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Fun With Numbers: Arkansas

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Previewing the Arkansas game with advanced stats

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Welcome to Fun With Numbers, the weekly post that allows you to irresponsibly hype up your Fightin’ Texas Aggies, but do it with MATH, so you feel less bad about it. If you’re new here, check out this glossary to give you a little better understanding of what we’re talking about here.

How’d We Do Last Week?

The Aggies coasted into their bye week on a two game win streak after taking down the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville. Here’s an advanced stats box score from that game.

The Aggie offense dominated in the ground game and on standard downs, hit a few big plays, and easily could have made the final score 35-14. We still have some work to do on Passing Downs, and need Kellen to either be more consistent as a passer or let him start doing more with his legs. Still, overall, it’s hard to complain too much. Defense had a good day as well, only giving up 7 points on one explosive pass play late in the game and generating a .259 Havoc Rate (their highest of the season). Overall, a pretty good day and a pretty good way to get that monkey with Mike Leach’s face and a cowbell in its hand off your back.

Going forward, the Aggies are favored by the SP+ in all 6 games remaining on the schedule (although Auburn and LSU are mere 3 point projected victories). There is a lot of talk about what this team can accomplish, and a lot less $75 million jokes. Funny how things can change over a couple of weeks. But first… the Hogs.

What Do We Know?

It’s not just us high on our own supply, everyone likes the Ags a little more after taking down Florida and Mississippi State in back to back weeks. There’s a lot of room to run in the next 6 weeks, not just from a numbers standpoint but also in terms of securing a Top 10 finish in any human poll. The Aggies have to take care of business at Kyle Field against a red hot lukewarm... you know those times when you bite into a Hot Pocket and it’s cold in some places and super hot in others? That’s how I would describe Arkansas this season.

Sam Pittman took over an Arkansas squad that had just fired it’s second coach in 3 years and hadn’t won an SEC game since 2017. He had the unenviable job of making a team that had gone 8-28 over the last 3 seasons competitive, and he had to do it in what is widely considered one of the toughest divisions in college football, after a weird offseason that limited reps and practice time. It’s not a hire that got a lot of respect nationally, but 4 games in, it certainly looks better than some of the offseason moves other schools made. The Razorbacks are 2-2, with wins over the Mississippi schools, a loss to Georgia that didn’t get out of hand until the 2nd half, and a… questionable loss to Auburn. The FEI and FPI consider them a slightly above average team, while the SP+ is still a little unimpressed with their performance thus far. We’ll get into more of the “why” of that later. For right now, this is considered an easy-ish win for the Aggies, currently favored by 12 points in Vegas. The SP+ likes us by about 19 and the FEI projects it a little closer as an 8 point victory for the Aggies.

Aggie Offense vs Razorback Defense

Halfway through the season and this offense is feeling very similar to 2018. Fairly balanced, but leaning on an efficient run game and a dependable TE in your passing game. That’s not a bad thing, certainly better than emulating 2019s inconsistency across the board. You’d love to see a few less question marks at the receiver position, excluding Ainias, we have three players with 20+ targets. One of those is Caleb Chapman, who was averaging .687 PPA on passing plays until his injury, and Wydermyer (.709 PPA) and Chase Lane (.639 PPA) account for the other two. Kam Brown has looked good with limited targets (7 with 1.113 PPA), so I don’t know if the answer lies with him or one of the guys who has yet to see any meaningful reps yet. Adding a legitimate receiving threat, and letting Kellen (or telling him he needs to) run the ball a little more would be big for pushing this offense to the next level.

Lining up across the ball is probably one of the biggest success stories in the SEC, the Razorback defense. In 2019, Arkansas finished 88th in the DSP+ in the Chief’s last season as a defensive coordinator. When you’re a position coach with little experience running a program, you go out and hire big time coordinators, and Pittman nailed that with his Odom pick. They’ve done pretty well against the pass, turning in the 18th best Success Rate and giving up 9 explosive plays through the air (6 in their last two games). The Hogs haven’t been great against the run, allowing 3.06 yard lines/rush and a 53.5% Opportunity Rate, but where this defense really has excelled is turnovers. They have 13 currently, the most of anybody who’s only played 4 games, and rank 12th in Defensive Back Havoc. They’ve done a fantastic job of making opponents make mistakes, and while turnovers are too unpredictable to be sustainable, it’s still a little worrisome knowing how free Kellen can be with the ball sometimes.

Aggie Defense vs Razorback Offense

After a couple of rough matchups early in the season, the Aggie Defense is back to being a Top 25 DSP+ and creeping back up to the Top 30 in DFEI. They’ve been solid against the rush, particularly strong against explosive runs, limiting teams to .64 Second Level Yards/Rush (8th in the country) thanks to strong linebacker play from guys like Buddy Johnson and Aaron Hansford. The biggest area of concern is our ability to defend the pass, the aforementioned linebackers seem to get lost in coverage at times, and our DBs have given up 15 passes of 20 yards or more. As good as the DL has been, we’re still pretty average at creating pressure on opposing QBs, ranking 31st in Sack Rate and below average in Front 7 Havoc.

So the Aggie Defense has some areas to improve, but just at first glance this is not exactly an Arkansas offense built to push teams. That’s not to say that Kendal Briles wasn’t as good of a hire as Barry Odom was, it’s probably too early for that statement. But it’s probably worth acknowledging that there are a lot of coaches out there who could generate the 58th most efficient and 70th most explosive offense in the country... and most of them didn’t come from the same coaching AND family tree of a guy who’s been blackballed into Friday night matchups against legendary Northeast Texas powerhouses like Mineola and Winnsboro. But that is neither a fun discussion nor does it have anything to do with numbers, so I’ll move on.

