October 19, 2021

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SDA Week 5: Why Ole Miss-Alabama Could Be Game of…

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SDA Week 5: Why Ole Miss-Alabama Could Be Game of...

Through the first four weeks of the college football season, few teams have demonstrated clear and consistent dominance. Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame continue to play with their food, and Clemson was caught napping in their most recent game, taking a stunning loss to North Carolina State that effectively shut the door on their playoff hopes. Alabama looked like the lone exception, but a remarkably undisciplined second half against Florida showed their vulnerability as well. The College Football Playoff field is wide open, with plenty of spots for unheralded contenders such as Iowa and Oregon to snap up.

But we’re not here to talk about that. Because while no team has gotten through the first few weeks without drama, one division has separated itself from the rest and established clear superiority: the SEC West. Alabama, still probably the nation’s best team despite that Florida nailbiter, leads the way, but those behind have been on a charge thus far. Ole Miss is the fan favorite, with an explosive offense led by Heisman Trophy frontrunner Matt Corral and coached by the bombastic Lane Kiffin; the Rebels have lived up to the hype, sitting at 3-0 and averaging over 50 points per game. But just as Ole Miss was gearing up for a seemingly obvious ESPN College GameDay appearance against the Crimson Tide, an unexpected division rival stole their thunder.

Arkansas, strike a light, is 4-0 with two ranked wins. The stunning Razorbacks, in their second year under longtime offensive line coach Sam Pittman, demolished Texas 40-21 and most recently took down Texas A&M 20-10. Now they enter a stretch of their schedule that is, somehow, even harder: a visit to Georgia, then a trip to Ole Miss, and finally a home duel with Auburn. If Arkansas can come away with two wins from those three games, they could very well challenge for a playoff spot.

The old stalwart Crimson Tide, the up-and-coming Rebels, and the out-of-nowhere Razorbacks are the headline names, but the rest of the division is full of dangerous opponents as well. Texas A&M, for example, is still one of the better teams in the country, setting aside a bizarre Colorado contest in which they were called to game-plan around a backup quarterback on the fly. Mississippi State took home an understated win over North Carolina State earlier this year, and their two losses have come by a combined five points. LSU, winners of three on the trot after a letdown loss to UCLA, have a chance to prove their rejuvenated hype is deserved against Auburn, which had top-10 Penn State on the ropes recently. Altogether, the West is a ridiculous 20-3 against the rest of college football with just a single unranked loss (coming to Memphis in dubiously officiated fashion.) Whomever emerges atop this free-for-all could have a national title in their sights—and after this week, it might not be Alabama in the lead of college football’s toughest division.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Arkansas at Georgia (-18)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arkansas Georgia
2021 F/+ 20 2
When Arkansas has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F/+ 35 1
2021 EPA/pass 52 1
2021 EPA/rush 55 8
When Georgia has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F/+ 15 6
2021 EPA/pass 7 6
2021 EPA/rush 15 103

Generally, advanced stats line up reasonably well with the standard underlying numbers. A quarterback who completes most of their passes or consistently produces big gains will generally produce well in success rate and EPA per play as well. A defense that racks up sacks and picks is likely to create plenty of havoc and limit passing-down success rate. There are plenty of exceptions, but usually the gap is less a mystery than a guide towards a more specific strength or weakness.

So: what to make of the Georgia rushing offense? The Bulldogs have frequently leaned on their run game, a consistent strength through the quarterback rollercoaster of the last decade. At their best, the Bulldogs have combined this rushing backbone with stars such as Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray, or Jake Fromm (2017 to 2018); at their worst, it has been saddled with an unsustainable workload due to less-capable passers such as Faton Bauta, Jake Fromm (2019), or the D’Wan Mathis/Stetson Bennett combo from last year. But with JT Daniels at the helm this season—and playing adequately, if not at his expected Heisman level just yet—you’d expect the ground game to be humming along nicely.

