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Arkansas vs. Auburn Advanced Stats Preview: Chess Match

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The Hogs head to the Plains for a tough battle against a good written off too early.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

While everyone else was watching Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas A&M, the Auburn Tigers turned their season around.

Gus Malzahn was as good as fired after the Tigers lost 29-16 to Texas A&M on September 17th. Now, a month later, the two teams Auburn lost to are 13-0, and the Tigers have won three straight, including a pair of SEC wins.

Of course, it’s okay to question the competition. Mississippi State is terrible, with losses to South Alabama and BYU this season, so the only marquee win was LSU. Of course, LSU’s best win is over 2-4 Missouri, and Les Miles was fired after that 18-13 debacle on the Plains.

I’ll go ahead and warn you that the advanced stats, particularly the opponent-adjusted ones, love Auburn, and have them winning by two touchdowns. ESPN’s FPI formula gives Arkansas a 15% chance of winning. Why? Partially because Auburn played Clemson and A&M close, and partially because the stats still love LSU. They are ranked 7th in the S&P+ overall rankings, so Auburn’s win over them is a huge boost for Auburn. I’m obviously not sold on LSU, and most analysts and casual fans who have watched the Tigers play aren’t either. But those numbers are really helping Auburn.

Furthermore, these stats don’t like Arkansas at all. Prior to the Arkansas loss to Alabama, ESPN’s FPI and the S&P+ formula had Arkansas as an underdog in every remaining game. Even now, S&P+ says Arkansas has only a 46% chance to beat Missouri and a 54% chance to beat Mississippi State.

Why is this? Frankly, because Arkansas is “supposed” to be 3-4 right now. S&P+ win calculations take the box score of every game and decide, based on key stats, who “should” have won. According to the advanced stats, Arkansas had a 42% chance to beat Louisiana Tech, 29% chance to beat TCU, and a 30% chance to beat Ole Miss. The Hogs are 3-0 in those games, and “should” have gone 1-2 or 0-3. Arkansas is ranked 45th in both ESPN’s FPI formula and the S&P+ overall rankings (Auburn is 8th). Of course, given that in 2014 Arkansas finished 10th in S&P+ rankings and went only 7-6, I’m sure Hog fans would rather have the real-life wins than the advanced stats glory.

Regardless, Auburn is a much better team than the one written off after three weeks, and if both teams play at the quality the advanced stats say they are, Auburn should win easily. But the game isn’t played on paper, and the advanced stats can still tell us important keys.

Scouting report

I’m adding this new section to simplify things. I’ve watched some film and looked over the numbers, and combined all that information to identify three strengths and three weaknesses for the Tigers. Most of these points will be brought up as we work through this preview.

Strengths

  • Very efficient offense, especially on standard downs
  • Surprisingly good in must-pass situations
  • Very productive defensive backs

Weaknesses

  • Subpar linebacker play
  • Struggles to protect quarterback (and he’s not very mobile)
  • Unable to take advantage of Arkansas’ special teams weaknesses

When Arkansas has the ball

Keep in mind that stats with the plus sign after them are opponent-adjusted, while those without are raw.

The only obvious advantage Arkansas has here is turnovers: Auburn doesn’t force many of them.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Hope in the trenches, part II

Last week’s “key defensive front stats” graphic identified all the ways that Ole Miss’ defensive front was weak. This was significant for the Arkansas offense because, as we demonstrated through this chart, Alabama and Texas A&M have unusually strong defensive fronts, and that contributed to many of Arkansas’ offensive struggles in those games.

Faced with Ole Miss’ weaker front, Arkansas had 42 called runs for 270 yards. Protecting the passer was still iffy, but better.

Auburn’s front is better than Ole Miss’, but not by much. And it’s not anywhere near as good as Alabama’s or Texas A&M’s. Overall, the Tigers are good at generating a pass rush on passing downs and limiting big runs. They are weak when it comes to generating havoc (“havoc” plays are forced turnovers, sacks & TFLs, or pass deflections; “havoc rate” is the percentage of plays where the defense creates a havoc play) and stopping teams from consistently making short gains on the ground (line yards).

Defensive Line

  • Carl Lawson, DE, 6’2, 253, 11.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks
  • Montravius Adams, DT, 6’4, 309, 13.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks
  • Marlon Davidson, DE, 6’3, 273, 12.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks
  • Dontavius Russell, DT, 6’3, 308, 8.5 tackles, 0 TFL, 0 sacks

This is a massive defensive line that will create problems for the Hogs up front. Lawson is the best player, and he’s the outlier, with more speed than size. He’s battled injuries throughout his career but is finally healthy. The Auburn line is better than the linebackers when evaluating the front.

Linebackers

  • Tre’ Williams, WLB, 6’2, 240, 27.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack
  • Deshaun Davis, MLB, 5’11, 239, 17.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0 sacks
  • Darrell Williams, SLB, 6’2, 231, 17.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0 sacks

Lots of size at the linebacker position, but less productivity. As we saw in the chart above, the Tigers linebacking corps is just 94th in the country in creating havoc.

