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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Auburn

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The struggling Hogs have nothing to lose in Saturday’s matchup against Auburn.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

As I mentioned in the Kentucky recap, Chad Morris’ job essentially comes down to two winnable games this season. This isn’t one of them. On Saturday, the Hogs get to take a free shot with nothing to lose.

Auburn has some major weaknesses. The Tigers were exposed two weeks ago in the Swamp and have now lost star running back JaTarvious Whitlow for the season. Their defense remains nasty, and the offense still has some pieces, but they no longer look like a contender for the SEC West title.

Measuring Progress

Of course, by this point, many Hog fans aren’t thinking about the opponent. Instead, they are worried about the future of Razorback football after the Hogs frittered away what was probably their most winnable SEC game.

Two years in, is Chad Morris making progress at Arkansas? In the win-loss column, not really, but I don’t think that’s the best way to measure it. Win-loss record is very sensitive to record in close games, and close games record is not predictive of future performance. There are all kinds of data to back this up. Bret Bielema started 0-9 in one-possession games, won six of the next seven, and then went 2-4 to close his Arkansas tenure. Bobby Petrino was 5-3 in one-possession games during his first season (2008) and 0-2 during his second (2009). The reason is simple: his first team was bad and was thus forced into one-possession games with teams like Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe. His second team was able to blow out those teams and was only in close games against good teams. His close-games record got worse because the team got better.

We can use adjusted scoring margin to track overall improvement. For that, we’ll need data going back several years. I mentioned in the open date stats study that I had historical data all the way back to 2008. That was wrong: I actually have complete data back to 2006, the last time Arkansas won the SEC West. Data from as early as 2001 is still in initial preparation stages.

The labels are SEC rankings for that year. Hover over any individual point to see FBS ranking. Notice that each Hog team that was below zero missed a bowl, and each Hog team that was above zero reached a bowl.

This graph allows us to visualize what Chad Morris inherited, and how Arkansas’ 2019 team stacks up against others. The answer to the latter question is “not well.” But the 2019 team has improved by a decent amount. Firing a coach who improved from Year 1 to Year 2 requires pretty unique circumstances. Remember: advanced stats improvement foreshadows win-loss improvement but doesn’t always reflect it. What does that mean? Well, take Arkansas’ 2009 team. Look at where it finished in adjusted scoring margin. Pretty good for a 7-5 team. It actually finished slightly higher than the 2011 team that went 10-2. That team made substantial improvement from the 2008 team that didn’t quite show up on the field. The record went from 5-7 to 7-5, but Arkansas went from playing like a 3-9 team to playing like a 9-3 team in just one year. The win-loss improvement really showed the following year, when the Hogs were only slightly better in adjusted scoring margin but went from 7-5 to 10-2.

Basically, most of the improvement during Petrino’s first three years showed up in the advanced stats a year before it showed up in the win-loss column (this happened to Bielema as well). The case for firing Morris and starting over is quite a bit weaker when you take this improvement into account. At this point, I’m not being Hog-blinded optimistic when I say that if the Hogs finish 3-9 and have roughly the same adjusted scoring margin that they do right now (-3.5), then they probably win 6 or 7 games next season as win-loss improvement catches up with actual improvement.

Now, if the Hogs go 2-10 and fade late like they did last year, all bets are off. If they end up at -4 or worse, then you probably have to make a change. The point is, it’s still too early to make a final decision on whether or not Arkansas should start looking for a new football coach.

Meet the Tigers

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the glossary.)

Scouting report

  • Auburn’s offense is what it’s always been under Gus Malzahn: run-heavy and very productive on early downs with a mixed bag on passing downs. The Tigers run on 69% of standard downs (18th-highest in the FBS) and do most of their damage there.
  • Freshman quarterback Bo Nix has had his share of struggles, but he has all day to throw and has looked good at times. Auburn is not totally helpless on passing downs like they were during some of Malzahn’s less productive years.
  • Auburn’s defense is scary-good, ranking 2nd in the FBS in PAN. They are capable of absolutely shutting teams down on standard downs. Opponents tend to be pass-heavy against them on early downs because of their dominant run defense.
  • Their defense is vulnerable to big plays. They also don’t get consistent pressure on the quarterback, which is surprising given their level of defensive line talent. Big pass plays are very doable for the Hogs.

