Today we continue the second-half preview by discussing numbers 4 and 3 on my countdown of most difficult games remaining on the schedule. A reminder about how I conducted this extremely scientific study:
Some of the things I looked at:
- Each team’s immediately preceding 3 game stretch before the match-up. I’m generally looking at quality of opponent, home/away splits, etc. rather than actual result. This is for good reason: I have no clue the results of future match-ups.
- What I’m calling mismatch opportunities. I looked at things like scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense, rushing defense, passing offense, passing defense, and turnover stats to consider particular areas for exploitation. I wasn’t so much interested in the close calls as I was with clear advantages one way or another.
- Quality of competition. What would I consider each team’s profile to date on what they’ve already accomplished? I reviewed things like the number of games played to date versus Power 5 conference opponents, each team’s best win as well as their worst loss.
- A few advanced metrics: Once I had some preliminary thoughts, I pulled in the work of folks like Jeff Sagarin and Bill Connelly to see if there was anything obvious that maybe I was overlooking. I’m not going to reference them much because I’m told stats are for losers or something. Rest assured though, I certainly reviewed some #sportsmath.
- The Moons anxiety factor. This is just what my gut tells me about each match-up. I could be wrong about applying #’s 1-4, but I feel reasonably confident in my application of the Moons anxiety factor.
- Finally, Sunday night, via Twitter, I crowd sourced other folks’ countdown just to see what the masses are thinking. There’s some selection bias as if you follow me on Twitter, you probably have questionable judgment. I can’t say I necessarily considered these rankings, but I’ll include them below for reference.
So people can know what I was considering, here are my generalized observations about the Irish.
Quality of Competition: 4/6 games to date have been versus Power 5 competition. In a bit of an anomaly, the Irish are 3-0 on the road in such games and 0-1 at home. Notre Dame’s first 3 games of the second half will all be at home versus P5 teams, so the chance to correct that weirdness starts this weekend.
To date, Notre Dame’s road win versus Michigan State I have ranked as the second best “Best Win” among remaining competitors. I give USC a slight edge to date for their 42-24 dismantling of Stanford in Week 2. Defeating Sparty 38-18 on the road was certainly impressive, and given that that’s their only loss, I certainly get those that might want to elevate the result even higher. I just think that Stanford is a superior opponent to Sparty. I could be wrong.
Notre Dame’s 1 point loss to UGA also ranks as the seoncd “best” “Worst Loss” among the remaining competitors. Miami’s “yet to lose” edges out the Irish. You don’t think they’ve played anybody? Fine. But let me assure you, even if ND and Miami didn’t play one another, an undefeated Miami would be ranked higher than a 1-loss ND. If you don’t like that, please take that up with history and the people who actually have votes.
USC, NC State, and Stanford have all had a greater percentage to date include Power 5 competition. Stanford has by almost any measure played a more difficult schedule than the Irish. Miami and Navy trail by a wide margin in schedule strength played.
Notre Dame’s Profile for the statistical categories I considered are as follows [Rank provided first with (value in parentheses)]:
Scoring Offense: 14 (40 PPG)
Scoring Defense: 14 (16.8 PPGA)
Rush Yards per Attempt: 3 (7.74 rpa)
Rush Yards Allowed per Attempt: 44 (3.72 rpa)
Pass Yards per Game: 116 (163.2 ypg)
Pass Yards per Game Allowed: 78 (231.2 ypg)
Turnovers Forced: 17 (14 created)
Turnovers Allowed: 31 (7 surrendered)
If you missed it, Tex wrote a great piece on learning to hate USC. Others on the Interwebs have already begun debating whether defeating USC would count as a “signature” win. Which gets me to…
#4: USC – THIS SATURDAY – Home: (Crowd Source Rank: #3)
Here’s the thing, on the Moons Anxiety Scale, this is a 10…or a 1…I never really decided how this scale works, but however it works…it would get the highest (or lowest?) rating. Everything about this game screams “your team’s going to lose.”
Rivalry game? Check
When’s it being played? Night
Are the stakes high? You bet
How badly do you want to see the victory? Extremely
Do you have real world obligations that make stress, a night game, and the inevitable tall glass of whiskey a bad idea? Absolutely
The top 4 games are all pretty close. So close that if you have USC #1 and think I’m crazy for having them 4, I’m not going to put up that much of a fight. The fan vote straw poll agreed. 8 “points” separated numbers 1 through 4. USC ended up at #3. (For comparison’s sake – Navy at #5 was 34 points behind fan #4). It would be enough to note the perceived enormity of the moment on Saturday and say it’s the scariest/most important/most dangerous game of the year. Tack on having a likely Top 3 NFL Draft pick at quarterback, and this feels like a no brainer? So what happened? Why do I have them at #4?
