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Fun With Numbers: Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State

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Previewing the Mississippi State game with advanced statistics

Physics Photo by Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Howdy and welcome back to Fun With Numbers, the weekly post where we dive into the deep end of advanced statistics and see if we can stay afloat long enough in order to find some numbers that make us optimistic.

If you’re new to these posts, check out this glossary to get yourself up to speed.

How’d We Do Last Week?

The Aggies moved back to a winning record after taking care of Ole Miss, finishing 24-17 with a 60% Win Expectancy according to the SP+. Let’s take a look at the box score and talk about it before moving onto the next SEC Battle.

Starting with the bad, it was a little discouraging to see the passing game struggle so much. Last week I believed the path to winning for us would revolve around an ultra efficient passing offense, but we had two receivers (Ausbon and Wydermyer) finish above 50% in Success Rate and finished with a 31% Passing SR overall. Mond still is getting no protection (and sometimes brings trouble on himself by hanging onto the ball too long). The Aggie defense also failed to control the big plays that Ole Miss loves to create in the run game, and allowed several Ole Miss ball carriers to have over 5 Highlight Yards/Opportunity. The Aggie offense disappearing in the 2nd half was also disappointing to see, as was the regression back to less than 4 points/scoring opportunity.

Still, there was a lot of good here too. The defense stepped up in the second half when the offense fell apart, did a good job containing Ole Miss once they got past the 40 yard line (2.83 points/scoring opp.), and also created some havoc (3 sacks and 2 TOs). Offensively, we were able to run the ball fairly well, particularly with Mond who averaged over 9 yards/carry and a 73% Success Rate. Seth Small remains somewhat unreliable, but Braden Mann and the coverage team looked much better this week, getting back to winning the field position battle, and that punt (You know which one I’m talking about) was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen.

Overall, it was another ugly win for this team, but we’re starting to see some improvement in phases of the game that seemed to be a lost cause just a few weeks ago and it very easily could have been more than a one score game.

What Do We Know?

This Saturday at Kyle Field will feature two teams who the SP+ projected as Top 15 squads going into 2019, and it’s fair to say that some of that hype has been lost a little over halfway through the season. Still, it’s October in Aggieland, it’s Mississippi State, so naturally everyone’s a little nervous going into a game where Vegas favors the Aggies by 10 points, the SP+ sees it about the same (9 points), and the FEI predicts a 7 point victory for the Ags. Let’s get into some matchups and see how this thing looks.

Aggie Offense vs Bulldog Defense

While the offense seems to have rebounded a little since its poor showings early in the season, the Ole Miss game was not exactly an offensive clinic. The Aggie O is turnover prone, lacks big play ability (especially through the air), and is inconsistent everywhere from the offensive line to the receivers and all things in between. However, things are certainly not as bleak as they were after the Auburn game in my opinion. Against our first 3 FBS opponents, the Ags averaged around 41% Success Rate running the ball (and thats with a 55% Success Rate against Texas State bringing up the average). Since then against Arkansas, Alabama, and Ole Miss, the Aggies are hitting around 50%. Part of this is due to a slight improvement in offensive line play. Going into the Arkansas game, the OL was 104th in the country in Opportunity Rate, and they’re currently up to 76th. The other part of that is Jimbo and Dickey committing to using Mond’s legs as an actual key to the gameplan (16 rushes in the first 4 games vs 32 in the last 3), and finally seeing Isaiah Spiller become a viable alternative, who had a rough game against Arkansas (29% Success Rate) but has looked better the last two weeks (40% and 50% Successs Rates against Bama and Ole Miss). It’s not perfect, but if we can keep it up and pair it with the semi-efficient passing attack, the offense can actually end up being pretty good this season.

The Bulldog defense doesn’t rate all that much different overall from the Ole Miss team that the Aggies just beat, and have really fallen off from last season’s #1 Ranked DSP+ and DFEI unit. They’re susceptible to big plays, and are clearly missing Simmons and Sweat who made up the impenetrable wall of a DL which suffocated opponents’ run game in 2018. All is not totally lost for Bob Shoop’s guys though, they do rank 52nd in the country in Havoc Rate and are forcing 2.3 turnovers/game which is Top 10 in the country. While they struggle to get teams to 3rd Down (only 77 times this season), they are pretty good when they get there, holding teams to a 34% conversion rate (33rd in the country). Bottom line, the Aggies should be able to move the ball well against this team both through the air and with their newfound run capabilities, but we need to take care of the ball and not find ourselves in 3rd and long frequently.

