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Fun With Numbers: Mississippi State

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Tuning out the cowbells and previewing the Mississippi State game with advanced statistics

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Mississippi State at Texas A&M Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hello and welcome to Fun With Numbers, the weekly advanced stats look at Texas A&M and their upcoming opponents. These posts have been around long enough that you know the drill. Things are a little tricky through the first few games, it’s hard to know how much of the stats we should pay attention to, even the ones that are opponent adjusted. Amplify that times a 1000 this year, due to the nature of the 2020 season and all the complications that brought.

After a few more games, things start to take shape and the numbers start to match what you’re seeing on the field (usually). We’re in the early phase of that still, there’s a lot of football left and a lot of things will continue to shift, and for A&M it feels like the reset button got pushed in Week 2 when the starting QB went down early in the game. But the point still stands that we know for the most part what the Aggies will look like for a large part of this season, and it’s… frustrating. Parts of it are good, exciting, and worth watching (like the defense for example) and other parts are exactly what you’d expect from a team that lost a good bit in the offseason and is still trying to make things work. Let’s see what that looks like in practice.

How’d We Do Last Week?

Oof. The streak comes to an end and the Aggies move to 9-1 against the Hogs since joining the SEC. Arkansas did exactly what they wanted to do in this game on both sides of the ball. Take a look at the box score below, and let’s dissect a bad loss.

Arkie ran the ball really well to start (50% Success Rate in the first half), scored early, and hit some big plays through the air. The Aggie defense locked down a little better after the first quarter, but man. Putting this offense down 17-3 at the half is really, really tough. I love Elko’s ability to rally his troops and whatever else he does in the locker room to get a defense to only give up 10 second half points this season. But there were a few frustrating moments, particularly from a secondary who I had really hoped had turned a corner and were going to be much better against big plays through the air, but instead gave up two touchdowns (an 85 yard bomb and and 48 yarder as well).

It’s a team game for sure, and the defense had it’s problems… but we all know where the biggest issue is right now. The Aggie offense is struggling. Calzada really struggled to create an efficient passing game and only connected on one deep ball. The Aggies finished with only two receivers having positive PPA/Target, and that was Preston and Ainias. We had some success running the ball, but a combination of penalties, negative plays, questionable play calling, and being down 17-3 at the half forced this offense to “feel” like it had to throw more than it really did. The Aggies ended up in Passing Downs frequently, and that’s just not a situation this offense thrives in, particularly against an aggressive Odom-coached D.

There’s a lot to work on, from the Offensive Line to the game plan itself, but it’s still early in the season and there are some big opportunities on this schedule. This is why Jimbo is paid big money, hell of a time for him to prove he’s worth it. Next up, Mike Leach and the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

What Do We Know?

The Aggies get another night game at Kyle Field this weekend, against an SEC West opponent who Jimbo is 2-1 against in his career at A&M. The Bulldogs are 2-2 in Leach’s second year, losing last week to LSU and taking a questionable L to Memphis the week before. The Bulldogs rank 36th in the SP+, which makes them the 6th best team in the SEC West. The Aggies have some tough matchups ahead, but this is a winnable game at home before things get real difficult. The SP+ likes the Ags to cover the 7 point spread and win by 10, the FEI sees it closer to a touchdown though.

Let’s take a closer look.

Aggie Offense vs Bulldog Defense

After laying eggs 2 out of the last 3 weeks, the offense has sunk to the 50s in the OSP+ and OFEI. The fact is thus far against Power 5 competition, the offense is inefficient and unable to hit big plays through the air, and the ground game is average at best. When that’s your story, a lot of defenses are going to be able to handle you fairly well.

Mississippi State is not an exception to that rule. DC Zach Arnett came over from San Diego State and built a defense that continues to improve and impress. The Dogs are efficient and force teams into Passing Down situations 37% of the time (21st in the Country). State has been really strong against the run this year, but have been vulnerable to some big runs and the secondary has given up quite a few big plays through the air. They don’t bring a lot of Havoc in the Front 7 (Ranking 96th) but the secondary has picked off opposing QBs at least once a game. Put simply, they’re beatable, but we don’t exactly match strengths with their weaknesses.

Aggie Defense vs Bulldog Offense

The weaknesses of this defense are well documented at this point. They haven’t been able to generate a ton of Havoc up front, are giving up too many Second Level Yards/Rush (117th in the country), and don’t exactly dominate the first halves of games. Other than that though, Elko has built a monster that will continue to keep the Aggies in games they may not belong in for the rest of the season, and it will likely only improve as the LBs get more experience and the corner situation settles.

