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Fun With Numbers: Clemson

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Previewing the Clemson game with advanced statistics

Finance Photo by Sergei Malgavko\TASS via Getty Images

Howdy and welcome back to Fun With Numbers, a weekly post where we take a look at what advanced statistics say about Aggie football and their upcoming matchup. I’ve been writing these for a couple of seasons now, and thanks to you guys and the staff at GBH I am now what is known as a “contributor” with the site. This means that (1) you won’t have to find my ramblings in the Fan Post section anymore and (2) I now have to write these from underneath the spot where G. Rollie used to be with the rest of the Good Bull Hunting crew. It is hot down here and I have to sit on an unopened box of koozies, but life is a series of trade-offs I guess.

If you’re new here, or you’ve just forgotten, take a look at this glossary to familiarize yourself with some of the terms I generally bring up in these posts. Before we go too much further, let me warn you again that Fun With Numbers is kind of weird right now. Well, weirder than normal I should say. Bill Connelly is transitioning himself and the SP+ to his new home of ESPN, and that means some things (like stat profiles) are not available at the moment and may not be at all this season. Pair that with the fact that it is only Week 2 so we’re still using preseason projections for a lot of things, and that means we have to work with a weird combo of current stats, projections, last year’s data, and Voodoo. We’ll pick through all of this the best we can, and I’ll do my best not to try to mislead you into any sort of optimism or general good feelings.

With all that said… let’s get to some actual discussion.

How’d We Do Last Week?

We got an expected big win against a lower level opponent, and man was I (and the SP+) close on that score prediction. Unfortunately I was a field goal or Spav having the cajones to go for two away from the Bobcats covering, so I am 1-0 picking winners and 0-1 ATS to start the season. Let’s talk about the game real quick.

Texas State Box Score

This is meant to be a stand in for the Advanced Stats Box Score that Bill Connelly used to do. All my play/drive data came from CollegeFootballData.com, it’s all very rough, I’ve got some things to work on like individual player stats, standard/passing downs, and a lot of other stuff. Like the rest of this post though, we’re going to work with what we’ve got.

Offensively, there was a lot to be happy about. It wasn’t quite the near 60 point, 750 yard explosion we saw to open last year against Northwestern State, but that was to be expected. We talked last week about how experienced this Bobcat defense was and Zach Spavital coached an aggressive D that goes for turnovers and sacks, just like he did under Gibbs at Houston and Tech. The Aggies were efficient all the way around, and while they only had five total explosive plays, they managed to average 6.64 yards/play, which isn’t too shabby. While the OL looked rough at times, Mond managed to avoid any sacks, which was great. You’d like to see the ball spread out a little more, 12 of Mond’s 19 completions were to Ausbon and Davis, but the most concerning thing we saw on Thursday was two turnovers in the red zone. Those mistakes get you beat against better opponents, especially since they occurred to end/start each half.

Defensively, I think the Ags looked really good. They created turnovers, something they really struggled with last year (even against bad opponents), and the efficiency numbers they allowed are only slightly worse than what we saw in last season’s opener. Elko’s defense was not particularly great in the red zone in 2018, so it was good to see them limit the Bobcats to less than 3 points/opportunity. Obviously the 3.65 yards/play and zero explosive plays was great to see as well considering what we saw in 2018 from this squad.

Overall, it’s hard to complain about much. The offense will continue to improve as the OL starts to gel, and the defense proved that while depth may be an issue all season, the starting lineup should be more than good enough to win ball games.

What Do We Know?

Furman v Clemson Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

The Aggies travel to Clemson, South Carolina for a matchup with the reigning National Champions. This is the big stage, the one the Aggies will step out onto at least two more times this season as they take on teams with legitimate National Title aspirations, and maybe even a third time depending on how things look in late November for our “friends” in Baton Rouge. But first, the opening round of the Rocky-like boxing match that is the Aggies’ 2019 schedule.

No surprise here that the Tigers have the advantage overall, but it’s even closer than most people probably imagined. They’re coming off of a big win against Georgia Tech, and it looks like they’re probably going to live up to their top five billing, even with the offense struggling a little out of the gate and the defense losing 48% of their production. You can read more about Clemson here in Bill Connelly’s preview he wrote before leaving SB Nation. The Aggies are rolling into town after taking care of business against the Texas State Bobcats, and are 18 point underdogs this weekend. The SP+ likes Clemson to win by about 13 points, and the FEI is even less optimistic, with a projected margin of about 24.

Aggie Offense vs Clemson Defense

Rankings are from 2018 unless otherwise noted

It’s going to be tough, the Aggies are much better than their 46th ranking in OSP+, but Clemson is likely as good or better than their current ranking of 10 in the DSP+.

Last season, Kellen Mond played one of the best games of his life in a losing effort, managing 26 points against the 3rd ranked SP+ defense (the second most anybody would score on Clemson all season), and nearly forcing overtime. It seems likely he is going to have to play that well again to keep the Aggies upset chances alive. Last season, efficiency through the air with the occasional big play by a receiver was what kept the chains moving, as the Aggies struggled running the ball against an entirely NFL ready defensive line and an experienced linebacker group.

It might be slightly reversed this year, based on the talent loss in the front seven and the experience on the back end. Corbin may have more luck than Williams did in 2018 (12% Success Rate), and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Mond rush for at least 50 yards in this game (He had 46 in 2018). Venable’s secondary remained largely intact and will likely be an improved version of what was a formidable group last year, with guys like Isaiah Simmons (responsible for 9.2% of the Clemson D Havoc in 2018) and A.J. Terrell (3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles in 2018) looking to make things more difficult for our receivers.