Aggie Defense vs Bulldog Offense

Elko and his squad have maintained their Top 30 position in the DSP+, while the DFEI is a little less excited about the Aggie D. After losing so much in the Front 7, the Aggies have understandably taken a step back in the run game and are particularly susceptible to giving up explosive runs. The step forward in the secondary has been a very welcome sight after being one of the worst units in the country last year. While they’re much better at creating turnovers this season, the Ags are having a hard time getting sacks on opposing QBs, although they did turn in 3 against Ole Miss last week (Tied for a season high). If the Aggies can find a way to contain teams on the ground, it’s possible to see them finishing in the Top 25 DSP+ for the 2nd year in a row, which is something we haven’t seen done in the last 15+ years.

They’ll have their hands full against a Mississippi State offense that has struggled to find it’s footing at times but overall remains an efficient unit with explosive run capabilities. It’s not altogether that much different from the A&M offense, maybe a little less efficient, a little stronger run game, but just as terrible at protecting the QB and hitting the deep ball. Kylin Hill is dangerous and since he has been held in check the last couple of weeks, it seems reasonable to expect he’s going to have a career day at Kyle Field. Shrader is no slouch either, with a 53% Success Rate running the ball and the ability to break off big runs (18% Explosive Run rate), and he’s got four consistent targets with above 75% Catch Rates and 50% Success Rates.

Special Teams

Braden Mann showed up in a big way against Ole Miss, while Seth Small left his good leg in College Station last weekend. Let’s hope they’re both back in prime form for this matchup.

I have no idea why the SP+ and FEI differ so much on the Mississippi State Special Teams rankings. Tucker Day is a pretty decent punter, averaging 43.7 yards in his sophomore season. Their return game is not particularly noteworthy and Christman is hitting 67% on field goals this season. Also, what a great name for a kicker, because when he misses you can just say his name really angrily and it sounds like you’re invoking Jesus’s name.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

The Aggies haven’t beaten the Bulldogs in their last 3 tries, and haven’t beaten both Mississippi schools since 2013. Most anyone will say that is something that needs to happen regularly in order for the Aggies to be considered a legitimate threat in the SEC West. This is just as big of a game for Mississippi State, as they’re currently sitting at 3 wins with 2 likely victories left on the schedule, an almost certain loss to Alabama, and a rivalry game that could go either way to finish off the year. It’s fair to say that the winner of this matchup is much more likely to be bowling in December.

There’s also a little talk about Bulldog HC Joe Moorehead being considered for the same position at Rutgers, because if you’re the Scarlet Knights you basically have to consider anyone who has spent the night in New Jersey. Moorehead has denied any interest, probably because he has in fact spent the night in New Jersey.

What’s the Verdict?

Seems like anytime we think Mississippi State is an easy win we get a shocking disappointment to the chin. If it truly “ain’t like it used to be” then the Aggies need to show up on Saturday and defend Kyle Field. How do they pull that off?

Offensively, I think we need to get Mond and his receivers into a groove early. In their last three losses the Bulldogs have allowed an average of nearly 58% Success Rate through the air and given up 16 explosive pass plays. This is a vulnerable secondary that Mond needs to be able to take advantage of, unlike at Ole Miss where we really struggled through the air and relied on the ground game to gut out an ugly win. Obviously you still want to see us continue to have success on the ground like we have the past few weeks, and Mond needs to be free to use his legs to pick up first downs and attack a defense that will likely allow plenty of Highlight Yards this weekend.

Defense will have the tougher test in my opinion. When this offense is working, it’s as efficient as the Auburn run game that the Aggies struggled against so much, and with a higher explosive run rate as well. The Front 7 has to hold up better than they have the last few weeks against the ground game, and the secondary needs to improve at tackling in space. If we can hold them to under 3.3 yards/carry like their last few opponents have, we can force them into 3rd and long situations where their passing game is not strong enough to bail them out.

My Prediction: I like the Ags here, because I believe the defense will be able to come through and prevent big plays and I think Mond and the receivers will click a lot better this week. I don’t know if I like us to cover though, I could see it being pretty ugly and maybe giving up a score late, similar to Ole Miss. I’ll say Aggies win 30-24, failing to cover the 10 point spread. After picking the Aggies to win but not cover last week, I am 5-1 straight up and 2-4 ATS, so maybe don’t take my picks to Vegas this season.

Final notes

Thanks as always for checking in this week. Only 4 games left after this one so let’s make sure we’re enjoying the good and the bad, because it will all be gone soon and we’ll be stuck reading offseason articles about summer conditioning programs and recruiting news.

  • 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.

Questions? Comments? Criticisms? You know where to leave ‘em. I’ll see you at the tailgate.