Another week, another formidable challenge for the Hogs. You've got to love life in the SEC!
This week, Texas A&M faces the Hogs in Jerryworld. The Aggies run an Air Raid offense that is virtually identical to Texas Tech's (Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was offensive coordinator at A&M in 2012), except the Aggies have much better players.
We're dealing with some good offenses here. Don't believe me? Check the numbers:
|ARK off||A&M off|
If you've forgotten any of these terms, here's a quick recap:
S&P+ is an overall, qualitative assessment of an offense (or defense) that combines success rate (the ability to stay ahead of the down and distance) and PPP (the ability to hit big plays), and is then modified with opponent-based adjustments (although most of those won't take effect until week 7). Rushing S&P+ is success rate + PPP only for rushing plays, Passing S&P+ is the same for passes (which include sacks and QB scrambles), and Passing Downs S&P+ is the same only for plays on 2nd-and-8+ and 3rd-and-4+. SOS is strength of schedule, the adjusted S&P+ values of the units faced (in this case, each team's opponent defenses).
The nation's two best success rate teams meet. Arkansas has the nation's most efficient rushing attack, while the Aggies can do both. Texas A&M has faced a somewhat weaker schedule in terms of quality defenses.
I pointed out last week that the comparison of Arkansas' and NIU's S&P+ numbers indicated that NIU's rushing attack was slightly overrated and that Arkansas' offense matched up well on passing downs. Well, the Hogs stifled in the NIU run game (the Huskies had just 37 rushing yards through the first three quarters) and went 10-of-14 on third down. Not bad. Let's see if this week's numbers give us any clues as to how the game will unfold.
On paper, Texas A&M's defense is much improved
Here's how the teams go head-to-head when Arkansas' offense is on the field:
|ARK off||A&M def|
After the Aggies had a fairly impressive defense in 2012, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's 2013 unit was abysmal. It was truly a "learning year," in which A&M gambled on the assumption that starting a number of young but talented players would pay off in the future. The plan seemingly backfired this offseason when one defensive starter transferred and two others were dismissed, leaving only two starters in the front seven returning for 2014.
The defense played fairly well against South Carolina, holding the Gamecocks to 28 points, 433 yards, and 2 of 9 on third down. A key stat in that game was time of possession, won by A&M by 14 minutes (37 to 23). The Gamecocks rushed for only 67 yards, but leading rusher Mike Davis (1,000 yards in 2013) was severely limited in the game, and had just six carries. South Carolina's rushing attack, supposed to be a staple this year, has come along slowly, finally cracking 200 yards last Saturday against Vanderbilt.
I charted South Carolina's first-half called runs against Texas A&M (called runs only, no sacks or scrambles):
|Run #||Down||To Go||Yards|
The main to see here is that the Aggies did a great job of limiting big plays in the running game. This drove down the yards per carry and made the defense look good. As far as we're concerned with advanced statistics, that success rate is more important, since Arkansas' smashmouth offense doesn't care about big plays as much as consistency. Decent running games can make 45% success on the ground (Arkansas was 46% last year), and great running attacks can top 50%.
For this reason, the 38.5% success rate is pretty good for the Aggie defense, but if we want to nitpick, we can. Runs 3, 4, and 5 were 4-yard carries on first down. If two of those three runs had gained just 1 more yard each, they would have been successful, and South Carolina's running game would have generated a success rate of over 50% in the first half. Why do I point that out? It's to remind fans that football truly is a game of inches. The margin between a good run defense and a bad run defense is minimal. Same for a good running game and a bad running game. Arkansas might could turn around and play Texas Tech again on Saturday and see the running game slowed significantly because the Red Raiders make some of the flailing arm tackles they missed a couple weeks ago. That's why advanced statistics can only take you so far. The margin between good, mediocre, and bad is smaller than most think.
Arkansas' rush offense vs. Texas A&M's rush defense
Let's compare the quality of rush defenses faced by Arkansas against the quality of rush offenses faced by Texas A&M:
|Rush Def S&P+||Rush Off S&P+|
Interesting stuff here. It's tough to really figure out Texas Tech. The Red Raiders were on bye last week, so their only two FBS opponents - Arkansas and UTEP - are top-15 nationally against the run, which really makes them look worse. Auburn and NIU, on the other hand, have almost completely shut down every other rushing attack they've faced besides the Hogs.
Texas A&M has yet to face a capable rushing attack. SMU is dead-last in the NCAA in Rushing Offense S&P+, and South Carolina RB Mike Davis received limited carries against the Aggies (six carries, 15 yards). Rice flew up 48 spots (from 113th) after a 284-yard rushing day against Old Dominion last week. Old Dominion is apparently an FBS school now. Who knew.
