NCF Nation: ESPN Stats & Info

Blake Sims' stats make case as best in SEC

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesBlake Sims’ statistics put him in the company of Heisman Trophy winners.

Is Blake Sims the best quarterback in the SEC? The numbers say yes. Sims has posted an 87.0 Total QBR this season, second-best in the FBS behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.

Since 2004, three SEC players have had a higher Total QBR in a season. Two (Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton) won the Heisman in those seasons, and one (Aaron Murray) is the conference’s all-time passing leader.

Sims has been extremely efficient. He ranks in the top 10 of the FBS in yards per attempt and first downs per attempt.

He has also been able to find the end zone. With at least two more games to play, he has been responsible for 25 touchdowns, third-most in a season in Alabama history behind AJ McCarron in 2012 (31) and 2013 (28).

What has made Sims successful?

Third-down play
Sims has converted a first down on an FBS-high 52 percent of his third-down passing plays (passes and sacks).

Since 2010, seven players have been better for a season, five of whom are current NFL starting quarterbacks.

Another won the Heisman last season, and the seventh is currently on a practice squad backing up one of the five NFL starters.Sims’ ability to convert on third down starts with accuracy. He is completing 70.5 percent of his passes on third down, the highest for any SEC player in the last 10 seasons.

He has not turned the ball over. Sims is one of two SEC players to attempt 75 third-down passes in a season since 2004 and not have an interception. The other was Tennessee’s Erick Ainge in 2006.

Making plays with feet
One thing that separates Sims is his ability to make plays with his feet.

On passes thrown from outside the pocket, he leads the SEC in completions (36) and completions of 20 yards or more (seven) and ranks second in touchdown passes behind Missouri’s Maty Mauk.

When the pass has not been there, Sims has shown he can tuck the ball and run. He has been sacked seven times this season, third-fewest for any Power 5 quarterback with at least 200 dropbacks.

He has run most often on third down and leads the conference in rushing yards (113) and first downs (eight) on third-down scrambles. Two of his third-down scrambles have gone for 20 or more yards; the rest of the conference has a combined three.

Sims and All-American wide receiver Amari Cooper have been a dangerous combination for opponents.

Sims has targeted Cooper on 40 percent of his passes, and the junior has caught half of Sims’ touchdowns. When he is not passing to Cooper, Sims’ numbers are more in line with the FBS averages (completion percentage of 60.0 and yards per attempt of 7.3) than one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.

A victory in the 79th Iron Bowl could go a long way toward Sims solidifying his Total QBR ranking as the SEC’s top QB.

Power rankings: Big 12 now at No. 2

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
Tim Heitman/USA TodayTrevone Boykin and TCU are contending for a College Football Playoff spot out of the Big 12.
The Conference Power Rankings are back! We decided to take a few weeks off to let conference games play themselves out but have decided to bring the rankings back before Rivalry Week.

As a quick refresher, the Conference Power Rankings are a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the Associated Press poll and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to determine the best and worst conferences in the country. The AP Poll is designed to capture the strength at the top of the conference, while FPI is intended to capture conference depth.

After several weeks off, the order of the conference power rankings has not changed. The SEC remains the No. 1 conference, but the gap between the SEC and every other conference has narrowed. The SEC’s rankings in the Football Power Index have not changed significantly; the SEC has nine teams ranked in the top 25 of FPI, which is as many as the Big 12 (four), Big Ten (three) and ACC (two) have combined.

In the AP poll, however, the SEC has six teams in the Top 25, including three in the Top 10. The SEC had a stretch of four weeks with five AP Top 10 teams before Auburn and Ole Miss started to fall. Nonetheless, the SEC leads the Big 12 in the Conference Power Rankings, largely because of its FBS-best 48-3 record (5-2 vs Power 5) in non-conference games.

None from No. 2 among top four
The Big 12 is second in the Conference Power Rankings but currently does not have a team in the Top 4 of the College Football Playoff rankings. Could the second-best conference in the FBS be left out of the playoff?

The Big 12’s strength lies at the top of the conference. Baylor and TCU are fifth and sixth, respectively, in the AP poll. Overall, the conference has as many AP Top 25 teams (four) as the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 despite having at least two fewer conference members than those leagues.

The Pac-12 is not far behind the Big 12, and the top three conferences have almost a 20-point lead over the Big Ten and ACC. If UCLA were to make the Pac-12 Championship Game and win, the Bruins would have an argument for inclusion in the playoff based on the Pac-12’s strength and the Bruins’ non-conference schedule (second in the FBS).

Florida State is undefeated but has played arguably the easiest conference schedule of the contenders. The ACC is the weakest of the Power 5 conferences, so if Florida State were to suffer its first loss, the relative strength of an ACC schedule would be examined as the Seminoles make a push for the playoff.

The perception of the ACC can change drastically this week. All four ACC teams in the Top 25 of the AP poll – Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Louisville – face SEC opponents. Three of those teams have greater than a 60 percent chance of winning, according to FPI. If the ACC can pull off the sweep of these games, it could start to change the perception of the ACC’s conference strength.

Conference races gaining clarity

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18

Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers have won five straight games to take the Big Ten West lead.

After another week of games with conference championship implications, the conference races are gaining clarity.

The Wisconsin Badgers took hold of the Big Ten West, and the Alabama Crimson Tide control the SEC West after significant divisional wins Saturday.

Using projections by ESPN’s Football Power Index, let’s break down how each of the Power 5 conferences are projected to finish, starting with the most likely conference winners.

FPI’s projected winner:
Florida State Seminoles (75 percent), Duke Blue Devils (15 percent), Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (10 percent)

After Miami’s loss to Florida State, there are three remaining potential conference champions in the ACC. Florida State has already clinched the ACC Atlantic, and FPI projects the Seminoles have a 75 percent chance to beat the ACC Coastal winner in the championship game.