This raises a key question: was Arkansas’ rushing success against Ole Miss due to the fact that Ole Miss’ defensive line was bad, or that its linebackers were bad? If the answer is line, that’s bad news, because Auburn’s line is at least decent. If the answer is linebackers, that bodes well for the Hogs, because Auburn’s aren’t nearly as good as Alabama’s or Texas A&M’s.

I suspect Arkansas will be able to run the ball against Auburn much more efficiently than the Hogs ran on Alabama or Texas A&M. I don’t expect many big runs, but I do think the Hogs can keep the chains moving with short runs. Protecting Austin Allen is a much bigger concern for me, as Auburn’s pass rush is pretty good.

Auburn’s secondary is much better than its front, but it’s not anything Arkansas hasn’t seen this season. Alabama was much better at stopping passing efficiency, while Texas A&M’s secondary induced a lot of havoc. Auburn’s secondary roughly combines those two traits.

Auburn has only played two games against a competent quarterback - Texas A&M and Trevor Knight, plus Clemson and Deshaun Watson. Auburn held Clemson to a season-low 19 points, but Clemson’s top receiver Mike Williams had a huge performance, snagging nine passes for 174 yards on 14 targets. Seeing good receivers thrive against Auburn bodes well for Arkansas, since the Hogs have very good receivers. Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds had seven catches on nine targets for 98 yards.

As long as the Arkansas line can protect Allen, I think the receivers can get open.

When Auburn has the ball

The Tigers have faced some great defenses this season. Clemson, LSU, and Texas A&M are all ranked in the top-25 nationally in Defense S&P+. Of course, Auburn failed to score 20 points on any of those three, but the Tigers have dominated the three teams outside the top 25 (Mississippi State, Arkansas State, UL Monroe). Obviously, Arkansas is outside the top 25 as well.

Auburn is easily the most run-heavy team Arkansas has faced this season. The Tigers will run on 70% of standard downs (Arkansas runs on 65% of standard downs, for comparison).

Two things stand out: first, Auburn’s standard-downs offense values efficiency over explosiveness, ranking highly in success rate and line-yards per carry but very low in isoPPP; and second, they struggle to protect their quarterback, ranking 117th in raw standard-downs sack rate and 97th in overall opponent-adjusted sack rate (basically, they are below average in sack rate even factoring in the great pass-rushes they’ve played).

Running Backs

  • Kerryon Johnson, 6’0, 211, 538 yards, 5.1 yards per carry
  • Kamryn Pettway, 6’0, 240, 505 yards, 5.5 yards per carry

Johnson is a “game-time decision” after getting hurt against UL Monroe. He didn’t play against Mississippi State two weeks ago. My guess is that he’ll play.

If he doesn’t, or if he’s limited, then Auburn’s run game will be up to Pettway, the 240-pounder who carried the rock 39 times for 169 yards against MSU. Pettway is obviously a bruiser who will be hard to bring down, but the good news is that his arsenal of runs is less diverse than Johnson’s, who is dangerous on jet sweeps and end arounds as well as inside and off-tackle runs.

Not having to respect the quarterback run game will be a nice bonus for the Hogs.

Quarterback

  • Sean White, 1,187 yards, 69.7% completions, 6 TD, 2 int, 7.6 yards per attempt

White is Arkansas’ first non-running quarterback. He performed well against the Hogs last season, throwing for 254 yards. Malzahn opened 2016 wanting to give his mobile quarterbacks (John Franklin III, Jeremy Johnson) a chance to prove themselves, but neither played well and Malzahn has stuck with White since Week 2. It’s probably the right choice, since White is an underrated passer. He leads the SEC in completion percentage, albeit on mostly short, safe throws.

It will be interesting to see if not facing a serious running threat benefits Arkansas’ defense. Against TCU and Texas A&M, defensive coordinator Robb Smith went all-out to stop the passing game. It kind of worked against TCU’s Kenny Hill, although he rushed for nearly 100 yards. It did not work against Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight, who rushed for 160 yards and had running backs who added 200 more in the worst run defense performance by Arkansas since the 1990’s. Against Alabama, the Hogs decided to rectify that problem by going all-out to stop Jalen Hurts. The Hogs held Hurts to just 22 rushing yards... but got decimated in every other possible way by Alabama’s loaded offense.

That brings us to Ole Miss, where Smith and Bielema may have found something that works. For most of the first half, the Hogs reverted to the TCU/Texas A&M strategy of focusing on pass defense, but Chad Kelly had a decent time throwing the football (13 of 21 for 190 yards) and running it (about 60 rushing yards) as the Rebels forced a 20-20 tie despite a strong performance from the Arkansas offense.

