NCF Nation: ESPN Stats & Info

All six finalists have made Heisman case

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
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Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State fans have made their pick, but Jameis Winston is just one of six Heisman finalists.
Six Heisman Trophy finalists will head to New York for Saturday’s ceremony, the most that have received invites to the ceremony since 1994, when there were also six. The last time there were more was in 1988, with eight.

Although the favorite entering the ceremony is Florida State QB Jameis Winston, all six have made a solid case for why they are the best player in the country this season.

QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
Although Northern Illinois' bid to be a BCS buster was ended in the MAC championship game, Lynch’s dual-threat ability kept the Huskies in it all season. He had 321 rushing yards against Western Michigan, the most by a quarterback in FBS history, breaking his own record of 316 set earlier in the year against Central Michigan.

Lynch ended the season with 1,881 rushing yards, also an FBS record for a quarterback.

QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Manziel’s bid to join Archie Griffin as the only other multiple Heisman winner saw a transformation of his game. While his 2012 season was built more on his legs, his 2013 campaign saw him develop as a passer.

Manziel added a yard to his yards per attempt (from 8.5 in 2012 to 9.5 in 2013). His touchdown percentage also increased from 6.0 percent in 2012 to 8.4 percent this year. Also in 2013, 63 percent of his completions this season have gone for a first down or a touchdown, compared to 57.6 percent last year.

RB Tre Mason, Auburn
Even after a 1,000-yard rushing season last year, Mason wasn't on the short list of Heisman contenders until he finished the season with five straight 100-yard rushing games, including 304 against Missouri in the SEC championship game, the fifth-highest total all-time in an SEC game.

Mason’s 2,137 all-purpose yards this season broke the Auburn school record, previously held by Bo Jackson. Mason’s 22 rushing TDs this season also set a school record.

QB AJ McCarron, Alabama
This is McCarron’s third season as Alabama’s starting quarterback, and he’s improved every season. His opponent-adjusted QBR was 76.7 in 2011, 81.5 in 2012 and 83.5 this season.

He was even better against SEC competition. In conference games, McCarron had an 86.4 opponent-adjusted QBR, tied for the best in the conference. Fellow Heisman candidate Manziel was third (85.5).

RB Andre Williams, Boston College
This season, Williams became just the 16th player in FBS history to run for at least 2,000 yards in a season, and the first since Donald Brown did so for Connecticut in 2008.

Williams also showed big-play ability. He had 26 runs of at least 20 yards, the most by an FBS player since Kevin Smith had 26 in 2007. His 11 touchdowns on such runs are the most for any player in the last 10 seasons.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State
Winston is the clubhouse leader for the Heisman, and as the FBS leader in opponent-adjusted QBR (90.9), he has good reason to be. The leader in opponent-adjusted QBR in three of the last six seasons went on to win the Heisman, including Manziel last year.

Winston has also showed a clutch presence on the field throughout the year. On third downs, Winston has a 98.9 Total QBR, leading all FBS quarterbacks. Over the last 10 seasons, the highest third-down Total QBR in a completed season was also 98.9, by Andrew Luck in 2010.

Could top conference be out of title game?

December, 2, 2013
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Heading into the final week before the bowls are announced, the SEC leads ESPN Stats and Info’s Conference Power Rankings by a wide margin.

The SEC has seven teams ranked in the AP Top 25, including three of the top five teams in the country in Auburn, Alabama and Missouri.

The SEC’s strong out-of-conference record has a lot to do with its success in the polls; the SEC is 47-9 in nonconference games, including 3-1 last Saturday against the ACC.

Vanderbilt, Georgia and South Carolina all defeated their ACC rivals on Saturday, and the SEC’s only out-of-conference loss this past weekend came at the hands of then-No. 2 Florida State.

However, the biggest debate heading into conference championship weekend is whether the SEC deserves a spot in the BCS National Championship to defend its seven straight titles.

If the season ended today, the top team in the ACC would face off against the top team in the Big Ten. According to ESPN Stats and Info’s Conference Power Rankings, the ACC and Big Ten are the lowest-ranked conferences among the five major ones, and the SEC is by far the top conference in the country.

However, the debate is not necessarily which conference is the best, but which team is the most deserving.

When looking at ESPN’s Championship Drive Ratings – a system that determines the most deserving teams in the country -- Ohio State and Florida State are both ranked higher than the top team in the SEC.

Looking deeper by using ESPN’s Football Power Index – a predictor of future strength -- Ohio State should be favored by three points over Auburn and six points over Missouri on a neutral field.

It appears the Pac-12 and Big 12 will be on the outside looking in on the national title debate despite ranking second and third, respectively, in ESPN’s Conference Power Rankings. Both conferences have depth, but their biggest issue is that there is no “elite” team at the top.

Keep an eye on the bowl matchups announced next Sunday to see how conference strength plays into bowl selections. In the last three seasons, the SEC has the best record in bowl games among the five major conferences (17-11) while the Big Ten has the worst record (9-16).

Key matchup: Alabama D vs. Auburn's run

November, 29, 2013
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US PresswireAuburn has scored at least four rushing touchdowns in each of its past six games.

