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Fun With Numbers: Tennessee

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Previewing the Tennessee game with advanced statistics

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Howdy and welcome to Fun With Numbers, your weekly whenever-there-isn’t-a-COVID-outbreak blog post that compares the Aggies and their upcoming opponents using advanced statistics.

We’re here, the final game of the regular season, a full two weeks later than it was originally scheduled and with one less game in our overall record. Well, not originally. That schedule has been long forgotten, doomed to never be played the moment it was released. We are now approaching a weekend that includes everything from conference championships that will shift the playoff picture, make up games that mean practically nothing at all, a freaking bowl game WAS somehow on the schedule, and other matchups with various levels of give-a-damn attached to them.

Regardless of how you’ve felt about the… everything of 2020, it’s pretty miraculous that we’re here. Before the season started there were articles questioning whether it could or should happen, players, teams and conferences opting out and joining back up before you could mark it down, and policies written that ranged from far too lenient to surprisingly stringent. And now, a lot of teams are electing to end their seasons and many fans, players, coaches, and journalists are thankful that we’ve reached the weird finish line of this season. I get all of it, I really do.

But in a year that featured death, destruction, cancellations, sadness, and a whole list of other bad things that our Timelines and Newsfeeds hammered us with in stunning 1080p for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week… it felt good to have college football. And I say that while acknowledging it helps to have a team with legitimate post season aspirations, but also fully believing I would feel this way regardless.

As I said in my first Fun With Numbers of the season… I’m here for all of it. For ass kickings at Bryant Denny. For Isaiah Spiller trucking Florida defenders into the Shadow Realm. For sloppy and uninspired, to upset victories and Jimbo Locker Room Speeches. For The Throwing of the Shoe, for Greg Schiano having the same amount of wins as Jeremy Pruitt, for “Does Ohio State pass the eye test”, and for everything else we’ve seen in the last 3 months. It’s been fun. It’s been good. It’s been college football.

What Do We Know?

Sorry for the detour, you’re here for numbers so let’s talk numbers. The Aggies are hovering in that Top 10-15 range in the three metrics right now, with ESPN’s FPI being the most impressed and the FEI being the least (but 16 is still pretty good). The good guys are 7-1, riding a 6 game win streak that has them being talked about as a potential playoff contender, and very few of those games have been in doubt, much less close.

The next obstacle is a Tennessee team that came into 2020 expecting a little more than what they’ve accomplished. After finishing 2019 on a 7-1 run that included a bowl win over Indiana, many believed that Pruitt had the pieces in place. They started the season ranked 16th in the SP+ and 39th in the FEI, and won 2 games. Since then they’ve fallen quite a bit, finally breaking a 6 game losing streak to coachless Vanderbilt last week. In their 6 common opponents with the Aggies the Vols are 2-4 with wins over South Carolina and Vanderbilt, and losses that include Auburn and Arkansas. Vegas likes the Ags by 14 points, with the SP+ projecting a 12 point margin of victory. How do we avoid ending up on the Florida end of a bad loss? Let’s take a closer look.

Aggie Offense vs Volunteer Defense

If you’ve been following this season, nothing in these charts should surprise you. This is an offense that is very, very similar to the one Jimbo put together in Year 1 in Aggieland. Efficient (especially running the ball), balanced (55% of plays rushing and 45% passing), and what little big play they have stems from one of the RBs or Mond getting loose at the second level. Despite a higher drop percentage than last season (hard to believe, I know), Mond is set to have his highest Passer Rating (currently 146.4) yet and thrown only 2 INTs (He threw 9 in 2018 and 2019). Credit to this OL, who went from allowing pressure on 34% of snaps in 2018, to 30% in 2019, and finally down to 23% this season, with one of the best sack rates in the country.

They matchup pretty well with this Tennessee defense, which is at the very least competent, as you’d expect from a coach like Pruitt. They’re going to give up yardage, opponents are averaging nearly 400 yards of offense and a 46% Success Rate, and Tennessee finds itself in Standard Downs a lot (70.92% of the time, 96th in the country). Similar to some of the defenses we’ve faced this season (including Auburn a couple of weeks ago), this defense is very much a Bend But Don’t Break style, controlling the line of scrimmage fairly well and very good at preventing big plays both on the ground and through the air. They’re likely to be a real challenge for our run game, but they don’t generate a lot of Havoc, and seemed to have regressed in the 2nd halves of games this season (99th in 3rd Quarter Success Rate, 97th in 4th Quarter).

Aggie Defense vs Volunteer Offense

Elko’s squad has had it’s struggles this year, and not just early on against Alabama and Florida. Last week against Auburn saw the Front 7 give up a 50% Success Rate on the ground, the highest since their midseason victory against Arkansas. They’ve struggled with big plays again this season, although if you’re looking for improvement here it is:

In 10 games last season against Power 5 Opponents (Conference games, plus Clemson and Oklahoma State), the Aggies gave up 64 big plays. In 2020 through 8 games, it’s down to 37 (4 of those coming in garbage time). That’s after losing quite a bit of your starting Front 7 and a couple of corners too. I don’t know how much longer we’ll have Elko here, he’s really good at this. For your consideration, from 2005 to 2017 Texas A&M had finished 25th or higher in the DSP+ 3 times, never consecutively. Elko is working on accomplishing that for his 3rd year in a row in Aggieland.

