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The Numerical: If Saquon Barkley is on the field, Penn State is a title contender

Also: the biggest overachievers and underachievers, and let’s find something nice to say about Tennessee!

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

1. Saquon Barkley makes Penn State so hard to upset.

The biggest story to me heading into Week 4 was the likelihood of a top-10 upset. Five teams took on rising teams on the road, and the odds of all five winning were basically 1-in-3.

It almost happened. Alabama basically closed the door on Vanderbilt in about eight seconds, and Washington needed only about a quarter to get settled in in a 37-10 win over Colorado. But USC and Michigan had business to take care of in the fourth quarter, and Penn State needed every second to take down Iowa, 21-19.

For most of 60 minutes, this was taking shape as a "one of those games" upset. PSU more than doubled the Hawkeyes in snaps (99-45), yards (579-273), first downs (29-11), and nearly time of possession (39:39-20:21), but the Nittany Lions simply couldn't knock the Hawkeyes out. They missed one field goal and had another one blocked. They had drives end via either punt, fumble, or turnover on downs at the Iowa 32, 39, 40, 45, and 48. This was a protoype "stuff happens" loss.

Iowa took a 7-5 lead with 33 seconds left in the first half. And after PSU scored twice in the third quarter, Iowa scored twice in the fourth, and after Akrum Wadley's second long touchdown — a 35-yard run to pair with his 70-yard reception earlier in the quarter — PSU had to go 80 yards in 102 seconds to save their national title. On the 102nd second, Trace McSorley fired a 7-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson.

Game-winner aside, however, this was a Saquon Barkley showcase. He ran around and jumped over defenders and finished with 40 combined rushes for 305 combined yards. Eight other PSU skill position players combined for 24 touches and 215 yards.

Penn State’s plowed through three lesser teams (Akron, Pitt, Georgia State), but despite spending plenty of garbage time on the bench, Barkley's share of the PSU offensive load has been astounding.

Here are the top 20 running backs in combined carry rate (the percentage of a team's carries he has taken on) and target rate (the percent of a team's passes intended for him).

Load-bearing running backs

Player Carry Rate Target Rate Combined Combined Yards
Player Carry Rate Target Rate Combined Combined Yards
Saquon Barkley (Penn State) 53.7% 18.8% 72.4% 853
Rashaad Penny (San Diego State) 54.2% 20.5% 74.6% 803
Bryce Love (Stanford) 61.3% 3.8% 65.2% 792
Royce Freeman (Oregon) 52.7% 9.0% 61.7% 669
John Kelly (Tennessee) 63.8% 17.8% 81.6% 632
Diocemy Saint Juste (Hawaii) 66.0% 3.7% 69.7% 592
Akrum Wadley (Iowa) 50.6% 10.7% 61.3% 565
Larry Rose III (New Mexico State) 69.2% 13.7% 82.9% 522
Phillip Lindsay (Colorado) 64.3% 9.4% 73.7% 510
Ito Smith (Southern Miss) 49.6% 18.4% 68.0% 442
Jordan Chunn (Troy) 49.6% 13.2% 62.8% 433
David Montgomery (Iowa State) 58.9% 10.7% 69.7% 420
Marquis Young (Massachusetts) 51.0% 11.6% 62.6% 392
Benny Snell, Jr. (Kentucky) 62.0% 6.4% 68.4% 371
Warren Ball (Akron) 56.7% 7.6% 64.3% 343
Jordan Ellis (Virginia) 65.0% 4.1% 69.1% 337
Justin Jackson (Northwestern) 51.9% 11.3% 63.2% 335
Jeremy Cox (Old Dominion) 50.4% 11.5% 61.9% 277
Ralph Webb (Vanderbilt) 57.1% 6.1% 63.3% 276
Alex Gardner (Florida International) 51.1% 9.1% 60.2% 214

Among these 20, only two players are within 180 yards of Barkley's combined production: SDSU's Rashaad Penny and Stanford's Bryce Love. Barkley is PSU's leading rusher and receiver, and if he's on the field, Penn State is a national title contender.

2. At least Tennessee has its pass rush!

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Tennessee
Colton Jumper
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee was disappointing in a narrow win over UMass on Saturday, and the offense has now scored just four touchdowns in its last 27 drives. The defense is allowing at least five yards on 45 percent of opponent carries (120th in FBS).

Despite the loss of star end Derek Barnett, however, UT is still getting after the quarterback. Their passing-downs sack rate of 17.5 percent is tied with Washington State's for tops in the country. Senior linebacker Colton Jumper has 3.5 sacks and 5.5 TFLs to lead the way.

UMass quarterbacks Andrew Ford and Ross Comis attempted 15 passing-downs passes on Saturday; they were sacked five times and completed just 4 of 10 passes. Net yards on those 15 attempts: 6. The pass rushed saved Tennessee’s bacon.

