by Chad Peltier
As you likely saw in the lead-up to the game, Auburn and Florida had not played one another since 2011. Depending on how much chaos you like in your college football, that is either a good thing or cause for scraping conference divisions and embracing pods.
The Auburn-Florida game on Saturday was bananas. Each team had four turnovers, but the turnovers were far more detrimental for the Tigers, who scored just two field goals on Florida fumbles (they had four lost fumbles on the day, including three in four consecutive drives!) while the Gators scored a touchdown on a short field and also intercepted Bo Nix in the end zone at the end of the third quarter on what would have been a go-ahead touchdown. Three consecutive first-quarter drives illustrate the entire game. Auburn fumbled the punt return following a Florida three-and-out, giving Florida the ball on the Auburn 2-yard line. But an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a strip sack on third-and-long (returned by all-world defensive tackle Derrick Brown for 42 yards) gave the Tigers a do-over. But then Nix almost immediately threw his first interception, which gave Florida the ball in the red zone again (Kyle Trask would throw for a touchdown on second down).
Besides a lack of ball security for both sides, the game was marked by offensive inefficiency and explosive plays for Florida. For example, Florida's expected points added (EPA) success rate was just 29.6%, while Auburn's was just 32.8%. (EPA adjusts for down, distance, and field position, comparing the change in an offense's per-play net point expectancy.) That is … very bad. That is essentially saying that, given an offense's down, distance, and field position, only 29.6% of Florida's plays contributed positively to their point expectancy. The national EPA success rate average is 42.4%.
Besides the turnovers, a few Florida big plays made all the difference in the game. The Gators had explosive plays (10-plus- runs or 15-plus-yard passes) on 9.7% of plays, while Auburn was at 8.5%. That's not a huge difference in explosiveness rate, but average EPA (which accounts for how successful a play was in addition to just a binary success or failure) tells more of the story. Despite having a -3.2% success rate margin compared to the Tigers, Florida's average EPA was -0.20 compared to -0.36. And that difference can largely be explained by just two explosive plays. The first was on Florida's opening possession, where the Gators hit a 64-yard pass to Freddie Swan. The second was an 88-yard run from Lamical Perine in the fourth quarter, where Perine broke multiple tackles to seal the game.
This game really hinged on that bizarre combination -- four turnovers per team that benefitted Florida far more than Auburn despite Florida's terrible fumble recovery luck, combined with Florida's two explosive plays that ended in touchdowns. Moving forward, I don't think this changes my opinion of these teams being roughly equal. Florida's offense will need to show more consistency to break in to the very top tier of teams, while Auburn just has a freshman quarterback who delivered his first real freshman quarterback performance of the season.
Now let's step back to Friday night's highly anticipated ACC matchup between Central Florida and Cincinnati. Central Florida was the victim of Pitt's super weapon this season, but still came into the game as 3.5-point favorites over the Bearcats. Cincinnati had demolished what we assumed was a solid Marshall team, but had themselves been demolished by Ohio State, so some skepticism was reasonable.
The game remained tight throughout, mostly because of Cincinnati's havoc on defense. The Bearcats had eight tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery, and three interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown and one that ended a Central Florida red zone attempt). Despite entering as a top offense, Central Florida averaged -0.60 EPA and an EPA success rate of just 39%. Cincinnati was similarly inefficient, but had a few big plays on offense (and fewer very negative plays) that brought up their average EPA (still negative, at -0.17). Cincinnati's big plays included a 60-yard run from Michael Warren II that set up the Bearcats' final touchdown, a pick-six to give them the lead in the third quarter, and a fumble recovery that gave them a short field for their first touchdown.
One takeaway here is that Luke Fickell seems destined for an even bigger job. The Bearcats are proving that last year's double-digit wins were not a fluke, and he's showing the kind of mindset necessary to compete with better competition. According to Fickell, "The only way you're going to knock off the best is to continue to be aggressive. The only way you beat the best is to take those chances." That was in reference to the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at midfield in the closing minutes of the game instead of punting and giving Central Florida another opportunity.
Moving next door to the Big Ten, Michigan State somewhat successfully dragged Ohio State into an uglier game than the Buckeyes wanted to play -- but they still lost 34-10. Things couldn't have started worse for Michigan State, who fumbled on their first two possessions, but Ohio State only managed a single field goal out of the two short fields. In fact, the Buckeyes' average EPA during the first quarter was an abysmal -0.63 with an EPA success rate of only 6%! The Spartans completed shut down the Ohio State run game for the first quarter.
