Stanford attempts to add one more win for the 2013 season as they face Michigan State in the Rose Bowl tomorrow.
Usually, I read the cookie cutter preview articles to make fun of the conventional wisdom in my own previews. However, the opening to the preview for LSU at Alabama nailed it.
So it’s not the “Game of the Century,” or maybe even the game of the week.
College football treated us to a tremendous Thursday night schedule. In Waco, Baylor’s offense looked human for the first time all season. They gained only 5.74 yards per play, not far above the 5.45 average.
However, the defense rocked. This unit, ranked 16th in my rankings before the game, held Oklahoma to 3.43 yards per play and 10 points. Baylor won by 29 points. My prediction in Grantland of their winning the Big 12 looks good.
In Palo Alto, Stanford pulled off a unique double. Their win over Oregon knocked the Ducks from the top of the BCS conversation. And the defense haraseed Oregon QB Marcus Mariota out of the Heisman picture.
However, the story of the game was the domination Stanford’s offensive line. By the second half, they left little doubt whether Stanford would convert a 3rd and short. The Cardinal chewed up the clock behind this massive unit.
Granted, Stanford got a bit lucky when D’Anthony Thomas fumbled at the Stanford 1 yard line, killing a drive. Not the play one expects from someone who said Oregon would score 40 points against Stanford.
Now the national title picture shifts to Tuscaloosa. Can LSU beat Alabama?
The injustice of schedule
First, let’s take a look at the big picture.
A loss to LSU does not knock Alabama over the national championship picture. LSU already has 2 conference losses, one of which came in a cross division game at Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama enjoyed two cross division games against Tennessee and Kentucky, inferior teams to Georgia. The schedule screwed LSU this season.
If Alabama loses, they still win the SEC West by winning their remaining games. Then if they win the SEC title game, will the BCS keep out a one loss team from a conference that has won the last 7 national titles? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can imagine the pages of complaints on my Facebook feed from friends in SEC country.
And they have a point.
Role reversal this season
Last season, Zach Mettenberger took over the QB job for LSU. He was mediocre until the Alabama game, a night he suddenly turned into Andrew Luck. His precision passing gave LSU a late lead in the game, one that the defense could not hold in a dramatic Alabama win.
Mettenberger’s performance against Alabama made me look like an ass. In Sports Illustrated, I highlighted LSU’s pass offense against Alabama’s pass defense as a key edge for Alabama. Of course, Mettenberger never played that well again, especially in a bowl loss to Clemson.
This season, Mettenberger has lead a resurgance of LSU’s offense. They come into this game ranked 5th in pass offense. Morever, Alabama has been surprisingly weak in pass defense at 53rd in my rankings. Alabama had a huge edge in this matchup last season, but the opposite is true for Saturday night’s game.
Not your typical LSU team
Over the past few seasons, LSU has featured an elite defense full of future NFL draft picks. However, this unit has fallen off this season, ranking 29th in adjusted yards per play.
They face an Alabama offense that struggled with their execution early in the season. Coach Nick Saban stormed off the field at halftime against Ole Miss complaining about missed blocks. However, this unit has played much better recently, now ranking 14th in the nation in adjusted yards per play. They will have an edge against LSU’s defense.
The line favors Alabama by 10, and my team rankings give a 16 edge to Alabama at home. However, I see this as a much closer game. Yards per play predicts a 50-50 game, mostly based on the new found strength of LSU’s offense. If Mettenberger excels and LSU makes a big play on special teams, they can beat Alabama.
Thanks for reading.
With so many interesting games, let’s get right into it.
UCLA at Stanford
From the AP preview of this game, you might think Stanford’s offense is struggling. Stanford failed to convert on 4th and 2 from the Utah 6 yard line last weekend and lost. In the preview on ESPN, the no name writer came to this conclusion.
Failing to gain those last 6 yards could be a small part of a bigger problem for the Cardinal, who have fallen to 11th in total offense (405.2 yards per game) in the Pac-12.
