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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M

The Hogs have to refocus quickly if they’re going to recover from last week’s shocking loss.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Texas A&M Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s late September, and Arkansas’ season is already in recovery mode. Entering 2019, we thought the worst-case scenario through four games would be 3-1. Instead the Hogs are 2-2, having never led against Ole Miss and San José State and needing all four quarters to beat Portland State and Colorado State.

Even now, some kind of recovery isn’t off the table. The Hogs have talented young wideouts and have upgraded their passing game tremendously. The defense and run game have (somewhat mysteriously) regressed, but there’s still time to get better.

Meet the Aggies

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

Texas A&M, like Arkansas, is 2-2, but it’s a very different 2-2, even if Aggie fans are slightly disappointed. Texas A&M entered this season with high expectations for their $7.5 million coach, Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies play Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU, and the plan was to go 8-0 in the other games and then knock off one of those national title contenders. That’s why they’re giving Fisher the big bucks.

Instead, expectations are tempered as Texas A&M has struggled on offense in losses to Clemson (24-10) and Auburn (28-20). The Aggies can’t run the ball consistently and quarterback Kellen Mond doesn’t look improved over last year. Now a 7-5 record looks likely. Will the Aggies be angry or disappointed on Saturday? It’s hard to say.

You can read more in the glossary, but we’re debuting new “adjusted points” statistics and game score predictions. The idea is simple: we already can tell where a team’s points come from through the EV/EVA system, so all we have to do is opponent-adjust the Offense EVA numbers (to get PAN) and add them to expectations for field position, placekicking, and defensive scores.

That gives us our score prediction: Texas A&M 40, Arkansas 14. Oof. If there’s good news, it’s that only three FBS games for each team are being used in these calculations, so I can’t really guarantee their accuracy right now.

Here are a few other score “predictions” based on all data to this point:

  • Ole Miss 35, Arkansas 17 (actual score: 31-17)
  • Arkansas 43, Colorado State 33
  • Arkansas 30, San José State 25
  • Arkansas State 35, Arkansas 23 (uh oh)
  • Arkansas 37, Tennessee 29 (Tennessee is bad, y’all)

Remember that this system is forward-looking and doesn’t necessarily back-fit over any single game, since teams don’t play the exact same way in every game. It’s useful for giving an idea of what level a team is playing at overall. Hopefully I’ll be able to make small tweaks and improve its accuracy over the season.

Scouting report

  • The Aggies have had a hard time running the ball consistently, but they are capable of big runs. They lost last year’s leading rusher Trayveon Williams, and this year’s expected workhorse, Jashuan Corbin, was lost for the year early on. Mond himself might be the biggest running threat.
  • Mond has not made significant improvement as a passer, but the Aggies have been able to move the ball through the air against two elite defenses, albeit without many big passing plays.
  • Texas A&M is very strong defensively. Generating big plays against the Aggies is very difficult, and they are quite stout against the run, although they got out-bullied a little bit by Auburn last week.

When Arkansas has the ball

Some of these numbers aren’t going to line up well because they are all opponent-adjusted and we only have three FBS games of data to opponent-adjust them with. That will improve with time, obviously.

The Hogs are 125th in Rushing PAN despite not-terrible efficiency and explosiveness numbers. Two lost fumbles and multiple third- and fourth-down failures will do that to you. Through the air, Nick Starkel is capable of generating big plays to Arkansas’ best unit, its wide receivers and tight ends. The Aggies don’t give up many big plays but they can be had by an efficient passing game. Interceptions are probably the big fear for Starkel. He really can’t force the ball against a fast Aggie secondary that can generate some takeaways.

Auburn is still working through its offense with freshman quarterback Bo Nix, but the Tigers had success when they confused the A&M defense, like on this touchdown pass:

Arkansas is really going to have to bring some creativity to move the ball on Saturday.

When Texas A&M has the ball

As you can see, the Aggies’ offense got off to awful starts against Clemson and Auburn, falling behind quickly. They roared to life only late, scoring touchdowns in the final two minutes in each game to make the final score more respectable.

The advanced stats aren’t sure what to make of the Aggies on offense due to the high quality of defenses they’ve faced: they are 20th in Offense PAN despite ranking 76th in marginal efficiency and 89th in explosiveness. It is certain that Mond can keep the chains moving with his arm: he completed 31 of 49 passes against Auburn for 335 yards and two touchdowns. The lack of big passing plays means that the Aggies have to labor to get points out of their drives. Sacking Mond is no easy task, as his line is solid and he is very mobile. It’s hard to see this going well for the Hogs’ young secondary that got absolutely victimized by San José State’s Josh Love (32 of 49, 402 yards) last week.

In both of the Aggies’ big games, they’ve had success throwing late against passive defenses. Here, Mond has time and finds his target:

If the Hogs haven’t figured out how to stop the slant, Mond will take that all day:

The Hogs might have a chance to stop Texas A&M on the ground, but the defense’s propensity to give up big runs could haunt Arkansas, as Aggie running back Isaiah Spiller is capable of generating big runs:

Two in five of Spiller’s runs are stuffed, but another two in five are successful, and when he hits a big run, it’s a really big one. Mond also gets 3.2 line yards per rush and could cause a problem with his legs if the Hogs lose contain.

Arkansas was the slower team against SJSU, which is a shocking statement just to write. The Hogs will be much slower than the Aggies, so containing them will be difficult, as the Aggies can spread the ball around.

Keys to the game

  1. Finish drives. A “scoring chance” drive is any drive that gets a first down inside the opponents’ 40. You should score at least 80% of the time on scoring chances, and average at least 5 points per scoring chance. Against Portland State, Ole Miss, and SJSU, the Hogs averaged 2.3, 2.0 and 2.4 points per scoring chance. Moving the ball hasn’t been the problem: actually ending promising drives with points has been.
  2. Make Mond beat you deep. Mond had the worst game of his career last year against Arkansas, going 17 of 26 for 201 yards and two interceptions in a closer-than-expected win. Hogs limited Mond as a runner and took away easy throws, something they’ll have to do again in order to have a chance.
  3. Give Starkel a chance. Arkansas’ offensive line is a disaster zone right now, but getting Colton Jackson back at left tackle will help. Starkel and the Hog receivers are good enough to make this game interesting, but not if Starkel is running for his life or the run game fails to affect A&M’s gameplan in any way.