by Bill Connelly
We are, for all intents and purposes, one-third of the way through an entertaining season of college football. A clear top tier has emerged, and it is a small one: Alabama, LSU and maybe Oklahoma. There is a second tier that extends to Wisconsin, Boise State, Stanford, Oklahoma State and perhaps Oregon, Florida or Virginia Tech, but after that is a complete mish-mash of unknowns and undecideds. Let's take a look at the teams whose early-season performance has most drastically differed from what was projected of them in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.
Georgia Tech (4-0). As I wrote yesterday at SB Nation, the Tech offense, particularly the passing game, has been incredible so far this year, and with most of the same cast of characters that performed at such a mediocre level late last year. Tevin Washington is thriving in his first year as starting quarterback, Stephen Hill is doing a damn impressive Demaryius Thomas impression, and Tech has risen to 11th in the overall F/+ rankings after being projected as 50th in the preseason. Sure, they've torched mostly terrible defenses, but they looked pretty good against a solid North Carolina team last week, too.
Illinois (4-0). We actually had more faith in the Fighting Illini than some, projecting them 45th overall. However, they have played at a legitimate Top 25 level so far, currently ranking 22nd. The offense is a standard-downs-only one -- they're great as long as they stay on schedule -- but the Illini are earning their keep on defense. They rank ninth in overall Def. S&P+ and have thrived against the run. Terry Hawthorne is a spectacular cornerback, and UI has four different players averaging at least one tackle for loss per game.
Iowa State (3-0). We will learn a lot more about the Cyclones this week, as they host Texas, but they have passed every test thus far. New starting quarterback Steele Jantz has been the bounceback king in 2011; he responded to an awful performance against Northern Iowa with an excellent one against Iowa, and after throwing three picks in his first four passes at Connecticut, he settled down and led the Cyclones to a road upset. ISU was projected a lowly 89th heading into the season and sits at 62nd today.
Tennessee (2-1). The Vols now have to prove they can overcome the injury of star receiver Justin Hunter, but through three games they have produced some well-rounded play, ranking 16th in Off. S&P+ and 27th in Def. S&P+. Quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Da'Rick Rogers give the offense hope despite the loss of Hunter, and the defense has shown potential. They are allowing 5.7 yards per play, but considering that includes games versus Florida and Cincinnati, two explosive offenses, they get some benefit of the doubt on that one.
Others: Temple (3-1), Houston (4-0), South Florida (4-1), Florida International (3-1), UL-Lafayette (3-1), Washington State (2-1).
Less Than Happy Surprises
Kentucky (2-2). Projected 43rd after years of decent-not-great play, the Wildcats have plummeted to 97th in the current F/+ rankings, due mostly to a lifeless offense that ranks 114th in raw Off. S&P. They have managed a .500 record thanks simply to the fact that they have played bad Central Michigan and Western Kentucky squads, but two home losses -- first to a Louisville team that had just lost to Florida International, then in grand fashion (48-10) to Florida -- signaled that the Wildcats' run of five consecutive bowl bids could possibly be coming to an end soon. Look at their remaining schedule and ask yourself where you see four more wins. Jacksonville State and Ole Miss? Okay, that's two. Now find two more.
Boston College (1-3). The Eagles have been the model of consistency through the years; the last time they didn't make a bowl game (1998), today's college freshmen were approximately six years old. But while their defense has sunk to 40th in Def. S&P+, their offense has been dreadful in the absence of star running back Montel Harris and currently ranks 90th in Off. S&P+. Horror of horrors: B.C. lost to Duke at home two weeks ago. Now let's play the Kentucky game; find five more wins on a schedule that includes ghastly road trips to Clemson, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Notre Dame and Miami.
Auburn (3-1). We knew this one, didn't we? Auburn's incredible offensive success last year led to unreasonable projections this year (fourth overall), and while they are still competent, they have shown some significant defensive cracks. The Tigers still rank 57th in Def. S&P+, partially because projections are still playing a role in the ratings, but they rank 114th in raw Def. Passing Downs S&P, which is the sign of a young, spastic defense. The Tigers led lowly Florida Atlantic 10-6 at halftime last week before finally pulling away.
USC (3-1). Sure, they're 3-1 (with a road loss at a Top 25 Arizona State team), but they have rarely looked truly strong, and they have shown little hope of living up to their preseason projection of 18th. They currently rank 40th in F/+ and 60th in raw Def. S&P (77th on Standard Downs). They still have some fun offensive weapons in quarterback Matt Barkley and receiver Robert Woods, who is on pace for over 120 receptions in just 12 games, but the whole just doesn't add up to the sum of the parts here, and with upcoming scholarship limitations, the sum of the parts soon won't be as strong as it once was either.
We continue to phase in real data and phase out projections, leading once again to a volatile set of F/+ rankings. Lots of non-BCS programs (who have played solid against major conference opponents) rose by a solid margin, and lots of major conference teams (who have played quite poorly) fell. Expect that to regulate in the future, when teams move to their conference slates, but for now we live in a world where Ohio ranks 42nd, right between No. 40 USC, No. 41 Nebraska and No. 43 Miami.
