The theme for Wednesday's Clemson-FSU preview was basically "FSU will win, but watch anyway." That's the theme for the weekend, which features quite a few games with large point spreads and larger intrigue.
Oklahoma is currently a 7.5-point favorite over West Virginia for their battle in Morgantown on Saturday evening. The Sooners have looked the part of a national title contender thus far, and the Mountaineers appear to have bounced back after a rough 2013 campaign. If current form holds (and in college football, that doesn't always happen), OU should build and maintain some distance from WVU. But this game has plenty of exciting questions, even if the Sooners eventually pull away.
Early progress report
Key stat No. 1: Oklahoma allowed 778 yards in its 50-49 win at West Virginia on November 17, 2012, then allowed 490 or more twice in the final three games of the season. They have allowed more than 460 just once in the last 16 games and have allowed 330 or fewer nine times.
Key stat No. 2: WVU gained more than 550 yards in a game five times in 2012 but did so just twice in 2013. They've already done so twice in 2014.
In professional sports, we spend a good portion of our time talking about trades and their winners and losers. Who came out ahead when Team A traded Pitcher B to Team C for Top Prospects D and E? In theory, trades have the potential to produce two winners, but it doesn't always happen.
After the 2011 season, Oklahoma traded defensive coordinator Brent Venables to Clemson (for An Assistant To Be Named Later), then signed free agent Mike Stoops. Both teams were winners, though it took a period of adjustment. Clemson improved from 59th to 51st in Def. F/+ in 2012, then surged to 13th last year.
Oklahoma took a step backwards. The Sooners fell from seventh in Def. F/+ in 2011 to 23rd, then held steady in 24th. But you could see the groundwork last fall. After getting torched late in 2012, Stoops began to experiment more with a three-man line and an emphasis on crazy speed. It has left OU vulnerable to more power-based attacks -- Texas and Alabama running backs, for instance, ran for a combined 415 yards in 77 carries last year -- but there aren't many of those left in college football. It is becoming the perfect Big 12 defense: fast, aggressive, and custom-built for combating the spread offense.
Stoops has created a collective whirling dervish near the line of scrimmage, and the Sooners have begun to build a reputation. They ranked sixth in the country in Adjusted Sack Rate last season, and while they've technically fallen to 10th this year (they had just four sacks in the first two games before erupting for five against Tennessee), opponents know they need to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands as quickly as possible. Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, and Tennessee combined to average just 8.9 yards per completion with a 54 percent completion rate. That's not good. Outside linebacker Eric Striker only has 0.5 sacks and three hurries this year, but quarterbacks always know where he is and are rushing through their progressions because of him, Geneo Grissom, and company.
West Virginia was going through a massive offensive rebuild last year and served as an early-season guinea pig for Stoops' experimentation. The Mountaineers gained 435 yards at 5.6 yards per play but didn't actually get anywhere with the ball. WVU quarterback Paul Millard completed just 51 percent of his passes at 10.4 yards per completion, and the Mountaineers scored only on a 75-yard run in a 16-7 loss.
WVU plummeted from 15th in Off. F/+ to 92nd last year, but the Mountaineers are proving that continuity is a beautiful thing. They had none in 2013; they have quite a bit this time around. Florida State transfer Clint Trickett was new to the system and couldn't develop consistency a year ago, but he has raised his completion rate from 53 percent to 75 percent through three games, and after throwing seven touchdowns in eight games last year (with seven picks), he has thrown seven in three (with one pick) this fall. He is averaging fewer yards per completion, but he's doing an infinitely better job of taking what the defense gives him, and it is paying off.
WVU doesn't have its 2012 offense back yet, but the Mountaineers have improved dramatically, holding their own for a half against Alabama, then gaining a combined 1,300 yards against Towson and Maryland. This game will provide the stiffest test of Stoops' remodeled defense. It will also test the level of progress that WVU has generated to date.
Here comes Jordan Phillips. Matthew Emmons, Getty
"Third-and-7 ... Trickett back to pass..."
Key stat No. 3: West Virginia runs the ball just 21.3 percent of the time on passing downs, 109th in the country.
Key stat No. 4: Oklahoma sacks the quarterback 10.3 percent of the time on passing downs, 32nd in the country.
Key stat No. 5: On passing downs, WVU receiver Kevin White has caught 11 of 14 passes for 234 yards and a 50 percent success rate.
Kevin White hasn't come from out of nowhere. It only feels like it. A transfer from Lackawanna College, White was asked to make an immediate impact last fall and did so sporadically. He caught seven passes for 80 yards against Oklahoma, then caught just three passes for 34 yards in the next three games. He erupted for 263 yards in 14 catches against Baylor, Texas Tech, and Kansas State, then caught 11 balls for 130 yards in the final four games. He was WVU's leading receiver for the season, but that came mostly from about three games of output.
After an offseason to get on the same page with Trickett, White has emerged as one of the nation's most prolific wideouts. He has nearly matched last season's receiving yardage total (507 in 2013, 460 in 2014); he has caught at least nine passes and gained at least 101 yards in all three games. And WVU's blowout win over Towson actually hurt his averages: against Alabama and Maryland, he caught 22 passes for 359 yards.
