College football is back, and the weekend featured a few games of less-than-stellar football, but in the words of the great Bruce Springsteen: "You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright." Football is football, and in the first full week back for the sport, we learned a valuable lesson: the offseason matters. This weekend featured a couple of upsets in which a more talented yet less experienced team fell to a solid upstart opponent, highlighting just how profoundly disruptive and weird our long 2020 offseason has been. Teams who rely on development, chemistry, and February weight rooms are stumbling out of the gate, and college football uncertainty is at an all-time high.
Before we get started, I want to highlight a couple of key stats and abbreviations I'll be using throughout the season. First, Expected Points Added (EPA). EPA is a stat that takes game state -- down, distance, and yard line -- into consideration when evaluating college football teams. The basic premise of EPA is that a 3-yard gain on first-and-10 is bad, whereas a 3-yard gain on third-and-2 is great; EPA translates yards to points in context.
Secondly, you'll see me talk about Eckel. Eckel, derived from the Corsi stat in hockey, is a ratio of productive drives in a game. What's a productive drive? Glad you asked; a productive drive is one in which a team has a scoring opportunity (first-and-10 across their opponents' 40-yard line) or a big-play touchdown. Eckel is a measure of game control that is more informative than the traditionally used time of possession: instead of asking how long a team held the ball, Eckel asks how well a team held the ball.
Third, you'll read a lot about early downs. Early downs are just first and second downs, and those two downs are largely more predictive in ascertaining a team's quality. When the field is open and the chains are long, what does a team do and how well do they do it? That's why we focus on early downs.
Anyway, throughout the season, I'll introduce, explore, and dismiss plenty of different stats, but those three will be the foundation of most analysis: EPA, Eckel, and Early Downs.
In a weekend full of hits and misses, one of the highest-profile misses was No. 23 Iowa State's loss to Louisiana at home. The Ragin' Cajuns took advantage of two special teams touchdowns and a big-play touchdown to upset the Cyclones, outscoring Iowa State 21-0 in the second half en route to a 31-14 win. The Cajuns held a 10-yard advantage on starting field position, and Eckel (the ratio of productive drives) was 62.5% in their favor. Louisiana scored two offensive touchdowns, and one came on a 78-yard pass from Levi Lewis to Peter LeBlanc. That play alone was worth 6.19 EPA, the most impactful play of the game by far. Otherwise, Iowa State's defense lived up to expectations: the Cyclones held the Ragin' Cajuns to negative EPA/play overall and on passes, and just 4.95 yards per play on early downs. The Louisiana offense strung together the 11-yard touchdown drive and had the 78-yard big-play touchdown, but otherwise punted four times, fumbled once, and missed two field goals. Going forward, the Louisiana offense will have to find more sustainable drive success, and the Iowa State defense is going to have to adjust to the run. While Matt Campbell's tite front is a robust passing defense, the Cyclones struggled against the rush, allowing a positive rushing EPA to a Sun Belt school.
The Iowa State offense was the real problem. Brock Purdy finished 2019 as the 14th-best passer in the nation by ESPN's QBR, and their offense ranked ninth in EPA per dropback (+0.368). The passing game seemed poised to strike in 2020 with Purdy's experience and improved health. On Saturday, we saw a very different version of the Cyclones offense and of Purdy. Purdy completed 45.7% of his passes against the Louisiana defense for a QBR of 26.6, both career lows. The Louisiana defense was stout in 2019, and justified their reputation: the Cajuns (ninth in EPA/pass defense last season) held Purdy and the Cyclones to -0.446 EPA/pass and intercepted Purdy as well. Of note: on one of Iowa State's two touchdown drives, the Cyclones were the beneficiary of a third-down pass interference call, helping extend the drive and perhaps artificially inflating our perceptions of Iowa State's offense even as it struggled.
Many circled this game for an upset, and there were plenty of justifications -- Louisiana's continuity on offense, Iowa State's turnover on the offensive line, for example -- but none of those prognosticators involved Purdy having the worst showing of his career and Iowa State squandering opportunity after opportunity in the second half. Keep your eyes on Louisiana as a contender not only in the Sun Belt but also in the Group of Five New Year's Six race. Iowa State? Well, the rebound is coming, but Brock Purdy has a lot of work to validate his offseason hype.
Across the country, in Chapel Hill, the No. 18 North Carolina Tar Heels added some late fireworks to make a decent win against Syracuse look convincing. In the first three periods, North Carolina averaged 6.23 yards on first and second downs, was successful on 40% of their plays, and averaged a slightly positive 0.018 EPA per play and outscoring the Orange 17-6 (including the final play of a 77-yard drive which technically occurred in the fourth quarter). In the fourth, the Tar Heels added a short-field touchdown and a Sam Howell dual-threat drive (a 12-yard scramble and two chunk passing plays) to blow the game more or less wide open.
