In an odd bowl lineup this year, the SEC seems to be "punching down" in most matchups.
You may remember that the SEC West went 2-5 in bowl season last year, with Arkansas and Texas A&M the only winners. Of course, what went unnoticed is that SEC West teams were mostly playing up: Mississippi State and 8-4 Auburn both faced division champions. Arkansas (2-6 SEC) played a team that finished above .500 in its conference (Texas at 5-4). 9-3 Ole Miss played 11-1 TCU. Sure, it was disappointing, but the matchups played a role.
This year, the opposite is true. 8-3 LSU is much better relative to the SEC than 7-5 Texas Tech is relative to the Big XII. Mississippi State and Texas A&M, both 8-4, played 7-5 ACC teams in their bowl games (even though A&M is a wreck). The only bad matchup was avoided in the Birmingham Bowl when Memphis coach Justin Fuente was hired away by Virginia Tech, and his team was lifeless in a 31-10 loss to 6-6 Auburn.
And, of course, there's the Liberty Bowl. Arkansas is 7-5, but has looked more like a 10-2 team since October 1st. Kansas State is 6-6 and has overachieved just to get there. On paper, this one doesn't look close.
You probably won't be surprised to hear that according to S&P+, this is the biggest mismatch of bowl season.
Bill Snyder has been at Kansas State seemingly forever, but his glory days are long past. Kansas State is still highly competitive and that's a tribute to Snyder, since this is a HARD program to consistently win games. Kansas State plays good, fundamental football, but likely doesn't have the talent to stay in this game.
Arkansas Offense vs. Kansas State Defense
Bloodbath here. Kansas State keeps scoring down much the same way Arkansas does: by playing at a slow pace offensively so as to reduce the total number of possessions. But on a drive-for-drive efficiency basis, the Wildcats aren't very good defensively.
We'll start in the line where Arkansas makes its living. As you can see, the Wildcats do some good things up front, namely rushing the passer. Obviously, Arkansas is without offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who has taken the same position at Georgia. Eric Mateos, a graduate assistant for the line for all three years Bielema has been in Fayetteville, has taken over coaching of line for the bowl game, while former lineman Brey Cook, who started for the 2013 and 2014 teams, will take over Mateos' GA role. If there's any kind of dropoff with the loss of Pittman, Kansas State could keep Arkansas' offense in check, at least up front.
I actually suspect that Arkansas will come out throwing as a way to open the game up early. The reason for this is that Kansas State is not built to come from behind, and with shaky quarterback play, Arkansas can put this one away early by jumping out in front.
Still, the running game is very important. Arkansas has seemingly overwhelming advantages, but if the line plays poorly those may not be as strong as they appear.
That passing success rate represents Arkansas' most overwhelming advantage in this game. Kansas State has been absolutely helpless to slow efficient passing attacks. Here's how they fared against the best quarterbacks on the schedule:
- Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 20/27, 282 yards, 5 TD in a 55-0 loss
- Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 34/55, 437 yards, 3 TD, 1 interception in a 36-34 loss
- Trevone Boykin, TCU: 20/30, 301 yards, 2 TD, 2 interceptions, 124 rushing yards in a 52-45 loss
- Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech: 33/42, 384 yards, 3 TD in a 59-44 loss
- Jarrett Stidham, Baylor: 23/33, 419 yards, 3 TD in a 31-24 loss (Stidham is Baylor's backup)
None of those quarterbacks have a total QBR as high as Brandon Allen (#2 in the NCAA behind injured Baylor QB Seth Russell). None of those teams have a passing S&P as high as Arkansas (#1). Advantage Hogs.
Kansas State's Offense vs. Arkansas' Defense
Kansas State runs the spread offense. Not "a" spread, THE spread.
What does that mean? Well, according to research from SB Nation's Bill Connelly, Kansas State may be the most perfect spread offense in college football.
How so? Well, "spread" is a term thrown around to mean a lot of things, but at its core, it refers to an offense that spreads the defense out and forces it to make plays in space. So a good stat to measure this is percentage of opponent tackles that are solo, as opposed to assisted tackles.
Kansas State leads the FBS in solo tackles forced this year, with 90% of opponent tackles being solo. And it's not an accident, either, it's by design: this is the third straight year KSU has led the FBS in this stat.
This creates obvious problems for an Arkansas defense that (a) has not tackled well this year, and (b) relies on "swarming" offensive players with assisted tackles as a part of its strategy. The Hogs are going to have to make some tackles in space or they'll have a hard time getting Kansas State off the field.
There is some good news: Snyder's spread-em-out strategy allows him to use somewhat lesser offensive talent to move the football by taking advantage of missed tackles in space. The problem this year (and ever since Collin Klein graduated) is that Kansas State's offensive talent is really inferior, and getting defenders in space still hasn't meant a lot of missed tackles. Also, KSU can't pass. That's a problem.
Like his apprentice Bielema, Bill Snyder believes in winning up front. Kansas State performs pretty well at the line of scrimmage. However, they don't protect their quarterback all that well (although I'd argue that from watching film, KSU quarterbacks frequently hold on to the ball too long).
Kansas State's run game is very similar to Arkansas': efficient, but not explosive. Arkansas' numbers may be a bit misleading (more on that in a second), but either way, slowing Kansas State's run game efficiency, which includes KSU quarterback Joe Huebner (the Wildcats' leading rusher), is of high priority.
We went over this in the Missouri preview: Arkansas feasts on teams that can't pass, largely because it masks Arkansas' biggest weakness. Kansas State, as a team, is very similar to Mizzou, just with a somewhat better running game and significantly worse defense.
In that Mizzou preview, I charted a number of factors and ultimately determined that opponent passing success rate ranking is the best indicator of how many points an opponent will score, with a correlation (R-squared value) of more than 80%. When charting Mizzou based on their numbers, I determined that if the trendline holds, Mizzou would score 3 points.
Well, that's exactly what happened, so let's go for the encore, shall we?
The chart says 7 points this time for the Wildcats, who are ranked 10 spots above Mizzou. With the Mizzou game added, the R-squared value is up to 0.83, which is very good for our predictive efforts.
I'm not expecting exactly 7 points, since Bill Snyder is a wizard and Kansas State is a decent running team, and should get some production there. Still, these numbers are encouraging.
Keys to the Game
- Start fast. This doesn't mean a 21-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but it does mean not falling behind early. That's pretty much Kansas State's only chance to win. With an early lead, Kansas State can milk the clock, run the ball, and only bring out their awful passing game whenever they want to. An early lead forces Kansas State to pass and allows Alex Collins and the running game to get going quickly.
- Offensive line needs to perform. Sam Pittman's departure is concerning for this game, since winning the battle in the trenches is key for Arkansas, and KSU can play up front.
- Turn opportunities into points. Kansas State's defense is generous, and Arkansas should march the ball up and down the field at will. But Arkansas was able to do that in early season games against Toledo, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M - all losses. The Hogs have ironed out most redzone/inside the 40 scoring issues since then, but there can't be a backsliding in Memphis.