The campaign for the 2019 Heisman Trophy appeared to be a two-man race heading into the season: last year’s runner-up, Alabama‘s Tua Tagovailoa, versus the golden-boy prototype and reigning national champion, Clemson‘s Trevor Lawrence.
To be sure, neither has been eliminated from contention — Tagovailoa’s early-season numbers suffer when compared to last year’s early-season numbers and very little else, and while Lawrence has underachieved a bit (he’s 14th in Total QBR at the moment), we’re not going to care as long as he picks up the pace moving forward.
There are more than two players in serious contention, though. Ohio State‘s Justin Fields got a chance to prove himself in Week 6, taking on a dominant Michigan State defense, struggling for about a quarter and then thriving. And in Week 7, all eyes will be on two more candidates: Oklahoma‘s Jalen Hurts and LSU‘s Joe Burrow. Both will play in rivalry games key to their respective teams’ national title hopes, and both could face their stiffest defensive tests to date.
OU’s offense is otherworldly (again)
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley breaks down what’s at stake when the Sooners take on Texas Saturday in a huge Big 12 matchup.
Texas Tech has already played against three of what SP+ deems the top 13 offenses in the country. Arizona (ninth in offensive SP+) scored 28 points on Tech (nine below its season average) and averaged 5.9 yards per play (1.4 below). Oklahoma State (13th) was held scoreless on its first nine possessions before eventually getting going and ending up at 35 points (five below its average) and 5.5 yards per play (1.2 below). Tech performed far better than the average against these two offenses and has earned a top-40 ranking in defensive SP+.
Oklahoma, first in offensive SP+, scored on eight of its first nine possessions against the Red Raiders.
Arizona and OSU averaged 31.5 points on Tech, and OU scored 34, at a nuclear-grade 12.4 yards per play, in the first half alone. Tech tried to stay assertive near the line of scrimmage, but Sooners rushers still averaged 7.2 yards per carry in the first half as Hurts completed 75% of his passes.
For all of its blue-chippers, Texas currently ranks 66th in defensive SP+, quite a bit worse than Tech. The Longhorns have faced three power-conference offenses and given up at least 30 points each time. Even worse, their defensive backfield resembles a MASH unit — of the top four returning tacklers in the secondary, two are out (safeties Caden Sterns and Josh Thompson) and one is listed as probable after missing the past two games (B.J. Foster).
Predictably, then, Texas is battling a big-play problem. On blitz downs (second-and-super-long, third- or fourth-and-5 or more), the Longhorns rank 101st in success rate allowed and 128th in big-play rate. On passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield, they are giving up 18.7 yards per attempt with a 98.7 QBR. (Here’s a reminder that 100 is the top possible QBR rating. Yikes.) That is horrifying to think about when facing Oklahoma. Hurts is averaging 20.1 yards per attempt, with a 99.4 QBR, on such passes this season.
What can Texas do to slow down Oklahoma?
David Pollack contends that Oklahoma should be feeling concerned as it prepares to take on No. 11 Texas, with QB Sam Ehlinger looking as sharp as ever.
Based on what has worked to either slow down OU down or straight-up beat the Sooners in recent years, here’s a general blueprint. Whether or not UT can follow it is a completely different topic.
1. The best defense is a ball-control offense. If the Sooners’ offense doesn’t have the ball, it can’t score, right? Texas snapped the ball 17 more times than OU in the Horns’ 2018 upset victory, and over the past two seasons, five opponents have run 17 more plays than the Sooners: Baylor in 2017, and Army, Baylor, Texas and West Virginia last season. In those games, OU’s average scoring margin is plus-9.6. In all other games, it’a plus-18.1.
Texas has the offense to play a hell of a game of keepaway once more. The Horns are fourth in offensive SP+ and have two of the best efficiency options in the country in Sam Ehlinger‘s rushing and Devin Duvernay‘s receiving. Ehlinger keepers moved the chains on second-and-6, second-and-2 (twice), third-and-3, and fourth-and-2 in last season’s win, and that was vital to UT’s ball-control efforts.