Despite its loss Saturday, Duke remains the most likely ACC Coastal champion (69 percent) because of its schedule and the head-to-head win over Georgia Tech on Oct. 11, but FPI projects Georgia Tech, which is ranked 11 spots ahead of Duke in the FPI rankings, would give the Seminoles a tougher test.

Potential clinching scenarios this week: Georgia Tech clinches with a Duke loss.

Big 12
FPI’s projected winner:
Baylor Bears (74 percent), TCU Horned Frogs (22 percent), Kansas State Wildcats (4 percent)

FPI projects Baylor has a 68 percent chance to win out, best among the one-loss Power 5 teams. If the Bears win out (including a win over Kansas State on Dec. 6), they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over TCU and would be the Big 12 champion. Based on these facts, FPI projects Baylor has a 74 percent chance to win the Big 12.

Potential clinching scenarios this week: None.

FPI’s projected winner:
Oregon Ducks (69 percent), UCLA Bruins (15 percent), USC Trojans (9 percent), Arizona State Sun Devils (5 percent)

Oregon clinched the Pac-12 North division before last week’s games, but the South might be the most interesting division in the FBS. There are currently four teams in the Pac-12 South with two conference losses. FPI projects UCLA has the best chance to win the division because of its strength (highest ranking in FPI) and schedule. The Bruins have already beat Arizona State and Arizona, so if they beat USC on Saturday, they would be in great position to win the South. If USC defeats UCLA, however, the Trojans would become the favorite and would clinch the division with a loss by Arizona State earlier in the day. FPI projects UCLA has a 59 percent chance to beat USC at home.

Potential clinching scenarios this week: USC clinches with win AND Arizona State loss.

Big Ten
FPI’s projected winner:
Ohio State Buckeyes (61 percent), Wisconsin (36 percent), Minnesota Golden Gophers (1 percent)

Ohio State and Wisconsin are in control of their respective divisions. Ohio State has to win one of its remaining two games -- versus Indiana and versus Michigan -- to win the Big Ten East without the help of a Michigan State loss. FPI projects Ohio State has a 99 percent chance to win one of those games. The Big Ten West is a little more interesting, with Wisconsin still to face Minnesota. FPI projects Wisconsin has an 87 percent chance to win the division, but Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska are all still alive.

Potential clinching scenarios this week: Wisconsin clinches a berth in the conference championship game with win AND a Minnesota loss. Ohio State clinches a berth in the conference championship game with win OR a Michigan State loss.

FPI’s projected winner:
Alabama (46 percent), Georgia Bulldogs (39 percent), Ole Miss Rebels (8 percent), Mississippi State Bulldogs (4 percent), Missouri (2 percent)

The SEC remains the most wide-open Power 5 conference. Alabama’s win against Mississippi State added some clarity; if the Tide defeat Auburn on Nov. 29, they will win the SEC West (they can also clinch via losses by Ole Miss AND Mississippi State). FPI projects the Tide have a 76 percent chance to win the West, followed by Ole Miss (14 percent) and Mississippi State (10 percent). In the SEC East, Georgia would win the head-to-head tiebreaker over Missouri, but the Tigers currently have a one-game lead in the loss column. Georgia has completed its conference schedule, and Missouri has two remaining SEC games, so if Missouri loses at Tennessee or versus Arkansas, Georgia wins the division. FPI projects Missouri has an 85 percent chance to lose either of those games.

Potential clinching scenarios this week: Georgia clinches division with Missouri loss. Alabama clinches division with losses by Mississippi State AND Ole Miss.

Key matchup: Prescott vs Alabama 'D'

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesDak Prescott has eluded defenses all season.
There will be a lot to gain when Mississippi State travels to Tuscaloosa. If Alabama wins, it can win the SEC West without depending on a loss from another team. If Mississippi State wins, it would then need only to win one of its final two games to take the division. FPI projects that Mississippi State currently has a 98 percent chance to win either of those games (vs. Vanderbilt and at Ole Miss).

Probably the most intriguing matchup in the game is Dak Prescott, one of the top two players in ESPN’s latest Heisman Watch, against an Alabama defense that ranks third in defensive efficiency.

The Tide are the only FBS team that has held each of its opponents to fewer than 25 points this season. In comparison, Mississippi State has scored at least 34 points in eight of its nine games, and Prescott has accounted for at least three touchdowns in all eight of those games.

The only game that Mississippi State’s offense was stymied was a 17-10 win against Arkansas on Nov. 1, a game played a week after Prescott was seen wearing a walking boot on his left foot.

This is a matchup of strengths. Prescott has accounted for an SEC-high 30 touchdowns, 19 more than Alabama’s defense has allowed in nine games. Alabama’s FBS-low 11 touchdowns allowed are as many as Prescott has accounted for in three games against ranked opponents.

Below is a breakdown of specific areas where Prescott and Alabama will be tested.

When Prescott runs
Running against Alabama is a tough proposition. During Nick Saban’s eight-year tenure as coach, Alabama has allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (91.0) and yards per rush (2.9) in the FBS. In that time, the Tide have allowed an FBS-low nine players to rush for at least 100 yards, none of them quarterbacks.

If any quarterback is going to rush for 100 yards against Alabama, it might be Prescott, who has had eight such games since the start of last season, tied for the second-most by an FBS quarterback behind Navy’s Keenan Reynolds. Prescott ranks in the top three among FBS quarterbacks in most rushing categories this season. He is third in yards (779), tied for first in touchdowns (11) and tied for second in first downs (52).

One scenario to watch is when Prescott runs the ball between the tackles. Mississippi State is averaging a Power 5-high 174.3 rush yards per game between the tackles. On such runs, Prescott is second in the SEC in yards (667) and yards per rush (7.6), and he leads the conference with nine touchdowns (minimum 40 rushes).

In comparison, Alabama has allowed an SEC-low 68.4 rush yards per game and two touchdowns between the tackles. Last week, the Tide held LSU to a season-low 3.1 yards per rush up the middle.

