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Processing the Numbers, SEC Title Edition | Florida Gators

For the ninth time in 25 years, the Gators and Tide meet in the conference championship game.

John David Mercer-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?

Alabama and the finest academic institution in all of Lee County met on the field for the 81st time, and as is frequently the case in this series, the inevitable happened. The Gus Bus wheezed into Bryant-Denny and immediately started barning it up, wasting fantastic field position on gimmickry and quarterback shenanigans that netted them a whopping -3 yards and a field goal. Variations on that theme would happen an additional three times, resulting in a banner day for kicker Daniel Carlson but only 12 points for the Tigers. However, nine of those occurred in the first half, and a series of troubling miscues from the Tide offense[1] resulted in just a 13-9 halftime lead for the Tide.

1 | If using former players in practices is OK, can Mark Ingram be brought in to teach ball security? Please??

Ah, but “inevitable” was used in the previous paragraph for a reason. API managed to notch that fourth field goal after halftime, but that was the extent of their scoring for the day, as the Tide defense held the Tigers to their second-lowest yardage output of the season. Meanwhile, the Tide offense quit screwing around in the second half,[2] fed the vaunted Tigers defense a steady diet of Bo Scarbrough, and basically sat on little brother until he passed out. Possessing the ball for over 20 minutes and icing the game with a 2009-esque 15 play, 9 minute drive, the Tide finished with over 500 yards of total offense and outgained the Tigers by 319 yards on their way to a 30-12 victory. The Tide completed their first undefeated regular season since… well, 2009, which you may recall ended pretty well for the good guys.

2 | *glares menacingly at the offensive coordinator*

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

Right! Next up, the Alabama Crimson Tide look to capture their 26th SEC title when they take on the Florida Gators at the Georgia Dome. There have been 24 SEC Championship Games played since the conference expanded to 12 teams in 1992; the Gators and Tide have faced off in eight of them, knotted at four wins apiece. The tiebreaker will be played Saturday, December 3rd, at 4 PM ET / 3 PM CT, and will be televised on CBS. This will be Verne and Gary’s swansong, so expect some mawkish tributes to Mr. Lundquist’s career[3] interspersed with unwarranted references to Kick Six, just because.

3 | Which, joking aside, is long, distinguished, and worth commemorating.

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 78.6% (1) F/+ 26.0% (24) ALABAMA
FPI 30.5 (1) FPI 13.8 (24) ALABAMA
FEI 0.340 (1) FEI 0.115 (29) ALABAMA
S&P+ 34.3 (1) S&P+ 11.5 (21) ALABAMA
Spread 24 ALABAMA

The Matchup on Offense
OFEI 0.68 (19) DFEI 0.94 (8) FLORIDA
OS&P+ 39.9 (7) DS&P+ 14.4 (7) PUSH
Rush OS&P+ 130.0 (6) Rush DS&P+ 126.5 (9) PUSH
Pass OS&P+ 115.7 (30) Pass DS&P+ 129.9 (7) FLORIDA
SD OS&P+ 118.2 (14) SD DS&P+ 137.7 (3) FLORIDA
PD OS&P+ 132.9 (8) PD DS&P+ 107.9 (43) ALABAMA
OALY 112.8 (21) DALY 110.0 (32) ALABAMA
OASR 112.5 (44) DASR 124.4 (27) FLORIDA

The Matchup on Defense
DFEI 1.99 (1) OFEI -0.49 (104) ALABAMA
DS&P+ 5.8 (2) OS&P+ 24.2 (96) ALABAMA
Rush DS&P+ 187.8 (1) Rush OS&P+ 91.8 (102) ALABAMA
Pass DS&P+ 172.1 (2) Pass OS&P+ 95.2 (86) ALABAMA
SD DS&P+ 158.1 (1) SD OS&P+ 97.3 (82) ALABAMA
PD DS&P+ 215.9 (1) PD OS&P+ 86.4 (109) ALABAMA
DALY 156.2 (1) OALY 92.2 (104) ALABAMA
DASR 166.3 (7) OASR 121.0 (39) ALABAMA

The Matchup on Special Teams
ST S&P+ 0.3 (56) ST S&P+ 1.3 (3) FLORIDA
STE 0.02 (50) STE 0.11 (13) FLORIDA
NFP 0.8 (53) NFP 3.2 (30) FLORIDA
FGE -0.05 (81) FGE 0.58 (9) FLORIDA
KE 0.12 (17) KRE -0.02 (56) ALABAMA
PE -0.01 (57) PRE -0.09 (104) ALABAMA
PRE 0.11 (27) PE 0.27 (6) FLORIDA
KRE -0.15 (111) KE 0.10 (28) FLORIDA