Such is not the case. Or, at least, so say the advanced stats: the Bulldogs are averaging negative EPA and a mediocre 44.7% success rate when they run the ball. It’s by far the least explosive factor of their offense, in large part because they have no go-to weapons—not a single running back is averaging so much as 0.25 EPA/rush this year. These numbers paint a picture of a team incapable of establishing the run, an explanation that makes plenty of sense in the context of the Bulldogs’ rushing struggles against Clemson—a game in which star back Zamir White had just 74 yards and no other Georgia rusher managed 30.

That makes sense enough, but the basic stats beg to differ. White, Kendall Milton, and James Cook, the Bulldogs’ top three ballcarriers, are all averaging 5 or more yards per carry, and despite the running back group’s depth and Georgia’s tendency to pull their starters in blowouts, each has comfortably cleared the hundred-yard margin. The team as a whole has averaged 178 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per carry through four games, both better marks than last season. Yes, the schedule has helped, but Georgia opened last season against a fairly weak slate as well, and they took far longer to reach the heights which the Bulldogs have attained this year. From this perspective, there’s nothing to be concerned about.

Which point of view is accurate? Georgia tangled with an elite defense in Week 1, but they have since had a month to tinker and tweak their run game to be as potent as possible. The standard stats reflect positively on the season thus far; the advanced stats, less so. Explanations for that divide vary widely, but the likeliest answer is simply that the Bulldogs’ rushing corps is talented but inconsistent. White, Milton, and Cook have six games of 35 or fewer rushing yards between them, and perhaps even more critically, Daniels has been his typical statuesque self, with 15 yards lost on three carries this year. The lack of a run game on first (-0.271 EPA/play), second (-0.061), or third (-0.078) down against Clemson severely hampered the Bulldogs’ offense, which produced just three points in that game.

That’s the kind of performance Arkansas will attempt to replicate this Saturday. Pittman, being a former line coach, has built the Razorbacks around fundamentals and physicality, and the outstanding performance of their defensive line demonstrates that fact. The group showed flashes of potential last year—allowing just 121 yards against Georgia itself in the opener, for example—but generally struggled and ended the season allowing 11 rushing touchdowns across the final two games. But run prevention has come up big for Arkansas this year, especially against two of the best ground games in all of football: the Longhorns, led by Bijan Robinson, and the Aggies, led by Isaiah Spiller. Those two, whom one could justifiably project as the top two running backs in next year’s draft, produced just 164 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, and two touchdowns against Pittman’s line. The rest of their teams adding just 95 more yards, and neither Texas nor Texas A&M could do anything to rein in the Razorbacks.

It’s rare that a team can look to a matchup with a team like Georgia, always a threat to win the game on the ground and currently starting yet another draft darling, and place confidence in their hopes stopping the run. But the Razorbacks have that luxury, and the Bulldogs will be the ones looking to prove they can carry the ball competitively. Georgia has been prone to beating lesser opponents with one-dimensional game plans, whether that means leaning on a great quarterback or a reliable run game, and that can lead them into trouble in their biggest games. They’ll need Daniels, White, and the rest of their offense to show out this Saturday in order to claim a key victory in their pursuit of a national title.

Watch for:

  • Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson has emerged as one of the SEC’s best, with 10.8 yards per completion and 7.2 yards per attempt; can he keep it up against Georgia’s tenacious defense?
  • Who will win out in a gritty, physical clash between Arkansas’ running backs (led by hard-hitting rusher Trelon Smith) and Georgia’s defensive line?
  • Which of the nation’s two best defenses at limiting yards per attempt will most effectively keep an explosive receiving lineup in check?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 18.8.

Louisville at Wake Forest (-7)—Saturday, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN3)

Overall Louisville Wake Forest
2021 F/+ 65 33
When Louisville has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F/+ 32 41
2021 EPA/pass 55 82
2021 EPA/rush 59 3
When Wake Forest has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F/+ 88 33
2021 EPA/pass 38 12
2021 EPA/rush 114 84

Louisville is quite possibly the most baffling team in college football. The Cardinals have swung from conference frontrunner to scuffling bottom-feeder with wild abandon for decades. Most recently, they collapsed from 8-5 to 2-10 after losing Lamar Jackson, then saw Bobby Petrino out for the second time before hiring Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield, who instantly engineered a turnaround back to 8-5 in 2019. Louisville briefly peaked at No. 18 the following year, but bizarrely stumbled to 4-7 despite returning most of a talented roster, in part due to rumors surrounding Satterfield’s hopes of jumping to South Carolina. Now, having lost many of the expected keys to last season’s unmaterialized success, the Cardinals are, naturally, 3-1 with an upset win over UCF.

