Week 1 of the college football season exceeded last year’s opening weekend from the perspective of drama, wacky finishes, funky bounces and by just about any other measure. Week 2 likely will be defined by the outcome of two Saturday games: No. 12 Texas A&M at No. 1 Clemson (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and No. 6 LSU at No. 9 Texas (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Between recent recruiting battles and bitterness stemming from LSU’s last coaching search, the Tigers and Longhorns have grown to dislike each other quite a bit. It’s a perfect time for them to start a series on the field. (Texas visits Baton Rouge in 2020.)
Burgeoning rivalry or not, this is a hell of a matchup on the field. Here are the four biggest questions I’ve got for how this game might play out.
1. Who handles the conditions?
The temperature in Austin likely will approach 100 degrees on Saturday. That opens the door for fatigue to play a role, as it did for Florida State against Boise State. In humid, 90-degree conditions, the Seminoles slowly wilted against BSU’s tempo-heavy, quick-strike passing game.
In terms of game clock, BSU averaged 22.9 seconds per snap against FSU in Week 1. Texas, meanwhile, averaged 22.8 against Louisiana Tech and attempted a similarly high percentage of short passes.
Twenty-three of Sam Ehlinger’s 38 passes were thrown within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage, including a heavy diet early in the contest; he not only completed 21 of these throws, but despite minimal air yardage, those completions gained 146 yards (7 per catch). Five of the completions ended up gaining 13 yards or more. The Horns were efficient enough in the short passing game to both move the chains and preoccupy the safeties, opening up a few downfield opportunities in later quarters.
Having receivers who can block really well has turned into one of college football’s most underrated and useful luxuries, but blocking LSU’s defensive backs and linebackers is different than blocking Louisiana Tech’s. The Tigers allowed only 5 yards per completion on passes thrown behind the line last season — they allowed only 6.8 on passes thrown within 10 yards of the line.
Texas’ short passing game could be the most important factor Saturday. The Longhorns might not be able to run the ball efficiently, both because LSU’s defensive front is awesome and because, thanks to injuries, the UT running back corps consists of basically Keaontay Ingram and a bunch of dudes who moved from other positions. Since this is a big game, it’s safe to assume Ehlinger will be prepared to carry the ball 15 to 20 times himself, but LSU’s run front might be the best Texas has faced under Herman.
That puts extra pressure on Devin Duvernay, Collin Johnson & Co. to take those horizontal passes and average 7 or 8 yards per catch off of them. If they can do that, the Horns can both move the ball efficiently and potentially wear the Tigers down. What do you suppose wears linebackers down faster — having to fight off a blocker to make a tackle in the box or having to sprint from sideline to sideline ad nauseam?
2. Can Texas create some big plays?
Of course, the quickest route to the end zone is via the big play. Ehlinger threw a couple of lovely balls downfield against a stressed Tech secondary, but however you want to frame the big-play matchup, it favors LSU.
The Tigers defense, led by safety Grant Delpit, ranked 18th in my marginal explosiveness measure last year, and the Texas offense ranked 116th. The Horns ranked 77th in gains of 30-plus yards, and what LSU allowed ranked 23rd. If the short pass isn’t working, the Horns might have to look for some shortcuts, and they are rarely found against defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s attack.
3. Can LSU avoid going backward?
LSU’s first go-round in its new spread-ish offense was an obvious success. The Tigers destroyed Georgia Southern’s not-completely-awful defense to the tune of 42 first-half points and an absurd 68% success rate, filtering out garbage time. (The national average for success rate is generally around 43%.)
Beyond the results, it actually looked different. LSU was foregoing huddles and seemingly allowing the defensive formation — namely, the number of defenders in the box — to determine runs versus passes. Joe Burrow threw a downright Ehlingerian 20 passes within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage. (He completed 18 for 189 yards, including two touchdowns and a 44-yard catch-and-run by Justin Jefferson.) There was a heavy mix of both quick strikes to wideouts and checkdowns/screens to running backs.
Better yet, the spread-out formations opened things up for the run game: 15 non-garbage-time rushes garnered a 67% success rate. Whereas LSU was high on the manball factor in previous years — Eight defenders in the box? Who cares? Let’s outmuscle ’em for 3 yards! — the Tigers did an intriguing job of putting the ball where defenders weren’t on Saturday.
Some of the same questions about the short strikes and their effectiveness against stronger, faster defenders apply to LSU’s offense as to Texas’. But there was one glitch in an otherwise effective attack that got my attention: negative plays.
