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Friday, November 23, 2012

Week 13 Preview

As usual, I'll pick 5 games I'm personally interested in watching, and then I try to convince you to be interested in them too.  Here are the 5 for Rivalry Week!  There's football on Friday, but the best games have been saved for Saturday.

Also, as usual, I'll be discussing NEPA (Net Expected Points Added).

Notre Dame @ USC

Quarterbacks: Everett Golson (50.9 NEPA; .152 NEPApp) vs. Max Wittek (???)
Running Backs: Cierre Wood (24.1; .229) & Theo Riddick (15.5; .075) vs. Curtis McNeal (16.0; .139) & Silas Redd (6.0; .041)
Defenses: Fighting Irish (-23.0, -.061 vs. Pass / -81.3, -.253 vs. Rush) vs. Trojans (30.8, .077 vs. Pass / -23.5, -.056 vs. Rush)
CFBTN Projection: 23-23

I picked this game because all eyes will be on Notre Dame.  As someone under the age of 30, I've grown up in an era when hating Notre Dame just didn't come naturally.   I was 10 the last time the Irish were ranked #1 in the country.  It's been nearly a quarter century since Catholics vs. Convicts and their '88 title.  So for me, it's actually fun to see Notre Dame back near the top.  They say a strong Notre Dame is good for college football.  I think they're right.

Now, I'm talking about Notre Dame's place in the world because, well, the matchups don't really indicate that this one will be close.  A month ago, this game was billed as a super offense against a super defense.  Notre Dame still has a super defense, but USC will be without QB Matt Barkley (96 NEPA this year) this weekend.  Nothing against Wittek, but USC is going to miss Barkley.   Despite the disappointing year, Barkley has at times been brilliant, brilliant enough to have led USC to a win in this game.  The good news for Wittek is that he'll still have a star receiving corps to throw to, led by Biletnikoff contender Marqise Lee.

That's where the good news really stops.  With Barkley out, USC no longer has a forseeable edge in any facet of the game.  Golson is the better QB.  Even if you account for USC's receiving corps, we're still likely looking at a push.  The Irish have the better running game, with Riddick pounding away at defenses and Wood breaking long plays.  McNeal and Redd continue to be underwhelming.

And of course, there are the defenses.  Notre Dame's is one of the 5 best in college football, and they're fun to watch regardless of the opponent.  LB Manti Te'o gets all the attention, and with 98 tackles, 7 TFL/sacks, 16 passes defended (6 being intercepted), and 1 FR, he's certainly attention-worthy.  However, Te'o isn't a one-man army out there.  DE/LB Prince Shembo has 17 TFL/sacks and is a force up front - watch his game against Michigan State and you'll see just how explosive he can be.  They move him around to maximize on his play-making ability - you'll see his hand in the dirt on some plays, and playing LB on others.  Lineman Stephon Tuitt might be even better.  Tuitt has 23 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR (for a 77 yard TD), and a season of pure disruption.  Te'o is the emotional leader, and probably the best player, but he's far from the only playmaker on this front 7, though he gets the headlines.

After last week's madness atop the rankings, anything seems possible.  However, I just think Notre Dame is too good all around to lose this one.  With Matt Barkley, I think USC could have at least sniffed the upset.  Without him, I'm not sure they can.

Oregon @ Oregon State

Quarterbacks: Marcus Mariota (140.2; .369) vs. Sean Mannion (23.6; .094)
Running Backs: Kenjon Barner (76.0; .309) & De'Anthony Thomas (56.5; .467) vs. Storm Woods (4.0; .022)
Defenses: Ducks (-11.1, -.026 vs. Pass / -42.6, -.105 vs. Rush) vs. Beavers (-.8, -.002 vs. Pass / -48.4, -.160 vs. Rush)
CFBTN projection: 36-32, Ducks

The Civil War is one of college football's most under-appreciated rivalries.  It is the 7th most played rivalry game in history, and in 115 meetings, neither side has reached 60 wins - though the Ducks have the chance to do so Saturday.  The Ducks should have a good chance to do just that, and I don't need to go into details of why they're the favorite.  Better QB, better RBs, better overall defense.  It all favors Oregon.  Two things make this game worth watching, as they could spell success for State.

First, there's a question of just how much Oregon is decimated by injuries.  Almost all teams are somewhat weakened by injuries at this point in the season, but it seems that Oregon is hurting a little extra.  The Duck D has lost linemen at seemingly every turn this season and has precious little depth at cornerback.  The free safety situation has gotten so dire, there was even talk of playing De'Anthony Thomas in the secondary against Stanford.  Whatever defense takes the field on Saturday, it's not exactly the same as the unit responsible for those impressive numbers above.  OSU will have to take advantage of this, especially the secondary, to win.  Put 5 wide receivers on the field and watch Oregon panic.

