This will be the first week of the 2020 season that we have the new F/+ combined ratings, which combine SP+ and FEI into one metric of relative team efficiency. We’re also going to start providing some numbers on special teams, measured by SP+. If you’ve been watching college football this season you’ll have noticed that special teams, already a regular differentiator in games between college men, are an even bigger factor in 2020.
The impacts of COVID on the offseason were destined to have their greatest impact in the oft-neglected special teams plays that regularly feature walk-ons, freshmen, and of course the notoriously shaky #collegekickers. Last week the Kansas State Wildcats made TCU’s -8.5 point spread at home look silly while drilling a 53-yard field goal, blocking a 48-yard field goal, and inflicting multiple 50-plus-yard punts that pinned the Horned Frogs inside their own 25 four times. That game was a true defensive slog in which precise special teams play made all the difference for the Wildcats, who had to start a freshman quarterback.
On the other end of the spectrum, Alabama at Ole Miss proved a real barnburner as Lane Kiffin’s Rebels employed a HUNH (hurry-up, no-huddle) approach on offense. The Rebels had two running backs go over 100 rushing yards with two touchdowns apiece and quarterback Matt Corral threw for 365 yards at 13.0 yards per attempt with two more touchdowns, doing his damage on RPOs and scramble drill plays. Ole Miss dropped 48 on the scoreboard, but fortunately for the Crimson Tide their own running back Najee Harris ran for 206 yards and five touchdowns while quarterback Matt Jones threw for 417 yards (also at 13 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns. The jokes about SEC defense from fans of other conferences, particularly the Big 12, were flowing like champagne in the wake of this shootout.
Other major events of Week 6 included a pair of high-noon shootouts. Texas A&M beat Florida 41-38 behind a fantastic game from quarterback Kellen Mond (338 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions) and running back Isaiah Spiller (27 carries, 174 yards, two touchdowns). The Gators defense has effectively hamstrung their hopes of winning the SEC, and they fired defensive coordinator Todd Grantham after this one. The other big shootout was, in fact, the Red River Shootout between Texas and Oklahoma. The Sooners overcame early mistakes (and a benching) of their freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler to take a 31-17 lead deep into the fourth quarter. Then Texas’ senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger started to scramble drill the Longhorns back in, forced three overtimes, and finally succumbed by throwing an interception. While Texas coach Tom Herman wasn’t fired after the game like Grantham, the drumbeats started thundering for his removal while Urban Meyer delightedly diagnosed the Longhorns issues from the Fox Sports broadcast.
This week will include a Group of Five showdown on Friday night between undefeated BYU and Houston, a few other games that will help shape conference title races, and then the biggest game of the season thus far when Alabama hosts Georgia at 8 p.m.
All times are listed as Eastern.
BYU (-5.5) at Houston — Friday 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||BYU (4-0)||Houston (1-0)|
|Special Teams SP+||7||46|
|When BYU has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||14||6|
|Passing success rate||5||11|
|When Houston has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||2||27|
|Passing success rate||22||52|
There are a few different dimensions to this game that make it interesting for fans of college football — the fact that it’ll own the Friday night prime-time slot doesn’t hurt. BYU has pieced together a schedule for this season that isn’t particularly long on stout competition with this road trip against Houston and a later road trip against Boise State looming as the major challenges. Whatever BYU’s postseason hopes are — the playoff committee probably won’t consider them but an upper tier bowl might — this game is going to have a major impact on their season.
For Houston this is mostly important as a badly needed tune-up before they dive into the rest of their AAC schedule. The Cougars played last week for the first time this season after multiple “postponements” and outright cancellations due to COVID. They took on Tulane in their season opener and whipped them so badly that they had a -5 turnover margin and still managed a 49-31 victory. With that sloppy start out of their system, the Cougars appear to be one of the more imposing teams in the conference this season.
The most explosive component to their team is the connection between quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Marquez Stevenson, which was fostered during the tough initial season under Dana Holgorsen in 2019. While Tune nearly scored as many times for Tulane as he did for Houston in Game 1, he also hit Stevenson five times for 118 yards and a score. Stevenson added a 97-yard kickoff return as well. He’s an explosive slot receiver that the Cougars feed the football in a variety of fashions, all of which have touchdown potential because of his speed. The Houston power run game had a solid start to the year; lead running back Kyle Porter had 11 carries for 57 yards and a score and two other backups managed to combine for 62 yards and two more touchdowns on 13 carries. For Holgorsen, the power run game is primarily about constraining teams from stopping the vertical passing game. So long as they’re throwing it well and scoring, Houston doesn’t care as much about the run game; they just want it there to set up play-action and RPOs and to be there to punish teams when they overplay the throw game.
