Stats & Info: Independents

Do you believe in these early stories?

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
11:52
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There are a number of hot on-field topics through the first two weeks of the college football season, subjects that have inspired a bit of debate among fans this week.

Let's look at these from the perspective of "buy" or "sell" and provide the statistical arguments for each.

USC as a national championship contender

The Trojans are 2-0 with a win against Stanford. They have won eight of nine games. Are you buying them as a national title contender?

Buy:
Defense wins championships. Led by All-American candidate Leonard Williams, USC leads the Pac-12 in points per drive (1.4) allowed since the start of last season.

The metrics like them. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, USC is the eighth-best team in the FBS and has a 23 percent chance to win the Pac-12, second to Oregon. Of the seven teams ranked ahead of USC in FPI, four are from the SEC, which means at least three of those teams will lose at least once this season.

Kessler is playing well. USC is 8-1 in its last nine games, including two wins against Stanford. During that time, Cody Kessler has a Total QBR of 80.6, 13th-best in the FBS (min. 5 starts).

Sell:
Schedule is too tough. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, USC has a two percent chance of winning out. The Trojans have the 18th-most difficult schedule remaining in the FBS, including all four teams that defeated them last season.

Too many turnovers. USC has had at least two turnovers in three of its last four games. In the last five seasons, FBS teams lose 60 percent of the time when they have two or more turnovers. The Trojans are 14-13 in such games.

Cannot sustain drives. USC has converted 38 percent of its third downs during the last two seasons, 83rd in the FBS.

Tennessee is back
Tennessee is 2-0 and has won both games by at least 15 points. Are you buying Tennessee as a team that can win 10 games this season?

Buy:
Vols have been playing some D. Tennessee has held its last four opponents to fewer than 20 points per game, tied for the longest active FBS streak. In those four games, the Volunteers have allowed 3.6 yards per carry and opponents have failed to gain yards on an SEC-best 31 percent of their rushes.

Sell:
We saw this last year and the two years before that. In each of the previous three seasons, Tennessee has started 2-0 and then lost to a ranked team by at least 10 points in its third game. In those three losses, the Volunteers were outgained by an average of 218 yards and allowed almost 8 yards per play (7.9).

The Vols travel to Norman to take on No. 4 Oklahoma Saturday night (8 ET/ABC).

Vols cannot throw the ball. In SEC play last season, Tennessee threw eight more interceptions (13) and was sacked seven more times (12) than it had passing touchdowns (5). The Volunteers had a Total QBR of 46.1 in SEC play, 11th in the conference.

Everett Golson as a Heisman candidate
Notre Dame is 2-0 and Everett Golson has been responsible for eight touchdowns. Are you buying him as a Heisman trophy candidate?

Buy:
He is right where he needs to be. Golson ranks fifth in the FBS in Total QBR this season. Each of the past five quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy was ranked in the top five of Total QBR in the season he won the award.

Heisman voters like touchdowns. Golson has been responsible for eight touchdowns this season, tied for third in the FBS. Starting with Tim Tebow in 2007, every quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy ranked in the top six of the FBS in touchdowns responsible for.

They also like exciting plays. Golson has completed 6-of-9 passes thrown 20 yards or longer this season, including three touchdowns. He had four such touchdowns and 16 such completions during the 2012 season.

Sell:
The Irish are too one-dimensional. Notre Dame had its fewest rushing yards (54) and averaged its fewest yards per rush (1.7) in any game the last two seasons last week against Michigan. The Irish finished the game with 12 yards before contact on 31 rushes. If Notre Dame cannot run the ball, it could put Golson in difficult situations to manage, such as third and long.

Lot of tough defenses on the schedule. Notre Dame still has to play four teams who rank in the top 15 in defensive efficiency since the start of last season. Which means Golson could have a difficult time compiling the stats needed to impress voters.

Texas A&M’s defense will hold up

Texas A&M is 2-0 and has allowed 31 points in two games this season. Are you buying that the Aggies defense will hold up and make them a title contender?

Buy:
Holding up is relative. Since Kevin Sumlin took over as head coach, Texas A&M has averaged the third-most points per game (45.6) in the FBS and the Aggies have the highest offensive efficiency in the nation.

