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Fun With Numbers: Auburn

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Previewing the Auburn game with advanced statistics

Howdy Ags and welcome back to Fun With Numbers, a weekly post where we look at the Aggie football team and advanced statistics, and also see if we can count to 12 better than an SEC referee crew (This is admittedly a weak joke but I didn’t write a Fun With Numbers last week so I didn’t get to use it). If you’re not familiar with things like the SP+, FEI, Havoc rate, and other terms we like to throw around here to make ourselves sound smarter, check out this glossary before proceeding.

Just a brief reminder that with most metrics still relying on preseason projections, Bill Connelly’s move to ESPN, and a host of other factors, Fun With Numbers is a little lacking in… actual numbers at the moment. Hopefully this is the last week I have to make this announcement, preseason projections start getting fazed out soon and I’m hopeful that we’ll start getting adjusted Success Rate, IsoPPP, and other data from the SP+, but the “World Wide Leader in Sports” hasn’t been returning my emails (About the stats or my idea for a 30 For 30 titled, ‘Piss Missiles: The Braden Mann Story’).

How’d We Do Last Week?

We’ve actually had two games since our last FWN post, the most recent was a pay-to-play murder fest against the lowly Lamar Cardinals, which the Aggies won 62-3. Here’s my attempt at an Advanced Stats Box Score for that game.

This kills the Cardinal

But the real game we never got to discuss here was the Clemson matchup. We won’t spend too much time on it, the game is in the rear view mirror and there’s already been a lot of discussion on the Aggie’s matchup against one of the top teams in the country. But let’s check out Bill Connelly’s Advanced Stats Box Score anyway.

So much red.

Offensively, it was pretty much a blood bath. Now, Bill seems to have counted the majority of the 4th Quarter as garbage time (despite the margin not technically meeting that threshold), and with that touchdown drive added the efficiency numbers look a little better (around 48% Rushing Success Rate, 47% Passing), but the fact remains that Jimbo’s side of the ball did not come ready to play. There is plenty of blame to go around there too, obviously Mond was not playing at the level he needed to, his receivers gave him very little help early on, and the OL is still working out the kinks (28% Opportunity Rate prevented the run game from going much of anywhere). As far as positives go, Spiller looked good in his late game appearances and Ausbon continues to be a consistent target for Mond.

It’s a little bit brighter for Elko’s defense, they held a top 10 offense to 24 points and did it while consistently being put back on the field by the offense. They were much better at preventing big plays this season than they were in 2018 (1.01 IsoPPP vs 1.78), although that 50% Success Rate in Passing Down situations is concerning. They forced a turnover and managed a couple of sacks against a good offensive line, and as usual with Elko’s scheme, the players were usually in good position to make plays, and Trevor’s receivers made the plays that Mond’s guys couldn’t.

I’m now 2-0 SU and 1-1 ATS in my picks this year (Since I didn’t post a pick for the Lamar game), let’s move on to this week.

What Do We Know?

This Saturday, the Aggies take on an undefeated, Top 10 Auburn squad at home during the 2:30 slot on CBS. This game kind of gets shoved to the side when discussing the Aggies difficult schedule in 2019, but just a quick glance at the charts below show this is going to be a tough battle. This will also answer a lot of questions about this team going forward, we know very little after watching them mud-hole a couple of low level opponents and lay an egg against a likely playoff contender. Let’s get charted up before we start looking at offense and defense specifically.

Obviously as a fan base we are shunning the FEI until we get proper respect

While we wait for more statistics to come into play, here is an attempt at advanced box scores for the Aggies and the Tigers, but using stats from all of the first 3 games.

While Auburn is ahead of the Aggies in just about every poll or ranking, it’s a close enough match up for the Ags to open up as a 3 point favorite in Vegas, and have now moved to a 4 point favorite. The SP+ likes Auburn in a 2 point victory, and the FEI feels about the same with the Aggies losing this one by 3 points.

Aggie Offense vs Tiger Defense

The Aggies used the Lamar game to continue working through some rough patches, and managed to climb to #32 in the OSP+. Despite a terrible showing at Death Valley, the Aggies are still averaging about a 51% Success Rate (50% running the ball and 52% in the passing game) and almost 6.5 Yards/Play. Still, they are struggling a little bit without the consistent hands of one Jace Sternberger, the offensive line is still adjusting to the loss of Erik Mccoy, and Mond seems to be just as inconsistent as he was last year. The Aggie offense has given the ball up 6 times this season (1 INT and 1 Fumble in each game), and Mond has been responsible for 4 of them. On the other hand, he has thrown some beautiful passes, and several good ones that have been dropped by what is supposed to be an experienced receiving corps.

They take on an Auburn defense that returned about 67% of last years Top 10 DSP+ unit, and doesn’t appear to have missed a beat in its 4th season under Kevin Steele. They are particularly strong along the defensive line, with guys like Marlon Davidson (4.5 TFL, 2 Sacks) all set to give the Aggies problems up front. They also bring back a ton of talent on the backend, so while it might be the weaker point of the defense, it will still be a tough matchup for Mond and the wideouts. We saw above that they are holding teams to a 31% Success Rate, and while that was against the 48th, 95th, and 104th ranked OSP+, those numbers are still impressive.