All this goes to say that Louisville is unpredictable at the best of times, and in the madcap 2021 season, forecasting their trajectory seems something of a fool’s errand. Suffice it to say that the ACC Atlantic, thanks to its usual leader’s unexpected struggles, is as wide open as ever, and the Cardinals could be a contender. Standing in the way, however, are a pair of conference foes that stormed into the top 25 this week: North Carolina State, which dealt Clemson a presumably fatal blow this week, and Wake Forest, which has won each of its four games by at least 20 points. The latter should prove Louisville’s biggest test to date.

Both the Demon Deacons and the Cardinals make a point of holding onto the ball, as they’re tied for 11th in offensive plays per game. How they have accomplished that, however, has been markedly different. Louisville has run 143 passing plays and 154 rushing plays, a split that sits around FBS average; the Deacons, by contrast, have passed just 118 times and rushed 172 times, making them one of the most run-dependent teams in football. One cause, of course, is the conservative play calling Wake Forest has been able to run in each game, but they have also relied on the rushing lineup because of its impressive depth. Christian Beal, Christian Turner, and Justice Ellison have each taken 35 carries this year, with multiple touchdowns and at least 4 yards per carry apiece. Contrast Louisville, for whom only one proper running back—Jalen Mitchell, with 242 yards on 60 touches—has taken at least fifteen carries. Part of the reason: dual-threat quarterback Malik Cunningham, who has regressed through the air (7.3 yards per attempt, five touchdowns, two interceptions, a far cry from his 11.6 yards per attempt two seasons prior) but has been key to keeping the offense clicking with his scrambling ability.

Cunningham, in particular, is worth a closer look. The Cardinals starter has had an up-and-down college career, to say the least: he had that fantastic 2019 season, but fell back dramatically the following year despite the assistance of star receiver Tutu Atwell and rusher Javian Hawkins, all while swapping his preferred name from Malik to Micale and back again. His numbers are another step down this season, but he has shown flashes of potential—rushing for 7.6 yards per carry and two touchdowns against UCF, or passing for 264 yards and two touchdowns against Florida State, for instance. His efficiency is the main reason for his questionable stats, but in fairness to Cunningham, he’s taking on a heavier passing workload than he has in the past; his 37 passes against Louisville were the most of his career at the time, but he has topped that record twice in the last two games.

Such a high workload wouldn’t necessarily seem to play to Louisville’s strengths, though keeping the thin rushing corps from overwork is a useful advantage. The Cardinals have plenty of depth among their pass-catchers, but none of them have been particularly efficient, as one might expect. Marshon Ford, Jordan Watkins, Josh Johnson, Braden Smith, and Justin Marshall have each caught 10 or more passes, but as a group, they’re under the 10 yards per catch mark. Overall, the Cardinals have dropped off a full 2.5 yards per reception from last year; the absence of a player like Atwell capable of taking over a game through the air has been keenly felt.

The good news for Louisville is that Wake Forest could be particularly susceptible through the air. The Demon Deacons have allowed a mere 112 rushing yards per game, nearly 90 below last year’s total, but the tradeoff has been in the secondary, which has given up 253 yards per game—just behind UConn, for context. Some of the underlying stats suggest a solid improvement from 2020 as Wake Forest has improved in opponent yards per attempt (7.7 to 6.4), completion percentage (64.5% to 56.3%), and yards per completion (12.0 to 11.3). But the reason for those shifts is largely due to opponents picking apart the Deacons’ secondary, as they have faced a ridiculous 39.7 passes per game, the 11th-most in FBS and a long ways from last year’s middling total. For a team which has run roughshod over its early slate, pass protection has proven a lurking concern.

