Howdy and welcome back to this week’s edition of Fun With Numbers, where we look at what advanced stats are telling us about Texas A&M Football and their upcoming opponents. I try to be as objective as possible, so that you guys know how much whiskey to have on hand for the weekend.
If you’re unfamiliar with the SP+, Success Rate, and things like that, I recommend checking out this glossary to get yourself caught up.
How’d We Do Last Week… And Where Do We Go From Here?
The Aggies took a beating by Alabama this past Saturday at Kyle Field, because nothing is more fun than inviting a convicted felon into your house and then watch him steal everything you own and leave you bleeding and unconscious on the kitchen linoleum. Even though we expected to get beat, there were still some surprises on Saturday (some good, some bad), so let’s check out the box score and talk about a few things.
Let’s start with the bad. The defense allowing 63% Success Rate in the ground game was brutal, and the 2.15 IsoPPP on Passing Downs meant that even when we were able to control Tua and Harris/Robinson, they were hitting big plays and keeping our defense on the field. We particularly needed the defense to come out strong in the second half to allow the Ags a chance to stay in the game, but that wasn’t happening with the 62% SR they allowed in the 3rd Quarter. Offensively we needed a little more efficiency in the passing game, Ausbon and Davis averaged over 11 yards/catch, but both had catch rates under 65%. You also hate to see the way the offense disappeared in the 2nd quarter and 3rd quarter as well, and Kellen Mond continuing to be the only ground game for the Aggies is a huge concern. Finally, Bama averaging a starting field position at almost the 50 is inexcusable. Particularly with a punter/kicker like Braden Mann. Missed tackles (and maybe a few missed calls), poor blocking on the blocked punt, bad coverage in general, that can’t happen. Jimbo has elected to save a spot on his coaching staff by handling ST duties himself along with Jay Graham, which is fine when things are going well like last season. But when you spot one of the best teams in the country half the field on each drive, questions need to be asked and answered.
As far as the good, the Aggies did a great job capitalizing on scoring opportunities, finishing with 5.6. While the defense allowed 1.77 IsoPPP to the Bama passing game, that’s still better than what they gave up in last year’s game, and they also managed to pick Tua off in the end zone. It was good to see them mix things up tempo wise and come out with a new plan, averaging a 60% SR in the first quarter, and I think it should relieve some fears that Jimbo is just going to be stubborn the entire season and try to win by milking clock. It was nice to see Mond over the 100 yard mark in rushing, and Wydermyer’s emergence as an explosive and reliable target was good to see.
So here we are, midway through the 2019 Season, sitting at 3-3 and wondering if maybe, just maybe our expectations might have been a little too high this offseason. I understand the frustration too, you don’t have to have been an Aggie fan long to know that the phrase “Next year” gets said so often it might as well be on the school seal. And I’ve said this before, no coach should ever be hired/fired/graded based solely on advanced stats, or anything else other than wins and losses. Those are what matter, and the Aggies made that very clear when Sumlin was fired even though he never won less than 8 games (until 2017 that is). And if this football team finishes the season with 5 or more losses (Incredibly likely given that they face two more SP+ Top 10 teams and three teams in 30-50 range), Aggie fans will likely be catching a lot of grief in all corners of the internet. It’s important to remember two things though:
- You do not have to argue on the internet. Especially with idiots. That’s a hard one for a lot of people, to let somebody just be wrong, especially if the wrongness is getting a ton of likes and retweets and hearts and florps and shares and whatever other forms of social media dopamine hits there are now. But really, you aren’t going to change them and you aren’t going to feel any better in the end.
- Even though wins and losses are all that matter, they don’t tell the full story, which is why Fun With Numbers exists in the first place.
Consider this, in 2010 Team A went 10-4 in their Head Coach’s first year, where they won their division, won a mid tier bowl game, and finished 17th in the SP+. The following season, the team looked up halfway through and they were 3-3, with losses to the only 2 ranked opponents they would face all year and two of the losses being very winnable games. Team A then went onto go 8-1 the rest of the season including a Citrus Bowl win and finished 10th in the SP+. 1 year later they hit double digit wins again and finished 2nd in the SP+. The next year they hoisted a trophy. Figure it out yet? My point is not that the Aggies will win their next 6 games, or that in two years we will be in the playoffs (everybody knows we’ll be there next year).
My point is simply this, patience is key, both long term and for this season. We have a Top 30 team that has had a rough go against one of the hardest schedules in the country, after losing a ton of key contributors from last season and having your starting RB out for the year with injury. And the Aggies are still flashing a ton of potential. So let’s see how things shake out in the next couple of months (and then maybe a couple of more years) before we start wondering if the $7.5 million dollars that you have had absolutely nothing to do with in any way is too much money.
