Week 10 of the college football season is the first official fire hose weekend of the season, where the information is coming at us faster than we can take it in. We inhaled six MAC games simultaneously on Wednesday night. On Friday night, we’ll watch unbeaten playoff sleeper BYU take on by far its toughest test of the season. And on Saturday, we’ve got a battle of top-four teams (Clemson-Notre Dame), a neutral-site fight for the No. 2 spot in the SEC (Florida-Georgia) and, oh yeah, the first five Pac-12 games of the season.
Let’s walk through some of the most interesting questions and storylines of Fire Hose Weekend.
Travis Etienne, the ultimate checkdown
If you’re playing Clemson, the odds are good that your defense is the second-best one in that given game. But that might not be the case when the Tigers visit Notre Dame on Saturday night. Clemson has battled some big-play issues and given up more than 20 points to both Syracuse and Boston College the past two weeks; it’s down to 10th in defensive SP+ — oh, the shame, the horror — while Notre Dame ranks eighth, having given up more than 13 points only once all year.
With Trevor Lawrence still out because of his coronavirus diagnosis, Notre Dame will instead gear up to stop a Tigers offense led by D.J. Uiagalelei. The blue-chip freshman and Cam Newton clone led a huge comeback against BC last week and has completed 70% of his passes with no picks this season.
Notre Dame’s defense is quite a bit better than BC’s, however. The Irish force you behind schedule with negative plays — they’re second in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), sixth in pass pressure rate and 16th in sack rate. They force you into third-and-long situations, and they get off the field: opponents have an 11% success rate on third-and-7+, fourth-lowest in the country.
While star linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been every bit as good as expected (six tackles for loss, seven run stuffs), his dance partner up front, senior end Adetokunbo Ogundeji, has erupted.
Adetokunbo Ogundeji’s pass rushing:
2019: 199 rushes, 9.5% pressure rate, 4.5 sacks
2020: 105 rushes, 17.1% pressure rate, 3 sacks
While only 16% of FBS receptions have gone to players out of the backfield, per Sports Info Solutions, 25% of receptions against Notre Dame fit that designation. That’s typically a great thing for the Irish — they swarm to the ball and give up only 6.1 yards per completion in these passes, far below the national average of 8.2 yards per completion.
Other teams don’t have Travis Etienne, though.
Passes to Travis Etienne in 2020. The most valuable currency in football is no-risk explosiveness. That might make him the most valuable skill-corps guy in CFB. pic.twitter.com/WNxeTeP5RO
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 5, 2020
Great offensive players can sometimes make you think smart defensive coaches are stupid. They make you yell things like “HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW THE BALL WAS GOING TO THAT GUY?” when they almost certainly did know. Clemson’s star running back is having a perfectly solid rushing year — he has gained 606 yards (5.9 per carry) with nine touchdowns. But he has been a cheat code in the passing game.
Virginia and Miami have smart, effective coaches and solid defenses; they knew Etienne was ultra-dangerous out of the backfield, and they probably communicated that as clearly as possible to their players. And he still caught a combined 13 balls for 187 yards and 10 first downs. A whopping 116 of those yards came after first contact.
With Uiagalelei filling in for Lawrence last week and facing a major comeback, he repeatedly found Etienne for quick, easy gains. The senior caught seven passes for 140 yards, a touchdown and five first downs.
Granted, BC, Virginia and Miami all play more man coverage than Notre Dame, which can create both lower completion rates and higher big-play rates. The Irish are content to form a quarters-coverage cloud and swarm to short completions. Maybe that will hem in Etienne, but you still have to actually bring him down when you get to him. Easier said than done.
This game represents a huge opportunity for Notre Dame. As ESPN’s Seth Walder has noted, an Irish win would give them equal odds with Clemson to reach the College Football Playoff. Clemson tends to respond to losses or near-upsets like last week’s BC game by laying pedal to metal for the rest of the season, but with Lawrence still out, we don’t really know what kind of Tigers performance we’ll see. We know that they probably will lean on Etienne, though, and that tends to pay off.
Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, the ultimate matchup nightmares
It was easy to forget about Florida. Dan Mullen’s Gators lost a 41-38 track meet against Texas A&M, then were forced to the sidelines for two weeks due to a coronavirus breakout. Against Missouri last Saturday, however, they played their most complete game of the season. Their offense rolled again — 514 yards (7.2 per play), 41 points — but their defense actually showed up as well, holding Mizzou to 17 points and 248 yards (3.9 per play). Granted, those numbers look a bit different if the Tigers’ Jalen Knox holds on to an open 73-yard bomb in the second quarter, but mistakes are always part of the totals. This was easily Florida’s best defensive performance of the season.
Combined with Georgia’s 14-3 win over Kentucky, an almost unimpressive-by-design bearhug victory, Florida’s performance allowed the Gators to catch up to the Dawgs in my SP+ ratings. The Gators and Dawgs are almost dead even overall with Georgia having drifted down to 46th in offensive SP+.
