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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Championship Week Preview, Part I

I'm providing a NEPA-centric preview for each conference championship game, along with a few other games which will factor heavily into conference titles.  This is Part I, which will deal with Louisville/Rutgers, which will serve as the Big East Championship Game on Thursday, Friday's pair of title games for the MAC and Pac-12, and Saturday's Conference USA championship game.  As usual, I'll be using NEPA, which stands for Net Expected Points Added.  NEPA is explained here and requires no special math skills to understand (try that with QB Rating).  I'm also changing up the format of the statistical matchups.  Now I'm pairing up the units that will actually be facing off with one another.  Enjoy!

Louisville (9-2) @ Rutgers (9-2)

When Louisville Passes: Cardinals Pass O (145.2 NEPA; .388 NEPApp) vs. Knights Pass D (-6.5 NEPA; -.019 NEPApp)
When Louisville Rushes: Cardinals Rush O (5.5 NEPA; .015 NEPApp) vs. Knights Rush D (-88.7 NEPA; -.234 NEPApp)
When Rutgers Passes:  Knights Pass O (49.3 NEPA; .152 NEPApp) vs. Cardinals Pass D (44.2 NEPA; .139 NEPApp)
When Rutgers Rushes: Knights Rush O (-47.6 NEPA; -.130 NEPApp) vs. Cardinals Rush D (-10.4 NEPA; -.027 NEPApp)
CFBTN projection: 23-17, Rutgers

This isn't technically the Big East Championship Game, but it effectively is.  Such an official game does not exist, and officially, if Louisville beats Rutgers, the two will be co-champions with Syracuse.  However, the winner of this game will advance to the BCS, which makes this the Big East Championship Game.  For this week's games, every team I'm previewing has two things in common: they're all good at winning football games (ok, I suppose I'll have to preview Georgia Tech in Part II, but for the most part this is true), and they've all lost at least once this season.  So, one way to see what to expect would be to look at how these teams win, and how these teams lost along the way.

Louisville throws the ball well whether they win or lose, so for Louisville, it comes down to making sure they control the ground game - in their losses, they've been dominated in terms of ground effectiveness.  Rutgers has a fantastic rush defense, but Rutgers is unlikely to really take control due to a pretty bad rushing attack.  Jawan Jamison gets total yards in bunches, but it's mostly due to usage.  Rutgers simply isn't that effective on the ground, and no one has beaten Louisville without being effective on the ground this year.

Rutgers isn't easy to run on, even in losses.  However, in their losses, they have struggled against the pass.  According to our NEPA rankings, Louisville has the best passing attack Rutgers has faced this season.  Of course, Rutgers is easily the best defense Louisville has faced as well.

This has all the makings for a close game.  I've looked at this from seemingly every angle, and it always seems to suggest a balanced game.  Just look at the NEPA per play matchups:
+.184 when Louisville passes
-.110 when Louisville runs
+.146 when Rutgers passes
-.078 when Rutgers runs

So, +.037 when Louisville runs a play, +.034 when Rutgers does (if they ran the same number of plays).  The difference is negligible, and if you consider Rutger's strength in terms of schedule, it'd probably be fair to argue that they should be dead even.  This one's too close to call statistically.  I'm leaning toward Louisville, because they seem better suited to match the efforts of the teams that beat Rutgers than vice versa, and because they have the best player on the field in Teddy Bridgewater, but the Big East Championship Game should be a very good one.  Unofficially, of course.

Northern Illinois (11-1) vs. Kent State (11-1)

When NIU passes: Huskies (128.2 NEPA; .403 NEPApp) vs. Golden Flashes (71.9 NEPA; .161 NEPApp)
When NIU rushes: Huskies (110.6 NEPA; .216 NEPApp) vs. Golden Flashes (-69.6 NEPA; -.169 NEPApp)
When KSU passes: Golden Flashes (34.1 NEPA; .123 NEPApp) vs. Huskies (20.1 NEPA; .049 NEPApp)
When KSU rushes: Golden Flashes (72.0 NEPA; .147 NEPApp) vs. Huskies (-38.3 NEPA; -.076 NEPApp)
CFBTN projection: 34-27, Northern Illinois

The MAC has really had a great year of football, and this might as well be their national championship game. A lot of BCS-haters will also have their eyes on this one, as a win could push Kent State into the BCS.  Northern Illinois lost by one point to Iowa in the season opener.  If they played again today, I'm confident NIU would win.  Kent State's loss was even more inexplicable - despite beating Rutgers down the road, they were blown out by Kentucky (cue the S-E-C! chant).  Neither game is likely to tell us much about this game. 

Worth mentioning are the two big offensive stars in this game.  NIU QB Jordan Lynch is, according to our NEPA rankings, the 2nd most valuable QB in the country this year.  Kent State RB Dri Archer ranks #1 at his position.  Both should be very fun to watch on Friday.

In the Louisville-Rutgers write-up, I combined the NEPApps and it's an interesting approach to previewing the games.  In this one, we get:

+.282 when Northern Illinois passes
+.024 when Northern Illinois runs
+.086 when Kent State passes
+.036 when Kent State runs

There's going to be some offense in this one, as neither defense is quite strong enough to completely stop the other.  That being said, the real weakness is in Kent State's pass defense, which happens to be Northern Illinois' biggest strength.  Scott's projection sees this as a 7 point win for NIU, but I see it being by a tad more.