BYU puts maybe a little more emphasis on the run game, but they have a similar balance as an offense. Running backs Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa have turned 93 carries into 606 yards and six touchdowns. Quarterback Zach Wilson is a dual-threat who will keep the ball on zone-option at times, especially in the red zone where he has six rushing touchdowns, but he’s most lethal in the scramble drill throwing to the BYU receivers. The Cougars’ top two targets are Gunner Romney (yes, his nephew) and Dax Milne, both of whom have good size at 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-1 as well as a good amount of speed. Romney has 20 catches for 453 yards and two scores already this season; Milne, 24 catches for 366 and another score.
So both of these offenses are explosive, which is what you want from a Friday night game between a pair of teams like this. They can each play a little defense as well, though, which could complicate the prospects for a crazy shootout. The Cougars have a big defensive line with nose tackle Kyiris Tonga (three sacks) and defensive end Tyler Batty (four sacks) and are comfortable moving back and forth between three-down and four-down defenses to drop extra defenders into coverage. Under head coach Kalani Sitake, they generally tend to play conservatively against Air Raid offenses and force them to work the ball down the field in the passing game against zones flooded with their older veteran players.
The Cougars built up their defense with some transfers and have some athletes that should help them in trying to deal with Wilson and his speedy wideouts. In particular they have Oklahoma State transfer safety Thabo Mwaniki, Colorado transfer safety Hassan Hypolite, and Troy cornerback transfer Marcus Jones. They also spun down 2019 star nickel Grant Stuard into a linebacker, giving them a fair amount of overall speed across the defensive backfield.
This will be the most athletic team BYU faces this season and the best proxy that anyone can use for how well their very solid looking 2020 unit might do against big-time competition.
- Can Houston’s secondary of transfers match up against BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and receivers Gunner Romney and Dax Milne?
- Houston slot receiver Marquez Stevenson, one of the most explosive skill players in the country.
- How do the undefeated BYU Cougars look against what may be the most athletic team on their schedule?
FEI Outright Pick: BYU by 5.3
Auburn (-3) at South Carolina — 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Auburn (2-1)||South Carolina (1-2)|
|Special Teams SP+||26||45|
|When Auburn has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||39||70|
|Passing success rate||54||65|
|When South Carolina has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||36||20|
|Passing success rate||58||43|
In the offseason there was some intrigue surrounding Gus Malzahn hiring his old pal Chad Morris, who’d been fired by Arkansas where he’d been head coach, to be the new offensive coordinator at Auburn. Malzahn has always tended to call the plays for Auburn himself and this seemed to be potentially about handing off some control and perhaps also putting greater emphasis on the downfield passing game with sophomore quarterback Bo Nix.
However, the Tigers are still very much a power-spread team. The main thrust of their offense is running power-option with Nix and lead running back Tank Bigsby. They also have a wonderfully entertaining Wildcat package for short-yardage in which they run power-option schemes with tight end J.J. Pegues as the quarterback. Pegues is 6-foot-2, 300 pounds and while he’s fairly mobile, his work in that package is as amusing as it is effective. The Tigers do have some really dangerous weapons in the vertical passing game with the ultra-quick Anthony Schwartz and big Seth Williams, but overall Nix is averaging only 6.3 yards per attempt and isn’t hitting shots with any real regularity.
South Carolina is generally fairly immune to deep shots under Will Muschamp, who prioritizes coverage and soundness on the back end of the defense. The Gamecocks are liable to ask linebacker Ernest Jones and the defensive front to hold up against the Tigers’ power run game without creeping up safeties or exposing the back end to big shots. South Carolina has been solid at avoiding big plays and very good on third downs. They are third nationally in third-down conversion rate, giving up a first down on only 19.4% of opponents’ opportunities. That’s a nightmare for Malzahn’s preferred approach on offense, which involves moving the chains with the run game.