This year's "Iron Bowl of all Iron Bowls” features a matchup of strengths as Auburn’s rush offense is pitted against Alabama’s rush defense.

Under new coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards, yards per rush and rushing touchdowns. The Tigers have 21 more rushing touchdowns than they had all of last season, and they have scored at least four rushing touchdowns in six straight games.

Alabama’s defense leads the SEC in rushing yards, yards per rush and rushing touchdowns allowed. The Tide have allowed five total rushing touchdowns this season, and they are the only FBS team that has not allowed an opponent to rush for multiple touchdowns in a game.

The key to Auburn’s success has been its ability to create holes, particularly using the zone read, which has led to big plays on the ground.

Space to Run
Auburn has won the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Tigers average 209.5 rushing yards per game before first contact, most among teams in BCS AQ conferences. To put that into perspective, 97 FBS teams do not average 209.5 total rushing yards per game. The AQ average for rushing yards before contact per game is 97.0.

On designed rushes, the Tigers are averaging 4.6 yards per rush before first contact, best among AQ-conference schools. They have made it at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage before initial contact on an SEC-high 31 percent of these rushes.

How Alabama matches up: The Tide have allowed an SEC-low 44.3 yards before contact per game and 2.0 yards before contact per designed rush. The Tide have allowed just 13 percent of their opponents’ rushes to gain 5 yards before first contact.

Zone Read
Auburn has utilized a zone read on 43 percent of its designed rushes this season, the second-highest percentage in the SEC. The Tigers lead the SEC in yards (1,589), yards per rush (7.2) and touchdowns (18) on zone-read rushes.

When Nick Marshall keeps the ball on the zone read, he has gained 657 yards and has seven touchdowns. He is averaging 9.4 yards per rush on such plays, best among BCS AQ quarterbacks with at least 25 such rushes.

How Alabama matches up: No quarterback has gained more than 22 yards on zone-read rushes against the Tide. Overall, Alabama’s opponents have averaged 3.6 yards per rush and have one rushing touchdown on 78 zone-read plays.

Big Plays
Auburn has 64 rushes of 15 yards or longer this season, second-most in the FBS, behind New Mexico (66). The Tigers have at least three such rushes in every game except one, a win against Mississippi State.

How Alabama matches up: Alabama has allowed just three rushes of 15 yards or longer all season, on pace to be the lowest total in the past 10 seasons. The Tide are able to limit long runs because they do not miss tackles, and they limit their opponents after contact.

Alabama has 30 missed tackles this season, 16 fewer than any AQ conference team. The Tide also have allowed an SEC-low 40 yards after contact per game.


Saturday’s Iron Bowl
Something has to give on Saturday; Auburn has rushed for at least 200 yards and two touchdowns in 10 of its 11 games this season, and Alabama has not allowed any of its opponents to rush for 200 yards or two touchdowns in a game.

Though Marshall has shown the ability to throw the ball, Auburn’s game plan is predicated on its running game. The Tigers run on 69 percent of their plays, the highest percentage for a non-triple-option offense, and have not attempted fewer than 35 rushes in a game.

If Alabama can shut down Auburn’s running game, the Tide may find themselves one win away from a third straight trip to the BCS National Championship. However, if Auburn can run the ball, the Tigers may be able to pull the upset against their biggest rival.

Does Ohio State have argument for No. 2?

November, 25, 2013
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After Baylor lost to Oklahoma State on Saturday, the number of undefeated teams from BCS AQ conferences is down to three with Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State all vying for a spot in the BCS National Championship.

It appears that the No. 2 spot is Florida State’s to lose, but does Ohio State have an argument to be included in the title game based on conference and schedule strength?

Florida State vs Ohio State

According to ESPN Stats & Info’s Conference Power Rankings – a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the AP Poll and Football Power Index (FPI) - the Big Ten has the advantage over the ACC.

Five teams from the Big Ten received votes in the AP Poll, including three teams ranked in the top 15. In comparison, three teams from the ACC received votes and only two are ranked in the top 15.

However, Ohio State has only played one of those Big Ten teams and it was at home. The highest ranked team that the Buckeyes beat on the road, according to FPI, was Northwestern (64th in FPI).

Florida State, on the other hand, won at No. 3 Clemson and is 3-0 on the road against teams ranked in the top half of the FPI. As a result, despite playing in a conference ranked ahead of the ACC, the Buckeyes have played an easier schedule that Florida State, according to ESPN’s SOS rankings.

Looking deeper into the numbers, Florida State has had a higher average in-game win probability than Ohio State, meaning it has been more dominant in its wins. The Seminoles lead the nation in FPI, a forecast of team strength, and are predicted to be 10.2 points better than Ohio State on a neutral field.

The good news is that there is only a 29 percent chance that Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State will all remain undefeated entering bowl season, according to ESPN Stats & Info’s projections. So, the argument of team and conference strength may be settled on the field.

Rivalry Week

After nine straight weeks of primarily conference games, next week features its share of notable out-of-conference matchups.