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of November 29th, 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

Here’s the deal at this point in the season. Right now, the 2016 Tide have easily the highest F/+ rating in the database, which goes back to 2005 and includes juggernauts like 2005 Texas, 2008 Florida, and all iterations of the Tide under Saban. Rattling off wins against the strong teams to come may result in pushing their rating over 80%, which is just absurd. They have easily the highest S&P+ rating in the database, and are right there at the very top of the FEI ratings as well. These ratings are all relative to the “average team” of course, which is a concept that varies a bit from season to season, but the margins right now are pretty stark. We’re talking about differences between teams that occupy the 99.9th percentile, but that status of being the best, period, is within reach for this team.

On that specific note, if you’re a fan of the Elo approach to ratings,[4] this team is in position to be the greatest since the poll era began in 1936. The current titleholder, 1995 Nebraska, was an absolutely terrifying monstrosity of a team that many consider the best team in history — as mentioned just last week around these parts — but with an 11 point win over the Gators the Tide will take the top spot. Elo certainly has its share of issues — how initial ratings are determined is important, and the recency bias currently plaguing the chess world[5] is strong here as well — but this would be a fine, if relatively meaningless, feather in Nick Saban’s cap if the Tide pull off a big win Saturday.

4 | Best explained here, and most famously used for ranking chess players.

5 | Yes, chess has a world that is plagued by things.

The spread at time of writing was a stout 24 points, which is understandable when you look at the first part of the chart. The Tide, at least based on these four metrics, have an emphatic edge on the Gators overall. Neutral field means we can look directly at the difference in S&P+ ratings without adjustment, and that metric suggests a 22-23 point victory for the Tide. The F/+ margin is over 50 percentage points. In a championship game! This is nuts.

When Alabama Has the Ball

Ah, but here’s where it could get interesting. The thing about Florida, as we’ll discuss shortly, is the offense is incredibly bad. Like, “they s’posed to be SEC!” levels of bad. But the defense, thanks to the recruiting prowess of dearly missed comic relief artist Coach Boom,[6] is every bit as good as the group that finished in the top 10 of the defensive S&P+ ratings the last two seasons.

6 | Oh, he coaches South Carolina now? Had no idea.

Their profile this season is a bit of an odd one, however. Among the country’s finest units on standard downs, the Gators are oddly porous on passing downs — still better than average, but well off the pace of what would be considered an elite defense on those downs. Normally this suggests the absence of a pass rush[7] or a vulnerable secondary, but Florida possesses the #27 and #7 squads per the S&P+-based metrics, respectively. So what’s the deal?

7 | See 2014 Alabama. Sigh.

This is a good example of why traditional metrics still have a place in the analytics era, because a possible answer becomes apparent when looking at third down conversions allowed by the Florida defense. The teams with the four best marks against in the Gators in this metric were Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, and FSU,[8] with rates of 41%, 43%, 50%, and 65%, respectively. LSU was an outlier, as almost all of their third down conversions came on third-and-short, which don’t count as passing downs. Arkansas’ performance was similar, although Austin Allen managed to complete a few passes on these downs.

8 | Against whom the Gators were 1-3. Weird…

The other two teams happen to have talented quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet — Deondre Francois, in particular, killed the Gators down the stretch by picking up third-and-longs on the ground. If that sounds like someone you know, you will likely be unsurprised by the Tide offense’s lofty performance on passing downs, currently sitting at #8 in PD S&P+. That’s the biggest edge on the board for either team on this side of the ball, and one that will likely come into play on Saturday. Florida has the talent to make life very difficult for Jalen Hurts through the air, but they may not have the talent to contain him on the ground — their performance against Francois and Josh Dobbs suggests they don’t.

