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Young, Walker, Pickett Chase Heisman Glory

NCAA Week 12 – In recent seasons, the Heisman Trophy race has largely been defined by domination. From 2016 through 2019, all four players to win the award (Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Joe Burrow) were quarterbacks—three of them on playoff teams—and all earned over 75% of the vote, with Burrow’s 93.8% mark making him the clearest winner in history. 2020 brought a deviation from the norm, with wide receiver DeVonta Smith taking only 66.8% of the possible points in his landmark win, but he still built out a comfortable margin of nearly 700 points over runner-up Trevor Lawrence. There hasn’t been a major disagreement since 2015, when Derrick Henry edged out Christian McCaffrey by just under 300 points.

The standards of the modern Heisman vote—that the winner will generally be a draft-eligible quarterback (or possibly running back) from a top-four team, and that the particular choice will be obvious by the time ballots get mailed in—don’t seem quite as clear this season, though. With only two or three games left for the top contenders, the field is incredibly tight, with most oddsmakers giving four different players a realistic shot. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young hasn’t thrown an interception since the Crimson Tide’s loss to Texas A&M, and he recently bolstered his numbers by completing 21 of 23 passes for five touchdowns against New Mexico State. A run of relatively inefficient games, however, have dropped his numbers enough that a few others are within striking distance.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud completed over 70.0% of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions during a win over Purdue last week, marking the third time he has done that in the conference slate. Meanwhile, Ole Miss passer Matt Corral has only one truly disappointing performance this season, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt against Tennessee—but he more than made up for it by rushing for 195 yards on the day. Rounding out the main quartet is Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, who has rushed for over 140 yards in the majority of his games this season and ran for all five of the Spartans’ touchdowns in a critical win over rival Michigan.

Everybody else is a longshot, but there are some remarkable performances in the group trailing behind, too. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett needs just five more passing touchdowns to match Dan Marino (1981) and Rod Rutherford (2003) for the school record of 37 in a single season, and he’s eight away from Marino’s career mark of 79. Freshman TreVeyon Henderson has burst onto the scene at Ohio State, already breaking the thousand-yard barrier and rushing for 277 yards against Tulsa in the third game of his career. Desmond Ridder has led Cincinnati to a 10-0 record and a potential College Football Playoff spot, Sincere McCormick has scampered for 1,150 yards amid UTSA’s perfect season, and Kayvon Thibodeaux and Devin Lloyd are reshaping defenses around their brilliance at Oregon and Utah, respectively. The chase for college football’s most prestigious individual award is wide open, and this week, we’ll take a look at some of the top contenders as the season nears its end.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Michigan State at Ohio State (-19)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan State Ohio State
2021 F+ 20 2
When Michigan State has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 28 17
2021 EPA/pass 17 61
2021 EPA/rush 48 8
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 22 1
2021 EPA/pass 63 4
2021 EPA/rush 12 10

TreVeyon Henderson and the rest of Ohio State’s rushing corps (including Miyan Williams and Master Teague) are all well and good, but this offense—arguably the best in FBS, at least judging by EPA per drive—runs through C.J. Stroud. The Buckeyes’ freshman quarterback, who had never thrown a pass in college football before this season, leads his conference in yards per attempt, passing touchdowns, and efficiency rating. Under his leadership, Ohio State is averaging 0.59 EPA per pass, ranking fourth-highest in the nation. All three teams above the Buckeyes pass less often, making it easier to be efficient through the air, and none play in the Power 5. The only passing offense in Ohio State’s ballpark that has played a comparable schedule is Georgia (0.58 EPA per pass), where Stetson Bennett IV still has some lingering concerns about his ability to perform in close games and make big plays.

You could argue, though, that the same questions apply to Stroud. Ohio State’s passing explosiveness (1.65 EPA per successful play, 49th) is worse than Georgia’s (1.71, 30th), and Stroud has struggled in the few close games he has played in since September. The Buckeyes passer was merely solid against Penn State (22-for-34, 305 yards, 1 TD) and played in and out of trouble against Nebraska (36-for-54, 405 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT). Those games, along with the Oregon loss (35-for-54, 484 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT), were three of Stroud’s four worst all year, at least judging by passer rating.

