Howdy and welcome to Fun With Numbers. If you’ve been following these posts sometime in the last *checks notes* six years, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what I’m about here. If not, here’s a quick summary of what these weekly(ish) posts strive to do.
Some time ago I took an interest in the idea that there had to be a better, or at the very least, more complete way to look at football statistics than just looking at a box score and seeing who had more yards and points. This was not a new idea then, which was good because that meant there were a ton of resources to get me started. Using a combination of other people’s metrics like Bill Connelly’s SP+ and team stats like Success Rate and Explosiveness, it felt like I was sometimes getting a better understanding of Aggie teams than I had when I just watched the games. I started writing advanced stats game previews as Fan Posts, and eventually got the nod from the GBH higher ups (It’s just Benjamin Knox and the person that gets the 8th most votes in Yell Leader elections) to be a contributor.
So if you like what you hear but don’t really understand what some of those terms mean, I definitely encourage you to check out a glossary like this one here so you can familiarize yourself a little bit. And do it quickly… because folks… the season is here.
Now, a few housekeeping notes before we really get rolling.
- This is not going to be much of a preview of Sam Houston State. If you follow in the past, you know I really don’t do much (usually nothing) for FCS games because there’s not much to say. But since it’s the first game of the season, I decided I could at least do a full season preview. Do you, a good Aggie who probably has read a dozen different breakdowns need another team preview? Probably not, but I’ve got a little free time and we both know you’re not doing anything serious this week.
- I’m not sure if I will do a post next week for App State. If I do, it will be really short, because we’ll just know a little about them and not a lot about the Aggies yet. So potentially, Miami will be our first Fun With Numbers post. But we’ll see.
- I’m going to do my best to revamp these a little as the year goes on. Hopefully for the best. More pertinent information that’s easy to read, less rambling from me. Again though… we’ll see.
So with that said… let’s talk Aggie Football.
What do we know?
The Aggies enter the season with sky-high expectations and the rankings (polls and metrics based) to back it. Here’s how they stack up with the rest of the FBS teams on the schedule.
It doesn’t look terrible, using the SP+ the Aggies would (in theory) be at least a 3 point favorite over every team on the schedule not named Alabama. But the stretch of Miami through Alabama is tough, and a lot of the unknowns on the schedule (Auburn, Florida, and LSU) come at the end of the season. We’ll have a much better idea of what this team is prepared for after the Miami game, but the over for total wins at 8.5 (by Vegas) seems very much within reach.
The Aggie offense was incredibly up and down in 2021. They scored more than 24 points against SEC competition just 3 times, and those teams were Missouri, South Carolina, and… Alabama. It finished the season as Jimbo offenses often have during his time at A&M, moderately efficient with a decent run game, and very little big play potential.
Now, this season was a little different than some of the others we’ve seen under Fisher. His starting QB was injured after 5 quarters of football, and Zach Calzada took time to get adjusted (and even when he adjusted, he wasn’t as good as the Aggies needed him to be most of the time). The offensive line had a lot of fresh faces, and also took some time to gel.
Even with the explanations, and including the fact you lose a lot of OL starts in Kenyon Green, your second most targeted receiver in 2021 in Wydermyer, your feature back in Isaiah Spiller, and are kind of back to a relative unknown at QB with Haynes King taking snaps again, it makes sense that the SP+ and the FEI project this offense to finish somewhere in the 40s.
But there’s a strong argument to be made for improvement.
It starts up front, with a good bit of experience on the OL coming back. That corp group will be critical to improve on the 2.66 Line Yards/Snap they were generating in 2021, and also protect Haynes in the passing game. In 2021, they allowed a sack on 4.7% of drop backs (21st in the country), and King’s ability to move and scramble should help keep that number low in 2022.
As far as skill positions go, you lost two important pieces in Spiller and Wydermyer. The Aggie offense will be without a “surefire” target at the TE position since Sternberger jumped to the NFL after a successful season in 2018. There’s plenty of talent at the position, a lot of it young, but it would not surprise me if early in the season the Aggies don’t have a TE in their Top 5 players targeted. That’s odd for a TE friendly offense like Jimbo’s, but there are plenty of great options to spread the ball to in 2022. More on that in a minute.
I’m not sure what to say about “replacing” a guy like Isaiah Spiller, I’ll just say if you have to fill the role of an all-around back like him, it’s great to do it with a guy who has the type of big play potential that can keep people up at night. That’s Devon Achane, one of the fastest players in college football. Last year, I wrote enough about him as well as Ainias Smith that you should know I’m pretty comfortable with these guys and their playmaking ability. Ainias only had 8 carries in 2021, and I’m not sure if that number will go up, just based on the talent in the running back room and the need for him at receiver.
Smith was targeted on nearly 20% of all passing plays last season, but outside of him, there’s a lot of unrealized potential in the wide receiver room. Chase Lane returns, he was hampered by injury in 2021, and hopes to recreate the 2020 season where he was targeted 15% of the time and was second on the team in Passing PPA. Jalen Preston seemed to take over Lane’s role during his injury and held his own. Guys like Moose Muhammad and Devin Price have had flashes but minimal opportunities. And that’s not even mentioning the greatest unknown of them all, Evan Stewart, who expects to start early and add a dimension that this offense has been missing in recent years.
So the Aggies have what should be a solid offensive line, a strong backfield, and enough talent at WR/TE to at least be serviceable. The fact is, it’s not that much different from previous years.
So what could change things?
The man taking the snaps.
