1. What’s wrong with Michigan’s offense?
Despite extreme youth, Michigan is 3-0, having handed Florida, Cincinnati, and Air Force each their only losses, each by at least 16 points. So it should be immediately noted: things could be much worse.
If you've actually watched Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines, however, you've noticed some significant issues. Thanks in part to preseason projections, UM still ranks a decent 49th in Off. S&P+, but the raw numbers are scary: 108th in success rate (98th rushing, 99th passing, 114th on standard downs), 118th in points per scoring opportunity.
Big plays from running back Ty Isaac (7.1 yards per carry) and young receivers Tarik Black (13.6 yards per catch) and Kekoa Crawford (17.2) are propping the Wolverines up, but Black is now out for a while with a foot injury.
This was a deceptively tricky early schedule for this squad. Florida, of course, has ranked 13th or better in Def. S&P+ for nine consecutive years, but facing Luke Fickell's Cincinnati (Fickell was previously the co-coordinator for a consistently awesome Ohio State defense) and Troy Calhoun's Air Force (the Falcons have a particularly aggressive, unique 3-4 attack) offers its own challenges.
This isn't an offense that is offering threats on standard downs, then falling apart when behind schedule — the opposite, actually. The Wolverines have bailed themselves at times on passing downs (32 percent success rate, 60th), but they're falling into far too many.
Michigan has snapped the ball 88 times on first down. The Wolverines are averaging a not-completely-awful 5.3 yards per play, but of their 464 total yards gained, 211 have come on five plays. They have gained one yard or fewer 43 times. Success rate: 33 percent — 27 percent rushing and a much healthier 46 percent passing.
It gets even worse when the Wolverines generate scoring chances. Yards per play on first downs in the red zone: 1.1. They’ve gained zero or fewer yards in eight of 12 instances.
With Don Brown’s defense, Michigan doesn’t need a top-five offense to finish with a healthy win total. And Harbaugh is, after all, 23-6 as UM head man. But while the Wolverines have averaged 6.2 yards per play in those wins, they’ve averaged 4.1 in those losses.
With three S&P+ top-10 opponents left to face, plus early-season overachievers Purdue, Michigan State, and Maryland, there are a lot of potential losses on the schedule for a team that can't move the ball on first down.
2. Does Bama have a No. 2 receiver?
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts didn’t get a ton of work in during the Crimson Tide’s 41-23 win over Colorado State. He threw just 17 passes and completed 12 of them for a whopping 248 yards. So now probably isn’t the time to critique Bama’s passing game too closely.
Once again, however, Hurts was focusing mainly on one man. Calvin Ridley was targeted six times (he caught three balls for 92 yards), and nobody else was targeted more than three. That furthered a staggering imbalance.
Ridley has been targeted 23 times in three games. Robert Foster and running back Bo Scarbrough are second on the list ... with six. Foster caught a 52-yarder against CSU, which almost single-handedly pushed him into second on the team in receiving yards with 75.
Ridley’s pretty good, and this isn’t costing Bama just yet. But there are some good pass defenses left on the schedule. Pretty sure some of them will figure out how to slow down a one-man attack.
3. Big play watch: Oklahoma State vs. Penn State, Week 3
Man, this was a tough round. PSU destroyed Georgia State, 56-0, while OSU laid waste to PSU’s Week 2 conquest, Pitt, 59-21. The round goes to the Cowboys for sheer quantity; there’s just no choice but to give them the round after they registered 11 passes of at least 21 yards. (Mason Rudolph: 23-for-32 for 497 damn yards and five touchdowns.)
But let’s just say that it’s also really difficult to not award bonus points to Penn State for this:
Three different guys had the angle. If the Heisman were awarded to the player who made me yelp out loud the most, Barkley’s the leader.
4. Duke will give you a few big plays, but otherwise, will make a ton of stops.
In 2014, Duke’s defense ranked 105th in success rate and third in IsoPPP (explosiveness). Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was helping the Blue Devils reach minor bowls with a bend-don’t-break approach. But he clearly wasn’t excited about that.
Beginning in 2015, the Blue Devils got more aggressive. Their success rate ranking improved into the 50s, and they began to allow more big plays as well. But the product was improving — from 60th in Def. S&P+ in 2014 to 56th, then 48th.
Through three games this year, Duke’s defense ranks 129th at preventing explosiveness. The Blue Devils have allowed only 25 gains of 10-plus yards (21st in FBS), but four of them have gone for 40-plus (80th), and three have gone for 70-plus (125th).
They’re also first in success rate allowed (21.7 percent) and have stopped an incredible 39.1 percent of rushes at or behind the line (first in stuff rate). Sophomores Joe Giles-Harris and Tre Hornbuckle have each taken part in seven run stuffs, and senior tackle Mike Ramsay has taken part in four.
Granted, returns are diminishing. The Blue Devils allowed seven points to NC Central, then 17 to Northwestern, then 20 to Baylor. A woeful Baylor offense couldn't find any efficiency, and quarterback Zach Smith was just 9-for-24 on passing downs, but those nine completions went for 256 yards. Thanks to two long touchdown passes, Baylor trailed by only four points heading into the fourth quarter.
