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Friday, November 9, 2012

Week 11 Preview

As usual, I'm picking out what I subjectively decide are the 5 most interesting games of the week, and I see what NEPA says to expect from those games.

Louisville @ Syracuse (Noon, ABC/ESPN)

QBs: Teddy Bridgewater (116.7 NEPA, .383 NEPApp) vs. Ryan Nassib (70.4, .166)
RBs: Senorise Perry (28.8, .187) & Jeremy Wright (23.3, .148) vs. Prince-Tyson Gulley (0.6, .005) & Jerome Smith (-1.0, -.006)
Defense: Cardinals (40.1, .151 passing / -22.7, -.075 rushing) vs. Orange (49.7, .187 passing / -37.0, -.110 rushing)
CFBTN projection: 31-31

Normally, an undefeated playing a 4-5 conference opponent wouldn't strike me as an important game.  However, the unbeaten Cardinals are favored by a skinny 2 point margin, so there's clearly some thought that Syracuse could win this game.  This could have BCS implications, as the Big East is still pretty wide open, with four teams still realistically in contention for the conference (these two, Rutgers, and Cincy).  

The obvious star here is Teddy Bridgewater, who is still getting some Heisman attention.  Also, he matches up well with Syracuse' relative weakness against the pass.  He should have a very good game. The running back tandem of Perry & Wright might be the most underrated, or at least under-heralded, RB duo in any BCS conference.  It'll be fun to watch them go against a Syracuse front that hasn't yielded much success on the ground this year.

I think Louisville survives mostly because unlike their tandem of Perry & Wright, Syracuse's Gulley & Smith won't pose a serious threat to the defense.  Louisville might have the inferior run defense, but they're going up against what is definitely the inferior running threat.  Odds are strong that Syracuse has to put the entire offense on Ryan Nassib's back midway through the game.  He's capable of carrying them to victory, but a punchless running game is a big reason why he's been unable to do that in 5 of 9 games this year.

Between the Orange's lack of a running game and Teddy Bridgewater's great matchup against the Syracuse secondary, I think this could turn into an easier win for Louisville than Vegas is expecting.  If I were a betting man (I'm not - at all), I'd bet on the Cardinals to cover.

Texas A&M @ Alabama (3:30, CBS)

QBs: Johnny Manziel (139.8 NEPA, .314 NEPApp) vs. AJ McCarron (59.2, .252)
RBs: Christine Michael (19.8, .261), Trey Williams (17.1, .290), and Ben Malena (16.2, .134) vs. TJ Yeldon (40.5, .359) & Eddie Lacy (28.3, .204)
Defense: Aggies (11.2, .034 passing / -36.0, -.110 rushing) vs. Crimson Tide (-24.7, -.097 passing / -82.9, -.291 rushing) 
CFBTN projection: 38-25, Bama

The annual questions have begun.  The questions, of course, pertain to the topic of how Alabama's defense will stand up to an elite offense like Oregon or Kansas State, were they to face one in the BCS Championship Game.  This Saturday should provide a solid answer to such questions.  A&M is one of the 5 best offenses in college football this season, per our team NEPA rankings.  Saturday's fight in Tuscaloosa might not wind up a close game, but it will provide the SEC's most exciting offense vs. defense matchup of the year.

When A&M has the ball, you'll want to be watching.  Johnny Football is a legit Heisman candidate that gets the headlines, but it's not all Manziel.  The Aggie RB trio of Christine Michael, Trey Williams, and Ben Malena has combined for 56.1 NEPA this year, a total which would put them among the nation's elite.  In fact, on a play-for-play basis, A&M is the best rushing attack in college football this year, averaging .257 NEPA per play rushing.  That's better than Oregon (.240), Kansas State (.222), and all others.  The reason to watch?  They're pitting that juggernaut offense against a juggernaut defense.  A&M probably isn't going to be able to run very well unless Manziel can find success in the passing game.  LSU showed last week that it is possible to do just that.

Alabama has allowed -24.7 NEPA passing this year, but receivers have totaled +20.3 NEPA.  The receiving NEPA is only calculated on completed passes, so this is still a very good number.  However, compared to other elite defenses, it's not quite as impressive as you'd think.  Here are our top 10 pass defenses, ranked by total pass NEPA allowed, but also showing receiving NEPA parenthetically:

1. Florida: -39.6 (+8.3)
2. Florida State: -39.2 (-18.7)
3. LSU: -32.7 (-1.7)
4. Fresno State: -26.1 (+37.5)
5. Alabama: -24.7 (+20.3)
6. Nebraska: -24.7 (-6.5)
7. Michigan St: -24.7 (+4.9)
8. Oklahoma: -20.7 (+4.1)
9. Vanderbilt (yes, Vanderbilt): -20.6 (-6.5)
10. Notre Dame: -18.6 (+21.5)

This just illustrates how different defenses shut down the pass in different way.  The teams with low receiving NEPA rely on incomplete passes.  The teams with higher receiving NEPA rely on sacks and turnovers, and are more susceptible to big plays.  Fresno State, for example, ranks 11th in sacks and 1st in interceptions nationally this year (returning 5 for TD).

Now, this isn't to suggest Bama's pass defense is a weakness.  It's not.  But it's going to be the closest thing to a weakness the Aggies can find on Saturday.  Avoid sacks and avoid turnovers, and complete a few passes and Manziel's receivers might have room to run.  If there is a defensive weakness for Bama, LSU exposed the secondary as it last weekend.

