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Processing the Numbers, Football Edition | Mississippi State Bulldogs

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Football Power Index (FPI) Ratings are courtesy of ESPN
All other statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So how’d last week go?

If you simply MUST have a slew of words and numbers and whatnot to describe the above, I will direct you here and here. “Dominance” was a pretty strong theme.

Aren’t you supposed to be previewing something, nerd?

Right! Next up, the Alabama Crimson Tide travel to the tranquil, peaceful metropolis of Starkvegas to take on the Mississippi St. Bulldogs. The game will be on Saturday, November 14th at 2:30 PM CST / 3:30 PM CST, and is the second part of an early doubleheader on CBS. Uncle Verne and Gary weren’t so bad last week, so maybe that’s ok?

Obligatory Bully the Bulldog GIF

I have nowhere else to put this, but, I mean, how could I leave it out?

The Goods

Overall Quality
MISSISSIPPI STATE ALABAMA THE EDGE
F/+ 35.3% (15) F/+ 58.8% (2) ALABAMA
FPI 17.3 (15) FPI 22.9 (4) ALABAMA
FEI 0.192 (13) FEI 0.276 (2) ALABAMA
S&P+ 12.7 (22) S&P+ 23.0 (2) ALABAMA
Home Spread 7.5 ALABAMA

The Matchup on Defense
MISSISSIPPI STATE ALABAMA THE EDGE
OFEI 0.57 (26) DFEI 1.21 (1) ALABAMA
OS&P+ 36.4 (25) DS&P+ 10.8 (2) ALABAMA
Rush OS&P+ 105.5 (60) Rush DS&P+ 162.9 (1) ALABAMA
Pass OS&P+ 130.3 (11) Pass DS&P+ 159.5 (1) PUSH
SD OS&P+ 118.4 (17) SD DS&P+ 163.1 (1) ALABAMA
PD OS&P+ 123.0 (23) PD DS&P+ 146.4 (4) ALABAMA
OALY 103.9 (61) DALY 132.7 (6) ALABAMA
OASR 151.2 (28) DASR 172.1 (5) ALABAMA

The Matchup on Offense
MISSISSIPPI STATE ALABAMA THE EDGE
DFEI 0.6 (19) OFEI 0.4 (30) MISSISSIPPI STATE
DS&P+ 23.7 (37) OS&P+ 33.8 (35) PUSH
Rush DS&P+ 103.1 (58) Rush OS&P+ 119.3 (19) ALABAMA
Pass DS&P+ 112.5 (34) Pass OS&P+ 112.5 (40) PUSH
SD DS&P+ 97.6 (71) SD OS&P+ 116.2 (22) ALABAMA
PD DS&P+ 139.1 (7) PD OS&P+ 109.5 (47) MISSISSIPPI STATE
DALY 103.0 (59) OALY 112.9 (25) ALABAMA
DASR 134.2 (25) OASR 96.0 (67) MISSISSIPPI STATE

The Matchup on Special Teams
MISSISSIPPI STATE ALABAMA THE EDGE
FVE 0.09 (27) FVE 0.13 (15) ALABAMA
STE 0.06 (23) STE -0.03 (92) MISSISSIPPI STATE
FGE 0.25 (40) FGE -0.17 (97) MISSISSIPPI STATE
KE -0.06 (29) KRE -0.27 (127) MISSISSIPPI STATE
PE 0.09 (91) PRE 0.17 (16) ALABAMA
PRE 0.19 (11) PE 0.14 (107) MISSISSIPPI STATE
KRE 0.01 (55) KE -0.16 (8) ALABAMA

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of November 11th, 2015.

Wondering what all these terms are?

Overall Quality

F/+: The F/+ combined ratings combine FEI and S&P+ into one metric that serves as Football Outsiders' official rankings for college football. For a more detailed discussion of F/+, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

FPI: The Football Power Index, an overall team quality metric produced by ESPN. Presented as a scoring margin, FPI weights factors such as offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiencies, as well as turnovers and big plays, and also includes opponent adjustments.

FEI: The Fremeau Efficiency Index, an overall team quality metric that is drive-based and opponent-adjusted. For a more detailed discussion of FEI, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

S&P+: Another overall quality metric constructed primarily from a play-by-play perspective, the S&P+ rating underwent big changes prior to the 2015 season. Check out the primer article for more details.

