Generally speaking, Thursday night college football games serve as an appetizer. That spinach and artichoke dip isn't as good as the ribeye you'll be diving into soon, but it's still food. And it's a pretty clear sign that the meal has begun.
(In this awful analogy, mid-week MACtion is equivalent to the beer you are served when you place the chokes-and-cheese order, and the Friday night games are the refill.)
We rarely expect to see elite teams playing on Thursday nights. These games are usually reserved for programs that are happy to risk iffy weeknight attendance for a spot on national television. We've seen a lot of Georgia Tech on Thursday nights over the years, for instance. But the big teams and huge games are typically saved for Saturdays.
Since the start of the 2008 season, we've seen eight matchups of ranked teams on a Thursday night, and we've seen only two since the end of the 2009 season:
- November 6, 2008: No. 8 Utah 13, No. 12 TCU 10
- September 3, 2009: No. 14 Boise State 19, No. 16 Oregon 8
- September 17, 2009: No. 20 Miami 33, No. 14 Georgia Tech 17
- October 8, 2009: No. 21 Nebraska 27, No. 24 Missouri 12
- October 15, 2009: No. 8 Cincinnati 34, No. 21 USF 17
- December 3, 2009: No. 7 Oregon 37, No. 16 Oregon State 33
- September 15, 2011: No. 3 LSU 19, No. 25 Mississippi State 6
- November 10, 2011: No. 10 Virginia Tech 37, No. 21 Georgia Tech 26
There are some memorable games and moments on this list, from Utah scoring on TCU with under a minute left to remain undefeated, to LeGarrette Blount's post-game Falcon punch, to Ndamukong Suh breaking Blaine Gabbert in half in a monsoon, to one of the more enjoyable Oregon-Oregon State Civil War games in recent memory. But still, there are only eight instances of big games like this in almost six seasons.
This is a long way of saying that this Thursday night's lineup -- No. 10 Oklahoma at No. 6 Baylor at 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1, followed by No. 3 Oregon at No. 5 Stanford at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN -- is both incredible and incredibly unique. None of the eight games above pitted two top-10 teams, but two different games will do that on Thursday night. For college football, this is a slice of old-school January 1 action in early November.
As we prepare for one of the biggest (if not the biggest) Thursday nights in college football's history, let's take a look at the biggest questions surrounding these two games.
How seriously should we be taking Oklahoma?
For a while now, Oklahoma has been just about the most consistently strong program in the country outside of Tuscaloosa. The Sooners have finished eighth in the F/+ rankings in each of the last three seasons, have won between 10 and 12 games in 11 of 13 years, and have finished 16th or better in the AP poll in the same 11 of 13. That the Sooners are 7-1 and 10th in the BCS rankings seems … right.
If Oklahoma can beat Baylor in Waco, the Sooners could potentially spring to about fifth or sixth in the BCS rankings. Depending on the Oregon-Stanford result, they could start next week as the highest-ranked one-loss team in the country, well-positioned if BCS chaos approaches in the coming weeks. Their conference title hopes would be dependent on Texas (undefeated in conference play) actually losing a couple of games at some point, but that's a worry for later on. A win over Baylor would be huge for Bob Stoops and his team.
A win is also terribly unlikely. We'll get into win probabilities in more detail tomorrow, but spoiler alert: Baylor is given a 90 percent chance of beating Oklahoma in the F/+ projections. While the record and poll ranking seem familiar, Oklahoma's level of play has been off in 2013. The Sooners rank just 29th in the F/+ rankings, perfectly decent at most things (special teams aside) and elite at nothing. And injuries have thinned out an OU lineup that was already thinner than in previous years. Linebacker Corey Nelson was lost for the season a few weeks ago, and star fullback Trey Millard tore his ACL on October 26.
So how the hell is Oklahoma 10th in the BCS? Let's just say that the same computer rankings that are hurting Baylor -- primarily because of the lack of a margin-of-victory component -- are helping the Sooners. Without margin of victory, we just see that Oklahoma knocked off Notre Dame on the road, handed Texas Tech its first loss, and handled its business against inferior teams elsewhere. We don't see that the Sooners beat West Virginia and TCU by a combined 12 points at home, or that they beat Kansas by just 15. (The lack of margin of victory also probably makes the win over Texas Tech look more impressive than it is.)
Oklahoma is Oklahoma. The Sooners are a big name and have the athletic prowess to beat just about anybody on the right night. But the odds are pretty poor that Thursday night will be the right night.
