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Fun With Numbers: Vanderbilt

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Previewing the first game of the Aggie Football season with MATH!

Howdy, and welcome to Fun With Numbers. The ONLY place you can go for an advanced statistics preview of the Texas A&M football matchup each week. Seriously, it’s the only place. Do not go looking for others, do not fact check me. I’m serious. Stop.

I didn’t know if I would be writing these in 2020. I still don’t know how many will actually be written, and if I’ll start one on a Monday and find out Friday afternoon that it’s previewing a game that’s not happening. This is going to be odd and confusing and frustrating, which maybe isn’t all that unlike normal college football.

In these *grimaces and grips the armrests of my desk chair* uncertain times, I’m going to try to be here for all of it.

Because when things get weird, sometimes it helps me to have numbers and charts and consistency to bring some order to the chaos. Maybe it will help you too. Maybe it will just give a comment space for Russian bots to try to sell diet pills. Either way, ready or not, here we are. Let’s get into our more typical first season post stuff.

What are “advanced statistics”?

Great question to start out with. Put simply, it means focusing less on things like total yardage and more on metrics that measure stuff like efficiency and explosiveness. It means recognizing that not all plays are the same, a 5 yard completion on 2nd and 4 is much different than one on 3rd and 12. It means understanding that yards allowed by a defense doesn’t tell you much without knowing who they’ve played. So if you’re the type of person who says, “The only number that matters is the one in the win column.” or just generally think stats are for nerds (you’re not wrong about either), this may not be something you’ll be interested in reading.

So what advanced stats do we look at?

Another good question. It’s like you’re in my head. For starters, there are several different metrics that give us team rankings that are adjusted for strength of schedule, exclude garbage time, and study teams on a play-by-play/drive-by-drive basis. Three that I use for overall team ratings as well as Off/Def/ST rankings are the SP+, FEI, and the FPI. You can read more about each of those in the links provided.

As mentioned earlier, things like efficiency (Success Rate) and explosiveness can tell you a lot about teams on their own, and there are a number of other stats we will look at that can tell you how each side of the ball is performing on a more micro level. Things like Havoc created by a defense, or Offensive Line Yards generated per rush, and things like a player’s total Expected Points Added (EPA). There are a dozen or more places where you can find these definitions, and I even wrote a quick explainer on EPA this offseason in a post about returning production. Here are two really good glossaries that should cover most of what we’ll be discussing in these posts.

Okay, but what do we look at when no games have been played?

Ah yes, the first game of the season means we’re a little bit short on data when it comes to the 2020 version of these football teams. So we’ll rely on the overall metrics I mentioned earlier (SP+, FEI, and FPI) which have their own formulas based on performance in previous years, recruiting, returning production, etc. to predict how teams will look this year. And as far as individual stats go, we’re going to look at how teams performed last season, and how that might change in 2020.

We’ll see how things go as the season progresses. Maybe a conference only schedule means we’ll only look at where teams rank in the SEC amongst different stats. Maybe no “easy” first few weeks on the schedule means more meaningful data earlier in the season. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be strange. It’s going to be college football.

Thank God.

What do we know?

The Aggies take on Vanderbilt to open the season, in front of what will be one of the smallest crowds to watch an Aggie game since like… the 20s. Or at least the 4th quarter of the Lamar game in 2019. This is the first time these teams have faced each other since 2015 (a 25-0 victory on a cold night in Nashville led by Kyle Allen), and the Ags are looking for their third straight win against the Commodores.

That shouldn’t be much of an issue on Saturday. Vandy finished 2019 as one of the worst Power 5 teams in just about any ranking, ending at 3-9 with their lone conference win coming against Missouri at the beginning of the Tigers midseason slide. They are not projected to improve a whole lot, mostly due to losing a ton of productivity on offense and while they bring back the 4th most defensive production of anybody in the country, the defense was very, very bad in 2019 and has a long way to go.

