Three weeks ago in The Numerical, I checked in on the computer ratings to gauge conference strength. It was early, but with so many injuries and strange developments, I just didn't have a very good read of the lay of the land.
Now that we're halfway through the regular season (!), let's check in again. Preseason projections have been fully eliminated from the equations, and the strangeness hasn't subsided. Is the picture any clearer using numbers? Not really. In fact, the water might be even muddier.
(after 7 weeks)
(3 weeks ago)
Three weeks ago, the SEC featured teams ranked No. 1 (Alabama), No. 4 (Ole Miss), No. 5 (LSU) and No. 7 (Georgia). Alabama (No. 2) and LSU (No. 8) are still in fine shape, and Florida (No. 12) has surged, but with projections phased out and decent performances against Arkansas and Texas A&M in the books, the Tide's ratings have fallen from plus-70.1 percent to plus-53.1. And due to a combination of youth, injuries and offensive struggles, Ole Miss and Georgia have plummeted to 22nd and 34th. The SEC still has a healthy lead, but it's not as healthy as it was.
Meanwhile, we've got ourselves a new No. 2. The Big Ten's averages barely changed, but with Iowa surging, Ohio State looking the part and Michigan heartbroken but awesome, the conference improved enough to jump over three leagues. There is almost no separation between the four non-SEC power conferences, so No. 2 will probably change hands a few more times.
And wow, this probably wasn't the season the Pac-12 had in mind.
The most improved conference, by the way? The AAC. Boasting 4-1 Navy (No. 20 in F/+), 6-0 Memphis (No. 26), 6-0 Houston (No. 33) and 6-0 Temple (No. 41), the American has four of the top nine mid-major teams; more importantly, the conference's worst teams are only weighing it down so much. While No. 119 UCF and No. 122 Tulane leave something to be desired, those are the only two that rank worse than 105th. The MWC has five below that bar, Conference USA has five (and four of the bottom nine), and the Sun Belt has seven. (The MAC? Only two!)
The AAC has filled its coaching roster with some thrilling young talent and hasn't had to wait to see results. It's amazing what some good hires can do.
Highlight Yards are the yards credited to a runner after the line has done its job. The offensive line gets 100 percent credit for the first 4 yards of a carry and 50 percent credit for yards 5 through 9. After that, all yardage goes to the runner. It is a nice measure of open-field explosiveness.
Thus far, 51 players have rushed at least 100 times, and 13 have averaged greater than 6 highlight yards per highlight opportunity. You can guess some of the names: UCLA's Paul Perkins (6.87), Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise (6.97), Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott (7.02), LSU's Leonard Fournette (8.26).
Fournette ranks second, but Dalvin Cook of Florida State's 11.93 average is further ahead of Fournette than Fournette is ahead of the No. 35 player on the list, Southern Miss' Jalen Richard (4.74).
Cook's explosiveness in the open field has been otherworldly. Against Miami in Week 6, his first touch was a 72-yard touchdown on a perfectly executed option. His third was a 36-yard score on a simple crossing route. He had rushes of 35, 23 and 23 in the game.
In Week 7 against Louisville, his first eight carries generated just 32 yards, and FSU trailed 7-6 at halftime. But on the fifth play of the second half, he rushed right for 54 yards and a touchdown. His 14-yard score made it 27-14, and an 11-yard rush on third-and-11 set up the game-icing touchdown. He finished with 22 carries for 163 yards and four catches for 60; almost all of his yardage came in the second half.
Oh yeah, and he's been fighting a hamstring injury. That is ridiculous.
Fournette is a worthy Heisman front-runner -- more than 50 percent of his carries are gaining five-plus yards, compared to around 45 percent for Cook. But if you're looking for why FSU has been doing so well after Jameis Winston, you almost have to mention Cook before you talk about the awesome Seminole defense. He's on pace to destroy Warrick Dunn's single-season FSU rushing record (sooner than later), and he makes sure that that awesome defense has at least a little bit of margin for error.
Four winless FBS teams remain: Kansas, UCF, North Texas and New Mexico State. UCF has five games left to get off the schneid, and the other three have six. Who's most likely to finish with a goose egg?
- Kansas: 0.36 projected wins. According to S&P+ win probabilities, the Jayhawks have a 15 percent chance of beating Kansas State at home, a 13 percent chance of winning at Texas ... and 3 percent or lower in each of the other four.
- UCF: 0.66 projected wins. George O'Leary's Knights briefly returned to form, taking a 16-14 lead into the fourth quarter against AAC East leader Temple on Saturday. But Temple scored the final 16, dropping UCF to 0-7. The odds aren't as dire, but it will still take quite an upset to avoid 0-12. They have between a 12 and 17 percent chance in four of their last five games and will get USF (17 percent) to finish the season.
- North Texas: 0.68 projected wins. Following the sacking of Dan McCarney last week, North Texas showed a little bit of fight in a 55-28 loss to the Western Kentucky juggernaut. (Hey, it's better than losing by 59 points to Portland State.) After a blood-letting against Marshall this Saturday, the Mean Green will have two serious chances. They host UTSA on Halloween (17 percent chance of winning). Then, in the season finale, they host a UTEP that is almost as bad. The Mean Green are 128th in the current S&P+ rankings, but UTEP is 127th, and UNT is given a 48 percent chance of winning. Hope!