Stanford (10-2) vs. UCLA (9-3)

When Stanford passes:  Cardinal (41.7 NEPA; .117 NEPApp) vs. Bruins (44.7 NEPA; .102 NEPApp)  
When Stanford rushes: Cardinal (8.3 NEPA; .018 NEPApp) vs. Bruins (-57.8 NEPA; -.129 NEPApp)
When UCLA passes: Bruins (134.2 NEPA; .328 NEPApp) vs. Cardinal (27.4 NEPA; .055 NEPapp)
When UCLA rushes: Bruins (-11.8 NEPA; -.023 NEPApp) vs. Cardinal (-109.2 NEPA; -.304 NEPApp)
CFBTN projection: 29-21, Stanford

What a strange situation, in that UCLA hosted Stanford just last weekend, and Stanford won 35-17.  Was UCLA holding back considering the game was far less meaningful than round 2?  I understand Jim Mora is irritated by the thought, and I understand that he wants and attempts to win all games.  But still, at some point in that game, if you catch a Stanford weakness, it's gotta be tempting to stick it in the back pocket and save it for when it's going to count far more, which is this Friday night.  Last week's projection called for a 26-24 Stanford win.  After last week, CFBTN is more confident in the Cardinal.  Does NEPA share the confidence?

Let's start with when Stanford has the ball.  They're ok on offense, but not particularly great.  They've scored 24 points or less in 7 games this year.  The Bruins seem unlikely to slow them down or allow them anything extra in the passing department, so it's fair to expect a normal passing effort from Kevin Hogan, much like what he did last weekend.  Stanford likes to run, not because they're really that good at it, but mostly because they know they'll be better than their opponent.  UCLA should hold them to an average game, and there's even some reason to think UCLA could fare better against Stanford's ground game than they did in round 1.  Their run defense was substandard for their performance level this season.  I don't think Stepfan Taylor runs with as much ease the second time around.

UCLA should match up well offensively with Stanford, although it didn't play out that way on Saturday.  UCLA is an excellent passing team, with Brett Hundley having a very nice year.  Stanford is hardly weak against the pass, but it is the way to attack them.  Only two teams have had a positive offensive NEPA against Stanford this year: Arizona and Washington State.  Both threw for over 400 yards in their respective games.  You're just not going to line up and win a ground game with Stanford.  Oregon learned that the hard way, and if Oregon can't win on the ground, no one can.  If UCLA learned their lesson from last week, they need to take to the air.  There's not a harder team in the country to run on than Stanford.  Not Notre Dame, not Alabama, not anyone.  Don't waste downs trying to beat Stanford at what they do best and what you do worst (James Franklin is a talented and impressive back, but the UCLA running game for the season has not been efficient).  Use Franklin less, and he might be more effective.

So, combining our NEPApps, we get:
+.110 when Stanford passes
-.056 when Stanford rushes
+.192 when UCLA passes
-.164 when UCLA runs

If UCLA adopts an underdog strategy and devotes themselves to Brett Hundley, they've got a great shot at winning this game.  The more they try to run, the more the game will shift to Stanford, just like it did on Saturday.  As for a prediction, it's such an unusual situation, I'm not sure how to make one.  Like CFBTN, I expect the Bruins to keep it closer than before, but I think Stanford wins again.

UCF (9-3) vs. Tulsa (9-3)

When UCF passes: Knights (97.0 NEPA; .284 NEPApp) vs. Golden Hurricane (32.4 NEPA; .078 NEPApp)
When UCF rushes: Knights (56.9 NEPA; .129 NEPApp) vs. Golden Hurricane (-87.6 NEPA; -.194 NEPApp)
When Tulsa passes: Golden Hurricane (22.6 NEPA; .054 NEPApp) vs. Knights (33.4 NEPA; .080 NEPApp)
When Tulsa rushes: Golden Hurricane (69.6 NEPA; .127 NEPApp) vs. Knights (-28.8 NEPA; -.064 NEPApp)
CFBTN projection: 29-29

Like the Pac-12, Conference USA has the title game at one of the team's home stadiums.  Also like the Pac-12, this will be a rematch of a game from earlier this month - a game Tulsa won 23-21 at home.  It was a close one the first time, and I think most fans are excited for the rematch.  It's hard to preview a game that has already taken place, in the same stadium and setting, so I'll be brief.

+.181 when UCF passes
-.032 when UCF rushes
+.067 when Tulsa passes
+.032 when Tulsa passes

It should be interesting.  UCF should, in theory, be forced to throw more than they run.  They won't be great at rushing, and they'll be very good at passing.  As for Tulsa, they'll be decent at both.  Of course, that's the theory.  The first time they played, UCF was more efficient rushing than passing.  Go figure.  I suppose that was largely effected by their comeback efforts in the 4th quarter, when playcalls became more predictable.

If round 1 was any indication, this should be an excellent conference championship.  Scott's projections refuse to pick a winner, but I will.  I'll take UCF in the upset, because they came close last time and they should be much better at throwing the ball this time around.

Be on the lookout for Part 2 of the preview, coming at you Friday, where I'll preview the Big Ten title game (featuring the 3rd and 4th best teams in the conference!), the ACC title game (which wishes it had the 3rd or 4th best team in the conference), and, of course, the game which all college football will be focused on.

I'm talking, of course, about New Mexico State vs. Texas State in the battle for last place in the WAC.

Brent Blackwell compiles the NEPA rankings for  Follow Brent on Twitter by mashing the pretty button below.


  1. I really didn't expect Bridgewater's injuries to be as limiting as they've been. It's a noticeable difference.

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