Welcome back to Fun With Numbers. We've got another SEC opponent to talk about this week and as always a grab bag of stats to pick through so that we can find numbers to fit our narrative. If you've read some of my previous posts you know that I like to gather up some advanced statistics (specifically from the S&P+, the FEI, and F/+), compare those to the Aggies' next opponent, and then discuss interesting match ups on the field.
Why do I do that?
I'll admit it's a strange hobby, but I've been looking at the numbers on my own for a couple of years now, so it wasn't really out of my way to set up some tables and jot down my thoughts on it. The statistics can be highly predictive (Bill Connelly's S&P+ picks are currently hitting 57% against the spread), giving us a pretty good idea of what we might see in the 50+ games of college football that kickoff every week. And as someone who enjoys college football and the uh, gambling side of college football, that appeals to me.
(And this is probably obvious to anyone reading) The numbers are in no way an infallible, concrete statement of what will happen in every individual game, especially this early in the season. That's for a lot of reasons, the first being that preseason projections are not phased out yet from the rankings (Should occur sometime around Week 7). Second, we're looking at an individual game under a microscope, comparing efficiency and explosiveness and other stats to each other that haven't been adjusted for opponents and are based on limited data, so there's plenty of room for error there. And finally, it's college football man. Just about anything can happen on any Saturday, and it's part of why we love it so much. So with that said...
How'd We Do Last Week?
Well, I called an A&M victory and a cover, which we definitely got. How we got it was a little bit surprising, for me anyway. I thought we'd really see an efficient, run focused offense that slowly wore the Arkansas defense down and a defense that limited the Razorbacks similar to what we saw when they played TCU. What we got instead was an offensive explosion of a game that consisted of big plays, inefficiency, and some great special teams play from the Ags. I did successfully call this as a game that would give Aggie fans heart palpitations, and I'm now 2-1 straight up and 3-0 against the spread in my predictions, so I'll take my victories where I can get them I suppose. Check out Bill Connelly's advanced stat box score for the game here, and MARVEL at that horrendous success rate. Jesus.
Alright, I've done a lot of talking and none of it has been about this week's game against South Carolina. Let's get to it.
What Do We Know?
Both the Aggies and Gamecocks are 3-1 coming into this game, both teams coming off narrow victories and both teams looking different each time they play a game. Bill C. gives the Maroon and White a 68% chance of winning with a projected margin of 8.2, and Vegas has the Ags at anywhere from an 8-10 point favorite. The Ags have a solid advantage in the S&P+, but the Gamecocks sit one spot higher in the FEI. Why the difference? The FEI is an efficiency metric, and to date the Gamecocks have certainly been better at that (especially offensively). Also, South Caro has not faced an FCS opponent yet (Although Missouri is close enough, HEY OH!), so in the eyes of the FEI, we've played one less game than the Cocks.
Aggie Offense vs. Gamecock Defense
The Aggie offense seems to be improving little by little, particularly in the passing game, which is not at all shocking considering the young talent at quarterback and receiver. I have been surprised by the inefficiency of this offense. In my "review" of last year, I mentioned that I expected to improve a lot in that regard with our run game becoming a strength, but I suppose our true fish QB and offensive line struggles have led to this offense leaning on big plays again. That's certainly not the worst thing in the world, but explosive plays can be so random and hard to come by once you start playing really good defenses. South Carolina might not be "really good", but they have been good at preventing big plays, especially in the secondary. The S&P+ has them just two spots behind where Arkansas was last week (The pigs fell from 34 to 49 after our 500+ yard day), and the most points they've given up all season is 28 in Week 1 against NC State. I think our run game should still be able to break off some big yards, assuming that Mond's performance this past weekend carries over. Mond throwing the ball around a little could help prevent Muschamp from stacking the box or sending too much towards the backfield. This experienced secondary (while great at stopping big plays and has 4 interceptions on the year) is one that you'd like to believe he could throw against, especially things like slants and out routes.
Stats to Note:
For the third week in a row, the Aggies will face a team that ranks outside the top 100 in Overall Havoc. South Carolina currently sits at 106, but their defensive line (Particularly Sawyer and Wonnum) are ranked 32 in DL Havoc.
Our explosive run game is one of the biggest advantages we have over South Carolina, I hope Trayveon (10.3 highlight yards/opportunity) is healthy enough to take advantage of this.
Ratley's catch rate improvement this year (up to 55.6% from 25% in 2016) has been great for this team, giving Mond a third reliable receiver to target besides the sure thing in Kirk and his high school teammate Ausbon.
