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Arkansas vs. Alabama Advanced Stats Preview

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The numbers say Arkansas has a puncher's chance to get its first SEC win under Bret Bielema.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another top ten opponent. How about we break into the advanced stats of the Alabama Crimson Tide and see if we can find a weakness?

This isn’t dynasty Alabama that won three national titles in four years: this is trying-to-find-an-identity-but-still-really-freaking-good Alabama.

Ole Miss exposed some holes in a 23-17 win in Oxford. It sounds like a broken record, but the Crimson Tide were plagued by two missed field goals in the loss. That’s 11 missed field goals in their last five losses. Wow. Nick Saban may be showing some cracks as well: Alabama is 4-3 in its last seven games, including 0-3 against ranked opponents. Furthermore, the Tide are 2-10 against the spread of the last 12 SEC games in which it was favored by 10 points or less, including just 7-5 straight up. Alabama opened as an eight-point favorite over Arkansas.

Can Arkansas take advantage of Alabama’s defensive weaknesses?

Alabama’s defense is showing some holes, but Ole Miss was probably better equipped to exploit said holes. Here’s how the numbers stack up when Arkansas is on offense:

ARK off BAMA def
S&P+ 9th 8th
Rushing S&P+ 2nd 1st
Passing S&P+ 41st 42nd
Success Rate 7th 15th
isoPPP 26th 48th
Pass Downs 11th 44th

Alabama gives up a moderate explosiveness rating (isoYPP) and is a pretty-bad 44th in pass downs S&P+. Both West Virginia and Ole Miss had some success in third-and-medium situations. Alabama’s passing defense has shown some cracks despite average competition (Ole Miss and West Virginia are good passing teams, but Florida is awful, while Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic are Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic). Alabama’s run defense looks good, but so did NIU’s until our NIU Preview showed that NIU hadn’t faced a quality rushing team. Let’s see about Alabama.

ARKANSAS ALABAMA
Rush Def S&P+ Rush Off S&P+
Auburn 37th 100th W Virginia
Tex Tech 118th 75th Fla Atl
NIU 19th 122nd S Miss
Tex A&M 84th 69th Florida
114th Ole Miss

Woof. Alabama has yet to face a quality rushing offense. If you want to use the words "Florida" and "quality" in a sentence about offense then that is your prerogative. Arkansas has faced one awful rush defense (Texas Tech), two pretty decent ones (Auburn, NIU), and one bad one (Texas A&M). So while logic dictates that Alabama probably has a good rush defense – that’s been a hallmark under Saban – this season’s numbers do not prove that.

Arkansas’ offense, on the other hand, is performing at a rate not seen since the height of the Petrino days. Behold:

Arkansas Offense S&P+ 2006-2014

Arkansas’ ability to field top-50 offenses is pretty dang impressive. It doesn’t seem to matter who the coach is or what the scheme is, Arkansas can always move the football. It’s the other side of the ball that brings concerns.

How does Arkansas’ defense stack up against Kiffin’s offense?

Bret Bielema didn’t talk much during his brief stint in the CBS studio on Saturday, but he said enough to perfectly capture the Alabama-Ole Miss game. When Gary Danielson joined the crew briefly, Bielema asked him a very pointed question: will Alabama stick with its up-tempo offense for the whole game, especially if it’s close?

I somehow doubt that Bielema specifically cared about Danielson’s opinion on the matter, and the question should instead be taken as Bielema’s analysis. When the game got tough, would the Tide stick to its fancy pass-heavy game plan or would it try to play classic Alabama football and put a supposedly-inferior team away the old-fashioned way? And if Alabama tried, could it?