The Buckeyes are staring down the barrel of a pivotal two-week stretch in which they face Michigan State and Michigan, the two teams chasing them at 6-1 in the Big Ten. Win both, and Ohio State should roll into the conference championship game against an outmatched opponent from the West, perhaps an 8-4 Wisconsin or 9-3 Iowa. Lose either game, though, and the division and the playoff will be out of the Buckeyes’ hands. Quarterback play is vital in any run like that, and it’s especially important for Stroud because of the competition he must face. Michigan State faces the highest rate of passes in FBS—61.9% of opponents’ plays are through the air—and they hold their own, ranking 53rd in EPA per play and 33rd in havoc rate against the pass. Michigan is arguably even better, ranking among the top 10 in EPA per play and success rate when opponents attempt to throw.

The Spartans’ swarming defense is of the bend-don’t-break variety: they allow a 64.7% completion rate (98th) and 44.2% passing success rate (92nd), but those completions average only 10.9 yards each (23rd), and those successful plays average just 1.44 EPA (25th). Stroud presents an interesting comparison: he has the Buckeyes among the top 15 in both completion percentage and yards per completion, but the advanced stats suggest his style is built around staying on schedule, as his 55.3% passing success rate ranks second overall. If Stroud can do that against Michigan State, he shouldn’t have difficulty putting up points.

The Spartans might be able to keep up, though. Running back Kenneth Walker III might be the best player in college football, and it’s hard to think of a better option for a team looking to spring a major upset. “Dynamic,” “explosive,” and “game-changing” are plaudits that define his style: his 40 rushes for double-digit yardage lead college football, and he’s one of only two players this season to rush for five touchdowns in a game. (Nobody had done that for any Big Ten team since Melvin Gordon ran for 253 yards and five touchdowns on Bowling Green in 2014, and nobody had done it in a Big Ten conference game since Brian Calhoun in 2005.) Ohio State’s defense performs well against the run, ranking 12th in total EPA, 27th in success rate, and 23rd in explosiveness, but those stats are informed by their low rate of rushing plays faced: 42.0%, third-lowest in FBS.

The Buckeyes’ escape from Minnesota and their loss to Oregon saw them allow 4.1 and 7.1 yards per carry, respectively, for three rushing touchdowns in each game—but they have only allowed three more touchdowns on the ground since. Nebraska’s 113 rushing yards and 3.3 yards per carry are the most competitive showing any rushing corps has managed against Ohio State in their last eight games. So while there’s a blueprint to pressure Stroud, break off big runs, and beat the Buckeyes, it won’t be an easy one to follow as the Spartans look to maintain their postseason hopes.

Watch for:

  • Can Payton Thorne (9.0 yards per attempt, 21 TD, 8 INT) put up yards against Ohio State’s middling pass defense (57th in EPA per play)?
  • Will Michigan State be able to hold off Ohio State’s elite offensive line (sixth in line yards per carry, second in stuff rate, eighth in sack prevention rate)?
  • Will Jaxon Smith-Njigba continue to lead the Buckeyes receiving corps after the first games of his career with nine or more catches against Nebraska and Purdue?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 15.6

Arkansas at Alabama (-21)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Arkansas Alabama
2021 F+ 30 3
When Arkansas has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 36 8
2021 EPA/pass 67 25
2021 EPA/rush 52 15
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 24 2
2021 EPA/pass 40 19
2021 EPA/rush 34 28

A three-game losing streak just after their top-10 peak, along with the resulting elimination from a chaotic SEC West, has led Arkansas’ incredible season to fade from the limelight somewhat, but the Razorbacks deserve more recognition for the incredible rise they have made under second-year coach Sam Pittman. Just two seasons ago, this team was mired at the end of the Chad Morris era, closing out its second straight 0-8 season in conference play. Since then, they have jumped to 3-7 last year and 7-3 this year, and while their division hopes have been quashed, they would control their destiny to reach Atlanta had just a single play (the game-ending two-point attempt against Ole Miss) gone differently.

Of course, controlling one’s destiny is a bit of a cheat when the path requires a win over the No. 2 team in the nation. Still, the fact that the Razorbacks came even theoretically close to a conference championship this season is an unqualified success. Arkansas is on the verge of surpassing eight wins and finishing ranked, two things they have not done since 2011, some six coaches ago. Beating Alabama is a tall task, and the Razorbacks’ result this week shouldn’t define their season. That being said, a win or even a near-upset would be an excellent cap to their best year in a decade. So what can Arkansas do to challenge the Crimson Tide?

