SEC: NCF Next Level

Conference races gaining clarity

November, 18, 2014
11/18/14
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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.

ACC
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.

Pac-12
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.

SEC
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.

Stats to know: Six ranked CFB games

November, 6, 2014
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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.

Key matchup: Alabama D vs. Auburn's run

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
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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.

Running room, tough yards fueling Auburn

October, 31, 2013
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Gus Malzahn has the Auburn Tigers at 7-1 and ranked 11th in the BCS standings.

Last season, Auburn finished 3-9, its worst record since 1952. Malzahn served as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010 when the Tigers won the BCS National Championship. In 2012 he was the head coach at Arkansas State. Under Malzahn, the Red Wolves finished 10-3 and were the Sun Belt Champions.

One of the keys to Arkansas State’s success last season was its running game. The Red Wolves led the Sun Belt in rushing yards per game for this first time since the conference sponsored football in 2001.

While Arkansas State ran through the Sun Belt, Auburn finished last in SEC play in rushing yards per game and yards per rush, while finishing tied for last in rushing touchdowns.

Malzahn has flipped the script for Auburn this season; the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing yards per game and yards per rush. They rank second in rushing touchdowns.

Through eight games, they already have 13 more runs of 10 yards or more and eight more rushing touchdowns than they had all of last season.

What specifically has fueled Auburn’s rushing attack in 2013?

More room to run
Auburn leads the SEC and ranks second among BCS AQ schools this season in rushing yards before contact.

Of the Tigers’ 2,523 rushing yards this season, 1,618 have come before contact. They are the only SEC team averaging more than four yards before contact per rush.

In 2012, Auburn was 13th in the SEC with 815 rushing yards before contact. The Tigers have 117 rushes in which they were not contacted until at least five yards past the line of scrimmage this season, 23 more than any other SEC team.

Tre Mason gaining tough yards
One constant for Auburn the last two seasons has been Tre Mason. In 2012, Mason was one of nine SEC players to rush for more than 1,000 yards, and in 2013 he ranks fifth in the conference with 753 rushing yards. However, Mason has been better at picking up tough yards in 2013 compared with 2012.

This season, Mason has converted 76 percent of his runs on third or fourth down, second-best percentage in the SEC behind Missouri’s Henry Josey (minimum 10 attempts). He has converted a first down on 79 percent of such runs with three yards or fewer to go, including a fourth and one play at the Texas A&M 1-yard line in the Tigers win.

Last season, Mason converted 50 percent of his rushes on third or fourth down, including only half when he had fewer than three yards to go for a first down.

Similarly, Mason has four rushing touchdowns in five goal-to-go attempts this season. He had five such touchdowns in 11 attempts last season.

Others besides Mason stepping up
In 12 games last season, Onterio McCalebb was the only Tiger besides Tre Mason to gain more than 400 rushing yards. In eight games this season, three Auburn players other than Mason have run for more than 400 yards.

Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant each have combined for 1,422 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Each player has his own strengths: Marshall is averaging 7.1 yards per rush on 44 zone-read rushes, Artis-Payne is averaging 7.0 yards per rush on 39 first-down rushes, and Corey Grant is averaging 11.1 yards per rush on 39 rushes outside of the tackles.

Rushing efficiency
Auburn has added 74.0 expected points on rushing plays this season, ninth most in the FBS. Last season, the Tigers had a -6.3 EPA on rushing plays, 78th in the FBS. Expected points added are the contribution of each unit to a team’s net points in a game, so Auburn has added about nine points per game towards its net scoring margin with running plays this season.

Next up for Auburn is a road game against Arkansas, a team that has struggled to stop the run in SEC play. The Razorbacks are allowing 251.5 rushing yards per game and 5.7 yards per rush in conference games, both worst in the SEC.

Arkansas a team on the run

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
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Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Alex Collins leads the SEC with 527 rush yards this season.
Bret Bielema’s arrival from Wisconsin has signaled a change in Arkansas football. Gone are the pass-happy offenses of the past several years. This year no SEC team has rushed more times and for more yards than Arkansas. Arkansas’ run game faces its toughest test of the season Saturday against Florida (7 ET on ESPN2).

