by Chad Peltier
Week 2 was surprisingly interesting, with the big games mostly delivering, and more than a few upsets and close calls.
It began with South Carolina, which had been the popular preseason pick as the second-best team in the SEC East and a potential upset pick over Georgia. But Vegas and F/+ weren't as convinced as the media -- F/+ had the Bulldogs as a 6.4-point favorite, while S&P+ had the Bulldogs by 12.7.
Georgia defied both media and F/+ projections with a 41-17 win. The Gamecocks added a fourth-quarter touchdown that made the score a little better on paper, but wasn't enough to lift South Carolina out of garbage time. In fact, Georgia managed an incredible 16-play, nearly-ten-minute drive to close out the game.
Georgia got out to a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter thanks to a big interception return from Deandre Baker (who dropped the ball at the 1-yard line to miss out on a pick-six, but otherwise held star Gamecocks receiver Deebo Samuel to just six catches for 33 yards) and a four-play, 76-yard drive with explosive plays from Mecole Hardman and D'Andre Swift. South Carolina kept it close for the rest of the first half thanks to a long drive of its own and a rare Jake Fromm interception (which would be one of just three missed passes for Fromm on the day), but Georgia absolutely blew the game open in the third quarter, going on a 21-point scoring run where the defense held South Carolina to two three-and-outs and a second Jake Bentley interception.
This game was about as on-script as you could imagine for the two teams. It was extremely close for a half, as the series typically is (especially at Williams-Brice Stadium). But then superior athleticism won out in the second half as Georgia showcased its skill talent -- Mecole Hardman finished with six catches for 103 yards and a 30-yard run. The Georgia defense was stifling, making the South Carolina offense one-dimensional by holding Rico Dowdle to seven carries for 18 total yards (and the team to 20 carries for 54 yards). Bentley had 47 passes -- including over 30 in the first half alone.
Speaking of the SEC East, the streak is over -- Kentucky upset Florida 27-16, the Wildcats' first win over the Gatorsin 31 years. And it wasn't particularly close -- Kentucky had an 8.6 percent success rate margin and averaged about 2.5 more yards per play than the Gators. The Wildcats finally pulled out the win thanks to a dominant rushing performance: Benny Snell Jr. ran for 175 yards on 27 carries, while quarterback Terry Wilson added 105 on just ten carries. Both had 30-plus-yard runs, exposing Florida's subpar recruiting along the defensive front seven relative to their usual talent level. Overall Kentucky managed a 19.3 percent explosiveness rate. Florida couldn't get much going on the ground either, averaging 4.4 yards per play (but with a 48 percent rushing success rate).
The second big game of the weekend, and likely more consequential in the long run, was Clemson surviving Texas A&M 28-26 thanks to a failed two-point conversion (and a prior Aggies fumble out of the end zone with two minutes left that resulted in a touchback). The big story out of this one was Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond, who finished 23-of-40 for 430 yards (10.8 yards per attempt), three touchdowns, and no picks. He also led the team in rushing (a paltry 10 carries for 33 yards, as Clemson held Trayveon Williams to 17 carries for 31 yards and a long of 9 yards just a week removed from an FBS-leading 240 yards against Northwestern State).
Clemson's defensive line was as good as advertised, holding Texas A&M to 2.2 yards per carry as a team and racking up ten tackles for loss, but Mond's somewhat unexpected success against the Clemson defense -- he managed over 330 passing yards in the second half alone, with a staggering ten passes of 15-plus yards! -- leads to three big questions:
1. Is Mond really this good?
2. And if Mond is this good against Clemson's defense, does that mean the Aggies are further along than people thought, and that they might challenge Alabama and Auburn in the SEC West?
3. And what does this say about the Clemson secondary if Mond could put up those numbers despite the Clemson defensive line?
Mond was an elite four-star recruit out of IMG Academy, but he only averaged 6 yards per attempt last season with a 50.5 percent completion rate. So we'll need a little more time to see if Mond is really this good. But there are legitimate questions for the Clemson secondary, which has some depth questions (relatively speaking -- this is still one of the most talented secondaries in the country).
It's a little surprising that the Aggies actually lost this one -- the Aggies' S&P+ post-game win probability was 60.3 percent, they managed four more scoring opportunities, and had a +6 percent success rate margin over Clemson. But the Tigers took better advantage of their scoring opportunities, averaging 5.6 points per opportunity to the Aggies' 3.0.
Finally, the other big game was Stanford beating up on USC, avenging last season's two losses to the Trojans. This time turnovers were really the killer. Not only did the Trojans have a -3 turnover margin, but they were poorly timed. USC had a +9 percent success rate margin and the same number of scoring opportunities as the Cardinal (five), but USC averaged just 0.6 points per scoring opportunity. USC missed a field goal and fumbled in Stanford territory, and then J.T. Daniels threw two late-game interceptions within the Stanford 40. Maybe the most encouraging thing for the Cardinal is that the defense held USC to 3.1 yards per rush after ranking 58th in rushing S&P+ and 104th in rushing success rate last season.
There were a ton of smaller contests where bigger programs tripped up in sometimes exciting fashion.