Perhaps most critically, they’ll need to win the turnover battle. Alabama’s +0.7 turnover margin per FBS game is tied for 18th nationally, and they have only lost the ball twice in one game: their stunning loss to Texas A&M. Balance is key to matching the Tide, too: only one team has combined a passing attack for over 200 yards with a rushing attack for over 2.5 per carry, that team once again being the Aggies. Alabama has had games where opponents have run on them for plenty of yardage (246 yards and four touchdowns allowed to Florida, 109 yards to LSU) and they have had games where they struggled to defend the pass (282 yards and over 10.0 yards per attempt to Tennessee, 300 yards to Mississippi State). But only one team has put together a serious threat on both fronts, and Alabama has generally gotten stronger in these games as they adjust to test opponents’ limits.

On the whole, the Razorbacks stack up well to these requirements: they average a +0.7 turnover margin (23rd), their passing attack has put up over 200 yards and multiple touchdowns in half of their games, and only Georgia has limited their rushing attack to under 140 yards or 3.5 yards per carry. With a reliable passer, a multifaceted run game, and a sturdy offensive line, they’re one of the most complete offenses Alabama has faced this season. The same can’t be said for the Razorbacks’ defense, though, solid as it may be. The Razorbacks rank 29th in defensive EPA, 32nd in opponent success rate, and 33rd in opponent explosiveness.

That’s all well and good, but it has been a while since the group has put together a full game. The secondary terrorized Georgia effectively, allowing just 72 yards on 11 attempts, but Arkansas couldn’t handle the Bulldogs’ assault in the trenches, allowing 273 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per carry. Then Ole Miss lit the Razorbacks up through the air (287 yards, 13.7 yards per attempt) and on the ground (324 yards, 6.6 yards per carry). Auburn got a career performance out of Bo Nix (292 yards, 11.2 yards per attempt), and the Razorbacks needed a last-minute touchdown drive to defeat Mississippi State’s Will Rogers (417 yards, 8.7 yards per attempt, 4 TD, 1 INT). It wasn’t until last week, when Arkansas held LSU to 200 passing yards (5.4 yards per attempt) and 108 rushing yards (2.6 yards per carry) in a 16-13 overtime win, that the defense shut down an FBS opponent for the first time since the Texas A&M game back in September.

Alabama has one of the best attacks in the country, having recently ended a 34-game stretch in which the Tide scored at least 30 points—the longest in school history by a factor of three. Bryce Young is one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the nation, without a single game this season in which he didn’t throw more touchdowns than interceptions, and Brian Robinson Jr. spearheads a dependable rushing corps that has averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry in seven of the Tide’s 10 games so far. Once again, shutting Alabama down on at least one front is a recipe for success—all three down-to-the-wire games the Tide have played in (Texas A&M, Florida, and LSU) have been among their four worst rushing performances of the season by total yardage. But handling Alabama is difficult for even the best of teams. Arkansas has a shot at a seismic upset, but they’ll need to be nearly perfect to stun the Tide.

Watch for:

  • Can the Razorbacks find rushing yardage against an all-around brilliant Tide run defense (third in yards per carry at the line, sixth at the second level, sixth in the open field)?
  • Will Arkansas’ tenacious passing down defense (fifth in EPA, first in success rate) stop the Tide from getting out of tight situations as often as they have?
  • Can Bryce Young stay out of trouble against a strong secondary that has brought home 10 interceptions in 10 games this season?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 17.7

SMU at Cincinnati (-11)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall SMU Cincinnati
2021 F+ 40 7
When SMU has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 19 11
2021 EPA/pass 5 6
2021 EPA/rush 86 23
When Cincinnati has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 72 22
2021 EPA/pass 118 65
2021 EPA/rush 32 4

Across all of college football, few players will be as important to the playoff race as Desmond Ridder. After a strong start highlighted by a methodical win over Notre Dame, Cincinnati has struggled to fill out its résumé convincingly. The American has a solid top three in the Bearcats, Houston, and SMU, but the rest of the conference provides little opportunity to show anything other than style points. Fortunately for Cincinnati, their run of good-not-great opponents is mostly at an end: from here until the selection of the playoff field, they’ll face 8-2 SMU, 6-4 East Carolina, and (most likely) 9-1 Houston in the conference championship game. Sitting at fifth in the playoff rankings, the Bearcats should have a great shot if they win out. Houston is finally ranked, and while SMU probably isn’t near the top 25, it’s hard to argue that any victory over them would hurt Cincinnati’s case. The task before this team is now a much simpler one, then: keep winning. The Bearcats need to finish the season as impressively as they started it, which means they need Ridder at his best.