Speaking of the ground game, despite the losses of Derrick Henry and Ryan Kelly the Tide’s once again amongst the nation’s most potent rushing teams, currently rated #6 in Rush OS&P+. While the offensive coordinator occasionally forgets his toolbox has a really nice sledgehammer next to all the chisels and screwdrivers,[9] the Tide will open the postseason with an effective and well-designed rotation between a triumvirate of excellent backs. The formula as of late has been to open with the balanced game of Damien Harris, leveraging his blend of vision, power, and speed to exploit the tighter gaps present when the opposing defense is still fresh. Spelling him through the middle of the contest is the similarly gifted Josh Jacobs, who sacrifices some of the power for a lot of agility and wiggle. Once the defense has tired, the Tide finishes with the straight-ahead, punishing style of Scarbrough, who’s capably filling the role of closer recently vacated by Henry. This approach worked to perfection against API, and we should see it again on Saturday. The Tide won’t put up a ton of points, but between the backs, Hurts, and the aerial exploits of ArDarius Stewart, the production will come from somewhere.


When Florida Has the Ball

Generally try to avoid mailing in entire sections of the column, but there’s really not much to discuss here. There are offenses that can make the Tide defense work hard; this is not one of them. The Tide’s basically #1 in everything on defense, whereas the Gators profile more like a low-end Mountain West squad — some combination between a lack of talent and a scheme that can’t leverage what it has.

The Tide’s unbelievable rating on passing downs this season is worth highlighting, however. Recall the S&P+ splits are scaled with the average team carrying a rating of 100. The Tide’s at about 216, which means they are over twice as effective on passing downs as an average team. For reference, last year’s Tide team was #1 in this metric heading into the national title game — with a rating of 160.2. This is a special, special group, yall.

Special Teams

Which segues nicely into the group that is always special,[10] and the one area of the game the Gators have a notable edge on the Tide. The Florida special teams unit is among the country’s best in both the S&P+ and FEI worldviews, chiefly on the strength of their outstanding specialists Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend. Much to everyone in crimson’s chagrin, Pineiro has turned out to be the real deal, missing only four of his 22 field goal attempts on the year, with three conversions from beyond 50 yards. Townsend probably has as much of a gripe with the Ray Guy Award list as J.K. Scott does, as he gets a lot more work than Scott, but produces similar results on a per-kick basis.[11] Florida’s strength is not in the return game, and Adam Griffith’s solid work on kickoffs means that facet of the game is more or less a wash between the two teams. However, given the excellence of the two defenses, there’s a decent possibility this comes down to field goals. Griffith’s been more consistent as of late, but the edge there lies firmly with the Gators.

10 | I’m sorry.

11 | They were more or less neck-and-neck until the API punt return, which really skewed the Tide’s average punt return yards allowed on the season.

Any intangibles to consider?

The big story heading into this game for the Gators is the injury situation, which is dire. No less than thirteen Gators are listed as questionable or doubtful for the game, including starting defensive backs Nick Washington and Duke Dawson, starting front seven players Daniel McMillian and Jordan Sherit, starting left guard Martez Ivey, and starting wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood, alongside several other players on the two deep. Luke Del Rio is doubtful, which means it’s another start for Purdue refugee Austin Appleby. That’s not good news for the Gators, who would be working at a talent deficit when at full strength. As for the Tide, Marlon Humphrey is listed as questionable for the game, but all indications are he will play on Saturday.

As noted earlier, this matchup is a frequent one in the SEC Championship, as the Tide and Gators have been the conference’s most successful schools since the expansion to 12 teams in 1992. The all-time series is heavily tilted in Alabama’s favor, but that’s mainly because Florida was a non-factor in the conference prior to the arrival of Steve Spurrier in 1990.[12] The Tide’s gone 9-8 against the Gators since that point in time, but they head in to Saturday riding a five game winning streak against Florida, stretching back to the 2009 SEC Championship victory.

12 | Which, contrary to the belief of most of the Florida fans I know, is not when history began.

Lastly, this game is in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome, where the Tide is 8-1 under Saban. That one loss, of course, came to the Gators in 2008, back when current Gators coach Jim McElwain was calling plays for the Tide. The indoor environment means weather is a non-factor, and as both fanbases travel well, the site will be truly neutral.

Swanson Giddiness Index

Ron’s feeling pretty confident about this one, folks.

The Picks

If the Gators were at full strength with Del Rio at the helm, this one might have been interesting. Even with all of the injuries the Gators defense will make this difficult, but expect a repeat of the LSU game with slightly more scoring. The only real question is whether or not the Tide will cover the spread. Saban’s former assistants tend to keep it respectable, whether through familiarity or a soft spot on the part of their former boss. The Tide officially punches their ticket to the playoff with a win, but not by more than 24.

STRAIGHT UP: Alabama Crimson Tide
AGAINST SPREAD: Florida Gators