NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.
Missouri at Texas A&M
Expectations are a powerful thing. Heading into the season, Texas A&M was selected as the No. 8 team in the country even though they hadn't actually taken residence in the Top 10 (by merit of their play on the field) since 1999. Pollster over-exuberance has led to an interesting scenario in which Texas A&M is actually playing above the level of their statistical projections and rank 16th in the country (still higher than their highest point last year), and the season is something of a disappointment because they are only 5-2 and only 16th.
Granted, part of the disappointment stems from the way A&M has suffered their losses -- they blew large halftime leads to both Oklahoma State and Arkansas and lost by a combined five points -- but with the spotlight off of them after those two games, A&M has gathered itself and performed at a high level. They nearly blew yet another second-half lead to Texas Tech but rode special teams and turnovers to victory, then blew the doors off of No. 20 Baylor at home and turned in a workmanlike 33-17 win over Iowa State in Ames. They are better than I projected, worse than most expected, and pretty damn effective at the moment. A Mizzou win could turn their season around the way a loss turned A&M's around last year, but the going will be a lot tougher this time around.
When Missouri Has The Ball…
|SD % Run||65.5%||39.8%|
|Success Rt+ Rk||23||27|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||32||14|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||12||30|
Missouri's win in College Station last year was its most surprisingly impressive of the season. Mizzou was coming off of a dreadful offensive performance against Colorado, but they rebounded with an incredibly efficient game against an A&M defense that was still figuring out the ins and outs of Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme. Blaine Gabbert completed 13 of 19 first-down passes (to five different targets, primarily Wes Kemp and Michael Egnew) for 163 yards; the run game was only semi-effective in this regard (Henry Josey had five carries for 29 yards on first downs, Kendial Lawrence six for 18).
|SD % Run||35.1%||31.4%|
|Success Rt+ Rk||52||5|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||19||42|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||31||7|
If they are to once again take down their current and, in theory, future conference rivals on Saturday, they will have to pull off the same balancing act. Mizzou is actually better on passing downs with James Franklin behind center than they were with Blaine Gabbert, but a low leverage rate would very much play into A&M's strengths.
Missouri's strategy on standard downs will be quite interesting. They are both more persistent and effective in establishing the run in 2011, but you are as or more likely to move the ball on A&M with the short passing game on these downs. Missouri shredded the Aggies with short passing, and Oklahoma State did the same in the second half of their comeback win in College Station; I'm curious about the degree to which they try to do it again. The numbers show that Missouri has been quite effective in the standard downs passing game, but part of that is because they don't do it as much. It is more of a surprise. Do it more, and (obviously) it becomes less surprising.
Once into passing downs, the strength of both the 3-4 and A&M's defense come clearly into view. The scheme is designed to confuse and mislead, to give you the ability to attack from anywhere on the field; A&M does that, but they attack most effectively with outside linebacker Sean Porter (39.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks). They are not getting as much pressure from the JOKER position (the DE/OLB hybrid) this year, but Porter is making up the difference. After Porter, only one other player has more than two sacks (end Tony Jerod-Eddie, with four), but 17 have at least 0.5. (As means of comparison, that is the same number of Missouri players with at least 0.5 TFL.) Strong safety Howard Matthews is also commonly used to harass the quarterback on these downs, but to date, he has not met his target often -- he has one sack and four quarterback hurries (second-most on the team).
Missouri fans get antsy the first time Mizzou runs a play that doesn't involve handing the ball to Henry Josey. They should try to be patient in this game, however, as it may be as or more important to establish the pass early in downs. Whatever it takes to keep James Franklin upright and in comfortable down-and-distance situations.
By the way, A&M is perhaps this year's best example of Why Raw Statistics Are Horribly Misleading. In terms of yardage, A&M is 84th in total yards allowed, fifth in rushing yards allowed and 120th in passing yards allowed. They must be awful against the pass!!!!!1!! Not so much. They are giving up yards thanks in many ways to the same things that doomed Missouri's pass defense totals in 2008: 1) they have held hefty leads for much of the season (therefore making teams pass) and 2) they have faced some extremely prolific passing offenses. In terms of those same raw passing yardage totals, A&M has taken on the No. 2 (Oklahoma State), No. 3 (Texas Tech), No. 7 (Baylor) No. 9 (Arkansas) and No. 12 (SMU) offenses in the country. That's ridiculous. The Baltimore Ravens would be allowing some serious passing yardage facing those teams. Once you have adjusted for opponent and removed garbage-time plays, you see some much more reasonable per-play ratings for the Aggies. Mizzou still might have to pass the ball to win, but that's because of the strength of the Run D, not necessarily the weakness of the secondary.
When Texas A&M Has The Ball…
There's the A&M offense you think you know, and the A&M offense that actually beats you. By now, you know the names of quite a few A&M players: quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael, receiver Jeff Fuller. You may have even heard of receiver Ryan Swope. But what you haven't heard of may hurt you the most.
|SD % Run||61.5%||56.5%|
|Success Rt+ Rk||6||80|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||8||51|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||54||86|
On standard downs, A&M aims for efficiency, very much in the same way Oklahoma State typically does. They are not likely to break long gains within the structure of their gameplan, but they can nickel and dime you to death. They will run the expected amount of time (the national average for rushing on standard downs is 60%), and they will do it very well.