Syracuse struggled to move the ball, averaging only 3.3 yards per early-down play. Scoring opportunities were equal, as North Carolina only slightly controlled drives (Eckel of 55%), but across the 50-yard line, Syracuse averaged -0.395 EPA/play, staying behind schedule with a 23% success rate on the game. The Orange, outside of quarterback Tommy DeVito, experienced substantial turnover this season, and so their growing pains on offense are to be expected. North Carolina, a popular pick to unseat Clemson (or come as close as any team can to unseating Clemson) in 2020, tacked on enough points to keep their "eye-test" resume in check, but under the hood struggled early -- Howell completed 73.5% of his passes for 11.8 yards/completion, but the Tar Heels' success rate on offense before the fourth-quarter surge was a meager 40%.
No. 10 Notre Dame looked sharp against Duke, winning 27-13 in the Irish's first-ever conference game. Senior Ian Book completed 61% of his passes and Notre Dame's defense held the Blue Devils to 4-of-15 (26.7%) on third downs. The Irish were more conservative on offense than in their 2019 campaign, passing on 42.6% of their early downs compared to over 50% in 2019; against Duke, they averaged -0.091 EPA/pass and +0.058 EPA/rush
Duke's offense sputtered, successful on only 29.4% of their plays, and their lone touchdown drive came on a short field (starting at Notre Dame's 39) thanks to a short punt. Aside from that 39-yard touchdown drive, the Irish held Duke to 0.54 points per drive; the Blue Devils offense crossed the 50-yard line on only four drives. Notre Dame came out and played safe, consistent football against a team they outmatched (The Irish rank 17th nationally in team recruiting talent, whereas the Blue Devils are 47th). Book's completion percentage was on the lower side, but far from a disaster. Notre Dame has a matchup with South Florida before the rest of conference play, and Book should have plenty of opportunities to get into a rhythm.
Across the Nation
- No. 1 Clemson cruised against Wake Forest, outgaining the Demon Deacons by over 8 yards per play on early downs. Clemson averaged +.327 EPA/play and held Wake Forest to -0.079 and a 12.5% success rate. Heisman frontrunner Trevor Lawrence completed 78% of his passes, averaging 15.9 yards per completion against Wake Forest's defense; the Demon Deacons finished 45th in defensive EPA/pass last season, making Lawrence's performance all the more impressive.
- Speaking of impressive quarterbacks, after a lost year, D'Eriq King seems to have found his stride under offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee at Miami. King, a transfer from Houston, posted a QBR of 82.4, passing and rushing for a touchdown against Alabama-Birmingham. Miami's defense, bolstered by transfer lineman Quincy Roche, held Alabama-Birmingham to a 28.3% success rate Thursday night. With a potent offense, Manny Diaz's Hurricanes might have a high ceiling in the ACC.
- No. 5 Oklahoma got new quarterback Spencer Rattler some quality reps in a 48-0 blowout of FCS Missouri State, coached by Bobby Petrino. Rattler split time with Tanner Mordecai, but posted a QBR of 97.7, throwing for four touchdowns and averaging 20.7 yards per completion.
- No. 14 Texas, against an FBS opponent, similarly took care of business: senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger and the Longhorns averaged over +0.725 EPA/pass in beating UTEP 59-3.
- It's worth noting that the state of Kansas had a bad weekend. Kansas State fell to Arkansas State, averaging a negative EPA/play on offense, and Kansas lost to Coastal Carolina at home for the second straight year. The Kansas offense rushed the ball well (+0.255 EPA/play) but had no answer for Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall; the redshirt freshman threw for three touchdowns and rushed for two more in Lawrence.
Honor Roll (The Best Performances of the Week)
Quarterbacks will dominate this space, given the nature of the game of college football, so I've split the categories into passers and non-passers, and throughout the season I'll keep tabs on how many appearances each player makes on the leaderboards (noted in parentheses).
- Sam Ehlinger, Texas (1 appearance), +23.2 total EPA: Ehlinger wasted no time on Saturday: his first pass was a 78-yard touchdown. He led the Longhorns to seven scoring opportunities in the first half, throwing for five touchdowns, completing 76% of his passes, and averaging 17.0 yards per completion. It would appear that he and new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich are getting along well.
- Micale Cunningham, Lousiville (1), +22.0 total EPA: Cunningham displayed his dual threats in a win over Western Kentucky, posting four touchdowns (three through the air and one rushing), including three impressive second-quarter drives of 93, 65, and 87 yards.
- Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (1), +19.2 total EPA: Lawrence, as mentioned above, continues to prove himself as the standard-bearer for elite college quarterback play.
- Braden Smith, WR, Louisville (1), +11.1 total EPA: Smith tallied 110 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown reception, on four catches Saturday.
- Myron Mitchel, WR, Alabama-Birmingham (1), +10.3 total EPA: The redshirt senior had eight receptions for 117 yards (14.6 average) for Alabama-Birmingham, including a few key drive-extending snags on third down.
- Jonathan Adams Jr., WR, Arkansas State (1), +10.3 total EPA: 98 yards and three touchdowns on eight receptions against Kansas State in a Red Wolves upset.
- Sincere McCormick, RB, UTSA (1), +6.38 total EPA: McCormick flirted with 200 yards on Saturday, carrying the ball 29 times for an average of 6.8 yards per carry, adding one touchdown in UTSA's 51-48 win over Texas State.
- Cam'Ron Harris, RB, Miami (1), +6.15 total EPA: Harris provided a complementary threat to D'Eriq King, rushing for 7.88 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns.