How Bama, Ohio State and Saturday's other favorites could lose

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Friday, October 25, 2019

The past two weeks have reminded us just how wild college football can be.

While we focused all of our midweek energy looking at specific matchups -- Florida vs. LSU and Oklahoma vs. Texas in Week 7, Michigan vs. Penn State and Oregon vs. Washington in Week 8 -- supposed afterthoughts became the biggest stories of the week. South Carolina, given a 14% win probability by SP+ in its game at Georgia, won in Athens; the next week, Illinois, with an 8% win probability in hosting Wisconsin, knocked off the Badgers.

Really, this was a quick lesson in the power of odds. Teams given an 8% chance of winning a game will indeed win 8% of the time, right?

That's a pretty important lesson to keep in mind as we gear up for Week 9. Ten of the top 12 teams in this week's AP poll are in action, and seven of them are favored by double digits. (The other three: No. 9 Auburn is an underdog at No. 2 LSU, No. 6 Penn State is a six-point favorite at Michigan State, and No. 8 Notre Dame is a pick 'em at No. 19 Michigan.)

Using SP+ win probabilities, though, the chances of all seven double-digit favorites winning this weekend are only 27%. The odds of one of them losing are around 41%, and the odds of more than one losing are 32%.

It might be a useful exercise, then, to walk through each of these top-billed games and look at how things might go awry.

No. 1 Alabama vs. Arkansas

Caesars line: Alabama -31.5

SP+ projection*: Bama 48, Arkansas 8 (win probability: 99%)

How Bama loses: Deer-in-headlights QB + nothing-to-lose opponent.

Even with Mac Jones starting for the injured Tua Tagovailoa, we know the Crimson Tide will almost certainly have too much talent for a team currently ranked between Arkansas State and Marshall, at 87th in the latest SP+ rankings.

Jones certainly didn't light the world afire against Tennessee last week, though, averaging just 5.2 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) despite the best receiving corps in college football. (Tagovailoa was averaging 11.5 yards per attempt.) While offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian probably will come up with a more run-heavy game plan, and while that game plan probably will work against a defense ranked 104th in rushing SP+, the Tide will still fall behind schedule at times, and if Jones is misfiring, that could create more turnovers or three-and-outs than Alabama typically commits.

If that creates some easy points, and the extreme-underdog Hogs are able to play loose and stay close, the crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium could begin to clam up in the second half. That can turn a home-field advantage into the opposite.

Note: SP+ does not make adjustments for injuries or personnel changes.

No. 2 LSU vs. No. 9 Auburn

Caesars line: LSU -10.5

SP+ projection: LSU 34, Auburn 24 (win probability: 71%)

How LSU loses: "Plan B is ... what, exactly?"

The main reason LSU could lose is that Auburn is good. And its defense is the best this ridiculous LSU offense has faced.

Auburn is 10th in SP+, driven primarily by a defense that ranks sixth. Granted, Auburn is better at defending the run than the pass -- when you're playing LSU, it's better to be the other way around -- but the secondary still features a pair of veteran safeties in Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas and active corners in Noah Igbinoghene and Javaris Davis.

Auburn held both Oregon and Florida below a 140 passer rating, giving up a high completion rate but almost no big plays whatsoever, and if LSU quarterback Joe Burrowbecomes impatient and forces ill-advised throws, Auburn could have LSU playing catch-up for the first time all year. The favored Tigers might have to lean more heavily on defense and the run game. While that was the typical LSU recipe before 2019, it's a little dusty, and the defense (29th in defensive SP+) has shown a few more cracks than normal.

No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 13 Wisconsin

Caesars line: Ohio State -14.5

SP+ projection: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 20 (win probability: 74%)

How Ohio State loses: Playing on the Badgers' terms.

The Big Ten's dominant football recipe of the past century -- run the ball, plod along, play dominant defense, win -- is alive and well in 2019: The league boasts seven of the top 16 defenses in the country, per defensive SP+, and few of those teams play with any semblance of offensive tempo.

Until last week, Wisconsin was easily the most successful purveyor of this old-school approach. The Badgers shut out four of their first six opponents and got more than enough offense out of running back Jonathan Taylor and a throw-to-the-sticks passing game. The god of turnovers smited the Badgers in Champaign, however, and a great red zone team forgot how to finish drives. Illinois pulled a stunning 24-23 upset.

If the Badgers are able to move on from that gutting loss, they still have all the same components they did a week ago. If they force Ohio State to settle for field goals (while scoring TDs themselves) and play a lovely game of slow-motion keepaway, they can beat anyone, including the best team in the country to date.

No. 4 Clemson vs. Boston College

Caesars line: Clemson -34

SP+ projection: Clemson 43, BC 16 (win probability: 95%)

How Clemson loses: Can't stop the bowling balls.

If Arkansas-Bama isn't the least likely upset on this list, then BC-Clemson is. That said, BC does have one advantage for a game like this: The Eagles know exactly what they are. They play at the fastest tempo in the country, they run nearly as much as a triple-option team, and they are extremely tough to prepare for.