The ACC has three notable non-conference games against SEC opponents on Saturday as Florida State heads to Florida (12 ET, ESPN), Georgia Tech hosts Georgia (3:30 ET, ABC) and Clemson takes on South Carolina (7 ET, ESPN2). According to FPI, the ACC should be favored in all three of those games. If the ACC can go 3-0 against the SEC, it will get a boost in the Conference Power Rankings next week.

Elsewhere, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri have must-win games that will impact the SEC and National Championship races. Ohio State should be tested at Michigan and Stanford will face a tough test against Notre Dame, which could also shake up the conference rankings next week.

Oklahoma State offense revived under Chelf

November, 19, 2013
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Oklahoma State enters its matchup with fourth-ranked Baylor (Saturday, 8 ET on ABC) riding a six-game win streak, and is averaging nearly 48 points per game over the last four games since Clint Chelf took over as the starting quarterback. One important part of its recent offensive success has been an increased reliance on the run.

Getting back to the ground game
In the first six games, rushing attempts accounted for fewer than 45 percent of the Cowboys’ total plays; since then, Oklahoma State has called a run on nearly 60 percent of its plays. The ground game has been more explosive over the last four games, totaling 10 rushes of at least 20 yards, which is six more 20-yard runs than it had in the first six games.

The key to Oklahoma State’s success on the ground has been improved play in the trenches. It has averaged 2.3 yards before contact per rush in its first six games and was first contacted behind the line of scrimmage on more than a quarter of its carries. In the last four games, the Cowboys have totaled at least 130 yards before contact in three of four contests, and are averaging 3.3 yards before contact per rush.

Chelf has set career highs in rushing yards in three of four games since taking over as starter, averaging 72 yards per game and 10.7 yards per rush on designed runs. His signature play was a 67-yard touchdown run up the middle in Oklahoma State’s win over Texas Tech.

As noted in the graphic above, in the last four games, Oklahoma State is averaging 12 more points per game than in its first six games. Yet at the same time, the Cowboys are averaging 27.4 fewer yards per game in the last four games than they did in their first six games.

More efficient in the red zone
One reason for Oklahoma State’s increased efficiency on offense is that the team is doing a better job of getting into the end zone when inside the 20-yard line.

Oklahoma State has scored a touchdown on 90.5 percent of its red zone opportunities in the last four games, the sixth-best rate in the FBS since the start of Week 9. From Weeks 1-8, the Cowboys scored a touchdown on 64.5 percent of their red-zone opportunities, 51st among FBS teams.

Protecting the ball
Another reason for Oklahoma State’s improved offensive output is better ball protection. The Cowboys have turned the ball over on 6.5 percent of their drives in the last four games, down from 10.6 percent in the first six games. They are one of nine teams in the FBS without a lost fumble since the start of Week 9.

Oklahoma State’s recent success in the running game will be tested this weekend against Baylor. The Bears have added 63.5 expected points on opponents’ rushes, the second-best rushing defense EPA in the FBS. Rushing defense EPA is a measure of the contribution that it makes to its team’s net scoring margin when opponents run the ball.

Chelf, Wisconsin rate among best of week

November, 19, 2013
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Clint Chelf/USA TODAY SportsClint Chelf rated the best of any quarterback last week.

Week 12 featured some of the craziest endings of the year. Auburn completed a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds remaining to defeat Georgia, UCF scored 10 points in the final 2:04 to beat Temple, and Michigan slid its way to a game-tying field goal and eventual win against Northwestern.

With the help of ESPN’s new college football metrics (see explanations here), ESPN Stats & Information takes a look back at the best performances of Week 12 and ahead to next week’s matchup between Baylor and Oklahoma State.

Best Individual Performances
Clint Chelf had a season-high 97.3 opponent-adjusted QBR in Oklahoma State’s 38-13 win at Texas, with his rushing proving critical. Chelf ran for a career-high 95 yards and six first downs against the Longhorns.

Jameis Winston had a 95.0 opponent-adjusted QBR in Florida State’s 59-3 win against Syracuse. It was his seventh game with an opponent-adjusted QBR of 90 or higher, most in the FBS this season. Winston completed his first 10 passes of the game and threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.

Blake Bortles posted a 89.0 Total QBR against Temple, but when adjusted for the strength of Temple’s defense that number falls to 70.7. Bortles led UCF on a game-tying and game-winning drive in the final two minutes of the game. In the fourth quarter, he threw for 202 yards and two touchdowns and had a 96.6 Total QBR.

Best Team Performances
OffenseWisconsin added 33 expected points to its net scoring margin on offense in its win against Indiana despite having a below average (negative EPA) passing offense. The Badgers ran for 554 yards and six touchdowns, the most rush yards by an FBS team in a game since last season, when Wisconsin had 564 rushing yards, also against Indiana.

DefenseBoise State added 25.7 expected points on defense in its 48-7 win against Wyoming. Entering the game, Wyoming averaged 33.6 points and 492 yards per game but was held to seven points and 210 yards against the Broncos. They had four turnovers and three failed fourth-down attempts in the game.