Bielema’s words were prophetic. After the Rebels scored to pull within 14-10 in the third quarter, Alabama returned to huddling after every snap and tried to re-establish the running game. But a strange thing happened. The Tide offense couldn’t do it. Despite pounding five-star backs TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry into the Ole Miss front repeatedly, all of Alabama’s second-half drives stalled save for one long field goal. In hiring Lane Kiffin, Alabama replaced its old-school power running style with a complex passing offense, reducing the run game to a simplistic zone-blocking scheme. It’s not a bad scheme at all (as the numbers attest), and Alabama has the talent to run it and run it well, but in the second half in a hostile road environment with a first-year starting quarterback and an unreliable kicker, Nick Saban really would have liked to go back to old-school Alabama football and pound Ole Miss to death.

Nevertheless, Arkansas’ defense isn’t as good as Ole Miss’s, so the matchup is less favorable:

BAMA off ARK def
S&P+ 2nd 50th
Rushing S&P+ 30th 67th
Passing S&P+ 9th 113th
Success Rate 4th 99th
isoPPP 69th 96th
Pass Downs 39th 116th

Hooray opponent adjustments! Opponent adjustments don’t start kicking in until after six weeks. After the raw S&P+ is calculated, the adjustments are applied to weight the final number based on the quality of opponents played. So Arkansas’ beleaguered defense gets a boost from 99th (raw) to 50th (adjusted) based on the quality of opponents faced. Facing Auburn, Texas Tech, NIU, and Texas A&M is problematic for any defense. All values other than the top one in that table are raw, so they are not adjusted for quality of opponent.

If Arkansas’ ranking of 50th holds – and it should, given the schedule so far and what's left – it would be the best in a few years.

Arkansas Defense S&P+, 2006-2014

Chris Ash’s defense a season ago may have been the worst in school history, or at least in the modern era. Now, with a very young defense in their first year in the system, Robb Smith has coaxed massive improvement out of this bunch. With almost every playmaker sans Trey Flowers returning next season, watch out.

Alabama, as you can tell, is good at pretty much everything. So too was Texas A&M, and the Hogs held them light-years below their success rates and isoYPP in pretty much every category. We’ll see how the Hogs hold up Saturday after a week of rest and time to prepare.

Key stat of the week: yards per point

The Texas A&M game’s key stat of the week – spike rate – was a dud, as Arkansas defied logic by winning the spike rate and losing the game. However, we also introduced some of Fremeau’s drive concepts, namely Me (methodical drives). Arkansas led the NCAA in methodical drives with 34 percent of all drives lasting at least 10 plays, and against the Aggies the Hogs had zero. Arkansas’ inability to hold the football for long periods of time at once gave Texas A&M five fourth-quarter possessions and prevented the Hogs from fully wearing them out, despite winning the time of possession handily.

Yards per point is easy to calculate. How many yards did you have to gain to get your points? Alabama is among the best in the country at putting up ridiculous numbers of yards, but the points haven’t always matched up. Alabama rolled up an impressive 396 yards against Ole Miss but scored 10 offensive points (the defense returned a fumble for a touchdown).

ARKANSAS ALABAMA
Yards Points Yds/Pt Yds/Pt Points Yards
Auburn 328 21 15.62 16.30 33 538 W Virginia
Tex Tech 499 49 10.18 - - - Fla Atl
NIU 427 38 11.24 - - - S Miss
Tex A&M 434 21 20.67 15.36 42 645 Florida
39.60 10 396 Ole Miss
TOTALS 1688 129 13.09 18.58 85 1579 TOTALS

I’ve excluded the cupcake games by each team. At 4-1 and with a win over Northwestern, NIU doesn’t qualify as a cupcake team as they’d beat either Southern Miss or FAU by a few touchdowns. The kickoff return and fumble return for scores against NIU are not counted as they were non-offensive.

Arkansas’ two worst games have been losses (go figure). A good figure here is about 13 or 14 yards per point. Arkansas was above average twice and below average in the two losses, especially Texas A&M. A high yards per point average is usually indicative of making mistakes and letting winnable games slip away. Both Arkansas and Alabama felt that in their last games, as the Tide recorded a ridiculous 39.6 yards per point (that’s 272 yards per touchdown!) and lost a winnable game.

