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Fun With Numbers: Alabama

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Previewing the Alabama game with advanced stats

Welcome back to Fun With Numbers, if you want colored charts, predictions that end poorly, or just want to be able to walk up to people at work and say, “Did you know the Aggies averaged 3.40 points per scoring opportunity against Vanderbilt?”, this is the place for you.

How’d We Do Last Week?

I posted this box score on Twitter earlier this week, and hit on both the positive and negative aspects of a game that has a lot of fans wondering if maybe, just maybe, they might have overhyped their college football team over the offseason. Let’s touch on three positives to build on while acknowledging that the Aggies need better ball security, better OL play, and Kellen to finally take that next step if they’re going to do anything special this season.

  1. Let’s start at the end. With the game on the line, the Aggie defense allowed a 14% Success Rate and had 4 Havoc Plays late in the game to keep the Commodores out of the end zone. If your offense can’t put the game on ice, you need a defense that can finish strong. Again, I’m pretty content with how this defense performed.
  2. While the Aggies still aren’t pushing teams with deep passes, they turned in higher Explosiveness numbers than they averaged all last season on both rushing and passing plays.
  3. The Ags have a lot of youth and potential at WR. On Saturday they had 4 pass catchers average more than .5 Predicted Points Added (PPA) for the game, which hasn’t happened since the Mississippi State game in 2019.

Alright, let’s move on to Bama week.

What Do We Know?

Originally slated as a late season game that fans were dreaming of being 10-0 walking into, this game now starts what is certain to be an interesting 3 game stretch in the All SEC schedule. The Ags have not beaten Nick Saban’s Tide since that glorious evening in 2012, and have taken some serious beatings since then. Bama took care of business in Week 1 against their undermatched SEC East opponent, cruising to a 38-19 victory over the Missouri Tigers that wasn’t even that close. It’s always super fun when a team can return just 58% of it’s production from the previous year and barely skip a beat. Here’s a box score for their game.

The Aggies are about a 17 point underdog going into their second game of the season, almost exactly what the spread was last year when these two teams faced off. The SP+ likes the Tide by two touchdowns, the FEI projects something closer to a 21 point margin.

Let’s take a closer look at things.

Aggie Offense vs Tide Defense

So again, for now, our charts are going to include 2020 SP+ and FEI numbers, but the success rate and other stats are going to be from 2019. We’ll talk about each team’s performance in their first games though.

No reason to spend too much time discussing the Aggie offense this week. We’ve seen one game of action that didn’t look great, and honestly you should know what you’re getting from Jimbo Fisher at this point. Particularly against better teams, this offense runs slow. He doesn’t take chances early and tries to minimize the time the other team’s offense can be on the field (our defense averaged nearly 60 less plays than the rest of FBS). He tries to keep it close until the second half, when he starts to let things fly a little bit. See the Georgia game from last year. I don’t put too much stock in what we saw against Vanderbilt. I’m not saying the Ags were “hiding plays” or whatever, but I do think we’ll see different formations/play calls against the Tide. Jimbo has had an efficient and at times explosive run game his entire time in College Station, I expect we’ll see him try to lean on that in Tuscaloosa.

Last year was far from the best defense Saban has ever had. It was young, particularly in the Front 7 which allowed for teams to have a little more success on the ground than you’d expect from a Tide D. They looked pretty good in their first outing though, holding the Tigers to a 35% Success Rate overall. They did give up 3 big passing plays, although 2 of those (including a 54 yard TD Pass) came in garbage time. Last season, the Tide also seemed to struggle at creating Havoc (probably again due to inexperience up front), but they recorded a .268 Havoc rating for their Front 7 against Missouri as they tallied up 10 TFLs, 3 sacks, and 2 fumbles. Surprise surprise, guys like Dylan Moses, Christian Harris, and LaBryan Ray are good at football.

Aggie Defense vs Tide Offense

As disappointing as the offense might have been against Vanderbilt, I’m pretty pleased with the defense. 10 points is more than I expected them to give up to freshman QB in his first start, but I also didn’t expect them to be put in such bad positions all night. They were dominant in the 2nd and 4th quarter (29% and 14% Success Rate) and on passing down situations (29% Success Rate), and eventually were able to get pressure on Seals late in the game. Despite a few explosive plays, overall they were better in a lot of areas where they struggled in 2019, I liked that they were able to limit Vanderbilt to only .8 Second Level Yards/Rush (down from 1.16 last season) which seems to indicate that the LB corp is getting better. The secondary still has some growing up to do, but overall they held the Vanderbilt offense to similar passing numbers as what Alabama gave up to the Tigers.

