With Week 3 in the books, it finally feels appropriate to move past the language of “College Football is Back.” It is back, and now we’ve got to move to some storylines, to some analysis, to the long and messy task of contextualizing on-field results and turning those into meaningful inferences about the absolute and relative quality of teams. This week, we had a shorter slate of games as the SEC and Big 12 had built-in bye weeks before conference play, but we saw debuts from top-15 contenders and a couple of quality matchups between Power 5 teams. Let’s go under the hood and examine what happened this weekend, and what these results mean going forward.
A reminder from last week about stats:
I want to highlight a couple of key stats and abbreviations I’ll be using throughout the season. First, expected points added (EPA). EPA is a stat that takes game state — down, distance, and yard line — into consideration when evaluating college football teams. The basic premise of EPA is that a 3-yard gain on first-and-10 is bad, whereas a 3-yard gain on third-and-2 is great; EPA translates yards to points in context.
Secondly, you’ll see me talk about Eckel. Eckel, derived from the Corsi stat in hockey, is a ratio of productive drives in a game. What’s a productive drive? Glad you asked; a productive drive is one in which a team has a scoring opportunity (first-and-10 across their opponents’ 40-yard line) or a big-play touchdown. Eckel is a measure of game control that is more informative than the traditionally used time of possession: instead of asking how long a team held the ball, Eckel asks how well a team held the ball.
Third, you’ll read a lot about early downs. Early downs are just first and second downs and those two downs are largely more predictive than third downs in ascertaining a team’s quality. When the field is open and the chains are long, what does a team do and how well do they do it? That’s why we focus on early downs.
Anyway, throughout the season, I’ll introduce, explore, and dismiss plenty of different stats, but those three will be the foundation of most analysis: EPA, Eckel, and early downs.
No. 17 Miami 47, No. 18 Louisville 34
Miami: +0.152 EPA/Play margin, +0.126 early downs margin, -14.9% success rate margin, 57.1% Eckel ratio.
The casual viewer may be tempted to declare the return of the U after Saturday’s 17-point victory at Louisville, but a high-scoring game belies a tough performance by both teams. On a per-play basis, the Hurricanes were down 14.9% in success rate margin to Louisville (32.2% to the Cardinals’ 47.1%). Contributing to the overinflated perception of Miami’s performance is the fact that Louisville inexplicably missed a wide-open touchdown, coming away with field goals on two drives where they had first downs inside the Hurricanes’ 25-yard line. Now, of course, execution matters, and those plays count. Miami got the win, and that’s important in college football! In the sense of looking forward and trying to divine the true quality of a team based on single games, eliminating outliers can help. D’Eriq King completed 60% of his passes in the game, including a nice 47-yard touchdown to tight end Brevin Jordan for a game-icing touchdown in the fourth quarter. The new-look Miami Hurricanes have a high ceiling under Rhett Lashlee, and King, paired with the excellent rusher Cam’Ron Harris and passing threats such as Jordon and junior receiver Mark Pope, will be a source of frustration for ACC defenses throughout the season. If the defense can continue to hold opponents to field goals, and if Miami can figure out how to move the ball without relying on fluke plays, the Hurricanes could find themselves competing for the ACC championship in 2020. Miami hosts rival Florida State this weekend.
On the Louisville side of the ball, Scott Satterfield’s offense embodied the infuriating combination of efficient (47.1% success rate), but not explosive. The Cardinals lost the Eckel battle (six scoring opportunities to Miami’s eight, for a ratio of 42.9%), but also failed to finish drives: the Cardinals averaged less than a field goal per drive (2.6 points per drive). The defensive miscommunication was most disconcerting; two of Miami’s touchdowns and 14 of Miami’s 21-point lead came as a result of utterly bizarre defensive plays by Louisville.
Were one seeking a silver lining for Satterfield’s team in a loss, it would be hard not to be encouraged by the second-half offensive surge (28 points in the second half relative to six in the first), and the general defensive consistency: aside from the aforementioned fluke touchdowns, Louisville held Miami to 5.8 yards per play. There are the bones of a solid defensive performance there. If the Cardinals can amend their defensive miscommunications in the film room and build on their second-half offensive performance, they’ll have a formidable squad behind Malik Cunningham and rusher Javian Hawkins, who averaged 6.1 yards per rush on 27 carries (yes, to be fair to Miami, we can apply the same kind of trimmed mean logic to Hawkins’ performance: his long was 19 yards, and so he averaged a solid 5.6 yards per carry outside of the outlier).
