What can you say about Saturday’s matchup in Morgantown, other than hoping for a miracle? On paper, in every facet of the game, TCU should lose in spectacular fashion. The Vegas line is an optimistic 12 points - only two West Virginia wins have been that close. Shall we try to invoke the transitive property? TCU beats Iowa State, Iowa State smacks WVU, and so the Frogs have a chance at besting the Mountaineers? That of course, turns a blind eye to Iowa State’s quarterback evolution and the precarious nature of timing and path dependency in college football. What about Texas Tech? TCU played Tech close, had shots to win that game, and the Raiders in turn scrapped with WVU? Yet again, though, TCU caught a team facing a QB issue. It seems not even the tenuous straws of the transitive property can be grasped to justify a TCU win. Instead of documenting all the ways TCU could lose to WVU, this week I’ll highlight just a few things TCU will have to do in order to pull off one of the more shocking upsets of the 2018 season. (Author’s note: Crazier things have happened.)
This week: TCU Horned Frogs (48th overall S&P+, 91st offense, 24th defense) at West Virginia Mountaineers (18th, 5th, 69th)
Line: WVU - 12
S&P+ Projection: WVU 34, TCU 24 (73%)
West Virginia comes to town as one of the best offenses, and therefore teams, in the nation. The Mountaineers began their season running over any and all comers, posting a postgame win probability of 99 or better in 4 of their first five games. WVU recovered from the Iowa State hiccup nicely, winning a “no-doubter” against an inferior Baylor and stealing one in Austin. The Mountaineers have scored 35 in 7 of 8 games, and exceeded expectations in limiting opponent scoring to 22 or less in 5 games this season. The Mountaineers began the season at 48th in efficiency rankings, and have climbed their way up to number 18th, breaking into the top ten once during the season.
That ascent from middling to elite mirrors TCU’s descent from contender to rudderless, and in week 11, we find a 4-5 Frog squad seated next to Buffalo, Marshall, and Troy in the rankings landscape. (And to be frank, TCU’s only that high due to the continuing influence of preseason projections.) TCU has suffered from a lack of offensive identity, intensified by injury. The Frogs seemed to break, mentally and physically, in the third quarter against Ohio State and haven’t been the same since. TCU has ben held to fewer than 20 points in 4/6 games since OSU, losing winnable games to Texas Tech and Kansas along the way. And here, the two teams meet, one ascending towards a Big 12 Championship Game Birth, the other flirting with an Armed Forces Bowl appearance.
When West Virginia Has the Ball:
The West Virginia offense needs no introduction. Instead, I’ll just note a few short-comings. First, WVU has been marginally less efficient with the blitz - WVU’s success rate overall is 52.2%, and that falls to 33.9% on blitzing downs. Similarly, their sack rate rises from 7% to 8.2% on blitzing downs. TCU’s injured secondary will need some help ,and getting the blitz early and often will force Grier to look short and quick, perhaps adding some defensive help implicitly.
The Mountaineers face an average distance of 7.6 yards on third down, 78th in the country, but they convert it at a high rate. TCU’s got to make 3rd downs a sticking point, to at least get off the field and get some breathing time.
The offense is surprisingly balanced, in terms of rush and pass, and passing/standard downs. If you overplay the pass, WVU will make you pay for the run, just like they did to Texas last week. A brief ray of sunshine behind the clouds - WVU has given up some pretty dumb turnovers in opposing territory. This TCU defense doesn’t have the playmaking ability it did at the beginning of the season, but anything can change in a one-game sample.
Key Points for TCU:
- Blitz all night
- Lock down third down
- Don’t forget about the run
When TCU Has the Ball:
Despite a decent success rate overall, TCU has struggled to move the ball inside the 20, and WVU allows a 45% success rate inside the 20, 101st in the nation. The Mountaineers also rank 5th in the nation at stuff rate, though, so TCU is going to have to avoid the temptation to run it up the middle every time they cross the ten. Scoring opps will be few and far between, and the Frogs have to make them count.
WVU ranks 72nd, 91st, and 82nd on third and long, medium, and short success rates, respectively. TCU’s offense has been abysmal on third and short - (126th! with a 46.2% SR), but otherwise acceptable on long and medium situations. TCU’s game plan has to be slow, chunks of offense, shortening the game, and third downs are going to be the driver of that gameplan’s execution.
Finally, WVU’s defense doesn’t get sacks. They are 100th in sack rate (4.8%) overall, and it doesn’t get better on standard downs (68th). Their blitzes aren’t particularly effective (29.4% success rate on blitz downs (74th), and 9.4% big play rate (89th)). If the offensive line can just find some time, TCU has the downfield weapons to punish the WVU defense.
- Get weird in the red zone
- Extend drives on third down
- Protect Collins, Extend Routes
I think TCU doesn’t have what it takes to stay in this matchup, and it gets ugly late, as Will Grier builds his Heisman case and WVU pads their playoff case. S&P+ is too generous to the Frogs. WVU 45, TCU 17.
Other Games I’m Watching:
- For calendar reasons, I’ll skip the Thursday and Friday slates, although there isn’t much to be in love with. If you haven’t put eyes on Syracuse, this would be a great time, and it’s never a bad idea to soak in more college football games, because, wouldn’t you know it, the season is coming to an end sooner than you think.
- Saturday, Post-Frogs: Northwestern and Iowa are playing for the Big 10 West, which should be sufficiently weird, and Virginia Tech-Pitt could be similarly billed. I think I’ll find Bedlam on TV, despite the fact that it’s under-hyped this season. Oklahoma State has gotten up at home to edge Texas, and could they perform a similar task, the Pokes could be responsible for all kinds of Big 12 chaos.
- Saturday, late: Of course you’re watching Texas-Texas Tech, but keep the score of LSU-Arkansas on. Chad Morris’s offense isn’t quite there yet, but LSU could be shell-shocked in a rivalry game, and history knows how odd this series has been.
What are you watching? What did I miss? Do the Frogs have a shot in Morgantown?