Arkansas Taking On Bielema’s Personality
Over the last four years, no SEC team ran the ball less than Arkansas. However, this year Arkansas has run the ball 65 percent of the time, ranking second in the SEC.

Bielema has taken his ground-and-pound approach from his Wisconsin days, when the Badgers had the fifth-highest rush percentage in the nation, and brought it to Fayetteville this year – with a few wrinkles.

One key difference between this Arkansas team’s rushing attack from Bielema’s offenses at Wisconsin is play direction. From 2010-12 Wisconsin accumulated 48 percent of its yards on runs up the middle.

This year Arkansas has accumulated just 26 percent of its runs up the middle. The Razorbacks’ 874 rushing yards outside the hash marks lead the conference and are already more than their total from last season.

Inside the Razorbacks Rushing Attack
One key part of the Arkansas rushing attack is the big-play ability of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Collins leads the SEC with 17 rushes of 10-or-more yards, and no SEC player has a longer run this year than Williams’ 75-yard touchdown scamper in the season opener.

The offensive line has been instrumental in opening up big holes for the running backs, with Collins and Williams both ranking in the top 10 in yards before contact among BCS-AQ rushers.

Opponents have been prepared for Arkansas’ run-reliant gameplan this season. The Razorbacks are seeing an average of 7.3 defenders in the box, the second-highest mark among SEC teams.

Williams and Collins have both excelled facing the extra traffic. Williams leads the SEC with 10 broken tackles and Collins is fifth among BCS-AQ running backs with 229 yards after contact.

The running game has also helped set up play action for the Razorbacks. Seven of Arkansas’ ten touchdown passes have come off a run fake, and another came on a Williams halfback option pass. Only Oregon State, Ohio State and Washington have more TD passes via play action than Arkansas.

Can Florida Stop Arkansas?
Florida’s defense leads the nation in run defense, allowing just 54 yards per game. Florida doesn’t stack the line to stop the run either, averaging only 6.5 men in the box per run play.

Florida did lose one of its best run stoppers - defensive lineman Dominique Easley - for the season last week in practice, but still has the ability to stop Arkansas’ high-powered run game.

The key to Florida’s rush defense is penetrating the backfield. The Gators have hit opposing rushers behind the line of scrimmage on an FBS-best 42 percent of their carries, and they have stopped opposing ball carriers for zero or negative yards 44 percent of the time, the highest rate in FBS.

Play-action key for McCarron, Alabama

June, 26, 2013
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AP Photo/David J. PhillipAJ McCarron hopes to win a third consecutive national title this season.
The 2013 college football season has the potential to showcase one of the greatest quarterback classes ever. Eight of the top 10 teams in last year’s final Associated Press poll return their starting quarterbacks, and every conference except the Big 12 returns either their first- or second-team quarterbacks from last season.

In preparation for the 2013 season, ESPN Stats & Info will take a deeper look at the top QBs entering the fall. Wednesday, we look at the Alabama Crimson Tide’s senior QB AJ McCarron.

A Look Back at 2012

McCarron was one of 15 quarterbacks who threw for at least 30 touchdown passes last season, and perhaps most impressively, he did so while throwing only three interceptions on 314 attempts. His touchdown-to-interception ratio (10-1) and his 175.3 pass efficiency both led the FBS.

Behind three NFL draftees on the offensive line, the Crimson Tide had the sixth-highest yards per rush in FBS. Consequently, McCarron thrived on play-action passes in 2012.

McCarron’s effectiveness using play-action opened up the deep ball. After a play-action fake, he was 18-for-25 with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions on passes of 20 yards or more. When targeting Amari Cooper on those passes, he completed close to 70 percent of his attempts with five touchdowns.

What’s Ahead for 2013?

McCarron will look to build off of back-to-back national championships with a robust returning receiving corps.

The group is led by the aforementioned rising sophomore Cooper, with whom McCarron built a strong rapport toward the end of the season. Of Cooper’s 59 receptions, 27 came in the last five games of the year. Six of his 11 touchdown receptions also came during this span, including two in the national championship game against Notre Dame.

