by Chad Peltier
Week 4 was expected to be the least-entertaining week of the 2018 season. There weren't a ton of ranked-on-ranked matchups, and most of the big games were projected to be blowouts.
In other words, it was exactly the right setup for an exciting, upset-filled weekend.
The biggest upset was undoubtedly Old Dominion taking down 14th-ranked Virginia Tech. Old Dominion was ranked 117th in F/+ heading in to the game but won 49-35. Just a few weeks ago we were amazed that Bud Foster's Hokies managed to hold Florida State to a field goal despite losing the majority of the starting defense over the offseason. Well, now we know that the Seminoles offensive line will keep Willie Taggart in a Year-Zero situation until next season, at least, and that may have had more to do with the Hokies defensive effort than we previously thought.
That's because Old Dominion quarterback Blake LaRussa carved up the Hokies defense, going 30-of-49 for 495 yards (10.1 per attempt). This was not a lucky or fluky result; Old Dominion's post-game S&P+ win probability was 62.5 percent. Both teams had eight scoring opportunities, but Old Dominion maximized their chances, averaging 6.1 points per opportunity compared to the Hokies' 4.4.
Elsewhere, is Kentucky legit? The 4-0 Wildcats were 10-point underdogs to Joe Moorhead's Mississippi State, but completely shut down the Bulldogs offense for a 28-7 win. Kentucky is now up to 15th in the S&P+ rankings and has averaged a 28-12 margin of victory over Florida and Mississippi State this season. Quarterback Terry Wilson wasn't asked to do much, completing just 8-of-14 passes for 71 yards, but Benny Snell dominated the game, running for 165 yards on 25 carries (6.6 per carry). Snell will get the praise, and deservedly so, but it's worth calling attention to the Kentucky defense, too. They're up to seventh in the defensive S&P+ rankings after holding Nick Fitzgerald to a 50 percent completion rate for 145 yards (4.5 per attempt) and an interception. The Bulldogs managed just two scoring opportunities on 12 drives. It's possible that Kentucky is the second-best team in the SEC East -- they're ahead of South Carolina, Florida, and Missouri, who all still rank in the S&P+ top 30. Georgia should be favored in every remaining divisional matchup, but it's worth noting that the second tier of teams is still clustered near the top 25.
Speaking of legit, Texas had another big surprise win over TCU. This looks like a letdown loss for the Horned Frogs a week after a high-profile loss to Ohio State in Dallas. The Longhorns shut down the TCU run game, holding their top two running backs to 20 carries for 70 yards. Texas still doesn't have much of a run game -- leading rusher Tre Watson had 15 carries for 58 yards (3.9 yards per attempt, 47 percent success rate) -- but Sam Ehlinger was more efficient throwing the ball, with big plays coming from Collin Johnson and Lil'Jordan Humphrey, who have become a nice receiver duo for the Longhorns. So is Texas back? I'm definitely not going there yet, but a nine-win season is on the table for Tom Herman.
ESPN Gameday headed to Eugene, Oregon, for the Ducks' game against the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford wasn't an underdog like the previous three winners -- they closed as three-point road favorites -- but the game was as close as expected, with the Ducks losing 38-31 in overtime.
The box score in this game was wild. Oregon piled up over 125 more yards than Stanford with 32 more plays and one more scoring opportunity on the same number of drives. Justin Herbert was great, going 26-of-33 for 346 yards, and the Oregon defense held Bryce Love in check (19 carries, 89 yards). But Stanford averaged over 1.6 yards per play more than Oregon, with about a +4 percent success rate margin. Critically, they finished +3 in turnovers. And the turnovers were the real killers for Oregon. The Ducks were close to wrapping up the game, needing only to run 51 seconds off the clock. From second-and-3 they couldn't quite get there by just kneeling the ball, but it would be close. Instead, Oregon ran it on second down and fumbled at the Stanford 40. The Cardinal then managed a seven-play, 46-yard touchdown drive to send the game to overtime. Three incomplete Herbert passes and an ending interception in overtime sealed the Stanford win. The Cardinal next have Notre Dame -- another team that keeps winning despite not quite dominating (well, until this week, when Ian Book took over at quarterback).