Georgia still has the best defense in the country, though, which will allow Florida to find out exactly how good its offense really is. As Alabama’s Nick Saban told ESPN’s Chris Low a couple of weeks ago, “It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game.” That’s still mostly true, but Bama’s No. 1 (per offensive SP+) offense put up 564 yards and 41 points on Georgia’s No. 1 defense.
Florida’s offense is No. 4. Does that clear the bar? SP+ projects the Gators to score 26 points on the Dawgs — the only teams that have put that much on Georgia in the past two seasons are LSU last year and Bama this year. No. 1 offenses, both. We’ll see whether the Gators can reach this rarefied air.
Florida’s offensive success is predicated on two things:
1. No negative plays. The Gators rank 15th in stuff rate allowed and ninth in sack rate allowed. The run game has been merely fine this year: 29th in rushing success rate, but with few big plays — basically the direct opposite of last year’s all-or-nothing ground game. Backs Dameon Pierce, Nay’Quan Wright and Malik Davis aren’t averaging many yards before contact, but they break the first tackle, fall forward and create second- or third-and-manageable.
The run game has been a bit problematic in the red zone — the Gators are only 68th in goal-to-go touchdown rate and 83rd in first-and-goal success rate — but it serves its primary purpose. Besides, it only has to be so good with this passing game.
2. Maybe the most unique, scary 1-2 receiving punch in the country. Tight end Kyle Pitts and wideout Kadarius Toney have combined for 44 catches, 652 yards and 13 touchdowns in only four conference games, but that somehow doesn’t tell the whole story.
Quarterback Kyle Trask doesn’t have a wealth of ready-made, prototype outside receivers at his disposal. Trevon Grimes, in fact, is the only true wideout with more than seven catches. But in Pitts and Toney — whom Florida lists as an “athlete,” not a WR — Trask has two nonstop matchup nightmares.
Toney lines up primarily in the slot, forcing defenses to choose whether to move their best corner and create potential problems elsewhere or cover him with their nickelback and risk him getting burned. Seventeen of his 22 catches have come within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage, and four of those catches have burst for at least 16 yards; he doesn’t bounce or juke so much as wobble, and he’s almost impossible to wrangle and drag down. Plus, the threat of a quick pass to Toney has helped to completely negate opponents’ pass rush. Opponents are blitzing only 17% of the time (the 16th-lowest rate in FBS), and Trask has been sacked only four times all year. How Georgia and its top-20 blitz rate choose to attack this passing game will be fascinating.
Longer passes to Toney, by the way: 5-for-8 for 115 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. You can’t over-anticipate the quick passes because you’ll get burned deep.
In Pitts, meanwhile, you’ve simply got a guy who can line up anywhere, against anyone, running any route and likely succeeding at it.
Passes to Florida’s Kyle Pitts this year.
Line him up everywhere, throw to him everywhere. Love it.
(Red = comp, blue = INC, yellow = TD) pic.twitter.com/Rphu8W7tSy
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 4, 2020
These are boom times for tight ends — 16 are averaging at least 50 receiving yards per game. Among them, Pitts is first in touchdowns (seven), first in drop rate (0.0%), third in first downs or touchdowns per reception (86%), fifth in yards per catch (16.1) and sixth in yards after catch per reception (6.1). He is everything an old-school possession man should be, and he’s also one of the country’s better deep threats. If anyone can slow him down, it’s Georgia. But it’s not a guarantee that Georgia can slow him down.
Why it’s really OK to trust USC this time (No, really! It’s totally different this time! Honest!)
I’ve done a few radio hits in Pac-12 country in the run-up to the conference’s 2020 debut, and we inevitably arrive at the same question in every segment: Why in the world should we trust USC this time?
This is, of course, USC that we’re talking about. The Trojans were ranked first in the preseason AP poll in 2012, eighth in 2015 and 15th in 2018 and finished unranked each time. They randomly rise — to 10-2 and sixth in 2011, to 10-3 and third in 2016 — and coast off of that surge for years. Every time we talk about them as favorites of any sort, it feels as if we’re walking into a trap. I obviously can’t say this time will be any different.
It does bear mentioning, however, that we’re talking about a team currently 20th in the AP poll, not fifth or something. But I can say that, at the very least, the rationale for thinking of the Trojans as a conference favorite, at least, is different than usual. It’s typically based on lofty recruiting rankings and potential; this time it’s based on proven production and experience.
The two most proven units in the Pac-12 are the USC offense and the Oregon defense. Their other units — an Oregon offense led by a new quarterback and coordinated by Joe Moorhead and a USC defense with a vast amount of experience now coordinated by Todd Orlando — will determine whether either team can run the table and threaten to snare a CFP berth. But USC’s offense was ninth in offensive SP+ last year and starts this season eighth. Quarterback Kedon Slovis has turned out to be the perfect lump of clay for offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to mold, and although he’s without receiver Michael Pittman Jr. this year, he’s still got Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown. The run game should remain efficient if not incredibly explosive (kind of like Florida’s), and really the only question is what the Trojans have at offensive tackle after losing both of last year’s starters.
