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Fun With Numbers: Returning Production

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What do the Aggies bring back in 2020?

Howdy Ags and welcome to an off-season edition of Fun With Numbers. Today we’re going to take a look at what advanced statistics say about Texas A&M, the SEC, and what we can expect to see in the 2020 season, specifically as it pertains to returning production.

What Do We Know?

For starters, here’s Bill Connelly’s article on 2020 Returning Production. I encourage you to read it and get a feel for how the numbers are calculated, as well as some of the conference storylines we could see occur this next season. Things like the Oklahoma State team that the Ags defeated in the Texas Bowl being a Big 12 contender based on returning 80% of their production, or what Houston will look like after Dana’s… bold tanking strategy in 2019.

At first glance, the chart looks pretty promising for the Aggies, they rank 16th in Overall Returning Production, which leads the SEC and also beats out a school down in Austin, and I only point that out, because we need to celebrate every victory we can right? Hang the banner.

So let’s break this down into a good news, bad news concept.

The Key Losses

The Good News:

It might have surprised you to see the Ags returning nearly 80% of their offensive production. After two starting receives declared, the running back room basically turning into that scene from Fresh Prince with Isaiah Spiller just standing there looking around, and a loss at center, it FELT like the offense took a hit. And certainly when it comes to depth and experience, particularly at WR/RB, that might be true.

But, as Bill points out, not many things are as replaceable as RB yards year to year, especially if you’re OL remains mostly intact (Which it does, it needs to improve greatly, but it’s mostly intact). I hate seeing Q and Kendrick leave early, and wish them long and successful NFL careers… but let’s take a look at actual production in 2019. Rather than throw out stuff like total receiving yards, I want to talk about something called EPA or PPA (Expected/Predicted Points Added). You can find a dozen or more quality explanations for this, here’s one of the best breakdowns I’ve seen.

Essentially, whatever yard line a team is snapping the ball from, and whatever down and distance they are facing has an expected point value. Every play then, either adds or subtracts from that expected point value, depending on what happens on the field. So for instance, at 2nd and 5 from the Aggie 33 yard line, the Predicted Point value would be about 1.24 points. So when Kellen Mond ripped off a 67 yard TD run against Oklahoma State in this exact situation the Aggies got 7 points from that play. Some quick math shows says 7 Actual Points - 1.24 Predicted Points = 5.76 Predicted Points Added on that particular play.

Everything tracking so far? Good. Because if we can calculate PPA for an individual on a play, that means we can total it over the season, and get their average PPA every time they touched the football… or you know… a computer program could do it for us. Hello Collegefootballdata.com, my old friend.

For reference, I grabbed all the WR/TEs from the Top 10 SP+ Offenses in 2019 who were involved in 25 or more plays (a little over 40 players total), then averaged their Average PPA and Total PPA on pass plays.

We can see that our most consistent receiver (Ausbon) and our most explosive target (Wydermyer) both return for this season, and while the losses of Q and Kendrick aren’t great, particularly in Jimbo’s offense where blocking and experience are key for receivers (Although maybe Wydermyer and Smith prove it’s not THAT difficult to get on the field as a young talent), I think we’ll see improvement in the passing game in 2020. That’s assuming Kellen and the OL can improve even marginally, and the young talent that didn’t show up in 2019 takes the next step.

Did we really need PPA to tell us that? No, we certainly did not. But now I can use PPA in future posts, and just point here for an explanation. That’s what we call Authorial Intent, y’all.

The Bad News:

It becomes a little more difficult to hand wave things on the defense, although the bad news here is still pretty tolerable. You lose your sack leader from 2019 in Madubuike, who also is your fifth leading tackler and forced two turnovers. Still as Bill points out in his article, disruption up front isn’t as difficult to replace as you sometimes think it might be, and maybe the Aggies proved that this season, when they lost their sack leader (Keke) and other Team Tackle leaders from the Front 7 like Alaka, Dodson, Durham, and Mack and saw very little drop off in the defense. The 2019 Defense only retained 55% of it’s production from the 2018 season, so 74% going into 2020 doesn’t seem so bad.

“HEY! This is supposed to be the Bad News section. Stop trying to make us feel better.”

Sorry.

As replaceable as the Front 7 seems to be in terms of returning production, the thing that seems likely to set the Aggies back in 2020 is losing about 37% of their Passes Defended in Charles Oliver and Debione Renfro. Two experienced (if not frustrating at times) defensive backs can be difficult to replace, and the Aggies need to hope a combination of similarly experienced players like Blades, Morris, and Jones can fill the gap as the young talent that’s been arriving on campus gets up to speed.