"What The...?" Team of the Week
Temple. The Owls looked simply incredible during their 35-7 road win over Maryland. Thus far, Steve Addazio's Owls have dominated two helpless opponents (they beat Akron, 41-3, and Villanova, 42-7), nearly beat No. 18 Penn State and whipped Maryland so badly that they fell from 33rd to 60th. That's a stronger Top 25 resume than quite a few BCS teams have compiled so far.
Houston (23 spots, from 71st to 48th). The Cougars will probably fall after last night's dreadful defensive performance against UTEP, but they got the win and moved to 5-0 in El Paso. Case Keenum is having himself quite the "Remember me?" season; he has now thrown for 2,005 yards in five games, a total that would have ranked him ahead of over 40 starting quarterbacks last year.
UCLA (15 spots, from 91st to 76th). With Houston and Texas looking solid, the Bruins' losses don't look too bad, but they still have quite a bit of work to do to save Rick Neuheisel's job. They stand at 2-2, with only one likely win left on the schedule (Washington State at home). To reach a bowl, they will probably need to knock off Arizona in Tucson and Washington State, California and Colorado at home. They can win any of those games, but ... all of them?
Arizona State (12 spots, from 32nd to 20th). The ASU defense looked rock solid against USC last week, and with former opponents Illinois and Missouri continuing to look rather solid, the shift from projections to on-field performance has done ASU some favors.
Iowa State (12 spots, from 74th to 62nd). Not a bad move for a bye week.
Others: Temple (68th to 25th), Utah State (90th to 52nd), Bowling Green (88th to 59th), Louisiana Tech (84th to 57th), UL-Lafayette (102nd to 82nd), Ball State (101st to 83rd), Ohio (59th to 42nd), Fresno State (85th to 69th).
N.C. State (39 spots, from 40th to 79th). Their run game and defense both looked simply dreadful at Cincinnati last Thursday night.
Oregon State (34 spots, from 55th to 89th). They are far underachieving compared to their projections, and let's just say that a home loss to UCLA is not the way to impress the numbers.
Kentucky (33 spots, from 64th to 97th). Covered above, they have shown so very little offensive life.
Maryland (27 spots, from 33rd to 60th). As good as Temple looked, Maryland looked equally bad, getting outgained by a 425-to-240 margin.
Others: Boston College (67th to 95th), Virginia (62nd to 88th), Miami (23rd to 43rd), Louisville (51st to 70th), USC (21st to 40th), Auburn (19th to 38th), Arizona (48th to 66th).
Pittsburgh over South Florida (Spread: USF -2 | F/+ Projection: Pitt by 0.2). Nailed it! The Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections were quite high on the Panthers, and they really did not look too bad against Notre Dame and Iowa in recent weeks. They underachieved in the most frustrating possible fashion, blowing a 17-point lead against Iowa and allowing a late score to fall to Notre Dame, but last night's dominant performance wasn't necessarily a surprise.
Kansas State over Baylor (Spread: Baylor -3.5 | F/+ Projection: K-State by 4.8). FEI hates Baylor, ranking them 81st overall, and that is propping up undefeated K-State's chances of pulling a home upset of the Bears. (I'm simply not used to talking about a possible "home upset of Baylor," by the way. That just doesn't sound right.) The KSU defense has played at a high level thus far, but "high level" against Baylor might just mean "holding them to under 500 yards."
Washington State over Colorado (Spread: Colorado -3 | F/+ Projection: Colorado by 0.5). This is a pivotal game for two struggling programs, and a hungry Wazzu team has shown just enough promise to give themselves a chance at a road upset. They faded in the fourth quarter against San Diego State, but they have looked more athletically competent than in recent years, and their passing game has been top-notch despite the loss of starting quarterback Jeff Tuel.
Wake Forest over Boston College (Spread: B.C. -1 | F/+ Projection: B.C. by 0.7). Wake Forest has shown a little bit of salt in the opening month, but this is still more of an indictment of Boston College than anything.
This Week at SB Nation
It was another fun week at SBN. Hope you're tuning in. If not, here are some links.
Jarrett Lee Raises LSU's Ceiling, And It's Not That Big Of A Surprise
Study Hall: LSU 47, West Virginia 21
Week 4's Overachievers, Underachievers: USC-Arizona State Was A Joint Effort
Study Hall: Notre Dame 15, Pittsburgh 12
Favorite Moment of Last Weekend
It was a three-way tie:
1) Seeing the box score from the Baylor-Rice game and realizing that Robert Griffin III was going to make it to October with more touchdown passes (13) than incompletions (12). He is my favorite player in college football (who doesn't play for my alma mater, anyway), and he is making a serious national impression this year.
2) Watching every Sammy Watkins reception. The freshman Clemson receiver is fast becoming the Robert Griffin III of receivers: smart, electric, and faster than everybody else around him.
3) The second half of the Oklahoma State-Texas A&M game. After a first half dominated by the A&M defense, the second half devolved into chaos as the Aggies turned the ball over three times in three possessions, Oklahoma State charged back from a 20-3 halftime deficit, and the postgame celebration involved both human drama (defensive co-coordinator Glenn Spencer's wife passed away last week) and hilarity (Mike Gundy breaking out some serious dance moves), as documented by this fascinating video.