Brian Kelly’s History: BK got lucky at avoiding the peak Pete Carroll seasons. Just thinking back to Poodle’s nightmarish domination of Notre Dame still stirs me awake in the middle of the night. So, yeah, facing Lane Kiffin, Sark, and now Clay Helton is not quite the same. But, Brian Kelly’s generally done okay. He’s 4-3 overall versus USC, which while not outstanding, is pretty good when you consider what Davie, Ty, and Charlie did. Heck, there’s a certain fan base up in Ann Arbor whose present coach has a 1-4 record versus their biggest rivals. I can live with 4-3. Consider these additional facts:
Notre Dame won their previous match-up heading into the USC tilt. That’s been true 5 other times. Brian Kelly is 4-1 in those games.
If you zoom out a little farther, the Irish have won their last 3 games heading into this weekend. Notre Dame’s had a winning record in their previous 3 games on 5 other occasions. They’re 4-1 in those as well.
The Irish currently sport a .833 winning percentage for the season. Twice before the team’s had at least the good a winning percentage. Brian Kelly’s 2-0 in that scenario.
Brian Kelly is 8-1 following a bye week (excluding bowl lead up).
I always figured the game I’d most disdain from 2011 was the South Florida game…or the Michigan game. But, at least for tonight, it’s the USC game, because that’s the only blip in all of these stats.
I understand the frustration some have had with Brian Kelly, and really Notre Dame for now several decades of not showing up on the biggest stages. The BCS shellings. USC 2005. FSU. Clemson. There’s a theme that’s sadly developed around the program when the light is shining brightest…and that’s coming up short. And yes, Saturday has that feel. I’m not sure that this game is quite at that level. After all, both teams already have one loss. But, it’s tough to shake that sinking feeling. I just have to remind myself that USC is not the team Kelly has shrunk against. I seem like I’m still talking this game up, not down. So, what else?
Scheduling Advantage!: I mentioned this when discussing the Wake Forest game a couple of days ago – given the general difficulty of Notre Dame’s schedule, it is tough to find “positives.” The USC game was the one match-up I felt the Irish had a clear advantage. Notre Dame has had two weeks to prepare. They’re at home. The previous two games they played were versus Miami (Ohio) and an injury depleted UNC squad. If Jack Swarbrick was given the ability to pick any place to slot USC in this year’s schedule, it would be right here. As I mentioned, Kelly’s been very good coming off of a bye week. From the Irish side of the equation, this is set up perfectly.
In stark contrast, USC is coming off a close a dramatic game versus a physical Utah team. Yes, the Trojans emerged victorious, but having to overcome a 21-7 halftime deficit and then travel half way across the country for a showdown with a major rival is not an easy thing to do. USC’s schedule lacks a bye week whatsoever. Their last 5 games have included: A 2 overtime win over Texas, a closer than expected game at Cal, a 3 point loss at Washington State, Oregon State, and the aforementioned clash with Utah. To expect USC to not be ready would be a mistake, but it’s tough to look at those schedules next to one another and not give a clear advantage to the Irish.
Turnovers Matter: Sam Darnold is an impressive quarterback. Look what he did to Penn State in last year’s Rose Bowl. 450 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 17 unanswered 4th quarter points. Look what he did to Utah just last week in the second half. In a very short period of time, Darnold has established himself as a difference maker and expected top NFL draft pick. That said, Darnold has some rather large warts on the early season stat line as well. Namely:
9 Interceptions – Only Tanner Lee (10) has more interceptions for a Power 5 QB.
6 fumbles – No Power 5 player has more, and
4 fumbles lost – Only Iowa QB Nathan Stanley has as many in the P5.
