As we look forward to the fifth spring practice of the Bret Bielema Era, we’re taking a final look back at the advanced stats from 2016.
Here were Arkansas’ final rankings in key advanced stat categories:
- Overall F/+: 56th (SEC: 8th)
- Overall S&P+: 48th (SEC: 8th)
- Offense S&P+: 39th (SEC: 8th)
- Rushing S&P+: 72nd (SEC: 12th)
- Passing S&P+: 20th (SEC: 2nd)
- Defense S&P+: 63rd (SEC: 10th)
- Rushing Defense S&P+: 112th (SEC: 14th)
- Passing Defense S&P+: 78th (SEC: 13th)
Overall, the numbers show exactly what Arkansas was: a lower-middle SEC team not capable of competing with the top dogs in the conference and a few bounces away from missing a bowl game. Arkansas squeaked out wins over 6-7 TCU and 5-7 Ole Miss - those wins seemed bigger at the times of the games - and also beat 6-7 Mississippi State, along with the beatdown of 9-4 Florida that stands out quite a bit.
The Hogs were destroyed by 8-4 LSU and 8-5 Auburn, and also lost handily to 14-1 Alabama and 8-5 Texas A&M. Then, of course, there were the season-ending losses to 4-8 Missouri and 10-4 Virginia Tech.
Arkansas had no discernible strengths other than passing and punting. The Hogs were weak on both lines - uncharacteristic for a Bret Bielema-coached team - and that made everything else difficult, despite a solid season from the running backs and receivers, and improvement in the secondary.
For the season splits, I included all 10 games against Power 5 teams: eight conference games plus TCU and Virginia Tech. You can see the second half fade, with per-play EVs of -.08 and -.06 in the third and fourth quarters, respectively. This after the opening the game with a .15 EV per play, which is really, really good.
Arkansas struggled on first down, reporting negative EV. In Dan Enos’ offense (and Jim Chaney’s, and many other offensive coordinators’), first down tends to be a “set-up” down, where an efficient play is preferred to set up an explosive play on second down. Arkansas got its second-down explosiveness, averaging 7.1 yards per play, 14.3 yards per successful play, and .13 EV per play. But without a good set-up on first down, Arkansas’ drives tended to be entirely dependent on second down, making the Hogs one-dimensional.
This type of offense requires extreme efficiency. In 2015, Arkansas ranked 1st in the NCAA in opponent-adjusted Success Rate; in 2016, the Hogs fell to 27th, slightly behind their 2014 ranking of 22nd.
With a veteran quarterback, veteran running backs, and a veteran offensive line lined up for 2017, the Hogs should crack the top-20 again. Anything inside the top 10 could mean a special season.
I charted splits by personnel grouping to see if I could get a clearer picture of where Arkansas’ offense struggled.
If you’re unfamiliar with personnel groupings, the term refers to the number of receivers, tight ends, and running backs on the field. It’s reported as a two-digit number: the first digit is the number of running backs, and the second digit is the number of tight ends. For example, “12” refers to a one-back, two-TE set. The number of receivers is calculated by deduction: there are five total spots for skill players, so “12” would have two receivers.
Calculating personnel is an arduous task, and thus far I’ve only calculated five-and-a-half games (the final five: Florida, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri and Virginia Tech, plus the first half of the TCU game), so keep that in mind.
The main thing that jumps out the report is boom-or-bust nature of “12” personnel. To someone not using advanced stats, you could see the 7.1 yards per play and think it was Arkansas’ most successful grouping. But advanced stats tell a very different story. Only 38.2% of plays from “12” were successful - the lowest rate - and the grouping had an EV of .02 per play, also the lowest. If you’ve forgotten about EV, or Expected Value, it refers to the contribution towards scoring made by each play, and is the most comprehensive, qualitative statistic that I have, calculated using a rather complicated formula.
Let’s take a look at each formation’s breakdown.
The heavy group, “22”, was run-heavy and by far the most successful. It featured a home run passing game that was excellent (77.8% success, 16.0 yards per successful play, and .62 EV per play, all the best of any grouping), and an efficient-not-explosive run game that kept the chains moving.
Its primary use was as a home run threat on first down: the defense is expected the Hogs to try for a short gain as a set-up play, think their suspicions are confirmed when they see a “heavy” set, and aren’t prepared for the long pass over their heads.
It had two main weaknesses: it was only good on first down and it was only good in the first half. It was successful in the small number of third-and-shorts it dealt with.
Why it fell off so badly in the second half, I have no idea. My best guess is that Arkansas’ offensive line got worse as the game progressed (more on that coming up), so heavy sets took the brunt of any offensive collapse.
The “pro” group, 22, was the second-most used and yielded solid rushing numbers. It was devastating in the first half and on second down, and awful in short-yardage and after halftime.
The Hogs averaged 17.6 yards per successful pass play with a 45.5% success rate when throwing, but finished with -.02 EV per pass play due to a high volume of sacks from this grouping. It seems the coaches called longer-developing routes off play-action from this grouping, and Austin Allen got hit a lot.
Like the heavy set, the pro set was dreadfully inefficient after halftime.
The ace set, “12”, was a boom-or-bust group. Some of Arkansas’ most explosive plays came from this grouping, including most of the devastating running back screens and most of the deep crossing routes to Keon Hatcher and others.
The Hogs averaged a ridiculous 29.7 yards per successful pass play. The formation was at its best on second down (the explosive down, remember), with 12.3 yards per play, a 66.7% success rate, and a staggering .65 EV per play. The ace set actually got more explosive after halftime, and was Arkansas’ best third-quarter grouping.
Efficiency was the weak point of the ace set. It was terrible on third down and bad at running the ball, demonstrating that it was only successful when it had the element of surprise.
The spread set, “11”, was by far the most-used. More than three-quarters of plays from this grouping were passes, and it was used on more than 75% of third downs. The element of surprise allowed it to be a very good grouping for rushing (61% success, .44 EV per run play).
The overall numbers are skewed by the offense’s two fourth-quarter, fourth-down failures against Missouri, which cost Arkansas a staggering 5.04 points (the Hogs lost by 4, remember). That’s what’s dragging down the numbers, despite consistent success on the first three downs.
The spread set had a small downturn after halftime, but not significant. The fourth quarter was actually decent for this group: 6.8 yards per play, 50% success, and .06 EV per play.
- Arkansas probably didn’t use enough 3-wide sets. The spread grouping saw pretty consistent success on the early downs, but it was arguably underutilized during that time in favor of the “12” personnel, which provided more explosiveness at a cost of less efficiency.
- The fullbacks blocked for the run better than the offensive line... but sets using fullbacks weren’t as explosive. The two-back sets proved to be much more efficient than the ace set for running the ball. Without a fullback in the game, Arkansas’ only rushing success came when it took the defense by surprise or spread it out.
- A lot went wrong after halftime, but it looks like the offensive line was generally the biggest problem in the second half. The most run-heavy sets took the biggest falls in the second half of games, and efficiency fell more than explosiveness in the second half overall. These are two pieces of evidence suggesting that the line was the biggest weak point after the half. The problem seemed to be physical as much as mental: Virginia Tech’s halftime adjustments largely consisted of them deciding to have players “jump” at linemen before the snap and shout over the snap count. This proved sufficient to rattle Arkansas’ linemen, causing false starts, late starts, and a general crisis of confidence.
Kurt Anderson gets (a little bit of) a pass since this was his first season, but the line needs to make major strides in 2017 if Arkansas hopes to do much better than 7-5.
If you have any other observations from the data, be sure to drop a comment and let me know!