Skinny Post - CFB Week 8 Preview

This was part of an ill-fated attempt at a weekly college football Substack newsletter for the layman from October 2019. I still like the content and format enough to re-use it some day in the future, so let’s call this a v0.1.

Welcome to The Skinny Post, your weekly layman’s guide to college football. First time? Long time? Let’s dive in.


Watch these:

  • 3:30pm (ABC) - #12 Oregon @ #25 Washington

  • 3:30pm (ESPN2) - Temple @ #19 SMU

  • 7pm (P12N) - #17 Arizona State @ #13 Utah

  • 7:30pm (ABC) - #16 Michigan @ #7 Penn State

Keep track of these:

  • 3:30pm (ACCN) - Duke @ UVA

  • 3:30pm (FOX) - #18 Baylor @ Oklahoma State

  • 9:30pm (P12N) - Arizona @ USC

Note: all times ET

Want (a lot) more details about each game? Read on!

The Tasting Menu™️

When you have 60+ college football games on every weekend (and even more if you go outside the subset of major football schools), it’s really hard to nail down what to watch. Thankfully, SBNation writers Steven Godfrey and Bill Connelly (well, the latter works for ESPN now, but you get the point) developed this idea of a college football tasting menu on the Thursday episodes of their (incredibly named) podcast, Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody.

The premise is simple: list off the games in chronological order, cull the herd down to what looks watchable, and then from that set, select those that will have the most entertainment or narrative value. I’ve done something similar here, but I’ve also provided something The Solid Verbal refers to as the “Window of Opportunity”, the TV time block in which you can do non-football-watching things during the day because the games on are…not good.

“Nooners”: Noon-3pm ET

Skip (if your team isn’t playing)!

Afternoon: 3:30-4pm

#12 Oregon @ #25 Washington (ABC, 3:30pm)

Watch Priority: Primary Screen

Numbers of Note
  • Oregon is incredible at defending on passing downs1, allowing only a 19.13% success rate2 (national average: 31%). This is where Washington quarterback Jacob Eason and the Huskies have had some trouble; they’ve only posted a 32.1% success rate on passing downs (compared to their stellar 56.4% rate on standard downs3). If Oregon forces Eason to win this game with his arm, it could be a long day at the office for the Huskies.

  • Oregon stuffs opposing rushers for zero or negative yardage on just under one-fifth of their carries, while Washington has trouble breaking off long runs — only 6.3% of their rushes have gone for 15 yards or more. It could get ugly in the trenches.

Why You Should Care
  • If Oregon loses, we will probably point to this game as the nail in the PAC-12’s College Football Playoff coffin.

  • This is one of the preeminent rivalries in the Pacific Northwest (along with Washington/Washington State) — these guys hate each other.

  • Oregon has the nation’s #1 defense, but barely a top-50 offense (per SP+4). Washington is more even-keeled, producing the nation’s #17 offense and #33 defense (again, per SP+). This won’t get pointsy, but it will be close.

  • Washington quarterback Jacob Eason has been very hit or miss as of late. Against the Ducks’ stout defense (again, #1 in the nation), he’ll need to be more hit than miss (and not get hit, preferably).

  • Oregon lost its best receiver to a season-ending leg injury last week. Who will step up in his stead? How will an already meh Oregon offense deal with his absence?

Temple @ #19 SMU (ESPN2, 3:30pm)

Watch Priority: Primary Screen

Numbers of Note
  • SMU’s offense is great at generating and capitalizing on scoring opportunities5 (especially through the air, where they have a 19.8% explosiveness rate6), scoring points on 74% of the time their offense passes the opponent’s 40-yard line, which happens 60.1% of the time. When inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, SMU scores 4.88 points on average, meaning that they finish these sequences with touchdowns more often than field goals.

  • On the flip side, Temple stuffs opposing rushers for zero or negative yardage just under one-fourth of the time and allows only 2.57 points per scoring opportunity, meaning they hold their opponents to field goals more often than allowing touchdowns. Something has got to give here.

Why You Should Care
  • This is a battle between two of the Group of 57’s best teams. It’s entirely likely that either of these teams could be the G5 representative in the NY68 bowls come this winter.