Vegas has the Aggies favored by 30.5 points, the SP+ pegs that as a pretty reasonable spread (projecting the Ags to win by 33), while the FEI views it to be a little closer with a 20 point victory predicted for the good guys. Let’s take a closer look at the two teams.

Aggie offense vs. Vanderbilt defense

A quick reminder that OSP+ and OFEI are 2020 projections, and everything else is from 2019.
All 2019 data removes garbage time plays, but is not adjusted for opponents.
The offense is good, but we have like, a whole other half of the radar to work on.

The SP+ predicts the Aggies to have a Top 15 offensive unit in 2020. We talked about how losing two of your veteran receivers in the offseason is never ideal (and now a third and fourth with Buckley’s injury and Ausbon opting out), but bringing back your most explosive target in Wydermyer takes the sting out a little, as does all the talent in the receiver group waiting in the wings. The running back room is thin with experience but Spiller only got better as the season progressed and Ainias Smith adds an extra dimension to the backfield. The OL remains mostly intact and of course the man leading the charge will be Kellen Mond. The squad was efficient in 2019, about the same as they were in 2018 and actually better at finishing drives (4.19 points/opportunity vs 3.46). What little big play ability they had in 2018 fell off a cliff though, and the Aggies finished as one of the worst teams in the country as far as explosiveness goes. If the offense under Jimbo is going to take the next step in 2020, everyone knows it will have to be here. Teams dared us to beat them with a deep ball in 2019, and due to a combination of poor throws, lack of team speed, bad routes, and bad luck, the Aggies rarely made them regret it.

Vanderbilt returns a ton on a bad defense from 2019, and while they’re bound to improve as this All-SEC season goes on, I just can’t see them being ready to dominate this Aggie offense in Game 1. The Commodores biggest “strength” as a defense was limiting big plays, and they weren’t even that great doing that. It also mattered very little, as offenses averaged a 52% Success Rate on Standard Downs against Vandy in 2019 (124th in the nation). In other words, who needs to hit big plays when you’re tearing out 5 yard chunks on first and second down? One thing that concerns me is Vanderbilt’s ability to cause Havoc. They were 42nd in the county in Total Havoc last Fall, and 31st in Defensive Back Havoc. They bring back a lot of experience in the secondary and at linebacker, and we still don’t know how well this OL will do at protecting Mond (90th in Sack Rate in 2019) or how well the Aggies will protect the ball this season (94th in Turnover Margin).

Aggie defense vs. Vanderbilt offense

All 2019 data removes garbage time plays, but is not adjusted for opponents.
This one kind of looks like a dead guy laying in a pool of blood.

After falling outside the Top 50 in DSP+ in the final chapter of the Sumlin/Chavis saga, Elko has brought the Aggies into the Top 25 two seasons in a row now, and he’s predicted to crack the Top 20 this year. If that holds, and the offense does the same, it will be the first time we’ve seen both units in the Top 20 since 2012. Similar to the offense, the defense can hit that mark by improving in explosiveness, but unlike the offense, they need to find ways to limit big plays in 2020. The corner and safety play improved in Elko’s second year, but creating Havoc on the back end and preventing big passing plays is still a weakness, and remains concerning with such a young (but extremely talented) group of guys making up the secondary. Explosive rushing plays also remain an issue, but I like our chances to get better at preventing Second Level and Open Field Yards with an experienced, deep(ish) linebacking group. When’s the last time we’ve been able to say that about a Texas A&M squad?

You won’t find many teams with this big of a split in returning production. While the Commodore defense at least has experience going for it, the offensive side of the ball returns only 24% of it’s Predicted Points Added (PPA) in 2020 which puts them in the bottom five of teams actually playing in 2020. First year coordinator Todd Fitch has his work cut out for him, as I’m writing this I genuinely have no idea which of the two junior college transfers or which of the two true freshman QBs will be starting at Kyle Field on Saturday. Not to mention the difficulty of replacing an at times injured but unmistakably talented back in Ke’Shawn Vaughn. They bring back some experience out wide in guys like Cam Johnson, Chris Pierce, and Junior TE Ben Bresnahan will look to replace Jared Pinkney’s production at that position. All of that will be working behind an OL that has suffered from transfers and opt-outs and has very little in the way of depth. Point being, the Vanderbilt offense has some learning to do, and it’s hard to see them matching up well against the Aggies in Week 1.