In the second half, the Hogs made a major change. The Hogs mostly abandoned zone coverage in favor of man-free (tight man-to-man with a single deep safety) with lots of blitzes. I showed the A-gap blitz in the Ole Miss recap. According to Jimmy Carter with Whole Hog Sports, Arkansas blitzed just four times on Kelly’s 22 first-half dropbacks and 13 times on his 22 second-half dropbacks. Against the blitz in the second half, Kelly was 2 of 11 for 23 yards with an interception and a sack.

Will A-gap blitzes work against Auburn? The Tiger run game is so varied that trying the same thing over and over again is a recipe to get exploited by Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. But the Hogs can pair line stunts with A-gap blitzes (like on Jeremiah Ledbetter’s sack on the final drive) to disrupt the run or the pass.

I think the big takeaway from the second half was the man coverage. Arkansas was able to leave its corners in man coverage and they locked down some talented Ole Miss receivers. That bodes well for the Hog secondary moving forward.

Wide Receivers

  • Tony Stevens, 36 targets, 408 yards, 11.3 yards per target
  • Kyle Davis, 14 targets, 212 yards, 15.1 yards per target
  • Ryan Davis, 24 targets, 155 yards, 6.5 yards per target

The passing game is pretty much just Stevens. He was targeted 14 times against Texas A&M (catching eight passes for 86 yards). Kyle Davis has a couple of big receptions, while Ryan Davis is a short-yardage volume receiver.

If Auburn’s offense has a major weak point, this is probably it, at least on paper.

Back in 2014, I started tracking how each opponents’ top wide receiver performed against the Hogs, noting that Robb Smith seems to have a penchant for shutting down the best receiver on the opposing team. Sometimes it was obvious, like when eventual Biletnikoff Award winner Amari Cooper of Alabama had a season-low two catches for 16 yards. The Hogs occasionally get burned by a number two or number three guy, but if a team doesn’t have a quality number two or number three guy, the advantage goes to Arkansas.

I decided to check up on that theory. Here we go:

It seems the old “take away their best weapon” strategy is still working. I counted only true wide receivers (leaving off Ole Miss’ Evan Engram, who is technically a tight end).

What does that mean for Auburn? It means that the Tigers will likely need someone other than Stevens to step up in the passing game, especially if the Tigers hope to remain two-dimensional.

Special Teams

  • Daniel Carlson, K, 21-21 PAT, 13-14 FG, 97% touchbacks
  • Kevin Phillips, P, 40.5 yards per punt

Carlson is an elite kicker. He’s nearly automatic as a place-kicker, and Arkansas is basically guaranteed to start at its own 25 after every Auburn kickoff.

Strangely, though, as I wrote in my scouting report at the top, Auburn’s special teams are not really in a position to take advantage of Arkansas’ weaknesses. Here’s how:

  • Arkansas’ kickoff return unit is among the worst in the country, consistently failing to reach the 25 on a return (just 35.3% of returnable kicks get back to the 25). Auburn’s 97% touchback rate actually benefits Arkansas because the 25 is better than the return unit could probably do anyway.
  • Outside of place-kicking, Auburn’s only other special teams strength is punt returns, and even then they’re only average (61st). The Hogs can easily negate this because Toby Baker rarely allows returns. The Hogs are 13th nationally in punt success rate (a complex stat that takes the national average net punting yards from every field position spot and rewards punters who net more than that from that same spot).
  • Auburn’s kick return unit is terrible; worse than Arkansas’, actually. The Tigers rank 112th in kick return success rate, with just 27.3% of returnable kicks brought back past the 25-yard line. That should theoretically cancel out Arkansas’ poor kickoff efforts (66.7% of Arkansas’ returnable kicks are brought back past the 25).

Keys to the game

  1. Win first down. This goes for both offense and defense. The Hog offense is 5th in the nation in second-down S&P. Auburn is 3rd. Arkansas’ offense has thrived on second-down passing this season, but to keep from becoming one-dimensional, the Hogs have to run well on first down, as they did against Ole Miss (27 carries, 200 yards). On the other side, Auburn struggles to protect its quarterback, so forcing the Tigers to pass on early downs by stopping first-down runs can help the Hog defense create negative plays.
  2. Protect Austin Allen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson is another elite pass-rusher in a conference full of them. The Tigers actually aren’t good at getting early-down sacks, but Arkansas cannot afford to let them be on Saturday. If Allen has time to throw, Hog receivers will get open, and Allen will find them.
  3. Win one-on-ones on the outside. This one also goes for offense and defense. Auburn’s secondary is aggressive and has performed well this year, but Arkansas’ receivers have dominated attempts by quality secondaries to cover them one-on-one all season. On the other side of the ball, it’s even more important. To stop Auburn’s run game, the Hogs need to let the linebackers focus on the run (and at least one of the safeties keep an eye in the backfield as well), which will isolate the Hog corners, probably in a lot of man coverage situations. Unlike Ole Miss, most of Auburn’s passes will be short, so tight coverage is a necessity.