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Missouri at Texas A&M preview: Tigers must play clean football, follow their recipe

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If Missouri can minimize big plays and avoid obvious passing downs, the Tigers can beat Texas A&M. But the Aggies will pretty harshly punish mistakes in a way that Kentucky and Vanderbilt could not.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here.

Missouri at Texas A&M

Record CFP
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Missouri 7-2
36 89 13 12
Texas A&M 7-3 24 47 30 80 46

Missouri 22, Texas A&M 20 (win probability: Missouri 60%)
(Here's your weekly reminder that, yeah, the projected scores are screwy and, at this point, for entertainment value only. The projected margins are still solid, though.)

Every team has a range. In 2014, Missouri has proven capable of losing to Indiana and destroying Florida while Texas A&M has proven capable of destroying South Carolina, winning at Auburn, getting blown out by an incomprehensible margin at Alabama, and nearly losing to UL-Monroe.

What the F/+ ratings show us this time around is that the midpoint of Missouri's large range is higher than the midpoint of A&M's cavernous range. Missouri is capable of climbing Mount McKinley or falling into a canyon; A&M is capable of landing on the moon or falling through the center of the earth. On average, that means good things for Missouri, but I don't blame you if, based simply on last impressions, you see things different than the numbers do. It's hard to feel immensely confident about going on the road and beating a team that just beat Auburn at home. The numbers are here to remind you that A&M isn't always that team and has only been that team once since September.

F/+ Win Probability (remaining games)
Arkansas (64%, up 21% from last time
)
at Texas A&M (60%, down 5% from last time)
at Tennessee (40%, up 5% from last time)

It only takes the smallest of advantages or disadvantages to move the win probability scale from about 45% to 55%, so when you see that Missouri's probability of beating Arkansas went up pretty drastically, keep that in mind. Mizzou basically faces three tossup games down the stretch and probably needs to figure out a way to win two of them to win the East. (The Tigers will need to win all three if Georgia beats Auburn on Saturday.)

When A&M Has The Ball…

NOTE: Below, I'm using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

ONE MORE NOTE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
A&M Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 46.9% (115th)

S&P+ 126.1 (15th) 117.9 (22nd) push
Success Rate 55.0% (6th) 45.0% (54th) A&M
IsoPPP 0.82 (44th) 0.65 (22nd) MU
Rushing Success Rate 54.0% (15th) 41.9% (30th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.65 (64th) 0.65 (67th) push
Passing Success Rate 55.8% (5th) 50.0% (102nd) A&M big
Passing IsoPPP 0.96 (49th) 0.65 (2nd) MU

When A&M has the ball on first down, second-and-medium, or third-and-short, the Aggies hold the advantage. That's always true for the offense on standard downs, but it's particularly true here. It's really hard to knock A&M off schedule. The Aggies use short passing as an extension of the run game (they hand the ball off fewer than almost any FBS team), and as you see below, the top six standard downs targets have combined to catch 73 percent of passes on such downs.

Targets & Catches
Malcome Kennedy: 42 targets, 33 catches (79%), 344 yards (8.2), 2 TD
Speedy Noil: 40 targets, 25 catches (63%), 346 yards (8.7), 3 TD
Josh Reynolds: 37 targets, 29 catches (78%), 461 yards (12.5), 8 TD
Ricky Seals-Jones: 36 targets, 25 catches (69%), 238 yards (6.6), 3 TD
Boone Niederhofer: 23 targets, 19 catches (83%), 153 yards (6.7), 1 TD
Edward Pope: 21 targets, 15 catches (71%), 204 yards (9.7), 1 TD
Sabian Holmes: 19 targets, 8 catches (42%), 145 yards (7.6), 2 TD

Stopping A&M requires patience and discipline. Accept that the Aggies are going to move the ball, tackle well, and force them to run 10 or 12 mistake-free plays in a row to score points. And when you get a chance to close the drive out, close the drive out.

Passing Downs
A&M Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 31.0% (72nd)

S&P+ 115.1 (39th) 157.2 (5th) MU
Success Rate 35.9% (26th) 21.4% (6th) push
IsoPPP 1.08 (87th) 0.91 (9th) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 33.3% (25th) 20.0% (18th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.45 (66th) 0.93 (31st) MU
Passing Success Rate 37.0% (29th) 22.0% (10th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.13 (73rd) 0.91 (17th) MU big