But it wasn't going to last forever. Ohio State exploded in the second quarter with an average EPA of 0.88 and an EPA success rate of 58%, scoring 24 points on four consecutive drives. Those drives included a 60-yard touchdown pass to Ben Victor, a 35-yard Justin Fields run, and a 67-yard J.K. Dobbins touchdown run. The Spartans had been highly effective shutting down explosive plays heading into the game, ranking seventh in explosive pass rate, but Ohio State demonstrated an ability to score on even elite defenses. The Buckeyes weren't as overwhelmingly dominant as they had been in the first five games of the season, but their ability to adjust to the Spartans' early defensive success suggests that they should be able to do the same against similarly excellent defenses from Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan.
Speaking of Michigan, but now without the offensive success! The Wolverines beat Iowa in what may be the most Big Ten of Big Ten games that saw:
- One touchdown in the entire game (in the first quarter on a Nico Collins 51-yard reception);
- Four Michigan three-and-out drives (just under a third of their total drives);
- Eight sacks from Michigan's defense;
- Three interceptions from Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley;
- Five Iowa turnovers (38% of their drives);
- The final score reached with twelve minutes left in the second quarter -- meaning nearly three scoreless quarters;
- Both teams average under a 35% EPA success rate.
To Michigan's credit, the defense was incredible with its eight sacks (!) and three interceptions, holding Iowa to a -0.42 average EPA, which is 1.5 standard deviations below the mean. But the offense didn't show any signs of life against a solid defense, the likes of which they will also see against teams like Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State later in the season. Yuck.
- It was an exciting week even if there weren't a lot of upsets. One of the few meaningful upsets was 2-3 Stanford beating Washington, 23-13. Jacob Eason had an off night, finishing with a 34.2% passing EPA success rate, despite connecting with Aaron Fuller for 171 yards on nine catches (83% of total receiving yards). Stanford quarterback Davis Mills, the former top-rated pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class, had a big day with 293 passing yards, a 0.32 average passing EPA (two-thirds of a standard deviation above the mean), and a 59% passing EPA success rate. Cameron Scarlett also topped 150 rushing yards on 33 carries against what was expected to be a stout Huskies defense.
- The other upset was Texas Tech taking down Oklahoma State 45-35 behind quarterback Jett Duffey's 424 passing yards (47% passing EPA success rate, half a standard deviation above the mean in passing EPA). Turnovers played a big role as Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders threw three picks and lost two fumbles. Otherwise the two teams were mostly equal as Texas Tech's 0.01 average EPA was only marginally better than Oklahoma State's -0.08. This result, along with Baylor's win over 31-12 win over Kansas State to remain undefeated, reinforces the fact that the Big 12 is basically Oklahoma, Texas, Baylor … and then basically everyone else. And we'll see soon how close Baylor is to the first two.
- Finally, a shout out to SMU coming back to beat Tulsa in three overtimes to stay undefeated with their best team since the early 1980s. Tulsa was up 30-9 at the start of the fourth quarter, but SMU scored on three consecutive drives to send the game into overtime. Things looked bleak in the second overtime after SMU fumbled, but Tulsa's missed field goal sent the game to a third overtime, where quarterback Shane Buechele threw a 25-yard touchdown to James Proche to complete the comeback.
- J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State. Against Michigan State's elite defense, J.K. Dobbins ran for 172 yards, including his 60-yard touchdown burst that put the game away. While Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor is likely the best running back in the country, Dobbins is right there with Taylor as an elite back. He is second in the country with 826rushing yards, averages 0.2 EPA per carry, and recorded his fourth game with more than 140 rushing yards.
- Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona. Colorado isn't the best defense in the world, but it is worth giving Khalil Tate and the Arizona Wildcats some praise since they have returned from the dead with four wins following their season-opening loss to Hawaii. Arizona averaged 0.34 EPA (1.2 standard deviations above the mean), including a 53.7% passing EPA success rate and 404 passing yards for Tate.
- Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati. Ahmad Gardner had Cincinnati's game-sealing pick-six for 16 yards during the third quarter.
- Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn. I expected a little more havoc out of Auburn's defensive line against Florida's suspect offensive line, but Derrick Brown still played as expected with a sack and two fumble recoveries, including one run that should put him in Piesman Trophy contention.