Having recently played his 10th game in a season for the fourth time in his career, Ridder’s strength is unsurprisingly in his experience. The Bearcats veteran, as good as he is, doesn’t usually win games singlehandedly, but he’s rarely one to lose them. Across the 46 games of his career, Ridder has thrown multiple interceptions just three times, none this season. He excels at reading defenses and making pre-snap judgements, and he possesses some excellent scrambling ability (279 yards, 3.5 yards per carry), all of which helps the rushing corps immensely. With Jerome Ford (884 yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 15 TD) lurking in the backfield, Cincinnati’s opponents have to pick their poison: both the passing and rushing attacks have accounted for multiple touchdowns in seven games this season, with at least one group doing so in every game. Unsurprisingly, the Bearcats’ offense is one of the most efficient in college football, with top-20 success rates both rushing and passing and the sixth-lowest rate of passing downs.

When it all works, it’s almost unbeatable, but things haven’t always clicked for the Bearcats. Their worst offensive performance of the season may have come against Indiana, a game in which they gained just 50% of offensive yards and needed five turnovers to escape with the win. Ridder threw for just 210 yards on 36 attempts (5.8 yards per attempt) for one touchdown and one interception, and the run game was limited, with Ford totaling just 66 yards on 20 carries (3.3 yards per attempt). It was a different story two weeks later, though, when the Bearcats pulled away from Notre Dame thanks to Ridder’s career day (19-for-32, 297 yards, 9.3 yards per attempt, 2 TD). Across the next two games, the rushing attack returned in full force, averaging 308 yards, 8.2 yards per carry, and five touchdowns against Temple and UCF. Cincinnati has stayed alive since then, though both phases of their offense have been inconsistent. A high-scoring win last week—in which Ridder passed for 304 yards on 39 attempts and the rushers added 202 yards and four touchdowns—might mark a resurgence, but putting up points on USF and doing so against SMU are two very different tasks.

The Mustangs’ defense is strongest in the run game: they typically play seven or eight defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, which is why they allow just 2.19 yards per carry and a 32.2% rushing success rate (both fourth in FBS). The tradeoff is a secondary that has a tendency to lag behind and adjust relatively slowly. As good as the defensive line is, it’s only average at breaking through for sacks (6.5% of dropbacks, 62nd) or havoc (10.7%, 86th), and levelheaded quarterbacks have been able to punish SMU with an efficient vertical passing game.

The best showings by opposing passers have mostly been by the most experienced among them, such as Louisiana Tech’s Austin Kendall (24 career games; 351 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT against SMU) and Houston’s Clayton Tune (30 career games; 412 yards, 4 TD against SMU). For Ridder, heading into his 47th game at Cincinnati, that’s an encouraging pattern. If the Bearcats are to continue their unlikely march to the playoff, they’ll need their seasoned quarterback at the helm of a victory this weekend.

Watch for:

  • After leading SMU’s recovery from back-to-back losses at Houston and Memphis with a 377-yard win over UCF, can Tanner Mordecai guide the Mustangs to an upset win?
  • Will Cincinnati’s pass defense (third in EPA, eighth in success rate, 72nd in explosiveness) be able to limit Mordecai’s big-play potential?
  • Can the Bearcats’ excellent rushing attack (ninth in EPA, eighth in success rate) eke out yardage against SMU in the trenches?

FEI Outright Pick: Cincinnati by 10.0

Virginia at Pittsburgh (-14.5)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Virginia Pittsburgh
2021 F+ 50 16
When Virginia has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 7 20
2021 EPA/pass 18 43
2021 EPA/rush 19 14
When Pittsburgh has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 96 21
2021 EPA/pass 110 24
2021 EPA/rush 115 63

It’s the year of the dual-threat quarterback in the ACC. There are only five quarterbacks in FBS to reach 2,500 passing yards, 200 rushing yards, and 30 total touchdowns, and all of them play in the ACC. Draft darling Sam Howell has rebounded beautifully from an overreaction-inducing debut, averaging 9.0 yards per attempt for North Carolina with 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and some 727 rushing yards for nine extra touchdowns. He recently outdueled Sam Hartman to hand Wake Forest their first loss, though the Demon Deacons’ conference record remains unblemished on the strength of their passer’s 9.1 yards per attempt, 30 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and 329 rushing yards for nine touchdowns. Louisville’s Malik Cunningham nudged his numbers just above the required stat line on Thursday night, passing for 303 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for 224 yards and two more touchdowns.