Aggie Defense vs. Gamecock Offense
The Aggie defense definitely took a step back this past weekend, especially in stopping the run game, so I'm not really sure what to expect at Kyle Field on Saturday. Since Deebo went down, it's been hard for the Gamecock offense to hit big plays, and they've definitely taken a step back with his injury. I fully expect them to attack our secondary looking for some of the same types of breakdowns in scheme that Arkansas did, but I don't think they have the run game to put us on our heels like the Razorbacks did. Without Samuels, Bryan Edwards appears to be Bentley's go to man going forward and Ty'son Williams has emerged as their better running back. I wish there was more to say other than this is an incredibly average offense (both in efficiency and explosivness) that is terrible at finishing drives (103rd in the country right now), facing a defense that has proved incredibly average (or worse) against the only two real tests they've had this season and is also terrible at finishing drives (104th in the country right now). Feeling good yet?
Stats to Note:
I mentioned Bryan Edwards earlier, but Hayden Hurst is also one to watch out for. A TE with a 61.1% catch rate and a 50% success rate, sounds exactly like the type of guy we'll have a hard time covering.
The Aggies continue to find ways to create Havoc (ranking 22nd overall) especially in the secondary (14th in DB Havoc). If we can force Bentley into passing down situations, we may be in for some big sacks or interception opportunities.
Another week, another opponent where the Ags have a huge advantage in Special Teams. Pay Jeff Banks his money. Tripucka remains solid as the 7th best in punter success rate and we all know what we have in Kirk. LaCamera has hit 8/10 FGs including the one to send us into overtime last week, even with Ol' Bret trying to ice him down like he was a cheap six pack of beer. Something tells me Bret's a Coors Lite kind of guy.
South Carolina has struggled, especially after losing exciting receiver and return man Deebo Samuels. Pair that with their kicker missing two FGs against La Tech (credit where it's due, he made the one that counted) and 2 against Kentucky, and a punter who has struggled to get fair catches and land punts inside the 20, the Ags could really leverage this area to minimize Gamecock points and set ourselves up to win the field position battle.
Anything the Numbers Don't Tell Us?
Similar to last week, this is an opponent that the Aggies are undefeated against since joining the SEC, going 3-0 in this... contrived rivalry, regardless of who is playing quarterback or coaching for South Carolina.
Sumlin and the Aggies have faced a Will Muschamp team or defense three times (2012 Florida, 2015 Auburn, and 2016 South Carolina). The Ags are 1-2 in those games and were held to 17, 10, and 24 points. I know this doesn't mean a whole lot, they are all different teams and the Ags were technically limited in the first of those (2012 we had no idea what we had in Johnny, 2015 was a Spav Special), but I do get the feeling that our offense may have a lot more trouble this week than last.
What's the Verdict?
Vegas, the S&P+, and a lot of people seem convinced that this game will be less of an issue for the Ags than the Arkansas game was. So why am I so much more nervous about the Gamecocks? Maybe it's the uneven play from both sides of the ball, maybe it's the whole Muschamp defense I mentioned earlier, maybe it's just this is the type of game Sumlin has found a way to mess up in the past. At the end of the day, until this offense finds a way to be more efficient and our defense matures a little more I'm going to be worried regardless who the opponent is. Because we won't always hit the big play, and someone could easily get one over on us.
So what do we do? Take care of the ball on offense (The Gamecocks won the turnover battle in their first two wins of the season) and eventually Kirk or one of the running backs should be able to do something impressive. On the other side of the ball, use Kentucky's blueprint to take down South Carolina. The Wildcats allowed Bentley to put up 300 yards of offense, but never let the Gamecock rushing attack get going. South Carolina had a great success rate, up until they got past the 40 yard line where the Kentucky defense tightened up and forced them to kick 3 field goals (all of which missed). Kentucky also picked off Bentley twice (Both on passing downs) and sacked him twice. Louisiana Tech almost pulled off the same game plan last weekend, it's all about preventing explosive plays and then limiting their points per opportunity.
My prediction: The Ags have just been a revolving door for teams once they cross the 40. I'd really like to think that against an offense that has stalled in the red zone, they can start reversing that trend but I just don't know. I take the Ags to win in a close one 28-21 (a South Caro cover).
Thanks for joining me again this week. Always glad to have you guys reading, commenting, and rec'ing these posts. I know I can be hard to follow and this stuff isn't exciting to everyone, so for those of you that continue to read along the rest of the season, I appreciate it. We'll have opponent adjusted stats and other good stuff coming soon. Don't forget that if football statistics and analytics interests you, check out these sites where all of my data comes from.
FootballOutsiders.com for a solid compilation of all things related to football analytics.
Bcftoys.com for Brian Fremeau’s FEI data and other fun projects from him.
Footballstudyhall.com for S&P+ info and other articles presented by Bill C. and his crew.
Questions? Comments? Criticisms? You know where to leave ‘em. I’ll see you at the tailgate.