But yards per game is misleading, especially for those that watch Stanford games. Ty Montgomery had some big returns against Washington, setting up a short field for the offense. The defense scored two touchdowns against Washington State, limiting the opportunities for the offense to gain yards.
Defense and special teams can skew yards per game numbers. Hence, The Power Rank uses yards per play to get a more accurate assessment of these teams. Stanford has gained 6.5 yards per play, 24th in the nation and 5th in the Pac-12. Adjustments for schedule do not change this number much, moving the Cardinal to 23rd. The Cardinal do face a stout UCLA defense, ranked 6th in the nation.
On the other side of the ball, UCLA’s offense looks incredible with their 547.0 yards per game, 5th best in the nation. Even with accounting for the number of plays, UCLA only drops to 14th.
However, the adjustments for schedule have a big impact on UCLA. They have played Nevada (122nd) and New Mexico State (124th), two of the worst defenses of all 125 FBS teams. The 41 points they scored at Nebraska looked impressive, but their defense is only 79th (actually a huge improvement from their rank a few weeks ago).
After accounting for strength of schedule, UCLA ranks 31st in offense, worse than Stanford. Moreover, they rank an awful 107th in rush offense. The Bruins will have problems if they get into 3rd and long situations against the 8th ranked Stanford defense that excels at rushing the passer.
Both yards per play and team rankings suggest a 3 point win for Stanford. UCLA’s poor rush offense gives a slight advantage to Stanford. Also, Stanford has been good on special teams this season, a factor that yards per play does not consider. These factors push my prediction close to the line of 5.5 points for Stanford.
Jameis Winston at Clemson
I purposely ignored all the preseason articles on Florida State’s freshman quarterback Jameis Winston. People said the kid would win the Heisman, and I was not buying. Potential doesn’t matter until a player performs on the field.
Then I turned on his first game at Pittsburgh. Under some decent pressure, Winston completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards. The numbers should be better, as the referees botched an out of bounds call on one of those two incompletions. Four games later, Winston’s completion percentage is still an absurd 73%.
Winston leads a Florida State offense ranked 2nd behind Baylor in adjusted yards per play. While the arm of Winston is a huge factor, the 15th ranked rush offense also plays a role. They should punish a Clemson defense ranked 108th against the run.
Clemson’s pass defense is much better at 25th in the nation. They get a strong pass rush, sacking the QB on 12.5% of pass attempts. They will need to pressure Winston to slow down the 2nd best pass offense in the nation.
QB Tajh Boyd leads Clemson’s 20th ranked offense against a Florida State defense that ranks 10th. Clemson certainly has the weapons such as receiver Sammy Watkins to put up points. But don’t expect those points to come as easily as they did against Georgia.
Yards per play predicts a 27 point Florida State win, which is way too much. The team rankings predict a more reasonable 5 point win for Florida State, a 3 point favorite on the road. Especially with Florida State’s distinct advantage in running the ball, all factors point to Clemson’s losing and dropping from the national championship picture.
Indiana at Michigan
Michigan is a traditional Big Ten power, with more wins than any other college football team. Indiana plays the role of Big Ten doormat, happy to receive those Big Ten Network checks from the revenue earned from Michigan and Ohio State fans. And the line only favors Michigan by 9?
Not so fast.
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson has a fast break offense ranked 10th in the nation. They gained 6.08 yards per play against a Penn State defense that ranks 14th. The Hoosier face a Michigan defense ranked 45th in yards per play, the worst ranking since coordinator Greg Mattison arrived 2 seasons ago. The defensive line struggles to get a pass rush, and Indiana should be able to score points.
Michigan’s offense relies on the arm and legs of QB Devin Gardner. Their rush offense would be much worse than 57th without the carries of Gardner. The offensive line has struggle to the point that it’s a mystery who will start at left guard on Saturday. Moreover, stellar tackle Taylor Lewan is banged up over a hip injury sustained against Penn State.