The cream of the crop, though, are a pair of upperclassmen who have led two of college football’s most electrifying offenses to the top of the ACC Coastal. From Pitt, there’s Kenny Pickett: Heisman contender, all-time ACC plays leader, and unquestioned breakout player of the year. Across his first four seasons, Pickett’s passing touchdowns never topped his interceptions by more than four; this year, he has thrown 32 touchdowns to just four picks. His opposite number: Brennan Armstrong of Virginia, whose name is as apt as Pickett’s is a misnomer. Only Bailey Zappe and Will Rogers have more passing yards than Armstrong, and both have thrown over 75 more passes. Both the Panthers and the Cavaliers have an elite quarterback, which makes this matchup a tantalizing duel with the division at stake.

While it’s difficult to find much daylight between Pickett and Armstrong, the same can’t be said of their teams’ defenses. Pitt started out the season in rough shape on that side of the ball, allowing 34 to Tennessee and 44 to Western Michigan. Seven games down the road, however, it turns out 34 was slightly better than the average against the Volunteers, and the Broncos’ high-scoring upset over the Panthers looks like an outlier. Pitt has allowed 30 or more points just once in ACC play, with their opponents averaging just 22.5 points per game. They allow just 0.34 EPA per drive (11th) and 0.07 per play (13th). This remarkable turnaround has been led by the emergence of Pitt’s defensive line, which has allowed just 2.27 line yards per carry (eighth) and a 42.9% power success rate (fourth) while producing sacks on 10.4% of dropbacks (seventh). Virginia’s offensive line has fed the run well, helping the Cavaliers rank in the top 25 in yards per carry at the line, second level, and in the open field, but their sack prevention is middling—67th in sack rate allowed, 49th in front seven havoc allowed—so Pitt could get to Armstrong.

Virginia is a different story. Of the 10 teams the Cavaliers have faced, only three have failed to score 28 or more points against this defense: FCS William & Mary, 4-6 Illinois, and 3-7 Duke. In FBS play, Virginia has allowed 59 or more points as often as it has held opponents under that mark of 28. The advanced stats don’t tell a different tale: the Cavaliers sit 120th in EPA allowed per play, 112th in opponent success rate, 120th in havoc rate, and 100th or worse in yards per carry at all levels. It’s tough to see them putting up a fight against Pickett, particularly with their dismal pass defense (122nd in EPA allowed per pass, 109th in passing success rate).

Under the assumption that Pitt will score frequently, this game should come down to whether Armstrong can keep pace against a solid Panthers defense. That matchup should be appointment viewing, and if Virginia can muster a few stops against Pickett’s mighty passing attack, this showdown for the ACC Coastal has potential to develop into an all-time shootout. Either way, whichever quarterback emerges from this game with their conference championship hopes intact could soar into the ranks of the top Heisman contenders.

Watch for:

  • Can Virginia successfully bend without breaking and keep Pitt from delivering big plays to put the game out of reach?
  • Will Pitt take advantage of the field position battle against a Cavaliers team that has faced the seventh-longest fields in FBS?
  • Can the Panthers’ run game (55th in EPA, 48th in success rate; four players with over 200 yards) help put together long drives against Virginia?

FEI Outright Pick: Pittsburgh by 7.4

UAB at UTSA (-4.5)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN+)

Overall UAB UTSA
2021 F+ 60 45
When UAB has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 70 45
2021 EPA/pass 84 36
2021 EPA/rush 16 11
When UTSA has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 41 40
2021 EPA/pass 57 16
2021 EPA/rush 2 54

Before this season, UTSA had never won more than eight games in a season; now, they’re 10-0 with more wins on the way. They had never reached the top 25 at any point; now they’re 15th with potential to rise even higher. They had never won their division, let alone their conference, which is the next fact the Roadrunners hope to make obsolete. Standing in their way is another program which briefly didn’t exist during the last decade: UAB, which is 5-1 and could sneak by to win Conference USA West if they can upend UTSA on the road. Both the Roadrunners and the Blazers have overcome difficult circumstances in unlikely fashion to reach this point, but in all likelihood, only one will move forward with a shot at conference title glory. (Things could get wild in the final week if UAB wins, with the Blazers taking on a tough UTEP on Friday, which could set up UTSA to recover the division title against a bowl-chasing North Texas. In all likelihood, though, this is the division-decider.)

