by Chad Peltier
Week 2 of the college football season was surprisingly eventful, both in terms of the number of important matchups and in the results of the actual games. Before we get to analyzing Clemson-Texas A&M and Texas-LSU, let's first dig into the lower tier of games, where seemingly every other contest went to overtime.
That discussion has to start with Army's double-overtime loss to Michigan. Despite some horrendous turnover luck -- Michigan lost fumbles on three of their first four drives, directly leading to Army's first 14 points -- Army was actually more efficient than the Wolverines, with a plus-2.5% success rate margin.
It wasn't necessarily that Michigan was getting dominated, though. Michigan created scoring opportunities on an excellent 67% of their drives. The problems, at least offensively, were mainly what happened when they got in those scoring opportunities. Besides three first-half lost fumbles, Michigan also missed a field goal and was stuffed on consecutive drives in two fourth-and-2 opportunities in the fourth quarter. And with only nine offensive drives during regulation, all of those missed scoring opportunities -- six drives ended in a lost fumble, turnover on downs, or missed field goal! -- were devastating. Yes, it's true that a 42% success rate isn't ideal, and 39% rushing success probably won't cut it against even tougher Big Ten opponents, but we shouldn't expect Michigan's drive efficiency and turnover luck to be as poor as they were against Army. But the early returns of the Josh Gattis offensive evolution still leave a lot to be desired.
Army had several near-misses of their own that could have allowed for the upset. The most obvious would have been for their freshman kicker to have hit the 50-yard field goal as time expired. But Army also threw an interception on third-and-goal at the Michigan 5-yard line, fumbled in the first half right after Michigan scored their first touchdown, and ended the game with a sack-fumble in double-overtime.
So the takeaways here are obvious: never schedule Army, because their stingy defense and efficient offense will force you to have near-perfect drive efficiency with shortened games, and maybe Michigan's offense still has a ways to go.
Contrast Michigan's performance with that of their rival Buckeyes, who absolutely demolished a Cincinnati team that ranked 28th in F/+ last week. The Bearcats had beaten UCLA in Week 1 after returning the 36th-most production from last year's 11-2 team. There was a real chance that Luke Fickell's Bearcats would upset his alma mater -- except that Ohio State completely shut the door on that happening. The Buckeyes ended with a plus-21% success rate margin (56% to 35%) over Cincinnati, scoring touchdowns on six of seven scoring opportunities while denying touchdowns on all three of the Bearcats'. Georgia transfer quarterback Justin Fields looked calm all afternoon, with ample time to go through his reads as the Buckeyes allowed only one sack and just a 13% stuffed run rate. That stuff rate, along with multiple explosive runs from J.K. Dobbins, was particularly important given the uncharacteristic problems that Ohio State had running the ball last season. A down offensive line and the lack of a rushing threat from Dwayne Haskins probably contributed to the decline in rushing effectiveness in 2018, which primarily manifested itself in a nearly 19% rushing stuff rate and just a 6.2% rushing explosiveness rate (of runs of 13-plus yards; Ohio State ranked 120th in rushing marginal explosiveness last season). And that's against a defense that was sixth in rushing SP+ last season.
While the offensive performance was the most visible, equally as impressive was that the defense, which ranked 26th in overall SP+ but was 105th in marginal explosiveness, shut out the Bearcats offense and held them to just a 34% rushing success rate.
Further contrasting with Michigan's tepid offense, Maryland absolutely destroyed ranked Syracuse 63-20, with over a fifth of their plays going for 13 or more yards. The Terrapins scored touchdowns on all nine of their scoring opportunities and have now amassed 142 points in their first two games. So is Mike Locksley an offensive genius?
Cal-Washington, which ended in the middle of the night due to delays, didn't end in overtime, but the Golden Bears did only win by a single point. Few teams have gone through as complete of an identity shift as Cal in recent years. Led by Jared Goff in 2014 and 2015, the Bears were near the top of the FBS in passing SP+, while being far below average on defense. But Justin Wilcox has completely transformed Cal into a defense-led team that ranked 13th in defensive SP+ last season. They held Washington to just a 40.7% success rate and Jacob Eason to a 26.5% success rate after absolutely dominating Eastern Washington in the opener. Eason threw for 349 yards in the opener but was held to 162 against Cal. After only two weeks, maybe the Pac-12's two best chances for a playoff representative have already picked up a loss, with Oregon losing to Auburn and Washington stymied by Cal.
Elsewhere, SP+ currently gives Clemson an 87% chance of winning 11 or more regular-season games this year, which is the most in the country by nearly 20%. That is due in large part to the ACC being somewhat down, but it doesn't hurt that the Tigers have already cleared the toughest hurdle before the playoff.
The Aggies played well despite the scoreboard, with an overall success rate less than 1% lower than Clemson's, and quarterback Kellen Mond actually posting better efficiency than Trevor Lawrence (45.4% to 43.2%). But the Tigers were much more explosive, with 20.5% of their plays going for 13 or more yards, while the Aggies didn't have a single run over 11 yards (and the Aggies had just 2.8 yards per rush after sacks are removed). And the Aggies were completely shut down in the red zone, with just a 25% red zone success rate and only picking up their lone touchdown as time expired. In contrast, Clemson had an 80% red zone success rate.