What Do We Know?
The Aggies take on a Top 50 Ole Miss team this week on the road, and have been labeled a 6.5 point favourite by Vegas. The SP+ likes the Aggies by 8 points but the FEI actually has the Rebels squeaking one out by 1.5 points.
Aggie Offense vs Rebel Defense
This obviously doesn’t look great. The Aggie offense continues to struggle up front in controlling the line of scrimmage, lacks big playmaking ability, and Mond is under pressure what feels like every other play. It’s not ideal when your QB is the best part of your run game, with Mond generating a 58% Success Rate on the ground and a 27% Explosive Run Rate, but as long as Jimbo recognizes that and adjusts the offense accordingly, we should still be able to move the ball against this defensive front.
The Rebel defense is statistically stronger than I would have expected midway through the season. They’re Top 50 in both the DSP+ and the DFEI, but they’re obviously far from dominant. Most of their advantages are not necessarily due to strong performances from their defense, and more so based off of A&M’s ineptitude. Their strongest area is obviously keeping teams from breaking off big runs, which is not exactly something A&M excels at anyway. They don’t generate a ton of pressure, but have managed to force four fumbles and seven interceptions this season.
Aggie Defense vs Rebel Offense
The Aggie defense understandably took a step back in most of these categories this past week, but that is kind of expected after a showdown with Bama. I would say Elko’s most glaring problems are the lack of ability to get home on sacks (ranking 99th in Sack Rate and ranking 102nd in the country in Team Sacks with 9) and the explosive runs we continue to see teams create against the Aggies. The last one is particularly worrisome, because this Ole Miss offense has 23 explosive runs so far in 2019, and Plumlee has been responsible for 6 of them.
The Rebel offense is definitely different than the ones we’ve seen in the past, built on a QB with a strong arm and dynamic receivers. They can still move the ball through the air, but they lean on the ground game a lot more and focus on generating big plays with Plumlee and Corral’s legs.
After a rough showing last week, this is no longer an automatic advantage for the Aggies. Small is still hitting above 80% on his FG tries and Braden Mann his averaging 48.6 yards/punt, we just need to see more improvement on the coverage side. I’m actually a little less worried about the punting game this week, and more about kickoffs. Ole Miss return man Jerrion Early is averaging 24.9 yards/return and has a TD this season, I hope Mann kicks every single one out of the back of the end zone on Saturday.
Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?
Probably a pretty important game for both teams in terms of bowl eligibility/placement, and the back half of the schedule doesn’t get that much easier for either team. I doubt Jimbo needs a reminder of how much the fans want to see our consistent run of misery against Mississippi schools end, and Matt Luke and his University of Phoenix version of Nick Saban’s School for Coaches That Can’t Coach Good might be feeling a little bit of pressure to get back to a .500 record.
What’s the Verdict?
Again, these are the types of games you have to win if you want to keep your head above water in the SEC. How do we do that? Missouri did it last week by generating an efficient passing attack, limiting big plays (especially through the air), and limiting the Rebels to 6 scoring opportunities (Missouri had 9).
Weird and questionable ending aside (and acknowledging they finished the game with a 59% win probability), Cal left Oxford with a win by limiting Ole Miss’s passing attack, preventing big plays and getting pressure on Corral, and attacking the defense with an efficient passing game that was explosive when necessary in Passing Down situations.
So what do we need from the Aggies?
I want to see Mond and the receivers clicking early and attack the secondary. The Ags may not hit any big plays this week through the air, but this is probably our best shot with the Rebels ranking 83rd in Explosive Pass Rate. Carry over the success against Bama last week and allow Mond to use his legs to help move the chains, and most importantly take care of the ball at all costs.
Defensively, it’s all about limiting big plays, particularly in the run game. The Rebels can and will likely move the ball pretty well, but if we can tighten up in the red zone like Cal did a few weeks ago, we can limit the damage. The QBs (both Corral and Plumlee) are going to run the ball, keep these runs from taking out big chunk yardage and you’ve eliminated a big part of the Ole Miss offense. Force them off schedule and into passing down situations where they really struggle to convert.
My Prediction: I like the Aggies here, even if it doesn’t look as good as people probably hoped. I’m going with 31-27, Aggies win but don’t cover. I’m 4-1 picking winners this season and 2-3 picking ATS.
Thanks as always for checking in this week. I apologize if it felt a little rushed or short this week, real life job got in the way this week and I didn’t have as much time to spend on it. If you’re interested in advanced statistics, please check these sites out.
- 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.
- ESPN.com is the new home for all of Bill Connelly’s SP+ info (as well as the FPI rankings).
- CollegeFootballData.com 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.
Questions? Comments? Criticisms? You know where to leave ‘em. I’ll see you at the tailgate.