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Roadrunners is their all-around quality. Many an upstart Group of 5 team relies on an otherworldly passer or a stifling defensive unit to secure its impressive record, but UTSA has been among the most complete teams in the country. Frank Harris has transformed from an unremarkable starter in 2020 (6.5 yards per attempt, 12 TD, 6 INT) to a steady star in 2021 (8.1 yards per attempt, 20 TD, 5 INT). He has also provided valuable rushing yardage (400 yards, 5.7 yards per carry this season) to further the efforts of acclaimed rusher Sincere McCormick (1,150 yards, 5.0 yards per carry), who is in good position to repeat as C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. The Roadrunners are great on defense, too: they have only allowed more than 30 points once this season, and that was against the ridiculously good Western Kentucky offense, which has scored more than 30 points in every game. The bottom line: UTSA ranks in the top 30 in EPA per drive on both offense (30th) and defense (23rd). Only six other teams (Alabama, Appalachian State, Arizona State, Georgia, Liberty, and Pitt) can claim that.

UAB isn’t quite in that club, but only by a narrow margin—their 0.74 EPA per drive allowed is 32nd overall. The Blazers are just as balanced as their division rival, with Dylan Hopkins (10.1 yards per attempt, 11 TD, 4 INT) and DeWayne McBride (942 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, 10 TD) leading the offense and Antonio Moultrie (48 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks) captaining an excellent defensive line (top-15 in line yards per carry, power success rate, and stuff rate). UAB is a little uneven—the passing attack is top-15 in EPA and explosiveness, but 66th in success rate; the pass defense is 116th in explosiveness—but generally, they are also one of the best all-around teams in the Group of 5.

The key for UTSA will be to piece together an advantage based on the weak points in UAB’s armor. The Blazers’ biggest concern offensively is being able to move the ball reliably: both their rushing and passing attacks generate EPA (22nd and 14th, respectively) and explosiveness (28th and 5th) far better than raw success rate (52nd and 66th). Partially as a result, UAB has been merely average on third downs, converting just 39.3% of their attempts (63rd). Combine that weakness for falling behind schedule with a worrying havoc rate (17.2% overall, 74th), and UTSA’s plan of attack is clear: win the line of scrimmage, produce tackles for loss to get UAB behind the chains, and step up with their own solid third-down defense when it counts.

The counter for the Blazers is to do what they do best: make big plays. UAB ranks eighth in the nation in explosiveness, and UTSA has struggled to defend the deep ball, allowing 1.65 EPA per successful pass (84th). While the run defense becomes downright smothering on long rushes (only 0.52 open field yards allowed per carry, third in FBS), the same can’t be said of the Roadrunners’ beleaguered secondary. Fortunately, UTSA has plenty of options to target downfield: Gerrit Prince, Trea Shropshire, and RaJae’ Johnson-Sanders all have at least 22.0 yards per catch on 15 or more receptions. For the Blazers to bring an unlikely undefeated season to an end, they’ll send out one of football’s most explosive passing games in full force.

Watch for:

  • Can UTSA’s talented secondary take advantage of the Blazers’ mistakes and secure breakups or interceptions?
  • After a rare two-turnover day against Southern Miss, will UTSA hold onto the ball and maximize their drives?
  • Can McBride and Jermaine Brown Jr. (468 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 4 TD) open up big plays in the run game for UAB?

FEI Outright Pick: UTSA by 8.0

Oregon at Utah (-3)—Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oregon Utah
2021 F+ 13 17
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
2021 F+ 9 31
2021 EPA/pass 50 50
2021 EPA/rush 6 76
When Utah has the ball Defense Offense
2021 F+ 34 13
2021 EPA/pass 67 57
2021 EPA/rush 37 2

Both Oregon and Utah are better on offense than they are on defense, but both teams’ best player is nevertheless on the defensive front. The representative for the Ducks is naturally edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, the projected first overall pick in next year’s NFL draft. After injury sidelined him early in the season, Thibodeaux has returned to singlehandedly make Oregon’s pass rush among the best in FBS. His stats—34 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, six sacks—don’t jump off the page, even accounting for his missed games, but there are limits to how informative defensive stats can be, and Thibodeaux pushes them. Being so good that opposing offenses adjust on the fly to keep him away from the ball is precisely what makes Thibodeaux so incredible.

