Howdy and welcome back to Fun With Numbers. If you enjoy stats and charts and run on sentences then boy do I have a great post for you and if not that’s okay I understand this style isn’t for everyone. We’re starting conference play this week, and most teams have managed to play at least 3 opponents at this point, so we’re going to start only looking at 2021 data going forward. But before we get into all that, let’s see how the Aggies did last Saturday.
How’d We Do Last Week?
Here’s the advanced stats box score from last week. Was it a perfect game against the Lobos? Far from it. There’s a lot to like though, particularly from a defense that absolutely dominated the game from start to finish. Terry Wilson and these receivers weren’t able to do anything at all through the air, and the defense did a good job containing a mobile quarterback once again. As much as I keep hyping up this defense, I may be underselling them. It’s hard to know until we see them against a decent Power 5 Offense, seeing them as a Top 5 defense at the end of the year would not surprise me in the least.
Calzada had some great moments in his first career start, Aggie internet collectively lost it’s mind when his 3rd pass of the day was a 70 yard TD to Demond Demas. The offense was much more efficient than it was most of the game against Colorado, Zach spread the ball around pretty well to some young receivers, and while the OL has some work to do, the RBs still managed to average 3.1 Line Yards/Rush.
What Do We Know?
The Aggies take on the Arkansas Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium once again, in what feels like 115th year of one of the dumbest deals our school has ever entered into. Since joining the SEC, the Aggies haven’t lost to the Hogs. There have been OT thrillers, one sided beatdowns, and 6 different coaches during those 9 games, and Game 10 is shaping up to be a fun matchup between two AP Top 25 teams. The Hogs have risen on everybody’s radar after beating up on all three of their cupcake teams to start the season. This will be second year head coach Sam Pittman’s chance to make a statement, attempting to beat a ranked team from the state of Texas for the first…
What? One of the cupcakes I mentioned was… who? Oh wow. Interesting, who would have ever guessed?
Anyway, the Aggies are a 6 point favorite to win 10 straight against the Hogs, and the SP+ likes them to cover that and win by 10 while the FEI thinks the line is pretty well dead on. Let’s dig down into it and see if we can find some advantages.
Aggie Offense vs Razorback Defense
This offense has fallen a little bit from its preseason expectations in the SP+, but has flashed tons of potential, and seems to be able to make up for the drop in efficiency by hitting some big plays through the air, something that’s been lacking in the last few years in College Station. The ground game will go as far as the offensive line lets them, if they can continue to gel and stay healthy, we’ll see that Rushing Success Rate climb even against better Front 7’s, and we know the ability to break off big plays is always there with guys like Achane and Smith.
That said, this is what I would consider their first real test. DC Barry Odom brought back 90% of last year’s defense that nearly cracked the Top 60 in DSP+. They do a really good job of keeping things in front of them and forcing teams into Passing Downs (they have a PD Rate 36.5%) and when they can get you there, you could be in trouble. Arkansas are third in the country right now in Defensive Success Rate on Passing Downs, with opponents averaging a pitiful 15%. This is far from a lock down defense though, teams have had some success breaking off big runs against this unit early on (they rank 130th in the country in Open Field Yards/Rush) and they rank 107th in Passing Down Explosiveness. Not an impenetrable front by any means, but definitely a defense that can cause problems for a QB and offensive line still trying to find their rhythm.
Aggie Defense vs Razorback Offense
What more needs to be said about this Aggie defense? They’ve struggled a little bit against decent rushing attacks, particularly at eliminating Second Level Yards (119th in the country), and for such a strong Front 7, they’re not generating Havoc in the form of Sacks and TFLs like you would expect. Other than that though, they’ve been as good as you can hope, allowing only two touchdowns in three games and doing a great job shutting teams down if they manage to cross into scoring territory.
They’re facing an Arkansas offense looking to improve for their second year in a row under OC Kendal Briles. They run what I’ve seen called everything from a Veer and Shoot style offense to a Spread Option scheme. Whatever you want to call it, they run it fast, mix in RPO and SPO concepts, and will try to hit shots downfield when they can. They’ve moved the ball very efficiently in their first 3 games and have put up 38+ points in each matchup, riding the legs of QB KJ Jefferson and RB Trelon Smith (currently running the ball on 65% of plays) with 12 explosive runs in their last 2 games. Treylon Burkes is the main target man, but guys like Tyson Morris, Warren Thompson, and De’Vion Warren have had some catches go for big yards this season.
Nik is still punting balls into the ether, and Ainias really tried to get one in the end zone last week. Either way, the Aggie Special Teams unit seems to be in pretty good shape. Kicker Cam Little is doing fine for the Hogs this season and punter Reid Bauer is averaging about 40 yards a punt, but Arkansas hasn’t shown a ton in the return game just yet.
Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?
Again, the Aggies are riding a 9 game win streak against the Hogs, and a win on Saturday would give A&M the edge in the longest win streak between the two teams (Arkansas also won 9 in a row between 1958 and 1966). Pressure for win streaks aside, there’s also been a handful of injuries sustained by both teams to start the season, particularly affecting Arkansas up front and the Aggie skill positions.
So What’s the Verdict?
Alright so we’re all a little nervous going into this game, and rightfully so. The numbers don’t exactly scream easy win for the Aggies, and A&M hasn’t exactly been passing the eye test either (offensively anyway). On the other hand, the Razorbacks have looked dominant in their last 10 or so quarters of football and will certainly be coming into this game plenty juiced up. They’re loaded with experience and have two coordinators confident in that experience and in their identities. This team came out swinging against a Longhorn team that seemed surprised by it, ground them down on both sides of the ball, and came away with one of their biggest wins in recent memory. How do we avoid ending up in the same spot?