Third down
On third down, Prescott has been responsible for an FBS-high 14 touchdowns and is converting a first down on 52 percent of his plays. The FBS average for third-down conversion percentage is 41 percent.

Alabama’s defense ranks eighth in the SEC in third-down conversion percentage (36 percent) but has been a different team at home. At home, the Tide have allowed their opponents to convert 18 percent of their third downs, which leads the FBS. Away from Tuscaloosa, the Tide have allowed a 46 percent third-down conversion percentage, tied for 86th in the FBS.

Big plays
Prescott has an SEC-high 45 plays, including 15 touchdowns, of 20 yards or longer. He has at least three plays of 20-plus yards in every game this season, including 17 against three ranked opponents. Alabama has allowed an SEC-low 25 plays (three touchdowns) of 20 yards or longer. The Tide have held their opponents to fewer than three 20-yards plays in four of nine games.

Alabama’s ability to stop big plays should be a determining factor against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have gained 47 percent of their total offense on 20-yard plays, which is the highest percentage in the SEC and fifth-highest percentage in the FBS.

Something has to give
Mississippi State and Alabama rank first and second in Strength of Record and Game Control, respectively.

At 9-0, Mississippi State has the best resume in the country, but FPI projects that Alabama is the strongest team in the nation on a neutral field. We will learn a lot about these teams Saturday, but Alabama’s ability to stop Prescott should go a long way toward determining which team has the upper hand in the SEC West.

Stats to know: Six ranked CFB games

November, 6, 2014
Nov 6
Saturday, there will be six games between teams ranked in the top 20 of the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Below are the stats you need to know heading into each game.

(4) Oregon at (17) Utah, Saturday 10 ET
FPI projection: Oregon 67 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: Utah’s pass rush versus Oregon’s pass protection – Utah leads the FBS with 39 sacks and has had at least four sacks in an FBS-high six games. In the two games that Oregon allowed more than four sacks, the Ducks lost to Arizona and played a close game against Washington State. Not coincidently, those were the two games that left tackle Jake Fisher was sidelined with a knee injury. Fisher vs Utah DE Nate Orchard will be a specific matchup to watch as Orchard is tied for second in the FBS with 12 sacks.

Player to watch: How can Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota not be the player to watch? Mariota leads the nation in Total QBR (91.2) and touchdowns responsible for (34) and is averaging the second-most yards per pass (10.3) in the nation.

Stat to know: Oregon is 31-0 since the start of the 2012 season when it scores at least 30 points. Utah has held its last nine opponents, dating to last season, to fewer than 30 points, tied for the longest active streak in the FBS.

(5) Alabama at (16) LSU, Saturday 8 ET
FPI projection: Alabama 60 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: LSU rushing offense against Alabama rushing defense - LSU has run the ball on an SEC-high 67 percent of its plays this season. The Tigers are 6-0 this season when they rush for at least 150 yards and 1-2 when they do not. They will have a tough test against an Alabama defense that has allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game (78.1) and fewest rushing touchdowns (2) in the FBS.

Player to watch: Amari Cooper had a school-record 224 receiving yards in his last game, a 14-point win at Tennessee. Cooper has been responsible for 49 percent of Alabama’s receiving yards this season, the highest percentage for any FBS player. He also leads the nation with 20 receptions that have gained 20 yards or more and ranks second in receiving yards per game (141.5).

Stat to know: LSU has an FBS-high 24 come-from-behind fourth-quarter wins since Les Miles was hired in 2005. No other SEC school has more than 15 such wins.

(7) Kansas State at (6) TCU , Saturday 7:30 ET
FPI projection: TCU 36 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: TCU’s big-play offense vs. Kansas State’s disciplined defense – TCU leads the Big 12 with 57 plays of 20 yards or longer. Those plays have gained 247.5 yards per game, second-most in the FBS behind Marshall. Conversely, Kansas State is tied for the second-fewest plays (22) and fourth-fewest yards (86.9) allowed on plays of 20 yards or longer.

Player to watch: Last week, Tyler Lockett passed Jordy Nelson for second on Kansas State’s all-time receiving yards list. He needs 156 more yards to pass his father, Kevin, for most in school history. He will likely be matched against TCU’s Kevin White, who helped shut down one of the top receivers in the nation, West Virginia’s Kevin White, last week.

Stat to know: Kansas State has seven turnovers this season (T-seventh in the FBS), four of which were of little harm because they came with the Wildcats leading by 24 or more points. TCU leads the nation with 26 turnovers forced and is one of two teams (Oregon) that has forced at least two turnovers in every game this season.

(14) Ohio State at (8) Michigan State, Saturday 8 ET
FPI projection: Ohio State 52 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: Ohio State run game vs Michigan State run defense - Since its loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State is averaging 295.3 rushing yards per game, fifth-most in the FBS. Michigan State ranks sixth in the FBS in rush yards per game allowed and has held five of its eight opponents under 100 rushing yards.

Player to watch: Jeremy Langford has rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 straight conference games, tied for the longest streak in the last 10 seasons with Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. Last season against Ohio State, Langford gained 93 of his 128 rush yards after contact, the most yards after contact that Ohio State has allowed to a player in the last two seasons.

Stat to know: J.T. Barrett has been responsible for 29 touchdowns, tied for third-most in the FBS and on pace to break Braxton Miller’s school record of 36 set last season. Barrett has been responsible for at least four touchdowns in four of eight games this season. Michigan State has not allowed a player to account for four touchdowns since Taylor Martinez scored four in Nebraska’s win in East Lansing on Nov. 3, 2012.

(10) Notre Dame at (9) Arizona State, Saturday 3:30 ET
FPI projection: Notre Dame 52 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: Everett Golson against Arizona State pressure package - Arizona State sends five or more pass rushers on 55 percent of opponents’ dropbacks, the second-highest percentage for a Power 5 team. On such plays, the Sun Devils rank third among Power 5 defenses in both yards per play (2.9) and sacks (16).

