One Foot Inbounds
The college football weekend in review

OFI: SEC Underwhelms

Cornelius McCoy
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Chad Peltier

Easily the most shocking outcome from Week 1 of college football was Georgia State's upset of Tennessee. The Volunteers were projected as the 40th-ranked F/+ team this season thanks in part to a strong talent base; Tennessee has a 45 percent blue chip ratio and the 15th-most total team recruiting talent according to 247 Sports.

But recruiting clearly isn't everything, because Georgia State -- which ranks 106th in total team recruiting talent and was projected at 122nd in the F/+ -- defeated Tennessee 38-30 (and the Volunteers needed a literal last-minute touchdown to even make it that close!) despite the Volunteers being favored by 24.5 points in Vegas.

What in the world happened? If you just looked at quarterback Jarrett Guarantano's numbers (65 percent completion rate, 311 total passing yards, and an interception) or the basic box score stats (Tennessee averaged over a yard more per play), you'd think it was a fairly comfortable win for the Volunteers. But the advanced stats help illustrate the Volunteers' problems.

Problem one: despite an edge in overall success rate of 49 to 46 percent, Tennessee produced two fewer scoring opportunities than Georgia State (for a drive efficiency rate of 50 percent compared to Georgia State's 67 percent). Further, Tennessee only scored touchdowns on half of their scoring opportunities compared to Georgia State's 63 percent. (Note that scoring opportunities are defined here as any drive where the ball is snapped inside your opponent's 40-yard line, and drive efficiency is the percentage of drives that are scoring opportunities.)

This subpar drive efficiency was primarily due to poorly timed turnovers and turnovers on downs. The Volunteers fumbled on their first drive, which led to an easy short touchdown for Georgia State; had a turnover on downs in the third quarter; fumbled during a scoring opportunity in the fourth; followed that up with an interception that led to a Georgia State field goal; and finished with a turnover on downs on the following drive.

Second, while the Volunteers had an efficient running game with a 56 percent rushing success rate, they also had a fairly high percentage of stuffed runs, with 15 percent going for no gain or a loss.

Despite those failings, it's possible that Tennessee won't crater like you would imagine from their Week 1 performance. While the defense probably shouldn't have allowed a 45 percent success rate to Georgia State, the Volunteers are also unlikely to have such poor turnover luck (two lost fumbles) as they did against the Panthers. And Guarantano's numbers were encouraging, with a 44 percent passing success rate and 20 percent passing explosiveness rate (defined here as percentage of plays that gain more than 13 yards).

But Tennessee was far from the only SEC team to struggle in Week 1. The other shocking upset was from Wyoming, who took down Missouri. The Tigers, who ranked 15th (!) in the preseason F/+ rankings, were consensus 17-point favorites in Vegas. Similar to Guarantano, quarterback Kelly Bryant was solid, throwing for 423 yards with a 45 percent passing success rate. Wyoming quarterback Sean Chambers went just 6-of-16 for 92 yards, but both he and Xazavian Valladay rushed for over 118 yards, contributing to a team 12 percent rushing explosiveness rate.

Even though the Tigers had four more scoring opportunities than the Cowboys, Wyoming managed touchdowns on a higher percentage of their opportunities compared to the Tigers. Wyoming put up 27 points in the second quarter as the Cowboys returned a Bryant fumble for a touchdown and then scored on 61-yard and 75-yard runs. Missouri's problem was less that they consistently struggled on defense, and more that their failures were catastrophic collapses (if that's comforting?).

While you might be able to argue that the Tennessee and Missouri upsets wouldn't happen 50 percent of the time if the teams had nine more rematches, I don't know if you can say the same for South Carolina's loss to North Carolina. In Mack Brown's debut as the team's head coach -- which also included the debut of freshman quarterback Sam Howell -- the Tar Heels averaged 1.4 yards per play more than the Gamecocks and had an 8 percent edge in success rate.

The Gamecocks had held the Tar Heels to three field goals through three quarters and held a 20-9 edge into the fourth, but Jake Bentley threw interceptions on back-to-back drives while North Carolina managed 98- and 95-yard touchdown drives to take the lead. Those two drives included six plays of 13-plus yards, and Howell had an astounding 37 percent passing explosiveness rate for the game overall.

Compared to those three, Ole Miss' 15-10 loss to Memphis was hardly surprising, since the Tigers were favored by 3.5. But the Ole Miss offensive performance definitely suggests a rough year for the Rebels, since they had just a 33 percent success rate and scored touchdowns on just one of four scoring opportunities in offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez's debut.

Besides those upset losses by mid- to low-tier SEC teams, the SEC can at least count Auburn's comeback win over Oregon in its week. Auburn was behind 21-13 heading into the fourth, but the Tigers defense and freshman quarterback Bo Nix both stepped up to win the final quarter 14-0. Despite going just 13-of-31 for 5.5 yards per attempt with two interceptions, Nix saved his best football for when it counted the most, throwing a 26-yard touchdown pass to receiver Seth Williams with nine seconds left. Auburn held Justin Herbert in check for most of the night, as he flashed his NFL arm a few times with a 38 percent passing success rate overall. Despite the loss, the Ducks still went toe-to-toe with the Tigers, who projected as the eighth-best team in the country in the F+ ratings. Washington looked strong in quarterback Jacob Eason's debut (58 percent passing success rate, 33 percent passing explosiveness rate), but Oregon could still challenge the Huskies in the Pac-12 North.