However, if Alabama wins this game, they'll win it with the mismatch their offense presents for the Aggie D.  Yeldon & Lacy complement each other nearly perfectly, and AJ McCarron - while not worthy of the Heisman attention he's getting - makes good decisions play after play.  A&M is good against the run, but they haven't faced backs as good as these.  Also, A&M hardly shuts down opposing passing attacks, so McCarron should have his normal good-not-great game.

That's where I see Bama winning the game, and I do think they'll win.  While all eyes will be on the Aggie offense vs. the Crimson D, the game will ultimately be decided by the seeming mismatch when Johnny Football is on the sideline.

Oregon State @ Stanford (3:00, FOX)

QBs: Cody Vaz (14.7 NEPA, .131 NEPApp) vs. Kevin Hogan (18.1, .476) & Josh Nunes (8.4, .032)
RBs: Storm Woods (0.1, .001) vs. Stepfan Taylor (-6.0, -.025)
Defense: Beavers (-12.0, -.038 passing / -45.2, -.198 rushing) vs. Cardinal (24.9, .065 passing / -85.3, -.331 rushing)
CFBTN projection: 19-18, Beavers

At first glance, it seems like a significant advantage for the Beavers.  However, Kevin Hogan played really well last week and could give Stanford a new gear in the passing game they haven't enjoyed with Nunes this season.  Also, while Storm Woods definitely has the advantage over Stepfan Taylor in effectiveness this season, there hasn't been a team harder to run on in the country than Stanford.  In fact, no one is really all that close:

Team Rushing NEPApp allowed:
1. Stanford: -.331
2. Alabama: -.294
3. BYU: -.278
4. Rutgers: -.273
5. Florida St: -.270

That is the kind of lead we would call significant.  Storm Woods is probably in for a long and inefficient day. That might be survivable, as Stanford's D, while leading the nation in sacks, hasn't been great at stopping receivers once they've caught the football.  That should allow Vaz some success on Saturday, as long as he gets rid of the ball quickly.

For Stanford, it will depend on the QB situation.  Taylor is unlikely to do much against this Beaver defense.  Hogan isn't battle-tested yet, and this will be a stark difference from his only action of importance so far - Colorado.  I'm thinking the culture shock of not facing Colorado combined with having to face Oregon State will be too much for Hogan (or Nunes or anyone else).  Despite facing a brick wall against the rush, I think Oregon State wins with defense and QB play in a low-scoring affair.  It seems Scott's projection agrees (I make it a point not to look at his pick until I've finished writing my own preview).

Kansas State @ TCU (7:00, FOX)

QBs: Collin Klein (141.4 NEPA, .436 NEPApp) or Daniel Sams (10.8, .270) vs. Trevone Boykin (34.5, .127)
RBs: John Hubert (26.0, .171) vs. Aundre Dean (-6.7, -.116), Matthew Tucker (-10.3, -.109), & BJ Catalon (-16.0, -.148)
Defense: Wildcats (38.4, .111 passing / -54.5, -.202 rushing) vs. Horned Frogs (21.9, .073 passing / -54.7, -.198 rushing)
CFBTN projection: 39-26, Wildcats

Notre Dame isn't listed here because they should have a cakewalk against Boston College.  Likewise for Oregon with California.  Kansas State, however, might be in trouble this week if Collin Klein's injury limits his time or effectiveness on the field this weekend.  

This write-up will be short and sweet.  If Klein is 100%, Kansas State will win.  The defenses are comparable.  They're virtual equals against the run.  TCU is better against the pass, but not drastically so, and neither D is particularly great against the pass.  Kansas State's John Hubert is an effective and productive runner.  Texas A&M uses three backs because the trio complements each other and is effective.  TCU uses three because they're hoping one can become effective.  As of yet, no such luck.  Trevone Boykin isn't bad, but if Klein is 100%, there's just no way he can keep up with a running game that's also unlikely to have an advantage.  TCU's best ace-in-the-hole is the brilliant Gary Patterson, but I'm not sure Patterson can scheme his way to victory against this offense if it's clicking.

K-State wins by a comfortable but not obscene margin, I think.

Now, if Klein doesn't play or is limited by his 'mild' concussion?  We might just have ourselves an upset in the works.

West Virginia @ Oklahoma State (3:30, ABC/ESPN2)

QBs: Geno Smith (111.1 NEPA, .285 NEPApp) vs. Wes Lunt (24.0, .186) or Clint Chelf (7.8, 2.05)
RBs: Andrew Buie (19.7, .128) vs. Joseph Randle (13.9, .069) & Jeremy Smith (12.7, .289)
Defense: Mountaineers (151.3, .546 passing / -23.1, -.071 rushing) vs. Cowboys (26.9, .093 passing / -34.3, -.116 rushing)
CFBTN projection: 50-36

This game was chosen only because we should see over 1200 yards of offense, and games like that are fun.  I wish I could claim a more intellectual angle to this choice, but frankly the other options weren't very appealing.  It's not the nation's best week for matchups.

There's no point in breaking down the different matchups within this game.  Oklahoma State could probably run some on the couch burners if they want to, but why in the world would you even try?  West Virginia runs a 6-5 defense - 6 defensive linemen, 5 linebackers, and 0 human beings assigned to stopping other teams from throwing the football.  West Virginia could play with 13 players on defense, and I'm still pretty sure they'd give up a ton of yards through the air.  Whether it's Wes Lunt or Clint Chelf or Pistol Pete at QB, odds are strong that they'll score in bunches.  And West Virginia has Geno Smith.  He's pretty good too.

I'll say the Cowboys win a shootout, but nothing would surprise me short of seeing less than 70 points scored in this one.

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

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