Of course, the aggression then paid off again: Ben Humphreys’ 22-yard pick six put away an eventual 34-20 win.
If the breakdowns become too significant, the quest for extreme efficiency perhaps becomes less worth it, once some more competent offenses show up. But goodness, is Knowles a man after my own heart. Efficiency is the aspect of football you have the most control over, and for at least a little while longer, head coach David Cutclife’s squad has the most efficient defense in college football. It also has a 3-0 record.
5. Overachiever watch
S&P+ regressed to the mean a bit in Week 3, still batting over .550 against the spread thus far. But each week, there are some performances the ratings didn’t see coming. Here are the five biggest stunners of the week:
- Purdue over Missouri — projection: Mizzou by 10.6 | result: Purdue by 32
- Mississippi State over LSU — projection: LSU by 8.7 | result: MSU by 30
- Arizona over UTEP — projection: Arizona by 17.4 | result: Arizona by 47
- Rutgers over Morgan State — projection: RU by 36.3 | result: RU by 65
- Northwestern over Bowling Green — projection: NU by 15.3 | result: NU by 42
There’s a theme: at the margins, the Big Ten had one hell of a week. Thanks to the Boilermakers, Scarlet Knights, and Wildcats, the conference averaged 10.9 points per game of overachievement. That pushed the conference ahead of the Big 12 on the performance vs. projections list for 2017 to date.
FBS conferences in order of performance vs. S&P+ projection
- Big Ten (+2.6 points per game)
- Big 12 (+1.9)
- Pac-12 (+0.9)
- MWC (+0.6)
- AAC (+0.4)
- ACC (-0.0)
- MAC (-0.2)
- CUSA (-0.6)
- Sun Belt (-1.0)
- SEC (-1.1)
This isn’t a quality list; it’s a quality-versus-expectations list. And thanks to teams that were at or near the bottom of the conference last year — Maryland and Purdue in particular — the Big Ten is your biggest overachiever so far.
S&P+ underachievers (min: 2 games)
- East Carolina (-26.2 points per game below projections)
- Baylor (-22.7)
- FIU (-22.3)
- Georgia State (-19.9)
- Bowling Green (-19.8)
- Missouri (-19.7)
- UTEP (-19.4)
- Oregon State (-16.9)
- Western Kentucky (-15.8)
- Pitt (-15.4)
ECU and Baylor have dominated this list in 2017, but look out for my Missouri Tigers! After the most unprepared, underwhelming performance I’ve seen from Mizzou in nearly two decades, Barry Odom’s Tigers surged onto a leaderboard you don’t really want to show up on.
S&P+ overachievers (min: 2 games)
- Mississippi State (+29.3 points per game above projections)
- Air Force (+28.9)
- Purdue (+27.4)
- Maryland (+24.2)
- Duke (+21.8)
- Wake Forest (+21.2)
- Fresno State (+19.6)
- Oregon (+19.6)
- Oklahoma State (+19.2)
- UTSA (+17.6)
Purdue a top overachiever, eh? With Michigan and its inefficient offense coming to town, eh?
6. Ed Oliver + a field position advantage
Houston is 2-0, having survived a trip to Arizona (19-16) and taken care of business against hapless Rice (38-3). The stats that might jump out to you are pretty clear — quarterback Kyle Allen is completing a cool 86 percent of his passes, defensive tackle Ed Oliver is on pace for another 15 to 20 tackles for loss, etc.
Allen’s passes aren’t really going anywhere, however; he’s averaging just 9.5 yards per completion. That is not creating a scoring machine ... but it is helping to create a field position machine.
The Cougars have a field position margin of plus-16.4 yards per drive thus far. The offense is generating a couple of first downs before punting, the defense both creating negative plays and preventing big ones, and the special teams combination of punter Dane Roy (nine punts, six fair caught, six inside the 20), kickoffs master Caden Novikoff (17.1 yards allowed per return), and kick returners John Leday and Brandon McDowell (three returns, 138 yards) have dominated in their respective opportunities.
What’s the one thing worse than facing Oliver and the Houston defense? Facing it at the bottom of a tilted field.
7. Gunner of the Year Watch
Out of pure curiosity, I’ve been tracking special teams tackles this year. Maybe we’ll give a pretend award out to whoever has the most of them at the end of the season. Your special teams leaderboard at the moment:
- USF’s Nate Ferguson is tied for the national lead with 5 special teams tackles, and he’s been extremely efficient as well. He’s taken part in three tackles on punt returns, and those returns have averaged just 5.7 yards. Meanwhile, he’s taken part in two kick return tackles, and those returns have averaged a paltry 14 yards.
- Notre Dame’s Julian Love has 4.5 tackles, and the two punt returns he’s taken part in stopping have lost a combined four yards.
- Boston College’s Isaac Yiadom remains a special teams stalwart. He’s made two punt return tackles (average: 3 yards) and two kick return tackles (average: 19 yards).