There’s no doubt that the Cardinals will attempt to exploit that weakness, what with Cunningham passing more than ever before, so what will the Deacons do to address it? Cornerback Caelen Carson’s continued excellence on the perimeter is key, as he has four pass breakups, an interception, and 10 tackles in his last two games. Wake Forest would like to have another rock to lean on, however, and Nasir Greer and Ja’Sir Taylor will hope to take up that role. Experienced draft hopefuls both, Greer and Taylor haven’t dominated thus far with just one breakup and one interception each, but they have potential to shut down an opponent’s passing game at their best, and that could prove critical against a Cardinals team looking for a breakout.

Watch for:

  • Will that mighty Wake Forest rushing trio of Beal, Turner, and Ellison take advantage of Louisville’s mediocre run prevention?
  • Can Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman (who sould cross the career 6,000-yard mark on his next completion) continue his excellent campaign against a solid Louisville pass rush?
  • What’s next for Louisville cornerback Kei’Trel Clark, currently third in the nation and leading the ACC with three interceptions?

FEI Outright Pick: Wake Forest by 8.7.

Cincinnati (-1.5) at Notre Dame—Saturday, 2:30 p.m. (NBC)

Overall Cincinnati Notre Dame
2021 F/+ 11 15
When Cincinnati has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F/+ 29 12
2021 EPA/pass 68 8
2021 EPA/rush 3 53
When Notre Dame has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F/+ 6 34
2021 EPA/pass 3 80
2021 EPA/rush 26 122

Few quarterbacks divide opinion as starkly as Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder. The senior is in his fourth year starting for the Bearcats, and over that period, he has followed a general upward trajectory to mirror the team. Ridder was mediocre two years ago (6.7 yards per attempt, 18 touchdowns, nine interceptions), but he has since put that season firmly in the past, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his last 13 games. On paper, he’s a solid quarterback and has the talent to lead Cincinnati to another undefeated regular season and conference title.

Be that as it may, uncertainty still surrounds Ridder. In part, it’s a reaction to the perhaps-optimistic labels he has received in the wake of that 2020 season. Oddsmakers have named him a Heisman favorite this year, which some would say smacks of Group of 5 ignorance when you compare him to such stars as Grayson McCall and Carson Strong. As solid as Ridder is, there are still holes in his game. His intermediate passing leaves something to be desired, leading to an offense that can struggle when it ends up behind the sticks: Cincinnati has a mere 36.4% success rate on passing downs, and in that situation they have an offense far less explosive than most. Ridder’s decent stat line is often the product of inconsistency, with highs such as his first half against Miami-Ohio (14-for-16, 229 passing yards, four total touchdowns) and lows like his inefficient day at Indiana (20-for-36, 210 passing yards, one touchdown, one interception).

It’s rare to come across a quarterback as experienced as Ridder whose primary problem is volatility, but this matchup features two such starters. The Cincinnati signal-caller’s Fighting Irish counterpart, Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, has a similarly unusual profile. Like Ridder, he has had moments of brilliance (26-for-35, 366 yards, four touchdowns, one interception against Florida State), but has lately been in a rut, completing just 30 of his 60 passes across the last two games for 381 yards and two touchdowns.

Notre Dame has given up sacks left and right with Coan at the helm—though the blame lies partly with a troubled offensive line that is also among the worst in FBS at producing short-rushing yardage. Whatever the case, that physical beating may have been the cause of Coan’s injury against his former team last week, which led to Drew Pyne coming in and throwing for 81 yards and a touchdown on eight passes. Head coach Brian Kelly maintains that Coan will start if healthy, but the reliable contingent of fans clamoring for the backup quarterback (be it Pyne or highly touted recruit Tyler Buchner) is alive and well in South Bend.