They are getting off the field. Texas A&M is allowing opponents to convert 21 percent of their third downs this season, tied with Florida for 11th in the FBS.

They are tackling better. Texas A&M has allowed 36.5 rushing yards after contact per game this season, fewest in the SEC. Last season, the Aggies allowed an SEC-high 98.9 such yards.

Sell:
No offense can cover their blemishes. Texas A&M has allowed 30.0 points per game since the start of last season (15 games), including 35.6 in SEC play. Florida State was the only FBS team to score at least 30 points in every game last season, and no team in the last 50 years has scored more than 35 points in every game during a season.

They give up way too many big plays. Texas A&M has allowed 13 touchdowns on plays that gained 40 yards or more the last two seasons, most in the SEC and tied for 10th-most in the FBS. The Aggies allowed two such touchdowns in Week 1 against South Carolina.

UCLA’s line will cost the Bruins the Pac-12 championship

UCLA is 2-0, but it has been sacked nine times. Are you buying that UCLA’s offensive line will cost the Bruins a national title?

Buy:
Was Hundley just sacked again? UCLA has been sacked 97 times since the start of the 2012 season, tied for second-most in the FBS, including nine times this season. Brett Hundley has been sacked 51 times in his career on plays in which opponents have sent four or fewer pass rushers, the most for any Power Five quarterback in the last three seasons.

They don’t open any holes in the running game. UCLA is averaging 71.0 yards before contact per game this season, second-worst in the Pac-12 behind Washington State.

They give up too many pressures. UCLA’s quarterbacks have been pressured (hurried or knocked down) on a Pac-12-high 24 percent of their dropbacks the last two seasons.

They allow too many negative plays. The Bruins have 130 plays the last two seasons that have lost yards, third-most in the FBS.

Sell:
Hundley can cover up for their mistakes. Hundley has had 546 rushing yards on scrambles the last two seasons, second-most for any Power Five quarterback behind Johnny Manziel.

The team has overcome its line before. Despite the pressures and sacks, UCLA has averaged 36.7 points per game the last two seasons. The Bruins have an FBS-high 10 touchdowns on drives in which they were sacked at least once since the start of last season.

Hill, BYU have chance at perfect mark

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
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Quarterback Taysom Hill has helped BYU average 38.0 points in its first two games.
After BYU's demolition of Texas in Week 2 - the Longhorns’ worst home loss since 1997 - the Cougars jumped from 24th to 15th in ESPN's Football Power Index.

The Cougars now have the best chance to enter the bowl season undefeated, according to FPI, thanks to their 75th-ranked remaining schedule.

BYU’s toughest remaining game, according to FPI, is at Boise State on Oct. 24, in which the Cougars have a 72 percent chance to beat the Broncos.

With quarterback Taysom Hill at the helm combined with a manageable remaining schedule, the Cougars might just be a sleeper for the playoff.

Hill might be the player who most resembles the idea of a “dual-threat quarterback” in college football.

He began as a situational player when he returned from his LDS mission to Sydney, Australia, in 2012. But since he took over as starter in 2013, he has been a pleasant surprise for the Cougars.

Making plays in the ground game
Hill is best-known for making big plays with his feet. His career average of 89.3 rush yards per game ranks third among FBS quarterbacks in the last 10 seasons.

Last season, Hill finished with six 100-yard rushing games, tied for second-most by an FBS quarterback, and rushed for the third-most yards (1,344) in a season in BYU history. He is already BYU’s all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks.

Since the start of last season, Hill has the most rushes of at least 10 yards (69) among FBS players, 42 on designed runs. Almost half of Hill’s designed runs have been zone-read plays, on which he averages almost nine yards per rush.

Like former BYU great Steve Young, Hill has improvisation skills, as he trailed only Johnny Manziel in scramble yards per game (41.5) last season.

Hill's passing has improved
Hill’s passing game should not be overlooked. He completed 58.3 percent of his passes from inside the pocket last season; in two games (against Connecticut and Texas) this season, he has completed 78.8 percent of such passes.

Hill’s increased accuracy can be attributed to shorter passes. This season, Hill’s passes have traveled an average of 6.7 yards downfield, 3.5 yards per attempt shorter than last season. He has thrown six passes that traveled more than 15 yards downfield this season. He averaged 7.2 such passes per game in 2012.