Cooper will be joined by senior Kevin Norwood, the second-leading receiver last season, and redshirt freshman Chris Black, who was the 22nd overall prospect in the 2012 recruiting class according to the ESPN 150 and the second-rated wide receiver.

Alabama did lose three offensive linemen to the NFL draft (Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones), as well as its leading rusher, Eddie Lacy. Alabama will look to replace Lacy with T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman last season.

The Crimson Tide will also look to capitalize on a favorable schedule. They have just four true road games and a neutral site game in the season opener against Virginia Tech. What are thought to be the Tide's two toughest matchups, at Texas A&M and home against LSU, each come after a bye week.

With the returning caliber of talent, Alabama should again be a contender for the BCS title. If the Crimson Tide accomplish the improbable “three-peat,” McCarron can become the first quarterback to start and win three straight national championships in at least the last 50 years.

How Manziel can duplicate 2012 in 2013

June, 26, 2013
6/26/13
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Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel looks to repeat his 2012 Heisman-winning campaign this season.
The 2013 college football season has the potential to showcase one of the greatest quarterback classes ever. Eight of the top 10 teams in last year’s final AP Poll return their starting quarterbacks, and every conference except the Big 12 returns either their first- or second-team quarterbacks from last season.

In preparation for the 2013 season, ESPN Stats & Info will take a deeper look at the top QBs entering the fall. The list is built off of Phil Steele’s list of top quarterback units. On Wednesday, we look at the top returning quarterback, Heisman-winner Johnny Manziel.

A Look Back at 2012

Manziel took the CFB world by storm last season, becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Manziel set the SEC record for total yards in a season while accounting for more than 70 percent of the Texas A&M Aggies' total yards. He also had seven games with at least two pass and two rush touchdowns, the most by any player in one season since 2000.

Manziel had an uncanny ability to make plays happen when things broke down. He scrambled for 857 yards and 38 first downs on 86 scramble attempts, including an FBS-high 22 first downs on third down.

In terms of passing, Manziel completed 68 percent of his passes, which ranked ninth in FBS. He put his receivers in positions to run after the catch, which is why Texas A&M ranked sixth among colleges in AQ conferences in yards after the catch.

All of these factors resulted in Manziel ranking first last season in ESPN’s new Total QBR metric, which will be unveiled for college football this fall.

What’s Ahead for 2013?

The biggest question for Manziel heading into the 2013 CFB season is whether he can repeat his performance from a year ago. Recent history has proven that some of the top freshman quarterbacks have been able to repeat their successes even after the spotlight has been shined upon them.

Since 2006, there have been four quarterbacks who ranked in the top 10 in non-clutch weighted Total QBR during their freshman seasons –- Andrew Luck, Terrelle Pryor, Sam Bradford and Colin Kaepernick. Luck and Bradford went on to lead the nation in Total QBR in their sophomore seasons, and all four players ranked in the top 12 in QBR again before leaving for the NFL.

Pryor, in particular, can be used as a model to show that players can replicate strong scrambling seasons. After scrambling for 357 yards in 2009, Pryor went on to scramble for 356 yards and average 9.9 yards per scramble in 2010.

One area in which Manziel can improve heading into next season is his downfield accuracy. He completed less than 42 percent of his passes thrown more than 15 yards downfield, which ranked 40th out of 108 qualified BCS-AQ quarterbacks.

If Manziel's sessions with “quarterback guru” George Whitfield Jr. can improve his downfield precision, a second Heisman trophy may not be far from his grasp.

Breaking down Manziel's NFL skill set

May, 2, 2013
5/02/13
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Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesWhat parts of Johnny Manziel's game need to improve for him to play in the NFL?
The NFL began to look more like the college game last season with mobile quarterbacks, zone-read options and spread passing attacks. With some work, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel has the tools to continue the evolution.

Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick transformed the game with their speed and versatility, forcing defenses to adapt to a new style of play.

All three of those quarterbacks were also proficient passers. They each possess four qualities necessary to be a successful quarterback in the NFL: overall accuracy, ability to handle the blitz, downfield precision and composure under duress.

