Hello and welcome back to Fun With Numbers, your weekly analytics study of the Texas A&M Football team. My job is to try to break down some data, add some optimism, temper some expectations, and do it all in a way so that you don’t hit the little X at the top of the screen before you get halfway through. If you’re unfamiliar with these posts, check out this glossary to understand some of the stats we like to talk about, and remember, this is the last week where we’re using 2020 data.
How’d We Do Last Week?
Well, we won and did not cover, so I was right about that but… oof. It was a tough game to watch, unless you love defense. In which case, you probably still didn’t enjoy this game. In the words of one of my favorite podcast duos though, “Win your clunkers.” The Aggies managed to do that, despite losing their starting QB early on in the first quarter and struggling to do much on offense until late in the game. Take a look at the box score below.
Offensively, again, it was hard to watch at times. The Colorado Front 7 did an excellent job at controlling the line of scrimmage and preventing the Aggie run game from really taking off. Receivers and Calzada were not exactly in sync, and it wasn’t until the 4th Quarter that the offense started to resemble something like we’ve been used to seeing over the last few years. At that point, the Aggies started averaging just north of 5 yards/carry and Calzada found a little bit of consistency plus connected on a few long balls (both explosive pass plays from the Aggies came in the 4th Quarter). It’s important to note too, that if Zach manages to hang on a little tighter, or the ball crosses the plane just a second sooner, that final drive by the Aggies could have been to put the game out of reach for the Buffs instead of a game winning drive. Still, there’s a lot to do this week to get ready for conference play.
Defensively, they had some more issues with the run game, particularly those rushes from the QB Brendon Lewis early on. We’ve talked about it before though, if you give Mike Elko a halftime break, he’s going to figure out a way to destroy you in the next two quarters. The Front 7 was absolutely dominant in the second half, and the secondary held up really well. That 19% Success Rate on passing plays is the lowest we’ve held a Power 5 opponent to in years. The LB crew did a much better job this week as well, holding the Buffs to just 1.3 Second Level Yards/Rush. From the beginning, we knew that this defense had a chance to keep us in ball games while the offense gets its feet underneath it, and it looks like we may need some more of that going forward.
What Do We Know?
Luckily, the Aggies get another opportunity to feel things out before life starts getting a little more complicated. They take on the New Mexico Lobos at Kyle Field on Saturday morning, a team that is also 2-0 coming off a victory over their instate rivals last weekend. According to Bill Connelly’s MWC preview though, those were the Lobos two easy wins for the season, and they aren’t likely to walk away with a win at Kyle Field.
Vegas has the Ags as a 28 point favorite, the FEI thinks it’s closer to a 24 point game while the SP+ thinks it could get a whole lot worse for the Lobos, predicting a 39 point margin of victory for the Ags.
Aggie Offense vs Lobo Defense
So we’re two games into the season and we still don’t know how good this offense is going to be in 2021. The offensive line still has work to do, and our receivers have to get better at getting separation and catching the ball. Those are all things that can (and probably will) get better with time, but it does feel a bit like starting from scratch with a Calzada now at QB1. A talented ground game being slowed down by defenses stacking the box and experienced WRs struggling to make plays is how we started AND ended 2019 though, so it’s going to be interesting watching the trajectory here.
The New Mexico defense wasn’t very good in 2020. They were okay at stopping the run but were consistently beaten through the air, the opposite of what you would expect from a 3-3-5 defense. They brought back about 77% of that defensive production, and against an FCS squad and New Mexico State they’ve held up well, allowing only a 36% Success Rate but still susceptible to big plays at times. They seem to improved at creating Havoc as well, picking off opposing QBs twice in their two games and getting 5 sacks on just 46 dropbacks.
Aggie Defense vs Lobo Offense
On the flipside, this defense is more or less exactly what we hoped it would be before the season started. Some slight issues containing the run at times, but the secondary is so far ahead from where it was a few years ago and the DL is arguably the deepest in the country. This team absolutely suffocates offenses in the second half, and though they’re not generating as much Havoc so far as they did in 2020, it’s only two games in and they’ve forced turnovers when needed in each. If the secondary holds up against better passing attacks and the middle of the field can shore up a bit, this defense has the chance to be the best the Aggies have seen from a DSP+ standpoint since 2012 (8th) or even ‘98 (3rd).