Even with starting QB Anthony Brown out for the season, Steve Addazio's 4-3 Eagles still dominated NC State, with burly backs AJ Dillon and David Bailey (each 240 pounds or bigger) combining for 50 carries and 404 yards. Yes, 404 yards.

Are they good defensively? No. Does this recipe tend to work against Clemson? Absolutely not. BC has scored a combined 24 points in its past three games against the Tigers. But it has to work only once to be memorable. If BC is able to take advantage of the increasingly customary couple of errant Trevor Lawrence passes, play keep-away with its bowling-ball backs and make things as weird as possible ... hey, you never know.

OK, you probably know. But still.

No. 5 Oklahoma at Kansas State

Caesars line: OU -23.5

SP+ projection: OU 39, KSU 20 (win probability: 87%)

How Oklahoma loses: Chris Klieman finds Bill Snyder's magic wand.

K-State coaching legend Snyder retired last year, but damned if the Wildcats don't still bear plenty of Snyderian tendencies. They operate at an anti-Big 12 tempo (123rd in adjusted pace). They run the ball a ton. They avoid negative plays. They form a cloud around your passing game and wait for you to make a mistake.

This recipe was good enough for wins over Mississippi State and TCU, and while it almost certainly won't be enough for a win over an OU team that -- no offense, MSU and TCU -- actually has a quarterback, we can at least see how one might take shape. All we have to do is look at Snyder's upset oeuvre.

Take, for instance, the 2011 KSU-Baylor game, a classic of its genre. Against Robert Griffin III & Co., K-State pounded out five drives of more than five minutes (one of 11-plus), recovered two first-half fumbles and set up the winning field goal with a late-fourth-quarter interception. Granted, that 2011 KSU team was a lot better than 2019's, but I'm not here to tell you how this won't happen.

No. 6 Penn State at Michigan State

Caesars line: PSU -6

SP+ projection: PSU 29, MSU 20 (win probability: 70%)

How PSU loses: Just watch the 2017 and 2018 games.

Since the start of the 2017 season, Penn State is 27-6 overall ... but 0-2 against Michigan State. In both games, they squandered early opportunities, allowed the offensively limited Spartans to stay closer than they should have, then watched second-half leads fritter away.

Considering this is more or less the same MSU team as normal -- offensively challenged and defensively stout -- it's easy to wonder if these past couple of games have gotten into PSU's head a bit. The Spartans are as capable of anyone of limiting human deep ballKJ Hamler, and what happens if PSU sees some early drives stall out and the score is tied 10-10 into the second half? Do they suffer collective flashbacks?

If there's consolation for PSU fans, it's that this Penn State team is better than last year's, at least, and MSU is worse. The Spartans' pass defense is a bit more passive than normal, and PSU's outstanding run defense should force a ton of third-and-9s. Still, the script is pretty well-defined.

No. 8 Notre Dame at No. 19 Michigan

Caesars line:Michigan -1

SP+ projection: Notre Dame 24, Michigan 28 (win probability: 41%)

How Notre Dame loses: Pretty easily, actually.

Michigan has lost eight games in a row to top-10 teams, and by an average of two touchdowns. Notre Dame hasn't really spent much of 2019 playing like a top-10 team, though, and some of the traits most of these Michigan-vanquishing teams have possessed -- elite defenses, explosive offenses -- are not really clubs in the Notre Dame golf bag this year.

The Irish are good, of course, but they have been even more bend-don't-break than normal defensively, and while the passing game largely avoids crippling mistakes, it also ranks 80th in passing marginal efficiency. They have played two teams ranked better than 35th in SP+ this year (No. 5 Georgia, No. 23 USC) and have been outscored 50-47. Michigan: 14th in SP+.

Frustrate Ian Book. Make the Irish run game work a lot harder than it had to against USC. Force the Irish defense to bend right into scoring opportunities. It's pretty easy to describe how Michigan wins this game ... though the Wolverines have proved that following said recipe isn't always easy when the spotlight's on.

No. 11 Oregon vs. Washington State

Caesars line: Oregon -14

SP+ projection: Oregon 35, Wazzu 26 (win probability: 70%)

How Oregon loses: [motions to last four seasons]

Wazzu has won four straight over the Ducks, the past three by an average of 18 points. You either solve the Mike Leach riddle or you don't, and since Mario Cristobal moved to Eugene (first as offensive coordinator, then as head coach), that riddle has remained unsolved.

So what's different this time? Two major things: Oregon has a defense, and Washington State might not. The Ducks have had an average defensive SP+ ranking of 72nd during this four-game losing streak to the Cougs but currently rank eighth. Wazzu's defense currently ranks 78th. The offense is as efficient as ever, but in the Cougars' three losses, they've given up a combined 143 points.

Last week, however, in the second game after defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys resigned, Wazzu put together its best defensive performance of the year in a 41-10 win over Colorado. Run defense has been the Cougs' downfall, and Oregon has only recently begun to run the ball effectively. Can Wazzu put the game onJustin Herbert's shoulders and frustrate him the way it did last year?

