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Processing the Numbers, Football Edition | SEC Championship: Florida Gators

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A familiar foe awaits the Tide in the final act of the 2015 SEC season

Jeff Blake-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?

Any win over API is a win worth celebrating, regardless of how ugly it might have been. Despite the exploits of an officiating crew that was either incompetent or crooked, Alabama was able to secure a victory. Despite a playing field that was either horrendously mismanaged or intentionally doctored by the home team, Alabama was able to secure a victory. Despite incessant trolling[1] by the broadcast crew who went out of their way to televise the subject of said trolling — Alabama = ratings, after all — Alabama was able to secure a victory. How? 46 carries for the incomparable Derrick Henry, some ridiculous scrambles from Jake Coker, and a lights-out day from Adam Griffith. Glorious.

1 | I’ll just leave this here.

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

Right! Next up, the Alabama Crimson Tide travel to Atlanta to participate in the 2015 SEC Championship Game; their opponent is the Florida Gators. No strangers to the championship game as the most frequent participants from their respective divisions, these two usually play each other, as this will be the eighth time amongst the conference’s 24 title games that the matchup is Alabama vs. Florida. The game is on Saturday, December 5th, at 3:00 PM CST / 4:00 PM EST, and will be televised on — you guessed it! — CBS. If the coverage is anything like last Saturday’s, expect endless highlight reels from 1993, 1994, 1996, and 2008.

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 62.4% (1) F/+ 31.3% (18) ALABAMA
FPI 25.1 (2) FPI 14.9 (23) ALABAMA
FEI 0.284 (1) FEI 0.135 (23) ALABAMA
S&P+ 26.7 (1) S&P+ 14.7 (16) ALABAMA
Home Spread -18.0 ALABAMA

The Matchup on Offense
OFEI 0.4 (31) DFEI 0.87 (8) FLORIDA
OS&P+ 35.5 (28) DS&P+ 14.9 (5) FLORIDA
Rush OS&P+ 117.8 (13) Rush DS&P+ 131.0 (4) PUSH
Pass OS&P+ 113.8 (35) Pass DS&P+ 131.1 (7) FLORIDA
SD OS&P+ 112.9 (28) SD DS&P+ 116.6 (15) FLORIDA
PD OS&P+ 116.2 (35) PD DS&P+ 156.5 (2) FLORIDA
OALY 110.5 (25) DALY 121.7 (9) FLORIDA
OASR 124.8 (37) DASR 166.9 (3) FLORIDA

The Matchup on Defense
DFEI 1.02 (3) OFEI -0.02 (61) ALABAMA
DS&P+ 8.7 (1) OS&P+ 29.6 (58) ALABAMA
Rush DS&P+ 156.1 (1) Rush OS&P+ 97.9 (87) ALABAMA
Pass DS&P+ 150.2 (1) Pass OS&P+ 111.0 (39) ALABAMA
SD DS&P+ 150.4 (1) SD OS&P+ 104.1 (51) ALABAMA
PD DS&P+ 148.4 (3) PD OS&P+ 105.6 (52) ALABAMA
DALY 129.5 (3) OALY 93.1 (102) ALABAMA
DASR 194.5 (2) OASR 63.3 (120) ALABAMA

The Matchup on Special Teams
FVE 0.12 (12) FVE 0.22 (2) PUSH
STE 0.0 (69) STE -0.02 (86) ALABAMA
FGE 0.03 (72) FGE -0.84 (126) ALABAMA
KE -0.15 (6) KRE -0.04 (88) ALABAMA
PE 0.14 (105) PRE 0.06 (47) FLORIDA
PRE 0.2 (10) PE -0.26 (3) PUSH
KRE -0.23 (127) KE -0.04 (36) FLORIDA

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of December 3rd, 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

Only FPI’s affection for Oklahoma stands between the Tide and a unanimous #1 ranking in the advanced metrics — at least among the four tracked here, anyway. Clemson’s somewhat uneven play down the stretch has been the Tide’s gain, as the separation between the Tide and Tigers has stretched a bit over the last few weeks. Statistically the difference between the consensus top-three teams is not significant, but the Tide’s still out in front.