Targets & Catches
Josh Reynolds: 25 targets, 13 catches (52%), 203 yards (8.1), 2 TD
Malcome Kennedy: 25 targets, 9 catches (36%), 160 yards (6.4), 1 TD
Ricky Seals-Jones: 21 targets, 18 catches (86%), 183 yards (8.7), 1 TD
Speedy Noil: 19 targets, 12 catches (63%), 131 yards (6.9), 1 TD
Edward Pope: 15 targets, 12 catches (80%), 232 yards (15.5), 3 TD
Boone Niederhofer: 11 targets, 7 catches (64%), 79 yards (7.2)
Sabian Holmes: 9 targets, 3 catches (33%), 44 yards (4.9)

Texas A&M's offense has produced a strange combination of stats. The top two passing downs targets for A&M, Reynolds and Kennedy, have combined for a 44 percent catch rate and 16.5 yards per catch. That's tremendously all-or-nothing, and it suggests that A&M's quarterback of choice, either Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill (it was HIll earlier in the year, and it's Allen now) is holding onto the ball for a while and waiting for someone to get open deep. Only, A&M has allowed only a 1.0% sack rate on passing downs, best in the country. The ball comes out of the quarterback's hand awfully quickly.

That's not really what Missouri's defense wants to face. Mizzou uses its awesome pass rush to help out the secondary, and without Aarion Penton (full game) or Braylon Webb (first half), that secondary will need extra help. Kenya Dennis' recent emergence, along with a generally deep secondary, have certainly played a role in Missouri's top-5 passing downs ranking. But A&M will almost certainly neutralize Missouri's pass rush, likely with quick passes to Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil, and look to the intermediate routes only occasionally. There's a lot of pressure on the DBs here.

Three years ago in College Station, E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder had a coming-out party of sorts, combining for one interception and five break-ups while Kip Edwards held his own on big Jeff Fuller. It wouldn't be a bad time for John Gibson, David Johnson, and Thomas Wilson, three reserves who should see quite a bit of PT tomorrow, to have their own breakout game.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense A&M Defense Advantage
SD % Run 59.7% (56th)

S&P+ 99.7 (70th) 101.2 (64th) push
Success Rate 46.2% (77th) 51.3% (115th) MU
IsoPPP 0.73 (79th) 0.74 (65th) push
Rushing Success Rate 48.4% (52nd) 56.5% (125th) MU big
Rushing IsoPPP 0.56 (114th) 0.73 (97th) push
Passing Success Rate 43.0% (96th) 43.4% (46th) A&M
Passing IsoPPP 1.01 (30th) 0.75 (25th) push

Texas A&M has allowed almost the worst rushing success rate in the country on standard downs this year. The Ags have certainly faced quite a few good run games (Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State), which is why their opponent-adjusted S&P+ figure above is better than what would be expected from the other numbers. But Missouri will have an opportunity to run the ball pretty well.

Mizzou, of course, has had its own issues running the ball. The run-blocking has been of the "one step forward, one step back" variety; nice progress against defenses like UCF and Vanderbilt was followed by regression against Indiana and Kentucky. If Missouri can find open spaces for Russell Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy, and Maty Mauk, and if the Tigers can stay on schedule, they can score some points. As mentioned yesterday, the A&M front seven is incredibly hit-or-miss -- good plays, bad plays, good athleticism, bad experience.

If Missouri has to pass, Missouri will lose. The Tigers don't have the athleticism in the receiving corps to match that of an experienced A&M secondary. Bud Sasser can maybe post up and catch a big pass or two, but he'll need help from ... somebody. Anybody. Jimmie Hunt? A healthy Darius White? An emerging Nate Brown? Whoever.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 47 targets, 32 catches (68%), 355 yards (7.6 per target), 5 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 20 targets, 13 catches (65%), 179 yards (9.0), 4 TD
Darius White: 18 targets, 9 catches (50%), 135 yards (7.5), 2 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 15 targets, 6 catches (40%), 49 yards (3.3), 1 TD
Marcus Murphy: 14 targets, 10 catches (71%), 77 yards (5.5)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 7 targets, 5 catches (71%), 56 yards (8.0)
Wesley Leftwich: 6 targets, 2 catches (33%), 31 yards (5.2)
Nate Brown: 5 targets, 4 catches (80%), 31 yards (6.2)

Before his injury, Darius White's biggest impact for this team came in his ability to go up the seam. He is the fastest of Missouri's receivers, and Mizzou has been desperate for any sort of field-stretching presence. If he is able to scare the defense deep just once a quarter or so, it could make a significant impact.