White has been especially important on passing downs. The Mountaineers haven't been good on standard downs, with a 46 percent success rate that ranks just 53rd in the country. But White leads the country with 234 passing-downs receiving yards (Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp is the only other player with more than 200 yards). It's a good thing, too; No. 2 target Mario Alford has caught seven of eight balls on passing downs but has gained just 33 yards with a 13 percent success rate. White is WVU's passing-downs offense.
The big question for Saturday: will Trickett have enough time to find White? Oklahoma wants nothing more than to pin its ears back and attack on passing downs, and WVU doesn't hide the fact that Trickett is throwing the ball. The Mountaineers run with less frequency than almost any team in the country on second- or third-and-long. OU has a strong passing-downs pass rush and two of the more successfully aggressive corners in the country in senior Julian Wilson and sophomore Zack Sanchez, who have already combined for four interceptions and four pass break-ups.
If White can find space to do damage against Oklahoma, he'll do it for the rest of the season. The good news is that White can be used in a variety of ways. He's in no way just a deep-ball guy. Against Alabama, he caught six passes for at least 13 yards -- three were on long throws (one 19 yards, one 25 after a Trickett scramble, one 26), and three were catch-and-run jobs off of shorter passes. If he is able to break tackles and get downfield on the quick pitch-and-catch plays, WVU is in very good shape.
Of course, while the most interesting matchups come when WVU has the ball, Oklahoma still has to move the ball, too.
"Third-and-7 ... Knight back to pass..."
Key stat No. 6: On passing downs, WVU's defense has allowed a 27 percent success rate (65th in the country) and an IsoPPP average of 0.90 points (22nd). (IsoPPP is a measure of the magnitude of successful plays. Opponent big plays haven't been very big against WVU.)
Key stat No. 7: Trevor Knight has focused on three Sooner receivers almost equally on passing downs: Sterling Shepard (7-for-10, 132 yards), Durron Neal (6-for-9, 40 yards), and K.J. Young (5-for-9, 77 yards). Passes to Shepard have a 60 percent success rate on passing downs, but Neal and Young have only a 28 percent success rate.
Considering that the Mountaineers have played two solid FBS offenses and a better-than-average FCS offense so far, it appears WVU has a solid unit when it comes to getting off the field on passing downs. OU will test that hypothesis. The line about the Sooners' passing offense is that Shepard is the only known receiving weapon, but Knight has been trying hard to disprove that. He has attempted to spread the ball around evenly, but Shepard has been the most consistent.
WVU has focused on preventing big plays, perhaps costing it a little bit of efficiency in the process. The Mountaineers aren't generating much of a pass rush and seem relatively content with forcing opponents to matriculate the ball down the field. How will Oklahoma attack the Mountaineers' form-an-umbrella defense in passing situations? If Knight leans on shorter passes to Neal and Young, will they be able to dodge a tackler or two and get downfield?
Passing downs could become important, because OU's run game might not be clicking at its highest level.
Key stat No. 8: Opportunity Rate is the frequency with which a runner gets at least five yards downfield on a given carry. In 2014, injured Oklahoma running back Keith Ford's Opportunity Rate is 47.1 percent, 19th among the 115 FBS running backs with at least 30 carries. Backups Samaje Perkins and Alex Ross have combined for 34.0 percent.
Key stat No. 9: WVU's defensive Opportunity Rate: 35.4 percent, 49th in the country.
As is typically the case with Oklahoma offenses, the Sooners have been attempting balance on standard downs before putting the ball in Trevor Knight's hands on passing downs and telling him to make a play. They aren't throwing quite as frequently as they did when Landry Jones was in charge of the offense, and they've been doing a good job of putting the more mobile Knight in run-or-pass situations. But they're still going to lean on the running back position as much as they can on first downs, second-and-5, etc.
So far, that's been a winning approach. Sophomore running back Keith Ford, a 5'11, 206-pound bruiser, has been one of the nation's more efficient backs. He hasn't broken off many big plays, but OU has Shepard for that. The Sooners have stayed ahead of schedule quite easily because of Ford's rushing.
Ford's out for a few weeks with a foot fracture, however. That means freshman Samaje Perine and sophomore Alex Ross will be the primary backs; both are bigger than Ford (Perine is a 5'11, 243-pound bowling ball), but neither has been anywhere near as efficient. Ross has an 82-yard run on his résumé but has otherwise averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, and Perine is still a bit too young to properly utilize his girth.
Does this mean more first-down passing for OU? More Knight keepers? Will Perine or
Ford Ross have a breakthrough day? OU might have to stray from the script a bit to stay ahead of the chains; otherwise the Sooners will be relying on passing-downs success to build the space they're favored to build in this game.
Oklahoma is a little more than a touchdown favorite and is projected to win by about 11 points, according to the F/+ ratings. But it's not hard to see how this game could become a nip-and-tuck affair. If WVU is able to produce in the face of a fierce pass rush, or if the Mountaineers are able to render the Sooner offense one-dimensional, we should have an outstanding game on our hands. And even if the Sooners indeed win relatively comfortably, we should get the answers to plenty of questions. It's basically the theme of the weekend.