Numbers prove all is not lost for LSU, FSU

The sky is falling at LSU.

Just look around. The Tigers were throttled by Mississippi State. They lost to Troy -- Troy! -- last week in a game in which they never held a lead. This week's news has included a perception that there's chaos behind the scenes as Ed Orgeron, his coaching staff and administrative leaders all appear to be moving in different directions, even if Orgeron insists that's not the case.

So, sure, it's probably time to panic.

But perhaps things aren't quite as bad as we all think.

Ask coaches about which stats matter the most and you'll invariably get three common answers: yards per play (a measure of consistency), explosive plays (a measure of big-play ability) and turnovers (largely a factor of luck and opportunity).

If we look just at those first two, which are far more under a team's control, for both offense and defense, we get a pretty good indication of the nation's top teams. In fact, plot out yards per play and explosive play rate for both offense and defense, then look at the teams that are at least half a standard deviation better than average in all four, and you get a who's who of the 2017 season -- 14 teams with a combined record of 58-7.

Eight of the teams on this list are undefeated (Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Penn State, USF, UCF, Washington and Wisconsin) and three others (Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State) have a single loss that came at the hands of a currently undefeated team.

The rest of the list, however, is a bit more interesting: Oregon, Georgia Tech and -- you guessed it -- LSU. The Ducks lost a close one on the road in conference. The Yellow Jackets were a disastrous fumble away from toppling Tennessee in the opener. LSU though? It's hard to defend a loss to Troy.

Now, here's where we should talk about sample size. We're just a month into the season, and one huge game can tilt these numbers enough to make the averages a bit disingenuous.

And that certainly may be the case for LSU, which visits Florida on Saturday. But it's also possible that the underlying numbers are the better indicator of LSU's true potential, and these first five games have simply been a mix of growing pains and a bit of bad luck. In fact, look at those two losses again. Against Mississippi State and Troy, the Tigers were a combined 3-of-22 on third down, including a goose egg against the Trojans. That indicates stalled drives, extra snaps for the defense and the margin between wins and losses.

Does LSU have problems? No doubt. But it has talent, too. And perhaps that's the real frustration. This isn't a team that should ever lose to Troy, of course, but it's the unrecognized potential that really frustrates fans.

The Tigers' stats put them amid elite company, but the results are something else entirely.

Blackman's blues

It's not that Florida State's rookie QB James Blackman has been bad in his first two starts, but he has looked inexperienced, and that has distinctly impacted the Seminoles' offense.

For one, Blackman has been laser focused on his favorite receiver, and when Auden Tate hasn't been open, things have gotten ugly. Blackman is 11-of-14 passing and averaging 13.2 yards per attempt when targeting Tate. On all other throws, he's completing less than 50 percent and averaging just 4.8 yards per pass.

"Auden has played our best," Jimbo Fisher said. "He had our best camp of anybody, so he definitely is our No. 1 guy, so I think that's part of it, too. I think as they get used to each other and get used to playing and how we call the game and the more that James can expand and do, I think all those things will factor in."

The game plan has had to focus on simplicity though, and Blackman's work against the blitz is another indication of why.

When opponents have brought an extra pass-rusher, Blackman has been excellent. He has recognized the blitz, known where his hot read is and gotten rid of the ball quickly. The results -- 67 percent completions, 13.5 yards per attempt, no sacks -- are impressive.

But ask Blackman to throw into coverage or go through his progressions and the waters get muddier. When the opposition rushes just four (or fewer), Blackman completes 54.5 percent of his throws, averages less than 4 yards per pass and has been sacked nine times.

Still, this makes for an interesting matchup Saturday against Miami (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App). Through three games, Miami ranks ninth among Power 5 defenses in blitz rate (36 percent of dropbacks) and has been slightly below average at pressuring the QB when not bringing an extra pass-rusher.

Over the hump

Records in close games tend to even out over time, but a 12-game college football season often doesn't offer quite a substantive enough sample size for that to occur. But patience does usually pay off.

Last year, there were 14 Power 5 programs that lost at least 75 percent of their one-possession games. They finished the season with a combined record of 67-104 (a .392 win percentage).

This year though? Their luck has changed. Of those 14 teams, four have already matched or exceeded last year's win total. Four more can with a win this week. Twelve of the 14 are .500 or better on the year, and overall, the group's record is 40-21 (.656).

The biggest factor? No surprise, it's turnovers. In 2016, just three of the 14 teams had a positive turnover margin. So far this year, 10 of them do.

Bright spot for Sun Belt

Troy's win last week over LSU wasn't simply a program-defining victory for the team. It was momentous for the conference.

The win was just the Sun Belt's third since the start of 2014 over a Power 5 foe, joining South Alabama (over Mississippi State last year) and Louisiana-Monroe (which beat Wake Forest in 2014).

The Sun Belt's mark of 3-63 vs. the Power 5 in that span isn't just bad -- it's by far the worst of any of the Group of 5 leagues. The American has been the best (27-59), while the MAC (16-71), the Mountain West (14-71) and Conference USA (7-82) have all struggled but still found far more success than the Sun Belt.

In fact, even FCS teams (10-185) have had better luck against the Power 5 than the Sun Belt.

All boom, no bust

There are four Power 5 quarterbacks who've accounted for more than 10 touchdowns this season while coughing up no more than one turnover. Two should come as no surprise: Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. The other two, however, come from way off the radar: Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur (13 TDs, one turnover) and Wake Forest's John Wolford (12 TDs, one turnover).

Coach speak

All week Adam Rittenberg has been chatting with head and assistant coaches around the country. Here is the best of those conversations.

  • If you're wondering why Washington isn't a one-year wonder, look at the Huskies' secondary. Despite losing standouts Sidney Jones, Budda Baker and Kevin King to the NFL, Washington has nicely filled the gaps with young, talented pieces. Jordan Miller is emerging as a lockdown cornerback, and co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jimmy Lake sees similarities between his approach and those of Jones and Baker. Hard-hitting corner Austin Joyner has delivered brutal hits on opposing running backs, while Myles Bryant, who swung the Colorado game with a pick-six, is shining in the nickel role previously filled by Baker.

  • Although Washington's tougher games are ahead, the first half of the schedule has provided valuable experience for its young defensive backs. Notre Dame should get through 1-4 North Carolina before reaching its open week ahead of the USC showdown, but keep an eye on quarterback Brandon Wimbush on Saturday. Wimbush is dealing with a right foot injury, which could slow his mobility (5.9 yards per carry, eight rushing touchdowns) in Chapel Hill. This is a good opportunity for Wimbush to bolster his passing numbers before facing a USC defense that will load up against the run. Notre Dame coaches want to see more consistency from Wimbush, who has completed just 52.3 percent of his passes. First-year offensive coordinator Chip Long loves the offensive line and the run game, but he also seeks more balance against the better competition Notre Dame will face.

  • One of the subplots to the West Virginia-TCU game is how TCU reintegrates running back Kyle Hicks, who missed the past six quarters with an undisclosed injury. Darius Anderson has shined this season, scoring a league-leading six rushing touchdowns and gaining 422 rushing yards for the Big 12's top ground attack. But Hicks brings a unique skill set after leading TCU in receptions (47) last year. "For the way they used him, [Hicks] was the best tailback in our league," a Big 12 defensive coordinator told ESPN. "He was so different." Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer noted that TCU's overall run game is much more explosive this year. TCU won't overload Hicks in his first game back, but the distribution of touches will be interesting.

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