  • These teams are polar opposites stylistically — Temple’s offense is a little hit or miss, but its defense is rock solid; SMU’s offense is dynamic and explosive, but its defense is…meh, at best. A team made up of SMU’s offense and Temple’s defense would be pretty fun to watch.

  • This is the first time SMU has been good for the better part of 30 years. In the late 1980s, their football program was given the death penalty, and it never really fully recovered.

Duke @ Virginia (ACCN, 3:30pm)

Watch Priority: Check the Score

Numbers of Note
  • On average, Duke’s offense usually starts with the ball on their own 39-yard line and gains 31.13 yards. This puts the end of their drives9 at their opponent’s 30-yard line. This is just about within most college kickers’ field goal range (this would be about a 47-yard field goal attempt), and thus Duke usually ends their drives having scored (other numbers agree with this hypothesis; 57.33% of the time, Duke is able to pass their opponent’s 40-yard line, and when they do so, they score a whopping 76.74% of the time). Suffice to say, the Blue Devils are very good at putting themselves in advantageous field positions and working their way up the field.

  • Virginia’s defense only allows opponents to cross their 40-yard line 35.38% of the time, but whenever an opponent does, they will score (about 82.61% of the time).

  • A matchup to watch will be Duke’s rushing attack, led by quarterback Quentin Harris, versus Virginia’s front seven10 — UVA limits opponents to zero or negative yards on just under one-fourth of their rushing attempts while Duke is focused on generating short yardage gains (their rush explosiveness rate is at 2.87%) on the ground, relying heavily on its offensive line to get a good push upfront.

Why You Should Care
  • The winner of this game will probably end up winning the Power 511’s worst division: the ACC Coastal.

  • Being as this is an ACC Coastal game, it will undoubtedly be chaotic in some way.

  • Re: the matchup to watch — Duke likes to run some plays out of the flexbone12, and UVA just lost one of its best defensive backs to a season-ending ankle injury. A lack of quality defenders on the edges of the field (where the flexbone usually heads towards to break off long runs) could lead to a not-so-great time for the Cavaliers.

#18 Baylor @ Oklahoma State (FOX, 4pm)

Watch Priority: Check the Score

Numbers of Note
  • Baylor’s passing game is the star of the show in Waco and very big-play heavy: the Bears are generating a 50% passing success rate and a 22.78% pass explosiveness rate.

  • When they get into 3rd-and-long passing situations, Baylor is usually able to work their way out of it, creating first downs on 48% of such situations (which plays into a 41.96% success rate on passing downs overall), but…

  • …Oklahoma State’s pass defense is very good on passing downs, holding opponents to a 28.03% success rate in such situations.

  • For a team that usually prides itself on throwing the ball a lot, the Cowboys have had a lot of success running the ball this season with running back Chuba Hubbard (yes, that is his real name). Led by Hubbard, the Oklahoma State rushing attack generated 6.38 yards per rush attempt and a 48.82% success rate on standard downs.

Why You Should Care
  • Baylor nearly lost to Texas Tech in triple overtime last week, having been saved by the graces of bad officiating.

  • Oklahoma State got boat-raced early by the same Texas Tech team a week before, but came back to keep it close. The Cowboys can score points in bunches, so be wary of counting them out.

  • Baylor is a good team (they’re still undefeated, so it’s hard not to say that), but Oklahoma State is much better than their record indicates (see: their close loss to Texas earlier this year). Expect this one to be close.

“Evening”: 6-7:30pm

#17 ASU @ #13 Utah (P12N, 7pm)

Watch Priority: Primary screen

Numbers of Note
  • Utah is ruthless at scoring on offense — they cross their opponent’s 40-yard line on 71.93% of their drives, and of those drives, they score 75.61% of the time, generating 4.27 points per scoring opportunity. So, not only are they incredibly effective at moving the ball and capitalizing on scoring opportunities, they frequently refuse to let their opponent off the hook, scoring more touchdowns off scoring opportunities than field goals.

  • Utah’s defense is stout in all facets of the game, but especially on third down, where it has limited opponents to converting only 28.81% of those situations into first downs.