Ridder and Coan are quarterbacks in a similar vein, but what about the secondaries they’ll attempt to outduel this Saturday? Both the Bearcats and the Irish have been among the best in the nation at pass prevention, ranking top-10 in EPA per opponent pass. Notre Dame has prevented explosive plays at an absurd rate, in an emphatic contrast to their intense offense: their opponents are averaging just 0.95 EPA per successful pass, the second-lowest mark of any defense behind Georgia. This impressive performance, unsurprisingly, has been led by elite defensive back Kyle Hamilton, who has 24 tackles, two breakups, and three interceptions. The cost comes on the ground, with the Irish allowing 1.20 EPA per successful rush, much worse than average.

By comparison, Cincinnati is built less around limiting big plays and more around limiting completions of all sorts. In FBS competition, nobody has forced a completion percentage as low as the Bearcats’ 38.2%, not by a long shot—second and eighth are separated by a smaller margin. However, if a team can get the ball past that tenacious pass defense, there’s yardage to be gained, as Cincinnati has allowed a subpar 12.8 yards per completion. Superstar Sauce Gardner hasn’t made a huge impact on the stat sheet, but his presence reshapes the way opponents have approached the Bearcats; on 105 snaps in coverage, he has been targeted just seven times, coming away with one interception to two receptions. If you’re seeking a statistical darling, though, cornerback Arquon Bush’s 10 tackles, five breakups, and pair of picks make him the man for you.

Picking apart those imposing lineups is a tall task, and it could determine the course of this key showdown. The winner could see the path to the playoff open up before them; the loser may well be eliminated from the race. The stakes are the highest Coan and Ridder have ever faced, and both are under pressure to perform and finally take their play to the next level. We’ll see who prevails in what might just be the biggest game of the season thus far.

Watch for:

  • Can Cincinnati take advantage of Notre Dame’s pass-focused defensive identity to unleash big rushing plays underneath with running back Jerome Ford (exactly 300 yards and 6.0 yards per carry with a half-dozen touchdowns)?
  • Will Notre Dame’s defense make key plays on standard downs, where they have held opponents to a superb -0.20 EPA/play?
  • Can the Irish find a spark on the ground beyond Kyren Williams, who has 244 of their 331 rushing yards on the season?

FEI Outright Pick: Notre Dame by 2.5.

Ole Miss at Alabama (-14)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Ole Miss Alabama
2021 F/+ 10 1
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F/+ 3 7
2021 EPA/pass 4 68
2021 EPA/rush 10 58
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F/+ 63 1
2021 EPA/pass 70 21
2021 EPA/rush 79 21

Where to even begin? Cincinnati at Notre Dame may be the biggest game of the year—but this could be the biggest game of the next decade. An outright changing of the guard seems unlikely, considering the way Alabama head coach Nick Saban has always navigated college football’s shifting tides, but an Ole Miss victory could be the opening salvo in a years-long struggle for control of the SEC West. It’s a game marked not by contrast in styles, but by the surprising similarity between these two offenses, among the very best in the sport. Last season, they dueled deep into the night, with the Crimson Tide eventually pulling away for a 63-48 win—the most points ever surrendered by an eventual AP national champion. What will the Rebels do for an encore?

The name on everyone’s lips is that of Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, so it’s sensible to start with him. The former four-star exploded onto the national stage following an unremarkable 2019 season (7.7 yards per attempt, six touchdowns, three interceptions) as Lane Kiffin took the reins of the Rebels’ offense and engineered a lightning-quick machine capable of creating a huge play at a moment’s notice. Corral was, of course, foundational to this high-octane attack, emerging as an efficient (10.2 yards per attempt, 29 touchdowns), if somewhat risky (14 interceptions), star quarterback. Somehow, he has taken yet another step forward this year, boosting his efficiency even more (10.4 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns) while avoiding excessive risk astutely—he’s still yet to throw a single pick. The pace of Corral’s development from unmemorable freshman to mercurial sophomore to masterful junior has unfolded with remarkable rapidity.

