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UCLA comeback punctuates wild Week 1

Jeff Fogle
VSiN.com

Favored superpowers went unscathed, but upsets and epic collapses still rocked the college football world in wild Week 1 of the 2017 season.

Sunday Football: UCLA rallies from down 44-10 down! Virginia Tech survives West Virginia
Let’s start with the games you were watching before hitting the sack Sunday night. Hopefully those of you on the East coast didn’t go to bed too early for UCLA’s amazing comeback! 

In our write-ups this season, we’re going to focus on what have traditionally been the best “storytelling” and “indicator” stats. If you’re not a stathead by nature, and this stuff tastes like broccoli to you…we hope you’ll at least consider taking a quick peak at “Yards-per-Play” and “TD Drive Lengths” in each game. Those two (the first and last in each block) tell you so much about who owned the point of attack, and who was able to finish drives most effectively and efficiently. 

UCLA (-6.5) 45, Texas A&M 44 

  • Yards-per-Play: Texas A&M 5.1, UCLA 6.7
  • Third Down Conversions: Texas A&M 43%, UCLA 44%
  • Turnovers: Texas A&M 0, UCLA 3
  • Rushing Yards: Texas A&M 382, UCLA 63
  • Passing Stats: Texas A&M 9-30-0-89, UCLA 35-58-0-491
  • TD Drive Lengths: Texas A&M 74-20-99-56-61, UCLA 67-75-85-96-74-66

Did both head coaches get themselves fired? Jim Mora’s UCLA Bruins were so unprepared out of the gate that you had to wonder what they’d been doing the past few weeks. Texas A&M would storm to a 44-10 third quarter lead fueled by dominance on the ground and a few cheap points off UCLA miscues. THAT WASN’T ENOUGH! Kevin Sumlin managed to NOT run clock with a superior ground game, while forgetting that his defenders are prone to collapsing in the second half. UCLA would come all the way back to win a historic stunner. Just the kind of game you want Gus Johnson of FOX to be calling (since Brent Musburger “retired!”). 

The biggest mystery of the night is why A&M kept trying to pass in the second half with an inexperienced erratic quarterback. You can see the horrible passing line above. That’s the sum of two QB’s. Kellen Mond played most of the night and finished the game. He was 3-17-0-27, while getting sacked four times. Get the important road win, THEN practice your passing against Nicholls State and Louisiana-Lafayette!

Josh Rosen may have launched a legend. Can’t forget he was the guy struggling for 2.5 quarters while falling behind by 34 points. Historic finish that will follow him for his career. 

Virginia Tech (-5) 31, West Virginia 24

  • Yards-per-Play: W. Virginia 6.7, Virginia Tech 6.5
  • Third Down Conversions: W. Virginia 26%, Virginia Tech 20%
  • Turnovers: W. Virginia 1, Virginia Tech 0
  • Rushing Yards: W. Virginia 221, Virginia Tech 234
  • Passing Stats: W. Virginia 31-54-1-371, Virginia Tech 15-27-0-235
  • TD Drive Lengths: W. Virginia 86-79-73, Virginia Tech 47-71-32-82

Another thriller. West Virginia had a couple of shots in the Tech end zone in the final moments. Nip and tuck rather than two teams taking turns playing horribly. Weird game because both teams combined for five TD drives over 70 yards despite being awful on third down conversions (8 of 34 combined). Playmakers on both teams, but both offenses need to work on the fundamentals of moving the chains. The “tie-breaker” was that 32-yard TD drive for Tech that came after a nice kickoff return and a personal foul penalty on WV.

Saturday Football: Alabama and Michigan dominate with defense in marquee matchups
You watched ‘em on ABC. Now let’s crunch the numbers from the two games everyone had been talking about for weeks…

Alabama (-8.5) 24, Florida State 7

  • Yards-per-Play: Florida State 4.2, Alabama 4.5
  • Third Down Conversions: Florida State 31%, Alabama 19%
  • Turnovers: Florida State 3, Alabama 0
  • Rushing Yards: Florida State 40, Alabama 173
  • Passing Stats: Team Florida State 19-33-2-210, Alabama 10-18-0-96
  • TD Drive Lengths: Florida State 90, Alabama 85, 11.