Utah was the first game Darnold did not throw an interception. Of course, he lost 3 fumbles. Darnold threw 9 interceptions to 31 touchdowns last year. He’d need to throw 16 touchdowns without an interception at this point to reach that same rate. As much as I fear Darnold as a playmaker and am concerned that the secondary has not seen a quarterback remotely as talented to date, recent history suggests he’s going to give the Irish chances to end possessions prematurely. The Trojans are 122nd nationally in turnovers allowed (16) in just 7 games. They are averaging more than 2 turnovers a game. Basically, the averages think Notre Dame starts this game with a +1 turnover differential, and that matters. A lot. NC State, Wake Forest, Miami, and Stanford all do pretty well with ball security. USC does not. After ranking 114th and 104th in takeaways per game the last two seasons, the Irish defense currently sits 15th nationally averaging 2.3 takeaways per game. It just so happens that 2.3 is also the number of giveaways USC averages. It’s easily the biggest turnover mismatch the Irish have on paper the second half.
#3: N.C. State – October 28, 2017 – Home: (Crowd Source Rank: #2)
It turns out, just about everyone fears the N.C. State game. Originally, I had N.C. State #2 as well. I think we’re all suffering a year long hangover from the 2016 hurricane pass-a-thon. There’s no question, N.C. State is a solid, all around team. My final decision came down to:
Schedule Advantage: Wolfpack: Everything I said about Notre Dame as it relates to USC. Just go ahead and copy/paste it down here and change the team names a little bit. While the Irish will be involved in a primetime clash with a major rival, N.C. State will be at home enjoying the drink version of a Hurricane. I am sure they too will appreciate having the extra week to prepare and having come off a relatively easy game versus Pitt. Yes, N.C. State will have to travel to South Bend which might dull the impact a little bit. However, Notre Dame follows up its greatest scheduling advantage with its greatest scheduling disadvantage.
Pass Defense Concerns for the Irish?: I don’t know. We’ll learn some this week versus USC. I keep replaying in my head some dropped TD passes in both the UNC and BC games and know opposing offenses let some points and yards slip quite literally through their fingers. You may not know his name, but N.C. State’s quarterback Ryan Finley currently ranks 7th in the FBS among qualified quarterbacks in completion percentage just a tick shy of 70%. His 1,968 yards ranks 12th…just 95 yards fewer than Sam Darnold. However, here’s the difference…and it’s a big one…Finley has yet to throw an interception this year. In fact, no quarterback in college football has thrown for more yards without throwing an interception than Ryan Finley. Notre Dame’s pass defense ranks 78th in football giving up about 230 yards a game. Here are the opposition to date’s ranks in passing yards/game:
Temple: 52 (247.3)
Georgia: 108 (170.8)
Boston College: 109 (168.1)
Michigan State: 88 (197.0)
Miami (OH): 46 (257.7)
UNC: 71 (212.7)
Now let’s consider some of the future schedule:
USC: 23 (296.4)
NC State: 22 (297.0)
Miami: 28 (288.5)
Let that sink in for a moment – The best passing offense ND’s played to date is Miami (OH) who ranks 46th. They’ve played 3 offenses that rank worse than 85th. It would be one thing if Notre Dame was just that good defensively, but let me repeat: Notre Dame ranks 78th nationally in passing yards allowed per game. If you want to chalk that up to garbage time, that’s probably fair to an extent. However, some of the advanced metrics remain pretty concerned about both Nicks (Watkins and Coleman) as well as Jalen Elliott in the secondary, and I’m not sure we’ve seen enough from any of them to feel entirely comfortable the other way.
But, the Advanced Metrics Don’t Like N.C. State that much: In some ways, this is only true as it relates to the two teams that will remain, Stanford and Miami. Both Sagarin and the Football Outsiders modeling prefer Stanford and Miami to N.C. State, although all three rank in the Top 30 nationally. I’ll admit that I was taken back to find out that Bill Connelly’s Win Probability gives Notre Dame a 72% chance to beat N.C. State. Compare that to 63% for USC, 50% for Stanford, and just 44% for Miami. What it basically amounts to is that the advanced models are not sold on NC State’s defense as being anything more than middle of the (wolf)pack. By contrast, most of the models like what ND’s unit is doing as a whole. The models also generally like ND’s offense (passing woes be damned). In short, they favor ND’s offense over NC State’s defense by a wide enough margin compared to ND’s defense versus NC State’s offense to convince the models to expect a W for the Irish. Computers are smart! This was enough to convince me to slate NC State behind Stanford and Miami but still ahead of USC for the aforementioned reasons.
Let’s all just hope the computers are the smart ones…well, at least until we start talking about Miami and Stanford.