Duvernay, meanwhile, has been the breakout receiving threat of 2019. The former blue-chipper has finally lived up to his billing, leading the Horns with 45 catches, 463 yards and four touchdowns, but that doesn’t tell the whole story: He also has an 85% catch rate thanks to heavy use of quick sideline passes, and he has a 68% success rate — he’s taking those horizontal passes and getting up the field. Among the 28 players with at least 50 pass targets this season, both his catch and success rates are No. 1. He’s basically taking long handoffs and doing massive damage with them.
2. Don’t get burned short. The deep ball is obviously a terrifying issue for the Longhorns heading into this game, but Hurts throws about only four of those per game. Where OU kills you is by turning rushes and short passes into long gains. Running backs Trey Sermon, Rhamondre Stevenson and Kennedy Brooks are averaging 19.8 carries and 174 rushing yards per game, and not including sacks, Hurts is rushing 10.6 times per game for 106.8 more yards.
On passes thrown between zero and 10 yards downfield, meanwhile, Hurts is completing 78% and averaging 13.6 yards per completion. Few teams create yards-after-catch opportunities for their playmakers the way the Sooners do, and they have as many playmakers as ever. WRs CeeDee Lamb, Charleston Rambo and Jadon Haselwood: 9.2 catches and 208 receiving yards per game.
Pursuit, however, is a Texas strength. The Longhorns rank 15th in rushing SP+, and within that same zero- to 10-yard pass range, they are giving up only a 60% completion rate and 8.1 yards per completion, and with six interceptions to boot. Linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch and (healthy) defensive backs Brandon Jones and Jalen Green have been particularly effective at pursuing and tackling in space.
If the Horns can limit damage within this range, they could at least force Hurts and the Sooners to convert a few more third-and-mediums than they’ve grown accustomed to facing. Just a few punts or field goals, combined with Texas’ own prolific offense, could tip the balance in UT’s favor even if the defense still gives up some deep shots. Anything less than a touchdown is a break of serve.
SP+ projection: Oklahoma 42, Texas 30. Turn a couple of those projected Sooners touchdowns into field goals, and we’ve got a hell of a game on our hands.
LSU: the new OU
According to both passer rating and QBR, Burrow’s worst game of 2019 came against Utah State last Saturday. Here are his “worst” stats: 27-for-38, 344 yards, five touchdowns, one interception, a 185.3 passer rating and a 79.0 QBR in a 42-6 victory. The horror.
At some point early in LSU’s win over Texas, I found myself growing angry. With the Tigers’ revamped and wide-open passing game clicking on all cylinders even against a blue-chip-heavy secondary, I started getting mad that LSU hadn’t moved to this offense years ago. We were deprived of seeing more fireworks over a longer period of time. What might Odell Beckham Jr. have done in this offense? Jarvis Landry? Brandon LaFell? Would it have made Malachi Dupre a first-round pick or something?
Paul Finebaum shares his concern for the Gators and their secondary as they head to Baton Rouge to face No. 5 LSU.
Through five games, Burrow is completing 78% of his passes with a 216.2 passer rating that grades out worse than only Hurts (231.3) and the guy Hurts sat behind at Alabama last season (Tagovailoa, 225.2). He’s fourth in Total QBR behind only those two and Fields. If the Tigers win enough to get to play 14 or 15 games this season, Burrow might top 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns.
Receiver Justin Jefferson is on pace for 1,400 receiving yards, Ja’Marr Chase nearly 1,200, and Terrace Marshall Jr. nearly 800, and both Chase and Marshall have missed a game. (Marshall is listed as doubtful for Saturday’s game.)
The LSU passing game has been a revelation, and it has peeled defenders out of the box, allowing running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to raise his per-carry rushing average from 4.5 to 5.5 yards and his success rate from 44% to 60%. Plus, as I wrote earlier in the season, when the Tigers faced a vital possession late in the win over Texas, they didn’t waver from their plan: They let Burrow keep winging the ball around, and it produced the clinching touchdown.
