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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Georgia

Previewing the first game of the Sam Pittman era

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Baylor
Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are thinking playoff in 2020
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Did you miss football?

It’s delayed, but Arkansas football is back. The Sam Pittman Era plan to kick off with Nevada is out the window, so why not Georgia? The Bulldogs are loaded, especially on defense, and are definitely a top-10 team and possibly top-5. They’re thinking playoff.

Before we dive in, if you haven’t read through the season preview series, it’s worth reviewing, especially the last two parts:

What I’ll Be Watching

If you’re a longtime reader of Arkansas Fight, you know that these advanced stats previews don’t usually get very detailed for the first week or two, since using last year’s stats doesn’t tell us much. Instead, I like to call out some things I’ll be watching when the Hogs take the field on Saturday.

Does the veer-and-shoot have life left?

The “veer-and-shoot” — a fun name for the old Baylor offense under Art Briles — took the college football world by storm just a decade ago. A simplistic but vertical passing game paired with a between-the-tackles run game and a very fast tempo to help Baylor briefly become a college football power. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles was there for all of it. His three stops since leaving Waco have been mostly successful, but other veer-and-shoot advocates aren’t having similar success.

At Tulsa, Phillip Montgomery is on the hot seat after five seasons of no progress on offense. The Golden Hurricane were shut out by the Chavis/Morris Hogs in 2018 so... yeah. Montgomery is 25-38 in in five-plus seasons. His offense finished 76th in Offense PAN last year, and an inability to move the football cost Tulsa a chance to upset Oklahoma State last week.

At Syracuse, Dino Babers went from can’t-miss coaching prospect to... well, he’s not on the hot seat at Syracuse, but he’s no longer a big coaching name. After a 10-win season in 2018, the Orange are 5-9 since and ranked 102nd in Offense PAN last year.

Florida State fans hoped Briles would fix their moribund offense last year. After finishing 89th in Offense PAN in Willie Taggart’s first season, Briles got them up to 46th last year, but it wasn’t enough to save Taggart’s job. I think it’s fair to say that Briles is the only successful advocate of the veer-and-shoot left in the FBS, but how much of an advantage can he create given the talent at Arkansas?

ESPN’s Bill Connelly recently pointed out that “no one can derive a permanent advantage from tempo because defenses have adjusted.” And Chris Brown of Smart Football had even more to say:

It’s worth reading the entire six-tweet thread here. Basically, the design of the original Art Briles offense took people by surprise because it was as fast as Gus Malzahn’s offense but took a lot of deep shots. These weren’t just normal deep shots either, they were well-designed “choice” routes designed to identify coverage breakdowns. The combo of tempo and deep shots is lethal as coverage busts are more likely when the defense gets confused and can’t line up correctly.

The problem is that over the last few years, defenses have adjusted to tempo. Chad Morris’ attempts at tempo didn’t work at all in Fayetteville. When the tempo no longer confuses the defense, then you no longer have a deep shot advantage. And the simple design of the Briles passing game means it’s actually not great in must-pass situations.

Now, Kendal doesn’t do the exact same thing his father did at Baylor, though it’s still pretty similar. Working under Lane Kiffin at FAU probably affected his scheme a bit, and his ace in the hole has been strong running backs over the last few years. Devin Singletary rushed for 1,918 yards and 32 touchdowns (!!) in 2017 in Briles’ offense, while Cam Akers rolled up 1,100 yards last year at FSU. As Chris mentions in the tweet above, first-down running success still allows this offense to hum.

The interior offensive line

Speaking of first-down running, I’m interested to see how the retooled interior line looks. According to the depth chart, both tackles are the same (Myron Cunningham and Dalton Wagner have struggled with run blocking but are solid pass protectors), but there are two new starters on the interior and no one is where they were last year.

Ricky Stromberg moves from right guard to center. Stromberg had a fantastic freshman season and is a good run blocker. Perhaps moving him to center will help make some room for Briles’ inside run game. Last year’s starting center, Ty Clary, is now the backup. Redshirt freshman Beaux Limmer, who played a handful of snaps last year, is set to start at right guard. Left guard, the biggest weakness a year ago, goes to redshirt freshman Brady Latham, who beat out part-time 2019 starter Shane Clenin for the job.

The line needs to get a lot better for Arkansas to have any offensive success in 2020. It will be interesting to see how these young players perform against what is probably one of the three or four best defensive fronts in all of college football.

The retooled defensive line

The 2019 defensive line was the strength of the defense, but it loses arguably its two best players, Sosa Agim and T.J. Smith.

There’s still a lot of potential here, as last year’s unit was deep. Jonathan Marshall is no surprise as a starting defensive tackle, while Clemson transfer Xavier Kelly and juco transfer Julius Coates are fresh starters. Dorian Gerald, a projected 2019 starter who missed the season with an injury, is penciled in for the final starting slot.

There’s a decent amount of depth here and the top guys (Marshall, Kelly, and Gerald in particular) should be pretty good. But where are the playmakers? The replacement for Agim’s production? It’s not clear yet, so I’ll be watching the trenches.

Tackling in the secondary

Of the many problems the 2019 defense had, inability to tackle was at the top of the list. The coverage, particularly on the outside, wasn’t horrible, but the tackling was, allowing many short completions to go for huge gains.