Offensive Metrics

Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.

OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.

OS&P+: The offensive component of S&P+.

Rush OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at running the ball.

Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.

PD: Passing Downs, defined as later downs with medium yardage or more to go (3rd, 4th downs in excess of 5 yards to go), as well as 2nd down with more than 8 yards to go.

SD: Standard Downs, defined as all downs that are not Passing Downs.

SD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Defensive Metrics

Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.

DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.

DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.

Rush DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at stopping the run.

Pass DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.

SD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Special Teams Metrics

FVE: FEI Field Value Efficiency, a measure of how much field position value a team earned against its opponents.

Fremeau Special Teams Efficiency Components - The special teams component of F/+ is based on Brian Fremeau’s Special Teams Efficiency, which is made up of the following five components of special teams play (per FootballOutsiders):
FGEField Goal Efficiency, the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
PREPunt Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KREKickoff Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent kickoff earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
PEPunt Efficiency, the scoring value per punt earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KEKickoff Efficiency, the scoring value per kickoff earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.

Line-Specific Metrics

ASRAdjusted Sack Rate, which is a version of sack rate (defined as sacks / [sacks + passing attempts] ) that has been opponent-adjusted. The metric is scaled based on an average rate of 100; the higher the rate the better. ASR is calculated for both the offense (OASR) and defense (DASR).

ALYAdjusted Line Yards, which is a measure of success in the running game specific to the line. This is accomplished by taking each carry by running backs only and weighting the yardage as follows:

  • Runs for a loss are weighted 120%.
  • Runs for 0-4 yards are unweighted.
  • Runs for 5-10 yards are weighted 50%.
  • Runs for 11 or more yards are not included.

After the weighting process, the runs are further adjusted for game situation and opponent, and then averaged out per carry, resulting in adjusted line yards — a more detailed explanation of the entire process is available here. ALY is calculated for both the offensive line (OASR) and the defensive front seven (DASR).

The Swanson Giddiness Index

Easily the most accurate predictor of success in college football, the Swanson Giddiness Index is a qualitative, completely unsupportable metric that is presented via the tone of that week's image/animated gif of Ron Swanson — beloved Parks and Recreation character and official spirit animal of Processing the Numbers.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN Primer!

For even more advanced statistics goodness, check out the Advanced Stats Profile Index and the Alabama Profile.

So, what do we know?

Overall Quality

Last week the Edge column in this chart was all grey, as LSU had a reputation among the advanced metrics every bit as good as that of the Tide. Mississippi State, while a solid and well-regarded team, is not considered elite, as their placement in the four overall quality metrics ranges from 13th to 22nd. FPI is the highest on them, which fits with that metric’s tendency to go left when the rest of the world is going right. This is not an opponent of the caliber the Tide just dispatched, but it’s a dangerous one that should not be taken lightly.

Speaking of FPI, the Tide moved up to 4th this week after Ohio State and USC dropped back a few spots. Yes, somehow TCU is still ranked ahead of the Tide despite a pantsing at the hands of Oklahoma State, who sat at 14th in FPI last week. I’m not beholden to wins and losses of course, but that one leaves me scratching my head.

Aside from that, the Tide is the consensus #2 team in the country in the advanced metrics behind Clemson, and personally that seems just about right. Dabo’s crew has had an impressive season, and will likely cruise into the ACC title game undefeated. The likely matchup against North Carolina will be an interesting one, but we’ll address that in Advanced Stats Rundown when the time comes.[1] As for this game, the Tide have a significant edge all down the line, and Vegas agrees with a 7.5 point spread in favor of Alabama.

1 | Oh yeah, be on the lookout for a Conference Championship edition of ASR in December!

When Mississippi State Has the Ball

Something pretty odd should jump out at you when you see this chart. Alabama is ranked #1 in both Rush DS&P+ and Pass DS&P+, but is only ranked #2 in overall DS&P+. While this seems incongruous at first, there’s a simple explanation — drive efficiency.

I’ll admit I’m not 100% certain how Bill C. calculates these splits, but presumably the strictly playtype-specific components — pass, rush, standard down, passing down — would not consider any sort of metric designed to capture a team’s ability to finish drives. The overall DS&P+ rating does via inclusion of points per scoring opportunity. Turns out the Tide defense ranks 29th overall in that metric, and that’s a big enough departure from their play-based excellence to drop them a bit behind Michigan for the #1 spot. Sure enough, Michigan’s defense ranks 5th in points per scoring opportunity, and they are no slouches against the pass or the run, so that all lines up. Aren’t advanced stats fun?

