Advanced stats and eyeballs agree more than we like to think. That they agree so much is why it stands out when they don't.
Take last year's F/+ rankings, for instance. Alabama was far and away the No. 1 team, which makes sense to anybody who watched college football last season. We could debate whether Florida should be as high (No. 4) after its season-ending egg against Louisville), and we could wonder why Oklahoma finished above Kansas State, but nine of the top 11 teams according to F/+ were also in the top 12 of the season-ending AP poll. That's what makes No. 12 Oklahoma State (8-5) stand out.
So far this year, however, things are a bit crazy. Part of that has to do with sample size -- as in, there's not much of one -- but even compared to past seasons, the numbers and eyeballs are struggling to see eye to, well, you know.
The No. 1 team according to the current F/+ rankings ranks 15th in the AP poll. The F/+ No. 4 is No. 17. The No. 3 and 4 teams in the AP poll rank 18th and 16th, respectively, in F/+. Only six of the top 10 in F/+ are also in the AP top 10. It's a bit of a mess. It will work itself out to some degree, but the main takeaway is that we don't know much about anybody right now. The cream has not yet risen, so to speak. There is bunching, and there are still pretty significant shifts from week to week.
Of all of this week's games, perhaps the one in which eyes and stats disagree the most is taking place in Baton Rouge, where AP No. 10 LSU (13th in F/+) hosts AP No. 17 Florida (fourth). The line: LSU -7. The F/+ projection: Florida by 3.9.
What the eyes see
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY
A dominant LSU offense. The Tigers have averaged 489 yards per game despite averaging only 66 plays per game. (For comparison, conference mates Texas A&M and Missouri are averaging 76 and 77 plays, Washington 85.) LSU just doesn't get stopped very much.
Zach Mettenberger pretty consistently finds Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr., when the Tigers fall behind schedule, and with a grinding, punishing running game, the Tigers don't fall behind schedule much. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's system is perfect for Mettenberger, the two receivers, and a stable of running backs.
A dominant Florida defense. You don't need numbers to understand that Florida's defense is incredible, but here are a few basic ones: The Gators are allowing just 217.0 yards per game, second in the country behind Michigan State. They allowed just 206 to a good Miami offense. Their opponents' passer rating is just 81.2, also second behind Michigan State (also 81.2). They have picked off eight passes and are allowing just 2.8 yards per carry and 65 rushing yards per game (also second).
This is a mean unit, one capable of squeezing the life out of you, battering you, allowing you few quality options, and making sure you're too beat up to connect on those options. Even without star tackle Dominique Easley, this defense is still loaded and deep, from tackles Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs to corners Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson, and Vernon Hargreaves III; and the defense faces minimal plays thanks to a clock-eating offense.
Tyler Murphy takes on Death Valley. The Gator quarterback is making just his third career start, and it happens to be in perhaps the most intimidating venue in the country. Murphy has been fine to date, but playing at Kentucky and hosting Arkansas is not the same as playing in Baton Rouge. (There's no adjustment for that in the stats. The road is the road.)
LSU is just better, right? The Tigers are ranked higher, and they pass the eyeball test. They almost won in Athens, they easily handled a TCU team that was a lot closer to full strength than it is now, and they blitzed Auburn early and Mississippi State late. Florida, meanwhile, lost to Miami and have yet to win a game by more than 20 points. It just feels like LSU's odds are damn good here, right, Spencer?
Florida plays LSU this weekend, finally providing an answer to whether the Gators can continue to play constrictor ball and win or LSU will simply continue to rip through teams for 40 points a game.
Answer: They'll probably score 40.
What the advanced stats see
A transcendent Florida defense. Though second to Michigan State in most raw stats, opponent adjustments give the Gators the No. 1 edge in Def. S&P+. But that alone doesn't tell the story. With a rating of 171.2, the Gators are as close to No. 3 Virginia Tech (138.9) as the Hokies are to No. 42 Tulsa. In terms of ratings, in fact, Florida's defense is almost as good as Baylor's offense (175.7).
Florida's run defense is solid, but the pass defense is spectacular; the Gators currently rank second in Passing S&P and first in Passing Downs S&P. Mettenberger has been able to dig LSU's offense out of holes, but that might not be much of an option on Saturday. Falling behind schedule is death against Florida.
A pretty iffy LSU run game. LSU has racked up a lot of its impressive rushing totals after games have shifted into garbage time. The Tigers rank just 58th in Rushing S&P (non-garbage time only) despite some impressive peripheral totals -- Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue combined for 208 yards in 29 carries versus Auburn, Hill and Kenny Hilliard combined for 196 in 22 carries versus Mississippi State. The onus is on the Tigers to prove they can raise their ground game when it counts the most; Hill and Hilliard managed only 97 yards in 25 carries versus Georgia, and Florida's run defense is much better than Georgia's.
The Gators can give up some yards here and there, but they also take some back. They are currently first in the country in Stuff Rate (percentage of runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage). LSU's offense: 73rd in Stuff Rate.
If LSU can't run, the passing lanes will be all sorts of clogged, especially since Mettenberger really does only pass to two guys. Non-garbage-time targets on passing downs: Landry 26, Beckham 23, everybody else 21. It's paid off to date (Landry and Beckham have caught 37 of those 49 passes for 613 yards, 12.5 per target), but it might not against Florida.
A truly mediocre (for LSU) LSU defense. Over the last six seasons, LSU's defense has only once ranked worse than 23rd in Def. F/+ (40th in 2008) and only twice ranked worse than 15th (23rd in 2009). The Tigers ranked second in 2011 and sixth in 2012, and while I posited in the offseason that we might be overestimating the losses this unit suffered, I've thus far been proven incorrect. LSU's defense currently ranks 43rd in Def. S&P+. The Tigers rank 80th in Success Rate (unadjusted for opponent) and 86th in Rushing S&P (ditto). This jives, of course, with the raw stats, which have LSU 76th in yards allowed per carry (4.3). You can run on LSU, and Florida's certainly going to try to.
A Florida offense that is better and much more efficient with Tyler Murphy. No, Kentucky and Arkansas aren't LSU. But at the moment, LSU isn't LSU either. Murphy has not faced a test like LSU in Baton Rouge yet, and yes, he might wilt in the moment. He would be excused if he did so.
But if the moment doesn't get to him, LSU might not either. In the nearly three games since starter Jeff Driskel went down against Tennessee, Murphy hasn't been a Heisman contender by any means, but he's been exactly the efficiency guy the Gators need. Whereas Driskel took sacks on 13 percent of his pass attempts, Murphy's sack rate is only 5 percent. And in his first two starts, he completed 78 percent of his passes. Many of those passes didn't really go anywhere, but that's not really the point. Sacks are devastating for a team that plays a conservative style and needs to win the field position battle. Murphy doesn't take many, and thus far, LSU hasn't come up with many, either.
Crazy things happen in this rivalry, from ridiculous fake field goals to ridiculous coaching matchups that don't go as planned. But while a Florida win would seemingly continue the "expect the unexpected" nature of the series, stats suggest it's more likely than you think. But since when has Death Valley cared about stats?