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Fun With Numbers: South Carolina

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Previewing this HISTORIC RIVALRY using advanced statistics

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Welcome to Fun With Numbers. Everybody’s (meaning like… 3 or 4 people) favorite weekly post that features a perfect blend of numbers, Aggie Football, and run-on sentences.

If you’re new here, check out this glossary to get up to speed on some of the things we’ll be talking about in this post.

How’d We Do Last Week?

Here’s the Twitter thread where I posted the box score and talked about some key takeaways.

In summary, the offense was great, probably some of the best all around play we’ve seen this season and would have been undoubtedly so if not for taking our foot off the gas. Or more accurately, taking our foot off the gas, putting on the emergency break, and taking the keys out of the car, throwing them into a river, and running away.

Also, the defense could have been a lot better, but we knew Franks and Briles were really going to push the Aggies to play fundamentally sound football, and as I point out in the thread, the defense really stepped up inside the 40 yard line.

Moving on to RIVALRY WEEK.

What Do We Know?

The Aggies bring a 3 game win streak, a solid ranking in all three metrics, and a #7 ranking in the AP Poll to Columbia, South Carolina. The Gamecocks are 2-3, coming off a BYE week that followed an incredible high (a 30-22 victory over Auburn) and an incredible low (a 52-24 thrashing against LSU). The FEI and the FPI are a little higher on South Carolina than the SP+ is, but the Aggies are still favored in this one no matter where you look. Vegas has the good guys at -9.5, the SP+ likes the Aggies by 11, and the FEI likes us by a mere 1.6 points.

Let’s take a closer look.

Aggie Offense vs Gamecock Defense

Coming off one of the best performances we’ve seen from a Jimbo coached offense at A&M, it sure feels like Kellen Mond and crew have turned a corner. The issues with big plays are still there, but we are improving, particularly in our ability to generate chunk plays through the air (don’t let the “fall” in explosiveness ranking from last week fool you, we’ve added more teams to the mix). In the ground game you have this year’s edition of the ol’ Thunder and Lightning concept, and I only feel comfortable calling it that because on the one hand you have Spiller averaging 3.58 Yards After Contact (2nd in the SEC) and Ainias averaging 3.09 Yards Before Contact (Also 2nd in the SEC) according to SEC Stat Cat. These two do an excellent job keeping the down and distance manageable, and when passing downs do arise, you’ve got Wydermyer who is averaging 1.712 PPA on 3rd Downs (2nd among TEs in the SEC with 10+ targets) and Chase Lane averaging 1.658 PPA (8th among WRs with 10+ Targets in the SEC).The OL continues to play really well, with the #2 Sack Rate and doing plenty in the ground game.

They’ll be taking on a Muschamp defense that’s been pretty average, if you can even call it that. I’d think a lot more highly of them if they hadn’t given up 52 points to an LSU team trotting out a first time QB just a couple of weeks ago. As we’ve seen from previous Gamecock defenses, they seem to be shooting for the Bend Don’t Break approach, being pretty inefficient overall but really good at preventing big plays. They sure are bending a lot though, especially on the ground where teams are averaging over 3 Line Yards a carry and 56.70% Opportunity Rate. They’ve forced 8 turnovers on the year, but 3 of them came as interceptions against Bo Nix in their Auburn victory, so they’re not exactly generating a ton of havoc like Arkansas was either.

Aggie Defense vs Gamecock Offense

While the offense is trending upwards, the defense is having a hard time living up to it’s preseason billing. While they’re actually improving in explosiveness, they certainly weren’t as efficient against the Hogs as you would have liked. They continue to get pressure and collapse pockets on opposing QBs, but only rank 31st in Sack Rate and 72nd in Front 7 Havoc. I would also like to see improved defense in the Red Zone, opposing teams are averaging a 52.17% Success Rate against the Aggie Defense inside the 20 yard line (84th in the country).

They’re facing off against a South Carolina offense that feels pretty familiar. A decent ground game and a semi-efficient passing attack, but minimal big play ability. RB Kevin Harris actually leads the SEC in yards/rush at 5.8 (just ahead of both Spiller and Smith) and is first in the SEC in Average Yards Before Contact at 3.82 (according to SEC Stat Cat). They also have RS Sophmore Deshaun Fenwick, who on 37 attempts leads the SEC in Broken Tackles % at 40.54%, so in order to minimize those Second Level and Open Field Yards, we definitely need to see strong tackling from our Linebackers in this matchup. QB Collin Hill has been fine, nothing spectacular in his first 5 games, although he’s been hamstrung by his receivers turning in the highest drop rate in the SEC. While the Razorbacks used a stunning amount of RPO and PA concepts, this South Carolina offense relies heavily on the screen game. Screen plays make up about 13.5% of Hill’s passing attempts, the second most in the SEC behind only Terry Wilson of Kentucky. The favorite target is clearly Shi Smith, targeted on over 30% of their passing plays and averaging .423 PPA.