Florida is not, as they are considered a very good team but not on the same level as the Tide. The reasons for that are clear — alongside some quantitative issues we’ll discuss in a moment, the Gators’ last two performances against Florida Atlantic and Florida State have removed a considerable amount of shine from their resume. Still, this is a very dangerous, very talented team, and regardless of what happens Saturday you have to imagine old friend Jim McElwain is ecstatic with how well his first season has gone in Gainesville. The overall quality metrics clearly favor the Tide, however, and Vegas agrees to a rather absurd degree, with an 18 point spread in favor of Alabama as of Thursday morning.

When Alabama Has the Ball

This is the side of the ball to watch; as we’ll discuss in the next section, the opponent doesn’t tend to do a whole lot when Alabama’s on defense. The whole reason Florida’s done as well as they have this season is their defense, which is excellent and every bit as good as the groups Coach Boom fielded during his ill-fated tenure in Gainesville. During last season’s tilt in Tuscaloosa, the Tide blew a fine pass defense off the field with a historically productive performance, at least in the context of Alabama football, but that was with Blake Sims and Amari Cooper in the fold. Their replacements are fine players, but either just not on the same level (Coker) or maybe just not quite there yet (Calvin Ridley). On top of that, this Florida defense is even better than the group that finished eight in DS&P+ a year ago, and a brief glance at the components suggests they improved in all facets of the game.

Much like their counterparts on the other side of the field, the Gators do not do anything poorly on this side of the ball. Their worst rating is 15th in SD DS&P+, which is still quite high. Of greatest concerns are their rankings on passing downs and rushing the passer, which are 2nd and 3rd in PD DS&P+ and DASR, respectively. Pass protection, most notably on the right side of the line, has been an issue all season, as Dominick Jackson and Alphonse Taylor are much better suited for road grading than the more intricate requirements of pass blocking. Third downs have been an issue for this offense all season; frustratingly, it’s due to a wide variety of issues. If it’s not Coker placing the ball poorly, it’s miscommunication with the receivers, or a curious playcall snuffed out by the defense seemingly before the snap, or Henry getting hit 3 yards in the backfield because of a missed block, or… you get the idea. It’s a problem that hasn’t gotten better and doesn’t seem to go away, and there’s a decent chance this becomes the game where it turns into a real serious situation.

Speaking of Henry, the run game is the one area where the Florida defense does not have a significant edge. They’re ranked 4th in the country in Rush DS&P+, and will be the toughest opponent the Tide’s faced this season in that phase of the game. They tend to yield a bit against elite runners,[2] but they absolutely smother mediocre attacks. Even good attacks sometimes find nowhere to go — Georgia’s currently 15th in Rush OS&P+, months after they lost Nick Chubb, and yet they only managed 72 non-sack rushing yards against the Gators. Sony Michel is not Henry, however, and in the case of the Heisman favorite the Gators get a back unlike any other they’ve faced this season. Cook and Fournette are on the larger side with the quickness and elusiveness of much smaller men, but Henry has the same or better top-end speed of those guys in a much larger and more powerful package.[3]

2 | Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette piled up 183 and 180 yards on them, respectively, and at good YPC averages.

3 | You might describe him as tractor-like.

Henry’s size and power routinely turn one or two yard pickups into six and seven yard pickups, and if he gets a few yards behind the line without significant resistance he’s capable of housing it in any situation. The key to defending him this season has been hitting him low at the point of attack or deeper, and that’s something this defense excels at — they stuff 26.3% of their opponent’s runs, the 7th-highest rate in the country. If Henry somehow manages 200+ yards again, don’t expect a repeat of last week’s “death by a thousand cuts” approach, as Florida has similarly high rankings in DALY and defensive rushing success rate. It’ll be more reminiscent of the Mississippi State game, where Henry was largely contained on a carry-by-carry basis, but broke a handful of runs that comprised the majority of his production. It is not remotely hyperbolic to say that Alabama’s chances in this game are minimal if Henry can’t replicate the success of Cook and Fournette.