Manziel is skilled in all four categories, but he could improve in each next season to boost his draft stock if he decides to declare for the draft.

Overall accuracy
In 2012, Manziel completed 68 percent of his passes, which ranked ninth among FBS teams. He was at his best on short and intermediate passes, completing more than 76 percent of his throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

One of his greatest strengths was putting the ball in spots that enabled his receivers to run after the catch. Texas A&M ranked sixth among colleges in AQ conferences in yards after the catch, averaging 6.5 yards after the catch per reception.

Ability to handle the blitz
Opponents blitzed Manziel on fewer than 30 percent of his dropbacks last season.

Although Manziel’s completion percentage was significantly lower against the blitz, he exploited blitzing defenses with big plays.

Manziel averaged a play of 20 yards or more once every 6.4 dropbacks when opponents blitzed, compared with once every 8.5 dropbacks when they sent standard pressure.

His biggest plays came when scrambling, with him rushing for 389 yards and seven touchdowns on 32 scrambles against the blitz.

Downfield precision
This is probably the one area Manziel could improve the most. Last season, he completed 38.7 percent of his passes of 20 yards or longer with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

To put that into perspective, Griffin III, Wilson and Andrew Luck all completed a higher percentage of their passes on throws of this distance in their final year of college.

Manziel can learn from those quarterbacks, who all increased their completion percentages on throws of at least 20 yards downfield in their final college seasons.

Composure under duress
Last season, Manziel completed 51.4 percent of his passes when under duress, about 11 percentage points higher than the FBS average.

He was at his best when forced to improvise. Manziel ran for 857 yards and 10 touchdowns on 86 scramble attempts in 2012. He also threw for 581 yards and eight touchdowns when forced to throw from outside the pocket.

Many question whether this aspect of Manziel’s game will translate to the NFL, given his size and the speed of NFL defenses. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Manziel is small for an NFL quarterback. Of the 49 NFL quarterbacks who attempted at least 30 passes last season, only three were 6-1 or shorter, and only one weighed 200 pounds or less.

In terms of the speed of NFL defenses, Texas A&M faced its share of NFL talent last season; 26 opposing defensive players were taken in the 2013 NFL draft.

Last season against Alabama, the top defense in the nation, Manziel ran for 92 yards. It was the most rushing yards the Crimson Tide had allowed to an opposing quarterback since Nick Saban became Alabama's coach in 2007.

Keep an eye on Eifert, because 'Bama will

January, 5, 2013
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When the No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide in the Discover BCS National Championship Game on Monday, one of the biggest difference-makers on the field could be Tyler Eifert.

Eifert, this season’s John Mackey Award winner, given annually to the nation’s top tight end, is the latest and possibly the best in a long line of great players Notre Dame has produced at that position.

Notre Dame’s last three starting tight ends –- Anthony Fasano (2003-05), John Carlson (2004-07) and Kyle Rudolph (2008-10) –- are all playing in the NFL, yet no tight end has caught more passes for more yards in Irish history than Eifert.

A major reason Eifert could be the player who gives the Crimson Tide defense more fits than anyone else is that Alabama has had issues when its linebackers are forced into pass coverage.

When opposing offenses have lined up in four-or-five-receiver sets against the Tide, they’ve been more effective than in sets with three or fewer receivers.

The numbers are even more telling when you take a look at the five games in which Alabama faced ranked opponents (Michigan, Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia).

No team was more successful than the Aggies, a natural spread-offense team with a mobile, redshirt freshman quarterback; eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel completed 19 of 23 passes for 184 yards and 2 TD when A&M operated out of a four-or-five-receiver set in a 29-24 upset in Tuscaloosa, the Tide’s only loss of the season.

In comes Notre Dame, also a natural spread-offense team with a mobile, redshirt freshman quarterback. As a unit, the Irish passing attack is better when operating out of a four-or-five-receiver set.

However, when it comes to Eifert, the senior has been more effective when working out of a set with three or fewer receivers (including him), a formation that usually dictates opposing defenses cover him with a linebacker.