While it was undoubtedly an unexpectedly poor day for a number of SEC teams -- the conference had nine teams ranked in the F/+ top-30 -- it is still possible that this was more the case of Week 1 sloppiness rather than a definitive indictment of the conference's supposed strength. Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina (and maybe even Florida from Week 0) all underwhelmed, but all four SEC East teams could still turn things around this season, given the role turnovers and general early-season volatility played. Alabama (39 percent success rate margin over Duke), Georgia (21 percent success rate margin over Vanderbilt), and LSU (37 percent margin over Georgia Southern) all looked like the conference contenders we predicted.

So yes -- the conference looked worse than expected, and I'd downgrade my confidence in any of those four SEC East teams (including preseason seventh-ranked F/+ Mississippi State, who allowed 28 points to the Ragin' Cajuns), but I'm also hesitant to overreact to Week 1 results.

TOEDRAGS

  • I'd be disappointed if I didn't give a shoutout to the Boise State Broncos, who have made Power 5 upsets regular enough that their 36-31 win over Florida State seemed almost predictable (the Seminoles were 6.5-point favorites). The Broncos ran 108 plays, quarterback Hank Bachmeier threw for 407 yards with a 41 percent success rate, and the team totaled a six-point success rate edge over the Seminoles. Florida State's offense showed definite improvement over last season, but they still only managed a 33 percent rushing success rate. The Broncos were just more efficient overall, creating scoring opportunities on just over two-thirds of their drives compared to 47 percent for Florida State.

    At 17th in the preseason F/+ rankings, the Broncos look every bit of a Group of 5 leader (along with Central Florida and Appalachian State), while Florida State clearly still has a ways to go to get back to conference championship contention. That shouldn't be a huge surprise for Seminoles fans. Their problems were well-documented last season, and a change in offensive coordinator and one recruiting class were never going to immediately rectify their issues along the line. Even though the Seminoles lost despite being favored by Vegas, F/+ actually gave the Broncos a 72 percent win probability, so the Seminoles' five-point loss is about as expected.

  • Alabama suffered a critical blow to their already-thin linebacker corps right before their game against Duke with an injury to starting middle linebacker Dylan Moses. While that injury could lead to problems down the road in division play, the Alabama defense still held Duke to a 26 percent rushing success rate and a 26 percent passing success rate. Duke projected as the 58th-ranked F/+ team, so Alabama's 42-3 win seems almost merciful despite the thin defensive depth. Similar to last season, Tua Tagovailoa looked unstoppable with a 67 percent passing success rate and 28 percent of his passes going for 13-plus yards. But the run game was maybe a little underwhelming -- the Tide averaged 4.2 yards per rush and gained 13-plus yards on only ten percent of runs, with 28 percent of carries getting stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. That rushing stuff rate may be something to keep an eye on moving forward.

HONOR ROLL

  • Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma. Jalen Hurts' debut with the Sooners was about as amazing as any fan could have reasonably hoped for. Houston is only projected as the 66th-ranked team in the F/+ ratings, but Hurts was still incredible no matter who the opponent was, going 20-of-23 for 332 passing yards and adding 16 carries for 176 rushing yards. That should put him surging to the top of the Heisman Trophy leaderboards, even though it's nearly impossible to predict a winner from from one week of play.
  • Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State. Yes, the theme of transfer quarterbacks is strong in this week's Honor Roll. The new Buckeyes quarterback managed a 52 percent passing success rate with a 21 percent passing explosiveness rate in his debut. Fields fueled an incredible 28-point first quarter, starting with a 51-yard touchdown run on his first drive. The Buckeyes had a mid-game lull on offense, but continued growth on the offensive line and from the new-look defense should keep Ohio State as a playoff contender in Ryan Day's first season.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Georgia offensive line. The Bulldogs seemed almost determined to keep things as vanilla as possible in their season opener against Vanderbilt. Georgia had a 63 percent rushing success rate, gaining 13 yards or more on 25 percent of their runs thanks to their mammoth offensive line. The Bulldogs could end with the best line in college football thanks to line coach Sam Pittman's insane recruiting run. The Bulldogs could improve their short-yardage success rate (33 percent) and finish more drives (38 percent scoring opportunity touchdown rate), but the line nevertheless showed its abilities with four backs averaging over 9 yards per carry and combining for over 320 yards.

Comments

2 comments, Last at 03 Sep 2019, 10:20am

1 drive efficiency

"This subpar drive efficiency was primarily due to poorly timed turnovers and turnovers on downs."

Shouldn't "primarily" be replaced with "almost entirely, by its very definition", given the definition of Drive Efficiency as given in the article (number of drives with a snap inside opp 40 divided by total number of drives). The only other factor influencing Drive Efficiency would be the final drives at the end of half / game.

2 I think the NCAA desperately…

I think the NCAA desperately wants to avoid losing an antitrust lawsuit to a player who sues them for denying a waiver on the one year rule on transfers, so we are going to see more and more good players like Field successfully obtain waivers, based upon any number of possible bad experiences beyond the player's control. I think that's great.