Neither LSU nor OU has faced a test like Florida’s defense, though
Well-traveled Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has a defense built totally in his own image. The Gators are fifth in defensive SP+, powered by an aggressive pass rush (fifth in sack rate, sixth in blitz-downs sack rate) and a red zone assault (first in points allowed per scoring opportunity, eighth in power-rushing success rate).
The Gators force the issue and make plays everywhere on the field, from behind the line (Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard has 6.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and 8.5 run stuffs, plus a pick and three pass breakups) to deeper downfield (seven Florida DBs have defensed at least two passes so far, and three have defensed at least four).
This is a pure “something’s gotta give” matchup. Though this LSU passing game stands out with deeper passing, so does Florida’s defense:
Passes behind the line of scrimmage: Burrow 130.1 passer rating, Florida 108.5 passer rating allowed
Passes 0-10 yards downfield: Burrow 180.3, Florida 102.0
Passes 11-20 yards downfield: Burrow 267.6, Florida 146.6
Passes 21+ yards downfield: Burrow 335.2, Florida 38.6
Burrow is an incredible 12-for-19 for 419 yards and five scores on those deep shots; Florida opponents thus far: an incredible-in-its-own-way 3-for-16 for 70 yards, one score and three picks. You don’t have much time to look downfield, and when you do, Gators defensive backs are ready.
SP+ has liked Florida more than Vegas so far this season and has been justified in its infatuation. Though the line for this game opened around LSU plus-14 and has mostly hung in the 12.5- to 13.5-point neighborhood, SP+ projects LSU by only 7.7. Florida will force Burrow to be more patient than he has had to be this season, and if he forces the issue a bit, it could lead to mistakes we haven’t seen from him since last season.
Head coaches Dan Mullen and Ed Orgeron preview the upcoming top-10 clash as Florida visits LSU for the first time since 2016.
Of course, even without Marshall, Burrow’s receivers might have the talent that allows him to force the issue. And if Florida’s struggling offensive line gets overwhelmed — the Gators rank just 105th in rushing SP+ and 115th in rushing success rate — and banged-up quarterback Kyle Trask is under constant duress, the LSU offense might not have to do as much to prevail anyway. LSU has more advantages and is favored because of it. But this is a type of test the Tigers haven’t faced yet this fall.
This has been one of the nation’s weirdest rivalries of late; the lower-ranked team has won three straight — No. 22 Florida beat No. 5 LSU in Gainesville last season, unranked LSU beat No. 21 Florida in Gainesville in 2017, and No. 21 Florida beat No. 16 LSU in a “home game” in Baton Rouge in 2016. (It was first postponed because of Hurricane Matthew, then it got rescheduled in a swirl of strange logistics. There was a big, dumb hubbub about it.) The series has been a good reminder that the unexpected frequently occurs; that could mean either a huge LSU victory, with Burrow emerging as the Heisman favorite, or yet another upset.
SP+ projection: LSU 32, Florida 24. I wouldn’t be surprised if both teams ended up a touchdown or so below that.
Week 7 playlist
Here are 10 games — at least one from each weekend time slot — that you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both an information and entertainment perspective.
All times Eastern.
No. 20 Virginia at Miami (8 p.m., ESPN)
Before my master plan succeeds and we get rid of all FBS divisions, we have some unfinished business in the ACC Coastal: We need our longstanding “a whole bunch of teams tie for the lead at 4-4” fever dream to come to fruition. My friend Justin Moore (@tfgridiron on Twitter) simulated thousands of scenarios, and basically all of the 4-Win Critical Mass results require a Miami victory. So go Canes. (If UVa wins, the Coastal is very much the Cavaliers’ for the taking.)
