Howdy and welcome to Fun With Numbers, your weekly check in on what advanced stats say about the Texas A&M Football squad and their opponents. We’re three games into the season now, and starting to get a better understanding of teams from a statistical standpoint. With conference play starting up across the board, we’ll start getting a lot more clarity on things and feel more comfortable with our numbers.
How’d We Do Last Week?
The numbers told us we were looking at a defensive battle, and they were right. The Aggies managed to survive the follow up to one of Jimbo’s most disappointing losses in Aggieland and defeated the Miami Hurricanes 17-9. Let’s take a look at this advanced stats box score courtesy of Bill Connelly.
TEXAS A&M 17, MIAMI 9— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) September 19, 2022
I mean ... we knew a rock fight was coming, but this still wasn't fun to watch. pic.twitter.com/OREMxtk4Ha
The Aggie offense was better under Max, but still has a long way to go. Achane got his touches and made plays when the blocking was there, and Ainias took over the game as a receiver. But the Aggies got behind the chains way too many times, running seven plays from 3rd and 7+ and only having a 14% Success Rate in those situations. Luckily, the defense held strong in the red zone and cleaned up a lot of the yards after contact numbers from last week. That, plus being on the fortunate side of the turnover battle this week helped the Aggies walk away with a win.
Still so much room for improvement, but it’s never a bad thing to beat a Power 5 opponent at home on the big stage.
What do we know?
The Aggies travel to Jerry World for the annual neutral site game that literally no one wants anymore, to take on a Top 10 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks squad. Arkansas is currently 3-0, riding a 21 point 4th quarter that allowed them to avoid a crash-and-burn against a Petrino-led Missouri State. Sam Pittman continues to be one of the more impressive coaching hires in the last couple of years, embracing the need for big time coordinators, the transfer portal, etc. and looking to build off of last years successful 9-4 season. The Aggies are a 2.5 point favorite according to Vegas, and both the SP+ and FEI like the Aggies by about 3.5 points.
Let’s dive in.
Aggie offense vs Razorback defense
Despite a change at QB, the Aggie offense remains a problem. While showing some big play ability, the Aggies have failed to have any semblance of Jimbo’s trademark efficiency in 2022. A huge part of that is the lack of push the OL is getting up front. If it feels like this is one of the worst performances we’ve seen up front during Fisher’s tenure, find some comfort in knowing that the numbers back that up. 2.31 Line Yards/Carry, 6 TFL/game allowed (tied for 91st in the country), and 104th in the country in Front 7 Havoc Allowed. It’s bad and it needs to get better quick, and an Arkansas defense that hasn’t been amazing to start the season maybe exactly what we need.
Barry Odom is a fantastic defensive coordinator, and there are a lot of great pieces on this Arkansas defensive, but it’s hard to lose 40% of your production from last season even when you play the transfer portal as well as Arkansas does. They haven’t been great against the run, even with transfer Drew Sanders (6.5 TFL, 2 Fumbles Forced, 5.5 sacks) and 5th year senior Bumper Pool anchoring the Front 7, and have been prone to big plays, giving up touchdowns on plays of 35, 47, and 62 yards this season.
Seems possible that one of these struggling units will be the cure-all for the other.
Aggie defense vs Razorback offense
On the other side of the ball, the Aggie defense continues to improve and live up to their billing. The two big weaknesses we’ve seen so far from Durkin’s group is a struggle against the run at times and a failure to create Havoc plays. It’s easy to see both of these things getting fixed as the season goes on. There is a lot of talented youth in the Front 7 and they’ll continue to grow up, and bringing back guys like McKinnley Jackson, Andre White, and others from injury will only help matters down the road. It’s also not like this defense is getting zero push, they had 3 TFL and and 6 QB hurries against the Hurricanes this past week. We saw this many times with Elko defenses over the years, slow starts in terms of sacks, but by midseason the pass rush was usually getting home.
They face an Arkansas offense that will certainly test their run stopping capabilities. The Razorbacks are missing Treylon Burks in terms of receiving, and are compensating for that by running the ball on 63% of downs (9th in the country). 30% of the Razorback rushes this season belong to mobile QB KJ Jefferson, but the Hogs are doing plenty of damage through the air when they need to. Jadon Haselwood (21% of Targets, .779 PPA ) and Matt Landers (20% of Targets, .934 PPA) are the main weapons when the Hogs do need to air it out, and Raheim Sanders is a talented back who’s 76 yard TD catch (most of those yards coming after the catch) is a big reason why the Razorbacks didn’t drop their FCS match last week.
