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Fun With Numbers: Arkansas Razorbacks

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Previewing the Arkansas game with advanced statistics

Use Of American Dollars Grows in Venezuela Photo by Matias Delacroix/Getty Images

Howdy Ags and welcome back to Fun With Numbers, brought to you by the only Aggie left who hasn’t been blocked by Olin Buchanan, the spiritual leader of TexAgs. In these posts, I try to borrow from the SP+, FEI, and other advanced statistical metrics to talk about Aggie football. Sometimes those numbers lead to unearned optimism and sometimes it brings about unnecessary pessimism, so it kind of mirrors the Aggie fanbase in that way I guess.

If you’re not familiar with the advanced metrics above (or phrases like “Success Rate”, “Explosiveness”, etc.) please check out the glossary here, and come back when you’re all learned up. As mentioned in other posts, we’re kind of cobbling Fun With Numbers together while we wait for Bill Connelly of ESPN to throw us more stats, like bread crumbs to a bunch of idiot ducks who don’t know how to open up the loaves themselves.

How’d we do last week?

Speaking of unearned optimism… Yikes. I did say it was going to be an ugly and frustrating game and that our OL would not be ready for Auburn, but I still believed we’d figure it out and win 24-20. That didn’t happen. Instead Jimbo kept running into a brick wall coached by a man who once cried on Mack Brown’s shoulder and got out-schemed offensively by the most high school chemistry teacher looking guy in all of college football. It was not a great day. Let’s pull at this scab real quick to see if we draw any blood, and then we can move onto Arkansas.

Scoring touchdowns is important. Lesson learned.

Let’s start with the bad. The Aggies averaged a 28% Success Rate in the run game, worse than what they did against Clemson this year or Mississippi State in 2018. There are a number of reasons why the Aggies couldn’t get a ground game going, the offensive line still has work to do (and due to some talent constraints may not reach a very high level in 2019), this is one of the best defensive fronts the Aggies will face all season (they rank 14th in Line Yards), and Jimbo seems to refuse to utilize Kellen Mond as a weapon in the run game (he had a 50% Success Rate and 2 explosive runs on his 6 attempts). With all that, the Aggies still probably could have made a better game of this… if they wouldn’t have been utterly inept inside the 40 yard line. Seth Small missed two field goals, and then the Aggies had to settle for two more (including one from the 6 yard line late in the 4th) which resulted in a 4.00 Points/Opportunity average. The defense wasn’t great necessarily, especially in the first quarter, but they showed up in the 2nd and 3rd to try to give our offense a chance and were let down repeatedly. You would have liked to see them force a turnover of some kind after recording at least one in the first three games, or at least get pressure on Bo Nix, but they never really seemed to faze him much.

As far as good news goes, the Aggie passing attack was efficient when Jimbo finally decided to commit to it, even if at that point the game was pretty well out of hand. Also, I have no illusions about Kellen Mond and who he is as a QB, but he was far from the problem last Saturday. He didn’t turn the ball over and had a 73.9 QBR, which was his second best of the season and his average from 2018, and he did that when the Aggies were unable to run the ball. The defense managed to limit Auburn to only 2 explosive run plays (and none through the air), and those 2nd and 3rd quarter efficiency numbers are impressive. Overall, there was some questionable play calling, some worse execution (particularly in the red zone), and a defense that seemed ill-prepared to start the game. If the Aggies can avoid turnovers and finish drives in the future, they can still be a good football team. On to the next one.

What do we know?

With a team this inconsistent in a league as difficult as the SEC, there are no such things as gimme games. But Arkansas is about as close as we’ll get. The Hogs are outside the Top 80 in all three of the overall metrics, and are coming off an embarrassing loss against the 107th SP+ ranked San Jose State squad. Arkansas was projected to be around a Top 50 team, but they’ve really struggled to find their footing offensively in their second year under Chad Morris. The Aggies are having their issues as well obviously, but are still favored by 23 points at Jerry’s Playhouse this Saturday. The SP+ projects pretty similar (about a 20 point victory) and the FEI sees it being a little closer (13.5 points).