Auburn’s defense hasn’t been quite as stout this season, undoubtedly due to replacing multiple NFL draft picks including star tackle Derrick Brown who has been an immediate star as a professional. They have some emerging new talents though, especially 211-pound linebacker Zakoby McClain, who leads the team in tackles with 32 and has been all over the field for them. Senior Roger McCreary and Nehemiah Pritchett have given them another good pair of man-cover cornerbacks, and the retooled defensive line is coming along. With so many young faces they’ll probably improve every week; in the meantime McClain’s athleticism at weakside linebacker has afforded them some margin.
The South Carolina offense has rarely been particularly potent under Muschamp unless Deebo Samuel was involved, and this year is no exception. Quarterback Colin Hill is averaging only 6.3 yards per attempt and running back Kevin Harris has 56 carries in three games for 326 yards at 5.8 yards per carry. Like Auburn, the Gamecocks want to run the ball, control the clock, and rely on tight end Nick Muse (11 catches, 156 yards) to keep the chains moving. They can get explosive with receiver Shi Smith, but with Auburn’s secondary it may not be necessary to use heavy safety help to remove him from Hill’s sights. So the Tigers will instead likely attack the run game with numbers and leverage and bog down South Carolina’s plodding offense.
- Both teams have plodding, run-based offenses. Can either team really make headway hammering at the other?
- Auburn wide receivers Anthony Swartz and Seth Williams and South Carolina receiver Shi Smith for big plays that could break the game open.
- The Auburn wildcat package with 300-pound tight end J.J. Pegues as the triggerman.
FEI Outright Pick: Auburn by 4.6
Louisville at Notre Dame (-17) — 2:30 p.m. (NBC)
|Overall||Louisville (1-3)||Notre Dame (3-0)|
|Special Teams SP+||52|
|When Louisville has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||38||5|
|Passing success rate||44||15|
|When Notre Dame has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||31||5|
|Passing success rate||45||13|
Louisville has had a rough season, particularly as measured by wins and losses, but they have been an explosive offense and are very dangerous. Their defense has been so bad as to turn every game into a shootout in which the opponent is as efficient and explosive as their own offense. The clincher has been turnovers; quarterback Malik Cunningham has thrown five interceptions and the team is -8 in turnover margin on the year. That averages to being -2 in turnover margin every game, which easily explains why they never seem to come out ahead in otherwise relatively even matchups between their own great offense and the great offense their own defense creates.
Notre Dame is a good offense (and defense) in their own right, which makes this game appear to be fairly unbalanced. The 17-point spread indicates as much. But again, Louisville is very potent on offense and if they were to have a cleaner game without turnovers then the theoretical 17-point spread quickly evaporates and you’re talking about a very close game. The name of the game for the Cardinals is the wide zone, play-action game, and flood routes you normally see in the NFL from a coach from the Shanahan tree.
The Fighting Irish defense has been built around their two overhangs, strongside linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton. They are Notre Dame’s leading tacklers on the year and often play opposite each other with Hamilton in the boundary and Owusu-Koramoah as the outside linebacker to the field. The Irish have been pretty good at matching up with skill players and keeping runs funneled inside with those two. They don’t have as many high-impact performers yet on the interior, but pass-rusher Adetokunbo Ogundeji has two sacks on the year.
The trick against Louisville will be to match up in man coverage while freeing up Owusu-Koramoah to hem in the edge against the wide zone run game. That will likely involve playing Hamilton over the top as the deep safety and using strong safety/part-time cornerback Shaun Crawford in man coverage on the slot receiver. Without the ability to outflank the defense on the edge or attack zones with play-action, the Louisville offense will grind down.
On the other side, this game comes down to Louisville’s run defense showing well. Notre Dame’s lead running back Kyren Williams has 48 carries for 359 yards at 7.5 yards per carry with four touchdowns. His back-up Chris Tyree is also averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Notre Dame has a collection of talented receivers and tight ends, as per their usual, and quarterback Ian Book has thrown for 607 yards at 8.1 yards per attempt with three touchdowns to one interception. They are a different caliber of team, though, when they can line up and mash people in the run game from multiple-tight end sets with an offensive line that is entirely comprised of multi-year starters.
If Louisville can’t stand up to the Notre Dame power run game, then the Irish will roll regardless of how well their own defense manages to solve the Cardinals’ wide zone attack. If they can slow things up, then this could get interesting barring the emergence of Louisville’s turnover issues.
- Can Louisville avoid turnovers and erase the big margins they’ve given away in multiple losses?