When Florida Has the Ball

Much like the other matchup the Tide have an edge in every defensive metric we track here, but in this case the margins are much, much greater. Alabama is unquestionably the country’s finest defense, with top-3 marks in just about every metric of consequence. Florida’s offense, on the other hand, isn’t even as competent as the Tide’s oft-frustrating group. You may notice that their Pass OS&P+ is pretty solid, however, and that’s where we need to focus for a moment.

The only story bigger in Gainesville this season than Coach Mac’s unbelievable first-year success was the suspension of starting QB Will Grier for use of performance-enhancing drugs. This came on the heels of a magnificent effort against a stout Ole Miss defense in which Grier completed 83% of his passes with 4 TDs and 271 yards. It appeared as though Grier was the answer at QB for a group that’s been largely clueless at the position since Tim Tebow left for the NFL and Cam Newton for the JUCO circuit. Alas, Grier’s out until next October, and in his stead is the embattled Treon Harris. After keeping it close with Grier in the first game of the season, Harris was quickly relegated to the backup role, and hasn’t been the most productive quarterback in the world since he took over for the LSU game.

The odd thing is the dropoff hasn’t been nearly as steep as you would think given the narrative surrounding this group. Each quarterback started six games, and if you take the DS&P+ ranks of those opponents, you find that Harris has played the significantly tougher slate: an average rank of 40 vs. 56 for Grier, with the two toughest teams on the schedule (FSU and Vanderbilt). Overall offensive production appears to favor Grier at first —384 yards per game and 5.6 yards per play with Grier at the helm, vs. 319 YPG and 4.7 YPP with Harris. However, Grier got to feast on most of the cupcakes, and when you look at just games against P5 competition, the margin is basically non-existent: 332 YPG and 4.9 YPP with Grier vs. 332 YPG and 4.8 YPP with Harris.

This is not to say that Harris is an equivalent quarterback to Grier — he’s not, and it’s entirely possible Grier was putting it all together before his suspension and would have obliterated the rest of the Gators’ schedule given the opportunity — but more to put the Gators’ standing in the offensive metrics into perspective. The Gators’ offense has performed fairly consistently, when adjusting for the opposition, throughout the season, regardless of who was at quarterback. This is their offense, plain and simple.

That’s truly unfortunate if you’re a Gators fan, because this is shaping up to be one hell of a mismatch. The immediately obvious concern would be line play; the country’s finest front-seven ranks 1st, 3rd, and 2nd in Rush DS&P+, DALY, and DASR, respectively. The Gators rank 87th , 102nd, and 120th in the offensive versions of those metrics. I put the last in bold for a reason — I would not expect Harris to have much success throwing the ball if he’s running for his life in every passing situation. This is easily the weakest pass blocking line the Tide’s played this season,[4] and that’s bad news if Kelvin Taylor is unable to get anything going on the ground. If you can’t pass and you can’t run, what exactly are you supposed to do?

4 | LSU is next at 92nd; you may recall how well that game went for them.

Special Teams

One of the least-discussed things the Tide does extremely well is field position — they’ve consistently rated out in the top-15 of FEI Field Value Efficiency, largely due to their turnover production and strong punt return game. The Gators are the #2 team in the country in that metric, just outside of having a significant edge over the Tide in this regard. Nobody is getting any freebies in this one; the offenses and defenses will be deciding this entirely. Overall the Tide’s special teams unit is slightly better than Florida’s, but neither is particularly special. There are a few matchups worth discussing, however.

Griffith’s recent exploits have pushed the Tide’s Field Goal Efficiency ranking into something resembling average, which is a huge improvement over the moribund rating they’ve had for most of the season. Kicker’s been a tremendous issue for the Gators, and I think this is the first opponent where the Tide’s actually favored in this regard. Given his play as of late, Tide fans approach field goal opportunities with confidence instead of dread, and I for one expect Griffith to make anything inside of 45 at this point.

