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___ With Numbers: Alabama

Previewing the Crimson Tide with advanced stats

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Texas A&M v Alabama Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Howdy and welcome to Fun With Numbers. Or just “Numbers” this week, due to the 2 game losing streak, the upcoming matchup with one of the best teams in the country, the unrelenting trolling online, the sinking feeling of something we’ve all seen before unfolding right before our eyes…

Yeesh. That was dark. Sorry.

Here’s the thing. Things are bad and people are mad. Now would be a really great time to stop doing these statistical posts because between the “9 Million Dollars for this?!” and “[Player A] sucks and should be benched!” and “Our pets heads are falling off!”, it probably wouldn’t even be noticed.

But that would be forgetting a very important detail. This is a game. This is meant to be fun. It can still be fun, even when things are indeed bad. Maybe it’s just enjoying the Aggie football we get, and watching some young players get a chance to shine. Maybe that’s finding joy in another team’s success, like enjoying Cincinnati beating Notre Dame at their place.

Or maybe it’s taking your toddler son into Kyle Field for the first time since he could hold his head up. Watching him be captivated by the team entrance, clapping for the band, and repeating the phrase “No balls!” that some 20 year old shouted behind him when Mike Leach elected not to go for it on 4th down.

And even though you have to leave before the 3rd quarter because he is still a toddler and toddlers have their own set of Gremlin Rules like “don’t feed them Dippin Dots in a white shirt” and “don’t keep them up past 8 pm”, you still have a lot of fun and somehow it’s still worth the money and the time and the emotional devastation.

That’s awfully specific. Maybe that was your experience. I don’t know. Your mileage may vary.

How’d We Do Last Week?

Not good. But you guys know that.

The defense wasn’t amazing by any means, State was as efficient as we expected them to be and unfortunately had too much success on Passing Downs. But they did limit the Bulldogs to 3.71 points/opportunity and did step up in the 4th Quarter when we needed them most, all with a secondary that is injured and still young.

The offense was able to hit some big plays but couldn’t do much when they found themselves behind the chains on late downs, and they shrunk away from the big stage in the 4th quarter after their defense gave them a chance.

That’s it. The defense has issues but can keep us afloat for the most part, but somehow, some way this offense has to find a spark. And it would be great to find it soon. Ignoring this weekend’s game, the Aggies have 6 games left on the schedule. Here’s how they break down at this moment according to the SP+ (adjusted for home field advantage):

Toss Ups: Auburn (Ags by 2.4), Ole Miss (Rebs by 2.7), LSU (Ags by 4.3)

Likely Wins: Missouri (Ags by 9.3)

Easy Wins: South Carolina (Ags by 15.2), Prairie View A&M

That’s a lot of winnable but tough games and not a lot of gimmes to end the season.

Will the Aggies be fighting for a playoff spot again in 2021? Absolutely not.

Will each game be interesting and meaningful (at least in terms of program perception and momentum)? I mean… yeah.

Let’s stick with it and enjoy the football we’re going to get, because it will be gone before we know it.

What Do We Know?

But before we get to that 6 game stretch, the Aggies have a monstrous task ahead of them. They’ll take on the Alabama Crimson Tide at home, in a matchup that had people circling it for a College Game Day appearance and SEC West implications in the preseason. Those expectations are gone now, and were probably a little optimistic to begin with. But regardless, the Aggies have a tough test ahead of them. The undefeated Tide are hands down the best team in the division right now, and will be 17.5 point road favorites on Saturday.

Aggie Offense vs Crimson Tide Defense

The Aggie offense is in a bad place right. We know that. Calzada just can’t slow the game down for himself, receivers are still struggling with drops, and the OL is not helping matters. All that is a recipe for disaster for an offense built to be efficient and avoid having to take unnecessary risks. The running game is still there, and both Spiller and Achane have broken off big runs this season despite not getting push on every down from the offensive line.