  • However, Utah’s offense has been terrible on passing downs, only generating a 29.87% success rate. This is a niche that Arizona State should exploit to their advantage — the Sun Devils are only allowing a 25.41% success rate in such situations, which is important because…

  • …Arizona State’s defense is going to have a lot of the heavy lifting here against the high-powered Utah offense if ASU is to win this game. The Sun Devil offense is fairly meh, posting numbers at or below the national average in overall explosiveness (12.02%) and rushing success rate (36.11%) AND scoring only 3.611 points per scoring opportunity (meaning more drives are ending in field goals than touchdowns).

Why You Should Care
  • This is another big game for the PAC-12 — arguably bigger than Oregon/Washington — but it has sadly been shunted to the poorly-distributed PAC-12 Network. sigh

  • These are two top-35 teams (per SP+) — they’re good teams that are looking to establish themselves as “actually good” by beating a ranked opponent, because…

  • …both teams have losses to teams that are strange. Utah lost to a USC (note: Southern Cal, not South Carolina) team that is a little bit (read: a lotta bit) of a dumpster fire off the field and doesn’t really know what they’re doing on offense beyond “Hey, let’s chuck this ball deep to our tall, speedy receivers and hope for the best!” Arizona State lost to ever-mercurial Colorado, who beat a highly (over-)hyped Nebraska team early this season in a shootout but struggled defensively versus Arizona and Air Force.

#16 Michigan @ #7 Penn State (ABC, 7:30pm)

Watch Priority: Secondary screen

Numbers of Note
  • Thank your deity of choice that Michigan has a functional defense (ranked #3 in the nation in SP+), because its offense has been…not great, hovering around the national average in overall success rate (41.36%) and posting an absymal 22.55% success rate on passing downs. So, here’s the play…

  • …if Penn State can force Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson to win this game with his arm (similar to Oregon/Washington), they will probably win this game. This works in the Nittany Lions’ favor, as their pass defense has held opponents to a 21.83% success rate on passing downs.

  • On top of that, Penn State pairs their #10-ranked defense (per SP+) with a #10-ranked offense (again, per SP+) that flourishes when passing the ball — led by quarterback Sean Clifford and wide receiver KJ Hamler, the Nittany Lions offense has generated a 52.14% pass success rate and paired it with a 24.28% pass explosiveness rate, generating 6.42 scoring opportunities per game and scoring on 84.44% of those. The Wolverine defense’s #3 ranking will really be tested in Happy Valley.

Why You Should Care
  • White-outs in Happy Valley are unlike anything else. Weird stuff usually happens in these.

    • Michigan needs a statement conference win to no longer be a national punching bag for getting smoked by Wisconsin a few weeks ago.
  • Penn State needs a statement conference win to boost them firmly into the Big Ten title conversation along with Ohio State and Wisconsin. They’re just about there, but…

  • …a lack of offensive execution at times has hurt the Nittany Lions. Playing at home in a hype-crazed environment should help the Penn State offense “get right”. On paper, they’re a very good offense, but in practice, they’ve had a couple of stinkers (see: games versus Pittsburgh and Iowa).

  • Similarly, Michigan’s offense has looked offensive (pun fully intended) at times versus equal-on-paper competition this season (see: their game versus Wisconsin). Winning this game while scoring a lot of points will go a long way to winning Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis back some goodwill in Ann Arbor.

“Night Shift”: 8pm-Late

Arizona @ USC (P12N, 9:30pm)

Watch Priority: Check the Score

Numbers of Note
  • SP+ ranks Arizona’s offense as #7 in the nation, supported primarily by the work of quarterback Khalil Tate and his prowess on standard downs (where ‘Zona is successful 51.11% of the time), but…

  • …SP+ also ranks Arizona’s defense at #104, which makes sense when considering the 52.23% success rate it allows on standard downs and its 9.76% havoc rate13. The Wildcats can’t stop the run or short passes AND they can’t disrupt opposing offenses with turnovers or pass pressure.

  • This works in USC’s favor as its rotating cast of backup quarterbacks has been able to post a 53.17% pass success rate this season. The pass-heavy “Air Raid” scheme installed by new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell seems to have been working with the athletes available in Southern California.