Arkansas’ defense, on the other hand, has done a decent job of limiting opponent points despite giving up plenty of yards.

ARKANSAS ALABAMA
Yards Points Yds/Pt Yds/Pt Points Yards
Auburn 595 45 13.22 24.56 16 393 W Virginia
Tex Tech 353 28 12.61 - - - Fla Atl
NIU 303 14 21.64 - - - S Miss
Tex A&M 498 28 17.79 14.29 14 200 Florida
14.04 23 323 Ole Miss
TOTALS 1749 115 15.21 17.28 53 916 TOTALS

Alabama did a great job of limiting West Virginia to 16 offensive points despite giving up nearly 400 yards; however, the Tide defense allowed Florida and Ole Miss to record a very efficient ratio of yards to points. Arkansas’ defense has done a great job in its last two weeks at minimizing the scoring threat of NIU and Texas A&M. Note that this stat doesn’t include non-offensive touchdowns or overtime scores. Alabama has given up a kickoff return for a touchdown (West Virginia) and a fumble return for a touchdown (Florida). Arkansas has not allowed a non-offensive touchdown.

These two charts show us that Arkansas is making its opponents work for scores moreso than it is having to (13.1 offensive to 15.2 defense). Alabama, on the other hand, is having to work harder than its opponents (18.6 offensive to 17.3 defensive). Arkansas needs to win the yards per point battle.

Five Factors

We reviewed Bill Connelly’s Five Factors last game, and saw that Texas A&M won two of them and the other three were pushes.

1. Efficiency

This is success rate and spike rate. Arkansas appears to hold a slight advantage on offense (7th by Arkansas’ offense vs. 15th by Alabama’s defense), while Alabama has a significant advantage when the Tide have the ball (4th vs. 99th), although Arkansas has played some of the best success rate offenses in all of college football and thus the numbers have been skewed.

Let’s check back in spike rate. Remember, this is the percentage of a team’s offensive plays that result in a turnover, no gain, or a loss. Winning the spike rate means winning the game at a rate of about 75 percent in the NFL, although Arkansas and Alabama both won the spike rate in their last game and lost anyway.

ARKANSAS ALABAMA
Plays Spikes Rate Plays Spikes Rate
Auburn 60 21 35.00% 82 12 14.63% W Virginia
Tex Tech 76 11 14.47% - - - Fla Atl
NIU 60 15 25.00% - - - S Miss
Tex A&M 74 22 29.73% 85 22 25.88% Florida
75 22 29.33% Ole Miss
TOTALS 270 69 25.56% 242 56 23.14% TOTALS

Neither offense spikes it much.

On defense:

ARKANSAS ALABAMA
Plays Spikes Rate Plays Spikes Rate
Auburn 70 14 20.00% 69 25 36.23% W Virginia
Tex Tech 67 24 35.82% - - - Fla Atl
NIU 63 23 36.51% - - - S Miss
Tex A&M 68 25 36.76% 55 25 45.45% Florida
73 24 32.88% Ole Miss
TOTALS 268 86 32.09% 197 74 37.56% TOTALS

Arkansas’ defense has done a fantastic job of forcing spikes ever since the Auburn game, thanks in part to a defense that leads the SEC in pass break-ups. Alabama gets the unfair benefit of a game with the flaming trash heap that is Florida’s offense, but last week Ole Miss escaped with a decent spike rate. This didn’t play a factor last week, but here’s guessing that it does this time.

2. Explosiveness

Remember, this is isoPPP and isoYPP. Both offenses are fairly explosive (Arkansas 26th, Alabama 48th). Alabama is 48th in isoPPP defense, while Arkansas is 96th, although a lineup of Auburn, Texas Tech, NIU, and Texas A&M has a tendency to do that to a defense. The eye test says Arkansas does a pretty good job of limiting big plays. However, the eye test (and the stat sheet) says that Alabama receiver Amari Cooper is a big play waiting to happen. Ole Miss did a great job of limiting him deep, so that’s going to be a priority for the Hogs.