How will the nation's two best receivers fare against a strong Oklahoma secondary?
So far in 2013, 232 FBS players have been targeted with at least 40 passes. Only 55 of them have managed a catch rate of 70.0 percent or better. Only eight of them are averaging better than 20.0 yards per catch. And only three of them are doing both: Texas A&M's Mike Evans (75 percent, 16.6 yards per catch), Baylor's Tevin Reese (70 percent, 25.0), and Baylor's Antwan Goodley (77 percent, 23.2).
Goodley is averaging a patently absurd 17.7 yards per target in 2013. Reese is averaging 17.5. Of the 232 players referenced above, only one other player (Evans) is averaging better than 14.5, and 14.5 is ridiculously good.
Here's where you say "But who has Baylor playyyyyyyyed??" And in theory, you're correct in asking that question. I feel compelled to point out that, even accounting for competition, Baylor is still No. 1 in Passing S&P+ this year, but considering how many times I've had "But who has Baylor playyyyyyyyed??" thrown at me in recent weeks, you probably aren't convinced by that.
Technically, Oklahoma's is not the best pass defense Baylor has faced so far in 2013; Kansas State's defense currently ranks 10th in Passing S&P+, in part because the Wildcats held quarterback Bryce Petty to just 12-for-21 passing and sacked him twice in Baylor's 35-25 win. The problem for KSU, however, was that those 12 completions covered 332 yards. KSU slowed Baylor down better (or at least more frequently) than anybody else has, but Reese still caught passes of 54 and 93 yards, Goodley still caught a 72-yarder, and Baylor still won by 10.
Oklahoma's defense ranks 28th in Passing S&P+. The Sooners are rushing the passer infinitely better in 2013, and while the secondary is relying in part on young players like redshirt freshman corner Zack Sanchez (26.5 tackles, 10 passes broken up), it still has senior corner Aaron Colvin, senior safety Gabe Lynn, and juniors Julian Wilson and Quentin Hayes.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops tinkered with the defense in the offseason, implementing frequent looks from what is basically a 3-3-5 scheme. That left his Sooners vulnerable to Texas' power offense, but Oklahoma should be more well-equipped than most to handle Baylor's speed. Or at least, the Sooners should less poorly equipped. Can Reese, Goodley and company strike deep against this unit? And if they can't, will Petty be able to show the proper patience and efficiency to still move the ball?
(And am I making a huge mistake by not mentioning explosive running back Lache Seastrunk here?)
Steve Dykes, Getty
Why do the numbers love Stanford so much?
In this week's F/+ rankings, Alabama and Florida State predictably occupy the top two spots. But while the teams in the next three spots -- Stanford, Oregon, and Baylor -- make sense, the order is a little bit surprising. Despite the loss to Utah, Stanford currently ranks third overall, ahead of both the Ducks and Bears.
How is this possible? What do the numbers see in the Cardinal?
The D. First of all, the defense, led by Trent "When s--- hits the fan, he wants to whip you" Murphy, really is terrific. It's not like that is a surprise -- it was great last year, too, and returned most of its key producers. But we might not be taking Stanford's defense as seriously as we should because the Cardinal are allowing 354.0 yards per game this year, 24th in the country. But they have also faced Arizona State (fifth in Off. F/+, 10th in total yards), Washington (16th, 14th), UCLA (43rd, 37th), Oregon State (31st, 26th), and San Jose State (39th, 24th). And Utah was an impressive offensive team until an injury-related fade.
In the Pac-12, you're simply going to allow points and yards. Stanford stops strong offenses as well as just about anybody can. The Cardinal rank fifth in Def. F/+, fourth in both Passing S&P+ and Passing Downs S&P+, ninth in Explosive Drives, and 13th in First Down Rate. They are solid against the run and great against the pass, they limit big plays, and if you fall behind schedule, your drive is over.
Field Position and Special Teams. Winning the field position battle is important enough that I talked about it in my book, Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories ($12.59 at Amazon!). Field position is the source of hidden yards; if you can consistently start your drives further upfield than your opponents do, you are probably going to win. It makes both your offense's and defense's job easier, and Stanford is one of the best in the country at winning the field position battle. The Cardinal are currently second in Field Position Advantage, and it's not difficult to see why: special teams.
