of 81 and 44 yards, as the Wolverines offense managed to create scoring opportunities on nine of 11 possessions. When you control the ball and win the field position battle like that (by an average of almost 10 yards), you'll win most games.
- Jarett Guarantano, QB, Tennessee. Jarrett Guarantano just had a career day against Auburn. He completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 328 total yards at 10.3 yards per attempt. Coming in to the game, Guarantano had not thrown for over 172 yards this season and only broke 200 passing yards twice during his freshman season. It's not surprising that he would eventually have success -- he was the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback of the 2016 class, ranking 79th overall -- but it was a surprise that he'd pick the second-ranked S&P+ defense to live up to that ranking.
- K.J. Hill, WR, Ohio State. If you haven't seen K.J. Hill's one-handed, 36-yard touchdown catch (and celebration), stop what you're doing and check it out. Hill has quietly put together an elite season, and this was his best performance yet. He led the team with nine catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns. He has 551 yards on the season and an insane 87 percent catch rate. He has a ridiculous 30.5 percent marginal efficiency on the year now. Hill has long been Ohio State's go-to receiver for must-catch passes, but he also flashed excellent playmaking ability against a tough Minnesota defense.
- Iowa State's defense. I already mentioned Iowa State's insane seven sacks on Will Grier. Here's some additional context: the Cyclones rank fifth in the country in overall havoc rate and seventh in sack rate.