Just on paper and stats wise, this offense lines up pretty well with what the Aggies faced last week against Miami, an efficient rushing attack that hasn’t shown a ton of explosiveness early on.
Nik Constantinou continues to punt really well for the Aggies, averaging 44 yards a punt and pinning Miami inside their own 20 three times last week. Kicker Randy Bond hit his one field goal try, so he may be the guy the Aggies see for 3 pointers going forward. A muffed punt almost led to disaster, and it feels like we’re good for at least one of those a season, so hopefully we got it out of the way.
Max Fletcher has been handling punting duties for the Hogs in 2022, averaging about 38 yards a kick but landing 6 (out of 12 total) inside the 20 yard line. Bryce Stephens (the other reason the Razorbacks didn’t drop their FCS match last week) is a threat in the return game, and kicker Cam Little has hit 2 out of 3 FGs to start the year.
Anything the numbers don’t tell us?
2021 was the first time in the Aggies SEC membership that they were bested by the Razorbacks, putting an end to a 9 game win streak for A&M. I’m not sure which side feels more pressure, the team who wants to start their own streak, or the one looking to restart it. Except for like… one John L. Smith year, this game is almost always wild. I don’t expect this one to be much different.
So what’s the verdict?
There’s a lot to be concerned about here. Barry Odom is a great DC who has some solid pieces to work with. If Max and the rest of the offense can’t take advantage of the Hog weaknesses in the secondary while getting adequate protection up front, the defense could be on the field a lot trying to stop a grinding rushing attack. Essentially, this could be the App State game again.
But let’s be optimistic, and say that doesn’t happen. There’s a couple of reasons why this team can look better on both sides of the ball than they did last week.
On offense, it will help to have Evan Stewart (15% of Targets, .553 PPA/Pass) back from suspension (along with Chris Marshall) to have someone else besides Ainias that can really stress the defense. Another week with Bryce Foster back at Center means hopefully more incremental improvements with this OL, and I’d like to see us continue to bring these young TEs out to help in the blocking game, as well as provide additional targets for Max if the young WRs are struggling with separation. The Aggies will run the ball plenty, and will likely struggle at times, but if the passing game is even just a little better than it was last week, I think they’ll be able to move the ball against the Razorback defense. Max will need to be decisive but not force things to avoid padding the Hog Havoc numbers.
Durkin’s group is certainly the best defense the Razorbacks will have encountered all season, and despite their struggles in the run I think they can still hold their own. The young guys are growing up fast, and the secondary is good enough you can feel comfortable stacking the box a little on early downs. I think the second level is where the Aggies struggle, especially when KJ decides to tuck the ball and run. These LBs will be tested in containment and assignments, the Aggies are clearly missing Andre White’s presence at this position, and he may not be back this week either.
My Prediction: Do I think that all of that (better passing game, better front lines, magically better LB play, etc.) happens for the entire game? No. But this team is constantly showing flashes of potential. And at some point in 2022, I do think it will come together. Why not this week? I think the Aggies win 27-21, winning and covering for the second week in a row.
What else am I picking?
Started off hot last week with that WKU play, but the other two picks ended up a bust. You know what they say though, the only way out of a hole is to keep on digging.
Duke at Kansas Under 64 (SP+: 60, FEI: 72.9)- Who would have thought both these teams would be 3-0 at this point? Leipold is proving to be a fantastic hire for the Jayhawks after an up and down Year 1 and former Aggie DC Mike Elko is young in his tenure, but has a great win over Northwestern under his belt. I think this will be a good game, and like the Jayhawks to win, but see it being something like 31-27 for a final score.
Auburn -7 vs Missouri (SP+: Auburn by 10, FEI: Auburn by 8)- Auburn is coming off a thorough beat down by Penn State last week, but they’re at home again and playing a Missouri squad that hasn’t been overly impressive to start the season. Tank Bigsby should have a great day against this run defense.
And finally, I’m taking the Aggies -2.5 against the Hogs, for reasons already stated, and because scared money don’t make no money.
Thanks as always for sticking with Fun With Numbers, through the good times and the bad. Let’s hope for more good as the season progresses. Check out these links below if you’re interested in learning more about advanced stats in 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.