When we talk nicely about USC this year, we’re not talking about what the Trojans might be able to do, we’re talking about what they’ve already proved they can do. If a combination of Orlando and vast experience on the two-deep can make the defense simply a top-40 unit, the offense should be able to carry the weight of, at worst, a strong division title run. By USC’s standards, this isn’t incredibly overstated hype, and I think the Trojans can live up to it.
(Note: this message will self-destruct and get completely erased from the internet if or when Arizona State beats the Trojans on Saturday.)
The energy around the Pac-12 is palpable while players and coaches alike are ready to get the season underway.
A huge test for the BYU defense
I’ve spent a good portion of the past two months talking up BYU and noting that while the Cougars are feasting on a terribly weak schedule — one that wasn’t their fault, of course, as their original, P5-heavy schedule disintegrated in August — they are dominating said schedule at the same level that most top teams would. They have earned their spot in the AP top 10.
They also only have three games left to make a lasting impression. After playing at Boise State on Friday night, they’ll host FCS newcomer North Alabama on Nov. 12, then San Diego State on Dec. 12. While SDSU has been excellent in its own right so far, SP+ gives BYU an 83% chance of going 2-0 in those games.
It gives them only a 59% chance of surviving Friday in Boise. Bryan Harsin’s Broncos are up to 26th in SP+ after thorough defeats of Utah State and Air Force, and they currently possess the highest rushing success rate (68%), passing success rate (65%), goal-to-go touchdown rate (100%) and points-per-drive average (4.2) in FBS. Small sample against weak competition? Of course. But this wouldn’t exactly be the first time BSU has played excellent offensive football.
It’s unclear what the BSU defense might have to offer — the Broncos got torched by Air Force for 415 rushing yards last week, but the Air Force option is different from anything BYU will throw at BSU, for better or worse. But even if BYU star quarterback Zach Wilson continues to thrive, the BYU defense, which has been good but not as bulletproof as the offense, will get a severe test.
BYU has been content to play mainly soft zone coverage against opposing passing games, and while that helps to limit big plays, it also could mean a high completion rate and ball control possibilities for either of BSU’s quarterbacks: starter Hank Bachmeier (20-for-28 for 268 yards against Utah State) or Jack Sears (17-for-20 for 280 yards against Air Force). Bachmeier’s injury status is unclear, but Sears, a USC transfer, is a hell of a backup option.
Week 10 playlist
Here are 10 games — at least one from each time slot — you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both information and entertainment perspectives.
All times Eastern.
No. 11 Miami at NC State (7:30 p.m., ESPN). If Notre Dame loses on Saturday, Miami is right back in the thick of the race for the second ACC title game slot. But the Canes first have to get past a moody NC State team that defends third downs quite well.
No. 9 BYU at No. 21 Boise State (9:45 p.m., FS1). The game that will determine whether we continue to offer dark-horse CFP hype to two mid-majors (BYU and Cincy) or just one.
Arizona State at No. 20 USC (noon, Fox). Honestly, I’m not sure the benefits of “let’s kick off at 9 a.m. local time like it’s a high school cross country meet or something” outweigh the drawbacks, but at least I don’t have to wait all day to have my USC questions answered.
No. 23 Michigan at No. 13 Indiana (noon, FS1). Michigan has gotten the full “relying on high-upside sophomores” experience in the first two games of the season, first overachieving by quite a bit, then underachieving by even more. What will happen against the highest-ranked Indiana team in 33 years?
No. 25 Liberty at Virginia Tech (noon, ACC Network). These teams have two of the most interesting and potent offenses in the country, and Liberty has made its way into the SP+ top 50 for the first time. This could be a track meet.
No. 8 Florida at No. 5 Georgia (3:30 p.m., CBS). Winner becomes a favorite to make the CFP … if it can also beat Bama in December. Piece of cake, right?
No. 14 Oklahoma State at Kansas State (4 p.m., Fox). The Pokes were unlucky to lose to Texas, but they must rebound immediately against another team that got its first conference loss last Saturday.
No. 1 Clemson at No. 4 Notre Dame (7:30 p.m., NBC). I trust Clemson and assume the Tigers will find a way to win, but I don’t want to understate how physical this Notre Dame team is, or how well the defense is currently playing.
Stanford at No. 12 Oregon (7:30 p.m., ABC). After finding out about one primary Pac-12 challenger early in the day, we get to find out about the other one late. What does the new Moorhead offense look like out West (and how many sacks will Kayvon Thibodeaux end up with this year)?
New Mexico at Hawaii (midnight, Spectrum Sports). It’s your first chance of the season to give a midnight hello to Robert Kekaula and the Hawaii broadcast team. It’s also a chance to watch Hawaii’s delightful, up-tempo rushing attack.