Marshall 17, No. 23 Appalachian State 7
Marshall: +0.119 EPA margin, 0.012 early downs margin, -1.8% success rate margin, 55.7% Eckel ratio.
In a premier Sun Belt-Conference USA matchup, No. 23 Appalachian State traveled to Marshall on Saturday. The Mountaineers, 54-12 in the last five years, have positioned themselves as somewhat of a fringe contender for the Group of 5 New Year’s Six slot, finishing ranked No. 20 in 2019, and looked to build on that finish in 2020. App State returned the seventh-most offensive production in the country, including senior quarterback Zac Thomas (41st in 2019 QBR). An 11-play, 85-yard touchdown response to Marshall’s opening-drive touchdown seemed to indicate a high-scoring game ahead, but Marshall’s defense took over; the Herd held App State and Thomas to 279 yards over the next 11 drives. In fact, App State crossed Marshall’s 40-yard line just three times the rest of the game, missing a field goal, throwing an interception, and losing a fumble on those three drives. Another aggregate note on Marshall’s defensive performance? App State hadn’t been held to single digits since joining FBS in 2014.
Marshall started the game on a high note, capitalizing on a 34-yard return and a face mask penalty to drive 51 yards for a touchdown, and tacked on the icing score in the second half behind a 67-yard Grant Wells pass to Xavier Gaines. Neither offense looked sharp, as Wells completed only 44% of his passes (4.0 yards/completion outside of the Gaines connection) and Thomas struggled as well: 57.8% completion rate, 7.1 yards per completion, one touchdown, one interception. App State gets a tuneup game against the FCS Campbell Fightin’ Camels (and dynamic quarterback Malik-Hajj Williams) before a matchup with cross-division rival Lousiana. Thomas and the Mountaineers will need to right their offensive struggles to complete the three-peat championship run in the Sun Belt.
On the other hand, Marshall’s defense and Grant Wells’ upside are in the Conference USA driver’s seat. Worth noting, though, is that Marshall’s games against Rice and Eastern Carolina have both been postponed; the Herd have only six games remaining on their schedule.
North Carolina State 45, Wake Forest 42
NC State: +0,05 EPA margin, 2.43 early downs margin, -0.004% success rate margin, 64.2% Eckel.
Outside the top 25, NC State and Wake Forest turned in a high-scoring and highly entertaining late-night matchup. The game was tied through three quarters at 35-35, and NC State turned a short field into a field goal, tacking on a 75-yard, eight-play touchdown drive to seal the 45-42 win. Both teams struggled defensively — NC State and Wake Forest’s offenses both averaged success rates over 42% on the game. In particular, Wake Forest’s rushing defense left much to be desired. The Wolfpack ran over the Demon Deacons in the second half, almost literally: NC State ran 22 times in the second half for 166 yards. On the game, junior Ricky Person Jr. and sophomore Zonovan Knight both rushed for more than 95 yards each. The Wolfpack averaged 0.143 EPA/play on rushes.
Wake Forest’s offense under sophomore Sam Hartman moved the ball well enough to cover the defensive issues early on — the Demon Deacons scored three touchdowns on four drives in the first half, each coming as the result of a 75-yard, full-field drive. In the second half, though, Wake and Hartman stumbled out of the gate: Hartman went 0-for-10 on dropbacks (including three sacks) on the first three drives of the second half. In the fourth quarter, the offense couldn’t keep up, and Wake Forest fell short.
Both teams have some obvious areas for defensive improvement — Wake against the rush, and NC State against the pass (+0.233 EPA/pass allowed) — but the offenses seem to have solid foundations. The Wolfpack get the edge in a sloppy matchup early on, but expect to see a lot of improvement from these two middle-class ACC teams, especially from Hartman and NC State’s Bailey Hockman.
Across the Nation:
- Boston College made a strong debut, outscoring Duke 16-3 in the second half en route to a 26-6 conference win. Sophomore Phil Jurkovec completed 74% of his passes and threw for two touchdowns. No. 25 Pitt outlasted Syracuse, as the Panther defense held the Orange to -0.51 EPA/play and a paltry 22.4% success rate in a 21-10 conference win. Conference favorites Clemson and Notre Dame took care of business in minor games. No. 1 Clemson beat the Citadel 49-0 in the first half Saturday, with Trevor Lawrence adding three touchdowns on nine passes. The No. 7 Fighting Irish and Ian Book scored 35 first-half points en route to a 52-0 romp of South Florida. Notre Dame’s defense held South Florida to an alarming 4% success rate.