Four of five starters return and Pittman and new DC Barry Odom have added a bunch of new faces, including Arkansas State grad transfer cornerback Jerry Jacobs, who appears to have beaten out junior 23-game starter Jarques McClellion for a cornerback spot. Buster Brown returns as the other CB starter, while Greg Brooks returns at nickel. All need to tackle better.

At safety, Joe Foucha, a speedy athlete who struggled the most at tackling, is the returning starter at one spot. The other safety slot, to replace the departed Kamren Curl, has been won for now by redshirt freshman Jalen Catalon. Sophomore Myles Mason and freshman 4-star Myles Slusher are also in the mix.

Meet the Bulldogs

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

Georgia is considered one of the favorites to make the playoff this year. The media picked the Bulldogs to win the East (again). This will be an interesting Georgia team as Kirby Smart has a ton of question marks on offense but possibly the best defense in college football. If the Hogs can get 10 points against the Georgia starters they can feel good.

When Georgia has the ball

Georgia’s offense was a meagre 48th in Offense PAN last year (two spots worse than Kendal Briles’ Florida State offense). Sam Pittman’s line did its part: the Bulldogs were 1st in marginal sack rate, 27th in marginal short yardage efficiency, 18th in marginal stuff rate, 25th in marginal line yards per rush, and 18th in marginal opportunity rate. But even though they had plenty of holes and time to throw, the Bulldogs’ offense couldn’t generate big plays, ranking 94th in rushing marginal explosiveness and 50th in passing marginal explosiveness.

The Bulldogs have made a change, bringing in Todd Monken to coordinate the offense. It’s an interesting hire for Smart and may take him out of his comfort zone. Monken was OC for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State back in the day, running a hybrid Air Raid that loved to sling the ball around. Hired to turn around a dismal Southern Miss team, Monken was there as head coach for a couple years (including a 24-3 loss to Arkansas in Bret Bielema’s third game in 2013) before jumping to the NFL, where he served as offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers and Browns. Monken will probably open the offense up, but it’s not clear how much or how long it will take.

Monken isn’t inheriting much. Gone are quarterback Jake Fromm, running back De’Andre Swift, number-two receiver Lawrence Cager, and a couple of offensive line starters. The line is still stacked with blue-chip recruits for new coach Matt Luke, but Smart and Monken’s first choice to trigger the offense, Wake Forest grad transfer Jamie Newman, has opted out of the 2020 season. Without him, the Bulldogs hoped to turn to USC transfer J.T. Daniels, who looked good in a couple games for the Trojans last year before tearing his ACL. But there’s been bad news on that front: as of this week, Daniels is still not cleared to play. He had a follow-up procedure on his knee back in January.

So that leaves redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis is the likely starter (subject to change). Mathis is a four-star recruit from Michigan. He has a cannon arm and some mobility, though he isn’t a major runner. In 2018, recruiting analysts compared him to... Feleipe Franks, who will start for the Hogs.

Zamir White, the change-of-pace back last season, replaces Swift as the likely running back starter, while the Bulldogs do return top receiver George Pickens. Pickens is exactly what the Arkansas secondary didn’t want to see. He’s an absolute specimen; very, very difficult to tackle. He can turn any short catch into a big gain by shedding the defender, so the Hogs’ tackling in the back seven needs to get better in a hurry. If there’s good news, it’s that outside of Pickens, Georgia doesn’t have many proven playmakers in the pass game.

Defensively, the Hogs need to force Mathis to make some mistakes. It’s tough because the Hogs’ staff can’t really be sure what Georgia’s offense will look like. Selling out to stop the run and forcing some errors in the pass game is really the only way to go until Georgia proves it can sling the ball. The Hogs’ defensive line may be capable of holding its ground for the most part, and we’ll see if Odom’s scheme can help protect the Hogs’ linebackers in coverage.

I’m not even going to try to predict this matchup or make any bold proclamations. Georgia has a new offensive coordinator and new faces at every major position group, and Arkansas has a new defensive coordinator and several new faces as well.

When Arkansas has the ball

This part may be less fun. It’s easy to predict that Arkansas will be better on offense, but you might not notice in week one. That’s because Georgia probably has the best defense in the country. It was already top-5ish last year, and now the Bulldogs return nine full-time starters and one part-time starter. Basically 10 starters are back. The position that doesn’t return a starter is a safety spot, and the Bulldogs are only filling it with former 4-star recruit Lewis Cine, the third-ranked safety in the class of 2019. Must be nice.

I’m not really sure where you start attacking this defense. Moving 330-pound nose tackle Jordan Davis, who outweighs all five Arkansas offensive line starters, is a good start if you want to run the ball up the middle. Strongside end Malik Herring and middle linebacker Monty Rice both made Athlon’s second-team all-SEC list. Georgia ranked in the top 10 in every single one of my advanced rushing defensive stats last year, including 1st in Rushing PAN and rushing marginal efficiency. And they return all seven starters from that front.

The secondary is (relatively) weaker, though it does return star safety Richard LeCounte. Big plays in the passing game (75th in passing marginal explosiveness) is the only apparent Georgia weakness on defense.

Conclusion

Using last year’s data, our EV+ model’s projected score is Georgia 34, Arkansas 10, meaning the Bulldogs barely cover. Given that Georgia’s offense has a lot to work through, it’s fair to say that if the Hogs avoid turnovers and don’t give up too many big plays, they’ve got a good shot of covering the 22-point spread. Anything else is gravy at this point.