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Fun With Numbers: Texas A&M vs. Alabama

Previewing the Alabama game with advanced statistics

ENIAC computer -c1944. 18,000 vac. Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Howdy and welcome back to Fun With Numbers, the weekly post where we talk about advanced statistics, Aggie Football, and why it’s totally healthy and normal to be this obsessed with something that only brings you pain.

If you need it, here’s a glossary that breaks down some of the terms we’re going to use.

How’d We Do Last Week?

A win is a win, unless it’s a 4 point win against a bad Arkansas that sent multiple Aggie fans into cardiac arrest, and then it’s basically a loss. Not really, but there is definitely a lingering negativity after the most recent win at Jerry World, even though it may not have looked all that different from last season’s. Let’s take a look at the Advanced Stats Box Score, courtesy of Bill Connelly at ESPN.

Not pictured: My heart rate during the final quarter.

So the Aggies finished with a 93% Win Probability, won the field position battle pretty handily, were far more efficient, and finished drives better than they had all season, with 5.17 points/scoring opportunity. So why did it feel so close?

One issue was the defense’s inability to stop big plays, giving up 4 rushes of over 10 yards and 103 yards on 4 explosive passing plays. Arkansas played well, and Hicks in particular was playing his best game of the season when he came in, but this passing attack is not nearly as explosive as the one the Aggies will face this weekend.

The biggest problem was the two turnovers. One was a fumble that immediately turned into 7 points for Arkansas (immediately following the only turnover the Aggies forced in this game), and the other was a bad interception by Mond inside the red zone. The interception is troubling, most of you probably saw the tweet from ESPN’s Heather Diesch about Mond having 3 interceptions in the red zone (tied for most in FBS). That plus a Kendrick Rogers fumble means we’ve had 4 total turnovers inside the twenty yard line. It’s a big reason why the Aggies are averaging 4.56 points/scoring opportunity on the season and a 44% Success Rate inside the red zone. The Aggies have had to settle for 7 red zone field goals this season, tied for second most in all of college football. Mond is throwing the ball A LOT inside the 20 yard line, 81% against P-5 opponents, which is obviously going to lead to unsuccessful plays and potential turnovers. I have no idea if that is just Jimbo’s scheme or if it’s because of a distrust in our OL to generate room for the run game, but either way, let’s hope we worked on it over the bye week.

What Do We Know?

The Aggies continue to slip a little in the metrics, but remain one of the better two loss teams in the country (Print the shirts!). They take on an Alabama squad that is #1 just about everywhere you look these days as they coast through this season’s edition of the Nick Saban Revenge Tour. The Ags are understandably a double digit home dog this weekend, the latest line being 16.5 points. The SP+ has Alabama winning 34-21 (so an Aggie cover) and the FEI says abandon all hope, picking the Tide to win by 39 points.

Aggie Offense vs Crimson Tide Defense

This is considered a down year for a Nick Saban Defense

Kellen Mond and the rest of the offense had plenty to work on during the bye week. We’ve discussed the offense’s issues regularly, and hit on them above. Like last year, they’re not explosive and lost the efficient run game and the sure handedness of Sternberger that made things click in 2018. The second problem can be fixed, Ausbon is already well on his way to being as reliable as a target, up to nearly 70% in catch rate (highly improved from 53.4% in 2018) and nearly 66% Success Rate. Quartney Davis is starting to find a rhythm, and Ainias Smith is getting more and more opportunities to shine, both guys provide the Aggies with a much needed big play ability through the air (23.5% and 20% Explosive Play rates for the two of them). The run game won’t be improved until we see better play from the OL, which is 114th in Line Yards/Carry and 102nd in Opportunity Rate this season, and Isaiah Spiller has a long way to go both in terms of his vision (36% Stuff Rate) and taking care of the ball (2 fumbles in the last 2 games).

They may not be as stifling as they’ve been in previous seasons, but this Alabama defense is still good, despite what you may have heard from PAWL and others. There are a lot of new faces, having returned only 59% of last year’s production and with a handful of injuries to starters, but they’ve managed to hold their own. The young DL and linebacking group have struggled a little bit against the run so far, ranking 68th in Line Yards and 34th in Opportunity Rate and giving up 10 runs of 15+ yards on the season. They allowed a 50% Success Rate against South Carolina earlier this season, but the most recent surprise was their inability to contain the run game that Ole Miss QB Plumlee (109 yards, 1 TD) generated. They’ve forced 6 INTs this season and recovered 5 fumbles, so as usual they know how to create havoc. The secondary, which seemed to be a weakness last season (as much as the 7th ranked DSP+ can have a weakness), seems to have improved quite a bit, which means it could be a long day for Mond and a receiving corps still trying to find their groove.

Aggie Defense vs Crimson Tide Offense

The Aggie defense lacks the consistency of last year (in that they consistently controlled the line of scrimmage and gave up anything to anybody through the air), but has still been pretty solid given the losses from 2018. They’re not as strong up front, giving up 2.20 Line Yards/Carry (30th in the country as opposed to 8th last season) but they seem to be much stronger against the pass, allowing only 10 explosive plays through the air so far, even if they didn’t show up as well against Arkansas. They’re 37th in Points Per Drive (up from 61st last season) and are only allowing 4.36 Yards/Play (27th in the country). They’ve certainly been better at taking the ball away this season, with 7 turnovers forced in their first 5 games.