  • USC’s saving grace (at least when compared to Arizona) is that they pair their #11-ranked offense (per SP+) with a just about national average defense (#56 of 130 total teams, per SP+). But to beat ‘Zona and the aforementioned Tate, the Trojan defense is really going to have to improve on its 41% opponent rushing opportunity rate and its 5.11 yards per rushing attempt allowed — the Wildcat offense will look to exploit that weak USC rush defense all night.

Why You Should Care
  • USC head coach Clay Helton could get fired at virtually any moment. No one really knows how secure his job is due to both administrative and on-field issues. Could losing to Arizona cost him his job? — Who knows?

  • Arizona has posted a 4-1 record since losing to Hawaii in Week 014. This, however, comes with the caveat that the Wildcats have not played particularly challenging opponents and have barely scraped by those of equal or lesser quality. However, they did hang tough with a much better Washington team last week until they broke down late.

  • USC likes to throw the ball down the field a lot. Arizona has a terrible defense. This game is guaranteed to be pointsy15.

  • It’s PAC-12 After Dark, which usually leads to weird results with absurd levels of chaos.

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Footnotes and Definitions

  1. Passing downs - situations in which teams are more likely to pass to gain yards; defined as second down with eight or more yards to gain or third/fourth down with five or more yards to gain. Offenses pass about 67% of the time in these situations. 

  2. Success Rate - the rate at which an offense generates “successful” plays; an offensive play is “successful” if the offense gains 50% of the needed yardage on first down, 70% on second, and 100% on 3rd and 4th down. 

  3. Standard Downs - non-passing situations; anything that’s not a passing down; defined as all first downs, second downs with seven or fewer yards to gain, or third/fourth down with four or fewer yards to gain. Offenses run 60% of the time in such situations. 

  4. SP+ - simply put, it’s a advanced metric developed by ESPN’s Bill Connelly as a way to tell how well teams execute the Five Factors of football: turnover margin, efficiency, explosiveness, field position, and finishing drives. All five factors correlate highly to winning football games. Note — SP+ is not a resume metric; it’s meant to be predictive. 

  5. Scoring Opportunities - any drive in which a team passes its opponent’s 40-yard line en route towards the end zone. 

  6. Explosiveness rate - a measure of, well, explosiveness — the rate at which a team generates gains of 15+ yards on a single play 

  7. Group of 5 (G5) - the five lower-tier conferences of major college football — the AAC, C-USA, MAC, MWC, and Sun Belt. 

  8. NY6 - New Year’s Six; the six bowls traditionally (or now, arbitrarily) played in and around New Year’s Eve/Day as part of the College Football Playoff system. Two of these bowls are used as College Football Playoff semifinals. Included are the Cotton Bowl (played in Dallas, TX), Fiesta Bowl (Glendale, AZ), Orange Bowl (Miami, FL), Peach Bowl (Atlanta, GA), Rose Bowl (Pasadena, CA), and Sugar Bowl (New Orleans, LA). 

  9. Drive - a sequence of plays run by a team’s offense until they score, run out of downs, or otherwise turn the ball over to the other team. 

  10. Front Seven - a team’s defensive line and linebackers. This group is usually made up of seven players that position themselves close to the line of scrimmage (thus, “front” seven). 

  11. Power 5 (P5) - the five upper-tier conferences of major college football — the ACC, Big Ten (also known as the B1G), Big 12, PAC-12, and SEC. These are the school you usually hear of or see playing on national TV channels like ESPN or ABC. 

  12. Flexbone - an older offensive system that emphasizes running the football and relies on “option reads” — where the quarterback has the “option” to do one of two things. Also known as the triple option, because on most plays, the quarterback has three options: hand the ball off to a running back running straight ahead (“dive”), running the ball himself towards a sideline (“sweep”), or pitching the ball to a second running back running to said sideline with him (“toss“). Notable schools that run this offense: Army, Navy, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech (until 2019). 

  13. Havoc rate - measures how effective a defense is at disrupting opposing offenses based on how many sacks, forced fumbles, passes defensed, and interceptions it’s created. 

  14. Week 0 - A recently-minted slate of games that take place the weekend before the traditional start of college football, which is Labor Day Weekend. These games usually do not include name-brand teams, but do sometimes involve lots of travel (ex: Cal played Hawaii in Sydney, Australia in 2016). 

  15. “Pointsy” - a made-up term indicating a certain game will be high-scoring.