Georgia Southern defenders finished the game with 12 havoc plays (seven tackles for loss and five pass breakups). (A havoc play is a tackle for loss, pass intercepted or broken up, or a forced fumble. Havoc rate is those combined divided by total plays). That’s a 17% havoc rate, and while a lot of that happened in garbage time, not all of it did. The Tigers also allowed a 17% havoc rate last season, which ranked 85th in FBS.
Texas’ defense managed an 18% havoc rate last season and was at 18% against Louisiana Tech. If someone’s moving backward or getting passes batted, it’s probably LSU.
4. Can LSU match Texas’ (likely) A-game?
Here’s something I wrote in my Texas preview this summer:
Herman is the ultimate big-game coach. In four years as a head coach, he is 10-6 straight-up as an underdog and 13-2-1 against the spread. As a one-possession favorite, he’s 9-2 straight-up and 7-3-1 against the spread. As a healthy favorite, however? He’s 21-5 straight-up (a worse win percentage than as a one-score favorite) and 8-17-1 against the spread.
Texas is a six-point underdog, and the next time a Herman team doesn’t play well as an underdog will be nearly the first. LSU plays better as an underdog, too. The Tigers were 7-1 against the spread as an underdog in 2017-18 but were just 8-8 as a favorite.
Any trend information like this is based on small samples, but it’s safe to say that Texas is going to play really good football. Will LSU match it, or will the Tigers fall victim to first-half bum-rushes the same way Oklahoma (24-3 run) and Georgia (17-0 run) did in losses to Texas last season? The answer could determine the outcome of maybe the most important game of the week.
A quick thought on attendance
College football attendance was at a 22-year low in 2018. You’ve probably heard lots of reasons for this. The Wi-Fi is bad, the stadiums are old, televisions are bigger and cheaper, the cost of attending a game is rising, there are more cupcake games than there used to be. All are true, to some degree.
However, one other factor could either drive another drop or prevent a rebound this year: continued mediocrity from Tennessee, USC and Florida State.
It is worth mentioning, however, that attendance isn’t falling everywhere. Comparing home attendance in 2018 to the averages from 2005 to 2017, 50 FBS teams were higher in the former than the latter, and 27 more fell by less than 2,000 fans per game. Things are tilting in the wrong direction, obviously, but at only a slight angle.
In reality, a handful of schools have driven the averages down for everybody.
1. Fallen blue-bloods. From 2005 to 2017, five schools — Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, UCLA and USC — averaged 82,902 per game in home attendance. In 2018, they averaged 70,472. Only one of these storied programs (Florida) reached bowl eligibility.
In particular, USC’s attendance has plummeted to crisis levels: 91,480 in 2006; 87,945 in 2012; 68,459 in 2016; 55,449 in 2018.
2. Increasingly bad power conference programs. Five more Power 5 schools — Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Oregon State and Rutgers — have either become catastrophically bad, made awkward conference changes, or, in Rutgers’ case, both.
3. The left behind. Six mid-major programs in particular — BYU, ECU, Hawai’i, New Mexico, UConn, and UTEP — have been somewhat left behind in recent years, either because of on-field struggles, bad hires, conference realignment or a combination thereof.
4. MIZ-ZZZZZZ. For the first four games of 2015, Missouri averaged 68,067 per game in home attendance. An on-field collapse drove numbers down, and the November 2015 protests divided the fan base in ways that have yet to be fully addressed. Attendance fell by 20% in 2016 and has since slipped further, even as the team has rebounded.
5. Stragglers. Arizona State, Arkansas, California, Minnesota and North Carolina were either terrible in 2018 or are rebounding from a recent malaise. Stanford regressed in terms of both quality and entertainment value last season. Vanderbilt hosted neither Georgia nor Alabama in 2018. Air Force and Southern Miss are mid-major attendance stalwarts that struggled.
I just listed 26 teams. They account for all of the attendance debt.
Now, there is obviously a major element of “If you remove all the bad, everything’s good!!” in this exercise. This wasn’t intended to be a rigorous, scientific exercise. Still, you can boil FBS’ attendance issues down to only about a quarter of FBS.
If Florida State, Tennessee, UCLA and USC were to all rebound to some degree in 2019, that might be all it takes for FBS’ overall attendance to improve over 2018 totals. Of course, those teams went 1-3 in Week 1, and the team that won lost its starting quarterback to injury. That’s not encouraging.