But if you want a Heisman contender with glowing numbers, look no further than Oregon’s opponent this week. At the heart of Utah’s defense is versatile linebacker Devin Lloyd, who was already one of the best front-seven players in college football before he also became one of the best secondary players this season. In assistance up front, Lloyd has 85 tackles, 20 tackles for loss (the most in FBS), and six sacks; in the backfield, he has found time to add six pass breakups and three interceptions. With at least three games left in his season, that five-figure stat line is already the only one of its kind in the 21st century. Even the simpler combination of 20 tackles for loss and three interceptions has only been replicated once in the last 20 years (by TCU’s Paul Dawson in 2014).

Offensively, both teams dominate the line of scrimmage. Oregon ranks sixth in line yards per carry and Utah seventh, and both teams are in the top 15 in EPA per rush. Their run games aren’t quite the same, though: Oregon’s is defined by a towering 56.0% success rate, second in FBS, while Utah’s strength is in big rushing plays, as they rank 12th in rushing explosiveness. Nevertheless, the key of both offenses is on the ground, which means both teams will be taking on their opponent’s defensive superstar frequently. Both lines prevent havoc well (Oregon is seventh in opponent front seven havoc; Utah is 31st), but Thibodeaux and Lloyd are always threats to turn a game on its head in one play.

As for the offenses themselves, the Ducks have a more traditional rushing corps, with Travis Dye (908 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 12 TD) as the feature back, Anthony Brown (551 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 8 TD) adding some dual-threat yardage, and CJ Verdell (397 yards, 5.2 yards per carry, 5 TD) taking over on power rushes, with Byron Cardwell (320 yards, 7.8 yards per carry, 3 TD) also available as a secondary big-play option. The Utes are a different story as Tavion Thomas, Micah Bernard, and TJ Pledger have all taken at least 65 carries for at least 5.9 yards per carry apiece. Utah pivoted first to Bernard (29 carries against BYU and San Diego State), then to Thomas (16 or more carries in a five-game stretch from USC to Stanford), and most recently to Pledger (25 carries for 119 yards against Arizona). Injury, inconsistency, and uncertainty have affected the group, but the Utes have managed it perfectly, and if Thomas is healthy, they can put three different big-play rushing threats on the field.

The Utes have all but won the Pac-12 South; their only conference loss is out of the division, and they have already beaten everybody within striking distance. This game means much more for Oregon, who is facing a demanding stretch run in which they’ll face Utah, then rising rival Oregon State, and presumably Utah again in the conference championship game. If they win all three games, they’ll have a spot in the playoff, but can they pull off that finish? Utah is the best, most experimental, and most explosive team the Ducks have faced since they outdueled Ohio State near the start of the season, and Oregon will have their hands full trying to keep their CFP hopes alive. The only certainty is that both teams will put on a show on both sides of the ball.

Watch for:

  • Will Anthony Brown continue to avoid interceptions, or will his opponents’ frequent secondary havoc catch up with him?
  • Can the Utes hold down the fort against the third-best third-down offense in the nation (converting 53.4% of attempts)?
  • Will Utah’s superb offensive line (12th in line yards per carry, seventh in opportunity rate, seventh in sack prevention rate) lead their rushing attack to reliable yardage?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 2.0

FEI Picks: Week 12

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Pick ATS
at Ohio State -19 Michigan State Ohio State Michigan State Michigan State
at Alabama -21 Arkansas Alabama Arkansas Arkansas
at Cincinnati -11 SMU Cincinnati SMU Cincinnati
at Pittsburgh -14.5 Virginia Pittsburgh Virginia Pittsburgh
at Utah -3 Oregon Utah Oregon Oregon

FEI’s picks ATS in Week 11: 6-0

FEI’s picks ATS in 2021: 33-33

Preston’s picks ATS in Week 11: 3-3

Preston’s picks ATS in 2021: 33-33

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