No one truly knows what to expect from Haynes King in 2022. He’s athletic, he makes quick decisions, and has a good arm. We’ve seen what Jimbo’s offense can do with an elite QB, but unfortunately not during his time at A&M. King may be that guy, or he may be a red flag that Jimbo’s QB recruiting is not what we hoped it would be. Very likely he’s somewhere in between. And we know that this offense can work very well with just average QB play, especially when working opposite of a truly great defense.
When Mike Elko took over in 2018 as DC for the Aggies, he had a big job in front of him. The last few years had seen some bad defenses in Maroon & White, and the previous year had finished 52nd in the Defensive SP+. He went to work building a staff of guys who understood his scheme and stud recruiters, and turned out 3 Top 25 finishes and a Top 10 finish in his final season before taking on the Duke job.
DJ Durkin takes over after 2 years as Kiffin’s DC at Ole Miss. His defenses for the Rebels were far from great, in 2021 they finished 42nd in the DSP+ and 28th in the DFEI, but he’s objectively stepping into a much better situation in College Station, one that I think any DC would be envious of. It’s a unit that only returns 60% of its talent from its phenomenal 2021 season, but there are a lot of pieces to like.
Starting on the back end, you bring back most of a secondary that ranked 6th in Passing Success Rate and 32nd in Passing Explosiveness. They lose senior leader Leon O’Neal, but there are enough familiar names (guys like Demani Richardson, Jaylon Jones, Antonio Johnson, etc.) that you can feel pretty comfortable with minimal drop off. Guys like Tyreek Chappell (led the team with passes defended in 2021 with 9), Deuce Harmon, and Jardin Gilbert will also push to see the field, as will experienced corners Myles Jones and Brian George. Put simply, the A&M secondary is coming off one of its best seasons in a long time, and it’s arguably as deep as it’s ever been.
Things get a little more murky towards the front, starting at linebacker where the Aggies are thin at experience. Edgerrin Cooper and Andre White will be the main guys on the field, and will look to improve on their 1.15 Second Level Yards/Rush allowed in 2021 (86th in the country). They’ll be behind a unit that sustained the brunt of the losses from last season.
The defensive line was as good as any in CFB last season, allowing 2.47 Line Yards/Rush (32nd in the country) and sacking opponents on 8.2% of pass attempts (27th). They were talented and experienced, and were capable of taking over games when needed. Unfortunately, the word “experienced” no longer applies. The Aggies will be relying on McKinnley Jackson (7 solo tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 Sack in 2021), Shemar Turner (5 solo, 2 TFL, and 1 Sack in 2021), Isaiah Raikes, and a host of big bodied freshman to anchor the middle of the line. On the edge you’ve got two guys who have been in the program for a year in Fadil Diggs and Tunmise Adeleye, and they’ll again be backed up by some freshman that will see the field out of an abundance of their talent and necessity.
So what’s the verdict?
The Aggies lost a lot of production from a team that flashed so much potential last season, but they bring back plenty to be excited about. Despite being a higher end FCS squad, Sam Houston should not be a team to worry about. I expect the Aggies to win that game 42-7 or something similar (The SP+ predicts a 38-7 game, Vegas has the Aggies at a 29.5 point favorite).
After that, you get an Appalachian State squad that has certainly made a name for themselves over the years as Power 5 killers. Ideally, they’re the last G5 squad you want to schedule. Still, talented QB Chase Brice will be throwing to a lot of relatively unknowns to start the season and the Mountaineers return only 56% of last season’s defensive production. I like the Aggies to win that one by 2-3 scores, regardless of how App State performs against Mack Brown’s Tarheels on opening weekend. Then the fun begins.
Between now and then, I’d love to see the Aggies spread the ball around to some different receiving targets, and to generate some big plays using guys like Achane, Ainias and Evan Stewart. I’m hopeful the front seven can gel quickly and keep their first two opponents from having their way on the ground. A couple of big havoc plays, especially from this secondary, would be great to see as well.
It’s hard not to be excited about this squad, and I have high hopes for a 10+ win season in 2022. At the very least, I expect to be playing some meaningful football come November.
My Other Picks
Last season I started including some bonus picks here. I finished the season 18-17, so just over that 51% mark. We’ll see if we can improve on that this season.
NC State -11 at East Carolina (SP+: NC St by 13.5, FEI: NC St by 12.7): Opening up the season by taking an ACC school on the road against a G5 squad. I think NC State is going to be pretty good this year, they’re one of the top teams in returning production after a 9-3 season. Last year the Wolfpack trounced (an admittedly much worse) USF squad 45-0 to open the season, but even with ECU being a better squad than that and getting home field, I like the Wolfpack to win by 2 TDs.
UNT +11.5 vs SMU (SP+: SMU by 11, FEI: SMY by 9.3): This one maybe me overselling UNTs road win against UTEP last week and the loss of Sonny Dykes at SMU. Still, I like the Mean Green to keep it close here.
Utah -3 at Florida (SP+: Utes by .2, FEI: 5.1): Probably a bad idea to bet against the Gators in the Swamp, and I think Napier is going to work out just fine for them, but I also really like Utah this season and I KNOW Kyle Wittingham is a good coach.
Also, I’m taking Purdue outright to win Thursday night against Penn State. This is my dumb bet of the week, SP+ likes Penn State by 4 and the FEI likes them 6. I don’t really care, and I love this game being one of the big openers for 2022
Finally, earlier this offseason I absolutely jumped on the Aggies to go Over 8.5 wins this season. That won’t count towards the rest of these single game bets this season, but I just want it out there.
Thanks for checking out the preview that nobody asked for, and I look forward to coming back (probably for the Miami game) with a little more substance. If you’re interested in where my data comes from, or where you can learn more about advanced stats, check out these links below.
- 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.