Special TeamsMichigan State added 9.3 expected points on special teams in its 41-28 win at Nebraska. Michigan State’s average drive started on its own 43 yard line, which was 21 yards closer to the goal line than Nebraska’s average starting field position. Michigan State punter Mike Sadler had three punts downed inside of the 10 yard line, and Michigan State forced a fumble in the second quarter on another punt.

Looking ahead to Week 13
Baylor heads to Stillwater (8 ET, ABC) in a matchup of top-10 opponents looking to grab a hold of the Big 12.

The biggest question heading into this game is whether Oklahoma State can slow Baylor’s offense. The Bears are averaging 61.2 points and 684.8 yards per game; they are on pace to break the FBS records for points (56.0) and yards (624.9) per game that were set by Army in 1944 and Houston in 1989, respectively.

In terms of offensive efficiency, Baylor is on pace to have the highest offensive efficiency in the past 10 seasons.

Oklahoma State ranks 10th in defensive efficiency and has been one of the top teams at creating turnovers. The Cowboys have forced 26 turnovers, tied for seventh most in the FBS, and have at forced at least one turnover in all 10 of their games.

Oklahoma State’s opponents have a 27.2 Total QBR this season, seventh lowest in the FBS. Yet, Oklahoma State has not faced an opponent who ranks in the top 20 in QBR. Bryce Petty ranks second in the FBS with a 89.9 Total QBR and has a Big-12 high 84.7 QBR in conference play.

Power rankings: Fresno State has BCS edge

November, 18, 2013
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The BCS Selection Process is clear:

The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference or the Sun Belt Conference (the "non-AQ group") will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if either:

A. Such team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or
B. Such team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.

However, no more than one such team from the non-AQ group will earn an automatic berth in any year, unless non-AQ teams finish both No. 1 and No. 2 in the final BCS Standings. If two or more teams from those conferences satisfy the provisions for an automatic berth, then the team with the highest finish in the final BCS Standings will receive the automatic berth.


This season, No. 15 Fresno State of the Mountain West Conference and No. 16 Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference are in prime positions to earn an automatic berth to a BCS Bowl game. Both teams rank in the top 16 of the BCS Standings and are ranked higher than No. 18 UCF, the highest-ranked team in the American Athletic Conference.

Only one non-AQ team will earn an automatic berth, so when evaluating the résumés of these two schools, conference strength is an important factor.

ESPN Stats & Information’s Conference Power Rankings can provide an objective measure of conference depth. According to these rankings, the Mountain West Conference is the strongest non-AQ conference from top to bottom.

The Mountain West has seven teams (out of 12) that are .500 or better, and is 18-8 against non-AQ opponents (including independent and FCS). Unlike other non-AQ conferences, the Mountain West does not have many weak teams.

The lowest ranked team in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) from the Mountain Conference is No. 106 Air Force. In comparison the MAC and Conference USA each has at least six teams ranked below 106 in the FPI.

However, when looking at the top teams of each conference, the MAC has the most teams (5) and highest percentage of team (38 percent) with at least seven wins. Northern Illinois, Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo and Toledo are all bowl eligible and have at least seven wins.

When comparing Fresno State and Northern Illinois, voters will have to account for the strength of each team’s conference, their out-of-conference schedules and their dominance in their wins. Using ESPN’s new ratings systems, one can see that Northern Illinois has played a tougher schedule, but Fresno State has been more dominant in its games. It is up to the voters to decide which conference they believe is stronger and how much that affects their thinking.

This week, the MAC will be on display on Tuesday and Wednesday with three games on the ESPN family of networks -- Buffalo heads to Miami (OH) on Tuesday (8 ET, ESPNU), Kent State travels to Ohio on Tuesday (8 ET, ESPN2) and Northern Illinois will look to remain unbeaten at Toledo on Wednesday (8 ET, ESPN2). On Thursday and Friday, the Mountain West and Conference USA will have their time in the spotlight as Rice, UAB, UNLV, Air Force and San Jose State are all in action.

Auburn gets improbable win vs. Georgia

November, 16, 2013
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How unlikely was Auburn’s miraculous victory Saturday over Georgia?

Auburn had a 7.3 percent chance of winning before Nick Marshall threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis. The touchdown came on 4th-and-18 with 25 seconds remaining to give the No. 7 Tigers a 43-38 lead.

At the end of the play, Auburn had a 99.8 percent win probability, so that play increased Auburn’s win probability by 92.5 percentage points. Nebraska’s Hail Mary pass as time expired against Northwestern was the only play that had a greater increase in win probability this season.

Here are the top five plays in FBS this season in terms of win probability added:

• 97.2: On Nov. 2, Nebraska threw a 49-yard touchdown as time expired to win 27-24 against Northwestern.

• 92.5: On Saturday, Auburn threw a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds remaining to take a 43-38 lead against Georgia.

• 90.3: On Sept. 21, Florida Atlantic threw a 21-yard touchdown pass with 3 seconds remaining to tie the game against Middle Tennessee.

