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Fun With Numbers: Orange Bowl

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Previewing the Orange Bowl against the Tar Heels with advanced statistics

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Telework Photo by: TIROT/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Howdy and welcome to the Orange Bowl Edition of Fun With Numbers. I hope that you had a great Christmas and were able to gather around at least some family or friends as this weird year draws to a close, and that you made at least one person vow to never spend time with you again after spending 3 hours in front of a white board breaking down the ESPN Bias against the Aggies that kept them out of the playoffs.

If you didn’t, well there’s always New Years Eve to try again.

How’d We Do Last Week Game?

Here’s the Tennessee box score from a couple of weeks ago. Main takeaway is the passing offense was super efficient and you will never find a more iconic duo than Mike Elko and second half adjustments. It was a great way to cap off a 7 game win streak, even if it did come with some incredibly disappointing news on Sunday morning.

What Do We Know?

Put aside your disappointment, your Luther-like bitterness towards the Catholic Faith, your Herbstreit Effigy. The Aggies are in the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1944, against a dangerous ACC opponent, with “I told you so” on the line, as well as a chance to finish with less than two losses for the first time since 1994. This is a big deal, let’s get hyped up.

The aforementioned ACC opponent is a North Carolina squad that finished their season with 3 losses, a blowout victory over the Miami Hurricanes, and statistically one of the best offenses in the country. Like the Aggies they haven’t been Orange Bowl regulars over the years, this will be their first appearance in Miami. Overall, this is considered a pretty even matchup, mainly because the metrics REALLY like Phil Longo’s offense this season.

Vegas has the Aggies as a touchdown favorite, the SP+ likes the Tar Heels by less than a field goal, and the FEI projects a .6 margin of victory for the Aggies. This should be fun.

Aggie Offense vs Tar Heel Defense

The ultra efficient Aggie offense should be able to move the ball pretty well in their first game in 2021. The UNC Defense hasn’t been great at much this season, with ACC Opponents averaging 30 points a game and giving up a 49% Success Rate on the ground (5% higher than the average team would against their schedule), but having some decent success at slowing down efficient passing attacks. If Kellen wants to prove one last time he can hit the deep ball, this would be a good defense to try it out against, with a secondary that has struggled against the big play even more than the Aggies back end has. With Havoc Leader Chazz Surratt sitting this one out, things could open up even more for the run game and for those quick passes over the middle that we love to throw.

Even using the DSP+’s optimistic ranking of 43rd, this Tar Heel defense is behind both Auburn and Tennessee, two opponents the Aggies scored 30+ points on. Anything can happen, but it’s easy to feel confident that the Aggies are going to score some points this weekend.

Aggie Defense vs Tar Heel Offense

The much more daunting task will be finding ways to slow down this UNC offense. They’ve been explosive and efficient with QB Sam Howell being 2nd in the ACC (behind Trevor Lawrence) in Average PPA/Pass and leading the ACC in Average PPA on Passing Downs. Unfortunately for Sam, he’s losing a LOT of help. The two backs (Carter and Williams) responsible for the 4th highest Rushing Success Rate in the country and 80% of North Carolina’s Total Rushing PPA have opted out, as has the WR responsible for 25% of their targets on passing plays (Dyami Brown). These three guys are responsible for 51% of the Tar Heels offense on Passing Downs and 71% of the 118 Explosive Plays they’ve totaled this season. These are huge losses, but the North Carolina OL has done a solid job at opening up holes (A Top 15 unit in both Line Yards/Rush and Opportunity Rate) and guys like Beau Corrales and Dazz Newsome have looked great with limited targets.

Special Teams

The Aggie ST group may not be the elite weapon it has been in the past, but it’s been far from a weakness this season. Junior Seth Small is looking to finish the season with his highest percentage of FGs made in his career at nearly 82% (luckily he hasn’t been asked to kick any 50+ yarders this season), and Constantinou is averaging 40 yards a punt and has shown some serious potential with a couple of 50+ yard punts. The Aggies are 58th and 9th in Offensive and Defensive Starting Field Position.