This progress has been incredible to behold, but it hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. Corral and Kiffin’s brilliance have been two sides of the same coin, and the dominant Ole Miss offense relies heavily on the delicate craftsmanship behind its playbook. Early innovations like no-huddle offense and run-pass options are old news now; to stay one step ahead of the ever-adaptable Saban, the Rebels have had to innovate even more. Kiffin’s explosive Ole Miss offense builds on the concept that this team introduced with RPOs nearly a decade ago: if expanding from one likely play to two has such an effect on opposing defenses, how much further can that idea go? Traditional routes and planned plays have been thrown out the window—receivers in Kiffin’s system make split-second decisions on a dozen different routes in the way a quarterback scans through reads on the fly. Combine that versatility with Corral, a quick-on-his-feet quarterback with plenty of athleticism, and you have an offense that may just be the most unstoppable college football has ever seen.

But, of course, this is Alabama. For all the changes Saban has made in his lengthy tenure, the defense has always been a strength. Before the emergence of Bryce Young, the next name in a long line of superb Tide quarterbacks, it was expected that the defense of their championship would come primarily from this side of the ball. Outside of an out-of-character spell against Florida, the unit has been just as good as expected, holding each of the Tide’s other opponents to 14 points or fewer. This challenge will be an entirely different one from any Alabama has faced this year, however, and it’s difficult to predict how they’ll respond.

To some extent, we simply can’t know how this game will look until we finally see both teams take the field. Ole Miss hasn’t yet had the chance to employ their fascinating concepts with a team fully capable of executing them against a high-profile opponent. Conversely, Alabama has never taken on a team quite as unusual and unprecedented as this Rebels squad of the future, and it’s not yet clear what moves they’ll make in response. This fascinating, months-long chess game reaches its critical conclusion on Saturday, with the result a potential tone-setter for the future of the SEC and of college football as a whole.

Watch for:

  • Can Alabama hold down the Rebels’ multifaceted rushing attack and prevent them from successfully setting up explosive plays?
  • For all their defensive concerns, Ole Miss has been excellent at preventing huge passing plays; is Young the quarterback to overcome that strength?
  • Will the Rebels reprise last year’s strategy of beating Alabama up the middle with slot receivers like Dontario Drummond (339 yards, 17 yards per catch, four touchdowns)?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 16.8.

Baylor at Oklahoma State (-3.5)—Saturday, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Baylor Oklahoma State
2021 F/+ 26 23
When Baylor has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F/+ 56 13
2021 EPA/pass 53 57
2021 EPA/rush 4 52
When Oklahoma State has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F/+ 18 45
2021 EPA/pass 26 67
2021 EPA/rush 72 65

One of the bewildering oddities about this season, following on the heels of a topsy-turvy pandemic year, is the difficulty of drawing conclusions based on assumptions that have proven shakier than expected. Beating Iowa State, for example—the key victory for both Iowa and Baylor thus far—is a bit of an uncertain accomplishment at this point. There’s a circular nature to this argument, of course: if the Bears aren’t all that good, then Iowa State must not be good either, considering they lost to Baylor … which would make them a less impressive win for Dave Aranda’s team. It’s easy to get lost in the twisted web of self-contradictory arguments, but let’s stick to the simplest outlook: the Bears remain enigmatic after ricocheting from 1-11 to 7-6 to 11-1 to 2-7 to 4-0 across their past few seasons.

This visit to Stillwater, then, provides an excellent opportunity for Baylor to bolster their newfound ranking. The Big 12 slate lying ahead features few breaks, especially with Kansas now in the rearview mirror, but the Bears’ October schedule is particularly important to the course of their season. Following this game at Oklahoma State, they enter a three-game homestand against West Virginia, BYU, and (after a bye) Texas. This stretch will test every point of Baylor’s high-flying offense to its limits, including the critical duo that has inspired their surprising success thus far: Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner.

Smith, with 413 yards, 7.2 yards per carry, and five touchdowns, has broken out as the Bears’ top running back this year. He has been a remarkable revelation looking just at his rushing stats, considering he has topped his previous career total (46 yards) in each game this season, but it’s all the more impressive due to the fact that he didn’t take a single carry last year—he was busy racking up 48 tackles, five for loss and one for a sack, in the Baylor backfield. His fellow rusher, Trestan Ebner, has taken a similarly strange path to stardom: Ebner had taken about half as many catches as rushes across the last three seasons, and his efficiency as a running back had trailed off, as he managed a dismal 2.1 yards per carry in 2020. But he toted the ball some 20 times for 120 yards in the Bears’ 2021 season opener and already has 50 total carries this year, approaching his previous career high of 69 attempts. He has made them count, too, with a career-best 7 yards per carry.