They’ll need all the help they can get this week against an Alabama squad that is one of (if not the) best offenses in the country. Even before Saban realized he could just plug NFL talent in at the QB position and instantly unlock about +11 more points/game, Alabama had good offenses. This is something else entirely though. We all know what Tua is capable of, and he’s surrounded by elite talent and true speed at the receiver position. This is one of the most explosive passing attacks in the country, and it’s not like the brutally efficient run game of years past has just gone away either. It’s still there, led by Najee Harris (60% Success Rate and an 8.3% Explosive Run Rate) and a QB who can move too. Every receiver they will trot out on Saturday has a catch rate of 77% or higher, 60% or higher Success Rate, and game breaking speed to either beat you before the ball is thrown or annihilate your ankles and then put in some serious yards after catch. If this sounds like a narrator on a Shark Week documentary explaining how screwed you are anytime you are in the water, it’s because this Alabama offense truly is a unique and terrifying killing machine.

Special Teams

Though the Aggies have little in the way of a return game at the moment, they still have Braden Mann knocking down satellites and leaving craters in the end zone, averaging 48.4 yards/punt (Third in the country). Seth Small is looking good as well, hitting 80% of FGs this season (he was 71.4% in his freshman year).

Because no Death Star is complete without the small exhaust vent that can allow it to be blown to Hell, Alabama ranks 84th in Special Teams. They’re struggling in the kicking game with Skyler Delong averaging about 34 yards/punt and Reichard hitting 57% of his FGs (Bulovas seems to have taken over in the Ole Miss game and is 1 for 2 so far). The return game has potential, but hasn’t made many big plays yet, other than a blocked punt returned for a TD against the Rebels a couple of weeks ago.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

I believe this says it all.

What’s the Verdict?

If all my colorized charts and fancy numbers couldn’t scare you, I don’t know what else to say. Alabama is by no means a perfect team this season, but unfortunately their weaknesses don’t exactly line up with our strengths. But, we don’t go out on the field to lose games do we Ags? So what can the good guys do to move the ball against this young defense?

  1. Creative Run Game: Nobody has really been able to hang with Alabama this season, but South Carolina and Ole Miss at least moved the ball and scored points, and they both seemed to find the most amount of success on the ground. The easy answer is to just say, “Run Mond” and hope he can get to the edge like Plumlee did a couple of weeks ago, but let’s face it. How often does Saban get beat the same exact way twice? I think the plan is to allow for Mond to run, using read option plays, misdirection, and everything we can to open up things in the ground game. Do what you can to confuse the young Bama Front 7 and try to keep the offense in standard down situations.
  2. Big Pass Plays: Quartney Davis has started to heat up a little bit and Ainias Smith has emerged as a big play threat, and we need both of them to help generate explosiveness in the passing game. Teams do not respect the deep threat with this Aggie offense, Saturday would be a good day to make somebody pay for that. This will help back things up and allow for the run game to find a little more success too.
  3. Take Care of the Ball: Pretty simple here. The Ags have turned the ball over at least once in every game this season. They can’t afford that this Saturday against a team that will score one play after you give them the ball.

Defensively, how can the Aggies slow down this offensive attack?

  1. Bring the Havoc: Elko has to find a way to get pressure on Tua this weekend, and when the players get in the backfield they have to bring him down. Disguise your coverage/blitzes and find unique ways to throw this offense off schedule. Just like we have to take care of the ball on offense, the defense needs to steal some possessions either by being the first defense to pick off Tua this season or by forcing a fumble somewhere.
  2. Don’t Be Fooled: You may not find anyone who can run the RPO as well as this Crimson Tide squad does. They love sucking up an LB/Safety on play action, and then hitting one of their receivers over the middle that’s being chased by some poor cornerback. Be smart and play your assignments, don’t beat yourselves. Several times defenders found themselves out of position against Auburn, very uncharacteristic of an Elko defense. Can’t let that happen against this team because they thrive on making defenses pay for their mistakes.
  3. Tackle In Space: And speaking of mistakes, you have to bring guys down. Smith, Jeudy, Waddle, they’re going to catch the ball on you. Their first TD against Ole Miss came because two defenders bounced off Smith and he took it 74 yards for a score. Nothing would suck the life out of Kyle Field faster than that. Keep them from hitting these big plays and churning out ungodly YAC numbers, and force them to efficiently drive down the field, killing clock, limiting possessions and force them to run their offense in the short field of the red zone.

My Prediction: To win this game, the Aggies have to be a different team than they’ve been all season. Every strategy I listed above is common sense and most of them are things the Aggies haven’t been able to do consistently in 2019. This team always finds away to at least make things interesting against Bama though, and despite Kyle Field being labeled “not intimidating” by a guy who called Austin a cesspool just a few short years ago, I like having it at home. 42-27 Alabama wins but the Aggies cover. I’m 3-1 picking SU and 2-2 ATS so far.

Final notes

Thanks as always for checking in this week. If you’re interested in advanced statistics, please check these sites out.

  • for a solid compilation of all things related to football analytics.
  • for Brian Fremeau’s FEI data and other fun projects from him.
  • is the new home for all of Bill Connelly’s SP+ info (as well as the FPI rankings).
  • is a great site I recommend if you’re interested in downloading and playing with stats on your own. All my per play/drive data comes from this site, which is how I have come up with the Success Rates and Explosive numbers we get to look at now.
  • Also you can now follow me on Twitter @Aggie_Analytics. I don’t tweet that often but you may enjoy the few things I do post.