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Fun With Numbers: Auburn

Previewing the Auburn game with advanced statistics

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Welcome back to Fun With Numbers, the weekly stats post made possible by the fine people of GBH, Excel formulas, and caffeine. You know the drill, we talk a little about what advanced stats say about the Aggies’ previous game, what they say about the rest of the season, and what they say about the next opponent. It’s fun if you like statistics, it’s boring but maybe a little intriguing if you don’t. Either way, I’m glad you’re here. Let’s get into it.

How’d We Do Last Week?

Tweet thread where I discussed LSU. Basically, Mond had a bad day, but we also changed up our offense on arguably the worst day to do it, with bad weather, Wydermyer neutralized by a couple of great defenders, and the rest of the receivers had a case of the dropsies. Luckily all that can happen, and our defense has reached a point where it can carry this team to a convincing victory.

What Do We Know?

We are now a Top 15 Team regardless of where you look, and the offense can work their way back into a Top 15 ranking with a couple of better weeks. Auburn was previously projected at 11th in the SP+ and 7th in the FEI at the start of the season. That appears to be a little high, although they’ve got two losses to clearly better teams in Georgia and Alabama and just the one head scratching loss to South Carolina. Probably fair to recognize that the Arkansas game is as close to a loss as you can have, with the Tigers finishing with a 10.66% Post Game Win Expectancy.

The Aggies are a touchdown favorite going into this game, likely to be the smallest spread the Aggies will see in their final 3 games. The SP+ projects us to win by about 7 points, while the FEI projects it as almost even, giving the Tigers a .1 margin of victory.

Aggie Offense vs Tiger Defense

So last week I said this offense was approaching 2018 levels of good, and they went out and scored 13 points against a defense that hadn’t stopped a whole lot of people this season. I still think this team has that kind of potential, just maybe not as consistent as Jimbo’s first offense was towards the end of the year. The OL is fine, they’ve been exceptional at protecting Kellen and alright at opening things up in the run game (86th in Line Yards and 54th in Opportunity Rate proves they could certainly be better, but they’ve faced some good DLs). I think Spiller has covered up a lot of the issues there, he’s 3rd in the SEC in Yards After Contact and Top 10 in Broken Tackles as well. Mond is still streaky, and Hezekiah might not be the threat we thought he would be following the Arkansas game (which is really bad if Wydermyer gets taken out of the equation). The Aggies need to get better at finishing drives (76th in Points/Opportunity) and are still searching for the answer on how to hit big plays more often, particularly in Passing Down situations (The Aggies rank 120th in Passing Down Explosiveness).

They face an Auburn defense that has spent most of the season trying to rebuild from the 5th ranked DSP+ team in the country last season that lost over 70% of its production. As you can see, they’ve been pretty inefficient to date, only managing to get into Passing Downs on 27.6% of plays (110th in the nation). Kevin Steele’s team has been very bend-don’t-break-ey, doing a decent job of preventing big plays (to anyone not named Alabama, obviously), but haven’t been generating a ton of Havoc like we’re used to seeing from them in recent years. From just a raw numbers standpoint (and considering they’ve had 5 common opponents), the Auburn defense ranks very similarly to Grantham’s Florida squad the Ags found a lot of success against back in Week 3, but this being a road game so late in the year there are certainly no guarantees.

Aggie Defense vs Tiger Offense

Aside from two rough games against two offenses that are as good as any in the country, Elko has had this defense looking really, really good, particularly the last few matchups. The secondary still has issues with explosiveness, and LSU was able to take advantage of it a couple times with Marshall and Jenkins. The defense has been exceptional at limiting big plays on the ground, 2nd in the country in Rushing Explosiveness, 9th in Second Level Yards, and 7th in Open Field Yards. And for all the Secondary’s issues, they have been pretty efficient, and are also ranked 12th in DB Havoc created. The D’s weakness in Passing Downs (112th in Passing Down Explosiveness) and Red Zone Defense (105th in Success Rate inside the 20 Yard Line) are also a little concerning, but overall knowing what this team was replacing going into the season, you have to be pretty proud of them.

On the other side of the ball will be an Auburn offense that hasn’t regressed much from 2019, despite also losing nearly 70% of its production. It hasn’t improved much either, which has a lot of Tiger fans frustrated. The run game has been solid when Tank Bigsby has been able to play, which makes sense because with a name like that you should be able to do anything you want forever. He’s averaging 3.25 yards after contact and breaking nearly 40% of attempted tackles, but has been dinged up in recent weeks and it’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to play or not this Saturday. An already patchwork type offensive line is also suffering some injuries, so that maybe another advantage that won’t factor in this weekend. That leaves A LOT of pressure on Sophomore QB Bo Nix, who while he’s improved in some aspects since 2019, he’s thrown more INTs in less games, is dealing with a higher drop rate from his receivers, and is getting pressured more than he was as a True Freshman. In truth, despite what the chart says, this Auburn offense has played really well in recent weeks, right up until their date with the Alabama Buzzsaw last weekend.