Golson has thrown four of his seven interceptions this season against a blitz, including both of his picks against Florida State. Golson has averaged 5.9 yards per attempt against the blitz this season, 1.2 less than the average for a Power 5 quarterback.

Player to watch: Golson has been responsible for 29 touchdowns this season, tied with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett for third-most in the FBS and on pace to break the Notre Dame record for a season (39 in 13 games by Brady Quinn in 2006). In the Irish’s win last week against Navy, Golson became the first player in Notre Dame history to pass and rush for at least three touchdowns in the same game. Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight is the only other FBS player to accomplish that feat this season (vs Iowa State).

Stat to know: Notre Dame is 12-0 since the start of last season when it has one or fewer turnovers and 4-5 when it has two or more, including the Irish’s loss to Florida State this season. Arizona State is 4-0 this season when it has forced multiple turnovers.

(12) Baylor at (15) Oklahoma, Saturday 12 ET
FPI projection: Oklahoma 66 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: Baylor’s pass offense vs Oklahoma’s pass defense - Baylor has a Power 5-high 17 touchdowns on passes thrown 20 yards or longer. Oklahoma has allowed the most touchdowns in the Big 12 on such passes but also is tied for the conference lead with four interceptions. Zach Sanchez has three of those four interceptions and will be matched up against one of Baylor’s explosive wide receivers. The Bears have four receivers who have gained 300 yards and are averaging more than 16 yards per reception.

Player to watch: Trevor Knight had his best statistical game of the season last week against Iowa State, accounting for a career-high 376 yards of total offense and six touchdowns. The Sooners probably will need another big game from Knight to match Baylor’s high-powered offensive numbers. Last season, with Blake Bell at quarterback for Oklahoma, Baylor won by 29 and held the Sooners to a 3.5 raw QBR, their lowest in a game since the 2005 season.

Stat to know: Baylor has never beaten Oklahoma in Norman in 11 games dating to the first meeting in 1974.

Michigan State offense doing its share

November, 5, 2014
Nov 5

AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State’s Jeremy Langford consistently posts 100-yard games against Big Ten opponents.

Defense is often the first word associated with Michigan State football. The Spartans are one of two teams (Alabama) to finish each of the previous three seasons ranked in the top 10 in points per game allowed and defensive efficiency. The offense was often an afterthought, but things are different this season.

Michigan State is averaging the fifth-most points per game in the FBS (45.5) and has already scored one more offensive touchdown (47) than it had all of last season. Its offense is adding nearly seven more points to its net scoring margin than in any other year since Mark Dantonio was hired before the 2007 season.

What has made the offense so successful?

A 3-headed monster
The Spartans are one of three FBS teams (Mississippi State and Marshall) this season that are averaging at least 250 passing and rushing yards per game. They are also one of three FBS teams (USC and Western Michigan) that have an 1,800-yard passer, an 800-yard rusher and an 800-yard receiver.

Connor Cook has led the way for Michigan State’s passing game. He leads the Big Ten in Total QBR (81.9) and yards per attempt (9.4) this season. Cook has also been the best downfield passer in the conference; he has eight more completions on passes thrown 15 yards or longer than any other Big Ten player.

On the ground, Jeremy Langford has been one of the most consistent backs in the nation. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 consecutive conference games, tied with Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey for the longest streak in at least the last 10 seasons. Langford has averaged 3.0 yards after contact per rush in conference play this season, second-best among Big Ten running backs (min. 50 attempts).

The third piece of Michigan State’s dynamic trio is wide receiver Tony Lippett. He has a Big Ten-high 889 receiving yards and is averaging 21.2 yards per reception. On passes thrown 15 yards or longer, he leads the conference in receptions (16) and touchdowns (six).

So, although Michigan State’s defense has received the bulk of the attention, it now has an offense to hold up its part of the bargain. On Saturday, the Spartans may need that offense to produce against an Ohio State team that has scored at least 50 points in five of its last six games.

Winston makes the difference for FSU

November, 4, 2014
Nov 4
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJameis Winston displayed his come-from-behind ability in a victory at Louisville on Thursday.
Florida State is not dominating teams as it did last season. The Seminoles are undefeated but have trailed at halftime in four of eight games, and their average win probability at halftime (58%) ranks 50th in FBS.

But the 2014 Seminoles don’t have to compete with the 2013 Seminoles to make the first College Football Playoff. They only have to be judged one of the four best teams by the selection committee. And regardless of their diminished dominance compared with last season, they have something no other team has: the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

Playing from behind
This season, the Seminoles have run almost twice as many plays while trailing (184) than they did all of last season (93). More than half of those plays (55) from last season were in the BCS Championship game against Auburn.

Florida State ranks 28th in Game Control, which accounts for average in-game win probability and adjusts for opponents faced. Last season, Florida State led the nation in Game Control, and since 2005, only one team entered bowls undefeated (Hawaii 2007) with a Game Control outside the top 20.

Here’s where Jameis Winston comes in. He is 21-0 as a starter. His career Total QBR (86.8) is the fourth-best mark for a player with at least 10 starts in the QBR era (since 2004) behind Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota and Johnny Manziel.

Winston has played his best when his team has needed him the most. He has led four second-half comebacks in his career, including a game-winning drive in the BCS Championship game.

In the Seminoles’ 42-31 win last week at Louisville, Winston helped rally his team from a 17-point deficit with 11:22 left in the third quarter. From that point on, he completed 15-of-25 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns. He did this against a team that entered the game allowing the lowest Total QBR in the nation and that had given up a total of three passing touchdowns in the previous six games.

In the postgame news conference, Winston said, “Being down is nothing when you’ve got heart and you persevere. Personally, we play better when we’re down, honestly.”

Numbers back him up
That appears to be true for Winston. He ranks among the top 10 in FBS in Total QBR (81.4), completion percentage (68.3%) and yards per attempt (9.7) when his team is trailing.

He has been better when trailing in the second half. In that situation, he leads the FBS in yards per attempt (10.5) and third-down conversion percentage (75%) and ranks fourth in Total QBR (90.3).