Smith and Ebner are emblematic of the unexpected keys Baylor has leaned on this year. Quarterback Gerry Bohanon follows in that pattern: he had thrown just 36 passes for 187 yards in 2019 and barely played in 2020, but has been one of the Big 12’s best quarterbacks this season with 9.3 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions. Top pass-catcher R.J. Sneed has gone from 12.7 yards per catch to 17.6; WR2 Tyquan Thornton has surged from 9.9 to 14.0. The Bears’ ramshackle offense has come together more perfectly than anyone could have imagined. But, of course, it’s still early. Baylor’s schedule thus far leaves much to be desired—beating Texas State, Texas Southern, and Kansas rarely tells too much about a team—and the Iowa State win, while presumably impressive, is still up in the air for the reasons mentioned before.

The schedule leads the Bears directly to their next critical test: a battle with Oklahoma State, who will look to put the brakes on Baylor’s early offensive leap. The Cowboys relying on their defense, or indeed any Big 12 team doing so, is still a somewhat strange sight, but their shift in focus to Jim Knowles’ unit doesn’t appear to be one of 2020’s outlier results. Through four games, Oklahoma State has yet to allow more than 23 points, and they have held both Boise State and Kansas State scoreless in their most recent second halves (though the former case came, in part, courtesy of a fortuitous early whistle on a Broncos takeaway). The Cowboys have made a habit of doing just barely enough to get by this year—beating Missouri State, Tulsa, and Boise State by a combined 13 points—but they finally found a spark on offense against Kansas State, breaking out of the gate with 28 points in the first 20 minutes.

Oklahoma State’s defense has thrived on preventing explosivity, a quality driven by reliable lead linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (43 tackles, three TFL). Opponents have averaged 0.84 EPA per successful rush and 1.35 per successful pass, both among the better marks put up by FBS defenses. The Cowboys are comfortable living in standard downs, but so are the Bears; 75.3% of their plays have come on such downs, and they’re more successful and explosive than almost anybody in that situation, with the third-highest success rate of any team on standard downs. Both Oklahoma State and Baylor will put their best foot forward and rely on the key players who have driven their 4-0 starts; whoever comes out ahead will have an eye on the conference title game and, perhaps, even on the playoff.

Watch for:

  • How will the Bears look to contain one-man show Jaylen Warren, who has more than double the carries, yards, and touchdowns of any other Cowboys rusher?
  • Can Oklahoma State come away with stops in critical spots against a Baylor offense averaging over 4.5 points per scoring opportunity?
  • Will Baylor’s swarming pass rush of Dillon Doyle, Jalen Pitre, and Terrel Bernard (combined: 68 tackles, 12 TFL, one sack) break down a susceptible Cowboys line?

FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 5.4.

Arizona State at UCLA (-3.5)—Saturday, 10:30 p.m. (FS1)

Overall Arizona State UCLA
2021 F/+ 19 17
When Arizona State has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F/+ 21 45
2021 EPA/pass 50 93
2021 EPA/rush 1 30
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F/+ 22 9
2021 EPA/pass 14 13
2021 EPA/rush 94 14

The biggest question in the Pac-12 right now—aside from whether Oregon can pull off a long winning streak despite their uncertainty under center—is whether anyone will be able to stop Arizona State on the ground. The Sun Devils may very well have the best running back group in the sport, at least when it comes to depth: Rachaad White, Daniyel Ngata, and quarterback Jayden Daniels have all been remarkable, with more than 25 carries each and nearly 6 yards per carry between them. Arizona State’s ridiculous 0.361 EPA per rush is the nation’s best—and that’s with Deamonte Trayanum, who led the team in carries last year, having been limited to just six rushes due to injury. Since the start of 2020, the Sun Devils have rushed for at least 150 yards, 4.5 yards per carry, and one touchdown in all eight games.