The Schedule

The Good News:

The Aggies take on a lighter schedule in 2020, both in terms of the quality of teams on the schedule (Hello, Colorado and Vanderbilt) and the amount of production teams will be returning (Hello LSU). Particularly encouraging for a defense that will need to reload slightly is the fact that the average returning production for offenses on the schedule is 52%, and 7 teams on the schedule return 55% or less (including LSU, Alabama, and Mike Leach’s new Bulldog).

On top of that, the Aggies face 3 SEC opponents with new coaching staffs, including the aforementioned Pirate, the Lane Train, and a revamped Arkansas staff of solid coordinators led by Sam Pittman, who is a real person and not a cartoon chef. Maybe this doesn’t necessarily belong in the Good News section… you never know when teams will have a big leap under a first year coach like the Aggies in 2018 or when they might struggle out of the gates like… Arkansas in 2018. Or 2013. Either one. We can talk more about new coaches in a minute though.

Auburn v Arkansas
Two very real people.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The main takeaway here, is the Aggies get a really light start in 2020 and the three teams that finished ahead of them in the SEC West last season took some big hits in production.

The Bad News:

The schedule does set up wonderfully, there is no arguing that. Anytime you get to catch both Alabama and LSU in a bit of a reloading year, you need to count your blessings. But the Ags get both those teams at the end of the season, where returning production matters a lot less, as young players have more experience and actual game data fills in for theoretical projections.

In the middle of the schedule you have a couple of land mines, teams like South Carolina and Ole Miss who bring back over 70% of total production, and an Auburn team that Jimbo has never beaten while at A&M. And remember what I said about new coaching staffs not necessarily being good news? Lane Kiffen inherits an Ole Miss team that ranks 35th in Overall Returning Production, exactly where the Aggies fell going into 2018 under Jimbo. The Rebels may be a team to watch in terms of a big leap under a new regime.

So it’s a great schedule, but it’s still the SEC. Fans want to be 10-0 going into Tuscaloosa, and I hope we are, but that’s a long road with a lot of potholes.

The History

The Good News:

Bill Connelly has been posting these rankings since 2015, and this is the highest the Aggies have ever started. Second best was 2018 when the Ags returned 72%. In 2019, LSU led the SEC in returning production, and posted similar percentages to what we see for A&M in 2020, and we all know how that turned out. Teams in the Top 25 of last year’s Returning Production Ratings averaged a 7.7 point increase in their SP+ rating and averaged a 2.16 increase in total wins.

So bringing back talent from previous years generally leads to improvement. This is not the least bit shocking, but it’s nice to think about how much of an improvement the Aggies could see in 2020. 2 more wins and a 7.7 point increase for the 2019 Aggies could mean 10+ wins and a Top 10 finish in the SP+, which in turn would probably lead to a Top 10 finish in a lot of the human polls. I think most fans, even those with the highest expectations, could live with that. Admittedly, those numbers are on the higher side of things. If we go back over the last 5 years and compare SP+ Ratings and Win Totals from 2015-2019, we find the average is a 5.3 point increase and 1.6 win increase, if you find yourself if the Top 25 of Returning Production.

The Bad News:

This is the first time in 5 years we’ve seen the Aggies bringing back this much talent, so what? There’s a first time for everything, and it’s not always good. The first presidential assassination. The first time Mike Sherman coached an Aggie game. Another example so this meets The Rule of 3. You get the point.

Seriously though, there’s only so much you can take from recent history right? This is less “Bad News” and more of a “None of the good news I mentioned before matters if the Aggies don’t take care of business”. There’s a lot of returning talent, some new guys that can make a difference on campus quickly, and an easy schedule to maneuver, but the deficiencies in 2019 are still out there to be worked on during the Spring and early Fall.

What’s the Verdict?

Things look really good for the Maroon and White this season, based on who they have back on the sidelines and based on who other teams on the schedule won’t have on theirs. Bill’s first round of 2020 SP+ projections are likely to drop in the coming weeks, so be on the lookout for those. Based on recruiting rankings, returning production, and recent performance, it’s not crazy to think the Ags will find themselves in the Top 15. It’s impossible to tell if this team is ready to meet lofty expectations or not. But they’ve got some numbers on their side, and it’s the offseason, so hope springs eternal.

Final Notes

Thanks as always for following along. I have no idea how often I’ll pop up this off-season, might just be often enough to remind you I exist. In between the breaks though, you can always check out these sites to get your numbers fix.

  • 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.
  • Also you can follow me on Twitter @Aggie_Analytics. I haven’t posted much recently, but CFB Analytics Twitter is growing all the time, with lots of good content you just have to catch as it flies past your timeline.

Questions? Comments? Criticisms? You know where to leave ‘em. I’ll see you at the tailgate.