- How will Notre Dame fare against Louisville’s wide zone run game and flood patterns off play-action?
- Louisville’s solid run defense will need to have a very strong showing against an explosive Irish power run game.
FEI Outright Pick: Notre Dame by 21.2
Texas A&M (-6.5) at Mississippi State — 4 p.m. (SECN)
|Overall||Texas A&M (2-1)||Mississippi State (1-2)|
|Special Teams SP+||65||9|
|When Texas A&M has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||24||35|
|Passing success rate||8||24|
|When Mississippi State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||14||58|
|Passing success rate||74||48|
Back in the 2000s, when Mike Leach was a first-time head coach at Texas Tech introducing more of the world to the Air Raid offense, he made Texas A&M miserable. The Red Raiders were 7-3 against A&M over that decade and inflicted 59-28 and 56-17 beatings upon them in Lubbock (2003 and 2005) and even a 43-25 whipping in College Station (2008). Leach was a thorn in their side until his dismissal after 2009. Now, “the Pirate” has returned to bedevil the Aggies.
There was less clarity on how defenses should even attempt to defend the Air Raid back in the 2000s. A&M’s defensive rosters were rarely equipped with the sort of defensive personnel that could hang in space with Leach’s attack. But now things aren’t necessarily too different. A&M scored a major win against Florida last week after a blowout loss against Alabama, putting Florida coach Dan Mullen into a rage in which he iterated expectations that Florida fill their stadium to capacity in future games and fired his defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
The Florida game was perhaps A&M quarterback Kellen Mond’s best game yet, although the real breakthrough was feeding running back Isaiah Spiller for 174 yards at 6.4 yards per carry. Jimbo Fisher’s offense is designed to run the football effectively, and they exploited what has been a poor Gators run defense. By the second half the straight-ahead inside zone runs for A&M were shoving the Gators defensive line off the ball. On defense, the Aggies did struggle with Florida’s receivers and Kyle Trask burned them with 312 passing yards at 9.8 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
So while Mond is playing better as the Aggies incorporate more spread passing sets into the offense, we have two big battles in this game that make for an easy and compelling contrast in styles: the A&M run game against Mississippi State’s defense and then the Mississippi State passing game against A&M’s defensive backs. Texas A&M doesn’t necessarily have any lockdown defenders anywhere in the secondary and safeties Demani Richardson and Leon O’Neal are on the bigger side of things at about 210 pounds apiece and need to be supporting from zone and not trying to match opponents in man coverage.
The curious detail in this game will be whether the Aggies play their normal pass-rush and personnel groups or get smaller with a dime package and/or rush only three and drop eight to try and flood passing zones as Mississippi State’s last two opponents have done. Against LSU’s four- and five-wide passing attack last year, the Aggies tried to play things from their normal nickel defense and were run off the field. The Bulldogs aren’t the same caliber of team, but the Gators just accomplished quite a good deal in their own passing game on the Aggies nickel secondary.
As for the A&M run game, their offensive line is loaded with returning starters and their emphasis this season on running from spread sets has served them well, particularly in helping Mond. But Mississippi State has a different caliber of run defense than the Gators. Their 3-3-5 has worked; their last game against Kentucky involved holding Terry Wilson to 8-of-20 passing for 73 yards at 3.7 yards per attempt and then limiting Wilson and the two main Kentucky running backs to a total of 110 yards on 28 carries. Kentucky embraced drop-eight defense, though, so they completely destroyed the Bulldogs passing game and beat Leach’s squad 24-2. The Wildcats spend the game dropping into a very conservative Cover-3 shell, keeping all the crossing routes and everything else in front of them, and then breaking on the ball and tackling well. Kentucky completed 45 of 70 pass attempts but netted only 275 passing yards at 4.3 yards per attempt, which isn’t going to result in many Air Raid sirens going off.
Obviously Mississippi State will need to bounce back from that performance and show up on offense in this game or nothing else particularly matters. How A&M plays them will factor into that and then how well their surging offense translates against the Bulldog’s confusing three-down schemes.
- Can Texas A&M keep their run game rolling against Mississippi State’s stunt-heavy 3-3 defensive front?
- Will A&M match the existing blueprint for defending the Air Raid with conservative, drop-eight defense?
- Does Mike Leach have any wrinkles up his sleeve for attacking these conservative defenses? Perhaps running star running back Kylin Hill?