SP+ projection: Miami 27, Virginia 21
Early Saturday (beside OU-Texas)
South Carolina at No. 3 Georgia (noon, ESPN)
The Gamecocks wrecked Kentucky the last time out, then got a bye to rest Ryan Hilinski‘s elbow. They’re banged up on the defensive front, which probably means bad, bad things against UGA, but this could be a better test than the line (which has been in the mid-20s all week) suggests.
SP+ projection: Georgia 36, South Carolina 17
Villanova at James Madison (1:30 p.m., FloSports)
The biggest FCS game of the week: No. 8 at No. 2. Both teams have top-five defenses, per SP+, and Villanova probably won’t run the ball as well as it has been. That means the game could be decided by the play of quarterback Daniel Smith, a Campbell transfer who has helped bring life back to the Wildcats’ offense.
SP+ projection: James Madison 31, Villanova 20
With Nick Saban and Alabama coming to College Station, Jimbo Fisher talks about opportunity for the Aggies in facing another No. 1 team.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 24 Texas A&M (3:30 p.m., CBS)
Kellen Mond and A&M have failed in their first couple of attempts to take down a contender, but the opportunities keep on coming. Bama’s young defense might be struggling by its standards … but the Tide still rank 11th in defensive SP+ (gosh, the embarrassment) and still have an offense capable of putting 50 on anyone.
SP+ projection: Alabama 35, Texas A&M 21
Michigan State at No. 8 Wisconsin (3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
This is the third top-10 defense (per SP+) Wisconsin has faced so far, and the Badgers are basically 1-for-2. They did whatever they wanted against Michigan but got stymied by Northwestern, and State is more than capable of playing a Northwestern-like, defense-and-field-position game. Tricky test here.
SP+ projection: Wisconsin 29, Michigan State 17
Washington State at No. 18 Arizona State (3:30 p.m., Pac-12)
For now, the Pac-12 South race is headlined by Utah and USC — the Utes are the best team (16th in SP+), and the Trojans have the head-to-head win. But if things get weird, the Arizona schools could get involved. Utah (37th in SP+) is 1-1 in conference play, and ASU (34th) has a chance at a big home win here.
SP+ projection: Arizona State 29, Washington State 28
Saturday evening (beside Florida-LSU)
Nebraska at Minnesota (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
I called these two teams high-upside mysteries in my Big Ten West preview this summer, and they’re only slightly less mysterious now. But after some closer-than-expected victories early on, Minnesota is coming off of its best performance (a walloping of Illinois), and Nebraska figured out a way past Northwestern. Great time for this matchup.
SP+ projection: Minnesota 35, Nebraska 26
No. 10 Penn State at No. 17 Iowa (7:30 p.m., ABC)
SP+ has a sense of humor: On the 15th anniversary of the most famous Iowa-Penn State game (the Hawkeyes’ mind-boggling 6-4 win in 2004), SP+ projects PSU … as a 6.4-point favorite with a 64% win probability. Too soon. (By the way, if quarterback Sean Clifford keeps up his hot streak against this defense, and the Nittany Lions win, it’s time to treat them as title contenders — if you aren’t already.)
SP+ projection: Penn State 28, Iowa 22
USC at No. 9 Notre Dame (7:30 p.m., NBC)
USC’s Kedon Slovis is back in the lineup after missing most of two games, and if he’s the Slovis who beat Stanford, this could be a thriller. Beating the Irish through the air is pretty difficult, and Notre Dame is obviously the far more known entity here, but what a wild card the Trojans have been so far this season.
SP+ projection: Notre Dame 34, USC 25
Hawai’i at No. 14 Boise State (10:15 p.m., ESPN2)
This is the perfect late-night Mountain West Conference game. Last time we saw Hawai’i, the Rainbow Warriors were beating Nevada by 51 points in Reno. Now they get a chance at a Boise State team that, frankly, has been cruising along in about third gear since the season-opening win over Florida State. The Broncos better bring it.
SP+ projection: Boise State 36, Hawai’i 26