Aggie Offense vs Razorback Defense

The Success Rate and Yds/Play are unadjusted for opponents, and I’ve only calculated them for the SEC at this point, so I just included them in the chart without giving an advantage to either team.

We hit on the offensive issues a minute ago. When it’s working it’s efficient, particularly in the passing game, where the Aggies average a 49% Success Rate. The main issue is when the Maroon and White can’t run the ball on Standard Downs and get thrown off schedule, which basically happens when they play a defensive front with a pulse. Similar to 2018, the Aggies haven’t been particularly explosive this year. They average about 6 yards/play in non-garbage time, and only about 13% of successful plays come on explosive runs/passes (tied for the least in the SEC). Still, as we saw last season, that doesn’t matter as long as you can stay on schedule and grind things out on the ground. Unfortunately with Corbin out and the OL struggling to open up holes (104th in Opportunity Rate), we really need one of the RBs to develop into a homerun-type threat.

The good news is the Arkansas defense is not quite at the Clemson/Auburn level. They may rank 58th in the DSP+, but they’re averaging 27 points given up/game and gave up 31 last week to San Jose State (102nd in OSP+). In typical Chavis fashion, they like to get their sacks in (11 on the season) and are vulnerable to big plays with 27 explosive plays given up this season in non-garbage time, tied for second most in the SEC. They’ve also forced a turnover in each game so far, with 4 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles. Despite having a lot of experience in the secondary, the Hogs haven’t been particularly strong against the pass, allowing a 43% Success Rate through the air and over 1,000 yards in just 4 games. They allowed 400 yards and 5 explosive plays to San Jose State in the passing game, and San Jose State hasn’t thrown for 400 yards since last year against Hawaii. I know it feels like I’m bringing up San Jose State a lot here, but it’s worth remembering that Arkansas lost to them last week. I’m not sure if I made that clear or not in the beginning.

Aggie Defense vs Razorback Offense

Despite the loss of talent up front, the Aggies have been fairly impressive outside of about 3 Quarters this season (2nd Q of the Clemson game, 1st and 4th in the Auburn game). The secondary continues to hold their own, holding their two Power 5 Opponents to 374 yards passing and only giving up 6 big pass plays (all to Clemson). The Front 7 has been good-not-great, they allowed 50% and 39% Success Rates against Clemson and Auburn and 5 runs of 15 yards or more. They haven’t quite gotten as much pressure as they did last season, totaling only 6 sacks so far (with 3 of those against Texas State) but are averaging 7.8 TFL/Game, about the same as last year when they finished 13th in the country in Team Tackles for Loss.

The Arkansas offense has really struggled this season, bouncing between former SMU QB Ben Hicks and former A&M QB Nick Starkel to try to generate a spark. Starkel is set to get the start on Saturday against his former team, and let’s just say if nothing else I’m glad to see a player be as superstitious about his game day apparel as us fans can sometimes be. He’s got 6 interceptions on the season, and 5 of those came last week against San Jose State, who Arkansas lost to 31-24, in case I hadn’t mentioned the final score. They’ve relied on explosiveness a lot, with about 22% of all their successful plays being either a 15 yard run or a 20 yard pass. That’s not generally a bad thing, Alabama is at 23% right now but they have the efficiency to fall back on when the big plays aren’t hitting. Arkansas doesn’t (they average about a 42% success rate), and are almost as bad as the Aggies averaging 1.97 points/drive.

Special Teams

The Aggies took a step back this week in Special Teams due to some missed field goals and poor coverage in the return game, but they’re still a Top 50 unit. The Razorbacks come to Arlington with a kicker who is 85.7% on FGs this season, a punter averaging 38.5 yards/punt (about 10 yards shy of Mann’s average), and a decent return game. I think we’re all hoping that this game isn’t close enough that we need an elite showing by the Small-Mann squad to win, but it’s nice to know we match up well.