Before the Texas Tech game, I pointed out that Texas Tech was dead-last in the NCAA in stuff rate, the ability to tackle a runner for loss. After ranking 124th in the NCAA in stuff rate in 2013, the Red Raiders had just one TFL against a runner in 103 non-sack rushing attempts against them. This killed Tech as it was unable to keep the Hog running backs from driving forward. And there's good news for Hog fans: Texas A&M is also pretty bad at this. Despite a quality Rush Defense S&P+, the Aggies have 13 TFLs in 140 attempts (9.2% TFL rate). Arkansas' offense has a TFL rate of 6.6% (12 TFLs in 181 attempts), one of the best marks in the NCAA.
The Aggies are breaking in a new nose guard and three new linebackers, never good for a run defense. The main man to watch in the Aggie front seven is defensive end Myles Garrett. Garrett will easily shatter Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman record for sacks. On film, he appears to also be fast enough to come from the backside unblocked and blow up a running play, so the Hogs will have to scheme appropriately for him. Despite A&M's impressive recruiting success over the last couple years, the linebacking corps contains just one four-star recruit (per Rivals), Otaro Alaka, and he's a true freshman with limited playing time so far.
The Aggies mix 3-4 and 4-3 looks, just like Texas Tech and NIU. Against South Carolina, they preferred to line a nose man up over the center and give a 3-4, but they use Garrett as a rush end in their 4-3. They'll probably play 4-3 against the Hogs, since NIU and Texas Tech both used 3-4 looks to no avail against the Arkansas offense.
From these numbers and a look at the roster, it seems unlikely that Texas A&M will be able to stop Arkansas' rushing attack. Their rush defense, while certainly better than Texas Tech's, is probably not as good as Auburn's and may not be better than NIU's. Of course, the Aggies don't have to completely stop Arkansas' ground game, they need only outscore it.
Texas A&M's pass offense vs. Arkansas' pass defense
Let's start with a general comparison when A&M's offense is on the field:
|A&M off||ARK def|
Again, these numbers are skewed by the tough offenses Arkansas has faced so far (Auburn, Texas Tech, and NIU are all top-40 offenses), compared to the relatively bad defenses faced by A&M. Still, we see that Arkansas should be able to limit the big plays by the Aggie offense, but will struggle to put A&M behind the down and distance and stop the pass.
|Pass Off S&P+||Pass Def S&P+|
Ahh, here's where things get interesting. All three FBS opponents face by Arkansas are top-30 in Passing S&P+. Texas Tech, for all its defensive issues, has a really good passing game. NIU's Drew Hare is top-25 nationally in passer rating. Auburn is a little different, because the Tigers use favorable matchups in the passing game based on opponents mostly focusing on the run, but they throw the ball well also.
The Aggies, on the other hand, have bombed on some BAD opponents. Vanderbilt, previously 122nd in the NCAA in Passing S&P+, used two quarterbacks to throw for 223 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina last week. Old Dominion, which I'm still not convinced is actually an FBS team, threw for 430 yards against Rice.
That isn't to say Texas A&M's passing game isn't good. That's far from the truth. The Aggie offense is prolific. It's better than Texas Tech. The purpose of the above comparison is to note that Arkansas has been facing high quality passing attacks all season. The Hogs are certainly the best offense, and probably the best defense, A&M has faced so far.
What conclusions can we draw? Arkansas isn't going to stop Texas A&M's offense. The Hogs may can contain it and outscore the Aggies on the way to a 49-42 kind of game, but don't expect defensive stops. If the Hogs hold the Aggies under 30, Robb Smith wins the Broyles Award. Like they'll give him the trophy on the field and have the ceremony right there.
Key stat of the week: Spike Rate
We've introduced new stats in the last couple of weeks. Here's the key stat for this week: spike rate.
A team's spike rate is the percentage of plays that the particular team might as well have just spiked the ball rather than run a play. Literally, it's the percentage of offensive plays that end in a turnover, no gain, or lost yards. Spike rate can be helpful in determining what went wrong on offense. For example, per Rock M Nation, Missouri put up 498 yards of offense on Indiana but scored only 27 points in the shocking loss. This odd convergence of lots of yards and few points can be explained by the fact that Mizzou's spike rate was 43 percent (32 of 83 plays were turnovers or plays that gained zero yards or worse). In short, the Tigers moved the ball but they could not keep moving the ball.