Hill has posted a Total QBR of more than 80 in both of BYU’s games this season, one of seven qualified FBS quarterbacks to do so. This group includes Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Everett Golson and Trevor Knight. Hill had only three games with a Total QBR of at least 80 in 2012.

FPI favors Pac-12, ACC in power rankings

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
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The SEC continues to lead ESPN Stats & Info’s Conference Power Rankings by a wide margin after an exciting slate of games in Week 11.

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

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

How do these compare in terms of conference strength?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on FPI, click here.

5 stats to know: Notre Dame at Michigan

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame and Michigan will play only the second night game at the Big House on Saturday.
Notre Dame and Michigan will play the final scheduled meeting between the teams at the Big House Saturday night (8 ET on ESPN/WatchESPN). They still have one more meeting next year in South Bend.

Here are five storylines to know heading into the game.

1. Since taking over as the starter for Michigan on Nov. 3, 2012, Devin Gardner has posted the second-highest Total QBR on third down (98.3) and the third-highest in the red zone (98.1) of any player with at least 30 action plays.

Last week against Central Michigan, the Wolverines scored five touchdowns in six red-zone trips, including all four times when Gardner was on the field.

Since taking over as starter, Michigan has scored 19 touchdowns in 22 trips to the red zone. In that time, Gardner has scored a touchdown on more than half of his 15 rushes inside the red zone.

2. Tommy Rees has completed 57 percent of his passes thrown 20 yards or longer in the last two seasons, 19 percentage points higher than Everett Golson. Rees had two touchdowns on such passes in Week 1 vs. Temple, both going to DaVaris Daniels.

Rees had a career-high seven completions that gained 20 yards or more against the Owls. That’s the most by a Notre Dame quarterback since Jimmy Clausen had seven in 2009 against Washington.

Michigan has allowed six touchdowns and has no interceptions on passes thrown 20 yards or longer since the start of last season. The Wolverines and Utah are the only two AQ defenses that do not have an interception on such passes.

3. Notre Dame did not allow a rushing touchdown last season until Week 8 and entered the BCS National Championship having conceded two rushing touchdowns in 33 red-zone trips.

Since, the Fighting Irish have allowed three rushing touchdowns in eight red-zone drives, including a 1-yard touchdown against Temple in Week 1.

4. Michigan has yet to lose at home under Brady Hoke (15-0), going undefeated at the Big House in each of the last two seasons (5-7 in road/neutral games). Hoke is the first Michigan coach to go undefeated at home in his first two seasons since Fielding Yost in 1901-02.

But only one of Hoke’s 15 home games have come against a ranked team: 2011 vs No. 17 Nebraska.

5. If the Irish want to win, avoiding turnovers is a good start. Notre Dame is 11-0 under Brian Kelly in games in which it was turnover-free.

In games Notre Dame committed a turnover under Kelly, they are 18-11.

5 notable Notre Dame-Michigan moments

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
1:37
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AP Photo/Tony DingNotre Dame and Michigan will play their last scheduled game at The Big House Saturday night.
A storied series that ends next year will play its final meeting at the Big House Saturday night (8 ET on ESPN/WatchESPN). Because of Notre Dame's scheduling agreement with the ACC, its series with Michigan ends after next season. The schools haven’t scheduled any future meetings, so next year’s game in South Bend will be the final one for at least a while.

In preparation for Saturday's game, here are five of the most notable moments at the Big House in this historic rivalry.

2011: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 - Late drama under the lights
Hard to top this finish: three touchdowns in the final 1 minute, 12 seconds of the game. The final one was the game-winner, a 16-yard strike from Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree with 2 seconds left to give Michigan the win.

The stage was set as this happened to be the first night football game played at the Big House, gleaming under the recently installed permanent lights. With his team at the Notre Dame 16-yard line, coach Brady Hoke could have called for a field goal to send the game to overtime. Instead, he put the ball in Robinson's hands and watched him throw the winning touchdown.

2009: Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34 - Irish could have iced it
A key win in Rich Rodriguez’s tenure came after a few questionable play calls from Charlie Weis. Trailing 34-31 with less than 20 seconds left, Tate Forcier connected with Greg Mathews for a five-yard touchdown to give Michigan the 38-34 win.

