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Processing the Numbers, Cameo Edition |
Texas A&M Aggies

A matchup of undefeateds in Tuscaloosa means the SEC West Championship occurs a little earlier this year

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-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.

But first, the briefest of programming notes.

You may have noticed a slight decrease in the amount of advanced stats in your life this season. Sorry about that, life happens. Unfortunately Charting the Tide[1] and Advanced Stats Rundown are gone and probably never coming back, but Processing the Numbers? Back for this week, because this game is a big, big deal. Without further ado…

1 | If you haven’t been reading Graphing the Tide, you should be. It’s better than what it replaced.

So, how’d last week go?

Well… hmm. How best to put this… Detective Moreland?

Thanks Bunk — couldn’t have said it any better myself.

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

Right! Next up, the Alabama Crimson Tide welcome the rejuvenated (and undefeated) Texas A&M Aggies to the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium. The game is on Saturday, October 22nd, at 2:30 PM CT / 3:30 PM ET. You know what that timeslot means — CBS with Uncle Verne and Gary Danielson.

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 67.3% (1) F/+ 46.6% (7) ALABAMA
FPI 29.8 (1) FPI 21.8 (7) PUSH
FEI 0.335 (1) FEI 0.285 (4) PUSH
S&P+ 28.8 (2) S&P+ 17.5 (11) PUSH
Home Spread 18.5 ALABAMA

The Matchup on Offense
OFEI 0.63 (20) DFEI 0.35 (36) ALABAMA
OS&P+ 40.5 (10) DS&P+ 22.4 (25) ALABAMA
Rush OS&P+ 142.0 (3) Rush DS&P+ 88.2 (109) ALABAMA
Pass OS&P+ 109.7 (45) Pass DS&P+ 107.5 (46) PUSH
SD OS&P+ 116.4 (19) SD DS&P+ 96.8 (83) ALABAMA
PD OS&P+ 153.0 (4) PD DS&P+ 105.7 (50) ALABAMA
OALY 121.3 (17) DALY 91.5 (100) ALABAMA
OASR 106.0 (65) DASR 104.2 (65) PUSH

The Matchup on Defense
DFEI 1.71 (1) OFEI 0.6 (23) ALABAMA
DS&P+ 11.6 (3) OS&P+ 38.8 (17) ALABAMA
Rush DS&P+ 177.8 (2) Rush OS&P+ 113.0 (40) ALABAMA
Pass DS&P+ 158.3 (2) Pass OS&P+ 123.1 (18) ALABAMA
SD DS&P+ 138.6 (3) SD OS&P+ 115.3 (22) ALABAMA
PD DS&P+ 233.2 (2) PD OS&P+ 127.4 (26) ALABAMA
DALY 148.4 (3) OALY 104.0 (62) ALABAMA
DASR 155.9 (10) OASR 293.2 (5) PUSH

The Matchup on Special Teams
ST S&P+ -0.1 (72) ST S&P+ 1.1 (25) TEXAS A&M
NVP 3.0 (28) NVP 2.3 (35) PUSH
STE 0.05 (37) STE 0.05 (34) PUSH
FGE -0.15 (87) FGE -0.16 (88) PUSH
KE 0.15 (16) KRE -0.02 (53) ALABAMA
PE 0.04 (52) PRE -0.17 (111) ALABAMA
PRE 0.16 (24) PE 0.23 (15) PUSH
KRE -0.12 (118) KE 0.28 (3) TEXAS A&M

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of October 18th, 2016.

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

Well would you look at that. The calendar’s changed to 2016, and yet here the Tide are, right at the top of the F/+ rankings. That’s largely on the strength of the highest FEI rating in the land, which offsets Michigan’s sky-high S&P+ rating[2] just enough to give the top spot to the Tide. Regardless of the methodology used — polls, advanced stats, eye test, whatever — you’d be hard-pressed to find someone unwilling to acknowledge the Tide as one of the nation’s top two teams.

2 | S&P+ really likes the Wolverines’ defense.