FEI Outright Pick: Mississippi State by 1
Georgia at Alabama (-6) — 8 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Georgia (3-0)||Alabama (3-0)|
|Special Teams SP+||3||15|
|When Georgia has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||16||26|
|Passing success rate||31||61|
|When Alabama has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||4||2|
|Passing success rate||4||1|
This is it, the biggest game of the college football season to date. Naturally it has been tinged with COVID drama as Nick Saban himself has been infected with the virus and won’t be able to attend the game. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will direct the Crimson Tide in this game against Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs. By all accounts Saban is doing well and everyone hopes that his recovery from COVID is swift and complete.
Saban was probably already feeling rough after watching Ole Miss pile up yards and 48 points running HUNH spread and gashing his defense for hundreds of rushing yards and touchdowns. Up-tempo spread offenses have always been a major issue for Saban’s defenses, isolating his weakest defenders in space and requiring them to execute his intricate pattern-reading zone defenses while thinking quickly and matching up one-on-one. Georgia doesn’t have that style of offense; they don’t move as fast as the Rebels and are a little more deliberate with a “power-spread” approach in which they will create spacing with spread formations so that they can run the ball or throw at the chains on third down.
That’s a tougher way to approach the Crimson Tide defense, which is harder to out-execute without major spread spacing and tempo to divide and conquer them. However, this isn’t a dominant Alabama defense even when they aren’t facing tempo, so they may be vulnerable to Georgia’s increasingly potent run game. Tennessee didn’t yield much to the Bulldogs in Week 1, but against Auburn and then Arkansas lead running back Zamir White totaled 32 carries for 159 yards at 4.9 yards per carry with three touchdowns. They’ve been stabilized by playing Stetson Bennett at quarterback; he has thrown for 689 yards at 8.2 yards per attempt with five touchdowns to zero interceptions.
While they probably will not light up the Tide defense like the Rebels did, they should be able to move the ball and get on the board. The bigger question is on the other side, where Sarkisian is defending home field with one of the most potent offenses in Alabama history.
The Tide still have a spread offense with RPOs, a lethal run game, and dangerous shots in the dropback passing game. While they were able to run for over 200 yards with Najee Harris against Ole Miss, the biggest threat they pose is with the passing game taking shots outside to Devonta Smith and up the middle with Jaylen Waddle. Those two wideouts are already each over 300 receiving yards through three games with five combined touchdown catches. The Tide are using the full gamut of today’s favorite schemes, crossing them with tight end Miller Forristall over the middle on mesh, isolating them on fade routes from the slot, and hitting them on perimeter screens attached to inside runs for Harris.
To stop this offense the Bulldogs need to be able to match up somewhere one-on-one or else drop eight for most of the game. Georgia has a very good secondary with experienced and rangy safeties on the back end, so one strategy they could attempt would be to play the safeties two-deep on the hash marks, bracketing the deepest routes and forcing the Tide to march down the field with runs and tosses underneath. Another option would be to play single-high with the deep safety preventing posts and slot fade routes to Waddle from landing while the cornerbacks were left responsible for Smith one-on-one outside and the other safety helped stop up the run game. With either approach, Georgia probably needs to win a one-on-one with one of the receivers and play an outstanding game with the defensive line and linebackers against Harris and the run game.
It’s a very tall order, but this might be the best defense in the country. If Georgia can’t do it, who can? If the Bulldogs can’t play this game in the 20s and control the box well enough to beat the Tide, probably no one will. Instead this season will come down once more to Alabama vs. Clemson with the Tigers trying to win by beating Alabama in Cobra Kai fashion, with more offense.
- Can Georgia’s defensive front stop Najee Harris and the Alabama run game without major help from the secondary?
- Will any of the Bulldogs cornerbacks be able to match up one-on-one against Alabama wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith?
- Georgia’s improved running game and offense under quarterback Stetson Bennett against a vulnerable Alabama defense.
FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 8.5
FEI PICKS: WEEK 7
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|Auburn||3||at South Carolina||Auburn||Auburn||Auburn|
|at Notre Dame||17||Louisville||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Louisville|
|Texas A&M||6.5||at Mississippi State||Mississippi State||Mississippi State||Mississippi State|
FEI picks against the spread in Week 6: 5-1
FEI picks against the spread this year: 18-10-1
Ian’s picks against the spread in Week 6: 4-2
Ian’s Picks against the spread this year: 16-12-1