3. Starting field position

We saw before the Texas A&M game that the Aggies don’t create many short fields and are therefore not very good at playing field position.

Arkansas is 70th in starting field position, averaging the 28.9 yardline. Alabama is 115th, averaging their own 25.5 as a starting point. The Tide don’t force many turnovers and don’t get much on punt returns, which is why they have been so bad. When it comes to opponent field position, Arkansas is 29th (26.5 yardline) while Alabama is 49th (28.2). So Arkansas has done better this season at winning field position.

Only five percent of Alabama’s possessions start in opponent territory (109th) and the Tide allow opponents to start in their territory at 10 percent (71st). Arkansas starts just 7.5 percent of possessions in opponent territory (88th) and allow the opponent the same courtesy at seven percent (39th). Again, advantage Arkansas.

Arkansas will need at least a +1 short field advantage if it’s going to pull the upset.

4. Finishing drives

Last game’s key stat was the Arkansas entered the A&M game with 34 percent of drives lasting at least 10 plays, and then the Hogs failed to muster one. Alabama’s defense allows methodical drives at a rate of just 10 percent (38th).

Alabama leads the NCAA in value drives (drives that reach the opponent 30) and available yards (percent of total possible yards gained). However, Texas A&M led the nation in both of these categories prior to the Arkansas game.

The numbers show a slight advantage to Alabama, but Arkansas can win this on Saturday if the Hog offense get generate a couple of methodical drives.

5. Turnovers

This has been a problem for Alabama.

ARKANSAS ALABAMA
Gained Lost Margin Margin Lost Gained
Auburn 1 1 0 -1 1 0 W Virginia
Tex Tech 3 2 +1 0 1 1 Fla Atl
NIU 1 0 +1 -1 1 0 S Miss
Tex A&M 1 1 0 -1 4 3 Florida
-1 2 1 Ole Miss
TOTALS 6 4 +2 -4 9 5 TOTALS

After losing the turnover battle in eight of 12 games last year and finishing -9 in turnover margin, Arkansas is +2 and hasn’t lost it yet. Alabama has struggled, entering Saturday at -4 and not winning it yet. Arkansas isn’t going to win the game if the Hogs don’t win the turnover margin, and a fancy +2 for the game could be enough to give the Hogs a victory.

Conclusion

Some keys to a Hog victory on Saturday.

1. Win the turnover margin by at least one. Winning it by one is a necessity, and the Hogs may need +2 given that Alabama is used to overcoming its own mistakes.

2. Record fewer than 15 yards per point, and hold Alabama to more than that. Alabama’s offense can move the ball all day as long as the drives are ending in turnovers or Adam Griffith field goal attempts. Arkansas, on the other hand, cannot have empty drives. Alabama will probably have more yards on offense, so Arkansas must maximize its yards.

3. Win the field position battle, and go at least +1 in short fields. Arkansas isn’t going to move the ball all day against this defense. Generating a short field, either by a turnover or kick/punt return is going to be important. Ole Miss scored its game-winning touchdown on a short field (kickoff return fumble). It matters.

4. Record at least one methodical drive. Alabama is coming off a tough, physical, emotional loss to Ole Miss. The last thing those guys want is to get punched in the mouth by a confident, physical underdog.

5. Hold Alabama’s offense below 9.5 isoYPP rushing and 15 isoYPP passing. The Hogs held Texas A&M to 9.0 isoYPP rushing and 21.8 isoYPP passing. The high passing number helped cost the Hogs the game late. Neither of these figures are too difficult for Arkansas’ defense to meet. Arkansas also needs to hit at least 10 isoYPP rushing on offense, a very difficult feat against this defense.

So there you have it. If you’re confused about any of the stats I’ve used, check the glossary I’ve made.