- New Mexico State: 2.22 projected wins. NSMU was oh, so close. The 0-6 Aggies fell by a combined 14 points to Georgia State, UTEP and New Mexico, and in all three, the stats suggested they had a better than 50 percent chance of prevailing. They responded by losing to two top-50 teams (Ole Miss and Georgia Southern) by a combined 108-29. If the Aggies can get their second wind, they should avoid a winless finish. They are given a better than 50 percent chance of beating both Troy and Idaho at home, and they're between 20 and 37 percent in each of their final four contests. NMSU has no defense, but a fun offense should be able to steal a win at some point.
Kansas might have just seen its best chance fall by the wayside. They rallied from 23-6 down to get to within three points of Texas Tech at home, then forced a punt with about five minutes remaining. But on third-and-6 from the KU 11, Jah'Shawn Johnson picked off KU's Ryan Wlilis and returned the interception 27 yards for a game-clinching score.
By the standards of Kansas' run of futility, the 30-20 loss was basically a win. Since beating Iowa State, 41-36, to move to 5-0 in 2009, the Jayhawks have lost 51 of 54 Big 12 contests, and of those 51, only 11 have come by 10 or fewer points.
Put another way, Kansas has either won or stayed within 10 points in 14 of its last 54 conference games. The Jayhawks have a fighting chance in one of every four games. I guess that means they are due another close game down the stretch. Stay on your toes, KSU.
More college football for you
Two weeks ago, Oklahoma was looking like a Big 12 contender. The Sooners disposed of West Virginia with relative ease and headed to the Cotton Bowl as massive favorites over rival Texas.
A week ago, all of Bob Stoops' offseason problems were back. The Sooners laid an egg against the Longhorns, and all the talk of a stale program and mockery of the "Big Game Bob" moniker returned with voracity.
Oklahoma responded with a 55-0 pasting of a Kansas State team that had been better than Texas. The angry Sooners dominated in every possible way.
Dramatic week-to-week swings are a habit in Norman. Last year, the Sooners beat Iowa State by 45 points, then lost to Baylor by 34. The year before, they lost to Baylor by 29, then beat ISU by 38. In 2012, they beat Texas by 42 and Kansas by 45, then lost to Notre Dame by 17. In 2011, they beat Iowa State by 20, then lost to Oklahoma State by 34. In 2010, they lost to Texas A&M by 14, then beat Texas Tech by 38.
This is how a relationship grows old. Oklahoma constantly reminds its fans of how good it can be when clicking on all cylinders; the Sooners then put together a randomly* putrid performance that wrecks the good feelings before getting angry and playing well again. On one hand, these flips result in computer rankings higher than we feel the Sooners deserve (OU is currently fifth in the F/+ rankings, fourth in Sagarin, and fourth in FPI); on the other, we end up being far more skeptical of OU than we should be.
* Well, it's not COMPLETELY random. Baylor is involved with increasing frequency.
By the way, OU hosts Iowa State on Nov. 7, then visits Waco on Nov. 14. Wonder what might happen.
Lost in the mayhem of Michigan State's last-second win over Michigan, another incredibly unlikely result was unfolding a little bit to the south and west. Against Rutgers, Indiana had gone on a 28-0 run in the opening 10 minutes of the third quarter and led the Scarlet Knights by a 52-27 margin with just over 17 minutes remaining.
RU's Chris Laviano hit Leonte Carroo for a 43-yard score with 2:06 left in the third quarter, but entering the fourth with an 18-point lead, Indiana's win probability was around 99.6 percent. A 5-2 record looked all but certain.
But before a botched punt could swing the game in Ann Arbor, it did so in Bloomington.
That made it 52-39. Indiana drove back into Rutgers territory, but Isaiah Wharton picked off Nate Sudfeld; seven plays and 68 yards later, it was 52-46. Then Sudfeld went deep and got picked off again. And not even 11 minutes after trailing by 25, Rutgers tied the game with a 40-yard run by Paul James.
The Knights weren't done. They forced Indiana's first actual punt of the afternoon, a three-and-out, and started working the clock. Laviano found big Carlton Agudosi for a pair of 16-yard passes on third down, and as time expired, Kyle Federico finished the Hoosiers off with a 26-yard field goal. Rutgers matched a 28-0 run with a 28-0 run and pulled off what would have been, on any other Saturday, a noteworthy comeback.
Boston College's defensive output has been ridiculous.
Through six games, the Eagles had yet to allow more than 14 points or four yards per play. Sure, two of those games were against Maine and Howard (combined: three points, 102 total yards), but they allowed only seven offensive points and 3.8 yards per play to Florida State and just 26 combined points to NIU, Duke and Wake Forest since. Because of a dismal, depleted offense, they were only 3-3 and had lost back-to-back games despite allowing just 12 points, but this defense has been playing at a ridiculously high level.
Clemson, already the No. 1 team in the country according to F/+, laid 532 yards (6.8 per play) and 34 points on BC. The run game didn't do much, but Deshaun Watson completed 27 of 41 passes for 420 yards and three scores. Artavis Scott led the way with 10 catches for 162 yards, but Clemson also got big plays from Deon Cain (receptions of 67 and 30 yards), Charone Peake (25 yards), Zac Brooks (21) and Hunter Renfrow (19).
Yes, Watson threw two picks and took three sacks, and yes, there have been a few more negative plays than you'd like to see (seven interceptions, eight sacks) this year. But with this defense, Clemson doesn't need a ton from its offense ... and the offense now ranks 12th in Off. S&P+. It goes without saying that the undefeated Tigers are still No. 1 in F/+ this week.