Louisville and Washington Are Proving Why the Preseason Hype Was Warranted
There is a popular adage that Heisman trophies aren’t handed out in September. Neither are national championships. But it’s easy to see why excitement around a few teams has reached a fever pitch based on some impressive early results.
Those prognosticators who tagged Louisville and Washington as sleeper playoff party crashers are looking like geniuses right now. Both teams were trendy dark horse picks to end up in college football’s Final Four and have lived up to the billing. It’s not just the pair of 3-0 starts. It’s just how dominant the Cardinals and Huskies have been in those three games.
Here’s why Louisville and Washington are looking like not just sleepers for the playoffs but true contenders as we enter the heart of the college football season.
While Clemson and Florida State were the prohibitive favorites in the ACC, Louisville received a healthy dose of offseason love from football pundits. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, on a conference call with media in late August, called Louisville the “sleeper” in the ACC. In May, Fox Sports’ Aaron Torres identified Louisville as one of the five below-the-radar teams who could make a “stunning” run to the playoffs. Torres wrote, “In terms of their talent, Louisville has enough to beat anyone on the schedule.”
ESPN Insider KC Joyner followed suit a month later, writing that upsetting Clemson and “a stumble by Florida State” could put Louisville in the ACC title game and “only a single victory away from the College Football Playoff berth.”
Louisville is clearly on a path to the postseason, and it certainly didn’t require a stumble by Florida State. Thanks to an epic performance last Saturday against the Seminoles, Louisville has emerged not just as a sleeper in the ACC but as the outright favorite. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, the Cardinals’ chances to win the conference are now 57 percent, after being just 4 percent three weeks ago.
It would be foolish to start anywhere other than quarterback Lamar Jackson. Consider this stat line through three games.
|Games||Rushes||Rush Yards||YPC||Rush TDs||Pass Yards||Pass TDs||INTs||Comp Percent|
It’s not hyperbole to say that Jackson has put together one of the greatest three-game stretches in college football history.
Like superstars in any team sport, Jackson is making those around him better. As a result, this Louisville offense is both explosive and efficient. In their 63-20 win over Florida State, Louisville averaged 8.00 yards per play to the Seminoles’ 3.88. Total offensive yardage favored the Cardinals 548 to 279, despite Florida State running 4 more plays. And this performance was on the heels of Louisville averaging 9.82 yards per play against ACC foe Syracuse.
Running back Brandon Radcliff has proven to be a bigger hitter, with an 11 yards per carry average. At wide receiver, Louisville has three players -- James Quick, Jamari Staples, and Jaylen Smith -- averaging more than 21 yards per catch.
Louisville’s defense came into the season with some lofty expectations, and the scary part is that they’ve exceeded them. According to S&P+, the Cardinals rank 26th in the nation, while FPI rates the Louisville defense 10th.
Louisville’s linebacking corps -- a unit ranked second in the nation by Phil Steele in his annual magazine -- has been particularly dominant. Keith Kelsey, Stacy Thomas, Devonte Fields, and James Hearns have helped the Cardinals to the 23rd best havoc rate in the country. The linebacking unit comes into Week 4 ranked 11th in the same category.
Louisville has shot up the advanced metrics’ rankings thanks to three incredible performances. Even in those systems that are still weighted toward preseason projections, Louisville has surpassed Florida State and has gained ground on Clemson.
Louisville’s path to the playoff looks navigable, especially if they can maintain this level of play. According to FPI, Clemson has a better than 55 percent chance to win at Clemson on October 1, and a 79 percent probability of prevailing at Houston on November 17. In Louisville’s other seven remaining games, FPI gives the Cardinals at least a 93 percent chance to win each one of those contests.
Bill Connelly’s S&P+ is a bit more conservative but has Louisville as the projected winner in eight of their nine remaining games. Connelly gives Clemson a slight edge (56 percent win probability) to defeat Louisville, but the game is essentially a toss-up.
Louisville is more than just a playoff sleeper. There is little doubt about that. Now it’s a question of which banners and trophies could be on display at the end of the 2016 season. A national championship and Heisman are clearly within reach.
At what point does an under-the-radar team get mentioned as such so often that they actually become overrated? It’s probably when a “sleeper” gets picked to win their conference by nearly every major reporter, magazine, and news outlet.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the 2016 Washington Huskies.
Okay, so not every preseason prognosticator hopped on the Washington bandwagon. But among those picking the Huskies to win the Pac-12 and/or make the College Football Playoff were Athlon Sports, Phil Steele, and Fox Sport’s Bruce Feldman, to name just a few.
That’s not bad for a team that went just 7-6 in 2015. Yet, Huskies have not disappointed and still may be short of reaching their full potential.
|Metrics' Rankings||FEI||FPI||Power Rank||S&P+||Average|
|Washington after Week 3||25||4||20||4||13.25|
To say Washington has been an early-season juggernaut is an understatement. On their way to a 3-0 start, the Huskies have outscored their opponents 148-30.
Washington is tops in the country in Brian Fremeau’s unadjusted game efficiency (GE) metric, a measure of net success on non-garbage possessions. Bill Connelly’s numbers have given the Huskies a win expectancy of 100 percent in each of three games.
It’s a young offense, but Jonathan Smith’s unit has been among the nation’s best so far in 2016 thanks to super sophomores, quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. Browning has been simply unstoppable, throwing for 744 yards and 12 touchdowns with only 1 interception. His 10.1 yards per pass attempt is good for sixth in the FBS and behind only the likes of Lamar Jackson and Pat Mahomes II.
Gaskin has racked up 220 yards, but the rushing game still has plenty of room for improvement. So far, the Huskies are just middle of the FBS pack in rushing efficiency (67th in success rate), and Gaskin’s 5.2 yards per rush average is down slightly from last year’s 5.7.
But the Huskies don’t need a prolific offense with a defense this stout. FPI ranks the Huskies; defense sixth, while it comes in at fourth in the nation, according to S&P+. Washington has been particularly adept in preventing big plays (first in the nation in IsoPPP) and limiting scoring once an opponent gets beyond the Huskies’ 40-yard line (second in “finishing drives”). Part of it is an effective secondary, but Washington also has FBS’ third-best sack rate on passing downs. At least through three weeks, it is difficult to find a weak spot in this unit.
In addition to playing at an elite level, Washington may be aided by a schedule that is weaker than originally projected. Some of the most potentially imposing teams on their schedule appear to be taking a step back in 2016. This includes games at Arizona, at Oregon, hosting USC, and at Washington State.
FPI gives the Huskies at least a 65 percent chance to win every game and a 34 percent chance to win the conference. But with the 18th-toughest remaining strength of schedule, FPI projects only 4.5 percent chance for Washington to win out. S&P+ gives the Huskies at least a 60 percent win probability in eight of their nine remaining games with the lone exception being at Oregon, where it’s 49 percent.
It’s now up to Washington to prove that they can dominate Pac-12 teams like they have Group of 5 and FCS schools. The metrics suggest you should bank on it.