Last week, I took on the task of trying to unearth Ohio State’s non-strengths. It’s hard to call them weaknesses, but the Buckeyes’ passing game was an issue in an easy win over Indiana, so maybe we were on to something.
It’s time to turn to another powerhouse. Alabama is 6-0 following a 49-30 romp over Arkansas. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide have grown remarkably flexible through the years, comfortable winning either shootouts or slogs. They held USC, Western Kentucky, Kent State, and Kentucky to a combined 22 points, but they allowed 73 against Ole Miss and Arkansas and won those games, too.
They are up to eighth in Off. S&P+ and fifth in Def. S&P+. They have averaged 7.3 yards per play against power conference opponents while allowing just 4.8, and they are back to No. 1 in overall S&P+.
And they’re doing all of this with a true freshman quarterback. This is terrifying.
Still, the Tide did almost lose to Ole Miss. And among their final six regular season opponents are four that currently rank in the S&P+ top 15. Despite ranking first overall, the schedule gives them only about a 28 percent chance of finishing 12-0.
Based on S&P+ projections, here are the Tide’s remaining games, ranked in order of loss likelihood:
- at LSU (Nov. 5) — 33%. Biggest potential disadvantage: LSU’s pass rush and pass efficiency defense.
- at Tennessee (Oct. 15) — 26%. Tennessee’s run-stuffing defense and strange fourth-quarter perfection.
- Auburn (Nov. 26) — 22%. Auburn’s pass rush and big-play prevention.
- Texas A&M (Oct. 22) — 21%. A&M’s run stuffing and pass protection.
- Mississippi State (Nov. 12) — 8%. MSU’s run defense and pass protection.
- Chattanooga — 0%. Biggest potential disadvantage: No.
If Bama does lose, what will likely trip up the Tide?
1. The big plays Bama allows are really, really big.
S&P+ is derived from quite a few factors, but the two biggest are efficiency (success rate) and explosiveness (IsoPPP). IsoPPP measures the magnitude of successful plays — think ISO, if you’re a baseball stat person. If you’re not allowing many successful plays, the magnitude of them doesn’t matter as much, and Alabama currently ranks second in preventing success rate (25.5 percent). Still, the Tide also rank 126th in IsoPPP; if you break a 10-yard gain on Bama, you might break something much larger.
Alabama has allowed only 63 plays of 10-plus yards, which ranks 26th in the country despite Bama having played six games (20 of the 25 teams ahead of them have played either four or five). But of those 63, 12 have gained at least 30 yards (68th).
Future Bama opponent Texas A&M’s offense ranks 14th in explosiveness, by the way.
Again, this only matters if you’re actually semi-efficient, and it’s really hard to be efficient against Alabama. But a few big plays can turn any game.
2. Meanwhile, the Bama offense isn’t particularly explosive.
Often when an offense is succeeding with an ultra-young quarterback, it’s because big plays are covering for consistency issues. Instead, Alabama is ruthlessly efficient (13th in success rate) and deadly in the red zone (third in points per scoring opportunity) but only 57th in IsoPPP.
Jalen Hurts has completed 64 percent of his passes this year with a passer rating of nearly 150. But before the win over Arkansas, he was only averaging 11.8 yards per completion. This dink-and-dunk style was working, but it opens the door for trouble if an opponent is able to swallow those short plays up. (LSU’s defense ranks eighth in Rushing S&P+, and Auburn ranks 10th.) Efficiency matters over everything else, but big plays create easy points.
That makes the Arkansas game intriguing. Hurts completed 13 of 17 passes for 253 yards (19.5 per completion). ArDarius Stewart caught five balls for 120 yards. Arkansas indeed swallowed up Calvin Ridley (five targets, three catches, 14 yards), and it didn’t matter. And combined with an increasingly explosive run game (Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Joshua Jacobs: 24 carries, 235 yards), Bama’s offense went nuclear in Fayetteville.
This was a potential weakness; it might not be anymore.
3. This also might be less of a concern now than it was a couple of weeks ago, but this isn’t the best Alabama offensive line.
Bama ranks 39th in Adj. Line Yards and 51st in Adj. Sack Rate. There have been some glitches and lost yardage (57th in stuff rate). If rankings in the 50s are the worst thing in your entire stat profile, you’re probably OK, but it could still be an issue against an excellent defensive front. LSU’s defense, for instance, ranks 12th in Adj. Sack Rate and 15th in Rushing S&P+. Auburn ranks 11th and 16th, respectively.
The ground game has picked up steam, however. Over the last three games, Harris, Scarbrough, and Jacobs combined to average 8 yards per carry.
Alabama appears to be improving rapidly on offense, but there are still some impressive defenses on the horizon.
2 senior starters for Oregon
Justin Herbert’s first start as Oregon quarterback was mostly forgettable. He threw a pick on his first pass and averaged only about 4.5 yards per pass attempt in a devastating 70-21 loss to a Washington team the Ducks hadn’t lost to since 2003. He was a bit player in a Washington story.
Still ... did you see that arm?
In Oregon’s three touchdown drives, Herbert completed 12 of 13 passes for 101 yards. Not including sacks, he rushed only three times for 18 yards all game, but he was efficient enough in spurts to give you a vision of what a future Oregon offense could look like.