The good news for Michigan’s offense? They will try to run the ball anyway, and Indiana defense ranks 93rd against the run.
In the air, Gardner has been inconsistent with his throws. He routinely misses easy passes but then throws an accurate pass 30 yards down field for a touchdown. Michigan has 32nd rankings in pass offense, which faces Indiana’s 61st ranked pass defense.
The 9 point spreads seems like an anachronism from last year. Michigan could cover, but they’ll need a turnover free game from Gardner and a defense that handles the up tempo offense of Indiana. However, my numbers don’t see that happening. Yards per play gives a 5 point win for Indiana while the team rankings favor Michigan by 6.
Thanks for reading.
With four weeks gone, I have enough data to rank teams based on only data from this season. All 125 teams are now connected by games. I no longer need data from last season that could bias the results.
However, my rankings with only data from this season are noisy. The figure shows the top 10 teams in my team rankings.
There is no chance that Oregon is 53 points better than the average FBS team. Over the last 30 years, the 1995 Nebraska team had the largest rating at 41 points.
Baylor as the second best team in the nation? Not with a schedule that includes Louisiana Monroe and Buffalo.
Mizzou in the top 10? I have respect for Gary Pinkel, but let’s not get ridiculous.
My offense and defense rankings by yards per play are also noisy. We just have to live with it.
Let’s look at some games.
Note from Ed, Friday, September 27th, 2013: I’ve been tracking my picks on the Onside Sports app, a beautiful sports app for iPhone and Android. I’m 5-4 through last night. This week, I feel so uncertain about the 3 games below that I’m not picking any of them on the app.
Stanford at Washington State
When Stanford roughed up San Jose State 34-13 in their opener, the Cardinal were on track to live up to their preseason hype. San Jose State had almost beaten them last season.
However, San Jose State gets beat up at Minnesota, and suddenly the Cardinal don’t look as hot.
The offense has not been elite this season, ranking 29th in yards per play adjusted for schedule. They face a surprising Washington State defense that ranks 11th.
Stanford’s defense has been great, ranking 13th and continuing to have a party in the backfield every game. They should be able to lock down Mike Leach’s spread offense. However, you never know when the offense will click.
The game will be played in Seattle, so Washington State also has to travel for this home game. However, I see this as a danger game for Stanford. They should win, but not by a lot.
Wisconsin at Ohio State
Wisconsin likes to run the ball. Behind a physical offensive line, 63% of their plays have been runs this season. Moreover, the Badgers are 1st in rush offense by yards per play adjusted for schedule.
Can Ohio State’s rush defense match up? They have only allowed 3.4 yards per rush this season, 9th best in the nation. However, they have played 4 teams that do not run the ball well.
My adjustments for schedule put Ohio State’s rush defense at 94th. That’s most likely too low. But the true strength of their rush defense will play a huge factor against Wisconsin.
The line favors Ohio State by 7 while my team rankings have the Buckeyes by 5.8.
Mississippi at Alabama
Alabama beat Colorado State 31-6 last weekend, but the game left plenty of doubts about this year’s Crimson Tide.
Colorado State threw for 5.7 yards per attempt (221 yards on 39 attempts). The FBS average is 6.4 yards per attempt. Alabama’s defense let a cupcake walk into Bryant Denny and throw the ball.
Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M threw for 11.8 yards per attempt against Alabama. However, that was the reigning Heisman trophy winner. I think their performance against Colorado State was worse.
Even more strange, Alabama only ran the ball 39.6% of plays. Usually, they pound a lesser opponent into submission behind their offensive line. Not against Colorado State.
I’m not ready to count out Nick Saban’s team, even if my noisy rankings have his offense 81st and his defense 96th. One game can flip these numbers dramatically.
However, there is cause for concern. Mississippi comes to Bryant Denny this weekend. Alabama is a 16 point favorite, and my team rankings predict a 19.5 point win. But the noisy early season offense and defense rankings suggest that Alabama will not win by that much.
Thanks for reading.