Ty Montgomery is one of two the best kickoff returners in the country, Jordan Williamson boots half of his kickoffs for touchbacks, the punt returning is competent, and the punt coverage is good enough. Stanford is ninth in the country in what Brian Fremeau calls Short Field Drives (which are exactly what they sound like). When your offense is less efficient than you would like for it to be, giving it short fields to work with is a pretty good idea. (It's ALWAYS a good idea, actually.)
Big plays on offense. For a team that wants to lean on the run as much as possible, Stanford really doesn't run the ball very well. The Cardinal rank just 53rd in Rushing S&P+ and 33rd in overall Off. F/+. This is only a decent offense. But it has something previous Stanford offenses really didn't have much of: explosiveness. Kevin Hogan is averaging 13.8 yards per completion, and his top two targets -- wideouts Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste -- are each averaging at least 15.9 yards per catch.
We're not talking about Goodley and Reese here, but Montgomery and Cajuste give the Stanford offense a vertical component we are not used to seeing. The result: some quick, explosive scoring drives. Stanford is 17th in Fremeau's Explosive Drives measure and 18th in Passing Downs S&P+, meaning they can catch up if (well, when) they fall behind schedule, and they can do their defense some favors with a couple of easy scores per game.
Stanford's loss to Utah does not look incredibly impressive, in part because the Utes have faded in recent weeks and in part because the Utes were undervalued at the time of the upset itself. That Stanford has lost at all is obviously a ding in a year in which the other top teams are undefeated, but this is still a tremendous team. We'll find out on Thursday if the Cardinal are as tremendous as the numbers think.
Does the Oregon blueprint still work?
We know what Stanford will try to do against Oregon. The Cardinal will try to limit big plays, hold the Ducks to as many field goals as possible, methodically eat clock on offense, win special teams, and put themselves in position to win in the fourth quarter. We know this because a) it's pretty much the only way to beat Oregon, and b) it's exactly how Stanford beat Oregon last year.
The Oregon blueprint (which basically comes down to "play better than Oregon") worked in Eugene last year, ruining Oregon's undefeated season, keeping the Ducks out of the national title game, and paving the way for Stanford's eventual Pac-12 title. Stanford held Oregon to 405 yards and 77 plays, rushed 46 times for 200 yards, ate up almost 38 minutes of clock, allowed Oregon just four gains of greater than 20 yards, sacked Marcus Mariota three times, and downed five punts inside the 20. The Cardinal executed the plan well enough that they were able to overcome glitches -- a missed field goal and a minus-2 turnover differential -- and take the game in overtime.
The narrow victory proved both that Stanford can execute the blueprint and that there is incredibly small margin for error in doing so. Surviving Oregon's offense for a full 60 minutes is different than surviving it for 45 or 50 (just ask Washington and UCLA), and if Stanford cannot run the ball better than it has been, the Cardinal's reliance on a few big plays could backfire in terms of more three-and-outs and quick possessions (good and bad) that allow Oregon to run more plays itself.
That Stanford is so good in defense and field position proves it can win this game. But Marcus Mariota is better than he was last year, and he was pretty damn good last year. After averaging 7.3 yards per pass attempt and 9.4 yards per carry (in about seven carries per game) in 2012, he's averaging 9.4 and 12.5, respectively, in 2013. That's ridiculous. He's completing 64 percent of his passes at 15.8 yards per completion, and he's thrown 20 touchdowns to zero interceptions. He is explosive but patient, and if he's patient on Thursday night, Oregon should be just fine.
There is a chink in Stanford's defensive armor: methodical drives. Stanford is so good at both punishing you and preventing big plays, but the Cardinal are 121st in Methodical Drives (drives in which an opponent occupies at least 10 plays in a possession). You can't get anywhere quickly against Stanford, but more so than in 2012, you can still get somewhere if you're patient.
If Thursday is this good, how great will Friday be?
Don't ask. If Thursday night is the greatest appetizer of your life, Friday night is the trip to the bathroom afterward.
Still, Thursday night's lineup is special. We'll talk more about BCS consequences in Thursday's Morning Tailgate, but by the end of Thursday night, we could be down to three BCS conference undefeateds, we could have a new narrative (one-loss Stanford gaining quickly on undefeated Ohio State in the BCS rankings), or we could have two undefeated teams earning some serious bona fides, with a suddenly drastic Heisman favorite (Mariota) emerging.
My gut says Baylor wins big and Oregon wins, but we already know what the numbers think about Stanford, and really, no potential result here would be that much of a surprise. Should be fun.
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