Welcome to Fun With Numbers, my weekly attempt to preview the Aggies’ upcoming gridiron matchup using advanced statistics. I’ve been writing these for something like 4 or 5 years now (first as Fan Posts and then officially as blogs in 2019), and between the people genuinely interested in what the numbers say and people who just like to look at the colored charts and say, “Neat.”, there seems to be enough interest to keep me coming back.
But you might be new here, or maybe you’ve just forgotten how all this works. Either way, the first game of the season is a great time to dive into the different terminology we use here and what these posts typically look like. So let’s get through our typical “What does all of this mean?” to kick off the season.
So…What Does All of This Mean?
Right. First of all when I say advanced stats, I’m talking about different metrics that track efficiency, explosiveness, and other things that won’t show up in your typical box score. Here’s a good glossary to lean on with most of the stats we look at included. Ultimately though, if you understand:
- Success Rate
- Expected Points Added
You should be just fine.
On top of those metrics, I always like to compare a few stats based ratings systems, like Bill Connelly’s SP+, Brian Fremeu’s FEI, and ESPN’s FPI, and you can find explanations for any of those 3 at their respective sites. All of them can usually give us a good overview of a team’s total offense and defense, as they adjust for strength of schedule, garbage time, etc.
But there’s just one problem. It’s the first game of the season, so we don’t have any data for either of these teams just yet. So instead we’ll be using projections from the different rating systems I mentioned above, and look at how both the Aggies and Kent State did in the weird short COVID Season of 2020. So far so good? Great. Let’s get to it.
What do we know?
This year’s edition of “Pay Your Way to 1-0” is the Kent State Golden Flashes. This will be the first time the Aggies have hosted the MAC East squad, entering their 4th season under Head Coach Sean Lewis. Lewis is the youngest head coach at the FBS level, an offensive guy who learned under Dino Babers for several years at 3 different spots. After a rough start in 2018 where the Flashes went 2-10, they tied for 2nd in their division in 2019 (finishing 7-6 with a bowl win), and won 3 out of their four games in 2020.
The Aggies are nearly a 30 point favorite going into this game, and the stats seem to back that up. Let’s take a closer look and see if there is anything to pay special attention to on Saturday Night at Kyle Field.
Aggie Offense vs Golden Flash Defense
So as a reminder, everything except for the OSP+ and OFEI projections are from last year, and the Aggies played 10 games while Kent State only has 4 data points for us to look at. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to compare the stats, it just means we have to keep that in mind while we do.
In 2020, the Aggies fielded one of their best offenses of the last 5 years, one that focused on efficiency above all else. It was one of the least explosive offenses in the country, but there were flashes of potential throughout the season. Caleb Chapman pushed Florida hard through the air on a couple of big plays, but was lost for the season during that game. And while Ainias Smith and Devon Achane both have big play potential anytime they touch the ball, what most people are interested in seeing is if the inability to stretch the field in recent years was a Kellen Mond thing, a receiver thing, or a Jimbo thing.
There’s a lot of reason for optimism with this offense in 2021. The running back room is intact, not to mention proven playmakers like Jalen Wydermyer at TE and Ainias Smith’s capabilities as a receiver, and reliable targets like Chase Lane out wide. Still, this is an offense that ranks 124th in Returning Production according to Bill Connelly, replacing most of the offensive line and it’s quarterback as well. I think it’s fair to worry about how this offense will fare if the OL can’t gel quickly enough to match last year’s run production (2.77 Line Yards and a 53.4% Opportunity Rate) especially if the new QB can’t find ways to generate big plays through the air. There will be a lot of tests for this new look offense in 2021, but Kent State is not likely to be one of them.