The Lobos actually had some success on offense during their 2-5 COVID season. They weren’t great at passing the ball but generated a lot of ground game on the backs of (oh no, not again) mobile QBs. After two games against putrid defenses, they do seem to have balanced that out quite a bit, with a 51/49 split between run and pass plays and 50% and 49% Success Rates for each. Transfer QB Terry Wilson has them moving the ball much more efficiently, and managed to hit 7 passes of 20 yards or more against NMSU last weekend. Aggies should remember the name, Terry Wilson led the Kentucky team in 2018 that took the Aggies down to the wire at Kyle Field. He’s spread the ball out pretty evenly, but Manny Logan-Greene seems to be the biggest threat, averaging nearly 13 yards/reception and a touchdown on 9 catches.
Nik Constantinou is averaging almost 50 yards a punt after last weekend. I don’t know if we’ll need him for this game nearly as much, but God bless that beautiful Australian leg. That’s all I have to say.
Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?
Not a whole lot to add here. This will be Zach Calzada’s first start for the Aggies, it will be interesting to see how the offense runs under him with a full week of practice and the expectations that come with that. I don’t anticipate it being an issue.
So What’s the Verdict?
What could go wrong if I imply that this isn’t a game we should really be worried about?
Okay, fair enough. Still, the Aggies are big favorites here and this shouldn’t be another cardiac event for Aggie fans. The Lobos bring an interesting defense that if nothing else, we should be able to run the ball on, and it’s hard to say how much their passing game has improved this season due to their competition. So here’s what I’d like to see from the Aggies this Saturday, in what should be a final warm up before Arkansas at Jerry World.
- Stay on Schedule- In the first three quarters against Colorado, the Aggie offense found itself in Passing Downs nearly 40% of the time. That dropped to about 33% in the 4th once everything started working a little smoother. In 2020, the Aggies were in Standard Downs on 70% of their plays. Keeping downs short and manageable will be key for this unit going forward as Calzada continues to work through timing with the receivers, and you certainly don’t want to get too far behind the chains against an aggressive 3-3-5 defense coached by a guy like Rocky Long.
- Chase and Chapman- We’ve got to find ways to get the ball into their hands again this Saturday. Against Colorado, Spiller and Wydermyer led the team in Passing Game Usage. Nothing wrong with either of those guys getting the ball, but Chase Lane and Caleb Chapman have to get separation from defenders and make catches (and Calzada has to be able to hit them, obviously). At some point, this offense either needs experienced wide outs to show out regularly or the younger talent to get playing time.
- Contain the QB- Another week, another QB who has the ability to make this defense pay with his legs. Brendon Lewis of Colorado had two explosive runs (one of 30 and 17 yards, plus a 12 yarder), before the Aggie defense finally clamped down on him. I don’t think Terry Wilson has become a Heisman contender since his last trip to Kyle Field, but the guy can move and extend plays, and should be especially good practice for Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson. Keep him from running loose at the second level and let your secondary create a few coverage sacks.
My Prediction: I could definitely see our offense struggling a bit at the start with a different style of defense and with Calzada still working through some things. Something similar to the Kent State game where we move the ball well but make some mistakes, and go into the half only up 10-3 or something. 4th Quarter Calzada is real though and he throws a great ball, plus we should get much more push up front than we did against a surprisingly stout Colorado Front 7. Aggies win 34-10, failing to cover that 28 point spread.
What Else am I Picking?
I am now 4-2 on the year with these picks, not to mention 2-0 picking the A&M games. Even if you’re not taking these bets, keep reading because at some point there will be a regression to the mean and it will probably be worth watching.
Cincinnati -3.5 at Indiana (SP+: Cincy by 10.1, FEI: Cincy by 5.8)- I think this one is actually up to 4 points now most places and I’d still take it. It feels like such a lock to me that I’m almost certain it’s going to bust.
Central Michigan +19 at LSU (SP+: LSU by 14.1, FEI: LSU by 16)- The Tigers win this one comfortably but something about that line feels ripe for a last minute field goal or something for the backdoor cover. 35-17 or something similar would be my prediction for the score, but it is a night game at Death Valley.
Virginia Tech +3 at West Virginia (SP+: VT by 3, FEI: VT by 4.6)- Pretty simple, I think the wrong team is favored here. I think Virginia Tech is actually pretty good and even if the final is pretty close, I think the Hokies walk away with a win.
2 road dogs and G5 road favorite. This could be very bad. I’m also really tempted to take the Under 62 in the Nebraska Oklahoma game, the idea being, how much can that Nebraska offense really score? Anyway, should be a fun weekend, best of luck if you’ve got money on the line.
Alright, starting next week we’ll have 2021 data in all our charts, and will be previewing our first conference game of the season. The weather is cooling down, the TAEKS are getting warmer, and the games are getting weirder. God I love college football.
- 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.