Arkansas' offense is predicated on a low spike rate, as it goes hand-in-hand with success rate (spikes are always unsuccessful). Arkansas' defense under Robb Smith is predicated on a high spike rate, doing things like breaking up passes, making sacks and tackles for loss, and forcing turnovers. Here are the figures so far this season:
The left side of the chart is Arkansas' offense against its three FBS opponents. Arkansas has run 196 qualified plays (first-team offense, actual spikes and kneel-downs do not count) and spiked 47 of them, a rate of just under 24 percent. Texas A&M is step-for-step, with 190 qualified plays and 45 spikes.
Arkansas has, of course, played a much more difficult schedule. Auburn, especially after that Kansas State performance, is a few steps ahead of South Carolina, and Texas Tech, for all its defensive struggles, and NIU are significantly better than either Rice or SMU on defense.
Here's how each defense has been able to force spikes:
Arkansas' last two games have been better than Texas A&M's average, but the Aggies have topped 40% twice on defense. SMU is probably the most woefully inept offense in the FBS, but what they did to South Carolina was really impressive. The Aggies mixed 20 incomplete passes, a couple of sacks, and five runs or passes for no gain or a loss in order to accumulate 27 spikes. Arkansas' best hope is to look to Rice, a run-heavy team that had only a 23.5 percent spike rate. The Owls failed to break any long runs, which limited their yards per carry and total rushing yards, but the Owls patiently plodded along to a 44 percent rushing success rate and moved the ball forward on 76.5 percent of offensive snaps.
If you're still not sold on spike rate, consider that in the NFL's first two weeks, the team that won the spike rate was 30-2. Pretty impressive.
Bill Connelly is SB Nation's advanced stat guy. He is as good as they come when it comes to charting college football. He has come up with Five Factors that are essential for winning games:
Efficiency is the ability of the offense to stay ahead of the down and distance and limit mistakes. Basically, it's success rate. Texas A&M is 1st in the NCAA in success rate, and Arkansas is 2nd. So there you go, the two most efficient offenses in college football are clashing on Saturday.
Since we're far enough into the season, I'll start posting the previous game's success rate and spike rate in my weekly posts on Tuesdays so we can compare. Keep an eye on this one as it's probably the most important for this game.
This isn't as big of a deal for Arkansas, but isoPPP (points per play of plays that were successful) comprises 20 percent of S&P+. Texas A&M has been surprisingly unexplosive so far, although they may be doing everything they can not to hang 100 on Lamar and SMU. Arkansas' defensive strength is limiting big plays, but this is a relative weakness for the Aggie defense. See if Arkansas can hit some big passing plays to back the Aggie safeties up.
3. Field Position
Arkansas does a pretty good job of playing field position football. The Razorbacks are 19th in the NCAA in defensive ShF, a stat that measures how often a team gives an opponent a short field. The Hogs are also 14th in opponent average starting field position (own 29.5). Texas A&M isn't quite as good at playing field position. Due largely to their inability to force turnovers, the Aggies are 78th in short field possessions, with only 8 percent of their drives starting in opponent territory. However, the Aggies are best in the NCAA in one important stat: value drives, which measures how many offensive drives reach the opponents' 30 yard line. The Aggies reach the opponent 30 in 69.5 percent of offensive drives. Arkansas, on the other hand, leads the NCAA in methodical drives, with a ridiculous 34 percent of offensive drives totaling at least 10 plays.
4. Finishing Drives
Arkansas didn't finish drives well in 2013, but have been much better in 2014. Success rate while in the redzone is an interesting stat to consider here. It's usually lower than normal success rates the closer you get the goalline. Basically, Arkansas can't turn it over and can't settle for field goals. They need to force A&M to do those things on the other side.
Obviously, a big key. Arkansas was -19 in turnover margin in 2012 (worst in FBS), but Bret Bielema preached not turning it over and the Hogs were an improved but still bad -9 last year, losing the turnover battle in 8 of 12 games. This year, Arkansas is +2 (6 takes, 4 gives) and has not lost the turnover battle yet. Texas A&M is -2 (3 takes, 5 gives) and has lost the turnover battle in each of its last three. Two of the Aggies' 3 takeaways came against Lamar, but so did 3 of their 5 giveaways.
Overall, this is a tough game to pick. A smart bettor would stay away. Looking at A&M's defense, Arkansas certainly has the potential to roll up 350 rushing yards in 60 rushes and bleed the clock for over 35 minutes, winning 49-42. Of course, if the Aggies can fill the gaps just enough to make just enough tackles, the Hogs may have to take the air early, and could wind up getting outgunned in a 56-38 kind of game. Just a few feet here and there make all the difference. Game of inches, indeed.