Early in conference play, Illinois, Kansas State, Rutgers and Wake Forest are currently leading their leagues. Which of the four can maintain their status, and which are likely to drop quickly?
Six weeks into the season, we are rightly not paying too much attention to conference standings. At most, teams have played only three conference games (and in some cases, one), and depending on who they have (or haven't) played, they could have a record that in no way signifies their general quality or their odds of finishing at the top or bottom of the table.
That said, there are a few teams currently atop their conferences who were, to say the least, a bit unexpected. Let's take a look at perhaps the four most shocking examples and gauge their chances of remaining near the top two months from now.
(Below you will see teams evaluated by their S&P+ ranking. You may have gotten used to the use of F/+ ranking -- the combination of my play-by-play S&P+ measure and Brian Fremeau's drive-based FEI -- here, but that will not be updated until tomorrow, so as any good chef would do, we will use what is fresh.)
Wake Forest (4-1, 3-0 in the ACC)
Since they knocked off N.C. State at home in the second week of the season (a win that seemed a lot more impressive then than it does now), I have constantly used one word to describe Wake Forest: salty. They have played four FBS teams this year, and all four of those games were decided by one possession, no matter the quality of the opponent (Florida State) or the lack thereof (Boston College, N.C. State, Syracuse). They moved to 3-0 by bolting to a double-digit lead against the No. 23 Seminoles and holding on for dear life. Their numbers suggest that they obviously aren't a high-quality squad, but 3-0 is 3-0. If they can figure out how to win three of their final five conference contests, they could sneak into the conference title game.
That is, as long as one of those three wins is at Clemson. Good luck with that.
To date, Wake has won games because of Chris Givens and leverage. Givens has provided both efficiency and explosiveness (33 catches, 18.2 yards per catch, 70.2-percent catch rate) for the Demon Deacons, and his production has been oddly steady. He has caught either six or seven passes in all five games, producing between 85 and 132 yards in each. His 22-yard touchdown reception versus Florida State staked Wake to a 16-7 lead in the second quarter. Meanwhile, for all their flaws, the Deacs' defense comes up big when given the opportunity: Wake ranks 92nd in Def. Standard Downs S&P+ but 29th on passing downs. They struggle to leverage opponents into awkward down-and-distance situations, but when they get there, they shut drives down.
A 3-0 record is great, but one has to figure Wake's odds of making it to the ACC title game are pretty poor. They do get to host Virginia Tech and Maryland, but trips to North Carolina and, particularly, Clemson make things difficult. Clemson is also 3-0 (they strangely rank just 41st in S&P+ -- I will have to use a future Morning Tailgate to investigate why that is), and head-to-head victory may be a requirement.
Rutgers (4-1, 2-0 in the Big East)
S&P+ Rank (Offense | Defense): 55th (108th | 14th).
Remaining Conference Games (S&P+ Rk): at Louisville (81st), West Virginia (31st), South Florida (42nd), Cincinnati (37th), at Connecticut (75th).
The Rutgers formula for winning games is very, very simple right now: defense and turnovers. They forced five Syracuse turnovers and held the Orange to 295 yards in an ugly comeback win last week, and they forced four Pittsburgh turnovers and held the Panthers to 271 yards in a 34-10 win at home on Saturday. That puts them at 2-0 in the Big East and 4-1 overall (their lone loss: 24-22 at North Carolina). Their offense is putrid, but a) the defense makes up for it, and b) virtually every Big East team has a characteristic one could describe as putrid.
There are two primary questions for Rutgers moving forward: a) who's the quarterback, and b) can they generate enough offense to beat West Virginia at home on October 29?
True freshman Gary Nova came in for the wildly ineffective Chas Dodd against Syracuse, and though the offense still hasn't been spectacular, it would be silly to ignore the fact that Rutgers has outscored opponents by a 50-13 margin since Nova came in. The Don Bosco Prep product completed 25 of 48 passes for 296 yards, a middling average of 6.2 yards per pass. But with a defense this good, his job is to avoid mistakes. So far, so good.
The Scarlet Knights probably do not have to go undefeated to win this league, but even so, one has to like the way the schedule takes shape. Of their five remaining conference opponents, the three best are at home. RU is obviously not a spectacular team -- with that offense, they may not even be above average -- but without being too mean, let's just say that after last year, quality is not necessarily a qualifier in the Big East.
No. 17 Kansas State (5-0, 2-0 in the Big 12)
S&P+ Rank (Offense | Defense): 63rd (77th | 44th).