The headlining upset is Michigan State losing to Herm Edwards' Arizona State. The Sun Devils were kind of the joke of the offseason, but here they are sitting at 2-0 and fresh off a top-15 upset. It was a field goal win, and the advanced stats reflect how close the game was -- the Spartans averaged 0.2 yards per play more, 0.6 points per scoring opportunity more, and a 0.6 percent higher success rate. But still, this was a top-15 team that was supposed to contend for the Big Ten title, not lose to Arizona State after narrowly beating Utah State. Suddenly just about any result is on the table for Mark Dantonio's Spartans after ten wins last season.
The Spartans weren't the only ones to surprisingly drop a game:
- Arkansas was a 17.3-point F/+ favorite over Colorado State, but lost 34-27 after Colorado State quarterback K.J. Karta-Samuels went 32-of-47 for 389 passing yards.
- Purdue dropped to 0-2 after a 19-20 loss to Eastern Michigan, averaging only 3.3 points per scoring opportunity to Eastern Michigan's 6.7 despite having a +9 percent success rate margin.
- Northwestern, who beat Purdue last week, lost 21-7 to Duke despite outgaining the Blue Devils by 80 total yards. Again, Duke managed to take advantage of scoring opportunities while Northwestern couldn't (averaging 1.8 points per opportunity to Duke's 5.3).
- Arizona remained winless during Kevin Sumlin's brief tenure, getting trounced 45-18 by Houston. Somehow Khalil Tate only had 8 rushing yards on seven carries.
- Georgia Tech dropped an exciting one against South Florida, as Bulls (and former Alabama and Arizona State) quarterback Blake Barnett led a fourth quarter comeback.
- Finally, North Carolina's bad start to the season continued with a big loss to East Carolina, 41-19. The Pirates led in nearly every important advanced statistical category as the Tar Heels try to find something that works on defense. One bright spot: Ohio State transfer Antonio Williams, who had 96 rushing yards on four carries.
Another group of teams won, but struggled against teams they should have beaten handily.
First, Florida State's offensive woes continued in their 36-26 win against Samford as the Bulldogs outgained the Seminoles 525-454 and averaged a yard per play more, and the Seminoles had just a 38.0 percent success rate to Samford's 45.6 percent. Samford managed six tackles for loss against a Florida State offensive line that just doesn't have things together yet. The Seminoles actually trailed until taking the lead with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. They finished with a post-game S&P+ win probability of just 20 percent.
Ole Miss actually trailed Southern Illinois 38-35 at halftime before the Salukis had a rough three-drive streak where they suffered a pick-six, an interception at midfield that would turn into a Rebels touchdown, and a fumble return for a touchdown that would take the game from 41-49 to a comfortable 69-41. The Rebels passing game is still awesome to watch though -- A.J. Brown might be the best receiver in the country.
Third, while Miami and Michigan blew out overmatched opponents, Texas didn't look much better against Tulsa than it did in its Week 1 loss to Maryland. But the 28-21 score was closer than the stats suggest it should have been: Texas averaged about a yard per play more (6.5 to 5.5), had a plus-11 percent success rate margin (50 percent to 39 percent), won the turnover margin, and averaged a point more per scoring opportunity (4.0 to 3.0). The only explanation can be how the success was clustered, as both Tulsa and Texas created seven scoring opportunities on 12 and 13 total drives, respectively.
- Poor Nebraska. After their opening game against Akron was cancelled due to weather, the Huskers lost Scott Frost's first game as head coach to Colorado 33-28. It looked like the Huskers would hold on when Colorado quarterback Stephen Montez overthrew Jay MacIntyre on third-and-long in the last minutes of the game, but safety Antonio Reed was called for a personal foul for hitting a defenseless player. Montez would then hit leading receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. for 40 yards and the lead. But things looked solid for the Huskers until the fourth quarter. Sure, allowing 351 passing yards isn't ideal, but freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez was excellent (15-of-20 and 187 passing yards, and a team-leading 117 rushing yards, 7.8 yards per carry) until he was forced out of the game with an injury. And skill players Greg Bell, Stanley Morgan Jr., and JD Spielman all performed well, and should be the talent basis for the Frost era.
- Boise State is on fire in 2018. They took down UConn 62-7 by amassing 818 yards to the Huskies' 193, which is also seen in their insane 49.7 percent success rate margin. They allowed only a single scoring opportunity for the Huskies too. Next week's matchup with Oklahoma State is a genuine must-watch game. Win that one and the Broncos could force their way into playoff discussion.
- We'd be remiss if we didn't mention Kansas picking up its first win in a year, beating Central Michigan 31-7 just a week after losing to FCS Nicholls State. They've got Rutgers next, and incredibly, the Jayhawks are favored by Vegas odds after the Scarlet Knights lost 52-3 to Ohio State this week. Including this week's win over Central Michigan, Kansas has two FBS wins since 2015.
- Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M. This was the biggest performance in the biggest game. Mond had little help from the run game, but went 23-of-40 for 430 passing yards, most of which came in the second half. And that was despite the Clemson defensive line chasing him around the field all night. If Mond can build on this performance then the Aggies could be in for a surprisingly exciting season.
- Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado. Already mentioned Shenault earlier, but the wide receiver currently has the most receiving yards in the country with 388 on 21 receptions.
- Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell, DEs, Clemson. Both Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell deserve the Lowsman award this week after combining for two sacks and five total tackles for loss along with four quarterback hurries. Ferrell in particular was a monster, with both of those sacks and three hurries. And Clemson needed all of the pressure that the pair could manage, considering Kellen Mond was on fire in the second half.