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Fun With Numbers: Texas A&M vs. Auburn

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Previewing the Auburn game with advanced stats

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Har Gobindkhorana Writing on Chalk Board

Howdy and welcome back to Fun With Numbers, the weekly advanced stats post made possible by GBH, Google Sheets, and time theft. I hope everyone had a relaxing bye week and are ready for what should be a wild 4 game finish. Let’s review our last game and then talk about this week’s matchup.

How’d We Do Last Week?

Halloween weekend was a much needed rest spot for Texas A&M, but the week before that the Ags absolutely dominated an SEC East squad for the second week in a row. Check out the box score below if you want to see a dead body.

The offense played a lot better than I expected them to against what had been a decent defense and one I expected us to struggle against. That was not the case though, as the Aggies scored a season high 44 points, and kept the ball moving consistently until it was time for the starters to rest. The Aggies turned in 8 explosive plays, 2 of those being TD passes of 25+ yards to Wydermyer, and overall had a 60% Success Rate.

As good as the offense was though, the defense really shined that night at Kyle Field. I didn’t really have the opportunity to go look it up, but there can’t be many times when an Aggie defense has held an opponent to a 5% Success Rate for an entire game. The Front 7 finally started hitting home on some sacks, and turned in their highest Havoc rate of the season. They gave up one play of 20+ yards, and that was late in the 4th Quarter. Outside of Garbage Time, the Gamecocks actually had a 0% Success Rate running the ball.

Onto the next one.

So What Do We Know?

The Aggies take on a Top 20 Auburn squad coming off a big win against Ole Miss. The Tigers are a 6-2 team in Brian Harsin’s first season as Head Coach, with losses to Georgia and Penn State on the record. Vegas has the Aggies as a 4.5 point favorite, while the SP+ likes the Ags by about 6.5 points and the FEI sees it as a 2 point victory.

Let’s take a closer look at these two teams trying to maintain some control of their destiny with a lot of meaningful football left in November.

Aggie Offense vs Tiger Defense

Calzada and company have been improving every game since bottoming out at the beginning of SEC play. The Auburn defense presents a much tougher challenge than what the Ags have seen in the last couple of weeks though, a unit that just held Ole Miss to its lowest point total of the season (Albeit with Corral injured for large chunks of the game). The secondary does a good job of keeping things in front of them, but teams have had some success running the ball on this defensive front, and they’re 72nd in the country in Second Level Yards/Rush. The Front 7 does a good job of creating Havoc though, ranking 27th in the country with guys like Derrick Hall (6 sacks, 4 TFL) and Colby Wooden (7 sacks, 3.5 TFL) leading the way. The team has been on the field a lot though, they rank 100th in the nation in defensive plays, mostly due to the Auburn offense struggling to string together long drives at different points this season.

Overall, Derek Mason has unsurprisingly built a solid defense in his first year back as a DC, but there’s nothing truly elite about it just yet. That said, it’s a strong Front 7 that could really put pressure on Calzada, and a talented secondary that will at the very least keep us from hitting some big passing plays.

Aggie Defense vs Tiger Offense

The days of worrying what kind absolute insanity Gus Malzahn is going to throw at our defense are over for the time being, but that doesn’t make this Auburn squad any less dangerous. For one, Brian Harsin comes from a long line of creative and frustrating offensive minds and for another, Bo Nix is still under center. Nix, the man who can disappear into a pile of defensive linemen, then reappear 5 yards away and heave a TD pass off his back foot to a receiver who thought the play was over too.

He returns to Kyle Field after leaving victorious in 2019, bringing a fairly balanced attack that relies heavily on efficiency from Nix at the QB spot. He’s improved off of last year’s sub-60% completion percentage, and has thrown only 2 INTs this season. The OL is doing a decent job of protecting Nix so far, he’s only getting sacked on 3% of plays but is feeling pressure on 26%, which is on the higher end of SEC QBs. His mobility remains a problem for opposing defenses though, Nix has been used on 17% of Auburn’s rushes this season and has a 45% Success Rate. Tank Bigsby is one of the better backs in the SEC, and is Top 5 in Broken Tackle Percentage among SEC Backs with 100+ carries (from SEC StatCat).

Overall, this is not an explosive passing attack or an ultra confusing RPO attack (The Auburn Offense is way down on RPOs without Gus calling shots), but it’s efficient and has a strong run game to lean on.

Special Teams

We have a pretty good feel for this Special Teams group now. They’ll have a few mistakes here and there, but Constantiu can often make up for that with an incredible leg, and Achane and Smith have both had ST touchdowns this season.