The Arkansas offense hasn’t found a whole lot of success on the ground just yet, although 2019’s leading rusher Rakeem Boyd was injured in the second game of the season and missed the Auburn game. Still, the OL isn’t doing them many favors, averaging 2.15 Line Yards/Rush and 40.9% Opportunity Rate. They have found some success in transfer QB Feleipe Franks though, who according to SEC Stat Cat is the 4th most accurate QB in the SEC (of those that have thrown 50 or more passes), in fact his numbers have looked very similar to Kellen’s this year with a higher percentage of dropped passes (11.72% vs 6.92%). Briles likes to utilize the RPO, Franks has the second highest percentage of passes thrown in RPO plays, but until the run game picks up it feels like this offense is going to continue to struggle. While looking into this, I came across an article at Arkansas Fight written over the bye week that explores the Razorback use of RPOs and where they’ve struggled so far this season. Check it out if you’re interested.

Special Teams

Not a whole lot to discuss here. A punter averaging about 42 yards/punt and a kicker who boots nearly everything through the end zone means our defense is usually starting with good field position and after some pretty brutal return attempts to start the season, the Aggies have been pretty content to take some fair catches and touchbacks in the return game.

The Hogs aren’t winning a whole lot of field position battles either, averaging starts at the 24.2 yardline on offense and the 32.7 yl for the defense. Kicker AJ Reed has one missed extra point on the season but is perfect on field goals, and it appears punter Reid Bauer took over duties in the Ole Miss game with 7 punts averaging nearly 47 yards.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

Since the old rivalry was renewed in 2009, there have been absolute beatdowns, overtime thrillers, and Sam Pittman will be the 5th coach to lead the Hogs against the Aggies since that first matchup in AT&T Stadium. 7 of the last 11 games between the Razorbacks and the Aggies have been decided by a touchdown or less. A&M has won 8 straight, and has a chance to tie Arkansas for the longest win streak in the series at 9 on Saturday night. Streaks last until they don’t, the Hogs are playing better than they have in the last few years, and it’s SEC Football. Anything can happen right?

What’s the Verdict?

In keeping with the Halloween theme, let’s talk about what spooks me about this game.

First, the Arkansas secondary and their ability to create turnovers. Again, turnovers are unpredictable and unsustainable at the rate we’ve seen from the Pigs defense, but Kellen Mond is coming off of back to back seasons of 9 INTs. So far, he seems to be placing the ball a little better, but we’ve seen enough instances of dangerous throws and the two pick sixes this season prove hasn’t completely outgrown these mistakes. According to SEC Stat Cat, he’s got the 4th highest percentage of interceptible balls thrown.

How to turn this trick into a treat?

Oh my God, I hate myself for that so much.

Well obviously, we’ve got to keep the ball on the ground. Ole Miss and Auburn turned in 42% and 47% Rushing Success Rates against this defense. Kiffin’s insistence on pushing the ball 10+ yards on chunk plays led to two interceptions in the 2nd Quarter, one being a pick six that made the game 17-0, forcing you to continue to try to hit big plays to make up that deficit. Keep it on the ground with Spiller, Smith, Mond, and Achane if the Ags feel he’s ready. Bring back the 2 back set we’ve only seen 10 times this season, for an average of 8 yards/rush and a 50% Success Rate. Keep your passes short, dig routes, slant work, anything in that 0-10 yard range where you average a 57% Success Rate and have 5 Touchdowns.

Second, Briles and Franks heavy use of Play Action and RPO scares me a little with this young secondary who has been caught out of position a handful of times this season. Like Mond, Franks isn’t terribly accurate downfield (5-15 for 3 TDs and 1 INT on passes of 20+ yards), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try their luck, especially knowing how susceptible our defense is. After Mac Jones wrought utter destruction in the downfield passing game, Florida and Mississippi State went 1-4 with a TD and an INT on passes 20 yards or more downfield, and 7-10 with 2 TDs on passes between 11 and 20 yards.

So... how do we keep from getting scared stiff on defense?

I’m sorry I can’t stop the theme now, and we’re almost done anyway.

I think as long as our safeties and corners play fundamentally sound football (don’t bite hard on play action or double moves) this defense can handle the occasional deep shot by Franks to De’Vion Warren and others. I worry more about those mid range passes of 11-20 yards, where the Hogs have seen a 62.3% Success Rate and a couple of touchdowns. The secondary and linebackers are going to have make tackles in space, and keep these plays from going for big yards. On top of that, I would love to see us get pressure on Franks like we did against Costello and the Bulldogs, even if we have to bring an extra rush man to do it. Arkansas has given up 3 sacks in their last 3 games and I don’t think any of those previous teams were as good as our Front 7.

Keep the ball on the ground, don’t turn the ball over, watch the play action/RPO, and find a way to pressure Franks. Easy enough right?

My Prediction: I think the Aggies make it 9 straight and I think they cover as well. Nothing against this Arkansas team at all or the job Sam Pittman has done but I still think they have a ways to go. Aggies win 31-14. I’m both 3-1 picking the winners in the Aggie games as well picking against the spread, here’s hoping that carries over for another week.

Final Notes

Thanks for reading, hope to see you back next week as we preview one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports, the battle for the trophy of that one dude from the Alamo. Until then, you might find these links useful.

  • 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.
  • SEC Stat Cat is a site I find myself on more and more these days and I had to credit them for several stats in this article. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone blend advanced stats with formations, play calling, etc. so well. Can’t recommend them enough.

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