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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M

Two veteran quarterbacks face off in College Station

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Forget the records, forget the betting lines, forget the storylines. Arkansas and Texas A&M is almost always a close game. We’d be saying that even if Arkansas was 0-4 like most expected the Hogs would be at this point. It’s definitely true now that we know the Hogs have a decent team.

Texas A&M (3-1) has a decent team too. More than decent, actually. Texas A&M is paying Jimbo Fisher a lot of money ($7.5 million per year) to build an SEC West power, so when A&M took its third straight whuppin’ at the hands of Alabama, there was grumbling about the return on investment. That largely subsided when A&M upset Florida the following week. The other two Aggie wins are over weaklings (Vanderbilt and Mississippi State) so there’s still a lot to learn about this team, although it’s second-best in the West until dethroned.

Meet the Aggies

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

All rankings are out of 101 teams that have played at least one FBS game.

A&M’s overall numbers like Adjusted Scoring Margin are being hurt by a 17-12 win over Vanderbilt. The Commodores are terrible (dead-last in Adjusted Scoring Margin), so a five-point win really isn’t doing it for A&M, especially since Vandy’s other two games are a pair of 41-7 losses to South Carolina and LSU. That probably means A&M is undervalued, since it is clearly better than that game.

We can also see that the Aggies play a conservative, ball-control system. They are efficient on offense, allowing them to string together long drives. Their defense prevents efficiency, forcing a lot of three-and-outs even as they give up a decent number of big plays. That allows them to dominate time of possession and shorten the game.

The Aggies are 12.5-point favorites, but the EV+ model smells an upset. It’s going with Arkansas 27, Texas A&M 19. I’d be surprised but thrilled with that result.

Scouting report

Strengths

  • Excellent pass protection
  • Offense is very good at staying on schedule and converting third downs, both through the air and on the ground
  • Strong run defense is especially good at preventing big runs

Weaknesses

  • Offense struggles to generate big pass plays
  • Pass defense is poor and gives up a lot of big plays
  • Pass rush is subpar

When Texas A&M has the ball

Welcome back to Six Degrees of Barry Odom. The Arkansas DC has leveraged industry connections to develop gameplans twice already this season: Odom was Mizzou’s secondary coach when the Tigers faced old Mike Leach Texas Tech teams back in the day, and both he and OC Kendal Briles had connections to Lane Kiffin and his OC Jeff Lebby.

Now here’s another one: Texas A&M offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey came to College Station from Memphis, where he was OC opposite... Odom. The pair worked together for three seasons (2012-2014) before Odom left for Mizzou. Dickey stayed for the rest of Justin Fuente’s tenure and then hung around for new coach Mike Norvell before joining Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.

As you can see, the Aggies’ aim is to stay ahead of the chains. They’re actually pretty pass-heavy, ranking just 63rd of 101 teams in standard downs run rate, although the run game is very efficient when they choose to use it.

They’ll try to maximize their leverage rate (26th), success rate (10th overall, 10th in standard downs, 18th in passing downs), and marginal third downs (10th). This allows them to control the ball and go on long drives that wear down the defense.

The key to A&M’s offensive success is actually not its run game, but its pass game, led by veteran senior Kellen Mond, who has the Aggies up to 22nd in passing marginal efficiency. Mond is a bit all over the place. According to data from SEC Stat Cat, Mond is 3rd in the SEC in accuracy percentage (behind Mac Jones and Kyle Trask). However, when he’s off, he’s way off: Mond has the 4th-highest in interceptible pass rate and the 5th-highest uncatchable pass rate.

Mond is pretty responsible with the ball and doesn’t make many obviously-bad throws like K.J. Costello and Matt Corral did against Arkansas.

The Aggies lost then-leading receiver Caleb Chapman (14 catches, 197 yards, 3 TD) against Florida, leaving them with limited production from the receiver position. Backup running back Ainias Smith fills a Trelon Smith-like role as the receiving back with high volume. And Jalen Wydermyer is probably the most talented tight end the Hogs have faced this season. Stopping Wydermyer will be a challenge, but if the Hogs succeed, the Aggies have limited weapons otherwise, with deep threat Chase Lane as the only other reliable target.

Fumbling issues have hurt the Aggies’ EVA/PAN numbers, but this is a solid, if underutilized, rushing attack. I expect Texas A&M to recommit to the run on Saturday, as teams that stick with the run have had success against the Hogs while teams that try to get greedy have had problems.

The Aggies do a pretty good job of opening up holes and get their fair share of big runs.

Isaiah Spiller is probably second only to Auburn’s Tank Bigsby in terms of quality of running back faced by the Hogs this year. Spiller boasts a high success rate, excellent line yards, and solid explosiveness. The Aggies usually only run at opportune times, but I think they’ll happily run Spiller more frequently on early downs against Arkansas.

Overall, the objective for Arkansas’ defense is to contain — not shut down — the A&M run game and focus instead on getting into Mond’s head. Shutting down the Aggie run game entirely is probably too much to ask, and the Aggies haven’t demonstrated a willingness to come out and be run-heavy anyway. I expect a good game from Spiller, but Arkansas’ defense can overcome that.

When Arkansas has the ball

Fisher has been fortunate to keep both of his coordinators for all three seasons at A&M. Former Notre Dame DC Mike Elko runs the Aggie defense and usually has a salty unit.

The Aggies’ weak defensive numbers here are largely a product of playing Alabama and Florida, though A&M has also faced the weaker offenses of Mississippi State and Vanderbilt to balance things out. The Aggies have been victimized by big plays and often struggle to get off the field, even as they are decent and forcing third downs.

The Hogs, of course, are still looking for a breakout on offense, as we discussed in the Open Date Stats Study.

The Hogs presently boast the nation’s worst rushing attack. Bad offensive line play has been the main culprit, though an injury to Rakeem Boyd didn’t help. A&M’s run defense is forgiving at the point of attack (41st stuff rate, 37th line yards) but doesn’t give up many big runs. It’s hard to expect much from the Razorback run game in this one.

That’s going to mean that Feleipe Franks needs a huge day. The Aggie pass defense is quite poor and is especially bad about giving up big plays. They don’t get a ton of pressure (also good for Franks, who requires a clean pocket).

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Arkansas wins without 300 passing yards or close to it. Franks threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn’s relatively-weak pass defense, so that’s not an unachievable goal. This sets up to be a big game for all of Arkansas’ wideouts: De’Vion Warren will need a deep catch or two, while Treylon Burks could easily get 15 targets in this one. Mike Woods will be needed over the middle as well.

Keys to the Game

  1. Contain the run. Stopping the run is too much to ask, but limiting big runs has, in recent weeks, encouraged opposing offenses to get impatient. The Hogs have to make sure they don’t get gouged here.
  2. Rattle Mond. Kellen Mond is a fine quarterback, but he can be inconsistent and will hand out a few gifts. The Hogs probably need an interception or two to stay in this game.
  3. Air attack. This probably won’t be the game to get the rushing attack going, so the Hogs may end up being one-dimensional on offense. That dimension better be good. Arkansas’ offense will need a high completion rate on RPOs and short passes, plus a few deep shots. If the Hogs are at 250 passing yards or under, I don’t think they’ll be in it at the end.