When the Irish had three or fewer receivers on the field and Eifert was the targeted receiver, they completed 25 of 42 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns.

He was most lethal when Notre Dame operated out of what’s known as “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and he was the targeted receiver.

In those situations, the Irish were 15-of-23 for 208 yards and a touchdown. But when operating out of a four-or-five-receiver set and Eifert was targeted, Notre Dame was 19-of-33 for 261 yards and no touchdowns.

In other words, Eifert’s presence opened things up for the other receivers.

Therein lies the conundrum for Alabama. What should the Tide do with Eifert?

No one’s had success covering him with a linebacker when the Irish are operating out of “21” (two backs, one tight end) or “11” personnel and rolling the coverage over toward him when they’ve operated from four-or-empty (five-receiver) sets only opened things up for Notre Dame’s other capable pass catchers like TJ Jones, Robby Toma and Theo Riddick when they move him from running back spot and into the slot-receiver position.

It’s a sure bet that Nick Saban is glad to have had the extra time to prepare for this problem.

AJ McCarron mesmerizing in play-action

January, 4, 2013
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Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsIt was appropriate that this throw was the decisive one for Alabama in its SEC-title win.
AJ McCarron and his Alabama Crimson Tide teammates broke the huddle with a fresh set of downs after T.J. Yeldon's 5-yard run on third-and-5 kept the drive alive against the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship.

With 3:40 remaining and facing a 3-point deficit, Alabama lined up at Georgia's 45 with two tight ends on the line and two wide receivers set to the same side. It was the same formation the Crimson Tide had used on 20 of their 22 plays after Georgia took an 11-point lead with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter.

Twenty of those 22 plays were runs that gained 167 yards and two touchdowns, including Yeldon's drive-sustaining run.

Georgia lined up defensively with one deep safety on this play, leaving one-on-one coverage on the outside for Amari Cooper.

When McCarron took the snap, he faked a handoff to Yeldon, looked left and threw the ball 43 yards in the air to Cooper, who went untouched into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

It was McCarron’s 11th touchdown pass off play-action this season and his ninth such touchdown on first down. In 2011, McCarron had a total of five touchdowns off play-action.

Alabama's running game has set up McCarron all season. He leads FBS in pass efficiency (173.1), and play action has been the key.

McCarron completes nearly 70 percent of his passes thrown after a run fake and is averaging an SEC-best 11.9 yards per attempt. He has not thrown an interception off play-action in 130 attempts, with his last one coming in last season's loss to LSU.

McCarron's average throw after a run fake travels 11.7 yards downfield, and he completes 76 percent of his deep throws that are set up by play-action. On such passes, he has eight touchdowns and no interceptions in 21 attempts.

As he was against Georgia, Cooper has been McCarron’s favorite target on those downfield throws, catching 11 of 14 passes thrown 20 yards or longer when he was the target. Eight of those receptions were off play-action, including four touchdowns.

McCarron will face a Notre Dame Fighting Irish team in the BCS Championship Game that leads the nation in scoring defense (10.3 PPG).

The Irish have given up two touchdown passes on play-action all season, tied for third fewest against an AQ team, and one touchdown on a pass thrown 20 yards or more.

On paper, it will be the biggest test that McCarron has faced this season. A passing grade could give McCarron his second straight BCS Championship, something no quarterback has accomplished.

10 facts to know about Heisman finalists

December, 4, 2012
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US PresswireJohnny Manziel (left), Manti Te’o (center) and Collin Klein are the 2012 Heisman Trophy finalists.