On the previous drive, when Notre Dame could have run down the clock, Weis called for two pass plays. Both were incomplete, sparing Michigan its remaining timeouts. That gave Forcier and company the ball back with 2 minutes, 13 seconds left and two timeouts to set up the game-winning drive.

1991: Michigan 24, Notre Dame 14 - The Catch
The game forever remembered for “The Catch.” On a fourth-and-one with Michigan holding onto just a 17-14 lead, Elvis Grbac lofted a pass that eventual Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard reeled in near the back of the end zone.

Michigan coach Gary Moeller made the play call and stuck with the call even when Grbac called a timeout after seeing coverage he didn’t like. "When it works, it takes a guy like Elvis to throw it, a guy like Desmond to make it work and make me look smart," Moeller said.

Howard finished the season with 950 receiving yards and 19 receiving touchdowns, two rushing scores, and a kick and punt return for a touchdown as he went on to earn the Heisman.

1989: Notre Dame 24, Michigan 19 - 1 vs. 2
You can’t have a bigger matchup in the rankings than this: No. 1 Notre Dame against No. 2 Michigan, only the second one-vs.-two meeting in series history. Michigan was making its season debut while top-ranked Notre Dame started its season a week earlier with a win against Virginia in the Kick-off Classic.

Raghib “Rocket” Ismail stole the show, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in the second half. This would be Bo Schembechler’s last showdown with the Irish as he retired from coaching after the season.

1979: Notre Dame 12, Michigan 10 - The Block
The 1991 game had “The Catch.” This had “The Block.”

Down two points late in the fourth quarter, Michigan lined up for what would have been a game-winning field goal. But Notre Dame’s Bob Crable leaped over the center – stepping on the center’s back for momentum – and blocked the field goal attempt to hold on for the win. Crable’s move eventually led to a change in the rule on how defenses can rush kick attempts.

Scott Beaman and Jon Stewart contributed to this post.

Golson's departure impacts ground game

June, 10, 2013
6/10/13
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Ric Tapia/Icon SMIEverett Golson's departure from Notre Dame will have an effect on the rushing attack.
The loss of starting quarterback Everett Golson is major cause for concern at Notre Dame.

Though the offense in 2011 was slightly better with Tommy Rees at quarterback (2.3 points per drive) than it was with Golson last season (2.2 points per drive), the loss of Golson's rushing ability will be an issue.

Golson's departure means the Irish will be without their top three rushers from a year ago (Theo Riddick was a senior in 2012 and Cierre Wood left school early for the NFL). The only returning contributor from the backfield is George Atkinson III. He’ll be joined by USC transfer Amir Carlisle (who missed 2012 due to injury) and Greg Bryant (No. 2 RB in 2013 ESPN 150).

After a slow start last season, Golson and the Irish rushing attack came into their own in October. The team averaged 3.8 yards per rush in its first four games, but that average jumped to 5.3 from that point forward – and that includes the 19-rush, 32-yard performance against Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.

Starting with the game against Miami on Oct. 6, more designed runs were called for Golson. He also took it upon himself to pick up yards with his legs more often. Golson's designed runs went from 2.0 to 5.1 per game, and his scrambles went from 1.2 to 2.9 per game.

In the first four games of the season, Golson rushed a total of 13 times for one first down and two touchdowns. After that, 23 of his 64 rushes resulted in a first down and he reached the end zone four times.

Rees simply does not have this element in his game. He has exactly one rushing play in his career longer than eight yards -- a 12-yard run against Tulsa during his freshman season -- and has never had more than six net rushing yards in a game.

QBs the story in college football this fall

May, 20, 2013
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The 2013 college football season could showcase one of the best college quarterback classes ever. Here are five reasons why:

1. BEST TEAMS IN 2012 RETURN THEIR QUARTERBACKS
Each of the top six teams in last season’s final AP poll returns its leading passer. The last time that happened was entering the 1982 season. That 1982 group led to the famed 1983 NFL draft class that boasted six quarterbacks chosen in the first round -- including Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.

2. BEST PASSERS ARE RETURNING
Each of the top five and 10 of the top 11 quarterbacks in terms of passing efficiency return to school. In all, seven players with a passing efficiency of at least 160 last season are coming back, more than in the previous three seasons combined.