Aggie Defense vs Clemson Offense

Rankings are from 2018 unless otherwise noted

A strong performance against Texas State moved the defense up considerably, but they face a much stronger test this week in the 15th ranked OSP+. This is a very different group than the one that escaped from Kyle Field with a win in 2018. Many of the current stars hadn’t even started shining yet, Trevor Lawrence looked like a true freshman and threw only 9 passes, Travis Etienne had 8 carries for 44 yards and a 50% Success Rate, and Justyn Ross left College Station without a single reception. It took nearly half the season for Dabo’s offense to find it’s feet, and it still finished Top 10 in every category on the radar. They were good, and they’ll be good again this season.

But this defense is also likely to be good, even if it still is slightly unproven. Last season the Tigers struggled to run the ball against the Aggie DL, turning in a 32% Success Rate, but when they got loose... they did damage thanks to poor tackling from the linebackers and secondary (Clemson finished with 6.4 Highlight Yds/Opportunity). The Aggie secondary has to do better than the 2.47 IsoPPP they gave up in the passing game last year, and they will be tested by one of the best receiving corps on the schedule and a Hesiman candidate at QB.

Special Teams

The next Top 50 Special Teams SP+ unit Clemson produces will be its first since 2015, but they returned a lot of experience from lat year’s squad that finished 95th. It didn’t matter much last season for the Tigers, because who needs to kick field goals or punt when you can just score at will? Are there any other teams out there with elite talent at every position and an excellent coach, who has struggled in special teams situations over the years? I wonder if that’s ever come back to bite any teams of that caliber. Probably not.

The one area of football Clemson doesn’t seem to have been able to figure out happens to be a relative strength for the Ags. Braden Mann remains poised for a great Ray Guy victory lap and will hopefully make the Tiger offense work a little harder by pinning them back deep with a few more Piss Missiles.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

These two coaches know each other well. Dabo currently leads with a 6-4 record against Jimbo, and is enjoying a 5 game win streak against his former ACC competitor.

What’s the Verdict?

You can look at the overwhelming orange in the charts above and start panicking, and nobody would blame you. However, it’s worth noting that at this point in 2018 this was a game between the #3 ranked Tigers and the #25 Aggies in SP+, and the good guys were one bullshit ruling questionable call bad break away from really shocking some people. So, how can Texas A&M pull this off?

  • The Return of Clemson Kellen: Check out this chart below courtesy of Paul Sabin from ESPN. It will likely cause some conflicting feelings. On the one hand, he is clearly improving as a QB and his performance in last year’s game proves he can play at a high level. On the other hand... he played that good last year and still couldn’t bring home a W? Still, we need him to at least not regress this week in order to give the Ags a chance again, and I think we’ll see him handle the pressure well. Minimal turnovers (an absolute must) and smart throws, take what they’ll give you so you can force their talented group on the back end to give us space up front so we can...
  • RtDB: Keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible allows us to attack the least experienced part of the defense, while working clock and hopefully minimizing the amount of time the ball spends in Trevor Lawrence’s hands. Mond is equally important here, his legs have the potential to give Clemson issues, as we saw last week from the Georgia Tech offense and from Eric Dungey of Syracuse, the only other QB to get within striking distance of Clemson in 2018 (Dungey only had 19 rushing yards, but a 46% Rushing Success Rate). We will get behind the chains eventually, and when we do we need somebody to step up big out wide.
  • Someone Has to be Kendrick: Big Game Kendrick needs to show up on Saturday. Whether that is Mr. Rogers himself, or a big day from Davis or Ausbon, somebody will need to be the 15 yard/target, 88% Success Rate weapon that Rogers was at Kyle Field.
  • Leave the Big Plays in 2018: This defense can really turn a corner early on in this game by proving they can limit explosiveness by an elite offense. This doesn’t mean they need to be a stifling, Wrecking Crew type squad, but they do have to tackle in space and keep things in front of them. Justyn Ross is going to catch the ball on you. This is not so much a warning as it is a universal truth, like the sun will rise or Chick-fil-A will be closed on Sunday. Minimize his (and Higgins and Overton) yards after catch and we can hang with them. Etienne had 205 yards with a long run of 90 against Georgia Tech last week, the Aggies can’t allow that if they want a chance.

So that’s it then. Just be incredibly perfect on offense and fix your most glaring issue from 2018 on defense, and you get to leave Death Valley with a win. And you’ll be the first team to do that since 2016 Pitt.

My Prediction: The Aggies have an opportunity on Saturday, but I think Clemson is just too much again this year, even with the losses up front on defense. I could see them getting up pretty big in the 2nd quarter or 3rd quarter and the Ags fighting back late to make it close. 38-31 Tigers win but the Aggies cover.

Final Notes

Thanks again for following along this season, and another big thanks to the editors at Good Bull Hunting for making Fun With Numbers a fixture on the site this season. When I inevitably disappoint, you only have yourselves to blame. Stick with me as the season goes on and we start getting more data to look at, and hopefully you’ll enjoy these even as the schedule continues to hammer away at our happiness. With that said, I probably won’t be writing anything next week for the Lamar game, since most metrics don’t really grade FBS and FCS together, although maybe we could do a box score review of the Clemson game (assuming looking at it doesn’t cause extreme depression).

If you’re interested in advanced statistics in college football, 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 FPI rankings).

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