Oddly enough, however, it’s not a cascade of crimson in The Edge column. Despite all of the offseason turmoil and the conference’s inevitable adjustments to the offensive stylings of Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M appears to have come in from the cold. The Aggies aren’t quite the same animal they were when a certain unemployed[3] quarterback roamed College Station, but they’re the real deal. The difference between those teams and this one, as we’ll investigate shortly, is competent defensive play, as good recruiting and the enduring excellence of John Chavis has made a world of difference for Texas A&M. There’s still plenty to be confident about for Tide fans, but this will not be the cakewalk many predicted in the offseason.[4]

3 | Gee, who didn’t see that coming…

4 | Shouldn’t be, anyway. Then again, said the same thing about the Viles, so…

When Alabama Has the Ball

Speaking of different animals, it’s been some time since we saw a Tide offense that performed like this one. Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier, and now Lane Kiffin have consistently produced a top-20 unit during the Saban era, but those teams tended to be as good or better through the air than on the ground. Seems awfully counterintuitive to say about a program that’s now produced two Heisman-winning backs and numerous draft picks at the position, but it’s true. Not since 2007 have we seen an Alabama passing offense this anemic.

And that’s ok! Jalen Hurts is a true freshman who was playing Texas high school ball a year ago, and some growing pains are to be expected. All of the physical talent is there, of course — reference the laser beams he threw against USC if you’re still confused on that point — but the finer points of timing and ball placement elude him yet. The end result is threats like Calvin Ridley and O.J. Howard have languished at times this season,[5] but that’s ok! He won the team and the coaching staff weeks ago, and what he’s not quite bringing through the air he’s bringing in spades on the ground. We’re only seven weeks into the season and already Hurts is the most productive quarterback on the ground Nick Saban’s ever coached.

5 | New territory for Ridley — obviously saving Howard for the Natty.

That, along with the much-improved Damien Harris and the ascendant Joshua Jacobs, is why the Tide currently possess the #3 ranked rushing offense according to S&P+, the highest for Alabama since 2010.[6] The Tide’s been consistently great running the ball all season, but that lofty ranking is undoubtedly a result of last week’s detonation of a solid Viles defense to the tune of 438 rushing yards at nearly 9 yards a pop. This is also the biggest reason for optimism among the Tide faithful, as for all the improvement the Aggies have made on defense, they are simply dreadful against the run and on standard downs, coming in at 109th and 83rd, respectively. The Tide offensive line has a strong edge on the Aggies as well, with a solid 83 rank edge in Adjusted Line Yards. If there was ever a game to run the damn ball Lane,[7] this is the one.

6 | A team that featured Ingram, Richardson, AND Lacy. Absurd, in hindsight.

7 | And make their asses quit, while you’re at it.

The picture through the air is less rosy. While the Tide mercifully excel on passing downs, that’s more a function of a strong success rate on standard downs producing plenty of third and manageables than anything else. Texas A&M’s pass defense is actually worse than it was a year ago, when they finished second in the country to the Tide, but they’re still good enough to produce pushes in Pass S&P+ and Adjusted Sack Rate. Their #65 rank in the latter is somewhat remarkable given the reputation of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, both of whom were among the conference’s most disruptive defensive linemen a year ago. Hall’s accumulated 9 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks this season, more or less in line with his production a year ago, but Garrett is well off his conference-leading pace of 2015. He’s also been more or less neutralized by Cam Robinson for two years running, so while he will undoubtedly make a few plays this week, don’t expect him to be the difference in the game for the Aggies.

When Texas A&M Has the Ball

That honor more than likely belongs to a ghost of bowl games past — Trevor Knight, the Oklahoma transfer and offensive catalyst of the Tide’s demise in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. Most pundits had written the Aggies off after presumptive starters Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both left College Station in the offseason, along with graduating senior running back Tra Carson. But thanks to the graduate transfer rule, Knight found his way to the Aggies last January, and has spent his last year of eligibility introducing the SEC to his particular brand of dual-threat quarterbacking.

While not terribly efficient through the air, much like his counterpart in crimson Knight is exceptionally dangerous with his feet, accounting for 9 touchdowns and just over 500 yards at nearly 8 yards a carry. The conference hasn’t seen anything like that from the quarterback position since… well, a long time ago, as not even Manziel was that dangerous on a per-carry basis.[8] Add in the even more lethal Trayveon Williams, and the Aggies bring in the most explosive rushing attack they’ve had since they joined the conference.