Week 2 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.
All times Eastern
Marshall at Boise State (9 p.m., ESPN2)
With no Thursday night games this week, here’s your pre-Saturday showcase game. BSU and new quarterback Hank Bachmeier did what they were projected to do against Florida State and came away with a win in Tallahassee, but Marshall is a sturdy 51st in SP+ and always boasts some of the best overall athleticism in the Group of 5. This one’s very much worth your time.
SP+ projection: Boise State 39, Marshall (+11) 29
Cincinnati at Ohio State (noon, ABC)
I doubt Cincinnati has the offensive firepower to scare the Buckeyes, but the Bearcats definitely have the defense to test Justin Fields. OSU’s quarterback had a pretty much perfect start against FAU last week, but the Bearcats ranked second in my passing marginal efficiency measure last season and frustrated the daylights out of another blue-chip sophomore, UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, last week.
SP+ projection: OSU 34, UC (+16) 19
Army at Michigan (noon, Fox)
Remember last season, when Army nearly beat Oklahoma on pay-per-view? Might there be a repeat blue-blood scare this time around? Possibly, but only if Army’s offense functions better than it did last week, when a well-prepared Rice team almost pulled an upset in West Point. One assumes Michigan has too much offense and athleticism here, but one assumed that in the OU game last season, too.
SP+ projection: Michigan (-22.5) 45, Army 20
Texas A&M at Clemson (3:30 p.m., ABC)
The other huge game of the week gets the afternoon shift mostly to itself. I named A&M’s Kellen Mond the most important player of the 2019 season, both because of his potential and the number of upset opportunities A&M has on its ridiculous schedule. Well, here comes Upset Chance No. 1. Can he outplay Clemson sophomore/golden god Trevor Lawrence, who, it bears mentioning, looked awfully rusty last week against Georgia Tech?
SP+ projection: Clemson 37, Texas A&M (+17.5) 24
Nebraska at Colorado (3:30 p.m. Fox)
It bears mentioning that Colorado looked quite a bit better than the Huskers last week, doesn’t it? Granted, Colorado State might not be that much (if any) of an upgrade over South Alabama, but the Buffaloes pulled away from the Rams in the second half of a 52-31 win, and the Huskers needed three return scores (not the most sustainable way to make a living) to keep South Alabama at arm’s length. SP+ has these teams dead even, with home-field advantage making the difference.
SP+ projection: CU (+3.5) 42, NU 40
Saturday evening (besides LSU-Texas)
Miami at North Carolina (8 p.m., ACC Network)
Manny Diaz gets a shot at revenge of sorts over Mack Brown for his 2013 firing as Texas defensive coordinator. But while you figure he’d love to run the score up, he should probably be happy with a win of any kind, huh? UNC confused the hell out of South Carolina’s Jake Bentley last week and could do the same to the Canes’ Jarren Williams.
SP+ projection: Miami (-5.5) 30, UNC 23
Deep cut: North Texas at SMU. North Texas’ Mason Fine destroyed Abilene Christian (as one would have hoped he would) in Week 1, and former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele enjoyed a prolific debut (30-for-49 for 360 yards) in SMU’s 37-30 win over Arkansas State. It’s usually worth watching when two strains of the Air Raid battle it out, and we should learn quite a bit about North Texas’ preparedness for a C-USA title run.
SP+ projection: SMU 40, North Texas (+3.5) 39
Saturday late shift
Cal at Washington (10:30 p.m., FS1)
Plenty of Power 5 teams struggled with FBS opponents last week — Cal, to name one! — but Washington wasn’t one of them. The Huskies trounced a typically solid Eastern Washington squad 47-14, and Jacob Eason went 27-for-36 for 349 yards and four scores in his debut. Now comes maybe the toughest defense (and, uh, weakest offense) UW will face all season. Can Eason do what Jake Browning couldn’t last year and avoid a Golden Bears upset?
SP+ projection: UW (-14) 40, Cal 19
Stanford at USC (10:30 p.m. ESPN)
USC quarterback JT Daniels is lost for the season. Stanford QB KJ Costello and star tackle Walker Little are both out. This is not quite the game we thought we’d see, and lines have been hard to come by. Still, we get Graham Harrell’s USC offense — led instead by freshman Kedon Slovis — against a Stanford defense that absolutely erased Northwestern a week ago. Winner leads the Pac-12 (at 1-0, sure, but go with it).
SP+ projection: USC 27 (-1 or so), Stanford 23.