• 89.8: On Nov. 2, Rutgers threw a 33-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left to take a 23-20 lead against Temple.

• 74.7: On Oct. 5, South Alabama threw a 65-yard touchdown with 48 seconds left to go ahead 33-27 against Troy.

Auburn has now won 86 consecutive games when scoring at least 20 points. Its last such loss came in 1996 against Georgia.

Florida State versus Duke in ACC championship?
Florida State dominated its competition once again. For the second straight game, the Seminoles won 59-3, this time against Syracuse. Florida State is the first FBS team to score at least 59 points and hold its opponent to three points or fewer in consecutive games since the Seminoles did it in 1988.

Meanwhile, Duke now controls its own destiny on the path to the ACC championship game. The Blue Devils defeated Miami (Fla.) 48-30, their first time winning consecutive games against ranked opponents since 1989. The Blue Devils have won eight games in a season for the first time since 1994.

New NCAA record
After Division III Western Connecticut’s Octavias McKoy broke the NCAA single-game rushing record earlier this season with 455 yards, we now have a new record-holder. Cartel Brooks of Division III Heidelberg set a new NCAA record Saturday with 465 rushing yards.

USC’s improved offense under Coach O

November, 13, 2013
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Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports
USC has improved offensively since Ed Orgeron took over for Lane Kiffin as head coach.
In an interview with ESPN Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell, USC RB Javorius “Buck” Allen described USC’s transition to interim coach Ed Orgeron, “It hasn't been difficult. We all love Coach (Orgeron). He's a player's coach. He loves us, and he wants to see us happy and have fun. We really play off of that, and we want to win for him.”

USC is 4-1 under Coach Orgeron and its offense seems to have found an identity. USC has turned to its run game, led by Allen and Silas Redd, which has opened up the passing game for Cody Kessler and the Trojans.

Orgeron’s return to the run
USC is averaging 181.2 rush yards per game under Ed Orgeron, which is comparable to its average in the first five games of the season under Lane Kiffin. However, the Trojans are running more often on early downs and finding success in doing so.

In their past five games, the Trojans have run on 70 percent of their first-down plays, an increase of eight percentage points from their first five games. They have averaged 5.8 yards per rush and gained a first down on 22 percent of their first-down rushes in those games.

Success on first down has resulted in increased efficiency on third down. USC ranked 112th in the FBS through its first five games with a 28 percent third-down conversion rate. With Orgeron at the helm, the Trojans have increased that rate to 36 percent, including 52 percent in their past two games.

Buck Allen’s emergence
The biggest difference in USC’s running game has been the emergence Javorius “Buck” Allen. According to sources, Allen was one of USC’s most productive backs in training camp, but he did not get many carries at the start of the season. Those carries went to Tre Madden and Justin Davis, who were both productive, but recently went down with injuries.

Even before the injuries to Madden and Davis, Allen was given a chance by Ed Orgeron. In five games under Orgeron, Allen has gained 327 yards, including at least 130 in each of his past two games. He is averaging 8.8 yards per rush and has added an element of speed that complements the bruising style of Silas Redd.

Allen’s speed has allowed him to turn the corner on opposing defenses. He is averaging 11.4 yards per carry outside the tackles and seven of his 23 rushes have gained at least 10 yards. Overall, he leads the Trojans with seven rushing touchdowns, including four outside the tackles, despite ranking fourth on the team with 51 carries.

Improved QB play
Under Orgeron, USC is attempting more passes per game and its average pass distance is one yard farther downfield than when Lane Kiffin was the head coach.

Orgeron and new play caller Clay Helton have cut back on USC’s bubble screens, which were a staple of Lane Kiffin’s offense. After attempting more than five screens per game under Kiffin, USC has attempted just nine screens in five games (1.8 per game) under Orgeron and have relied more heavily on the arms of their quarterbacks.

Cody Kessler has responded to the increased responsibility by posting a 65.5 opponent-adjusted QBR in his past five games. He completed 81.6 percent of his passes and averaged 11 yards per attempt in his past two games against Oregon State and California.

The most noticeable difference for USC’s quarterbacks is on third down. In their past five games, they have converted a first down on 32 percent of their passing plays (pass attempts + sacks) and have a 54.1 Total QBR on third down. In comparison, they converted 22 percent of their passing plays and had an 11.1 third-down Total QBR in the first five games of the season.

USC’s quarterbacks will be challenged on Saturday against Stanford’s stout defense. The Cardinal rank seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency and are coming off of a game in which they held Oregon’s Marcus Mariota to a season-low 46.5 Total QBR.

FPI favors Pac-12, ACC in power rankings

November, 11, 2013
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The SEC continues to lead ESPN Stats & Info’s Conference Power Rankings by a wide margin after an exciting slate of games in Week 11.

As noted in previous posts, the Conference Power Rankings are a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the AP Poll and ESPN’s new Football Power Index (FPI) in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the country.

The idea is that the AP Poll measures a team’s résumé and perception, and the FPI measures a team’s relative strength in order to predict future success. In other words, the AP Poll answers the question, “If there were a playoff, who would deserve to play in it?” and the FPI answers, “If there were a playoff, who would win on a neutral field?”.