The Golden Flash defense was not great in their 4 games in 2020. They faced two offenses in the top half of the OSP+, Eastern Michigan (51) and Buffalo (49), and while they managed to hold EMU to 23 points, Buffalo managed to hang 70 on 10 rushing touchdowns and a double-take-worthy 515 yards on the ground. The Kent State defense wasn’t totally lost on the field, they ranked 47th in Havoc created, forcing 5 turnovers and ranking 6th in overall Sack Rate. They also bring back a huge chunk of their 2020 production, plus some added transfers in the secondary. It’s almost certain that they’ll improve, but it’s hard to believe they’ll be ready to shut down the Aggies.
Aggie Defense vs Golden Flash Offense
Year 3 saw the Aggies field one of Elko’s best defenses in his coaching career. They were efficient against the run, and improved on their biggest weakness in 2019 (defending big plays through the air). They excelled at getting after opposing QBs (ranking 16th in Sack Rate) and forced opponents into Passing Downs on nearly 34% of their plays. Unlike the offense this is a defense that brings back the core pieces, with 83% of last years production returning. Bobby Brown and Buddy Johnson generated a ton of Havoc plays and while they will be missed, they’re not irreplaceable. The defensive line may be the best in college football, and Aaron Hansford and Andre White have more than enough experience to hold down the middle of the field. The weakness for this defense over the last few years has been a susceptibility to big plays through the air, but this secondary continues to improve with the talent that Elko is bringing in, and they were forced to grow up against two of the most explosive passing offenses in the country last season (Bama and Florida).
So why is there so much blue and gold on this chart? Well, for all the Kent State defensive struggles in 2020, Sean Lewis and OC Andrew Sowder have a pretty good feel for the offense. 5th year QB Dustin Crum returns in 2021 after an ultra efficient 73.5% completion percentage in 2020 and returns almost every bit of talent around him, including a ground game that averaged nearly 6 yards/rush. Now, all that was done against 3 of the worst defenses last year (Bowling Green, Akron, and Eastern Michigan all ranked outside the Top 110 in DSP+). They still hung 41 points on a decent Buffalo squad though, so you wonder what this team could have done in a larger sample size.
Very little to add here. The Ags return all their specialists off a team that ranked 57th in the Special Teams SP+. I’m sure we’ll continue to see a lot of kicks out of the end zones, some solid punting from our favorite Aussie leg, and minimal return game. When it comes to ST, that’s not too bad as long as there are no mistakes.
Speaking of mistakes, the Golden Flashes will be breaking in new punters and place kickers... so that could be a lot of fun to watch on 4th Downs.
Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?
This is the first night game at Kyle Field with full capacity since the Aggies played Lamar in Week 3 of 2019 (according to my super quick research). I have no idea what that will mean for attendance and atmosphere, but I feel like it should make things fun. Other than that, there’s not much to note.
So What’s the Verdict?
You know the drill with these opening season games. This Kent State squad is better than Texas State from 2019 and Northwestern State from 2018, but the defense has a long way to go until I’d consider them scary (even for an offense that will still be learning to walk again). The Golden Flash offense is going to move the ball and may even hit pay dirt a couple of times, but I have a lot of faith in this defense and expect them to be the best we’ve seen in a long time in Aggieland by the end of the year. So with a victory feeling pretty imminent, let’s instead talk about what I’d like to see happen on Saturday night at Kyle Field.
- Big Air- We all know this offense is going to try to move the ball on the ground early and often, that’s just the nature of having a stable of running backs like A&M does. But with a young OL, it’d be great if we could help give the those backs some room by hitting plays downfield. Teams rarely respected Mond’s ability to attack deep, and when we had just average run blocking (Say for instance, 2019) it caused a lot of problems. The Aggies have 3 games before their first SEC defense and it would be great if Haynes King and this group of receivers could demonstrate some explosiveness early on.
- King Moves- Mond always had a lot of success running the ball (50% Success Rate in 2020) both when the pocket broke down and on designed runs, and by all accounts King seems to have more athleticism and speed. I’d love to see that demonstrated in this first game too, if only to give future defenses something else to prepare for.