Special Teams

The Aggies ST continues to improve as our Aussie legend-in-the-making continues to average 42 yards/punt, Caden Davis continues to force offenses to start from their own 25, and Seth Small hasn’t been asked to do anything more than extra point duty since his game winner over the Florida Gators.

The Gamecocks punter is averaging about 43 yards on 18 punts, and while the Gamecock return game has potential with Shi Smith and Dakereon Joyner they’re only 55th in the country in Offensive Starting Field Position. They’re primarily getting dinged here though by kicker Parker White’s 63.6% Field Goal Percentage, a big step down from his 81.8% hit rate in 2019.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

Two teams that A&M has never lost to as an SEC squad in back to back weeks. Outside of the first thrashing in Columbia in 2014 and last year’s 30-6 victory, the games have usually been within a touchdown. At some point these streaks will come to an end, and that will be a very sad day. It will be particularly hard when the Cocks pull one out because of how meaningful this rivalry is, and how highly we value holding onto the... James Bonham Trophy...?

What’s the Verdict?

The second half of the season sets up considerably different from the first for the Aggies. Better, in the sense that there are no Top 10 teams lurking around the corner like there could have been had some teams played to their potential. But the next 5 games aren’t exactly gimmes, especially these next two road games against middle of the road SEC East opponents. The next step to proving that A&M is a legitimate team pushing for a spot at the top of the SEC is to win these road games where you are favored, and to do it in convincing fashion.

How do we make that happen?

Well, I think it will be important for us to continue to rely on the ground game. Mond’s last road outing was shaky to be honest, and while I’m not saying his success in the Arkansas game isn’t going to carry over to this Saturday, we’ve still yet to see him put together back-to-back great performances. Finding an efficient run game shouldn’t be an issue though, LSU had a 58.82% Success Rate on the ground against the Gamecocks, Florida turned in 60% on just 20 carries, and Tennessee had 53.57%. With the threat our run game presents, Mond will be able to utilize play action in the same way he did against Arkansas (19.2% of passes out of play action vs 13.9% in the first 4 games), and allows the Ags to take a couple of shots 20+ yards down field. Mond was 2/2 on those passes with a TD against Arkansas. I’d also love to see Hezekiah (8 targets for a 63% Success Rate) continue to get some looks, if only to give other teams another weapon to contend with going forward, allowing things to open up more for guys like Wydermyer and Ainias.

On Defense, I think it comes down to three things. The first is getting pressure on Collin Hill. In South Carolina’s 3 losses, Hill has been sacked 4 or more times. After a bit of a rough start to the season, the Aggie Defense has averaged 5 sacks a game against two offensive lines who had been doing a relatively good job of keeping their QBs upright. On top of that Hill is not nearly the mobile threat that Franks is, so hopefully we see some more plays stopped dead in the backfield instead of being extended like they were last week. Second, we have to be better at tackling. According to SEC Stat Cat, the Razorbacks had 8 broken tackles when running the ball against the Aggies (Florida had 10 a few weeks ago). If the Aggies can do a better job of stopping plays early on, eliminating Second Level Yards as well allowing high success rates on the screen plays that the Gamecocks love to run, I like our chances to really slow them down and force them into Passing Down situations. Once there, Elko will have to scheme around containing Shi Smith. Nothing against any of the other Gamecock receivers, but as I mentioned earlier, he’s getting the majority of the targets. Smith is targeted 20% of the time on Passing Downs, and he has 7 of the teams 16 Explosive Passing Plays. Against LSU, he was targeted just 6 times for 2 catches and a 33% Success Rate. Against Auburn, it was 12 times for a 58% Success Rate.

My Prediction: I think the Aggies make it 7 in a row this week against South Carolina. I’m not sure it will be quite the performance it was at home against Arkansas, because I think South Carolina might be a little better defensively and I’m still not sure Kellen can string together two in a row. I think it’s probably close into the 3rd Quarter and we control the clock with the run game through most of the 4th, with the final being something like 31-24 (Aggie win, Gamecock cover). After last week’s game, this one has “backdoor cover” written all over it. Speaking of, I’m 4-1 picking straight up, and after that stupid, last minute touchdown by the Hogs, I’m 3-2 picking against the spread.

Final Notes

Thanks as always for keeping up with Fun With Numbers. Should be a lot of fun to see how this last half of the season shakes out. Let’s enjoy it while we can, since we were so close to getting no football at all. Be sure to check out the links below if advanced stats and football is an interesting combination to you.

  • I recently put together “Stat Profiles” for every team who has played some football this season. You can check them out here.
  • 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 another great site. Solid blend of statistics and football concepts.

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