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Fun With Numbers: LSU

Welcome to Fun With Numbers, where we’re thankful for Aggie Football, statistics, and not worrying about whether or not we can afford to fire our Head Coach in a pandemic on a tight budget when you can’t even be certain you can get anybody better. Holiday week means I’m trying to get this done a little early, so let’s not waste too much time and get right into it.

What Do We Know?

So following a thorough demolishing of the South Carolina Gamecocks and a contact tracing induced mini-offseason, the Aggies have pushed their way into the Top 15 in most metrics. Currently they’re predicted to close out the season as double digit favorites over the remainder of their opponents, aside from Auburn (where the spread is likely to be within a field goal or less in either direction). It’s late November and the Aggies are playing meaningful football for the first time in a while, with playoffs or NY6 bowl destinations on the line. The journey has been weird, and people will discount us the whole way, but this is why you hire Jimbo Fisher. First though, the Aggies are searching for a little bit of payback.

By the SP+, this is the worst Tiger team since 1999 when LSU finished 3-8. It was hard to see the Tigers maintaining their success from 2019, arguably one of the most potent offenses College Football has ever seen and a strong defense as well, but all the coordinator and player attrition has been compounded by some bad offseason hires and injuries sustained by key players. The Tigers are 3-3 with wins over teams that the Aggies have faced this season (Vandy, South Carolina, and Arkansas), and an opening season smack down by Mississippi State (as well as losses to Missouri and Auburn).

The Aggies are a 14 point favorite in Vegas, with the SP+ putting it at a 13 point win for the Ags. LSU is down this season and that doesn’t happen very often because they’re an SEC power with crazy amounts of talent. How can the Aggies take advantage of this rare moment of ill fortune for their Cajun rivals? Let’s take a closer look.

Aggie Offense vs Tiger Defense

The Aggies followed up one of their most impressive offensive performances of the past few seasons against Arkansas with a second great outing against the Gamecocks. It’s bordering on a Top 10 offense in both the SP+ and the FEI, due mostly to its incredible efficiency and ability the OL’s ability to protect Kellen Mond this season (also credit to the whole team for doing a much better job taking care of the ball after allowing 5 TOs in the first two games). While they still don’t generate a ton of big plays, the Aggies have improved in explosiveness as the season has gone on. Last season Mond was 28% on passes of 20 yards or more, and this season he’s up to 43%. Overall Kellen is up to a 69.78% Accuracy Percentage (from 60.29% in 2019) according to the SEC StatCat, and is only being pressured on 21.98% of his snaps (down from 30.38% in 2019). That’s gone a long ways into opening up things for the Spiller, Smith, and Achane in recent weeks in the ground game.

After losing both coordinators and a ton of talent on either side of the ball, it was interesting to see which side of the Tigers would struggle the most in 2020. So far, it’s been the defense. They’re below average in just about every metric, and are particularly weak in the secondary, with teams averaging a 46% Success Rate through the air and having given up 35 explosive passing plays this season. Granted 15 of those came against the Pirate in the first game of the season, but I’m not sure that actually makes it any better. They haven’t been that inspiring against the run either, with teams averaging a 53.2% Opportunity Rate and nearly 3 Line Yards/Carry, but they’ve done a good job at the second level at preventing those runs from going for big yardage. Pelini also doesn’t seem to be great at second half adjustments either, the Tigers are 120th and 114th in 3rd and 4th Quarter Success Rate. LSU is decent at creating Havoc though, particularly in the Front 7, with 16 sacks on the season and 30 Solo TFLs.

Aggie Defense vs Tiger Offense

Our radar chart kind of looks like a thumbtack. LSU’s looks like a pair of pants.

The Aggies continue to improve on defense after falling a little early on (following matchups against two of the best offenses in the country). They have a lot of work to do in the secondary, and have been particularly bad at giving up big plays on passing downs (ranked 113th in Passing Down Explosiveness). The Aggie DL has done a good job of getting to the QB, ranking 38th in Sack Rate, and the Linebackers and Secondary have done a much better job at preventing Second Level and Open Field Yardage than they have in years past. Basically despite two strong performances in a row and their Top 25 rankings, the Aggie defense is still missing some key pieces that make them vulnerable, and I think those issues have been masked by how well this offense has been playing.

If nothing else, this LSU offense has been efficient in 2020, although things have slowed down a little bit in their last two games. True freshman TJ Finley looked great in his first start against South Carolina, but against better defenses in Auburn and Arkansas has averaged a 61.54% Accuracy Percentage and a 44.62% Success Rate through the air. Davis-Price and Emery Jr. are both good backs, generating 55% and 52% Success Rates, but only averaging .074 and .098 PPA/Rush. Terrance Marshall is the main homerun threat left over from last season’s track meet of an offense, targeted 25% of the time with 9 explosive catches and a 58% Success Rate. Arik Gilbert and Jaray Jenkins are also consistent targets with both having 70%+ Success and Catch Rates.