Virginia Tech wasn't the only ACC team to get upset this week. Boston College was the recipient of Purdue's pent-up frustration, as the Boilermakers won comfortably, 30-13. Despite throwing for 583 yards without an interception in earlier games against UMass and Wake Forest, Eagles quarterback Anthony Brown went 13-of-27 for just 96 yards and four interceptions against Purdue. AJ Dillon, B.C.'s workhorse running back with the 13th-most carries this season, was held to 3.1 yards per carry as Boston College had just a 20.3 percent success rate overall. Besides Purdue's surprising defensive effort, quarterback David Blough sits at second in the Big Ten with 9.1 yards per pass and 990 passing yards, and is third with a 71.6 percent completion rate. Of course, a lot of that credit has to go to emerging freshman receiver Rondale Moore, who leads the Big Ten with 372 receiving yards.
Finally, we were so close to an amazing Army win over Oklahoma, but the Sooners pulled out the overtime win 28-21. It would have been a truly amazing win, given that Army's S&P+ post-game win probability was just one percent, but that's just another example of how a well-run triple option team can make games competitive that wouldn't otherwise be. The key was holding the Sooners to just eight total offensive possessions. So even though they averaged 8.9 yards per play with a 62.5 percent success rate (compared to Army's 4.4 and 50.6, respectively), the Sooners weren't on the field enough to mount an overwhelming lead.
- Someone finally covered the spread against Alabama. Texas A&M lost 23-45, had a -17.4 percent success rate margin and averaged over three yards per play fewer than the Tide, but the real victory here is that they exposed a few tiny, tiny Alabama deficiencies. We have to be careful here, because the Tide are still far and away the top team in the country so far. But Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond was able to rip off a few explosive runs, continuing a slight trend -- Alabama has one of the best defenses in the country, but the secondary is a little green, occasionally allowing big plays. For example, Alabama has allowed 18 plays of 20-plus yards, which is 78th in the country. Last year they were second in this category, allowing just 40 all season. Alabama has also shifted its offense to a more pass-heavy strategy since opponents have keyed in on the run. Damien Harris and Najee Harris combined for just 15 carries for 95 yards, which is a solid 6.3 average, but 54 of those 95 yards (57 percent) came on just two plays. Meanwhile, Tua Tagovailoa averaged 12.9 yards per pass for 387 yards and no picks against a ranked division opponent. The Tide are on top of the offensive S&P+ rankings, but the Crimson Tide's run game is something to keep an eye on, especially later in games if they need to run clock. In many ways, Alabama's "weaknesses" are lesser versions of Ohio State's.
- If Georgia is fast rising as Alabama's primary rival in the SEC, then it's worth comparing their weaknesses with Alabama's. Georgia had an erratic showing against Missouri. They averaged roughly 2.5 yards per play more than the Tigers but had a -2.6 percent success rate margin, relying on second-half big plays (including a 33-yard pass to Riley Ridley, a 61-yard pass to Jeremiah Holloman, and a 54-yard pass to Mecole Hardman) to move the offense. Missouri's overall success rate was a solid 49.4 percent, but they only managed five scoring opportunities to Georgia's ten because of turnovers -- the Tigers fumbled on their first possession, threw an interception, had a punt blocked for a touchdown, and had a sack/forced fumble all in the first half. The Bulldogs also held Drew Lock without a touchdown with only a 39.5 percent passing success rate. But the Bulldogs also allowed the Tigers a 68.6 percent rushing success rate, which other teams will likely try to exploit. So to sum it up (if that's possible in such a big play-focused game), Georgia's offense was explosive but probably less consistent running the ball than they would like, while the defense allowed an insane rushing success rate and was poor in red zone defense, but also came through with huge havoc plays.
- Notre Dame entered Week 4 at 12th in the F/+ rankings and eighth in the AP, which felt a little high despite their quality win over Michigan. The offense seemed to have a 24-point ceiling with Brandon Wimbush at the helm. But this week they made the switch to Ian Book, who had an excellent debut, going 25-of-34 for 325 yards (9.6-yard average) without a pick. In a 56-point explosion against Wake Forest, the Irish suddenly look like they might be a serious contender. They play Stanford this week so we'll have a better sense afterwards, but you have to be encouraged if you're a Notre Dame fan.
- Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama. I'm going to make a concerted effort not to list him here every week, but when he goes 22-of-30 for 387 yards with four touchdowns, I really don't have much of a choice.
- Adrian Hardy, WR, Lousiana Tech. Adrian Hardy had 181 receiving yards on ten catches, with a long of 42 yards against an LSU defense that ranks tenth in defensive S&P+.
- D'Andre Walker, OLB, Georgia. Georgia's defense was up-and-down against Missouri, but a lot of the "ups" had to do with senior outside linebacker D'Andre Walker. He had two sacks, a forced fumble, a quarterback hurry, and a pass defensed.