It feels like Anders Carlson has been at Auburn for 20 years now, but he’s just an experienced senior hitting 76% of his field goals. Punter Oscar Chapman has improved in year 2 and is averaging 46 yards/punt in 2021.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

Nothing to add here. If you check out places like ESPN and other sites, you’ll see some talk that either of these teams could potentially be the SEC West representative in Atlanta this season, Auburn could do it by winning out and handing Alabama their second loss of the season. It’s a tougher road for the Ags who aren’t really in control of their destiny, but if they were to win out, and Auburn pulls off a win against Alabama, it’ll be one of the strangest paths to the CCG there has been in a while.

So What’s the Verdict?

It’s still hard to tell what kind of team we have here in College Station. They played lights out against one the best teams in the country and beat up on two teams outside the SP+ Top 70. But the Arkansas and Mississippi State losses still happened, two teams that aren’t as good as this Auburn unit based on actual game play and the SP+. But, Auburn has dropped two games already this season, against teams with Top 10 DSP+ units (something the Aggies do have). Let’s look at the box scores from these two games, as well as the win over Ole Miss, and see if anything stands out.

Here are the things that stand out to me.

The firs thing that jumps out to me is the discrepancy in passing efficiency in the two losses. Georgia and Penn State are +25% there, and both held Auburn well below their season average of a 45% Success Rate. In both those games, Nix was held below a 60% Passing Completion. In the last two games (Against Ole Miss and Arkansas), he’s averaged 75%. This defense will HAVE to find a way to disrupt the efficient passing attack, a repeat of the Mississippi State game (78% Completion Rate, 50% Success Rate) will lead to a long game. In their 6 wins, the Auburn OL is averaging less than 1 sack a game, just over 2 QB Hurries per game. Georgia had 4 sacks and 6 Hurries, Penn State never got home but had 5 Hurries. Pressuring Nix successfully will help with disrupting that passing game, but the secondary game from the CLANGA match needs to be set on fire too.

The flip side of that, is Calzada will have to find a way to attack this secondary. He doesn’t have to throw the ball 30+ times like Penn State did (Unless the Aggies get behind early), but he needs to pick his spots and be efficient in the same way that Stetson Bennet did a few weeks ago (12/21 and a 57% Success Rate). It wouldn’t hurt to hit some big plays through the air, but just a methodical passing game paired with a rushing attack that I believe is on par with the Georgia one that gashed this Auburn unit should move the ball.

The second thing that stands out to me is how well the Penn State and Georgia defenses were able to minimize damage on scoring opportunities for the Tigers. The Aggie defense has played really well when the field gets short, and I’d love to see them limit Auburn to a 20% Success Rate inside the Red Zone. Late in the 2nd and early in the 3rd quarter, down 17-3, Auburn had two opportunities to get some points and Georgia forced them to turn over on downs.

So Calzada will need to be a little more efficient than he has been, be smart and not take sacks, and lean on your run game while hoping for some explosive plays there. The defense needs to be disruptive up front and win the battles in the Red Zone. Easy enough right?

My Prediciton: The argument can be made that the Aggies have played only one complete game against a good team, and that was (at the the time) the #1 team in the country. I also think though that the argument can be made that the confidence built from playing really well against bad teams to follow it up is important. I think the Aggies win here, and I think they do it on the back of a defense that is playing really well right now. Auburn has not scored more than 28 points on an Elko defense, and I don’t think they do it this time. Aggies win 28-24, making that 4.5 point line particularly tricky.

What Else Am I Picking?

Managed to go 2-1 last week and now we’re back to .500, don’t let me get hot. Here’s what I like this week, let’s make some money.

Army at Air Force -3 (SP: AF by 3.4, FEI: AF by 3.6)- If you’ve been following me this season, you know I love betting on these Falcons, even if they’ve let me down a couple of times. Everybody is suggesting this will be a close one, but I put my trust in the planes.

Oregon at Washington Under 51 (SP+: 55, FEI: 56.1)- Betting against the numbers on this one. Here’s my reasoning: The under has hit in 7 of the Huskies games this year, the Huskie defense is Top 40 in the DSP+ and Top 20 in the DFEI, and the forecast is calling for rain and cold wind on Saturday. Ducks probably win easily, but I don’t think they’ll be flashy doing it.

Wisconsin at Rutgers +13 (SP+: Wiscy by 14.1, FEI: Wiscy by 11.2)- This line opened at 12.5 and is creeping up. I don’t think Rutgers can win outright, but their run defense is really solid (27th in Rushing Success Rate and in Line Yards/Carry) which is the strength of the Badger offense. I’m thinking they keep it within 7-10 points.

Final Notes

Thanks as always for joining me. We’ve got Ole Miss next week, will likely take a break for Prairie View, and then will finish the season against LSU. Let’s cherish every bit of football we get folks.

  • 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.