  • Johnny Manziel finished the regular season with 3,419 pass yards and 1,181 rush yards. His 4,600 yards of total offense broke the SEC single-season record set by Cam Newton during his 2010 Heisman Trophy season. When Newton broke the record, he supplanted Tim Tebow’s Heisman Trophy season of 2007.
  • Manziel has been responsible for 43 touchdowns this season, tied with Tajh Boyd and Jordan Lynch for the most in FBS. He had six games with at least two touchdowns passing and rushing. That's tied with Tebow in 2007 for the most such games in a season since 2000. Collin Klein is tied for second in FBS this season with three such games.
  • Manziel had 70 plays that gained 20 yards or more this season, 10 more than any other FBS player. He was tied for the eighth-most passes (52) and the second-most rushes (18) of 20-plus yards.
  • Manziel gained 784 rush yards on scrambles, the most in the SEC. He had 13 scrambles that gained at least 20 yards, including seven touchdowns. No SEC player had more total rushes or touchdowns of 20-plus yards, let alone scrambles.
  • Klein has scored a rushing touchdown in 11 straight games, the longest active streak in FBS. The only game that he did not have a rushing touchdown was against Missouri State, an FCS opponent. Since the start of last season, Klein has scored a rush TD in 23 straight games against FBS opponents. That is the longest such streak for any player in the last nine seasons.
  • Since the start of last season, Klein has an FBS-best 37 rushing touchdowns in goal-to-go situations. Klein has had at least one such touchdown in 22 of 25 games during that time period, including in his last 10 games in which he has at least one such attempt.
  • Klein has accounted for 69 percent of Kansas State’s yards and 66 percent of its offensive touchdowns this season. Klein’s percentages are slightly better than those of Robert Griffin III from his 2011 Heisman season at Baylor. Griffin accounted for 66 percent of Baylor’s total and 61 percent of its touchdowns.
  • Manti Te'o has seven interceptions this season, tied for second-most in FBS and three more than any other linebacker. Te’o also has two fumble recoveries. His nine total takeaways are tied for the most in nation.
  • Te’o has 103 tackles this season, 42 more than any other player on Notre Dame. He has just two missed tackles all season. As a team, the Irish have missed 61 tackles this season, the third-fewest among AQ schools.
  • Notre Dame leads the nation in scoring defense (10.3 PPG) and is the only team that has not given up a touchdown drive longer than 75 yards this season. Every other FBS team has allowed at least three.

Alabama powers its way to SEC title

December, 1, 2012
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John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsEddie Lacy ran for 181 yards for Alabama.

Alabama won its first SEC championship since 2009, handing Georgia an SEC championship game loss for the second straight season.

The Tide got it done on the ground. They ran for 350 rushing yards, the most in SEC championship game history.

Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon became the first teammates to each run for 100 yards in SEC championship game history. Lacy’s 181 rushing yards are the third-most in the history of the SEC title game.

The Tide were committed to the run, as they ran the ball 51 times, two shy of the SEC championship game record of 53.

Two tight ends, too much

Alabama ran 36 times for a season-high 298 yards with two or more tight ends in the formation. The Tide ran out of this personnel package on 26 of their 34 second-half plays, gaining 199 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama averaged a season-high 5.5 yards before contact out of this formation.

AJ McCarron completed 8 of 9 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown with two or more tight ends in the formation.

Getting it done inside the tackles

Alabama outrushed Georgia 304-72 inside the tackles. The Tide averaged 8.0 yards per carry on such runs, including a season-high 13 that gained 10 yards or more. Lacy (172) and Yeldon (125) led the way for Alabama, with both running backs gaining over 100 yards inside the tackles for the second time this season. They also did it against Missouri.

Strong run game leads to play action

McCarron completed 5 of 7 passes off play action for 116 yards and a touchdown. McCarron has 11 touchdown passes off a run fake this season, six more than he had all of last season. Eight of the 11 touchdowns have been on passes thrown 20 yards or longer, including Cooper’s 45-yard touchdown against Georgia.

Georgia’s defense allowed a season-high 512 total yards, just the second time the Bulldogs allowed 500 yards in the past seven seasons. For the first time since at least 2000, they’ve allowed 300 rushing yards in three straight games.

Alabama will most assuredly face Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game on January 7, as the SEC goes for its seventh straight BCS National Championship.

Better defense: Alabama or Notre Dame?

November, 21, 2012
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Notre Dame and Alabama have each given up 111 points this season, the fewest in FBS. Both teams have held six opponents to 10 points or fewer, the most in the nation.

If defense wins championships, then who has the edge? The Tide and their defensive schemes under coach Nick Saban or the Irish and their dominating front seven led by Heisman candidate Manti Te’o?