No. 12 Utah vs. Cal

Caesars line: Utah -21

SP+ projection: Utah 34, Cal 11 (win probability: 90%)

How Utah loses: Defense-first slugfests are Cal's happy place.

Utah is running the ball as much as ever, and at as slow a tempo as ever (128th in adjusted pace), but the Utes are putting up points like a high-tempo team -- 30 on BYU, 38 on Wazzu, 52 on Oregon State. Their defense is among the best of the Kyle Whittingham era, too, and this balance has driven them to ninth overall in SP+.

When quarterback Tyler Huntley got hurt last week, however, the Utes' win over Arizona State turned into more of an Old Utah win. The Utes suffocated the Sun Devils but won by only a 21-3 margin. Twenty-four total points? That's Cal's type of game right there.

In the four games Cal has played against top-15 teams in the past two seasons, the Golden Bears have won by scores of 20-19 and 12-10 and lost by scores of 19-13 and 17-7. Huntley is listed as probable, but if he isn't full strength, the Utes could find themselves in exactly the kind of defense-first dogfight that Cal and head coach Justin Wilcox live for. The tighter the score and the slower the game, the fewer breaks the Golden Bears need to pull an upset.

Week 9 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.

(And no, I didn't put the immaculate UConn-UMass game on this list, as tempting as it was.)

All times Eastern


Columbia at Dartmouth (6 p.m., ESPNU). Sure, watch USC-Colorado, too, just in case USC takes its eye off the ball (not unheard of). But in Dartmouth you've got a prime opportunity to watch one of the best teams in the FCS and one of the most well-coached defenses at any level. (Columbia's defense is rock solid, too.) SP+ projection: Dartmouth 32, Columbia 17 (though I'm guessing 22-7 is more likely)

Early Saturday

Miami at Pitt (noon, ESPN). For the past couple of weeks, I've been asking my friend Justin Moore (@tfgridiron on Twitter) to run the numbers on what results are most likely to get us the "six-way ACC Coastal tie at 4-4" scenario we've always dreamed of. His report this week: "If Louisville beats UVa, Duke beats UNC, and Miami beats Pitt, the odds are 1-in-500. If all three go the other way, it's 1-in-125,000." Go Cards, go Devils, and go Canes. (This one's also interesting because SP+ still loves Miami and has yet to come around on Pitt and has therefore created a strange-to-the-eye projection.)

SP+ projection: Miami 24, Pitt 18

No. 13 Wisconsin at No. 3 Ohio State (noon, Fox). If nothing else, this is another test of Ohio State's immortality. Michigan State was able to frustrate the Buckeyes' offense for four drives, and Northwestern was able to for about two. What can the Badgers do that they couldn't?

SP+ projection: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 20

Clarion at Slippery Rock (1 p.m., ESPN3). Look, when the team I ranked No. 2 on my Fun Teams to Follow list is available to watch on the ESPN3 machine, I'm going to recommend you watch it. The Rock puts up points in buckets. Pull this game up on your laptop.

SP+ projection:Slippery Rock 49, Clarion 22

Saturday afternoon

No. 9 Auburn at No. 2 LSU (3:30 p.m., CBS). I'm just saying, you guys, an unranked or lower-ranked team has won the past three games in this series. This is a test unlike what LSU has faced so far.

SP+ projection: LSU 34, Auburn 24

No. 6 Penn State at Michigan State (3:30 p.m., ABC). PSU's James Franklin is just 1-4 against Mark Dantonio; the Nittany Lions' Sparty problem extends beyond just the past two years, though in only the past two losses were the Nittany Lions the superior team on paper. This is a mental barrier PSU has to overcome to remain a contender.

SP+ projection: PSU 29, MSU 20 (though I'm guessing 19-10 is more likely)

Tulane at Navy (3:30 p.m., CBSSN). SMU and Memphis have edged ahead as the AAC West favorites, but the winner here still has a chance, especially if said winner is Navy. Beyond that, though, just watch this game because of the quality. This is the best Tulane team of the century and the best Navy team in years.

SP+ projection: Navy 31, Tulane 28

NDSU at SDSU (3 p.m., ESPN+). Is this games-to-watch section a little small-school-heavy this week? Absolutely. But what was I going to do, not include a game so big that GameDay will be in attendance? NDSU has won 11 of 13 in this Dakota Marker series, but the Jackrabbits match up awfully well on paper and might have the best offense in the FCS.

SP+ projection: SDSU 33, NDSU 32

Saturday evening

No. 8 Notre Dame at No. 19 Michigan (7:30 p.m., ABC). If Harbaugh is ever going to get off the schneid against top-10 teams, now is one hell of an opportunity.

SP+ projection: Michigan 28, Notre Dame 24

Late Saturday

Washington State at No. 11 Oregon (10:30 p.m., ESPN). Was last week's win over Colorado a sign that Wazzu has rebounded from its midseason slump? Will Oregon be hungover after last week's big win over Washington?

SP+ projection:Oregon 35, Washington State 26

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