Anything the numbers don’t tell us?

Folks are getting a little restless after a 2-2 start. You can make a post on TexAgs stating that you believe maybe Jimbo should be fired and you’ll get like 32 stars, which I’m told is a lot. I doubt he’s feeling anymore than the normal pressure to continue the Aggie win streak over Arkansas, but he probably knows a big win wouldn’t hurt.

We’ve already mentioned former Aggie QB Nick Starkel now calls the hogs or whatever it is they say over there, and I have no idea what transfer QB records versus their former team looks like. Considering Baker Mayfield vs Kliff Kingsbury defense is one of the few instances of that in recent years, I doubt we really want to know. Let’s shoot for 6 interceptions on Saturday.

What’s the verdict?

It’s an SEC West game against an opponent who has given us better than expected games in recent years. This shouldn’t be that much of a game, but it could get close (or worse, trend towards an Aggie loss) if we come out flat like we have against the last two P5 teams we’ve played.

Here’s my attempt at the box score for the San Jose State vs Arkansas game from last week, in which the Razorbacks lost 31-24, last Saturday which is when they lost, to San Jose State, a Group of 5 team who went 1-11 in 2018.

Arkansas lost to San Jose State

The Razorback offense was actually more efficient overall, had 8 scoring opportunities, 7 explosive plays, and the defense mostly shut down the Spartan run game. But Arkansas was down late and couldn’t surmount the comeback because of an inability to finish drives (Sound familiar?), giving up too many big plays, and getting obliterated in the turnover battle.

The Ole Miss game was a little less fluky, with the Rebels only being +1 in the TO Margin and being far more efficient than the Hogs, particularly in the passing game. The Arkansas offense was much more efficient in the 2nd half when Starkel came in, but it wasn’t enough, especially with that Ole Miss Success Rate in the 3rd Quarter.

So, offensively, lets find a way to generate some efficiency through the air early on. I imagine Chavis is going to stack the box and put his guys in one on one situations, let Ausbon, Rogers, and Davis make plays in tight coverage. You know that offense we’ve been running in the 4th Quarter when we’re trying to just make the game close? Let’s start with that game plan, and we can run our RBs into a brick wall once we get a comfortable lead. Speaking of, we have to be better at finishing drives in this game. The Aggies do not want to look up and have a 6-0 lead because they settled for two field goals, because that’s how you allow lesser teams to stay in the game. Finally, let Mond run to help generate a ground game, and open things up for our more explosive back (Spiller). You’ll never believe this, but a Chief coached defense has given up 3 big plays to QBs on the run this season.

Defensively, let’s hope for more of what we’ve already seen them do against better offenses. In particular, limiting big passing plays by Starkel would go a long way to shutting down the majority of their game plan. Their OL does a really good job of opening up holes for Boyd and Whaley (28th in Opportunity Rate), but if the the front end of the defense can control the line of scrimmage and force them into Passing Downs (where they have a 29% Success Rate), I think we can get pressure on Starkel and force him into making a mistake.

My Prediction: All in all, this is not a game that the Aggies should lose, and it really shouldn’t be that close, but I worry about the offense’s confidence in the first half of games right now. Still, I don’t see us dropping this one, even if there will be moments where I’m sending profanity laced texts to my friends. Aggies win 31-13, Arkansas covers, and none of these San Jose State game jokes come back to bite me (please). I’m 2-1 straight up and 1-2 ATS this season, so probably best not to follow my picks.

Final notes

Thanks again for keeping up with Fun With Numbers, even when it isn’t so fun. I’m holding out hope that Bill C. gives us things like adjusted Success Rate and IsoPPP for all the teams soon, but until then we’re going to make it work the best we can.

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.
  • Also you can now follow me on Twitter @Aggie_Analytics. Here’s my first tweet from that account, a break down of Yards/Play, Points/Drive, Efficiency, and Explosiveness in the SEC.

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