RUNNING DEFENSE

The first thing teams must do on defense is stop the run. FBS teams are 211-42 when rushing for at least 250 yards this season.

Alabama and Notre Dame are two of the best against the run. Neither team has allowed an opponent to run for more than 170 yards this season. Florida State, Florida and TCU are the only other FBS teams who can make this claim.

Alabama has been slightly better at limiting yards. The Tide are allowing the third fewest yards per game (75.6) and the second-lowest yards per rush (2.3) in FBS this season. That is 16.6 fewer yards and 0.8 fewer yards per rush than Notre Dame. The Tide have also been better at limiting long runs. Alabama’s opponents have 21 rushes that have gained 10 or more yards, second-fewest in FBS and 10 fewer than Notre Dame.

Notre Dame has been the nation’s best at conceding touchdowns. The Irish have conceded two rushing touchdowns this season; every other FBS team has allowed at least five. In goal-to-go situations Notre Dame has been dominant, allowing one rushing touchdown and -31 rush yards in 18 attempts. That’s the fewest touchdowns and yards on such runs in FBS.

Tackling is fundamental to stopping the run. The Irish have 55 missed tackles this season, the third fewest among AQ schools. Alabama has 66 missed tackles, third fewest in the SEC and 13th amongst AQ schools.

PASSING DEFENSE

Opponents have struggled to move the ball through the air against both Alabama and Notre Dame. Both teams have allowed just six pass touchdowns and rank in the top 11 in pass efficiency defense.

At first glance, the Tide’s numbers appear to be better than Notre Dame’s. They are allowing 164.5 yards per game, fourth fewest in FBS and roughly 30 fewer yards per game than the Irish. Yet, Notre Dame has been better against ranked opponents. Alabama’s averaged 239.5 passing yards per game with five touchdowns and four interceptions. The Irish’s ranked opponents averaged 203.5 passing yards per game with no touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Notre Dame’s secondary has been questioned, but the Irish have allowed just seven completions on 41 pass attempts thrown 20 yards or longer downfield. The Tide have allowed 13 completions on 50 such passes.

Alabama has been better at keeping short throws to short gains. The Tide have given up 56.6 yards after the catch per game this season and only two opponents have had more than 100 yards after the catch. Notre Dame on the other hand has allowed 102.7 such yards per game with eight of its 11 opponents gaining at least 100 yards after the catch.

RED ZONE DEFENSE

Notre Dame is one of the best red zone defenses in recent history. The Irish have allowed a touchdown on 24.1 percent of their opponents’ red zone drives this season, the lowest percentage for any FBS team in the last eight seasons. Overall, Irish opponents have scored seven touchdowns and committed five turnovers in 29 red zone possessions.

Alabama is allowing opponents to score a touchdown on 47.8 percent of their red zone possessions, the 20th-lowest percentage in FBS this season. The good news for Tide fans is their opponents do not reach the red zone often. Alabama’s opponents have reached the red zone on 23 of their 136 drives (16.9 percent), the fourth lowest percentage in FBS. Like Notre Dame, Alabama has forced five red zone turnovers, including four in conference play.

LIMITING GAME-CHANGING PLAYS

Notre Dame has allowed 14 plays that have gained 25 yards or more, tied for second fewest in FBS. Alabama has allowed 20 such plays, tied for 13th in FBS. Alabama and Notre Dame are tied with Florida for the fewest touchdowns of 25 yards of longer (1) allowed this season.

Alabama has forced 24 turnovers that have led to 143 points this season. Notre Dame has 21 turnovers but has scored only 45 points off of those turnovers. Yet, 12 of Notre Dame’s 21 turnovers have come when the game is within one score. Alabama has built so many big leads that only five of their 24 turnovers have come in close games.

Formulas for stopping a Heisman candidate

October, 23, 2012
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Two of the top Heisman Trophy candidates, West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, were shut down in their own buildings on Saturday. How did it happen?

Kansas State dropped in coverage and limited big plays
Kansas State did not do anything tricky on defense in its 55-14 win over West Virginia. The Wildcats played coverage and tackled. They had a season-low three missed tackles and dropped at least seven defenders in coverage on 42 of Smith’s 43 dropbacks. The extra coverage limited Smith’s deep options and provided less space for West Virginia’s shifty receivers.