How do these compare in terms of conference strength?

The SEC has seven teams ranked in the top 25 of the AP poll, including four teams ranked in the AP top 10. No other conference has more than four total teams ranked in the AP top 25.

In comparison, the Pac-12 leads all conferences with seven teams in the top 25 of the FPI. The SEC is second with six teams, but only one of those teams – Alabama – ranks in the top 8. The Pac-12 has four teams in the top 8.

It is important to note that the SEC has two more teams than the Pac-12, which makes the Pac-12’s lead in the FPI even more impressive.

This is not an indictment of the SEC; the conference had the most teams ranked in the FPI top 25 last season. However, this season, the SEC does not have as many elite teams as in past years. According to FPI, the majority of their teams rank in the 20 to 40 range.

The Pac-12 actually has the most depth at the top of its conference. When Stanford loses to a team like Utah, who has played the hardest schedule thus far according to ESPN strength of schedule rankings, it may not be as much of an upset as many would expect.

FPI also favors the ACC more than the polls. Florida State is the top team in the FPI, and Georgia Tech, Clemson, Miami and Duke also rank in the top 25.

In the annual ACC vs. SEC matchups at the end of the season, FPI projections favor Florida State over Florida, Georgia Tech over Georgia and Clemson over South Carolina.

So, while the SEC is getting all the accolades in the polls, future performance may be on the side of their rival conferences. The good news is that this debate will be settled on the field. Keep an eye on the FPI as bowls approach in order to determine the relative strength of teams and conferences.

For more on FPI, click here.

Is Miami this year’s Notre Dame?

November, 1, 2013
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Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsMiami has needed 4th quarter comebacks in its last two wins to remain unbeaten.

No. 7 Miami (FL) enters its Week 10 matchups with No. 3 Florida State undefeated and looking to jump into the BCS National Championship conversation.

The Hurricanes needed two fourth-quarter comebacks in their last two games in order to remain undefeated. In both of those games, they had less than a 25 percent chance of winning at one point in the fourth quarter, according to ESPN’s win probability model.

Miami’s win against Wake Forest was its third win by seven or fewer points, which brings up the question, “Could Miami be this year’s Notre Dame?”

Last season, Notre Dame won five games by seven points or fewer en route to its 12-0 record entering the BCS National Championship.

The Fighting Irish had a difficult schedule, but also failed to dominate some of their lesser opponents. Notre Dame’s average margin of victory against its unranked FBS opponents was 18.6 points compared to 35.9 for Alabama last season.

Further, their average in-game win probability ranked ninth in the FBS entering the BCS National Championship, meaning that despite winning all of their games they were not dominant in those wins. In-game win probability measures the chance that a team has of winning across all of its plays.

Miami currently has the 18th-best average in-game win probability, but has faced only one ranked opponent. Adjusting for strength of schedule, Miami’s in-game win probability rank falls to 34th, according to ESPN’s win probability model.

Another potential similarity upcoming
Arguably, Notre Dame’s biggest win of last season came at No. 8 Oklahoma in its eighth game of the season. The Irish entered the game as double-digit underdogs, and, like Miami, they needed fourth-quarter comebacks in their previous two games against Stanford and BYU to remain undefeated.

Miami enters its eighth game of the season as more than a three-touchdown underdog at Florida State. The Hurricanes’ offense was slowed in its last two games, and it will face a Florida State defense that has held its last two ranked opponents to 14 combined points.

One of the keys to Notre Dame’s win against Oklahoma was its run game. The Irish gained 179 yards and all three of their touchdowns on designed runs. They were able to control the clock and keep Landry Jones off the field.

Look for Miami to employ a similar plan Saturday. In the fourth quarter of its past two games, Miami ran the ball on 76 percent of its plays and averaged 99.5 rush yards.

They scored all four of their fourth-quarter touchdowns on the ground in those two comebacks. If Florida State has a weakness, it is its run defense; the Seminoles lead the nation in pass defense, but rank 29th in rush defense.

Florida State has scored a touchdown on 52 percent of its drives, second best in the FBS. If Miami is able to keep them off the field, the Hurricanes might be able to continue their unbeaten season.

Why these teams should be on upset alert

October, 25, 2013
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With only four games involving two ranked teams this weekend, there are plenty of ranked teams squaring off against opponents they’re expected to beat.

But those teams may want to watch out this weekend, as they’ve been here before and it hasn’t always gone well.

Tennessee at 1 Alabama
Alabama hasn’t had much trouble with Tennessee lately -- or anybody for that matter -- but back in 2009, the Tide were 7-0 entering a home game with the 3-3 Volunteers. Still looking for its first national title since 1992, Alabama didn’t score a TD all day and needed two blocked field goals from Terrence Cody, including one on the game’s final play, to beat the Vols, 12-10.

It was the closest game they played on their way to an undefeated national championship, their first of three in a four-year span.