Passing Downs
MU Offense A&M Defense Advantage
PD % Run 34.1% (54th)

S&P+ 84.7 (111th) 115.6 (41st) A&M big
Success Rate 30.5% (69th) 32.2% (85th) push
IsoPPP 1.09 (82nd) 1.22 (103rd) MU
Rushing Success Rate 33.3% (25th) 24.5% (52nd) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.95 (91st) 1.18 (86th) push
Passing Success Rate 29.1% (92nd) 36.0% (104th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.18 (57th) 1.24 (97th) MU

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 23 targets, 14 catches (61%), 257 yards (11.2), 3 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 16 targets, 8 catches (50%), 98 yards (6.1), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 12 targets, 6 catches (50%), 70 yards (5.8)
Marcus Murphy: 11 targets, 5 catches (46%), 43 yards (3.9), 1 TD
Darius White: 10 targets, 8 catches (80%), 104 yards (10.4), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 9 targets, 4 catches (44%), -2 yards (-0.2)

Baaaaaaaaaad. Passing downs bad.

It bears mentioning that, despite the presence of Myles Garrett and a strong passing downs pass rush, A&M has still allowed one of the worst passing success rates on passing downs. Part of that has to do again with a tough schedule, but it does tell you that A&M can be victimized if the pass rush doesn't get to the quarterback. But if Mauk evades Garrett and company, he'll still need open receivers. Will he find them?

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. Big Plays

Missouri has to either limit A&M's big offensive plays or match them with its own. Recent weeks suggest the former is more likely than the latter, but technically either path works. It's hard to imagine hemming in the big-play offense that A&M showed last week, but ULM did it just the week before. Kyle Allen appeared to get his sea legs last week, which is a scary thought moving forward, but A&M is still going to want to turn short passes into big plays when possible. Tackle well, live to play another down, and you can win.

Or, again, find some big hitters of your own. That's fine, too.

Key Stat: IsoPPP.

2. Avoid Passing Downs

I've mentioned this about 17 times in the last two preview pieces, haven't I? Missouri stinks at converting on passing downs, and while A&M's defense isn't amazing, the Aggies can certainly pin their ears back and attack pretty well. If Missouri can use the run and the short pass (not a strength) to stay on schedule, the Tigers can control the ball, control field position, and score some points. Constant second-and-9s will be death.

Meanwhile, though A&M's quick passing game will neutralize Missouri's pass rush to a large degree, Mizzou will only have a chance if the Tigers are tackling well, breaking up passes, and creating passing downs.

Key Stat: Leverage Rate.

3. Little Things™

Every game, right? Missouri is a Little Things™ team this year, ever in need of a field position advantage and quality drive-finishing to balance out the lack of offensive play-making. And the Tigers have been pretty good at controlling these things.

Field Position Finishing Drives
Avg. FP
(Off)
Avg. FP
(Def)
MARGIN
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp.
(Off)
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp
(Def)
MARGIN
Missouri 31.3 (41st) 28.0 (33rd) +3.3 (34th) 5.0 (21st) 4.0 (34th) +1.1 (15th)
Texas A&M 30.4 (62nd) 27.3 (22nd) +3.1 (37th) 5.0 (18th) 4.4 (73rd) +0.6 (34th)

Win this battle, and you can survive the rest.

Key stats: points per scoring opportunity and average starting field position.

4. First Quarter

I know, these are basically the same as last week. That may not be creative, but it's pretty accurate.

The first quarter is huge. In Mizzou's two losses, the Tigers were pretty awful in the first quarter. In their wins, they've either been neutral or good. Meanwhile, A&M jumped out to a nearly instantaneous 14-0 lead on Auburn and was able to control the ball and play from ahead nearly the entire game.

Playing A&M is like sticking your finger in a dam. If you can do that for 60 minutes, congrats, you win! But a trickle turns into a gush very, very quickly. If Missouri is down early, the Tigers will likely be down a lot.

*****

Missouri has had a pretty wide range of results this year, but over the last month, the Tigers figured out what they are and began playing to it pretty well. They are a team that slows the game down, rushes quite a bit on passing downs to avoid risk and turnovers, plays near the goal line better than their opponent, and uses special teams and general efficiency to win the field position battle.

If you know what you are and play a style that caters to it, you can win games, and Missouri's won three in a row. To make that four straight, it will take the most disciplined performance of the year. Florida, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky aren't going to be able to take advantage of every mistake you make. But even with its youth and extreme volatility, A&M is more capable of doing so than any of Mizzou's recent opponents. A missed tackle will turn an eight-yard gain inot a 50-yard gain. A missed block on first down will very quickly turn into a three-and-out. Mizzou doesn't have to make a ton of plays to win, but the Tigers can't make many mistakes either.

I know exactly why the numbers favor Missouri here, and I very much think that the Tigers have a strong shot. But my gut is leaning Aggies here. If Missouri wins, think of something in the 31-26 neighborhood. If A&M wins, though, I could see it being more like 41-17, just considering the tempo and athleticism with which A&M plays. I lean latter, I hope former.