His best performance might have come against Notre Dame on Oct. 18. He completed 15-of-16 second-half passes (all when trailing), including all eight of his passes thrown 10 yards or longer.
Third-down efficiency has separated Winston from the pack. He has converted a first down on 54% of his third-down passing plays in his career, on pace to be the best for any FBS quarterback in the last 10 seasons (min. 10 games started).

There is a first half/second-half divide with his third downs, too. Look no further than last week against Louisville, when Winston completed 2-of-5 third-down passes in the first half for 19 yards and an interception. In the second half he was 5-of-6 for 169 yards and three touchdowns.>Not surprisingly, Winston leads the FBS in third-down Total QBR in the second half.

The Seminoles might not be winning every week by 40 points like last season, but they are 8-0. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Seminoles have a 34% chance of winning the rest of their games, including the ACC Championship game. An undefeated Power 5 team that is the reigning national champion and has a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback sounds a lot like a playoff team.

By The Numbers: College Football Playoff

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21

Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesThe quest for the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy is well underway.
Using ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to project the rest of the season, let’s take the College Football Playoff by the numbers:

1. There is a 61 percent chance that every Power 5 team will have at least ONE loss entering bowls.

2. There cannot be more than TWO undefeated teams from a Power 5 conference prior to the playoff selection (Ole Miss plays Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl on Nov. 29).

3. The Pac-12 is the most likely conference (34 percent) to have a champion with THREE or more losses.

4. There are FOUR remaining undefeated teams -- Florida State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Conference USA's Marshall. FPI projects that Marshall is the most likely team to win out (57 percent chance) and Mississippi State is the least likely (4.4 percent chance).

5. The SEC currently has FIVE teams with one loss or fewer, the most of any conference. There is a 26 percent chance that every team in the SEC will have at least two losses entering bowls.

6. Right now there are SIX teams -- the four undefeated teams, Ohio State and TCU -- with at least a 24 percent chance to finish with one loss or fewer this season.

7. The SEVEN teams in the SEC West have been the most dominant in the country -- going 28-1 against anyone not in the SEC West. The division is about to beat up on each other, however, resulting in a 36 percent chance that all seven teams finish with two or more losses.

Bonus: The most likely outcome (30 percent) is that there will be three Power 5 teams that finish with one or fewer losses. Assuming that Marshall is left out of the playoff, that means a two-loss team will make it. Let the debate begin.

Baylor offense slowed by top defenses

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10

Sue Ogrocki/AP ImagesBaylor has struggled against some of the top defenses, like Oklahoma State, over the last 2 seasons.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Baylor leads the nation in per game averages for points (52.0), yards (610.9) and touchdowns (6.5). The Bears have scored at least 60 points in eight games during that time, four more than any other FBS team.

In the first half alone, Baylor has averaged 31.3 points per game during the last two seasons, more than 73 teams average for an entire game.

Two staples of the Bears’ offense have been a fast pace and an ability to gain yards in chunks. Since the start of last season, Baylor has run a play every 19.8 seconds, the second-fastest behind Texas Tech (19.5). However, in the first half, the Bears have been faster, averaging a play every 16.9 seconds, 1.8 seconds faster than any other team.

No team has had more “explosive” plays the last two seasons than Baylor. During that time, the Bears lead the nation in plays per game of 20 yards or more (7.9) and have 11 more touchdowns that covered at least 30 yards than any other FBS school.

Quarterback Bryce Petty has been one of the driving forces behind Baylor’s success. Since becoming the starter before last season, Petty has thrown 37 more touchdowns than interceptions and ranks third in the FBS in yards per attempt (9.9). He has had seven starts with a Total QBR of 90 or more, tied for second-most among FBS quarterbacks behind Marcus Mariota.

…but not the same against top defenses
Since the start of last season, Baylor has played six games against teams that finished last season ranked in the top 40 of ESPN’s defensive efficiency or are currently ranked in the top 40: TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas (twice) and Oklahoma.

Defensive efficiency measures how many points a defense contributes to its team’s scoring margin, adjusting for the strength of opposing offenses faced. All six of those teams held Baylor to fewer than 42 points, whereas Baylor scored at least 42 in each of its 12 other games.

In those six games, Baylor put up numbers more closely aligned with the FBS averages than an offensive juggernaut. The Bears’ 32 points per game is two more than the FBS average and their 437.5 yards per game is 22 more.

Yards after the catch has been a big difference for Baylor against the better defensive teams. The Bears are averaging 106.7 yards after the catch against top-40 defenses compared with 202.0 against all other teams. It comes out to about 2.1 fewer yards after the catch per reception. The average for a Power 5 team is 126 yards after the catch per game.

Another difference has been a lack of explosive plays. Four of Baylor’s FBS-high 25 plays of 50 yards or more since the start of last season have come against a top-40 defense. Three of those four plays occurred against Kansas State, which finished the season ranked 38th in defensive efficiency last season.

This week, Baylor faces its first ranked opponent and second top-40 defense of the season in TCU. The Horned Frogs have kept their opponents to an average of 3.8 yards per play this season, third-lowest in the FBS. The last time the Bears were held below four yards per play was by Texas in the 2009 season.

Alabama's run D vs Arkansas' run O

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9

AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJonathan Williams helps lead one of the most effective running games in the nation.
Perhaps overshadowed by the games involving teams from the state of Mississippi, the SEC West has another big game Saturday when Alabama heads to Arkansas (6 ET on ESPN).

A key matchup in the game with be Alabama’s run defense against Arkansas’ run offense.

The Crimson Tide lead the SEC in rush defense (64.0 YPG), and Arkansas leads the conference in rush offense (316.6 YPG).

Alabama rushing defense
Alabama's average of 64.0 rushing yards allowed per game is third-fewest in the FBS. They have allowed one rushing touchdown, tied for the fewest among FBS teams.

