A somewhat perplexing thing happened this week, as teams that were OK – not great – got absolutely obliterated by teams with a strong running game.
Wisconsin 68, Bowling Green 17 (+24 ATS)
Penn State 48, Massachusetts 7 (+14 ATS)
We saw a similar trend when they ran over very poor teams:
Michigan State 73, Eastern Michigan 14 (+14 ATS)
Georgia 66, Troy 0 (+25 ATS)
And let me throw another in for fun:
Georgia Southern 28, South Alabama 6 (+21 ATS)
Of course the games were a blowout. They were expected to be. But every single one of these games was covered by the favorite…by two to four touchdowns. Also worth noting that all four games went OVER on total points. Offensively the underdogs did about as we expected, but defensively they fell apart.
So what happened?
“Cuz we’re the power five and they isn’t!” says the ignorant SEC/B1G fan.
Sure the teams were favored, but the spread is already accounted for by power ratings. So there’s a breakdown somewhere, a flaw in this whole “using power ratings to handicap teams” method. And the reason is matchups. A look into the history and strategy of the MAC and Sunbelt will enlighten us a bit more.
In these smaller conferences (and the FCS), coaches often test out more outside the box offenses, often playing more aggressively and trying new schemes since they are not in the national spotlight. In the past decade this has taken the form of the up tempo, HUNH, air-raid / run-and-gun, super spread offense. There’s nothing wrong with that. But its use proliferated at such a rate that it became the new normal, and every team was using that style of offense. But from a defensive standpoint, teams began to recruit into a defensive scheme designed to stop the passing game. They became so familiar with 3-4 WR sets that they hardly ever saw a pro-set or I-formation. They sacrificed size in favor of speed in their DL and linebackers. This makes sense because at the lower level, they often have to choose one rather than both, since most of the talent is snatched up by Power Five schools. So what happens when these defenses go up to face a Wisconsin, or an Arkansas, or a Nebraska, or a Michigan State, or a Georgia? The wheels fall off the wagon, as the underdogs are simply not equipped with the personnel to stop Todd Gurley, or his replacement who is also a 6-foot, 200+ lb back. So even though on paper the spread is 28 or 35, we can expect the final margin of victory to be 50 or 60 because of this.
And how do you stop running up the score? Stop rushing?
Presumably when you want to stop the score, you quit passing and instead run the ball. You then let the clock run down as much as possible and run another play. But again, when Todd Gurley is averaging 12.2 YPR and his backup is on the field averaging 15.5 YPR, and the clock stops on first downs, it’s hard to stop running up the score. What else do you do, kneel the ball for the rest of the game?
The tides are turning in the Sun Belt
Georgia Southern is an interesting case. They’re essentially the Wisconsin of the Sun Belt. They realized that by creating a contrarian system, based on a power run game. As a result they’ve been able to exploit a weakness in the FCS and G5 scheme, and to much success so far.