Washington State doesn't wait till passing downs, by the way. The Cougars are also seventh in standard-downs sack rate, and they are a healthy 37th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). Boise State is the only opponent they've faced with a pulse so far (though after the Broncos' blowout home loss to Virginia, you have to wonder about whether that heart rate is in a healthy range), but Wazzu has treated bad teams like bad teams.

3. Big play watch: Oklahoma State vs. Penn State, Week 4

Each week of the season, I take a look at the two offenses I’ve proclaimed as the most fun in college football. They are terrifying from a big-play perspective, so I’m grading each week like a round in a 12-round fight.

Through three rounds, OSU had won two rounds with one draw. This week, PSU got one back.

OSU's problem in its 44-31 loss to TCU wasn't a lack of big plays. Twenty-three of the Cowboys' 73 snaps gained at least 10 yards (32 percent), five gained at least 21, and there was the obligatory bomb from Mason Rudolph to James Washington.

PSU gained 10-plus yards in only 20 of its 99 snaps (20 percent) against Iowa and had only four 20-yarders.

But judging is objective. OSU lost, and PSU won. Round 4 goes to the Nittany Lions.

4. Overachiever watch

Virginia v Boise State
Virginia dominated on the blue field.
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Each week, I’m also taking a look at the performances my S&P+ ratings didn’t see coming. S&P+ had another great week at the office, hitting over 60 percent against the spread for the third time in four weeks, but it still swings and misses.

Here are the five biggest stunners of the week:

  1. Western Illinois over Coastal Carolina — projection: CC by 13.6 | result: WIU by 42
  2. Utah State over SJSU — projection: USU by 5.3 | result: USU by 51
  3. Alabama over Vanderbilt — projection: Bama by 20.1 | result: Bama by 59
  4. UCF over Maryland — projection: UM by 4.8 | result: UCF by 28
  5. Virginia over Boise State — projection: BSU by 11.7 | result: UVA by 19

This was a weird week for road teams, which went 30-28 overall and produced each of these drastic overachievements.

The win over Boise State moved Virginia to 3-1, and S&P+ now gives the Cavaliers a 73 percent chance of reaching bowl eligibility. Hell of an early job by Bronco Mendenhall.

FBS conferences in order of performance vs. S&P+ projection

  1. Big Ten (+1.33 points per game)
  2. Big 12 (+1.31)
  3. Pac-12 (+0.52)
  4. ACC (+0.35)
  5. Mountain West (+0.27)
  6. AAC (+0.12)
  7. MAC (-0.06)
  8. Conference USA (-0.49)
  9. SEC (-0.85)
  10. Sun Belt (-1.01)

The Big Ten and Big 12 are still pretty far out ahead of the pack but got reeled in a hair. And as S&P+ adjusts, these numbers should all regress toward the mean.

S&P+ underachievers (min: 3 games)

  1. East Carolina (-26.3 points per game below projections)
  2. Coastal Carolina (-20.4)
  3. Missouri (-20.2)
  4. San Jose State (-18.4)
  5. UTEP (-18.3)
  6. Oregon State (-16.7)
  7. Temple (-16.1)
  8. Bowling Green (-15.4)
  9. Baylor (-14.9)
  10. FIU (-14.4)

Missouri head coach Barry Odom had some things to get off his chest following his Tigers’ third straight loss by at least 18 points.

That is a tired and stressed-out man right there.

S&P+ overachievers (min: 3 games)

  1. Purdue (+20.0 points per game above projections)
  2. Fresno State (+19.8)
  3. Air Force (+19.0)
  4. Duke (+18.7)
  5. UTSA (+15.7)
  6. Wake Forest (+15.5)
  7. Mississippi State (+15.0)
  8. TCU (+14.1)
  9. Texas Tech (+13.0)
  10. SMU (+13.0)

Again, these numbers should sink back toward zero as S&P+ adjusts, but I wanted to single out UTSA for a second. Frank Wilson’s Roadrunners have been dynamite, beating Baylor and taking down Southern and Texas State by a combined 95-31. S&P+ favors them in every remaining game and gives them an 18 percent chance of finishing 10-1 or better.

Wilson might not be long for San Antonio if he keeps this up.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Baylor
Frank Wilson and UTSA are looking great.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

5. 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. Winner of the award gets it named after him.

Your fake award watch list at the moment:

  • USF's Nate Ferguson remains a major contender; the junior cornerback is the only player with more than six special teams tackles, and opponents' average returns when he is involved are only 5.7 yards per punt return and 20.3 yards per kick return.
  • BGSU's Nilijah Ballew, a 6'3 senior, has five ST tackles, and opponents are averaging 3 yards per punt return and 10.5 yards per kick return when he's involved.
  • Notre Dame sophomore Julian Love is up to five St tackles, and the two punt returns he's stopped have combined to lose four yards.
  • Baylor freshman Jairon McVea has 4.5 tackles and has been involved in a two-yard punt return and four kick returns averaging 16.8 yards.
  • BC's Isaac Yiadom remains a player to watch, with 4.5 tackles and opponents' averages of 3 yards per punt return and 21.3 yards per kick return.