He’s also continued solid work on kickoffs, and in that sense he’s matched by his counterpart for the Gators. Neither team is particularly effective returning kickoffs — the Tide tends to ruin multiple games of decent returns with one or two boneheaded ones —and with good kick coverage units on both sides, you can expect most kickoffs to become touchbacks. Florida has a singularly excellent punter and a great coverage unit, so expect any potential contributions from Cyrus Jones to be nullified entirely.

Finally, J.K. Scott. Hard to say which guy we’re going to get at this point; the leg’s there and has been there all year, but the placement is way, way off of the otherworldly efforts of a season ago, and he’s also prone to the occasional shank. Florida has a solid return game, but not to a degree where it’s a concern. As always, this week would be a splendid time for 2014 Scott to return and pin an anemic Gators offense inside their own 20 over and over and over…

Any intangibles to consider?

Per usual, the game is at the neutral Georgia Dome in Atlanta, so your crowd should be roughly split down the middle and weather conditions will not be a factor. That’s a big plus if this turns into a field goal contest as the kickers will not have to deal with wind or rain while attempting kicks. Also, the field should have no reason to be a sloppy mess, regardless of whether or not it’s been bone dry in Alabama for the last several weeks. API.

Two key players on the Tide have somewhat uncertain injury situations heading in. Kenyan Drake was dressed out last week with a significant brace or bandage of some sort on his entire right arm, so presumably he is available, but I suspect this will be all Henry with ArDarius Stewart and Damien Harris filling in on Drake’s touches for another week. He should definitely be back for the bowl game, however. Denzel Devall’s knee injury is apparently not serious, and he was mostly held out last week as a precaution. He’s currently listed as probable for Saturday.

The Gators’ injury list is far, far longer, and instead of going through each one individually, here’s the list: Jonathan Bullard, Joey Ivie, Jordan Sherit, Demarcus Robinson, Taven Bryan, C.J. Wroton, Chris Williamson, Raphael Andrades, Alex McCalister, Andrew Ivie, and Alex Anzalone. Bullard and Joey Ivie are both probables; the remainder are questionables. McCalister and Bullard are huge losses if they can’t go, as those are your two leading sackers from the Gators defense with 6.5 and 5.5, respectively; Joey Ivie has contributed 3.5 as well. Robinson is actually suspended for some violation of team rules, I believe; last I heard it was up to his teammates whether or not he would play. He’s the leading target among the receiving corps, so that’s a big loss as well if he’s not eligible for the game.

As mentioned in the lead-in these two teams will be meeting for the eighth time in the title game. Florida currently leads 4-3, but the Tide’s won two of the last three matchups. Overall, the Tide’s on a four game streak against the Gators, the longest stretch since before Steve Spurrier returned to Gainesville.

Lastly, there’s the Kirby Smart situation. He can’t sign with Georgia until after the title game, so he will be coaching the defense on Saturday. However, this has been a huge distraction during an important week of preparation, and it’s hard to tell how that sort of thing will affect a team. With Tom Herman and last year’s Ohio State offense, it wasn’t a big deal. In the case of John Chavis and last year’s LSU defense, it was a big, big deal. Hope for the best, right?

Swanson Giddiness Index

Ron deeply respects the defense of Florida, and the job Coach Mac’s done in his first season with the Gators. Ron believes in this defense, however, regardless of what’s happening with Coach Smart.

The Picks

The spread opened at 12 points and has ballooned to 18, indicating everybody thinks the Tide’s taking this. They’ve been the most dominant team in the country down the stretch, and that came in conjunction with some missteps from the Gators. However, 18 is nuts; this is a good team the Tide are playing. I think they win, but by more like 10 than 18 on this neutral field.

STRAIGHT UP:      Alabama Crimson Tide
AGAINST SPREAD: Florida Gators