Nobel laureate and economist Milton Friedman famously cautioned: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” In college football, the inverse is true: one of the great mistakes is to judge programs by their results rather than their intentions. As the opening weekend of conference play for the Southeastern and Big 12 Conferences came to a close, the results reminded us yet again that in this odd college football season, we need to think about our thinking about college football teams as much as we need to think about college football teams.
This weekend featured slow starts, reliable beatdowns, and a few puzzling upsets (and almost-upsets). What we learn from this college football slate depends largely on how we interpret the results, and the subjective calculus for updating our perceptions of teams must rest on this foundation: process triumphs over results, in situ.
Mississippi State 44, No. 6 LSU 34
Mississippi State: +0.195 EPA/play margin, -2.1% success rate margin, 2.2 early downs margin, 53.9% Eckel Ratio
Two lingering offseason questions rode into Death Valley on Saturday. One, how would the defending national champion LSU Tigers follow up their otherworldly offensive campaign after losing quarterback Joe Burrow and passing shaman Joe Brady to the NFL? Two, was Mississippi State hiring Mike Leach, or the Pirate?
After this weekend, we have a half-answer to both. As for LSU, we knew there would come a drop-off, as who could absolutely replicate the best offensive season in college football history? We weren’t sure it would go this far south. Junior Myles Brennan completed only 58.7% of his passes and threw two interceptions in his inaugural start at the helm of the Tigers offense. LSU under Brady in 2019 had one game with a completion rate lower than 68% (63.3% in the National Championship Game against Clemson), and two interceptions is only five fewer than Burrow had all season. It’s unfair to compare Brennan to Brady directly, but the defending champs have some work to do; they averaged a negative passing EPA (-0.122), and their last six drives ended in an interception, a punt, a touchdown, a field goal, a punt, and interception. This isn’t your 2019 Tigers offense.
As for the second answer, I believe we can definitively answer that it is the Pirate who showed up in Starkville. Mike Leach has brought the Air Raid to the SEC West: Mississippi State ran on only 13% of their early downs, passing 60 times for 623 yards. Stanford transfer K.J. Costello completed only 60.0% of his passes, well below his 2018 rate 66.4%, but the sheer volume and relentless attack of the Air Raid were enough to patch over some inaccuracy, and Costello plus Mississippi State’s defense were plenty to take advantage of LSU’s offensive struggles. Senior receiver Osirus Mitchell was targeted 12 times, catching two of Costello’s five touchdowns and totaling 183 yards on the day. In true Air Raid fashion, though, the Bulldogs spread the love: five players were targeted at least nine times.
LSU had moments of moving the ball well (touchdown drives of 84, 75, and 45 yards), and they’ll get tune-up games against Vanderbilt and Missouri before a rendezvous with Florida. The Tigers have time to get the offense right, but with Mississippi State’s introduction to the scene, the middle class of the SEC West looks to be an entertaining race. The Bulldogs host Arkansas and travel to Kentucky before their next big test, a back-to-back against Texas A&M and Alabama.
Kansas State 38, No. 3 Oklahoma 35
Kansas State: -0.004 EPA/play margin, -13% success rate margin, 0.6 early downs margin, 50% Eckel Ratio
Chris Kleiman’s Wildcats had no business winning this game. Yes, they intercepted Spencer Rattler twice in the first half, and yes, the freshman looked less capable in the run game than previous Oklahoma quarterbacks, but the score was 21-7 at the half, 28-7 with six minutes left in the third quarter, and the Sooners looked poised for 1-0. But then a 77-yard Skylar Thompson pass (+5.69 EPA) set up a Wildcats touchdown, and then a 78-yard Thompson pass (+3.69 EPA) set up another Wildcats touchdown, and then the defense took over. Oklahoma gained 50 yards over their next five drives while the Wildcats tacked on one more touchdown and a field goal and upset the No. 3 Sooners in Norman.
Three Rattler interceptions proved too much, as the Oklahoma offense moved the ball well (44% success rate) but failed to score on eight of their 13 drives. Kansas State rode Thompson to a victory: he completed 72.4% of his passes with one touchdown, not to mention three goal-line rushing scores. Running Back Deuce Vaughn broke a couple of big plays and Wykeen Gill added a 39-yard touchdown as the Wildcats upset the Sooners for the second year in a row, aided yet again by multiple Oklahoma turnovers.