The latest iteration of the Mike Leach Air Raid continues to show flashes while not exactly setting the CFB world on fire like it once did. They’re throwing the ball more than anybody in college football right now at a 76% passing rate, but when they do run the ball they do it really well. Where this offense differs from previous versions is a lack of big plays, both on the ground and through the air. QB Will Rogers is throwing a lot less interceptions this season, but the Bulldog offense has coughed the ball up 5 times so far.

Special Teams

The Aggies are getting decent field position on either side of the ball so far this season and Seth Small is 6/7 on Field Goals this season. The Bulldogs on the other hand have a rotating group of specialists who are 3/ 5 on Field Goals and averaging about 40 yards a punt. They admittedly got screwed on a punt return for a TD by Memphis a couple of weeks ago, but in general their defense is 121st in the country in starting field position.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

Unless I’m missing something, this will be Mike Leach’s first return to Kyle Field since 2008, where his Red Raiders crushed Mike Sherman’s first team 43-25. A lot has changed since then, the Aggies are on their second head coach since Sherman, Leach is at his second school since Tech, and Craig James has one failed run for Senator.

The rain in the forecast might make things interesting, how much will either of these teams risk throwing the ball in nasty weather? Sort of feels like a potential advantage for the Aggies.

So What’s the Verdict?

I’m of the opinion that every SEC West game this season will be a fight. Not because the division is considerably good or bad, but more so because of the offensive struggles and the way this defense is going to end up dominating a LOT of teams. They will keep games close enough for 3 quarters, it will be up to the offense to find some sort of spark and put enough points on the board. Mississippi State is not going to make that easy though. Here’s two box scores, one game the Bulldogs won and one that they lost.

I think the defense can handle this matchup pretty well. The secondary isn’t perfect, and I fully expect Rogers to be able to move the ball down the field. But Elko’s crew has been rock solid inside their own 40 yard line, and if they can contain big chunk plays and steal a turnover or two, then I think they can hold the Dogs to under 20 points. In keeping with the message of this entire post, it’s the offense I’m worried about.

First things first, this team has to get better at finishing drives. The Aggies are averaging a little over 3 points/scoring opportunity right now. NC State struggled to punch it in, scoring only one TD on 4 scoring opportunities while LSU (while predominantly scoring on explosive passing plays) made the most of their chances. I hate the idea of trading field goals with a team like Mississippi State that might lack quick scoring abilities, but can still march down the field effectively and eventually put up points.

Next, this offense has to find a way to run the ball. NC State was shut down early and often on the ground, while LSU was able to generate some yardage and even broke off a 32 yard run against this defense. The Aggie run game has issues, but (statistically and talent wise) it’s the best that the State Defense has faced all season. Move the ball on the ground, and try to keep yourself in standard downs.

In my opinion, unless something major clicks this week for Calzada, he doesn’t have the Kellen Mond ability to make the proper reads and then dink and dunk his way down the field. But he can hit guys down field for big plays, or at least throw catchable balls to them. Run the offense that you should have been running against Arkansas, grind it out with Spiller and Achane (hoping they can break a big run off) and when they start stacking the box, try to hit Demas or Wydermyer deep.

Pretty simple, play your same, solid brand of defense, and just run into a brick wall until something amazing happens on offense. I don’t know, I’m trying here guys.

My Prediction: By no means a gimme game, but I love that it’s at home, that the Bulldogs are coming off two straight losses, and that this is a battle between two good defenses, because I think ours is better. Aggies win an ugly one 21-17, failing to cover that 7 point spread. I’m 3-1 picking ATS in Aggie games this season, but wouldn’t mind moving to 3-2 if that means watching the good guys blow out an SEC Opponent at home.

What Else Am I Picking This Week?

Well, last week was certainly a lesson in humility. I went 1-3, only hitting on my Michigan State/Nebraska Under pick. Heading into this week, these picks are 6-7 on the year, but you know what they say. You get what you pay for, and baby... it’s free.

Louisville at Wake Forest -7 (SP+: Wake Forest by 6.9, FEI: WF by 8.7): I’m all aboard the Demon Deacon band wagon this season. Wake Forest has scored 35 points or more in all 4 games to start the season and has not given up more than 17 yet. I think they’re even better than what the stats are showing currently, and I think at worst this game ends up being a push.

Army -7.5 at Ball State (SP+: Army by 16.9, FEI: Army by 11.9): WKU needed two fumbles and 21 points in the 4th quarter to keep their game close against the Black Knights. Miami (OH) is the only other team to be within two scores of Army this season. Ball State is (probably) worse than both of those two schools. Support the troops, bet Army.

Florida -8 at Kentucky (SP+: Florida by 11.4, FEI: Florida by 8): I just think this Florida offense has potential to be just as good as last year, and the Kentucky offense has been sputtering these last few games. Even at home, I don’t think they can keep up with the Gators.

Final Notes

Thanks as always for keeping up with these posts. 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.