But they’ll be facing their toughest matchup to date when Nick Saban’s defense comes to College Station. The Tide have molded back into their typical dominant form after slipping a little in the past couple years on defense, they brought back 78% of last year’s squad and are particularly strong in the Front 7. They’ve been prone to giving up some big plays, both on the ground and through the air, but they looked pretty dominant against an explosive Ole Miss offense last week. LB Drew Sanders maybe out for this game, but Havoc leaders like Will Anderson Jr. (7.5 TFL, 2 Sacks) and Phidarian Mathis (1.5 TFL, 2.5 Sacks, 1 FF) are more than enough to keep this OL busy.

Aggie Defense vs Crimson Tide Offense

Hey that doesn’t look as bad as it could. Despite some bad moments in their last two games, this is still considered one of the top defenses in the country by most metrics. They are giving up too many Second Level Yards (1.2 yards/rush, 97th in the country) and have got to find a way to start creating Havoc in the Front 7 more consistently, especially with how great this DL is.

Another tough test awaits them though, with an Alabama offense that hasn’t totally matched last years production but is still moving the ball and putting up points. What the Tide O lost last season in explosive passing plays, they’ve made up for with an efficient run game that is as good as any in the country. The OL hasn’t been perfect in protecting Bryce Young, but he’s doing a good job of protecting the ball, only throwing 2 INTs in his 5 games. John Metchie has been the favorite target for the young QB, getting 22% of the passes so far and 13% of targets on Passing Downs, and he’s a name Aggies should remember well after torching the secondary in 2020.

Special Teams

Nothing much to report here, the Aggie return game has been improving over the last couple of games even with some penalties negating big returns, and Nik Constantinu continues to obliterate the ball like he’s intending to launch it into space with the Starlink satellites. Alabama has a good return game and a punter averaging just under 40 yards a punt, and kicker Will Reichard is 6/7 on Field Goals this season.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

There is very little to discuss here. This will be Jimbo’s fourth try at the Crimson Tide since taking over as HC for the Ags, and none of the first three matchups were particularly close. There’s also the small matter of some goofy “smack talk” from this offseason, but if that bothers you at all there’s a good chance you and I would not like each other in real life.

It’s a night game on the road, and the only true road game Alabama has been on this season was their closest match yet, so maybe we will see some Kyle Field magic at work. Probably not. But maybe.

Also, the Aggies keep getting night games at Kyle now and aren’t very good. Which one of you wished for more night games while holding the Monkey Paw?

So What’s the Verdict?

Look, I’ve never confidently picked an upset by the Ags in this matchup in all the years I’ve written these, and I’m certainly not going to do it now. This is and always has been the game the Aggies were “supposed” to lose this season, and despite dropping 2 games along the way that hasn’t changed. We just looked at the list of potential W’s left on the schedule, what happens this weekend won’t really change the fact that this team has the talent and coaching to win every game left on the schedule. They probably won’t, but either way, this game doesn’t change the fact that they could.

However, Saturday could go a long way in providing some necessary experience and confidence to pull off a second half season run for the ages. What I’ll be looking for is how this team responds to being outmatched from start to finish in various aspects of the game. Here’s some stuff I’d love to see from this team.

