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Fun With Numbers: Colorado

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Previewing the Colorado matchup with advanced stats

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Welcome back to Fun With Numbers, the weekly attempt to take everything wonderful and great about college football and distill it into like 4 or 5 charts and a handful of predictions. Check out last week’s post if you need a refresher on what some of this means. We’ve got a Pac-12 matchup to preview and a big win against a MACtion squad to break down, so let’s get to it.

How’d We Do Last Week?

Here is last week’s box score. Haynes King was more than fine in his debut, a 46% Success Rate passing is less than what the Aggies have typically averaged over the years, and his three interceptions were less than ideal, but the few instances of him running the ball were worth the price of admission, and he hit a couple of big throws down the field. The run game was dominant, despite the offensive line issues in some short yardage situations. Overall, it’s hard to complain too much when you put up 41 points and nearly 600 yards of offense, but it easily could have been more had we been more efficient in the red zone.

On defense, the Aggies held up pretty well against a team that was often granted decent field position due to turnovers. The secondary held up really well, and the unit as a whole was good on passing downs, but Elko will be looking to clean up the run game defense, particularly at how to limit explosive run plays like the 5 we saw by the Kent State offense. Overall though it was good to see them step up in the second half, and also to hold Kent State to a 27% Success Rate in the red zone to minimize scoring, even if they benefited from shaky kicking.

Which speaking of, how about that cover? Last week I predicted an Aggie win of 42-10, so not only am I 1-0 ATS and straight up, I also kind of look like a genius. I mean I’m not a genius, I’ve never described myself in those terms necessarily, but I like the ring of it, and if you’d like to refer to me that way... I won’t stop you.

What Do We Know?

The Aggies travel to the Mile High City to play Colorado at a “neutral stadium”. The two former conference mates haven’t played since 2009, which the Buffs won 35-34. This is HC Karl Dorrell’s second year in charge of the program, and he led the team to 4-2 in his debut during a weird COVID season. Colorado is coming off an extra day of rest, with them facing Northern Colorado last Friday night. The Buffaloes handled their instate-FCS opponent fairly well despite a slow start, the final score being 35-7. Check out their box score below.

Overall though, the Buffs still have a long way to go to start impressing the likes of the SP+ and Vegas. The Aggies will take the field as 17 point favorites, and the SP+ likes our chances to cover while the FEI likes it to be a little closer (about 12 points).

Aggie Offense vs Buffalo Defense

So for now, we’ll still be looking at last years data in these charts. Once we get a couple of more games in, we can feel a little better about comparing 2021 stats. We know what the Aggie offense brought to the table in Kellen Mond’s final season, and we saw a glimpse of what it will look like with a fresh OL and Haynes King taking snaps. The Aggies moved the ball well on the ground against an admittedly low tier run defense, and while the passing game was slightly less efficient, there’s still a lot to like there. Possibly the most concerning thing was 5 turnovers (although 2 of those came when it really did not matter at all), after only having 8 total in all of 2020, but that’s far from surprising with a new QB (who likes to take risks) in Week 1.

That said, they’ll be facing a much better defense this week than what Kent State brought to town in Week 1. In 2020, the Colorado defense was incredibly efficient and phenomenal at creating Havoc. They did struggle to contain big plays both on the ground and through the air, and were 89th in the country in Second Level Rushing Yards. It’s also worth noting that last season, the Buffs only faced three offenses in the Top 30 SP+ and gave up an average of 45 points to those teams. And the only Top 10 offense? A little school down in Austin who hung 55 points on them in a bowl game. Colorado brings back the majority of that defense though, and any defense that can suffocate and cause havoc on the backend can be scary for a young offense.

Aggie Defense vs Buffalo Offense

As mentioned, the Aggie defense was pretty solid in their opener. They definitely gave up more on the ground than what we’re used to seeing, but the secondary performed well against an experienced group and the whole unit played great in the Red Zone. All of that while missing some key contributors, if Clemons and Myles Jones are both back in the lineup this weekend, we could continue to see this defense grow into their tremendous potential.

Across the ball is a Colorado offense that was anywhere from average to bad in 2020, but returns a lot of their explosive capabilities in RB Jarek Broussard and a decent cast of receivers. They’re led by Texas native Brendon Lewis at QB, who gives the Buffs an added dimension with his ability to run the ball. The offensive line really struggled in 2020 when it came to anything other than pass protection, but obviously did a fine job in Week 1 against an FCS squad, so it’s hard to say for sure how much they’ve improved over the offseason. I expect them to try to run the ball a lot and limit possessions, not much different from a Jimbo Fisher offense. If we can control the line of scrimmage better this week, we can take away a big portion of the Colorado game plan.

Special Teams

Not a lot to add here. Seth Small had a solid day on Saturday and return game was fine with the exception of one very, very bad decision (Deja Vu from the Vanderbilt game in 2020). The Buffaloes have a return unit with a lot of potential (WR Dimitri Stanley averaged nearly 23 yards on 3 returns last week), a punter who averages a little over 40 yards a punt, and a decent kicking game. Overall, Special Teams shouldn’t be a difference maker here, but we can’t afford silly mistakes in Week 2.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

There is very little interesting to discuss here, other than the fact that this should be played in the mountain framed setting that is Folsom Field, instead of the soulless tax write-off in Denver*.