NC State at 2 Florida State
NC State hosted No. 3 Florida State last season, just two weeks after the ‘Noles beat No. 10 Clemson by double digits. But Mike Glennon threw a touchdown on fourth down with just 16 seconds remaining to stun Florida State and effectively knock them out of the BCS picture.

In fact, the past four times these teams met with Florida State ranked and NC State unranked, the Wolfpack won the game.

Penn State at 4 Ohio State
Penn State has won two of the past three meetings in Columbus after losing each of its first seven games at Ohio Stadium. Its first win there came in 2008, when the No. 3 Nittany Lions beat the No. 9 Buckeyes, 13-6. Trailing 6-3, the Nittany Lions forced a Terrelle Pryor fumble on 3rd-and-1 early in the fourth quarter, and backup Pat Devlin immediately led them on a touchdown drive to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Wake Forest at 7 Miami (FL)
Wake Forest and Miami (FL) last met in 2009 in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons came in with a 4-4 record, but they jumped out to a 17-0 lead and led by 13 heading to the fourth quarter. Then, Miami’s Jacory Harris threw two touchdown passes, including the game-tying score with 1:08 left, before the PAT gave the 19th-ranked Hurricanes a one-point win.

8 Baylor at Kansas
Baylor’s last visit to Kansas came two years ago, and the No. 25 Bears trailed the Jayhawks 24-3 in the fourth quarter. But eventual Heisman winner Robert Griffin III led 3 touchdown drives -- needing only 14 plays to cover 267 yards -- to send it to overtime, and Baylor won when Kansas failed on its two-point conversion try.

19 Oklahoma State at Iowa State
Oklahoma State was 10-0 and ranked second in the BCS Standings when it visited Iowa State on a Friday night two years ago. The Cowboys were 27-point favorites over the 5-4 Cyclones, a week before their rivalry game with No. 5 Oklahoma. They led 24-7 in the third quarter, but Iowa State scored 17 straight to send it to overtime. In the second overtime, Brandon Weeden was intercepted and Iowa State won it with a four-yard TD run.

20 Louisville at South Florida
Last year, No. 16 Louisville was 6-0 when it hosted a 2-4 South Florida team. The Bulls scored 15 straight points in the fourth quarter to take a five-point lead, but Teddy Bridgewater threw an 11-yard touchdown pass with 1:35 left to seal the victory.

What's wrong with the Stanford offense?

October, 16, 2013
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Stanford scored a season-low two offensive touchdowns in its 27-21 loss to Utah. It was the second straight week that the Cardinal set a new season low for offensive touchdowns. They have had nine three-and-out drives in their last two games, matching their total from their 4-0 start.

With the Cardinal taking on No. 9 UCLA, we take a look at what is wrong with their offense.

Stanford’s offense posted minus-0.9 expected points toward its scoring margin in its loss at Utah and minus-2.0 in its 31-28 win against Washington the previous week. (Expected points added are defined as the difference between the number of points a team scores in comparison to the points an average offense is expected to score given the same circumstances, such as number of drives, down and distance, field position, etc.) With a minus-2.9 EPA in those two games combined, it marks the first time the Cardinal have had a negative EPA in back-to-back games since David Shaw became the head coach in 2011.

This is the same Stanford offense that averaged 41 points and had a plus-12.5 EPA in its 4-0 start.

Where is Stanford struggling on offense?

Running game
One difference has been the running game. In their first four games, the Cardinal averaged 218 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry. They gained 41 percent of their rush yards after contact.

In the last two games, Stanford has averaged 161 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per carry. The Cardinal gained 27 percent of those rushing yards after contact, the second-lowest percentage by a Pac-12 team in the last two weeks, behind Oregon State (25 percent). They had season lows in rushing yards, yards after contact and runs of 10 yards or more in the loss at Utah.

On average, the Cardinal faced 7.5 defenders in the box on their running plays in the last two games. There were 32 runs on which the defense had eight or more defenders in the box. That is more such plays than eight Pac-12 teams have faced all season.

Secondary target
Ty Montgomery leads Stanford in receptions (31), receiving yards (514) and touchdowns receptions (5) this season. In the last two games, he has accounted for 54 percent of Stanford’s receiving yards but only 36 percent of its targets. During that stretch, Kevin Hogan is averaging 11 yards per attempt when targeting Montgomery and 5.3 when targeting any other player.

During Stanford’s 4-0 start, Hogan averaged 8.6 yards per attempt when targeting any player other than Montgomery, and he completed 60 percent of such attempts.

Looking ahead
Hogan will face UCLA for the third time in his career. In his previous two games (both wins), Hogan targeted his tight ends on 41 percent of his passes and his running backs on 27 percent. He averaged more than 8 yards per attempt throwing to both.

This season, Hogan has thrown a total of nine passes to his tight ends (7 percent of his targets) and 18 to his running backs (13 percent of his targets). He has 54 fewer yards targeting tight ends and running backs this season than he had in his two games against UCLA.

If he can find another target, it could go a long way toward Hogan continuing his success against UCLA.

Better Baylor QB: Bryce Petty or RG III?