  1. An Offensive Line That Clicks: We may still be a year away from consistent play up front, but a lot of issues for this team could be fixed if the OL can start protecting Calzada better and can generate more yards up front. This young group will have their hands full with a Front 7 that held Ole Miss to just 1.8 Line Yards/Rush last week and grabbed 7 TFL and 2 sacks, so I’m not looking for them to look like a whole new team. But I do think as the core 5 have gotten more playing time with each other, there are signs of improvement and things to like. Maybe a baptism by fire is what they need. In 2020, the OL averaged 2.48 Line Yards in the matchup against Vanderbilt and Alabama and in the games afterwards it was 3.23. In 2019, pre-Alabama it was 2.59 LY/Rush and post-Bama it was 3.36. There’s an element of “level of competition” involved there sure, and I’m not saying this unit needs to get it’s ass kicked once a year to be good, I’m just sayin look for them to show signs of improvement in this matchup and expect that to carry on through the end of the season.
  2. Confidence from Calzada: Well, at this point we know Zach Calzada isn’t a world beater at QB. And it’s easy to lay all the frustrations of the offense on him. But the truth is, the loss to Mississippi State was his second strongest game of the season PPA wise, much improved from the loss to Arkansas. The hope is that he can build off those good plays last week and find the way to pass the ball on a secondary that is solid but not impenetrable. Take care of the ball, and keep connecting with guys like Jalen Preston (2.04 PPA and a 100% Success Rate last week). This running game can really carry this offense, but it needs Zach to gain a little confidence and continue to improve and get comfortable.
  3. Wait a Second: Two places of concern with this defense are the LBs ability to limit Second Level Yards and a secondary that has been hammered with injuries early on this season. This is definitely a game where you can’t afford to let guys run loose to your safeties, and that’s exactly what will happen if the LBs don’t stay in position, wrap up and make tackles. RB Brian Robinson is breaking tackles on over 53% of his runs according to the SEC StatCat, the most of any SEC Back with 50+ carries. As far as the secondary goes, the experience at safety is counteracted by a lot of youth at the corner position. Guys like Tyreek Chappell and Deuce Harmon have flashed promise in their brief time on the field, and although he is young Jaylen Jones has a chance to be one of the best pure corners the Aggies have had in quite some time. How well they stick with guys like Jameson and Metchie will tell us a lot about how they’ll do against a dangerous offense like Auburn or a highly explosive unit like Ole Miss has.

Those to me are the big question marks for the remainder of the season. Can the OL get it together and help Zach stay on his feet and complete passes, and can the defense tighten up their main weakness? If we see some minor improvements in those areas, and we take care of the ball, limit Bama possessions and force them to score touchdowns in the Red Zone, I don’t think we’ll get laughed off our own field. And I’ll be really optimistic about our final 6 games.

My Prediction: This is not one of those days where I pick against the stats. I think Bama wins by a score of 31-14, and the Aggies just barely cover the 17.5 point spread.

What Else Am I Picking?

Well, not only are the Aggies 0-2 in their last two games, I’m 1-6 on these picks and 6-10 on the year. That means one of two things (and I’ll leave it up for you to decide which it is), a) I’m terrible at this (likely) or b) I’m due for an incredible bounce back (no seriously it’s possible).

Stanford at Arizona State -13 (SP+: ASU by 20.8, FEI: ASU by 7.5)- Two wildly different predictions there, but I’m leaning towards the SP+. This is a Friday Night home game for the Sun Devils and they’ve been playing well since their loss to BYU a few weeks ago, beating Colorado and UCLA by 22 and and 19 points. Stanford is coming off a big OT win over Oregon and I just think this is a tough matchup for them.

Georgia Tech at Duke Under 61 (SP+: 55, FEI: 54)- Nothing much to say here except I’ve got both the SP+ and the FEI in agreement. GT has scored 30 points or more only twice this season and it was against Kennesaw State and North Carolina (who fumbled the ball 3 times in that game). Duke was putting up a lot of points until their game with UNC last week where they only scored 7. Feels like a 28-24 game or something similar.

Boise State at BYU -5.5 (SP+: BYU by 6, FEI: BYU by 5.3)- Simple enough I think BYU is actually pretty good again this season, they haven’t fallen off without Zac Wilson like I thought they would. I think they win this one easily at home.

Final Notes

Tough times here at GBH HQ, but I’m always glad to have you guys following along. If you’re interested in delving further into advanced stats, check out these sites.

  • 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 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. Most of my data comes from here.
  • SEC Stat Cat is another great site. Solid blend of statistics and football concepts.

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