Special Teams

Won’t spend a whole lot of time here, but it’s worth noting that while the Ags lose one of the greatest punters in all of college football in Braden Mann, they do at least return Kicker Seth Small for his Junior season. Small improved from 71.4% on FGs to 78.3% in his sophomore year. Aussie Nik Constantinou will take over at the punter spot, who has one 57 yard punt DOWN UNDER his belt. I’m sorry. It will probably happen again. Siri, play Men at Work.

Vanderbilt is the opposite, replacing their kicker Riley Guay (9 of 11 on FGs in 2019) and bringing back Junior punter Harrison Smith who averaged 43 yards a punt last season. Anybody who’s watched the first couple of weeks of college football can say that it appears missing spring/summer workouts has wreaked havoc on special teams units, hopefully we’re not relying on a field position battle to grit out a victory on Saturday night.

Anything the numbers don’t tell us?

As I just mentioned, every SEC school is coming into this weekend following one of the strangest offseasons in the sport’s history. My guess is there will be a lot of rust to shake off for every squad. Pair that with the opt outs and potential players unable to suit up due to quarantine restrictions, it’s going to get interesting.

I’m here for it.

What’s the verdict?

Well, if you can’t schedule a Group of 5 non-conference game to start the season, this is fairly comparable. And I feel bad saying that about Vanderbilt, so I’ll follow it up with something nice. Your baseball team has been very good very recently and Nashville is a super fun city to visit.

Now 30 points is a lot, especially in the first game of the season with a lot of unknowns, and knowing that Jimbo is going to keep it as vanilla (is it redundant to refer to Jimbo’s offense as vanilla? It feels redundant.) as possible to avoid tipping his hand to Nick Saban next week. Still, it feels like an easy victory should be within the Aggies grasp on Saturday night, so what do we want to see in this version of a “tune-up” game?

Obviously on offense, you want to see the same consistency and efficiency that Jimbo and Dickey have produced 2 years in a row. You’d love to see Kellen spread the ball around some early on to get a feel for what this receiving corps can do. In 2019, Texas A&M had 4 players with 30 or more receptions, and only one of them (Wydermyer) will be on the field on Saturday. The depth chart implies a heavy rotation, who will set themselves apart from the <or> designation? Aside from that, you’d like to see the OL open things up for Spiller/Smith and keep Mond off his back, and avoid turning the ball over. Last season to open up against Texas State, the Aggies turned the ball over twice in the red zone, which proved to be some foreshadowing, as they gave the ball away at least twice in six games in 2019.

On defense, it feels like there’s a lot less to prove. Even with some of the loss of depth, there are plenty of known quantities and you have to believe in Elko’s ability as a play caller at this point. Their weakness in 2019 (big plays through the air) is not something the Commodores should be able to take advantage of, and if they do, it means we will be in for a long Saturday against a much more talented passing attack at Alabama. In 2019, 6 teams held the Vandy offense to 10 or less points. It would not surprise me to see Elko pitching a shutout late in the game, and maybe send Derek Mason back to Nashville with only a sad field goal or two.

For the Aggies to take the next step in 2020 (meaning 8 or more wins with this schedule), the successes of last season have to carry over. Efficiency on both sides of the ball, with improved secondary and linebacker play, better pass protection, and finding some big play ability can get us there. I hope we get a taste of it this week.

My Prediction: The Aggies win this one 34-6, which should be enough to keep most Aggies happy but is not quite good enough to cover the spread. BTHO Vanderbilt.

Final Notes

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you’ll be back as the season progresses. After a few games, we’ll transition into 2020 stats and obviously have a little more to talk about when the games are predicted to be a little closer. Until then, feel free to check out these sites, which is where the majority of my data comes from.

  • 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.

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