8 | Names like Prescott, Marshall, Newton, Tebow, etc. are even farther back. You’re probably looking at the wishbone era to find a comp, I’d think.

That all sounds promising, except that this is a far different defense than the one Manziel and company carved up, as steady success on the recruiting trail and a rethinking of defensive philosophy has produced the monster Texas A&M faces on Saturday. Gone are the oversized linebackers and much-vilified mush rush, replaced with a leaner, quicker front seven that’s eaten opposing quarterbacks alive for two seasons now. Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams are among the most disruptive defenders in college football, and yet they don’t even lead the Tide in tackles for loss.[9] When you aren’t dealing with those individuals coming off the edge, you have heatseeking missile Reuben Foster headed straight for your grill. The last two weeks have underscored exactly how dangerous this group is, as Joshua Dobbs was rendered completely ineffective and Austin Allen is probably still feeling the effects of dealing with the Tide.

9 | That’d be Ryan Anderson, who is quietly making himself a lot of future earnings this year.

A&M appears to be better equipped to deal with the pass rush, however, as their offensive line possesses the #5 ranking in adjusted sack rate — we’ll see if that holds up against the best group they’ll face all season. That’s important, as they will more than likely need to lean on the passing game in this one. What hasn’t changed about the Tide is their dominance against the run, as they are right there atop the leaderboards in rushing defense, and the dual threat bugaboo of seasons past appears to be no more. Nobody runs on this defense, and despite A&M’s improvement in that regard, don’t expect that to change Saturday.

Instead, look for the Aggies to test the occasionally suspect Tide secondary with a steady diet of Josh Reynolds and Christian Kirk, who are clearly the cream of what was once a bumper crop of receivers for the Aggies. Of course, “occasionally suspect” is maybe a little strong, as the back end of the defense is nearly as good as the guys up front. You already know the big names, but even the supposed soft spots in Anthony Averett and Ronnie Harrison have played well for most of the season. There’s really no good way to come at this defense, which may be all you need to know about this game.

Special Teams

There are a couple of new stats in this section of the chart from previous years: ST S&P+ and NVP. NVP is Net Field Position Value, which replaced Field Value Efficiency as the FEI field position metric. ST S&P+ is an initial stab at calculating an S&P+-style value for special teams. Depending on which metric you value, there’s either a huge edge for Texas A&M (ST S&P+) or little difference between the two teams (NVP, STE).

It’s the same story for the Tide — strong play on kickoffs, punts, and punt returns sullied by field goal woes and poor kick returning. Eddie Jackson has come out of nowhere to become a lethal punt returner, every bit the weapon as the significantly more ballyhooed Jabrill Peppers. J.K. Scott still has the occasional stumble, but otherwise appears to be back to 2014 form. Adam Griffith is still getting it done on kickoffs, but is little better than a tossup on placements. It is what it is.[10]

10 | For what it’s worth, Eddy Pineiro hasn’t been much better, at least on accuracy.

Texas A&M is similarly all over the place, though aside from the field goals they are very strong in the kicking game. Only LSU is stingier on kick returns among SEC teams, and they don’t give up much on punt returns either. It will already be an ugly, ugly game if the Aggies’ significant advantage on kickoffs comes into play, so Jackson against the A&M punt coverage is probably the matchup to watch. There is this streak of non-offensive touchdowns you might have heard about recently, after all.

Any intangibles to consider?

Not really, for once. Both teams enter the game relatively healthy, with only Alphonse Taylor’s concussion situation on the injury report. It appears to be a lovely day for football, as Tuscaloosa will enjoy highs in the low 70s with light wind and no rain or clouds in the forecast.

Swanson Giddiness Index

Ron’s at the point in the season where he starts worrying about all the games, but he also sees a whole lot of crimson in the charts up above. Specifically, Ron sees an even more favorable matchup on the ground than last week’s.

The Picks

As has been noted elsewhere on this site, the opening line was among the largest ever for a matchup of top 10 teams, and the money’s only pushed it in Alabama’s favor since it was announced. The advanced stats don’t pick the Tide to cover, but while I’m sure I’ll regret this later, I’m thinking yet another non-offensive touchdown pushes the final margin just enough.

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