Special Teams

The Aggies don’t have much in the way of a return game, and Constantinou is still developing as a punter (averaging 42.9 yards/punt). Seth Small is hitting 80% of his FGs, and Caden Davis is doing a good job of limiting teams opportunities to return kicks. Bottom line, the Special Teams unit isn’t perfect by any means, but hasn’t been the outright disaster it appeared to be in the Vanderbilt game.

Here’s an area where LSU has excelled this season. Senior Von Rosenberg (who is in fact a punter and not a German composer from the 1600s) is averaging 47.5 yards/punt which is good for 5th in the country, and opposing offenses are on average starting off at the 24 yard line. Kicker Cade York is hitting 83% on the year on Field Goals and 3-4 from 50+ yards out.

Anything the Numbers Don’t Tell Us?

The Aggies are coming off two COVID Bye Weeks, so hopefully they come out well rested but not rusty. Jokes about South Carolina aside, this and Arkansas are about the closest thing the Aggies have to a rivalry. Two short years ago featured one of the most exciting games in College Football history, and last year LSU came out looking to get even for some sort of perceived slight. This ended in the most lopsided victory the Tigers have had over A&M, and you have to hope that these guys haven’t forgotten that. Again, you don’t catch the Bayou Bengals down very often. I really hope we take advantage of it.

What’s the Verdict?

A loss in any form here would be pretty brutal. Ideally, you want to see a complete domination like Auburn had a few weeks ago over LSU. It’s not outside the realm of possibility either, it’s a home game for the Aggies and they have similar ratings in the SP+ and FEI with Auburn. There is likely to be some rust though after two weeks off, and you never know when a team like LSU could just turn it on and punch back.

Offensively, I wouldn’t mind seeing us take a couple of shots down the field early on. In the last two games before the break, Kellen was 3-5 for 119 yards and 2 TDs on passes of 20 yards or more, and you know this LSU defense is vulnerable on the back end (especially if Stingley is out). I’m not normally a big proponent of that, but Kellen has been throwing well, why not try to get on the board quick and set the tone? If it’s not there, you can always lean on the ground game and those efficient passes of less than 10 yards to Hezekiah Jones, Wydermyer, and Chase Lane. As far as the ground game goes, I see no reason not to run plenty of 2 back sets. It’s late enough in the season, there’s no reason to hold anything back and on 18 attempts for your Top 3 backs (Spiller, Smith, and Achane) it’s averaging a 72% Success Rate, 5 explosive runs, and 2 TDs. This is why I’m comfortable letting Mond take the ball deep. You’re at home and you’ve got a run game that can take control of the game if it needs to, so why not take some chances? Teams that have put up a lot of points on this Bo Pelini defense (Auburn, Missouri, and Mississippi State) all did so by throwing the ball well. I think the Aggies can be one of those teams too.

Defensively we need to put pressure on Finley anyway we can. Auburn totaled two sacks on the young QB (and got 2 more when Max Johnson came in) and also picked him off twice. Missouri had two sacks as well, and that game probably wouldn’t have been as close as it was if the Missouri offense hadn’t fumbled the ball three times. The Aggies haven’t created a ton of Havoc through the early part of the season, but they certainly did against Mississippi State and South Carolina. If they can bring that same kind of pressure up front against LSU and limit explosive plays (particularly on passing downs), I don’t think this Tiger run game can do enough on it’s own to keep the chains moving. Auburn did a really good job of keeping things in front (Finley only had 4 completions of 11+ yards) and Arkansas minimized Terrance Marshall as much as possible, allowing only 7 catches (4.38 yards/Target and only 19 Yards After Catch). With Racey Mcmath likely out, neutralizing their target leader becomes a lot easier for this secondary.

My Prediction: I like the Aggies to win this week. I don’t know that we can reverse last years absolute beat down, I’m not sure we’re that good and that LSU is truly that bad this season. But I trust Kellen at home and again, this run game is approaching 2018 levels of good. This LSU offense is a lot like our defense in that it’s talented and highly ranked but is missing a lot of key pieces to make it great. I think the Aggies win 31-20, Tigers score late for a back door cover.

Thanks for reading, glad to be back for some actual A&M football. These next few weeks should be a lot of fun, provided the JENGA like foundation this season has been built on doesn’t collapse before we hit the finish line. I hope everyone has a fun and safe Thanksgiving, and hope to have good things to write about next week.

  • I recently put together “Stat Profiles” for every team who has played some football this season. You can check them out here.
  • FootballOutsiders.com for a solid compilation of all things related to football analytics.
  • Bcftoys.com for Brian Fremeau’s FEI data and other fun projects from him.
  • ESPN.com is the new home for all of Bill Connelly’s SP+ info (as well as the FPI rankings). You’ll need to subscribe to ESPN+ for most of his stuff these days.
  • CollegeFootballData.com is a great site for data and charts that you can download and play with on your own time, in case Fun With Numbers isn’t filling that statistical void in your life.
  • SEC Stat Cat is another great site. Solid blend of statistics and football concepts.

Questions? Comments? Criticisms? You know where to leave ‘em.

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