It’s weird to think you could lose your starting quarterback, a generational type talent who set high expectations when he won you a freaking national championship coming off the bench as a freshman, and still finish as one of the best offenses in the country. That speaks to the type of talent this offense had outside of who was under center, and a lot of that talent is back in 2020. It starts up front with an OL that returns 4 starters from last season, bringing back Waddle (60% Success Rate and 2.57 Explosiveness Rating against Missouri) and Smith out wide, Najee Harris is still lurking in the backfield, as is your QB who had 141 attempts in 2019. Remember, Alabama doesn’t reboot these days. They just reload.

Special Teams

The kicking game for the Aggies is fine. Small hit both FGs and Caden Davis handled kickoffs, with 3 touchbacks and 2 kicks returned to the 27 and the 18 yard line. Constantinou averaged 45 yards on 2 punts, although one of them was a rough 37 yarder. On the return side…

We have to get better there. Dumb, dumb, dumb mistakes. I’m not going to say anymore about it. An especially dumb move by a smart, talented, incredible player who I’m a big fan of.

Dumb.

Okay. Sorry. Speaking of dumb let’s talk about Alabama Special Teams. The Tide have struggled with anything resembling kicking a ball for what feels like over a decade now, and while kickoff duties (handled by Chase Allen) and FGs and extra points (handled by Will Reichard) were as good as they could be in Game 1, Punter Sam Johnson probably could still improve on his 39 yard average (although they did force a fumble on a punt return). The real danger is in the Tide’s return game, where Waddle will absolutely make you pay if you give him the opportunity to return a kick. Nobody would be that stupid though would they?

Oh. Dumb.

What’s the Verdict?

It doesn’t look great, I’ll admit that. But we’ve gone into Bama week with far less encouraging charts before and even managed to keep the game interesting at times. Am I going in expecting a win? No. But the reasons for optimism at the beginning of the season are still real. Experience on both sides of the ball and on the sideline, pure talent, and a little bit of the element of surprise on your side. So what can we do to keep this thing close enough to have a chance late in the game?

There are three things that need to be different from last week.

  1. Turnover Battle: We can’t have three turnovers again this week. Especially not fumbles that just gift wrap the opposition with great field position. Nick Saban has lost 6 games in the last 5 years. He has lost the turnover battle in 4 of them, and TOs were even in one of the other losses. This is one I feel CAN be fixed in a week’s time. There’s plenty to be said about a weird offseason, first game nerves, and whatever else that could have contributed to this problem in Week 1.
  2. RTDB: The run game had some good moments against Vanderbilt, but finished with a 33% Success Rate on Saturday. Part of that was due to the OL turning in a 32% Stuff Rate (% of run plays stuffed behind the LOS) which is pretty horrendous. The Aggies need better push up front. That part may not be correctable in a week, or even a season given what we know about this line and their limitations. The next way to improve the ground game? More 2 back sets. The Aggies ran 4 rush plays out of a 21 personnel package with a 75% Success Rate, and 2 of them going for 20+ yards. I think if there was anything being “held back” against Vanderbilt last weekend, it was here.
  3. Big Plays in the Air: As I’ve already mentioned, I’m okay with how the defense performed against Vanderbilt. Still, giving up one explosive pass play to Vanderbilt probably equates to giving up a few to Alabama right? Maybe the math doesn’t check out there, but you just have to go back to last season and remember how badly this team struggled with an explosive passing attack (allowing 5 catches to go for 20+ yards and a 2.11 Explosiveness Rating). The depth chart looks a little different on the back end from last year’s game though, and I hope that all the young talent is ready to step up against their first big test.

My Prediction: There’s a lot of other things this team could do that could lead to a shocking road upset. Kellen Mond could start hitting deep balls down the sideline or maybe Jimbo plays the talented true fish that everyone was looking for last week and they change the entire outlook of the offense. I’m going to trust what we know and have seen though. This team is still really good, and has the opportunity to be great, I’m just not sure they’ve hit their stride yet. Alabama wins 31-17, Aggies cover and Mac Jones has to play the whole game.

Final Notes

Thanks as always for stopping by. I’ll be back next week to preview the Florida game, and by then we’ll probably just be looking at 2020 numbers for the most part. Until then, feel free to check out these sites, which is where the majority of my data comes from.

  • 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 for data and charts that you can download and play with on your own time, in case Fun With Numbers isn’t filling that statistical void in your life.

Questions? Comments? Criticisms? You know where to leave ‘em.