- No. 15 Oklahoma State lost quarterback Spencer Sanders early in their game against Tulsa; the Cowboys trailed 7-3 into the fourth quarter. With a quarterback out, Oklahoma State tried to rely on running back Chuba Hubbard to little avail. The Cowboys averaged 3.4 yards per carry with Hubbard and a negative EPA/rush (-0.182) on the game. A lot of hype surrounded the Cowboys this season, but most of that hype was predicated on a healthy trio of Sanders, Hubbard, and receiver Tylan Wallace plus an exceptional offensive line. There’s more uncertainty in Stillwater now than before their game this weekend, and the Cowboys’ Big 12 fate hangs in the balance headed into a matchup with West Virginia this weekend.
- In the Group of 5, No. 19 Lousiana felt the hangover, taking Georgia State to overtime before eking out a 34-31 win. Louisiana averaged only a 38% success rate in a bit of a letdown after their Iowa State upset in Week 2. No. 13 UCF averaged 0.339 EPA/pass in a 49-21 win over Georgia Tech. Dillon Gabriel threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns, completing 65% of his passes. Finally, Navy, after six straight scoreless quarters to begin the season, scored 27 straight points to overcome a 24-point second-half deficit to sneak by Tulane.
Honor Roll (The Best Performances of the Week)
Quarterbacks will dominate this space, given the nature of the game of college football, so I’ve split the categories into passers and non-passers, and throughout the season I’ll keep tabs on how many appearances each player makes on the leaderboards (noted in parentheses).
- D’Eriq King, Miami (1 appearance), +22.4 total EPA: King completed 60% of his passes and looked electric at times against Louisville. His total includes a 75-yard touchdown pass to Jaylan Knighton and a 47-yard touchdown pass to Brevin Jordan.
- Dillon Gabriel, UCF (1), +14.56 total EPA: Against Georgia Tech, Gabriel completed 65% of his passes, threw for four touchdowns, and averaged 15.4 yards per completion.
- Kenny Pickett, Pitt (1), 14.44 total EPA: The senior Pickett threw for two touchdowns and over 200 yards against Syracuse.
- Cam’Ron Harris, Miami RB (2), +18.04 total EPA
- Marlon Williams, UCF WR (1), +15.9 total EPA
- Brevin Jordan, Miami TE (1), +12.9 total EPA
- Jaquarii Roberson, Wake Forest WR (1), + 11.3 total EPA
Harris makes another appearance on the Honor Roll after a 134-yard performance; he scored one touchdown and averaged 14.8 yards per carry against Louisville. His teammate Brevin Jordan joins him on the list with seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. Marlon Williams for UCF was Gabriel’s favorite target on Saturday to the tune of 10 receptions, 154 yards, and two touchdowns. Finally, the Sam Hartman-Jaquarii Roberson connection makes an appearance: Roberson had seven receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown against NC State.
Principal’s Office (The Worst Performances of the Week)
In this recurring segment, I point out which teams were most dominant, and who got beat the worst, in terms of the advanced stats. Using a combination of early downs yards per play margin, EPA per play margin, and success rate margin, I rank the biggest beatdowns of the weekend: which teams got sent to the principal’s office?
1. Notre Dame 52, South Florida 0: +1.21 EPA/play margin, +4.199 early downs yards/play margin, +63.5% success rate margin.
The Irish gave the Bulls as complete a performance as Notre Dame has put together in a while — their defense held South Florida to a 28% success rate and only 3.3 yards per play on early downs.
2. Pitt 21, Syracuse 10: +1.169 EPA/play margin, +8.49 early downs yards/play margin, +47.5% success rate margin.
Pitt’s performance was mostly dominant on defense — the offense struggled at times, but aside from a lone big-play touchdown, the Panthers stymied the Orange offense.
3. SMU 65, North Texas 35: +0.510 EPA/play margin, +0.347 early downs yards/play margin, +12.5% success rate margin.
Sonny Dykes is back putting up points. Shane Buechele completed 72% of his passes and threw touchdowns to three different receivers, not to mention completions to nine different receivers. The Mustangs are experienced and multiple, and it showed versus North Texas on Saturday.
All data from collegefootballdata.com.