Again, they matchup very well with a Tennessee offense that is mostly incompetent, as you’d expect from a coach like Pruitt. Despite an OL opening up decent holes (11th in Line Yards, 29th in Opportunity Rate), backs Eric Grey and Ty Chandler haven’t been able to be much more than average on the ground, and neither has proven to be much of a home run threat with the Vols sitting at 64th in Second Level Yards and 115th in Open Field Yards. Still they put up similar Success Rates on the ground against Auburn as the Aggies did a couple of weeks ago, so we need a much stronger showing from our Front 7. I think the bigger issue with the Volunteers is a lack of consistency at QB. Guarentano was slightly below average when you compare him to other QBs with 100+ attempts, and got replaced by the younger, talented Harrison Bailey who has started the last 2 games. Against Vanderbilt, Bailey was swapped for JT Shrout early on despite playing well, so I’ll be curious to see who gets the first snap this weekend. Bailey has turned in a Success Rate of 46% in his last 3 games played and has taken care of the ball really well with zero picks, but has mostly been feasting on short throws with an Avg. Depth of Target of 8.45 yards and unable to connect on anything beyond 20 yards (according to SEC Stat Cat). In his limited role in the Vanderbilt game, Shrout was less accurate, but more efficient and able to hit some deep balls. Palmer is your leader when it comes to targets out wide, with 8 explosive pass plays including 4 TDs.

Special Teams

Not a whole lot to talk about here. Despite not trying to do much in the return game, the Aggies are 52nd in the country in Starting Field Position on offense, and thanks to some solid punting as well as young Caden Davis booting everything out of the end zone, rank 9th in Defensive Starting Field Position. Seth Small had his second bad miss of the season against Auburn, but hit a clincher late in the game and is 7/9 in 2020 (plus he got a sweet freaking pep talk from Jimbo after Auburn and therefore may never miss again).

The Vols also haven’t shown much in the return game either, and come into this game ranked 104th in Offensive Starting Field Position. Paxton Brooks, who is in fact the punter for the Tennessee Volunteers and not a line of clothing you’d see folks wearing at a golf course on a Friday afternoon, is performing well enough (43 yards/punt), but kicker Brent Cimaglia is only 5/9 on FGs this season.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

I’m sure if you ask Jimbo or anyone else on the team, it’s just another week, just another SEC road match. We know that’s not true though. The Aggies can’t control a whole lot about what goes down this weekend regarding the final playoff rankings. If you’re reading this, you’re well informed on the different scenarios that could go down to get the Aggies in the Top 4. The one thing they can do to stay in the discussion is win. Winning by 2-3 scores would be better. But a loss leaves you looking at Cotton or Orange Bowl tickets at best. That’s some serious pressure, probably the most any of these players have felt in their time at A&M. This is what you hired Jimbo for, to manage that pressure, to keep the team focused, and to not lose to a multi-touchdown underdog with a playoff berth on the line, specifically by throwing a shoe 20 yards down field. Chomp chomp y’all.

What’s the Verdict?

The charts look good, the projections look good, the team looks good, how do we avoid some major disappointment this weekend? I think for the offense it’s going to be important to connect on some short passes early on in the game. Florida got stalled at the line by this defensive front (only turning in a 16% Success Rate on the ground) and you want to avoid falling behind schedule against a defense like this, one that does a good job of preventing big plays. Those short passes were there for Auburn and Bo Nix all day, but particularly in the second half when they really put the game away. In their game with Tennessee, Nix was 2/7 with a TD and an INT on passes of 11 yards or more and a 29% Success Rate. Everything shorter than that, a 54% Success Rate on 19 passes. Auburn’s Average Depth of Target in the 1st Half was nearly 13 yards, they went into the half tied with Tennessee 10-10. In the second half, that ADOT was 7.5 yards, and that (along with a Pick Six from Smoke Monday) really helped them take off. Those quick slant and crossing routes to Wydermyer and Lane will open things up in the ground game and if that happens, I like our ability to put up 30 or more points.

On defense, we need to control the big plays. Regardless of who is under center for the Volunteers, they aren’t afraid to take deep shots and despite their improvement, this secondary is still rather inviting. Young Bailey has seen pressure on only 11.29% of his snaps, according to SEC Stat Cat, but I would argue he probably hasn’t spent much time against a DL this stout or a DC who can really get creative in the way he brings in DBs for blitz plays like Elko does. I would love to see us get pressure on him (or Shrout or whoever) and force a mistake, and definitely would love to not see them somehow slip out of Bobby Brown’s arms like some sort of magic trick and then appear in the end zone. If we can knock down the QB a few times, and play much better against the run than the Aggie defense did early against Auburn, I think the Aggie defense will be feeling good by the 4th Quarter.

My Prediction: Will never not be nervous about a late season SEC road game, that’s just life. But I love the way this team has come together this season, the different ways they’ve won games, and the way they’ve played when the pressure has turned up midseason. I think they keep the streak going, and I think they might just be rewarded for it on Sunday. Aggies win 31-13, an Aggie win and cover.

Final Notes

Well, like I said before, we’ve made it to the end. Thanks to everyone who reads these, to the GBH staff for giving me a place to write, and to everyone who didn’t tweet at recruits this year. Regardless of where the Aggies end up this post season, I’ll be writing something to preview that, and hopefully won’t spend the whole offseason hibernating. But who knows. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t plan for everything. Have a fun and safe Holiday Season, we’ll get together again real soon.

  • 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). You’ll need to subscribe to ESPN+ for most of his stuff these days.
  • 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.