The Tide have held four of their five opponents to fewer than 75 yards rushing, tied with Louisville and Boise State for the most such games by an FBS defense.

Excluding sacks, opponents have not gained yards on 28 percent of their carries against Alabama, the third-best rate for a defense in the FBS and nine percentage points better than the FBS average.

The Tide rarely give up big plays in the running game. They have allowed an FBS-low nine runs of 10 yards or longer.

A key has been not allowing opponents to set the edge. The Tide have allowed a Power Five-low 2.5 yards per designed run outside the tackles and are one of four Power Five defenses that have not allowed a touchdown on such a run.

Arkansas rushing offense
Not only does Arkansas run more often (68 percent of plays) and for more yards (316.6 per game) than any other SEC team, but it also is efficient in doing so.

The Razorbacks are averaging 6.9 yards per rush and lead the nation in rushing efficiency, which measures an offense’s contribution to a team’s scoring margin on rushing plays. Arkansas is contributing an FBS-high 16 points per game to its scoring margin on rushes.

What makes the Razorbacks so efficient is their ability to gain ground on first and second down. The Razorbacks are averaging 6.9 yards per rush on first or second down and gaining a first down on an FBS-high 30 percent of those plays.

That leads to Arkansas avoiding third downs (sixth-fewest in the FBS), which is a factor that has been shown to correlate with winning by ESPN’s production analytics team.

Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins have led the way for Arkansas. They have combined for 1,107 rush yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, which is the third-most rushing yards and most rushing touchdowns of any running back duo in the nation.

A lot of their success can be attributed to a line that has been able to open holes.

The Razorbacks are averaging an SEC-high 4.2 yards before contact per rush and have gained at least five yards on an FBS-best 54 percent of rushes.

As noted above, Alabama has been great at limiting opponents outside the tackles, but that area is a strength for the Razorbacks. They lead the SEC in yards per rush (8.1) and touchdowns (nine) on designed runs outside of the tackles.

Something has to give
Arkansas has gained at least 150 rushing yards and is averaging four yards per rush in each of its games this season. Alabama has not allowed any of its opponents to run for 150 yards or average four yards per rush in a game.

We may know how this game will play out after the first 15 minutes. Arkansas is averaging 8.4 yards per rush and 99.6 rushing yards in the first quarter. If Alabama can slow Arkansas’ ground attack early, it may go a long way toward determining this game.

The Debate: Best vs Most Deserving

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7

AP Photo/Tony GutiThe selection committee will have work to do figuring out the 4 best teams to play for the title.
When looking at the teams in the College Football Playoff race, we often hear terminology such as “best” and “most deserving.” These are two distinct ways to evaluate teams. Look no further than this clip of ESPN’s analysts addressing this exact question.

The 2012 season is a great example of the difference between these two concepts. Before the BCS National Championship, few would have argued that Alabama was not the best team. But Notre Dame – which won each game on a difficult schedule – was widely thought to be most deserving of playing for the title, even though by many measures (such as Las Vegas point spreads) the Tide and a few other teams were better than the Irish.

By the beginning of October, the argument begins to shift from who is the best team going forward to which team is the most deserving when looking backwards. ESPN has created separate metrics to help answer each of them.

Best Going Forward
ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) is designed to answer the question, “Which team is best on a neutral field?”

A team’s FPI rating represents how many points above or below average a team is compared to an average FBS team on a neutral field.

Auburn currently leads the nation in FPI by 3.2 points, meaning the Tigers are on average more than three points better than any other FBS team on a neutral field.

The Tigers are the only team in the FBS that rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency (the components that make up FPI).

Most Impressive Record Looking Backwards
ESPN’s Strength of Record metric is designed to answer the question, “Which team has the most impressive record?”.

As we all know, all 5-0 records are not created equal; one team could beat five lower-tier teams and another could take down two Top-10 teams and three other average opponents.

After back-to-back wins against Top-10 opponents – something that had never been done in its program’s history – Mississippi State has the most impressive record to date.

An average Top 25 team would have an 18 percent chance to go 5-0 against Mississippi State’s schedule.

No. 1 in FPI vs No. 1 in SOR
On Saturday, the No. 1 team in FPI (Auburn) will travel to the No. 1 team in Strength of Record (Mississippi State) in a game with playoff implications.

Like Notre Dame of 2012, Mississippi State has a record worthy of a playoff team at this point in the season. Not only did the Bulldgos beat LSU and Texas A&M in back-to-back games, but they did so in a dominant fashion with an average in-game win probability of at least 82 percent in each of those games.

Auburn’s No. 1 ranking in FPI can be thought of as the Alabama of 2012. They are strong in all facets of the game and would be favored against any other FBS team on a neutral field. Because FPI is designed to predict a team’s future chance of winning – and Strength of Record is not – Auburn has a 59 percent likelihood to win in Starkville against the 10th-ranked team in FPI.

The winner of this game, however, will take another step towards having the most impressive record in the nation. Each team would have three wins against teams currently ranked in the Top 20 of FPI, a claim that very few other teams in the nation would be able to make.

Kelly, Oregon together again in O-line woes

October, 3, 2014
Oct 3

Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsEagles coach Chip Kelly and his former team - Oregon - are both dealing with O-Line issues this year.
Former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly and the Ducks are battling the same problem. Just not on the same field.

Oregon and Philadelphia are both missing multiple key pieces on their offensive lines, which has led to sputtering results at times for both.

Last Season’s Success
During his time at Oregon, Kelly built an offensive juggernaut with a dangerous zone read at a breakneck pace. And after Kelly left, the Ducks didn’t miss a beat.

Oregon led all Power Five schools last season in yards before contact per rush (4.3).

The Ducks also protected Marcus Mariota as Oregon’s 4.3 percent sack rate was tied for 16th best among Power Five schools last year.

Meanwhile, in Kelly’s first season in Philadelphia, the Eagles led the league in rushing in just about every way possible - yards (2,566), yards per rush (5.13) and yards before contact per rush (3.65).