- Cyrus Gray: 134 carries, 646 yards (4.8 per carry), seven touchdowns, 1.52 Highlight Yards per carry, +6.4 Adj. POE
- Christine Michael: 111 carries, 723 yards (6.4 per carry), eight touchdowns, 2.37 Highlight Yards per carry, +11.5 Adj. POE
Few teams have two weapons as strong as Michael and Gray -- Gray exploded after Michael got hurt last year, but Michael has shown a stronger combination of explosiveness and efficiency this year (last year it was all former and no latter). He has always hinted at incredibly high upside, and he is starting to put all the pieces together this year. (He probably would have last year, too, if not for injuries.) Throw in a once-per-quarter dose of Ryan Tannehill (28 non-sack carries, 242 yards, three touchdowns, +8.4 Adj. POE), and you've got a well-rounded run game.
|SD % Run||25.5%||31.4%|
|Success Rt+ Rk||4||10|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||8||35|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||4||24|
With these assets, the Aggies have not felt the need to take many chances in the passing game on standard downs. Tannehill throws mostly to Jeff Fuller, whose 36% target rate on these downs is well over the national average for a No. 1 target (about 25%). He has caught 29 of the 49 passes targeting him on these downs (59%) for 282 yards; this is a per-target rate of just 5.8 yards, well below the national average of around 8.6. You want them to throw to Fuller, actually, because A&M's No. 2 and 3 targets on these downs -- Swope (38 targets, 30 catches, 393 yards) and Uzoma Nwachukwu (22 targets, 12 catches, 169 yards) -- have each been quite a bit more effective. Teams attack Fuller with their top corner, and the other two wreak havoc. These three make up 80% of A&M's standard downs targets, but Tannehill will occasionally dump to Gray and Michael (combined: 13 targets, 11 catches, 90 yards).
The fun starts on passing downs. Not only does Tannehill diversify on passing downs, but A&M's offense almost gets better. Tannehill is mobile both inside the pocket and out; his legs and an improving A&M line assure that he doesn't end up on his back often (the A&M offense is seventh in Adj. Sack Rate, 12th on passing downs; the Mizzou defense is 60th in Adj. Sack Rate, but they are 17th on passing downs). With extra time, Tannehill has been able to complete 61 of 93 passes for 857 yards. His per-pass average on standard downs is 7.6 yards, and it rises to 9.2 on passing downs.
Here's the fun part: Fuller is the No. 3 target on passing downs. With Fuller as, basically, a decoy, Nwachukwu (24 targets, 17 catches, 232 yards) and Swope (22 targets, 14 catches, 266 yards) become the go-to guys. It is a bit deceptive and quite effective.
If there is good news for Missouri here, it is that they also improve quite a bit on passing downs. The problem has come on standard downs, especially against teams that pass quite a bit (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arizona State). A&M plays it more straight-forward on these downs, but they are also quite effective. Mizzou's run defense has been decent overall (I was surprised to see them ranking 51st in S.D. Rushing S&P+), but the front seven will have to be at the top of its game early in downs.
A&M's special teams unit is solid in just about every way, spectacular in almost none. They are 51st in the country in net punting (43rd in punting, 66th in opponents' returns), 24th in kickoffs (hooray, more touchbacks), 62nd in kickoff returns (Coryell Judie, Cyrus Gray and Nate Askew have combined to average 21.7 yards per return) and 74th in punt returns (Kenric McNeal: 7.7 average in 13 returns). Where they separate themselves from Missouri in this unit is in place-kicking, where Randy Bullock is doing what we expected from Grant Ressel. He is 15-for-16 on field goals -- 8-for-8 inside 40, 7-for-8 outside. Mizzou, meanwhile, might not even have Ressel. For those of us the right age to still be scarred by how special teams won the 1998 Mizzou-A&M game at Kyle Field, this is disconcerting. Mizzou can at least fight to a draw in the other units, but place-kicking has to be considered a concern.
As one would expect, the official F/+ projections do not like Missouri much in this game. A&M is projected to win by 15.1. Still it isn't hard to come up with a path to Mizzou victory, and it looks relatively similar to last year's win. Since then, A&M's quarterback situation has improved, Mizzou's offensive identity has changed, and (perhaps most importantly) Mizzou's secondary was hurt by graduation. (In other words, A&M is better, and Mizzou is worse.) Still, if Mizzou can mix effective running and short passing on standard downs, and if they can get pressure on Tannehill on passing downs, they will give themselves a chance. My line for the last week has been that Mizzou is "good enough to give themselves a chance and young enough to screw it up." At some point, the team has to stop being young enough. Is it this weekend, next month or next year?
A Quick Glossary
F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.
Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.
PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.
S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.
Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.
Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.