This game muddies the waters in the Big 12 more than it clarifies them: the Wildcats began the season with an embarrassing loss to Arkansas State, but now sit in the driver’s seat for their Big 12 destiny, having already beaten the toughest team on their schedule. A couple of timely turnovers and a few big plays turned a blowout into a close win, and Kansas State still has some issues on offense, but Thompson looks consistent and the defense is going to be a problem for opposing teams if they can replicate their disruption of Oklahoma going forward. The Wildcats have Texas Tech in Manhattan this weekend.
Oklahoma suffered a regular-season Big 12 loss for the fourth straight season, and that certainly puts a ding in the Big 12’s playoff hopes. The Sooners can rebound against Iowa State this weekend and settle Rattler in advance of their matchup with top-ranked Texas.
The Other Contenders
- No. 2 Alabama averaged +0.265 EPA/play on offense en route to a 38-19 win over Missouri. Mac Jones passed for 249 yards and two touchdowns, with Jaylen Waddle being his primary target (eight catches, 16.8 yards per reception).
- No. 4 Georgia stumbled in the first half against Arkansas, taking a bizarre 7-5 deficit into the half before scoring 32 points in the second half to beat Arkansas 37-10. The Bulldogs defense looked exceptional, holding Arkansas to a 25% success rate, but their offense left much to be desired: -0.152 EPA/play with highly touted running back Zamir White only accounted for 71 rushing yards.
- No. 5 Florida took care of Mississippi in Lane Kiffin’s debut as Kyle Trask threw for six touchdowns, completing 71.4% of his passes. The Gators defense looked to be working out issues as Kiffin’s Rebels averaged +0.26 EPA/pass on Saturday.
- No. 8 Auburn secured a top-25 win, beating No. 23 Kentucky on the back of 14 fourth-quarter points. New Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris and Heisman dark horse Bo Nix seem to be getting along well: Auburn averaged +0.414 EPA/pass this weekend, taking advantage of a couple of short-field drives. The Tigers scored on drives of 27 and 23 yards in the second half thanks to some offensive miscues by the Wildcats.
- No. 8 Texas and No. 10 Texas A&M both struggled with inferior opponents. The Longhorns were outgained well into the fourth quarter and needed three short-field touchdown drives to escape Lubbock with a 63-56 win against Texas Tech. Kellen Mond and the Aggies also took a 7-5 game into halftime, and Mond completed only 60% of his passes against a Vanderbilt defense that ranked 110th in passing EPA in 2019. Texas A&M escaped with a 17-12 win at home.
Quarterbacks will dominate this space, given the nature of the game of college football, so I’ve split the categories into passers and non-passers, and throughout the season I’ll keep tabs on how many appearances each player makes on the leaderboards (noted in parentheses).
- Kyle Trask, Florida (1 appearance): +26.5 EPA
- Gavin Hardin, UTEP (1): 21.7 EPA
- Dillon Gabriel, Central Florida (1): 21.2 EPA
- Bryson Lucero, Alabama-Birmingham (1): 20.6 EPA
- D’Eriq King, Miami (2): 17.7 EPA
- Cameron Carroll, Tulane RB (1): 15.0 EPA
- Austin Watkins, Alabama-Birmingham WR (1): 20.6 EPA
- Kyle Pitts, Florida TE (1): 19.8 EPA
- Osirus Mitchell, Mississippi State WR (1): 17.4 EPA
(The Worst Performances of the Week)
In this recurring segment, I point out which teams were most dominant and who got beat the worst, in terms of the advanced stats. Using a combination of early downs yards per play margin, EPA per play margin, and success rate margin, I rank the biggest beatdowns of the weekend: which teams got sent to the principal’s office?
- BYU 48, Troy 7: +25.4% success rate margin, +6.46 early downs margin, +0.363 EPA margin.
- Miami 52, Florida State 10: +17.5% success rate margin, +1.96 early downs margin, +0.84 EPA margin
- Central Florida 51, East Carolina 28: +20% success rate margin, +3.91 early downs margin, +0.656 EPA margin
- UTEP 31, Louisiana-Monroe 6: +21.43% success rate margin, +0.522 early downs margin, +0.604 EPA margin