Entering the game, West Virginia was one of the top big-play passing offenses in FBS, averaging 7.8 completions of 15 yards or longer per game. Kansas State did not allow one 15-yard completion, the first time since October 2008 that West Virginia failed to complete one such pass.

Kansas State did not allow Smith to beat the Wildcats deep. Smith was 0-for-5 on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air. Smith had completed one pass of this distance in 24 straight games before Saturday.

In his past two games, both losses, Smith has completed just 8.7 percent of his throws 15 yards or longer, with 12 of his 21 incompletions being off-target (overthrown, underthrown or wide). In his first five games of the season, Smith had just eight off-target 15-yard throws.

Without a viable deep game, Smith looked short to his receivers and hoped that one of the nation’s top teams at running after the catch could break some long plays.

West Virginia was averaging 203.8 yards after the catch per game, including 85.5 yards after the catch on screen passes. But against the Wildcats, West Virginia was held to a season-low 117 yards after the catch and 65 yards after the catch on eight screen passes.

Entering the game, Tavon Austin led receivers from AQ schools with 491 yards after the catch. Against Kansas State, Austin gained only 29 yards after the catch, his fewest in a game since the start of 2011.

Manziel Limited Outside of the Pocket
Against LSU, Manziel was held to a season-low 27 yards rushing, including just 25 yards on scrambles. Manziel entered the game leading the SEC in rushing yards (475), touchdowns (7) and first downs (20) when scrambling.

Manziel attempted as many scrambles as normal, but failed to break any long runs. His longest scramble against LSU gained 14 yards. In his first six games, Manziel had 12 15-yard scrambles, including six touchdowns.

With LSU taking away the running lanes, Manziel attempted a career-high 56 passes -- including 49 inside of the pocket, or 16 more than he had ever attempted in the pocket.

Inside of the pocket against LSU, Manziel completed 55.1 percent of his passes and averaged a season-low 5 yards per attempt. Even worse, Manziel threw two interceptions from inside the pocket for the first time this season. Entering the game, Manziel was completing 69.3 percent of his passes inside of the pocket with just two interceptions in 150 attempts.

Alabama's offense designed to run wild

October, 19, 2012
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(The Tennessee Volunteers host No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday at 7 ET on ESPN.)

The Alabama Crimson Tide are 43-0 since the start of the 2008 season when they run for at least 150 yards in a game. On Saturday, the Crimson Tide will play the Tennessee Volunteers, who rank last in the SEC in rushing.

This season, Alabama is averaging 6.2 yards per carry on designed run plays. That happens to be the same amount the Tennessee Volunteers allow per carry, which ranks last in the SEC.

Why is Alabama averaging so many yards per carry? On those designed run plays the Tide average 4.6 yards before contact with a defender. They have made it at least five yards past the line of scrimmage without being touched on 38.8 percent of their designed runs, including on 20-of-42 runs last week against Missouri.

When head coach Nick Saban’s team isn’t gaining yards by the bunches on the ground, quarterback A.J. McCarron is more than holding his own under center.

McCarron ranks fourth in FBS in third-down passing efficiency this season (minimum 20 attempts). One reason for McCarron’s success is his improvement when opponents send five or more pass-rushers. He’s completing 70.6 percent of his passes against the blitz on third down this season, up from 46.7 in 2011.

When Alabama sends five or more pass-rushers, opponents are completing 42.9 percent of their passes with more combined sacks and interceptions (13) than first downs (12). On Saturday, Missouri completed 1-of-9 passes and was sacked twice when Alabama blitzed, the third time in the past four games that Alabama had more sacks than its opponent had completions.

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray this season has completed a similar number of attempts when being blitzed by SEC opponents (43.3 percent). While Bray put up good numbers in non-conference play, he’s been average at best in Tennessee’s three SEC games, all losses. He’s completed just over 52.2 percent of his passes and has thrown just as many touchdowns as interceptions (6) in losses to Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State.

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