Remaining Conference Games (S&P+ Rk): at Texas Tech (77th), at Kansas (92nd), Oklahoma (third), at Oklahoma State (ninth), Texas A&M (13th), at Texas (18th), Iowa State (74th).
Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder is, for all intents and purposes, a comfortable, old shoe. You know what he is going to try to do, and you know it probably won't last forever, but it just feels right. As their rankings suggest, the Wildcats are not a team built for going 8-1 or 9-0 in in a rock-solid Big 12 this year, but they have proven that if you make a requisite number of mistakes against them, you will not win. The Wildcats are a "play from ahead" team, and lovely starts against Miami (14-3 early in the second quarter), Baylor (13-7 after one quarter) and Missouri (10-0 after one quarter) allowed them to dictate both the tempo and the narrative of each game.
If they can continue to do that, they can continue to win, but against Oklahoma and Texas A&M at home, and Oklahoma State and Texas on the road, that is a rather large "if."
Kansas State's defense is like a much better version of Wake Forest's. The Wildcats are solid on standard downs (38th) and of a higher caliber on passing downs (22nd). They were able to end Missouri drives by forcing losses on first down and dropping into a warm, Cover-2 blanket on passing downs. Like everything else Bill Snyder has tried this year, it worked. (Their passing downs defense, by the way, was dead last in the country last year.) On offense, Collin Klein manages a game just like you would want a Snyder quarterback to do. KSU ranks just 78th in Rushing S&P+ and 105th in Passing S&P+, but when they are given an opportunity through defense or special teams, they almost always take advantage of it.
Because of the story behind Bill Snyder's return to Manhattan, and because of how storied his career has become, it is easy to root for KSU. And because they indeed get the Sooners and Aggies at home, it isn't impossible to imagine them pulling at least one more big win this year, maybe two. But it will probably take an 8-1 record to win the conference, and it is very difficult to imagine a team with this poor an overall offense going 3-1 in the four games referenced above and avoiding a slip against Iowa State and in road trips to Texas Tech and Kansas. (Okay, they're not going to lose to Kansas, but the point stands.)
No. 16 Illinois (6-0, 2-0 in the Big Ten)
S&P+ Rank (Offense | Defense): 15th (40th | eighth).
Remaining Conference Games (S&P+ Rk): Ohio State (33rd), at Purdue (83rd), at Penn State (10th), Michigan (12th), Wisconsin (seventh), at Minnesota (104th).
You cannot kill Ron Zook. His time in Champaign was dead to rights heading into the 2010 season, and as many desperate coaches have done before, he brought in a boatload of new assistants as a last-ditch Hail Mary to save his job. And as Hail Maries tend to do once every few hundred tries, it worked. Paul Petrino's offense is stable, if limited, and Vic Koenning's defense has become, aside from an occasional glitch, downright nasty. The Illini are 6-0 for the first time since their Rose Bowl season of 1951, and after falling into a bit of a "team gets ranked for the first time in a while and immediately eases up" funk -- they trailed both Western Michigan and Northwestern at half before rallying to beat each by three-point margins -- they got back to business, holding off Indiana with ease in Bloomington.
Of the four teams mentioned here, Illinois is easily the most sturdy from a statistical standpoint. The offense is predictable and only reasonably effective on standard downs (48th), but with drag route magician A.J. Jenkins on their side, they rank 26th on passing downs and 28th in Passing S&P+. Jenkins has caught 19 of 23 passes for 348 yards on passing downs, simply gaudy totals considering everybody in the stadium knows he is Nathan Scheelhaase's first, second and third option in those situations. Even in the rare occasion that Jenkins cannot haul in the pass, however, a defense that ranks 10th against the run and 14th against the pass has been more than capable of picking up the slack. The Illini have suffered occasional breakdowns on passing downs (they are 40th, as compared to 11th on standard downs), but few teams remaining on the schedule are immensely capable of taking advantage of that.
The schedule takes shape almost as nicely as one could hope. They currently share the division lead with Penn State, and they do have to go to Happy Valley on October 29, but in hosting Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, they will have a chance to snare a division title with a 7-1 (or perhaps 6-2, depending on your views of Penn State's general prowess) record. This Saturday's battle with the Buckeyes is key. Ohio State showed life in their loss to Nebraska, but that life only exists if quarterback Braxton Miller is of reasonable health. The Buckeyes have little chance if Joe Bauserman is behind center.
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