A true defensive struggle. Each team only had one impressive TD drive. Alabama’s 24 points came on two TD’s (with one 2-point conversion) and three field goals rather than three TD’s and one field goal. Alabama did control the point of attack. If you can get some things done on the ground, it cuts down on the possibility that you’re going to turn the ball over with interceptions. Great examples above because the Tide outrushed the Seminoles 173-40. 

There’s a handy and simple stat formula for telling you about what a score “should” have been not counting turnovers and special teams points. It’s two times rushing yards...plus passing yards…times 0.67…divided by 15 (doubling the value of rushing yards because they’re safer, normalizing for a yardage count, then dividing by the standard yards-per-point relationship). That calculation would suggest Alabama winning 20-13, which is right on what the market margin had been most of the week before the game-day surge. Turnover differential helped turn what should have been a 7-point grinder into a 17-point pull-away. 

Horrible news that Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois was lost for the season to a knee injury that was suffered on a fourth quarter sack. True freshman James Blackman will get the start this Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe. Miami, NC State, and Wake Forest are on deck in ACC play before the month is out. 

Michigan (-5) 33, Florida 17

  • Yards-per-Play: Michigan 5.8, Florida 3.6
  • Third Down Conversions: Michigan 33%, Florida 15%
  • Turnovers: Michigan 2, Florida 3
  • Rushing Yards: Michigan 215, Florida 11
  • Passing Stats: Michigan 12-26-2-218, Florida 14-26-0-181
  • TD Drive Lengths: Michigan 75-75, Florida no offensive TD’s

Both of Florida’s touchdowns came on interception returns. Michigan’s defense scored on a late fumble recovery, breaking the hearts of Under bettors who had at least pushed at 43. A statistical squash, that represented something more along the lines of 28-9 with those rushing and passing stats. The right team won the blowout, but overall scoring volume was misleading. Michigan still has a great defense even with all the new personnel. Florida still doesn’t know what to do at quarterback, though they’ll face softer defenses in most other games. 

Saturday Football: Post-mortems on the biggest upsets Saturday (and in history?!)
We’re going to focus on the five upsets that garnered the most media attention Saturday. Four of the five were double digit upsets. Two were mind-boggling!

California (plus 13) 35, North Carolina 30

  • Yards-per-Play: California 6.4, N. Carolina 4.9
  • Third Down Conversions: California 44%, N. Carolina 44%
  • Turnovers: California 2, N. Carolina 3
  • Rushing Yards: California 106, N. Carolina 219
  • Passing Stats: California 24-38-2-363, N. Carolina 25-44-2-221
  • TD Drive Lengths: California 85-80-72-75-70, N. Carolina 75-48-4-75

California was supposed to be the worst team in the Pac 12 this season. Maybe they still are and North Carolina is going to be helpless now that Mitchell Trubisky is gone. You can see above that the Cal Bears owned yards-per-play while finishing drives very effectively. All five of Cal’s TD drives were 70 yards or more! Both teams were a bit sloppy in terms of turnovers and incomplete passes. We’re probably talking about lower division results in their respective conferences. But surprisingly clear superiority from a two-touchdown underdog. One of a few strikes against the ACC this weekend. 

Maryland (plus 18) 51, Texas 41

  • Yards-per-Play: Maryland 8.3, Texas 5.6
  • Third Down Conversions: Maryland 27%, Texas 50%
  • Turnovers: Maryland 1, Texas 2
  • Rushing Yards: Maryland 263, Texas 98
  • Passing Stats: Maryland 12-15-1-219, Texas 34-53-1-375
  • TD Drive Lengths: Maryland 51-74-51-68-38-72-24, Texas 37-66-78

Both teams had blocked field goal returns for TD’s, which don’t show up in the turnover count but are basically high impact turnovers. Texas also scored on a pick six early in the game. When the Horns trailed 30-14 at the half, they hadn’t scored on offense yet. Texas added a punt return TD in the second half. If “TD drives of more than 50 yards” was a stat category, Maryland would have won it 5-1. And THAT best captures what it was like to watch this game. Maryland marching up and down the field into the end zone at 8.3 yards-per-play (not slowing down with the backup QB after an injury either), while Texas moved the chains in the middle of the field, but floundered thanks to more than 100 penalty yards and an 0-4 mark on fourth down tries (virtual turnovers). 