Aggie Defense vs Tiger Offense

Defensively, the Aggies have looked pretty good early on. In 2018 through 3 games (against an FCS squad, Clemson, and a Sun Belt team), the defense had given up 750 yards through the air and 239 on the ground, while averaging 6 yards/play, and forced just 1 turnover. This season, they’ve given up 554 passing yards and 251 rushing, averaging 4.4 yards/play and forcing 6 turnovers. We’ll see if that improvement can hold up as conference play starts, but it certainly looks like Elko has managed to improve the back end drastically while mitigating the losses this unit suffered in the Front 7 to the NFL Draft.

Like most years under Gus, this Auburn team wants to establish the run, currently averaging 5.6 yards/carry and running the ball about 64% of the time. Part of this might be to keep from putting Prodigal Son and true freshman QB Bo Nix in tough situations (his dad played for Auburn, that might come up in the broadcast on Saturday), but he did just fine against Oregon in Week 1 when the pressure was on. Their receiving group is talented and experienced, but you have to think they’re still trying to find their groove after losing their top two targets from 2018 (Davis and Slayton). The OL returned a lot from 2018, and even with the injuries they’ve faced, have managed to open things up front for Whitlow and Martin (50% Success Rate running the ball).

Special Teams

ST remains a strength for this Aggie team, with Braden Mann continuing to punt well and Seth Small hitting every FG thus far. Auburn returns Aaron Siposs (responsible for the #4 ranking in Punter Efficiency in 2018) and Anders Carlson, who was great at kickoffs last year but only 60% in field goal percentage. In a tight game like this, it’s always nice to know that special teams can help you flip the field or get you some points on the board.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

Since joining the SEC, A&M has never beat Auburn at home. This includes close games with questionable no calls in 2013 to abject humiliation in 2017. Until last season, Auburn had the same home loss streak going as well. It’s never fun to be on the wrong side of these things, but streaks last until they don’t. It’s also worth noting that in Jimbo’s first season this team played much better at Kyle Field than they did on the road (84% percentile performance vs 60%, according to the SP+).

There is a lot of pressure on either side to win this game. For the Aggies, you’re already staring down the barrel at 3 more games where you will be the underdog, so you need to make sure you beat the teams of equal or lesser talent, otherwise stealing one against the big dogs becomes even more important. For ol’ Gus, whose seat is so perpetually warm it’s like he is sitting in a Ford Pinto with black interior that is ready to catch on fire at any minute (an apt illustration of Auburn football in general), it’s probably safe to assume he’d like to keep that Top 10 ranking next to his team name as long as possible.

What’s the Verdict?

It’s a tough matchup but obviously very winnable. The Aggies have very similar rankings to an Oregon team that nearly beat Auburn a few weeks ago, so there is no reason to suspect a blow out on either side. How can the Aggies pull off a win this week?

Offensively, it’s going to be tough, just like it was against Clemson. But this team had blown opportunities in Death Valley, and if we want to win this one the Aggies can’t repeat those same mistakes on Saturday. Kellen and the receivers need to establish an efficient passing attack early, Auburn is allowing a 40% SR in the 1st Quarter (55% against Oregon) so the Ags need to take advantage of their slow defensive starts and get on the board quickly. The Aggies also have to be better in the red zone. In 2018 the Aggie Offense finished with 4.49 points/scoring opportunity (80th in the country), so far they’ve only improved to 4.52. Stalled drives and turnovers near the end zone have been a huge detriment this offense, and we can’t afford them against a team that’s going to work hard to control the ground game and minimize our opportunities.

On the defensive side of things, the Ags have to continue to play well up front and limit big plays in the run game (Auburn has 11 explosive runs so far including 2 TDs), it’s going to be a real test for our linebacker group as they’ll be asked to keep things between them and the DL, and also stay home on the play action and misdirection calls that Malzahn has had so much success with against us in the past. Forcing Auburn off schedule will be the key, putting young Bo in passing down situations (where he is 15/35 with a sack and an interception) where Elko can find unique ways to bring pressure and make him uncomfortable.

So basically, create an efficient passing attack early and capitalize on opportunities, eliminate big run plays and try to get after the freshman QB early and often. What could go wrong?

My Prediction: I think it’s going to be an ugly and frustrating game, our OL is probably not ready for this Auburn defensive front and we are going to struggle to move the ball consistently. Still, I like that we’re getting this game early in the season as Bo Nix’s first SEC road game and I like our defense’s chances of holding them while the offense gets things rolling. I’m going to go against the projections and take the Aggies to win 24-20, so a cover (or a push, depending on when you got in on the line).

Final Notes

Thanks again for keeping up with Fun With Numbers. I’ll be back next week to preview Arkansas, and hopefully by then we’ll have some more stats to look at other than my half-assed, back-of-napkin charts.

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.

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