Second, we saw last week what happens when you stop the Duck running attack.  The passing attack just sort of grinds to a halt with it.  Let me say first that Oregon State is NOT Stanford.  There may not be a better rush defense in the country than Stanford's, so if you're expecting another score in the teens from Oregon, you may be disappointed.  Still, Oregon State is pretty good, and after the Cardinal, the 2nd best rush D the Ducks have faced.  I think Oregon State could reasonably hold the Ducks to under 40 points, if the offense can hold up its side of the bargain and keeps the D rested and fresh.  I don't think you're going to beat Oregon in a shootout - they just have too many horses on offense.  But in a lower-scoring affair, as Stanford showed last week, you've got a much better shot for an outlier result.  Oregon State should have that shot Saturday.  I don't think they'll turn it into a win, but it should be yet another memorable and competitive entry into the Civil War Rivalry.

Michigan @ Ohio State

Quarterbacks: Denard Robinson (66.0; .211) & Devin Gardner (76.6; .567) vs. Braxton Miller (75.7; .174)
Running backs: Denard Robinson & Thomas Rawls (n/a) vs. Carlos Hyde (40.6; .240)
Defenses: Wolverines (4.3, .016 vs. Pass / -38.7, -.087 vs. Rush) vs. Buckeyes (22.4, .052 vs. Pass / -50.7, -.141 vs. Rush)
CFBTN projection: 34-29, Buckeyes

This one's an easy choice to watch.  It's your last chance to see Ohio State, who might wind up winning the AP National Championship.  It's also one of your last opportunities to see Denard Robinson, one of the most fun players to watch in recent history.  Rarely do defenses prepare for a game, unsure if a player will be playing more at QB or RB.  Robinson's versatility creates that very question, of course, but it's Devin Gardner's recent play that affords Michigan the opportunity to line Robinson up at multiple positions.  Over the last 3 games, Gardner has totaled a whopping 62.9 NEPA.  Yes, the last 3 games were against Minnesota, Northwestern, and Iowa, but that kind of production is impressive against even less-than-stellar defenses.  Gardner posted the 2nd best game against Minnesota's defense, 3rd best game against Northwestern, and best game (by far) against Iowa in our NEPA database.  Michigan's offense is clicking at the right time of the year, and the Buckeyes haven't been dominant against the pass, at least not the way you'd expect an undefeated team to be.

Then again, the Buckeyes can bring it on offense as well.  Braxton Miller hasn't exploded onto the scene in the last month the way Gardner has, but he's been efficient and consistent all year long.  Carlos Hyde is very good as well, as you can see.  These guys, along with Purdue's ability to only win 58-minute football games, are why Ohio State is undefeated.

It looks like a tossup, with Michigan having the slight edge in passing and defending the pass, while OSU has the edge on the ground.  Of course, the numbers only partially reflect the most recent iteration of the Michigan offense, so it's easy to make the argument that Michigan might actually have the edge.  I'm expecting a close game, and Scott's projections are as well.  I'm torn on a prediction.  On one hand, Urban Meyer is arguably the best gameday coach in football, and that plays more of a factor in toss-up type games.    On the other, Michigan is playing better lately, and they're hard to prepare for.  I'll go with what NEPA is hinting at and pick Michigan to win a close one.

Florida @ Florida State

Quarterbacks: Jeff Driskel (18.8; .065) vs. EJ Manuel (96.0; .262)
Running Backs: Mike Gillislee (-4.5; -.020) vs. James Wilder (35.1; .341) & Devonta Freeman (28.6; .345)
Defenses: Gators (-47.8, -.127 vs. Pass / -67.8, -.195 vs. Rush) vs. Seminoles (-28.4, -.078 vs. Pass / -101.7, -.303 vs. Rush)
CFBTN projection: 22-15, Seminoles

Do you like defense?  If so, this is the game for you.  According to NEPA, these are the top two defenses in the country.  Florida controls the run pretty well, but their specialty lies with defending the pass, against which they are #1 in the country - by a wide margin, too.  Florida State is #3 against the pass and #2 against the run.  The two defenses will likely be equal matches for one another.  There are two other factors at play that should decide the game.