That vision will feature a lot of the names that shared the field with him. The only senior starter on offense is tight end Pharaoh Brown, and even if star running back Royce Freeman goes pro, sophomores Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin (15 carries for 120 yards against Washington) are loaded with potential. The line started four redshirt freshmen.
The Oregon defense is nearly as young. Only three of the top 25 tacklers are seniors, and the two most disruptive players thus far are freshman linebacker Troy Dye and sophomore end Justin Hollins. That doesn’t excuse a ghastly No. 106 defense (per Def. S&P+), but it’s something.
On Monday, I wrote about Michigan State’s struggles and noted that the Spartans aren’t a particularly young team. At the very least, Oregon can say it is undergoing a youth movement, especially if Herbert remains the starter. That doesn’t mean much for a disastrous 2016 season (the Ducks are 2-4 and currently have only about a 42 percent chance of reaching 6-6, per S&P+), but it’s not hard to see this team growing into something far more Oregon-like.
A three-team race for the New Year’s bowl? Four? Five?
Houston’s loss to Navy was crippling for any prospects of a team from a Group of 5 conference making the Playoff. The Cougars were the only team that had the combined schedule and cachet to reach the top four.
The loss did, however, create an exciting race for the G5’s major bowl slot. It gives us an opportunity to survey how this race is taking shape.
Top 10 G5 teams, per S&P+
- Houston (20th, 5-1)
- Boise State (26th, 5-0)
- South Florida (28th, 5-1)
- Toledo (31st, 4-1)
- San Diego State (42nd, 4-1)
- Memphis (44th, 4-1)
- Appalachian State (3-2, 51st)
- Temple (53rd, 3-3)
- Troy (58th, 4-1)
- Georgia Southern (59th, 3-2)
Houston, Boise State, and USF boast wins over power conference opponents, and Toledo’s only loss was by three points at BYU (No. 22 in S&P+). All four rank 31st or better, and despite a shaky loss to South Alabama, SDSU comes in at 42nd. Memphis could be in position to steal the AAC West with a late win over Houston (the week after the Cougars take on Louisville, no less).
And this says nothing of unbeaten Western Michigan, which lags behind in S&P+ (61st) but boasts road wins over Big Ten teams (Northwestern and Illinois, which technically counts). It also ignores Navy, which ranks just 76th after a mediocre start but is 4-1 with the Houston win. If the Midshipmen survive the gauntlet — at East Carolina, Memphis, at South Florida, vs. Notre Dame — they’ll have a strong résumé, too.
Houston likely controls its New Year’s destiny. (If Navy wins the American, Houston won’t be eligible for a New Year’s autobid, but the Midshipmen are projected to lose at least a couple of games along the way. If the Cougars finish 12-1, that will come with wins over Oklahoma and Louisville. But if they lose to Louisville, Memphis, or someone else, this race becomes all sorts of entertaining.
A 98% chance that Wake Forest bowls
With a 28-9 home win over Syracuse on Saturday, Wake Forest moved to 5-1 for the season. The Demon Deacons have won at Duke and Indiana, and home games against Army, Virginia, and Boston College should assure a sixth win. In fact, S&P+ says there’s about a 98 percent chance that this happens. The Deacs should end up bowling for the second time in eight seasons.
Dave Clawson’s squad isn’t the only happy-for-the-first-time-in-a-while story at the moment, though.
- Colorado is 4-2 and a legitimate player in the Pac-12 South; the Buffs are at 96.1 percent to reach 6-6 or better and still have a 22 percent chance of at least 9-3.
- Old Dominion is 4-2 with a 97 percent chance of 6-6 and a 23 percent chance of 9-3.
- Eastern Michigan — Eastern Michigan! — is 4-2, and despite Saturday’s loss to Toledo, Chris Creighton’s Eagles still have an 84 percent chance of 6-6. If they bowl, it will be their first time in 29 years.
- S&P+ doesn’t like Army much (118th), but the Black Knights are 3-2 and have Lafayette, North Texas, and Morgan State on the schedule. They have a 60 percent chance of at least 6-6, 27 percent of 7-5.
- Wyoming is 4-2! Craig Bohl’s Cowboys have beaten Colorado State and Air Force, and their six-win odds are up to 59.8 percent.
- Idaho is 3-3! The Vandals have won at UNLV and ULM in the past three weeks and have a 57.2 percent chance of 6-6, thanks in part to home games against NMSU, South Alabama, and Georgia State and a trip to Texas State. Only the trip to Appalachian State appears unwinnable for the soon-to-be Big Sky heavyweights.
- Hawaii is 3-3! The Rainbow Warriors played California in Australia, then played at Michigan, returned home for a week, then went to Arizona. But they got a week of rest , then disposed of Nevada and San Jose State. S&P+ says they have a better than 50 percent chance of winning in four more games (UNLV, New Mexico, at Fresno State, UMass) and have a 40 percent chance of reaching 6-7 and a 12 percent chance of reaching 7-6.
- North Texas is 3-3 with a 34 percent chance of hitting 6-6 or better, Kentucky is 3-3 with a 26 percent chance, Tulane is 3-2 with a 20 percent chance, and thanks to the road win over Illinois, Purdue is 3-2 with a 13 percent chance.