All that being said, this side of the ball tilts pretty heavily in favor of the Tide. All due respect to Bill’s numbers, but this is the best defense in the country, and possibly the best anyone’s seen since the 2011 version of the Tide. All of the criticisms of the last few years — a lack of pass rush, poor secondary play, an inability to contain dual-threat quarterbacks — no longer apply to this group. They are 1st against the pass and 4th on passing downs, and have the 5th-best pass rushing unit in the country per Adjusted Sack Rate. The dual-threat guys are still a problem from time to time — Joshua Dobbs averages about 4.8 yards per non-sack carry, but managed 5 a tote against the Tide — but honestly, who doesn’t have a problem with them? That’s kind of the point.

Speaking of which, Mississippi State’s offense is led by the conference’s best dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott, who’s somehow flown under the radar just a year removed from placing in the top-10 of the Heisman Trophy voting. Prescott’s not as lethal through the air this year as he was in 2014 — his completion percentage has gone up, but he’s averaging nearly a yard less per attempt — but he’s every bit as dangerous on the ground, averaging 4.9 yards a carry. The regression in the passing game should be a huge concern for Bulldogs fans, as Mississippi State’s chances in this game will almost assuredly hinge on Prescott’s ability to get the ball to De’Runnya Wilson[2] and Fred Ross.

2 | Especially this guy. 6’5” guy on 5’10” guy will never not be terrifying.

Why’s that? Well, last season the Bulldogs had one of the conference’s more effective rushers in Josh Robinson, but he’s departed for the NFL, and there’s no clear successor in his stead. Prescott is actually this team’s leading rusher, with 418 yards on 86 carries, but behind him is a slew of guys with backup numbers. The result is the nation’s 60th-ranked rushing offense, which is a bad, bad look against the best rush defense of the past few seasons. So, your matchup to watch is the the #11 pass offense against the #1 pass defense. If Prescott is able to extend plays with his feet and get the ball down the field, this may be a game. If he can’t, it might be over by halftime.

When Alabama Has the Ball

Or maybe not, because the Bulldogs are sneaky-good on defense, and actually have a top-20 unit according to FEI. Most of the big names from last year’s outstanding group have departed, but Chris Jones[3] is still wreaking havoc on the inside, and those departures have been capably backfilled by lesser-known yet effective players. Much like last year’s group, this defense is stocked with upperclassmen who may not have been four and five star recruits, but are well-coached, high-motor guys that do their jobs well. As a group they are particularly effective on passing downs, currently rated 7th in the country per DS&P+, largely on the back of the 25th-ranked pass rush per Adjusted Sack Rate.

3 | Somehow Defensive Lineman of the Week over A’Shawn Robinson. Shame on you, SEC.

That last bit is concerning, as pass blocking is not the strength of the Tide’s offensive line. Richie Brown and A.J. Jefferson have combined for 10.5 sacks on the season, and while Cam Robinson should largely neutralize one of those two, the other will primarily be the responsibility of Dominick Jackson, who has struggled mightily in pass protection this season. Jake Coker doesn’t have the best footwork in the world as we saw last week, as he has a tendency to try to avoid sacks by running backwards or attempting jukes he’s not really athletic enough to pull off; most of the time, these could be avoided by simply stepping up into the pocket.

However, the last few games have seen a shift in offensive identity for the Tide, and as I posited in yesterday’s Charting the Tide, I think that’s the light bulb going off for Lane Kiffin. Derrick Henry averaged 25 carries a game against Ole Miss, Georgia, and Arkansas, and about 4.9 yards a pop on those carries; he’s since averaged nearly 33 a game at 6 yards an attempt. LSU and the Viles both sport top-20 rushing defenses, so this is not a product of weaker competition. There’s been a clear, demonstrable shift toward a run first, pass second style over the last few games, and that’s a perfect fit for this team’s strengths and limitations. A steady diet of Henry and Drake, with efficient, low-risk passing from Coker and the occasional bomb to Calvin Ridley is what this team should have been doing all season, and it’s what you’ll see again on Saturday in Starkville. The Bulldogs are atrocious on standard downs and soft against the run, and the best way to avoid a strong pass rush is to run the ball down its throat. Given the venue and the quality of the opponent, I’d expect a performance more like the one against the Viles than what we saw last week, but the Tide’s got enough firepower to give the defense plenty of breathing room.