First is the offensive skill position matchups.  Jeff Driskel apparently won't be 100%, but Driskel at 80% is probably better than Jacoby Brissett at 100%, so the decision to start him is easy.  Still, Driskel hasn't exactly been a star for the Gators.  He seems that way, as they've dealt with Brissett and John Brantley in recent years, but he's very much an average QB.  These days, 'average' has a negative connotation, and that's unfair.  By saying he's average, I'm saying he's better than many, many quarterbacks.  Manuel is clearly better, however, averaging nearly an extra .200 expected points added per play than Driskel.  Manuel might have been a Heisman contender had FSU not lost to NC State, and had they played in more contests that demanded more in terms of QB performance.  If one QB is more likely than the other to break through the opposing defense, it's Manuel.  While the gap between quarterbacks seems wide, the gap between running backs is even wider.  Gillislee is a great example of how raw yardage doesn't always show value.  He registers a negative NEPA this season despite rushing for nearly 1000 yards.  This is why NEPA can be such a valuable tool.  Two runs may go for 10 yards, but if one was on 3rd and 1, while the other was on 3rd and 14, one is clearly more valuable than the other.  Unfortunately for Gillislee, NEPA suggests he's had more of the latter than the former.  FSU lost star RB Chris Thompson earlier in the year, but Freeman and Wilder continue to be an efficient running duo.  I just don't expect either team to have much success running the ball on Saturday, but if one does, NEPA suggests that FSU is more likely.

It sounds like I'm leaning towards a clear win for FSU, but there's one factor that is more difficult to measure: strength of schedule.  FSU has built their reputation mostly by dominating vastly inferior opponents.  Take, for example, FSU's 5 best total defensive NEPA games:  Murray State (-31.6), Wake Forest (-23.7), Boston College (-18.9), Savannah State (-18.4), and Maryland (-13.2).  Compare it to Florida's top 5: South Carolina (-24.1), Kentucky (-19.9), Missouri (-17.4), Jacksonville State (-15.8), and LSU (-14.8).  There's no question that Florida came by their reputation honestly.  With FSU, the question is absolutely there.  However, just because we can't be sure of FSU's defense doesn't mean we should necessarily doubt it or expect it to be inferior.  Cassius Clay was probably an excellent boxer before he won his first title, even while he was beating boxers who didn't belong in the ring.  Is FSU Cassius Clay, just a victim of their own schedule that they didn't fully control?  After all, they originally had offensive juggernaut West Virginia on tap before the Mountaineers backed out - which is where Savannah State famously came in.  Perhaps this is FSU's real coming out (or coming back) party.  We won't know until tomorrow.

The only thing that would surprise me in this game is a shootout.  While an FSU win would hardly be an upset, or even a surprise, I'll pick the Gators to win a close one.  FSU's schedule makes it harder for me to buy into them, and yeah, while that sucks for them and it's not completely their fault, tomorrow at least gives them the opportunity to make me a believer.         

Georgia Tech @ Georgia

Quarterbacks: Tevin Washington (61.6; .248) & Vad Lee (37.4; .334) vs. Aaron Murray (121.1; .352)
Running Backs: Orwin Smith (53.4; .529) & Zach Laskey (29.2; .248) vs. Todd Gurley (28.8; .162) & Keith Marshall (9.3; .081)
Defenses: Yellow Jackets (73.2, .201 vs. Pass / 2.0, .005 vs. Rush) vs. Bulldogs (28.0, .102 vs. Pass / -70.5, -.158 vs. Rush)
CFBTN projection: 45-27, Bulldogs

This one isn't expected to be particularly close, but Tech does live for this game.  Also, UGA isn't really used to being in the national championship picture in November, so you can't help but wonder how they'll respond.

Murray is the better QB, one of the nation's most productive.  Tech obviously has more total value wrapped up in running backs, thanks to the triple option, but Gurley and Marshall have been solid against SEC defenses all year.  Georgia Tech, defensively, is a far cry from the elite defenses that have caused UGA pains earlier in the year.  They rank just ahead of Florida Atlantic in our NEPA rankings - and FAU put up very little resistance against UGA earlier this year.  The knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss FAU in comparison thanks to their conference, but Tech and FAU have one other common opponent this season in Middle Tennessee.  MTSU beat Tech (49-28) by more than they beat FAU (31-17).  In short, Georgia should score plenty of points.

If Tech has any chance at all, it'll be in a shootout, like the 2008 upset in which both teams scored in the 40's.  In terms of run D, how have they fared against defenses comparable to UGA?  BYU is the closest comparison, and the Cougars held Tech to just 117 rushing yards.  Georgia Southern, a fellow triple option team, ran for 302 last week against Georgia, but 150 came when Georgia had a 3 score lead, and 123 of those 150 came on the final two drives, against nothing but second teamers.  Tech will probably get over 200, maybe 250 rushing, from sheer blunt force play-calling.  Will it be enough to overcome Georgia's clear advantage when the Dawgs have the ball?  Probably not.

Scott's projection is 45-27, and I think it plays out similarly.  For the first time since 1982, Georgia takes the field against Tech with the knowledge that they control their own destiny in the national championship picture.    NEPA suggests the Dawgs will get one game closer to that ultimate prize.

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

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