The Tar Heels are bringing Senior kicker Grayson Atkins, who has had a rough year only hitting 62% of his kicks, and Sophomore punter Ben Kiernan (43.7 yards/punt and a long of 62) to the Orange Bowl. They are 63rd and 110th in Offensive and Defensive Starting Field Position.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

Where to begin in a year where the first Non-Conference, Power 5 matchup of the season ended up being the Cheez It Bowl. We’ve discussed the numerous opt outs that North Carolina is suffering from, and alluded to the Aggie team who expects to be full force (barring any surprise test results I imagine) feeling a little slighted by a shady group of important people that meet in a hotel conference room in Grapevine. Both squads may feel like they have something to prove, and all that is made even more interesting knowing who is coaching the Tar Heels these days.

What’s the Verdict?

The Tar Heels are 10th in the SP+, going 2-1 against opponents ranked in the Top 25 (Wins: Virginia Tech & Miami, Loss: Notre Dame). The Aggies have gone 1-1 against Top 25 Teams (Alabama and Florida, who also happen to both be in the Top 5). But if Kellen and his group have moved the ball well against similarly rated defenses, and the UNC offense is due for at least somewhat of a step back, then it seems like this should be a win for the Aggies. Maybe even a comfortable one. But Sam Howell can still lead this offense down the field, and it’s hard to know where anyone truly stands this year. How do the Aggies avoid a shootout, or worse, getting boat raced out of the stadium with Mack Brown smiling and clapping right behind us with mocking SEC chants filling the air?

Offensively, I assume we’ll stick with what we know works. Which is running until they stop it and then running it again. Would love to see Kellen continuing to tuck the ball and run too. After running 22 times in the first 5 games for a Success Rate 32%, he’s gone for 26 attempts and a 58% Success Rate in the last 4 games. FSU proved that North Carolina can be susceptible to a QB on the move, with Jordan Travis having over a 50% Success Rate on 15 rushes and 4 Explosive Runs. Ian Book was able to go for 2 runs of 15+ yards against this defense. Wouldn’t mind seeing some more 2 Back packages again, according to SEC State Cat we’ve run it 32 times with Mond, Smith, Spiller, or Achane involved for a 68.75% Success Rate and 25% of those runs being explosive. That’s not to say we shouldn’t and won’t take some shots against what has proven to be a vulnerable North Carolina Secondary. Surprisingly, the Aggies have attempted 13 passes of 25 yards or more in the last 4 games, but have only connected on 3 of them (Compared to 11 in their first 5 games, connecting on 5). You don’t have to beat this defense deep though to put up points on the board though, Notre Dame had only 3 explosive pass plays, Virginia turned in 2.

For Elko’s squad, it comes down to controlling the run game, pressuring Howell, and preventing big plays. The Irish held UNC to a 25% Success Rate on the ground (in fact in their 3 losses they’ve averaged a 38% Rushing Success Rate, well below their season average) and stopped them at or behind the line on nearly 30% of their attempts. This DL has been gashed by some good rushing attacks this season, mainly Arkansas and Auburn. But the LBs and Secondary have done an exceptional job at limiting opposing teams, with the defense ranking 28th and 14th in Second Level and Open Field Yards. And with North Carolina reaching further down the depth chart for RB help, it’s possible the Aggies can take away a huge portion of Longo’s offensive game plan, which will force Howell to make plays. Clark Lea and the Notre Dame defense were able to pressure Sam on something like 47% of his drop backs and got 6 sacks out of it, and FSU and Virginia got home 4 and 5 times in their matchups. Force those early throws to help out the Aggie secondary that is still prone to giving up big plays, and force them to chew up their own clock instead of scoring quickly. This team is good at scoring points, they’re 8th in the country in Points/Opportunity and 19th in Red Zone Success Rate. Make them work for it.

My Prediction: I think there’s a chance the Aggies might come out to wound up and looking to make a statement, but I think we settle in and you have to love Elko’s ability to shut teams down in the second half. Combine that with all the talent the Tar Heels will be missing, I think we end up winning and covering 31-21. I’m 8-1 picking winners this season and 5-4 picking against the spread. Not too shabby.

Final Notes

Folks, we made it. Thanks for tagging along, if you learned anything at all from my colored charts and useless rambling, then this has all been a success as far as I’m concerned. I miss unchanging schedules. I miss Kyle Field. I miss tailgating. I miss a lot of things that I get to see or have in a “normal” year, so having Fun With Numbers to fall back on as a constant was kind of nice in a weird, nerdy way. I hope you felt the same.

  • 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.