If you’re wondering about the “stat score” here. Maryland wins 33-26. Good evidence that the wrong team was favored because Texas is still so helpless defensively at the point of attack, and at protecting its goal line (allowing seven offensive TD’s).

South Carolina (plus 8) 35, NC State 28

  • Yards-per-Play: NC State 5.1, S. Carolina 4.9
  • Third Down Conversions: NC State 45%, S. Carolina 42%
  • Turnovers: NC State 2, S. Carolina 1
  • Rushing Yards: NC State 89, S. Carolina 31
  • Passing Stats: NC State 45-64-0-415, S. Carolina 17-29-1-215
  • TD Drive Length: NC State 75-75-79-46, S. Carolina 80-40-51-13

South Carolina returned the opening kickoff for a TD, then added another relatively cheap TD at the end with a 13-yard drive. NC State ran a lot more plays (99-50!) which helped them compile a total yardage edge of 504-246 in a loss. Stat score here is warped because of that play discrepancy. Best to look at it as a yards-per-play toss-up where the favorite did a better job of driving the field, but lost the TO category and allowed a kick return TD. It’s a nice upset for South Carolina. But they weren’t as impressive as Maryland and Cal were in the prior two recaps. Note that this was a relatively neutral site game in Charlotte.  

Now, a couple of absolute stunners from the “added” games where FBS teams lost to FCS teams as huge favorites…

Liberty (plus 32) 45, Baylor 42

  • Yards-per-Play: Liberty 5.7, Baylor 8.3
  • Third Down Conversions: Liberty 63%, Baylor 33%
  • Turnovers: Liberty 0, Baylor 2
  • Rushing Yards: Liberty 138, Baylor 254
  • Passing Stats: Liberty 44-60-0-447, Baylor 14-30-2-278
  • TD Drive Length: Liberty 75-73-44-65, Baylor 75-75-75-75-75-43

Liberty had an interception return TD and three field goals, which was enough to trump those six Baylor TD’s. This is a visitor that went 6-5 last season while playing in the undermanned Big South. A few quick comments on how horrible Baylor’s defense was here. They let a non-entity grind out 5.7 yards-per-play on short, safe stuff…while allowing a 63% third down conversion rate and NOT FORCING A SINGLE TURNOVER against an opponent that threw 60 passes. At least the Texas defense was facing somebody from the Big 10! Humiliating results for so-called Big 12 sleepers. (If you’re wondering, the “stat score” was Baylor 35-32, which is awful for a 32-point favorite but would have been enough for the straight up win without that pick six). 

Howard (plus 45) 43, UNLV 40

  • Yards-per-Play: Howard 5.2, UNLV 8.4
  • Third Down Conversions: Howard 50%, UNLV 36%
  • Turnovers: Howard 1, UNLV 3
  • Rushing Yards: Howard 309, UNLV 344
  • Passing Stats: Howard 15-26-1-140, UNLV 11-21-0-220
  • TD Drive Length: Howard 74-75-75-34-68, UNLV 69-25-53-75

Howard had a fumble return TD, which helped them crack the 40-point barrier with non-explosive per-play stats. One subtle lesson today is that inferior teams can win if they can chug along at 5 YPP while not turning the ball over. Though Howard was three-yards-per-play worse on the night, they moved the chains much more effectively and had four TD drives of 68-yards or more. UNLV moved in fits and starts with a few huge plays warping the YPP stat while disguising what wasn’t happening on third downs or with long drives. 

Was this “the biggest upset ever” in college football history? Based purely on point spreads, it appears so. But season-opening spreads are soft, particularly on teams nobody pays attention to. (Plus, these FCS vs FBS type spreads only go back for a short part of documented betting history). This probably isn’t as shocking as Stanford over USC at around plus 40 when Jim Harbaugh was first coaching the Cardinal. That was in-season, and with major conference programs. Maybe this was “the most badly mis-priced season opener” ever, because it was such a low priority for oddsmakers, sharps, and casual fans. There weren’t any truly “informed” influences on the line for a game like this. Feels more like a bad market guess than a historic upset. 

That wraps up this review of college football highlights from the weekend. We’ll be back with you Tuesday to crunch the final numbers from Tennessee/Georgia Tech (a special Monday Night telecast this week). We’ll also update our NFL Power Ratings now that bettors are hitting Week 1 of the pro regular season more aggressively. 

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