3. DIVERSE ARRAY OF NFL TALENT
This class is expected to produce a number of NFL starting quarterbacks. Four of Todd McShay’s top 15 prospects in the 2014 draft are quarterbacks (Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Alabama’s AJ McCarron).

Yet, showing how deep this class is, Brock Huard ranks Georgia's Aaron Murray, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's Braxton Miller ahead of either McCarron or Manziel on his quarterback draft board.

4. LITTLE QB TURNOVER IN SEC
The SEC is in prime shape to win its eighth straight national title with 11 of 14 starting quarterbacks from last season returning to school. Among the 11 are the starters of the top three teams in each division including Manziel, Murray and McCarron.

Last season, Manziel set the SEC record for total offense with 5,116 yards. Murray is on pace to set conference records for most career passing yards and total offense, and McCarron is the two-time BCS national champion.

5. AWARD WINNERS BACK ON CAMPUS
The SEC isn’t the only conference returning elite quarterbacks. The Big Ten, Mountain West and MAC each return their first- and second-team quarterbacks from last season. So would Conference USA and the WAC if realignment hadn’t altered those conferences. The Big 12 is the only conference that doesn’t return either its first- or second-team quarterback.

Among the returnees, Boyd could challenge the ACC record for total offense in a career, Troy’s Corey Robinson is on pace to shatter the Sun Belt’s career record for total offense, and Jordan Lynch returns after leading Northern Illinois to its first ever BCS bowl game last season.

Recruiting has Tide, Irish in 2013 title mix

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
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Getty ImagesNick Saban and Brian Kelly have Alabama and Notre Dame primed for another run in 2013.
Before the season, the Alabama Crimson Tide were one of the favorites to play in the BCS National Championship. The Tide were ranked second in both the Associated Press and coaches’ preseason top 25 polls. However, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were a surprise participant. The Irish were unranked in the AP preseason top 25 and 24th by the coaches.

The Tide rolled the Irish 42-14 to capture their third consensus national title in four seasons. Despite the loss, the trip to the title game marked a return to prominence for one of the country’s most storied programs. Looking ahead, what are the chances one or both teams reach Pasadena for next year’s BCS National Championship?

Alabama has proven it has staying power but the Tide will lose at least two members of their offensive line in highly decorated center Barrett Jones and left guard Chance Warmack.

Right tackle D.J. Fluker could also leave early for the NFL, as could running back Eddie Lacy and cornerback Dee Milliner. However, quarterback AJ McCarron returns as well as freshmen T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper.

As for Notre Dame, the Irish’s biggest personnel losses will be linebacker Manti Te'o on defense and tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Theo Riddick on offense. Te’o won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Eifert captured the Mackey Award as the country’s top tight end while Riddick led the team in yards from scrimmage (1,244).

Like Bama, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback also returns, Everett Golson. Although the defense loses Te’o, eight other starters return including defensive end Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Louis Nix III. Tuitt led the Irish with 12 sacks and was just 1.5 shy of the school’s single-season record set by Justin Tuck in 2003.

One reason these schools enjoyed success in 2012? Recruiting. Alabama and Notre Dame have brought in top-10 recruiting classes each of the previous two years and this year’s classes are no different. The Irish currently have the top-ranked recruiting class while the Tide’s is third according to ESPN Recruiting Nation.

Notre Dame’s defense, which was exposed a bit by Alabama, has help on the way in outside linebackers Jaylon Smith (No. 2-ranked OLB) and Alex Anzalone (No. 5). Greg Bryant, the second-ranked running back, has also committed.

As for the Tide, the rich get richer as Robert Foster, the nation’s No. 2 receiver, will join a corps that already includes the aforementioned Cooper. With the players returning and the new pieces on the way, don’t be surprised if both teams make another title run next season.

Keep an eye on Eifert, because 'Bama will

January, 5, 2013
1/05/13
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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.

Notre Dame goal-line defense nearly perfect

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
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Flash back to Nov. 24: USC trailed Notre Dame by nine points and had just four minutes remaining to erase the deficit. USC needed a touchdown.

The Trojans had the ball at Notre Dame's 1 and had just received a new set of downs after Marqise Lee drew a second consecutive pass interference penalty in the end zone.