Our projected final score of Auburn 34, Arkansas 16 is pretty much in line with what Vegas thinks will happen.

When Auburn has the ball

The Tigers are breaking in a new starting running back and will probably deploy some passing fixes after the offensive debacle at Florida.

As we’ve seen all season, Arkansas limits big plays but can’t get off the field on third down. There’s some good news for the Hogs, as Auburn is bad at staying on the field on third down. However, their high leverage rate, a product of their conservative offense, means they don’t face very many third-and-longs. The Tigers are 36th in success rate on both standard and passing downs.

Arkansas’ defensive front can cause some havoc in the run game, and that’s precisely where Auburn is vulnerable. This could be a good chance for Sosa Agim and the rest of the defensive line to make some plays.

However, I’m very worried about edge runs. Malzahn’s classic misdirection run offense will test the edges. Arkansas did a pretty poor job on the edge against Kentucky, and this is a much stiffer test.

The passing game matchup isn’t friendly. Arkansas’ best attribute is its ability to rush the passer... but Auburn’s offensive line has been very good at protecting Nix. Auburn may be fairly limited in big passing plays, but they may not need them. The Tigers should move the ball on the ground and get steady production through the air. The Hogs will need turnovers or a herculean effort from the defensive line (or both) to generate enough stops to have a chance.

When Arkansas has the ball

Who is going to play quarterback? I’ve seen some folks saying it should be Nick Starkel no matter what, since he’s a junior who will be back next year. I’m not so sure I agree. There’s more to the offense than just the quarterback, and all the other offensive players will benefit from the quarterback who can make the right calls and distribute the ball best. If that’s Ben Hicks, then he should start. If they are “tied” or it’s unclear to the coaches who is better, then I agree that Starkel should probably get more reps.

At this point, it’s a mess. Hicks has clearly played better than Starkel over the last two games. I’m inclined to think that whatever funk Hicks was in at the beginning of the season is now over, and we’re finally seeing what the coaches saw in him. He still hasn’t thrown an interception this season; in fact, the offense has not turned the ball over in the 10 quarters he’s been playing. Starkel may have the higher ceiling, but the wild inconsistency that plagued him at Texas A&M is showing up here.

Auburn’s defense is one of the best in the country on early downs. They are quite good at knocking opponents off-schedule. Their passing downs defense is good, but not elite. They are just 31st in passing downs success rate defense and 40th in marginal third down defense.

Because of this, the Hogs are going to have to get some big plays. Arkansas has the single biggest standard vs. passing downs divide of any team in the FBS: they get almost no explosiveness on standard downs, and they are very explosive on passing downs. The Hogs really have to get some big plays on early downs on Saturday, or they’ll spend too much of the game in third-and-long situations.

Teams are pass-heavy against Auburn because they cannot run with any efficient. Auburn is prone to giving up a big run or two, but they give you nothing in most cases. Turning big runs into bigger runs is pretty much all Arkansas can do. Unless Rakeem Boyd breaks one, I don’t see Arkansas getting much out of the run game on Saturday.

The Tigers are a little more vulnerable through the air. They are very good at cracking down on efficiency, but they don’t get many sacks and are prone to giving up big pass plays. This is probably Arkansas’ only opening to score some points.

Keys to the Game

  1. Big pass plays. As mentioned above, this is pretty much all Arkansas can do on offense. But once the Hogs hit a couple big passes, the running lanes will open up. The Hogs have to take some risks and push Auburn deep, because the Tigers aren’t going to give up much from play to play.
  2. Infiltrate the run. Auburn will happily run the ball all day if Arkansas allows it. Since I don’t see the Hogs stopping edge runs anytime soon, the Hogs’ best bet is to create some havoc by getting into the Tiger backfield. That will put Auburn behind the chains and into territory where they aren’t comfortable with a freshman quarterback.
  3. Generate a non-offensive touchdown. Or two. Or three. Treylon Burks is one of the nation’s best punt returners and the Hogs have three defensive touchdowns this year, so it’s definitely doable. The Hogs will have to have to some help to keep this one close.