Special Teams

After some pretty solid punts and Seth Small performing well in the rain, the Aggies now rank 32nd in the Special Teams SP+. They also rank 40th in Offensive Starting Field Position, and 17th in Defensive. Things are certainly not as dire as they appeared in game one of this season, who would have guessed we might have overreacted a little bit to one data point?

The Tigers still have Junior Anders Carlson kicking for them and he’s been solid, 13-15 on Field Goals and perfect between 40-49 yards. They seem to be splitting duties between Aidan Marshall and Oscar Chapman in the punt game, with Aidan leading the way at 16 punts for an average of 42 yards. Not much to speak of in the return game, they’re 107th in the country in Offensive Starting Field Position, but they did have a blocked punt for a touchdown against Arkansas.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

Since his arrival in Aggieland, Jimbo has done a decent job of checking the “Must Do” boxes as an A&M Coach. He’s continued the win streak against Arkansas and South Carolina, has won some big games at home, beat both Mississippi schools in the same season in 2019 (the first time the Aggies had done it in years), and has traded shots with LSU (2-1 versus Ed O). The one thing he hasn’t done? Beat Auburn. That has to be the next step for Jimbo, and this weekend would be great time to take it, with Auburn being a fairly average SEC West team and playoff opportunities on the line.

On the flipside, things are probably heating up on Gus Malzahn’s seat, if message boards are to be believed (They’re not, but this is all just for fun anyway, so who cares?). So I’m sure Auburn is feeling just as much pressure to make this a 4 game win streak.

What’s the Verdict?

Well, the charts seem to indicate an Aggie win this weekend. But late season road games when the Ags have a shiny number next to their name are scary for a reason. The two schools have played a similar schedule, but the Aggies have avoided any losses as a favorite thus far, and managed to beat their Top 10 East opponent, and Auburn can’t say the same. So what do the Aggies need to do get their first win against Auburn since the Sumlin era?

Offensively we need to lean on what works. This is a Front 7 that has given up a lot on the ground this season (Three teams rushing for 200+ yards on them), and Georgia did it better than just about anyone else in their second game of 2020. The Bulldogs had a 59% Success Rate on the ground and 62% Success Rate on Standard Downs. They ran a lot of Read Option (20+ times with a 52% Success Rate), which I would love to see us do in order to get Mond involved in the ground game. Stetson Bennet was the QB at the time, and about half his passes were of 10 yards or less, so the quick passes should be there for the Aggies this week. Even the Gamecocks found a large portion of their success in that 10 yard range, trusting guys like Shi Smith to generate Yards After Catch.

On defense, it’s important to limit Bo Nix and the Auburn passing attack. In their 5 wins, the Tigers have averaged a 49% Success Rate through the air and averaged a 1.62 Explosiveness Rating. In their three losses, 32% and 1.42. In those 3 losses, Bo Nix was sacked 9 times and his accuracy under pressure was 38.46%, well below his season average. Expect Gus and Morris to take things deep against this secondary. In their 5 wins, Nix has been a 53% passer on passes of 20+ yards with 2 TDs. In their 3 losses, 14% with an INT. I trust this Front 7 to minimize their ground game, especially with how hobbled this Auburn offense is expected to be, teams are averaging a 36% Success Rate and less than 3 yards/rush against the Ags in their last 4 games.

So if we go back to our regularly scheduled programming on offense (efficient, methodical, boring, etc.) and eliminate big plays while getting pressure on Nix, I think the Aggies can have a Georgia-esque win over the Tigers.

My Prediction: I’m a little nervous because of how poor the offense looked against LSU and because Auburn Jesus can show up any moment, but I think the Aggies are able to control this game much the same way they did against last week’s Tigers. I’ll take the Aggies in a 21-10 victory, an Aggie win and a cover.

Final Notes

Thanks as always for tagging along, hopefully we’ll be back next week to talk about the Ole Miss Rebels, or maybe the Tennessee Volunteers? I don’t know. Some finality on this schedule would be awesome.

  • I recently put together “Stat Profiles” for every team who has played some football this season. You can check them out here.
  • for a solid compilation of all things related to football analytics.
  • for Brian Fremeau’s FEI data and other fun projects from him.
  • 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.
  • 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.