Bob Stoll of Dr. Bob Sports is one of the most seasoned, successful sports handicappers around. He was one of the first to use advanced analytics in sports handicapping after studying statistics and finance at U.C. Berkeley. You can find his historical college football performance here, and you can subscribe to his service here. He has agreed to share some of his lengthy, from-every-angle game previews here.
Strong Opinion – TEXAS (+3 ½) 34, Notre Dame 32
Notre Dame destroyed Texas 38-3 in South Bend last season but this is a new year and Texas is much better suited to compete with an overrated Notre Dame team that won’t be nearly as good as they were last season. The Irish return just 3 starters on offense and only 4 returning starters on defense and the losses are impactful. The only issue at quarterback is that head coach Brian Kelly can’t decide between two talented passers, as last year’s opening day starter Malik Zaire is back from an injury he sustained early in week 2 and DeShone Kizer has proven himself to be an effective passer in 10 ½ games under center after Zaire was injured.
Regardless of who the quarterback is the pass attack won’t be nearly as good without the services of star WR Will Fuller, who averaged a very impressive 13.2 yards per pass targeted at him last season. The rest of the Notre Dame wide receivers combined to average a modest 7.8 yards per target, which is actually below the national average for wide receivers. Overall, only 1 of the top 7 receivers from last season are back now that WR Corey Robinson has retired due to concussions and talented TE Alize Jones failed to qualify academically.
Notre Dame is still likely to have a good pass attack. They just won’t have a great one.
The Irish rushing attack should still be special, however, as sophomore Josh Adams will get the bulk of the carries after averaging 7.1 yards on his 117 runs last season while playing behind C.J. Prosise, who left early for the NFL after running for 1032 yards at 6.6 ypr in 2015.
The offensive line doesn’t figure to be quite as good and backup Tarean Folston hasn’t proven to be much better than mediocre (5.2 ypr on 266 career runs). While Adams is certainly not a step down from Prosise, the production from the 2nd back figures to decline this season. Even with that being the case the projection is for the Irish to be 1.3 yards per rushing play better than average (4th best in the nation) while the pass attack rates at 1.3 yards per pass play better than average.
Notre Dame was an incredible 1.9 yards per play better than average offensively last season (7.1 yppl against teams that would allow 5.2 yppl to an average attack) but they’ll have to settle for a more modest, but still potent, +1.3 yppl rating heading into this season.
Texas has an experienced defensive secondary going up against that raw Irish group of receivers and I expect the Longhorns’ pass defense to be among the best in the nation (I rate them 8th in pass defense). The key for Texas will be defending the run, which is something that they were not good at last season.
The Longhorns weren’t bad defending the run, as they rated at 0.1 yards per rushing play better than average on a national scale, and they are projected to be 0.3 yprp better than average this season. However, that’s not good enough to keep Notre Dame from moving the ball on the ground and my ratings project 6.0 yards per run and 6.0 yards per play for Notre Dame in this game.
While Notre Dame’s offense will still be strong the defense is likely to be worse than last year’s pretty mediocre unit. The Irish were only 0.3 yards per play better than average defensively in 2015, allowing 5.5 yppl to teams that would combine to average 5.8 yppl against an average stop unit, and this year’s group is a lot less experienced than last year’s veteran laden edition (9 returning starters).
Only 4 starters return this season (5 if you include NT Jarron Jones, who started in 2014 but missed last season with an ACL injury) and just 1 of last year’s top 8 tacklers returns this season and the projection is a return to the mediocre levels of 2014. Notre Dame was just average defensively in 2014 and that is how they project in 2016.
An average defense would have been good enough to handle the Texas offense last season because the Longhorns’ pass attack was so atrocious. Texas quarterbacks completed only 55% of their passes last season and there were 6 games in which the Longhorns averaged 3.2 yards per pass play or less. Texas had a strong rushing attack that averaged 246 yards at 6.0 yards per rushing play and the run game should be a strength against this season.
The difference in this year’s Texas offense is what should be a much improved pass attack. Freshman Shane Buechele had a spectacular Spring game and has reportedly had the edge to start over a significantly improved Tyrone Swoopes; while last year’s main trigger man, the ultra athletic Jerrod Heard, is now going to be a threat a wide receiver.
If you watched Heard run last season you can imagine how effective he could be on the receiving end of those bubble screens that new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert is likely to utilize. Gilbert comes from the Art Briles/Baylor coaching tree and in his one season as the OC at Tulsa he improved the Golden Hurricane offense by 0.8 yards per play and turned previously inaccurate quarterback Dane Evans (55% completions and 17 interceptions as a starter in 2014) to an accurate, mistake free passer in 2015 (63% completions and just 8 interceptions on 485 pass attempts).
If Gilbert can turn Evans around he should be able to do wonder with the highly rated Buechele. Swoopes could also play but reports are that he’s significantly improved and if he plays more than Buechele then I expect him to play well. I’ll start the season with Texas being rated as average in the pass game but there is certainly upside potential given the better coaching and talent at receiver.
Even with an average pass attack the Longhorns have an edge over a mediocre Notre Dame defense and my ratings project 489 yards at 6.3 yppl for Texas in this game.
Overall my ratings favor Texas by 2 points and 67 total points, which assumes that head coach Charlie Strong will allow Gilbert to run his up tempo attack at the same pace he ran it in at Tulsa and Bowling Green (in 2014).
In addition to the line value it may be tough for Notre Dame to take this game as seriously as they should, given how easily they beat Texas last season.
Teams that lost 3 or fewer games the previous season are just 6-33-3 ATS in week 1 as a favorite against a non-conference team that they beat by more than 21 points the previous season.
I’ll consider Texas a Strong Opinion at +3 points or more. There is also value on the over but that is conditional on Texas playing at the pace OC Gilbert wants to play at, and while I assume that they will, there is still some doubt.