College football isn’t giving us the most compelling slate of games this Saturday. The Gameday crew at ESPN looked at it and went to Fargo, North Dakota.
However, college football never disappoints for drama. Texas coach Mack Brown has provided plenty, as everyone talks about his replacement while his team struggles.
I’ll have more to say about what Vegas thinks of Texas. But first, let’s look at two intriguing games.
Arizona State at Stanford
Arizona State is overrated.
The Vegas line had them as more than a 5 point favorite at home against a good Wisconsin team last Saturday. ASU won by 2 when the referees failed to give Wisconsin the chance to kick a game winning field goal.
If you haven’t seen this truly bizarre play, click here. The announcer is wrong. Wisconsin’s quarterback did put his knee on the ground.
Moreover, Arizona State struggles against teams that can run the ball. They rank 108th in my rush defense rankings (yards per rush adjusted for schedule), and Wisconsin racked up over 7 yards per rush last week.
Stanford bring a big, physical offensive line, very similar to Wisconsin. They roughed up a good San Jose State team in their opener.
My team rankings predicted more than a 10 point win for Stanford at home. With a stellar defense and a rush offense that should dominate, Stanford should win by more than the 6.5 points predicted by Vegas.
San Jose State at Minnesota
A Big Ten team plays a cupcake school at home. The Big Ten team should win. Vegas opened with Minnesota as a 6.5 point favorite against San Jose State.
Not so fast.
Minnesota is the definition of mediocre. They finished last year ranked 82nd in my team rankings. With a host of returning starters, including star defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, my preseason rankings project them at 67th.
San Jose State was spectacular last season. They pushed Stanford to the limit in Palo Alto before losing. They lost to Utah State (10th in my rankings) but won every other game. With their convincing margin of victory against weak teams, San Jose State finished 24th in 2012.
San Jose State lost coach Mike MacIntyre to Colorado. However, they return most of the offense, including a NFL prospect at QB, David Fales. Despite these returning starters, it’s reasonable to expect San Jose State to regress this season, as my preseason rankings have the Spartans at 48th.
However, San Jose State is better than Minnesota. As proof, the line has shifted from 6.5 to 3.5 in favor of Minnesota. Moreover, Minnesota QB Phillip Nelson is doubtful for the game. San Jose State has better than a 50% chance to win this game.
Vegas still likes Texas
A week ago, both Texas and USC were struggling. It gave college football die hards the chance to talk about their replacements.
I thought Texas coach Mack Brown was in more trouble.
Brown made the desperation move of firing his defensive coordinator and hiring Greg Robinson. In case you might have forgotten, Robinson was the DC at Michigan when that unit imploded the last two seasons under Rich Rodriguez. They both got fired, and new DC Greg Mattison immediately improved the defense the next season with many of the same players.
Last week, I correctly picked Mississippi to beat Texas in Austin on the Onside Sports app. You should download this app. It’s a great way to follow sports and interact with others. If you’re on an iPhone, click here.
Now, the media has reached a frenzy with speculation that Alabama coach Nick Saban will become the Texas coach. With the undying love that Saban has for the media, I can’t imagine his inner anger over dealing with Texas questions for the next 4 months.
Texas plays Kansas State at home this weekend. Vegas still favors Texas by 5.5. Since my predictions vary from Texas by 9.8 to Kansas State by 5.3, I’m believing in the wisdom of crowds on this one.
Vegas still likes USC, too
While this isn’t a popular opinion, I think USC’s Lane Kiffin is a good coach.
USC beat Boston College last week, as the offense improved drastically from the previous week against Washington State. In all the media noise surrounding Kiffin’s job, it’s getting lost that USC’s defense has improved from last season. They have only given up 3.8 yards per play, although they haven’t faced a great offense yet.
Vegas has USC as a 6.5 point favorite against Utah State, another strong team from a year ago that lost a coach. Given that Utah State will not end this season 10th like they did a year ago, this spread seems about right.
Thanks for reading.