- Spread the Love- Last season Wydermyer led the team in Passing Usage at 21%, with Ainias Smith right behind him at 20%. Chase Lane was the next closest at 14%. I’d love to see Haynes start spreading the ball around early, whether that’s to a healthy Caleb Chapman (8% Usage, .753 EPA), a relative unknown like Baylor Cupp or Demond Demas, or even getting the RBs more involved, particularly Achane who turned in a 1.685 on just 5 targets last year.
- Next Man Up- I’ve given this defense a lot of love, but some departures for the draft, a few legal issues, and what appears to be a minor injury for Myles Jones mean we’re going to see how deep this squad really is. The Front 7 was stout in 2020 but still allowed a 47.3% Opportunity Rate on the ground and remained susceptible to big passing attacks. Can they maintain that performance even when missing some known quantities, or even come out stronger? Having a good defense in the SEC means having depth all season, this will be a good test to see where we’re at.
- Short Field- In 2020 teams averaged a 43% Success Rate against this defense in the Red Zone and the Aggies ranked 60th in Points/Opportunity. That’s perfectly average really, but it’s certainly something this squad could improve on going into ’21.
- Wreak Havoc (Again)- Last year’s secondary ranked 21st in DB Havoc and the Front 7 was 54th, they didn’t always hit home on the QB but were usually good for a few sacks and plenty of pressure. With so much returning talent, you hope to at least see that sustained this year, and nothing can be more demoralizing for a hot offense than a few picks off an experienced QB.
My Prediction: Is there a chance this offense struggles out of the gate, or that the defense can’t contain a MACtion tested squad? Sure, but after a normal offseason, I don’t think we’re looking at Vanderbilt all over again. I think the team will come out focused and prepared, and I think they win 42-10. That’s good enough for a cover and a convincing enough win to keep confidence up high going to Denver.
What Else Am I Picking?
I’ve always posted my pick for our upcoming game, whether I actually have money on it or not, and this year I thought I might include everything else I’m interested in this season. Not because I’m good at this or anything, but simply because I want you guys to know exactly what you’re getting into when you read my stuff.
UCLA +3.5 against LSU (SP+: UCLA by 1, FEI: LSU by 6.7)- This isn’t an emotional hate-bet or an overreaction to UCLA’s Week 0 thumping of the Rainbow Warriors. The Chip Kelley Reboot in LA has been slow and painful, but I think he might have things figured out now, while the Tigers from Baton Rouge had a decent amount of turnover both of players and coaching staff.
Wisconsin -5.5 against Penn State (SP+: Wiscy by 4, FEI: Wiscy by 6.3)- Wisconsin returns a ton from last season and even though James Franklin turned things around late last year after starting 0-4, I don’t think they’re ready to carry that momentum forward just yet. This is a tough opener, and I like Wisconsin to win by at least a touchdown, maybe ten points.
Georgia +3 against Clemson (SP+: Clemson by 3, FEI: Clemson by 6.3)- Going against the stats here just to say that I think Georgia pulls this one out in a tight game. Basing that one off of absolutely nothing. Please bet responsibly.
Other things I’m watching but probably not risking money on:
The Longhorns being an 8 point favorite over the Ragin’ Cajuns with the SP+ projecting it to be even closer. Could get interesting, especially with the Horns recent history of home openers against lesser competition.
Power 5 teams as big favorites over directional Michigan schools. Missouri is a two touchdown favorite over Central Michigan, but both the SP+ and FEI think it’s closer to a one score game. Michigan is a 17 point favorite over Western Michigan and the FEI predicts that one to be a little closer. Probably nothing more than the weird conference only schedule of 2020 that has made it harder to project the 2021 season, but something I’ll be watching regardless.
As always, I’m glad to have anybody interested reading these. As the season progresses, we’ll have real data to play with, real things to be angry about, and a lot of fun. I hope you’ll stick around.
- 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.