On first and second down, USC lined up with two tight ends and tried a quarterback sneak with Max Wittek. Notre Dame denied both attempts. On third down, the Trojans went with a handoff to Curtis McNeal. He never made it back to the line of scrimmage. On fourth down they tried play-action, but the pass fell harmlessly to the ground.

It was second time USC had failed to score a touchdown in a goal-to-go situation in the quarter and the 10th time for a Notre Dame opponent this season.

Notre Dame's defense has been great all season when it had its back to the wall. Of the nine offensive touchdowns that its defensive conceded, only five were in goal-to-go situations, the fewest among FBS teams.

The Irish did bend a few times on defense but rarely broke.

They allowed 33 percent of opponents' goal-to-go drives to end with a touchdown, tied with the 2010 Miami Hurricanes for the lowest touchdown percentage for any defense in the past eight seasons. BYU was the only opponent that scored a touchdown on all of its goal-to-go possessions against the Irish this season.

Run defense has been the key. The Irish allowed minus-5 total yards on 39 goal-to-go plays this season, the fewest yards and lowest average in the nation. Against the run, their opponents had minus-28 yards on 24 carries.

Opposing offenses were unable to gain any yards on 14 of those 24 carries (58.3 percent), the highest percentage for any FBS defense this season. Even more impressive, the Irish allowed only one rushing touchdown on a goal-to-go run. Every other team gave up at least three such touchdowns.

Notre Dame’s defense will be challenged by an Alabama offense that leads the SEC with 124 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns in goal-to-go situations.

The Tide have scored at least two goal-to-go rush touchdowns in four straight games, the second-longest active streak in the nation.

They also have had success throwing the ball in these situations: six touchdowns in 13 attempts. Yet two of AJ McCarron’s three interceptions this season were at their opponents' goal line.

10 facts to know about the Heisman finalists

December, 8, 2012
12/08/12
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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 held by Cam Newton during his 2010 Heisman Trophy season. When Newton broke the record, he supplanted Tim Tebow’s Heisman Trophy season in 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 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.

Notre Dame concedes very little on defense

November, 23, 2012
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Matthew EmmonsWith one more win, Manti Te'o (right) and Notre Dame will play for the right to be No. 1.
(USC hosts Notre Dame on Saturday at 8 ET on ABC.)

If the Notre Dame Fighting Irish can win on the road against the USC Trojans. History could, again, repeat itself.

Four different head coaches have been responsible for Notre Dame's eight national championships in the AP poll era (since 1936). All four captured their first national title in their third season at Notre Dame, and head coach Brian Kelly is in his third season at the helm in South Bend.

Notre Dame is one win from playing for the BCS Title thanks in larger part to its defense. The Irish have conceded a touchdown on 6.7 percent of their opponents’ possessions, the lowest percentage in FBS this season.

Notre Dame’s red-zone defense also is the best in the nation, allowing a touchdown on 24.1 percent of their opponents’ drives inside the 20-yard line. (Opponents have seven touchdowns and five turnovers in 29 red-zone possessions.) That’s the lowest percentage for any FBS team in the last eight seasons.

The defense is led by senior linebacker Manti Te’o. With two more tackles, Te’o will join Bob Crable as the second Notre Dame player with three 100-tackle seasons. Te’o also leads the Irish with six interceptions after not having any in his first three seasons.

Notre Dame’s defense will be tested one more time, this time by one of the best wide receivers in the country. USC’s Marqise Lee has more receiving yards (821) in his last four games than 52 FBS teams during that time span. Lee has gained more yards after the catch (837) than any player from any BCS-AQ school, and leads FBS with eight 100-yard receiving games. However, only one player this season has 100 yards receiving against Notre Dame, Jalen Saunders from Oklahoma.

However, Lee will not have Matt Barkley throwing to him – the senior QB will not play because of a sprained shoulder. Since 2002, USC’s only loss to Notre Dame came in 2010 when Barkley (then a sophomore) had a sprained ankle and did not play.

Without Barkley, USC may turn to its running game. The Trojans are averaging 160 rushing yards per game, and has gained 10 yards or more on almost 17 percent of their rush attempts. Curtis McNeal has 324 yards in USC’s last two games, but he’ll face a Notre Dame defense that has allowed just three running backs to rush for 80 or more yards this season.

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.