LSU and Texas certainly delivered on the promise of the game of the week, with the Tigers winning 45-38. LSU deservedly won, posting a positive margin in success rate (55% to 46%) and explosiveness rate (25% to 19%). The biggest revelation is that LSU might actually have a 21st-century offense thanks to new passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who came from the New Orleans Saints, and quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow was incredible against the Longhorns, finishing with a 60% success rate in which 36% of his passes went for 13 or more yards. Three different LSU receivers finished with over a hundred receiving yards. With this kind of explosive offense, it's reasonable to think that Alabama has a legitimate challenger in the SEC West.
Honestly, knowing that Burrow would finish with those numbers, it's shocking that Texas even stayed within a score of LSU. But Sam Ehlinger was also electric, showing that he is a more complete passer than he's sometimes labeled (mostly due to his rushing abilities -- he had nearly twice as many carries as the Longhorns' starting running back). Ehlinger finished with 401 passing yards and a 23% passing explosiveness rate, and was predictably his team's leading rusher.
What has to hurt the most for Texas fans are the back-to-back missed opportunities at the LSU goal line. On their second drive of the game, the Longhorns drove from their 25-yard line all the way to the LSU 8, where they had first-and-goal. But despite a 6-yard Ehlinger run, the Tigers defense stopped the Longhorns on fourth down. The Texas defense gave the offense another shot right away though, intercepting Burrow on a tipped pass on third-and-9. Ehlinger and the offense took over again at the 4-yard line, but the Tigers' red zone defense stayed strong, allowing just a gain of 1 as Texas managed eight plays for a total of 7 yards on those subsequent possessions inside the LSU 10-yard line. Texas had five touchdowns on seven scoring opportunities, meaning that those two failed red zone opportunities were their only two failed scoring chances.
- In other notable overtime games, Colorado and Nebraska ended with the Huskers missing a 48-yard field goal in overtime, in a finish that is sure to stir up latent rivalry feelings between the two schools. Nebraska has reason to feel particularly disappointed -- the Huskers had a plus-3% success rate margin and a plus-5% explosiveness rate margin, but two lost fumbles may have been the difference in the game.
- So is USC not actually dead? With projected losses (by projected F/+) in four of their first six games, the Trojans were widely expected to be on the coaching market this coming offseason, if not before. Things looked especially dire this week when it was announced that quarterback J.T. Daniels would miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL against Fresno State. But USC shockingly won big over Stanford 45-20, with freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis emerging to throw for 377 yards with a 68% passing success rate. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's offense looked to be running at full throttle, as the passing game averaged nearly 11 yards per attempt after adjusting for sacks, while 32% of passes went for 13 or more yards. The run game was more or less nonexistent and the Trojans defensive performance (which shut out Stanford in the second half) probably has more to do with the declining Cardinal offense than its own strength, but Slovis and the offense may have given USC life despite all of the warning signs.
- As mentioned above, there were six games that went into overtime. We've already talked about Michigan-Army and Nebraska-Colorado, but Kent State (rated 120th in the F/+ rankings) escaped in overtime from FCS Kennesaw State; Florida State survived thanks to a missed extra point by Louisiana-Monroe (!); Minnesota needed double-overtime to beat Fresno State; and BYU beat Tennessee (now 0-2!) in double-overtime. Things are not looking good in Knoxville or Tallahassee. The Volunteers had just a 36% offensive success rate and scored touchdowns on only two of their eight scoring opportunities. Florida State's offense was relatively fine, but the defense allowed Louisiana-Monroe to have a 49% success rate (higher than the Seminoles!).
- Based on their performances through two weeks (and we should obviously be extremely cautious of extrapolating based on just two games), the top tier of playoff contenders includes Clemson, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Ohio State, and Oklahoma. Notre Dame, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, Texas, and Florida are probably in a second tier.
- Joe Burrow, QB, LSU. Joe Burrow has to be at the very top of this list. He has vaulted up to the top of many Heisman lists thanks to his commanding performance in the biggest win of the early season for any team. The Ohio State transfer was efficient and explosive, targeting receivers both downfield and throughout his progressions, finishing with a 60% passing success rate and 10.8 yards per pass after sacks. Over a third of his passing attempts went for 13 or more yards.
- Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas. Ehlinger's post-Sugar Bowl proclamation that Texas was back may not have been premature given how they played against the Tigers. Ehlinger was essentially his team's entire offense, showing a more developed passing game than many outside of the Big 12 expected. He is unfortunately the vast majority of the Longhorns' rushing threat too, as some balance on the ground would go a long way in furthering Texas' chances at the Big 12 title.
- Kedon Slovis, QB, USC. Slovis threw for 377 yards with a 68% passing success rate in his first career start as a true freshman. Stanford may be on the decline, but Slovis' performance still may have been the most surprising of all.
- Mustafa Johnson, DE, Colorado. Johnson had three sacks in Colorado's win over Nebraska, including one that caused a forced fumble and directly led to the Buffaloes' game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter.