Grading the Top 5 College Football Offenses Heading into Week 2

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2014

Texas A&M running back Trey Williams (3) runs against South Carolina during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, in Columbia, S.C. Texas A&M won 52-28. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

Typically, Week 1 is a cupcake-fest for the best teams in college football, allowing the top offenses to post numbers that (even by their standards) seem a little over-the-top.

This year, however, four of the five best projected offenses in the country (per the F/+ projections at Football Outsiders) matched up with an FBS opponent, three matched up with a power-conference opponent and one even matched up with a ranked opponent.

This allowed a better early look than usual at the state of the nation's top offenses, an assessment of how quickly they've come together. And the one that was toughest to gauge because it didn't play an FBS opponent (Oregon) will provide us the best glance of all when it hosts Michigan State this Saturday.

The season is still in its infant stages, and every unit has places where it can (and probably will) improve, but based on a fairly telling slate of Week 1 games, here is how the top projected offenses grade out. 


A Note About the Five Offenses Included (and the Countless Offenses Not)

USC's omission from this list was independent from how it played in Week 1
USC's omission from this list was independent from how it played in Week 1Harry How/Getty Images

One quick reminder before we proceed. 

The offenses graded below were projected as the top five offenses in the country before the season, per the F/+ projections at Football Outsiders. We are grading how they performed relative to preseason expectations. We are NOT grading the five most impressive offenses from the first week of the year.

The reason for doing it this way is simple: The five most impressive offenses from the first week of the year would inherently grade out well. This whole list would be A's and (more likely) A-pluses. It would be like grading the five highest-grossing movies of 2013 based on how high-grossing they were. It wouldn't make any sense.

Please bear this in mind before you take to the comments section and complain about your team's exclusion. It's not because we don't like your team or think its offense is overrated. It just didn't fall within the framework of this article.



5. Alabama Crimson Tide

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Points per Game: 33.0 (60th)

Yards per Game: 538.0 (30th)

Yards per Play: 6.56 (46th)

Blake Sims got the start and threw 8.2 solid innings against West Virginia, giving way to Jake Coker for the final out. His final stat line (24-of-33 passing, 250 yards, no touchdowns, one interception; six carries for 42 rushing yards) paints a fair depiction of his performance: solid but unspectacular.

Alabama doesn't need anything more than "solid but unspectacular," however, which is ostensibly why Sims got the start. You'd like to see him eliminate plunging ducks such as this first-quarter pass to DeAndrew White, but for the most part, his job is just not to screw up.

To call an Alabama quarterback a "game manager" is reductive, but it's not altogether untrue. Especially with champion-of-the-bubble-screen Lane Kiffin at offensive coordinator, a big part of Sims' job on Saturday was getting the ball into his playmakers' hands early and watching them go.

Here, for example, is the first offensive snap of the season: a 24-yard gain on a quick pass to Amari Cooper:

One of Sims' other major jobs was even simpler than throwing bubble screens: handing the ball off to T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.

I ranked Alabama's running backs the top position group in the country before the season, and its two bell-cows did nothing to confute that in Week 1. Each back rushed for more than 110 yards, averaged more than five yards per carry and found the end zone at least once.

Alabama was certainly one of the biggest disappointments of Week 1, but more of that had to do with the secondary than the offense. Sims was underwhelming compared to late-period AJ McCarron, but he was no worse than early-period McCarron or all-periods Greg McElroy. The offense still posted 538 yards and averaged more than 6.5 yards per play against a defense that was underrated when healthy in 2013.

According to Marc Torrence of Bleacher Report, head coach Nick Saban said he still doesn't "hesitate to say that there’s a quarterback competition," which is fine given some of the reviews we've heard on Coker. There's a chance he can bring this offense to a new level; he certainly has the rocket arm to stretch the field.

If Sims remains the starter, though, it shouldn't be cause for panic in Tuscaloosa, at least based on what he showed in Week 1. This was a solid B-plus debut for him and Kiffin's Alabama offense.

Final Grade: B+


4. Florida State Seminoles

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Points per Game: 37.0 (51st)

Yards per Game: 479.0 (49th)

Yards per Play: 6.70 (38th)

Jameis Winston was the Heisman Trophy winner, Kelvin Benjamin was the first-round NFL draft pick and Devonta Freeman is the Year 1 NFL fantasy sleeper, but the true heart and soul of Florida State's offense last year was the lineman, not the skill players.

The group was supposed to be even better in 2014, despite the loss of perhaps its best player, center Bryan Stork. The other four starters returned—as seniors—and a game-worn senior in Austin Barron was replacing Stork up the middle. Tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson were supposed to be All-America candidates.

All of which made what happened against Oklahoma State disconcerting. We'll have to see how the Cowboys' front seven looks against other opponents, but for one night, it made the Seminoles' big uglies look bad. Especially in the running game, where Florida State averaged just 3.42 yards per carry, they were outmuscled.

"On run blocking, I don’t think we were as physical as we needed to be," admitted head coach Jimbo Fisher, per Brendan Sonnonoe of the Orlando Sentinel, "And I think they will say the same thing. We played well enough to create space and make plays, but not up to our potential."

In the passing game, Winston looked alright for the most part but made a few uncharacteristic mistakes. His QB rating of 138.45 was the second-lowest of his career, leading only his second-most-recent game, the BCS National Championship against Auburn.

The pair of interceptions Winston threw were particularly jarring, both coming as the result of a poor decision. In 2013, he didn't throw his second interception until his 91st attempt of the season.

This year, he threw it on attempt No. 22:

The biggest bright spot for the Seminoles was wide receiver Rashad Greene, who is a safe bet to the lead the team in receiving for a fourth consecutive season. His 11 catches for 203 yards bailed FSU out of a tight spot, especially during the fourth quarter, when he took a tightly threaded pass 50 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

Without Benjamin and Kenny Shaw on the roster, Winston looked Greene's way even more often than usual, which is cause for concern going forward. Along with dominant offensive line play, last year's offense was so good because of balance, because opponents didn't know who to defend. It could beat you in so many different ways.

This year's offense looks a little more predictable, or at least it does after one game. Tight end Nick O'Leary needs to become a bigger part of the passing game plan, and freshman receivers Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane need to expedite their game-readiness.

Otherwise, the 'Noles might be in trouble.

Grade: C+


3. Baylor Bears

Aug 31, 2014; Waco, TX, USA; Baylor Bears wide receiver KD Cannon (9) catches a pass and runs in for a touchdown against the Southern Methodist Mustangs during the first half at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Points per Game: 45.0 (26th)

Yards per Game: 574.0 (17th)

Yards per Play: 5.92 (62nd)

It's difficult to give Baylor a complete offensive grade after quarterback Bryce Petty, the second-most efficient passer in the country last season, was forced to leave the game with a back injury.

According to Shehan Jeyarajah of The Dallas Morning NewsPetty plans to play against Northwestern State in Week 2, and even if he doesn't, the injury (two cracked transverse processes in his lower back) is not one that should jeopardize his season, so there's no cause for serious panic in Waco. Nonetheless, watching their star player leave the game in the first half was not how Baylor fans had hoped to open McLane Stadium.

Before Petty was forced to the locker room, he was 13-of-23 passing for 161 yards and two touchdowns. The Bears didn't get out to the same indomitable start as they did in last year's nonconference games, but once they got rolling, they looked sharp.

Petty's 46-yard touchdown pass to 5-star freshman KD Cannon, in particular, was something to feel good about: 

Seth Russell looked decent—not great, not awful—in relief of Petty, and the running game flashed its depth by giving 16 carries to Shock Linwood and 12 to Johnny Jefferson. Neither back topped the 90-yard mark, but once Petty returns to the lineup to keep defenses more honest against the pass, they should find more room to run.

Baylor was by no means the juggernaut we saw against Louisiana-Monroe and Buffalo last season, which is reflected in its sub-six yards per play, but that it still put up 574 yards of offense on a night where it didn't fire on all cylinders is good enough to salvage a B.

With room to improve going forward—not to mention a defense that earned an A-plus-plus on opening night—the Bears still have to feel great about their prospects in 2014.

Grade: B


2. Oregon Ducks

Ryan Kang/Associated Press

Points per Game: 62.0 (3rd)

Yards per Game: 673.0 (7th)

Yards per Play: 9.61 (3rd)

Tom Fornelli of put it best on the Eye on College Football podcast this weekend, referring to what Oregon does to inferior teams in the first few weeks of a season as "empty calories."

Delicious as it looks to rank in the top eight of points per game, yards per game and yards per play, the Ducks get no substance from beating up on the likes of South Dakota. It comes sizzling out of the kitchen, but there's not enough nutrition in those numbers for an offensive reputation to subsist upon.

Sensible judgement on Oregon's offense will be withheld until after Week 2, when it hosts a formidable, Pat Narduzzi-coached Michigan State defense, but for now, based on what we have to work with, this unit looks just as good as one would expect. Marcus Mariota coasted to 310 offensive yards on 20 passes and six carries, looking healthy and confident on the left knee that ailed him last year.

The most important takeaway from Saturday's win was the utilization of Byron Marshall, last year's leading rusher, in the role of a "taser" hybrid. After Bralon Addison tore his ACL during spring camp, the Ducks were left dangerously thin at receiver, but with Thomas Tyner (a sophomore) and Royce Freeman (a freshman) appearing to be the future in the backfield, they had running back depth to spare.

And this was their decision on what to do with it:

The role Marshall occupied in Week 1 was similar to the one De'Anthony Thomas occupied the past few seasons, and although their skill sets are not completely congruent, it should be interesting to see how he fares in that role against Michigan State on Saturday.

Chris Brown of Grantland published a thorough breakdown of the Spartans defense Tuesday, highlighting their adherence to one basic set, the 4-3 Over, a man-zone hybrid that relies on linebackers to cover the middle of the field against inside receivers and running backs.

If Marshall looks as good flexed out wide against the Spartans as he did in the tuneup (which he finished with eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns) and the offensive line can overcome not having left tackle Tyler Johnstone (torn ACL), Oregon might be able to give Michigan State a rare bout of trouble.

Based on what we saw in Week 1, there is no reason to think that it can't…but what we saw in Week 1 was admittedly not much.

Grade: A (but incomplete)


1. Texas A&M Aggies

COLUMBIA, SC - AUGUST 28:  Ricky Seals-Jones #9 of the Texas A&M Aggies against the South Carolina Gamecocks during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on August 28, 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Points per Game: 52.0 (15th)

Yards per Game: 680 (6th)

Yards per Play: 6.87 (32nd)

Texas A&M was bar-none the biggest story of opening weekend, obliterating South Carolina for 680 yards of total offense and 52 points in Williams-Brice Stadium, and doing it on national TV.

For adherents of the F/+ ratings, however, that did not come as a total surprise. Despite the losses of quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and left tackle Jake Matthews (all first-round picks in the 2014 NFL draft), the system at Football Outsiders projected the Aggies as the top offense in college football.

But not even F/+ could have predicted the magnitude of A&M's success. Quarterback Kenny Hill completed 44 of 60 passes, a wide array of throws at every level of the field, and finished with more passing yards (511) than Manziel had in any single game of his career.

Hill was (and is) just as light as Manziel on his feet, but unlike his forerunner, he doesn't look to tuck and run as soon as he leaves the pocket. He extends the play rather than transmuting it, keeping his eyes downfield for open receivers on broken/adjusted routes:

In this regard, Hill might be the perfect quarterback for a Texas A&M team with myriad pass-catching options.

Senior Malcome Kennedy is a savvy route-runner with an advanced understanding of Kevin Sumlin's offense, Speedy Noil was a top-10 recruit in 2014 and projects as the ideal shifty slot weapon and Ricky Seals-Jones (6'6"), Edward Pope (6'4"), Josh Reynolds (6'4") and Cameron Clear (6'6") are football players in basketball players' bodies who are always technically open (sort of) thanks to their physical gifts.

Combine all this with the rest of A&M's offensive weapons, and you have a unit that deserves to be called the best in the country. Especially in the trenches, this did not look like a one-game fluke.

Cedric Ogbuehi looked just as good as Luke Joeckel and Matthews at left tackle, and Germain Ifedi looked just as good as Matthews and Ogbuehi on the right. Matthews' younger brother, Mike, is no slouch starting at center, the position their father, Bruce, enjoyed a Hall of Fame career playing in the NFL.

Save the inexperience, there is nothing not to like about this offense. And if inexperience were ever going to be a problem, one would think a prime-time road game in Week 1 against a Top 10 team would be the framework that exposes it, right?

Suffice it to say that wasn't the case.

Grade: A+


Note: Recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT


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