Let’s take a look at the box score from that game. I know, it’s borderline erotic, but try to keep your head on straight here.
Offensively, Arkansas was gifted with great field position, ran the ball effectively, and capitalized on their scoring opportunities. They struggled to throw the ball so they gave up on it, the Hogs threw only 4 passes in the 2nd half of that game and one of those was intercepted. Instead they counted on their running game to keep them out of Passing Downs and break off big chunk plays occasionally. It worked, the Hogs had 9 explosive runs (averaging 1.6 Second Level Yards and 2.6 Open Field Yards Per Rush) and stayed in Standard Downs on 75% of their plays.
On defense, the Hogs took away the Longhorn run game, forcing a young and inexperienced QB to beat them with his arm. They held Bijan Robinson to -.12 PPA/Rush and only one run of 20 yards, and caused a lot of Havoc in the Front 7 with a fumble forced and 3 sacks on Standard Downs. The Horns took advantage of their scoring opportunities for the most part, but they got so few of them due to inefficiency on their end of the field.
So how do we avoid ending up on the wrong side of a beating with Jerry Jones grinning like a nightmare up in his private box?
We need to establish an efficient passing attack. Despite mainly running a 3-man front, this Arkansas defense works hard to take away a team’s running ability, and none of the teams they’ve faced has been able to counteract that with a short and sweet passing game. Slants, swing passes, quick stuff over the middle that doesn’t give this aggressive front time to get pressure on Calzada will be key to keep the Ags out of obvious passing situations. These passing downs are where Odom can have his choice of bringing exotic blitzes or dropping several into coverage, trying to force a mistake from a QB in only his second career start.
If the Aggies can get the defense to back off a little bit, the run game should be serviceable, even with a young OL. From there, you can try to really pick apart the zone coverage by getting the ball to guys like Ainias and Achane (Hopefully both are healthy, they had big games against this defense in 2020) in open space. Can Calzada be as clinical and methodical as Mond was when it came to attacking with short and efficient passes? Probably not, Mond was elite at making reads and taking what the defense gives you. But if Calzada can avoid turning the ball over and maybe even connect on a few deep balls (the type of throws Kellen often passed on), then it may end up being a wash. If we can do all that, plus improve on finishing drives, I think the Aggies can wear down this Odom defense.
It’s all about controlling the Hog ground game and not getting out of position. According to SEC Stat Cat, 35% of KJ Jefferson’s passes come off of RPOs, that’s the second highest in the SEC. Through the air they’re going to try to get defenders to bite and then take what they can get, whether that is short passes to Treylon Burks in space or hitting one of the wideouts deep after a safety bites on play action. On the ground, it’s going to be a lot of read option and letting Jefferson make plays with his legs. Against the Longhorns the Hogs ran the ball on 75 % of their 1st and 2nd downs and had a 58% Success Rate. You can’t make it easy for them like that. This Front 7 has to play smart and not run themselves out of position like we saw in the Kent State and early in the Colorado game.
If you can contain the rushing attack on early downs, you can force this Arkansas offense into Passing Down situations, where they’ve averaged a 36% Success Rate in their first 3 games. They’ve yet to face a DL as good as what the Aggies will bring to Arlington on Saturday, but I do worry about the LB group a little bit. This will be a big test for them but if they can play smart and prevent Second Level Yards, the Aggies can force Jefferson to beat them with his arm. As far as the secondary goes, you can believe one of two things.
A) Their impressive statistical start is due to the level of competition they’ve played.
B) Elko truly has turned a corner with these guys and a combination of talent and experience has them playing better than any group the Aggies have had in a long time.
Personally, I think it’s a little Column A and quite a bit of Column B, but we’ll find out more about them in the next few weeks.
My Prediction: I think Arkansas is getting a lot of love in this matchup, and I definitely get it. But the stats lead me to believe we’re in for a defensively controlled game, and I like our chances to win an ugly one with lot’s of ups and downs. I’m going to say Aggies win 27-24, no cover this week but plenty of heart palpatations.
What Else Am I Picking This Week?
Well I went 1-2 last week, plus the Aggies covered and I missed on my pick there. So I’m 2-1 picking Aggie games ATS and overall 5-4 with these picks. Follow with caution.
Liberty -6 at Syracuse (SP+: Liberty by 6.8, FEI: Liberty by .4)- Little Friday night football to get the betting started here. Hugh Freeze loves covering the spread about as much as he loves covering up recruiting violations, and I think he actually has a half decent defense this season. Let’s start the weekend off on a high note.
Kansas State +6 at Oklahoma State (SP+: OSU 3.3, FEI: OSU by 1.3)- I ended up on the wrong side of Oklahoma State last weekend when I took Boise State, and maybe it’s a mistake to bet against them on the anniversary of The I’m 40 speech, but it feels like Kansas State is as good or better than all three teams who have kept it relatively close against the Pokes this season (even with Skylar Thompson out).
Nebraska at Michigan State Under 52 (SP+: 51, FEI 54)- I feel like this one is going to be ugly. Not 9-6 ugly like we saw in 2018, but I could see Nebraska able to hold Michigan State to 27 and from there, the question (once again) is how many points can Nebraska put up?
Rutgers at Michigan -20.5 (SP+: Michigan 21.2, FEI: Michigan 24.3)- Props to Greg Schiano on everything he has done with this Rutgers squad. Lucky for him he took over a salvageable program instead of the Tennessee job a few years back (Hey Oh!). Still think this Michigan team has a chance to be really, really good though this season and see them winning by 24 points or so.
Conference games are here, and I’m hoping in the next few weeks to be adding new stats and info to these posts. We’ll see, time is always a limiting factor, but stick around and we’ll keep having fun with numbers. If you’re interested in pursuing football statistics a little further, 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.