Injuries in the Way
This season, it’s a different story for both Oregon and Kelly.

The Ducks have missed three key offensive linemen in Jake Fisher, Andre Yruretagoyena and Tyler Johnstone. Fisher is expected to return fairly soon, while Yruretagoyena is out indefinitely and Johnstone is out for the season.

Kelly feels his former team’s pain. After having the same starting five across the offensive line for all 16 games last season, the Eagles have already played 10 different offensive linemen this year.

Right tackle Lane Johnson returns from his four-game suspension this week, but left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce are not expected back until the second-half of the season.

New Season, New Story
With both teams playing patchwork offensive lines, success has been harder to come by.

Oregon was held to a season-low 144 rushing yards in its loss at home Thursday night to unranked Arizona. However, the problem had plagued the Ducks all season.

Oregon’s rushing offense has averaged nearly a full yard less per rush this season, with that difference found in the Ducks’ yards before contact.

For the Eagles, it’s been the same story. Philadelphia went from the best rushing offense in the league to 24th so far this season.

LeSean McCoy, who has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game this season after posting seven such games last year, has been limited to a dismal 2.7 yards per rush.

That ranks 46th among 48 qualified rushers in the league this season, ahead of only Toby Gerhart and Donald Brown.

The line play, of course, includes pass protection. Oregon’s sack rate has more than doubled this season, jumping from 4.3 percent to 9.1 percent.

Meanwhile, Nick Foles has attempted 39 passes under pressure, the most in the NFL.

FPI-based must-see TV for Week 6

October, 3, 2014
Oct 3

USA TODAY SportsKenny Hill and Dak Prescott are two of the top QBs in FBS this season, according to Total QBR.

Matchup quality is a metric that ranks games (on a 0-100 scale) based on how good each team is and how close the game is expected to be.

The games ranked highest in matchup quality will be competitive games between two highly ranked teams in ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). Based on this metric, the top five games for Week 6:

Alabama at Ole Miss: 94.6 Pregame Matchup Quality
This is the first game this season featuring teams ranked in the top 10 of FPI (at the time of the game). And what a good matchup of strengths this is, but not how you’d think it would traditionally be.

Alabama ranks third in the nation in offensive efficiency while Ole Miss ranks second in defensive efficiency.

Alabama - with a 53 percent predicted win percentage in this game – has found a resurgence of offense under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The Tide have 2,377 yards, breaking a school record through four games that stood for 41 years. This despite starting a quarterback who had attempted 39 career passes in his first three years, Blake Sims.

But Ole Miss is allowing 248 yards per game (fourth-best in FBS and tops in the SEC), and the Rebels have allowed two red-zone touchdowns in 10 opponent chances this season, good for second-best in FBS.

Texas A&M at Mississippi State: 93.2 Pregame Matchup Quality
You can expect some big plays on offense in this game as Texas A&M and Mississippi State rank in the top six in the FBS in plays of 20 yards or longer per game.

The Aggies – with a 58 percent predicted win percentage – are led by quarterback Kenny Hill. His 89.8 Total QBR this season leads the SEC and ranks fourth among FBS quarterbacks.

He is one of three FBS QBs to post a Total QBR of 90 or higher in at least three games this season.

Mississippi State, on the other hand, is led by Dak Prescott, who has posted two of the top 15 single-game Total QBR performances this season. Marcus Mariota is the only other QB with multiple games with a Total QBR above 95 (min. 20 action plays).

LSU at Auburn: 92.4 Pregame Matchup Quality
There are a couple of milestone wins on the line in this game. Les Miles is seeking his 100th win as LSU’s head coach and Auburn is seeking its 300th all-time win in SEC play. LSU did hand Auburn its only regular-season loss last season.

Since Gus Malzahn took over as head coach, Auburn (with a 69 percent predicted win percentage in this game) has run on 69 percent of its plays and ranks third in the FBS in rushing yards per game, behind two triple-option offenses.

Auburn is 13-0 in the last two seasons when it runs for at least 250 yards and 3-2 when it does not.

LSU is allowing the third-most rushing yards per game in the SEC and has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 250 yards this season. The Tigers did not allow any team to reach that mark in 2013.

In addition, LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards in the nation to opposing quarterbacks this season, which is not a good sign considering Nick Marshall ranks third among active quarterbacks with 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season.

Oklahoma at TCU: 91.7 Pregame Matchup Quality
According to FPI, this marks Oklahoma’s toughest remaining game (the Sooners have a 63 percent predicted win percentage in this game). Besides their second-toughest game against Baylor (66 percent), the Sooners have at least an 80 percent chance to win in every other game.

The key for Oklahoma is their running game. They are averaging a rushing touchdown every 10 rushes, second-best in the FBS behind Kansas State (11 percent).

In their last game – against West Virginia on Sept. 20 – freshman Samaje Perine started in place of Keith Ford (out with an injury) and rushed for 242 yards, the most for an Oklahoma player since Adrian Peterson ran for 249 yards against Oklahoma State on Oct. 30, 2004.

TCU has been very tough to score on this season, allowing an FBS-low 0.31 points per drive. That is on pace to be the lowest for any defense in the last 10 seasons.

Going further, opponents have failed to score a touchdown or make a first down on an FBS-high 60 percent of their drives. The FBS average is 34 percent.

Stanford at Notre Dame: 89.6 Pregame Matchup Quality
In what will be Notre Dame’s first game this season against a team currently ranked in the top 50 of FPI (Stanford is ranked 17th), the Irish have a 59 percent predicted win percentage over the Cardinal.

You can expect a low-scoring affair in this one as neither team has allowed more than 17 points in a game this season.

Stanford leads the nation in scoring defense (6.5 PPG), while Notre Dame ranks fourth (11.5). They’ve combined for three shutouts in 2014.

The Cardinal defense has been especially stingy. Besides not allowing many points, they are the only FBS team allowing fewer than 200 yards per game. Stanford has gone 27 straight games without allowing an opponent to score 30 points, by far the longest active streak in FBS.