USC has history of handing ND first loss

November, 20, 2012
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Kirby Lee/US PresswireNotre Dame is one win from playing for the BCS championship for the first time.
Saturday will be the 84th meeting between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the USC Trojans and the 21st time that the Fighting Irish will enter the game undefeated, but the first time since 1993.

Which raises the question: How many times has USC ended a Notre Dame unbeaten season?

Six times, with four of those wins coming in Los Angeles, when the game was the finale on Notre Dame's regular-season schedule. Twice the Irish were ranked No. 1 and once No. 2. The last time came in 1980, Dan Devine’s final year as Notre Dame head coach. In 1980, USC was ranked 17th with a roster that included Ronnie Lott and a future Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Allen.

Unranked USC beating No. 1 Notre Dame
Only once has a No. 1-ranked Notre Dame team played USC when it was unranked. The result was an agonizing one for the Fighting Irish.

In 1964, Ara Parseghian’s first year as head coach, the Irish were 9-0 with one game left on the schedule: a game against the 6-3 Trojans, a team with losses at Michigan State and Ohio State and at home to Washington.

Notre Dame was led by the 1964 Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback John Huarte, a Los Angeles native who went to Mater Dei High School. That school will be eagerly watching this week’s game because it's the alma mater of current USC quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Max Wittek, not to mention 2004 Heisman winner and former USC quarterback Matt Leinart.

Notre Dame had a 17-0 halftime lead, but the Trojans mounted a comeback to win 20-17 on a pass from Craig Fertig to Rod Sherman with 1:35 to play. A possible national title in Parseghian’s first season was dashed. Notre Dame fell to No. 3 in the poll, and the Alabama Crimson Tide went on to win the national title.

Top-ranked in this rivalry
Notre Dame has been the country’s top-ranked team heading into this game seven times, going 5-2. In five of those games, USC was also a top-10 team.

The shoe has been on the other foot, too. USC has been ranked No. 1 against Notre Dame five times, and the Trojans are a perfect 5-0 in those meetings. That includes the famous 2005 “Bush Push” game.

Has there ever been a No. 1 vs. No. 2 in this rivalry? Just once. Lou Holtz and his No. 1 Notre Dame team beat No. 2 USC 27-10 in 1988 in Los Angeles. The Irish went on to beat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the national championship.

Irish could be No. 1 for 1st time since 1993

November, 18, 2012
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Thanks to upset victories by Baylor and Stanford, Notre Dame is in position to become No. 1 in the BCS standings for the first time ever.

The Fighting Irish haven’t been No. 1 in the Associated Press poll since November 1993.

Within minutes of each other, Baylor finished off its upset over No. 1 Kansas State and Stanford won in overtime over No. 2 Oregon.

This is the first time since 2007 that the team atop the BCS standings has lost in consecutive weeks.

That week, LSU lost to Arkansas on Nov. 23 and Missouri lost to Oklahoma on Dec. 1.

This is the third time in BCS history that the top two teams both lost on the same weekend.

Both previous instances happened in 2007. Missouri and West Virginia lost on Dec. 1 after LSU and Kansas lost the previous weekend (LSU lost on Friday, Kansas on Saturday on Thanksgiving weekend).

Kansas State's 28-point loss at Baylor is tied for the largest loss by a team ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings. Oklahoma lost to Kansas State by 28 points in 2003.

Kansas State is the fifth team ranked No. 1 in the BCS to lose to an unranked opponent. The Wildcats are the first BCS No. 1 to lose to a team with a losing record heading into the game.

How did Kansas State lose?

The Wildcats allowed 16 rushes of at least 10 yards against Baylor and three touchdowns on those rushes. Entering Saturday's game, Kansas State had not allowed more than six rushes of at least 10 yards in a single game and had not allowed a touchdown on rushes of at least 10 yards all season.

How did Oregon lose?

Oregon scored just 14 points against Stanford, its fewest points in a game since Sept. 3, 2009 against Boise State (lost 19-8).

Outside of Marcus Mariota’s 77-yard scramble in the first half, Stanford was able to limit Oregon on the ground. The Ducks had four rushes that gained 10 or more yards and did not make it past the line of scrimmage on 10 of their 43 rushes. It was the second straight game that the Ducks did not gain 200 yards after averaging 341.2 rushing yards per game in their first nine games.

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