October, 16, 2013
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USA TODAY SportsBryce Petty (left) is hoping to rival the success of former Baylor QB Robert Griffin III (right).
Robert Griffin III put Baylor on the map in 2011, accounting for 47 touchdowns and 4,992 yards en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. Griffin finished the 2011 campaign with an opponent-adjusted QBR of 83.2, fourth-best in the FBS that season.

Bryce Petty, in his first season as Baylor’s starting quarterback, has led Baylor to a 5-0 record and a No. 12 ranking in the AP poll. He has posted the second-highest opponent-adjusted QBR (95.1) in the nation. Since the start of the 2004 season, seven quarterbacks have finished with an opponent-adjusted QBR of at least 90 -- three went on to be No. 1 overall picks (Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck) and one is last season’s Heisman Trophy winner -- Johnny Manziel.

Petty has put up numbers after four games that are comparable to Griffin’s. Petty has posted a Total QBR of at least 90 in four games this season, which already gives him more such games than Griffin had in 13 starts during his Heisman year.

Petty leads all FBS quarterbacks in pass yards per attempt (14.9), as Griffin did in 2011. They also have nearly identical numbers when it comes to completion percentage and pass yards per game.

A key to Griffin’s success in his Heisman season was his downfield passing. On passes thrown 15 yards or longer, Griffin led all AQ quarterbacks in 2011 with 23 touchdowns and had the third-highest completion percentage (minimum 20 attempts). In a smaller sample size this season, Petty is completing a higher percentage of such throws than Griffin and is averaging 28.4 yards per attempt, the highest among all AQ quarterbacks (minimum 10 attempts).

Petty has also performed better than Griffin did on third down. Petty leads the FBS in yards per attempt (17.0) while completing 70 percent of his passes on third down. Petty has converted 55 percent of his third-down pass plays (pass attempts + sacks) into a first down, the sixth-best rate among FBS quarterbacks.

Griffin completed 68 percent of his third-down passes and averaged 9.8 yards per attempt, both of which ranked in the top four of the FBS. Yet he converted on only 38 percent of his third-down pass plays, partially because he was sacked on nine third downs. Petty was sacked on third down for the first time last week against Kansas State.

Before anointing Petty the next RG III, there are two things to keep in mind:

1. Baylor’s first five games have been against FCS Wofford, Buffalo (85th-ranked pass defense), UL-Monroe (68th-ranked pass defense), West Virginia (58th-ranked pass defense) and Kansas State (62nd-ranked pass defense). Petty will have opportunities against better defenses because Baylor plays three of its last seven games against teams with a top-40 pass defense.

2. Petty is not utilized as much in the running game, averaging 44.8 fewer rush yards per game and 9.2 fewer rush attempts than Griffin did. Petty does have four rushing touchdowns, which puts him on pace to equal Griffin’s 10 touchdowns in 2011.

Midseason awards: Baylor leads the way

October, 15, 2013
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Best QB performance of the season: Bryce Petty vs. Buffalo – Sept. 7, 2013

Petty put up video game numbers against Buffalo, going 13-of-16 for 336 yards with two touchdowns. He threw no interceptions, was not sacked, and did not fumble. He also added a five-yard touchdown run for good measure. Add in the fact that Buffalo’s QBR allowed this season in all other games against FBS schools is 26.7, and Petty’s opponent-adjusted QBR for the game was 99.5 -- the best for any quarterback in a single game this season.

Most dominant performance of the season: Baylor vs. UL-Monroe – Sept. 21, 2013

The ESPN Stats & Information win probability model calculates the chance each team has to win at the start of every play. Taking the average win probability across all plays can give a good idea on how dominant the team was in the game. By this measure Baylor had the most dominant performance of the season against an FBS team. Its average win probability per play against UL-Monroe was 93.5 percent. By the end of the first 13 minutes, Baylor led 35-0 and had a 98 percent chance to win. It never looked back from there. Four of Baylor’s five wins have come with an average in-game win probability of 90 percent or higher.

Best offensive performance of the season: Baylor vs. West Virginia – Oct. 5, 2013

If the top quarterback game and the most dominant game weren’t enough, Baylor also put up the best offensive performance of the season in an entirely different game. Baylor put up 73 points against an otherwise above average defense in West Virginia. The Bears won the game by 31 points, and their rush EPA (expected points added) of +30 tells us that margin was almost entirely covered by Baylor’s ground attack. Overall Baylor’s offensive EPA in the game was +41. Adjusting for West Virginia’s above average defense, the Bears’ opponent-adjusted offensive EPA was +49 -- the highest for any offense in a single game this season.

Game changing play of the season: Ole Miss at Vanderbilt – Aug. 29, 2013

On the opening Thursday night of college football, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt gave us one of the most memorable games of the season. After surrendering the lead just seven seconds earlier, Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott rushed for a 75-yard touchdown to put the Rebels back ahead by three with 1:07 left in the fourth quarter. According to Stats & Info’s win probability model, this play took the Rebels’ chance of winning from 13 percent to 88 percent -- the largest one-play swing for any BCS-AQ school all season. After several wild swings in the fourth quarter, this play put Ole Miss ahead for good.

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