But something has to give in this department. Notre Dame has scored at least 30 points in each of its first four games this season.

The last time that happened was in 1943 when the Irish did so in their first six games of the year. That team won the AP National Championship and was led by Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli.

Can Spartans stop Huskers run game?

October, 2, 2014
Oct 2

Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah ran for 123 of Nebraska's 182 yards vs Michigan State last season.
At 5-0, Nebraska enters its matchup against Michigan State as the only unbeaten team in the Big Ten. Led by Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah, the Cornhuskers have been fueled by a potent rushing attack, while the Spartans have made their mark by stopping the run.

Something has to give on Saturday when these two teams square off in East Lansing (8 ET on ABC).

A matchup of strengths
Nebraska ranks in the top three in the FBS in rushing yards per game, yards per rush and rushes of 10 yards or longer.

The Cornhuskers are averaging a Power Five-high 4.4 yards before contact per rush and have made it at least five yards past the line of scrimmage before first contact on 32 percent of their runs (best in the Big Ten).

Against Illinois last week, Nebraska had five rushing touchdowns, one more than Michigan State has allowed all season.

The Spartans rank in the top five in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game and yards per rush.

They have allowed 92 TOTAL rushing yards before contact, fourth best among Power Five schools. Nebraska has rushed for 1,136 yards before contact in five games this season, most among Power Five schools.

Ameer Abdullah leads the way
Last week against Illinois, Abdullah ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns.

That was his FBS-leading third game with 200 rushing yards and 18th straight game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. No active running back has a streak of more than 10 such games.

Abdullah has been able to get his yards in chunks, gaining at least 10 yards on 25 percent of his carries. He leads the nation with 29 rushes of 10-plus yards.

Abdullah has gained 546 of his FBS-leading 833 yards before contact. He has 39 rushes in which first contact was not made until five yards past the line of scrimmage, the most by any Power Five player.

What does Michigan State do well?
Despite losing six defensive starters from last season, Michigan State is allowing eight fewer rushing yards per game than it did last season, when it ranked second in the FBS in rushing defense.

Like last year’s squad, the Spartans have not allowed their opponents to get going. They have contacted opposing rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage on 63 of their 111 rushes (57 percent), the highest percentage for any Power Five defense.

They lead the nation in percentage of opponents’ rushes that do not gain yards (39 percent).

The Spartans also have been great at wrapping up opponents. They have only nine missed tackles on opponents’ rushes (tied for second in the Big Ten) and lead the conference with 55.3 rushing yards allowed after contact per game this season.

Looking toward Saturday
Last season, Michigan State beat Nebraska 41-28 in Lincoln. It was the Spartans’ first win against the Cornhuskers in eight tries.

However, the 182 rushing yards allowed were the second-most Michigan State has surrendered over the last two seasons, with 123 coming from Abdullah. The Spartans were helped by five Nebraska turnovers and an inefficient Nebraska passing game.

This year, if Michigan State allows Abdullah to again rush for that many yards the results may be different. In the last four years, Nebraska is 18-3 when Abdullah runs for at least 100 yards, and Michigan State is 6-5 during that time when allowing a player to rush for 100.

Points could be scarce in South Bend

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
Two years ago in South Bend, Stanford and Notre Dame matched up in a defensive struggle that ended with the Irish making a goal-line stand in overtime in which they stopped Stepfan Taylor on four consecutive attempts from inside the 4-yard line.

We might see a similar a game Saturday. Stanford and Notre Dame are two of the three FBS teams that have not allowed more than 17 points in a game this season. The other is Ole Miss.

Although both teams rank in the top five of the FBS in scoring defense, they used different methods to get their results. Stanford has conceded almost nothing this season, whereas Notre Dame has taken more of a bend-but-don-t-break approach.

Despite losing several starters from last season, including Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Josh Mauro and Ben Gardner, Stanford might be better on defense. The Cardinal are allowing the fewest points per game (6.5) in the FBS, including shutouts against their two non-Pac-12 opponents.

They have allowed 0.39 points per drive, second-fewest in the FBS behind TCU (0.31). For some perspective, the fewest points per drive allowed by a defense in the previous 10 seasons was 0.54 by Alabama in 2011.

How good has Stanford’s defense been? Well consider these stats:

" The Cardinal are the only FBS defense allowing less than 200 yards per game and are on pace to allow the fewest passing yards per game (74.0) of any team in the last 15 seasons.

" Opponents have failed to gain a first down or score a touchdown on 55 percent of their drives against Stanford this season. Only TCU (60 percent) and Louisville (59 percent) have been better.

" Stanford has allowed the fewest plays (5) and completions (2) of 20 yards or more in the FBS this season.

" Stanford has allowed a Power Five-low 36 yards after the catch per game and has allowed three receptions of 10 or more yards after the catch, which is three fewer than any other Power Five defense.

Notre Dame
Notre Dame also appears to have reloaded on defense after some key departures. The Irish lost Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III, Prince Shembo and Bennett Jackson to the NFL Draft and their coordinator, Bob Diaco, to UConn as head coach. Yet, they are allowing 11.5 points per game, fourth fewest in the FBS and became the first team since 1984 to shut out Michigan.

The Irish have bent this season, but rarely broke. They rank 49th in the FBS in yards per play (5.2), but sixth in points per drive (0.8). Opponents have scored on 20 percent of their drives after gaining an initial first down against the Irish, fourth best in the nation and 23 percentage points lower than the FBS average.

What has made the Irish successful?
Forcing turnovers
The Irish have forced 2.5 turnovers per game this season, tied for 16th most in the FBS.

Getting off the field on third down
Notre Dame is holding opponents to a 33 percent third-down conversion rate, down from 42 percent last year.

No penalties
Notre Dame has committed five defensive penalties this season, tied for 10th fewest in the FBS. Of those five penalties, three resulted in a first down, which is seventh-fewest.