Last week, we were eager to learn, to find out if this team had something we’ve been waiting on. We learned a lot. It just wasn’t pleasant. The make or break portion of the schedule arrived, and things broke decisively. Tech fans have been on “fire the coach” watch since Saturday night. We’re already started releasing profiles of coaching candidates we think deserve serious consideration. As many have said, it’s a matter of when, not if the coaching change will occur.
But there’s still another game to be played Saturday afternoon. Georgia Tech travels to the Bounce House to make up the hurricane cancelled affair from 2017. These programs have both experienced tremendous change since then. Gus Malzahn is in his second year at the helm, and he’s still working to get his systems optimally deployed. Let’s look to the numbers to get a better idea of what to expect in Orlando this weekend.
When GT Has the Ball
If you are looking for a match up of equals on one side of the ball, this isn’t it! The UCF defense has been very solid, suffocating the offenses of South Carolina State and Florida Atlantic in blowout wins and limiting the efficiency of Malik Cunningham in a painful loss to Louisville. SP+ rates UCF’s defense as 31st in the country, while GT’s offense comes in at 85th and falling, still propped by a much higher preseason projection.
For GT, the problems span across the board. Jeff Sims has been inaccurate. The offensive line can’t run block. There’s nobody getting consistent separation on the outside. The offense has been neither explosive nor efficient. Chip Long continues to dial up far too many runs on second and long plays, setting up the offense for difficult third down situations it has not been converting.
For UCF, there’s not a clear weakness to exploit here. The worst relative metric for the Knights is EPA/Pass allowed. However, a 68th percentile number there doesn’t give a lot of consolation to GT fans, as the offense is not particularly set up to take advantage of a still pretty good pass defense. This defense has created disruption and prevented opposing offenses from being efficient. UCF has six different defenders with a sack, and PFF thinks very highly of its defensive line, with Edge player Tre’Mon Morris-Brash leading the way. The secondary also grades out quite well, with Quadric Ballard the most productive of the backend guys so far.
Overall, the linebacker position is probably the weakest level of defense for the Knights. They did give up some significant explosives to Louisville, and Malik Cunningham ran for 121 yards in that game. Perhaps, this is the game when the Jeff Sims rushing threat breaks out, but I don’t think I’d wager on it. This side of the ball probably depends more on toughness than scheme for GT this week. Last week was full of plays where offensive linemen let guys go by untouched, receivers didn’t finish routes, and the quarterback stopped short of aggressively trying to get a first down. Effort like that will lead to similar outcomes. Real effort by the offense raises the ceiling, perhaps to 17 or 21 offensive points.
When UCF Has the Ball
Surprisingly, given GT’s ongoing defensive struggles, this is the side of the ball that looks like the bigger tossup. The defense was dreadful against Ole Miss’s rushing attack, and UCF will do everything it can to exploit that same weakness. The quarterback, John Rhys Plumlee, has been the leading rusher for the Knights so far. Johnny Richardson has gotten about half as many snaps as Isaiah Bowser at tailback but has been the far more explosive player of the two.
The offensive line has been excellent in run blocking, as four of the five starters have PFF grades in the 70s or 80s (for comparison three of GT’s starting OL have run blocking grades in the 50s, one at 60, and one at 70). This line has greatly limited run stuff plays and has helped generate very efficient rushing offense. That’s going to be very challenging for Georgia Tech to stop with the perpetual struggles up front and the inconsistency in run fits from the linebacker position. If things are going well for Plumlee and company, the run/pass ratio will look very similar to how it did for Ole Miss last week.
On the other hand, if UCF has to pass, things have been flimsier. The EPA/pass number for the offense is not good. Plumlee has two great looking stat lines this season throwing the ball and one terrible one. The Louisville defense that forced Plumlee into a rough day isn’t great, and GT has actually been slightly better against the pass than Louisville so far this year. If Plumlee is completing passes at a 65% clip, things are not going well for GT. If he’s down into the 50s, this thing could remain tighter than most fans currently expect. But for that to matter, the defense has to be competent against the run. Past performance wouldn’t say that’s likely.
The spread for this game opened around UCF by 17 but has quickly moved up and settled at UCF by 20.5. Our model here at FTRS, The Binion Index, sees things right in the middle and has UCF as an 18.3 point favorite, which implies a 90% probability of winning for the Knights. Looking at the more granular level, we identified 19 areas of advantage for UCF and only three for GT, although that must include the context that those numbers come against the 98th rated schedule so far for the Knights and the 15th rated schedule for GT, per FPI.
So far this season, UCF has played slightly below its preseason expectations, while the massacre last weekend brought GT even more below its preseason rating levels. It’s hard to project the emotional and psychological state and subsequent effort level for GT this week. But the numbers tell us, the most likely case here is a comfortable three touchdown win for UCF. Until GT puts a higher level of play on tape and on the scoreboard, it’s hard to argue with that expected result. I hope this team comes out to fight, but it’s very easy to construct the scenario where this game looks over about eight minutes in. Now, we wait for the inevitable.
Vegas: UCF by 20.5
My Pick: UCF 35-17
The Binion Index: UCF by 18 (GT to cover)
Year to Date Against the Spread: 65-84 (43%, Goal: >=55%)
Average Absolute Error: 14.6 points per game (Goal <= 12.5 points per game)