Special Teams

So, we saw what Adam Griffith is capable of when he’s healthy and has his head right — 55 yard field goals, treated with the same calm indifference usually reserved for extra points. THAT is why Griffith was the consensus #1 kicker coming out of high school, and if he’s now able to consistently hit 45+ yard field goals moving forward, that’s a huge boon for the Tide’s prospects this year and next. He’s been outstanding on kickoffs all year, and his efforts in tandem with that of the coverage unit have the Tide rated #8 overall in kicking efficiency.

Unfortunately, that’s one of only two special teams areas where the Tide has the advantage, with the other being on punt returns. Cyrus Jones makes good decisions with the ball, and while he doesn’t return many punts he’s usually quite effective when he does. Punting is the weak spot on the Builldogs’ special teams, with the 91st ranked unit per the FEI metrics. Jones has been close to breaking one several times this season, and in this opponent he may have the best opportunity yet to pull that off.

That’s where the good news ends, as the Bulldogs have a stout advantage everywhere else. Despite what seemed like excellent work from Drake returning kicks the last few weeks, the Tide haven’t budged in that regard, which tells me that metric is heavily influenced by the fumbles earlier in the season. The most concerning line is on punt returns, where Ross is averaging 11 yards a return and has taken one back for a touchdown this season. As we’ve seen this season, non-offensive touchdowns have a habit of swinging games, and with the difficult challenge the Bulldogs provide on offense and defense, the last thing the Tide needs is a hole created by a special teams touchdown.

Although, speaking of non-offensive touchdowns, the Tide have a number of those to their credit this season, and that’s partially why they rank so highly in Field Value Efficiency. A decent return game[4] and ever-improving play from J.K. Scott tends to produce great field position as well, and that’s your two major components to FVE. Mississippi State’s done a fine job in that regard themselves, with the #27 unit in the country per FVE, but the Tide has a significant advantage there.

4 | Outside of the turnovers, of course.

Any intangibles to consider?

First and foremost, this one is on the road in Starkville, which favors the Bulldogs even before you bring up the cowbells. How this is allowed to continue is beyond me, but the rules are the rules, and they will be clanga-clangin’ all afternoon in Davis-Wade Stadium. The forecast looks like simply delightful football weather, with a sunny, cloudless sky and temperatures in the mid-to-high 50s and 0% chance of precipitation.

Mississippi State has lost three defenders within the last month, with Will Redmond, Dezmond Harris, and Kendrick Market all succumbing to ACL injuries. The Tide is largely injury free, but I was surprised to learn that Chris Black is done for the year with an ankle injury suffered in practice this week. That’s not a huge loss, of course, as Black has been supplanted by Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, Richard Mullaney, and others in the wide receiving corps.

Most concerning is the status of Kenyan Drake, who is experiencing concussion symptoms and is questionable for Saturday — this explains the somewhat dazed look he had after getting hit on his final kick return of the evening against LSU. He was running drills behind Henry again on Tuesday, which is a great sign, but this is a big, big loss for the Tide if he can’t go on Saturday. Drake is the most explosive player on the team, and there’s no one else among the running back corps that can step in and replace his production. Damien Harris has been MIA since flubbing a kick return against Texas A&M, and aside from two garbage time carries we have no idea what Bo Scarbrough can do. Look for one of those two to get Drake’s carries if he’s unable to go, with the jet sweeps and screens going to Stewart and Ridley.

Swanson Giddiness Index

The tone of this gif is perhaps not appropriate for this opponent, but it is required nonetheless. Ron is confident, but respectful of Mississippi State’s talent and the venue. Ron likes dogs.

The Picks

The stats definitely favor the Tide, that’s without question. FPI’s pretty high on the Bulldogs, though, and have them covering the spread on a neutral field, let alone at home. S&P+ is right in line with Vegas, but technically calls for the Bulldogs to cover as well. I don’t think either of those metrics properly capture how dialed in this team is right now, however, and I’m thinking the Tide take this by double digits.

STRAIGHT UP:      Alabama Crimson Tide
AGAINST SPREAD: Alabama Crimson Tide

ROLL TIDE