*Sport’s Authority Field isn’t really bad as far as NFL venues go, but I stand by my crazy belief that all college football games should be played in college stadiums. Wild I know.

So What’s the Verdict?

This is obviously not Kent State, but it’s not exactly a high level matchup like the one Fisher drew in his first two years in Aggieland. Bottom line is the Ags are expected to win, and win big. So what do we need to do to make that happen? Other than the generic “be efficient on offense and keep them from scoring” answer, of course.

Offense:

  1. Let King Run (Again)- King was only utilized on 10% of the rushes against Kent State but averaged 1.319 Rushing PPA. Northern Colorado QB Dylan McCaffrey (Yes, that McCaffrey) broke off a 10 yard run against this defense, and Casey Thompson averaged 4 yards a carry and .323 PPA per rush on 10 carries in the Alamo Bowl. Designed runs and allowing King to move out of the pocket will be a great way to keep the offense on schedule and potentially hit some big plays.
  2. Take Care of the Ball- This Colorado defense lived for chaos in 2020. They were aggressive, but four of the eight turnovers they forced in 2020 came in Game One against UCLA. The Longhorns took care of the ball and found ways to make the Buffaloes pay for their aggressiveness by getting the ball in the hands of their explosive playmakers. Guys like Ainias and Achane are made to hurt defenses that get out over their skis.
  3. Make it a Trend- The Aggies hit a few big plays through the air against Kent State, but in order to believe this offense is any different than previous versions, we need to see those big throws more consistently. In 2019, Mond hit 3 big throws against Texas State to open the season, but was inconsistent against Power 5 Opponents the rest of the year. This allowed teams to key in on our run game and shaky OL, and the offense struggled at times against better defenses. Keep finding Chapman, Wydermyer, etc. deep and give future DCs something else to game plan for.

Defense:

  1. Contain the QB- One critique of this defense the last few times we’ve seen them is their ability to get beat by quarterbacks who can escape the pocket and pick up yardage. Dustin Crum did it last week, leading his team in Rushing PPA with a 32% usage and Sam Howell did the same in the Orange Bowl. Lewis will try to do the same in Denver. Keep him from running free and you can shut down a huge part of this Buffalo offense.
  2. Stop it in the Second Level- One reason it felt like the Kent State offense ran all over the Aggies despite only a 46% Success Rate on the ground, is because when they did break free, they were averaging 1.5 Second Level Yards/Carry. That’s over a .5 yard higher than what they allowed in 2020. I mentioned in my first Fun With Numbers that this unit could handle the loss of Buddy Johnson and Bobby Brown, but they were clearly missed in the middle of the field at Kyle. Let’s hope this improves going forward, there are far better backs on the schedule.

My Prediction: I’m guessing we struggle with the run game on defense and some of their explosive talent on offense early, but like always Elko will have it significantly cleaned up in the second half. The question for me is can King play a much cleaner game this week? If so, I think this has a chance to be a massive blowout, but a couple of turnovers could make this much closer than it needs to be. If nothing else, I like the option to lean on one of the best run games in college football, and I’ll take the Ags to win 34-20, with the Buffaloes ruining a cover by scoring late.

What Else am I Picking?

A triumphant return of my gambling picks after going 2-1 last week.

UAB +24.5 at Georgia (SP+: Georgia by 20.9, FEI: 23.4): I think the UAB defense can hang with Georgia, at least for the first half of the game, I could easily see this one ending 27-6 or something similar.

California +11.5 at TCU (SP+: TCU by 12.4, FEI: 12.0): Another road dog here, and another situation where I like the defense. Cal lost a bad one to Nevada after being in control in the first half, but it goes with out saying that Nevada is a better first game test than Duquesne, who the Frogs are getting a lot of credit for dominating.

Michigan -7 vs Washington (SP+: Michigan by 9.4, FEI: 3.4): Call it an overreaction to Michigan’s domination of WMU and Washington’s loss to Montana, but I like Michigan to win by two scores in this one. The Wolverines will undoubtedly miss Ronnie Bell’s abilities, but this is a great time for Harbaugh to make a statement about this year’s squad.

Other things I’m watching but probably not risking money on:

El Assico: The Cyclones being a 4 point favorite over Iowa is interesting given both teams showings in Week 1. Overreactions to Week 1 are common though and this Iowa State squad returns a ton of talent from the team that dropped their season opener to Louisiana and then finished the season on a fantastic run.

The SEC East: Kentucky -5 against Missouri has my interest, and maybe even worth betting on. The other two I’m watching are Tennessee +3 against Pitt and South Carolina -2 at ECU (who actually opened as a favorite) are fascinating. New coaches in the East with their first relatively big tests, might be worth an extra screen around 11 am if you can spare it.

Final Notes

Thanks for coming back, we’ll talk briefly next week about the New Mexico Lobos... and then it’s conference game time. By then we should have a better feel for this team and the college football world in general. Last season’s weird data will be phasing out, and the new stuff which will be solid and reliable and will not at all lead us astray will start factoring in. If you’re interested in learning more about 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.