But their record in that span belies the underlying rushing talent. Arizona State went 2-2 in 2020, and they’re 3-1 this season without a particularly impressive win. As good as the run game has been, Daniels has only provided a more-or-less average passing attack to pair with it, and inconsistency has proven a problem for the Sun Devils—not a typical problem for a team capable of leaning on such a deep, talented running back group. Arizona State is beatable if you can take those rushers down just a gear, as BYU did by holding them to 161 yards (4.9 yards per carry) in their win this year.

UCLA, seeking to build further momentum as a loss to Fresno State fades further into the past, should be able to follow that blueprint; after all, they drew up the plans in 2020. When these teams last met, Chip Kelly’s Bruins limited the opposing rushers as best they could (165 yards, 4.7 yards per carry), accepted corresponding gains through the air, and set about outdueling Arizona State. However, though they managed to escape with the win, it was aided by a pair of Sun Devils turnovers; in fact, UCLA lost the yardage battle 442 to 363. So while stopping the run at all costs has worked in the past, that’s no guarantee it will be the best strategy for the Bruins in this game.

The opposite tactic—playing to stop Daniels through the air, allowing Arizona State to pick up yards underneath as they were likely going to anyway—might actually be the better move. UCLA’s struggles with pass defense are well documented, and as discussed in this column last week, the Bruins are most effectively flustered when they’re attempting to handle dangerous passing and rushing games at once. That was a major reason Fresno State, which passed 53 times and rushed 37 times against UCLA, managed to pull the upset, and the lack of a threatening ground game was part of why Hawai’i, LSU, and Stanford couldn’t find a foothold.

Arizona State provides an opportunity for the Bruins to recognize this weakness and react it to it in an unusual way. Selling out to stop the Sun Devils’ run has made some difference for the teams that have attempted it, but ultimately, the difference between allowing 150 and 250 rushing yards might not be worth the trouble. UCLA’s pass defense will be a work in progress all year, and taking the lead against Arizona State by eliminating a second dimension of their offense seems like a reasonable goal to set. There are limits to how bold Kelly would go with such a defensive look, but it’s probably a safe bet he won’t come out looking exclusively to stop the Sun Devils up front.

This game could carry heavy implications for the Pac-12 South moving forward. With Colorado and Arizona bound for the basement and USC already taking a pair of upset losses, this game could turn out to be the division’s decisive showdown, though there’s a long season between now and the point at which this Saturday’s winner could cash in their early advantage. Nevertheless, the outcome of this strategically intriguing duel might make it the conference’s biggest game all season.

Watch for:

  • Will UCLA’s physical play on the defensive line prevail, or can Arizona State gain the upper hand to help feed their rushing lineup?
  • Can Daniels steer clear of trouble in the passing game, two weeks after his pair of picks played a pivotal role in the Sun Devils’ lone loss of the season?
  • Arizona State has struggled with second-level defense this year, allowing 3.5 yards per carry between 5 and 10 yards from the line of scrimmage; can the Bruins’ backs find extra yardage in the open field?

FEI Outright Pick: UCLA by 3.7.

FEI Picks: Week 5

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI
Pick ATS
Pick ATS
at Georgia -18 Arkansas Georgia Georgia Arkansas
at Wake Forest -7 Louisville Wake Forest Wake Forest Wake Forest
Cincinnati -1.5 at Notre Dame Notre Dame Notre Dame Cincinnati
at Alabama -14 Ole Miss Alabama Alabama Ole Miss
at Oklahoma State -3.5 Baylor Oklahoma State Oklahoma State Oklahoma State
at UCLA -3.5 Arizona State UCLA UCLA UCLA

FEI’s picks ATS in Week 3: 3-3

FEI’s picks ATS in 2021: 13-11

Preston’s picks ATS in Week 3: 3-3

Preston’s picks ATS in 2021: 12-12