It’s tough to glean too much from this sport, but that certainly doesn’t stop us from attempting to read every minuscule tea leaf we come across. One of the benefits of advanced stats is that it can give us a lot of extra tea leaves to pick through and analyze as we better understand the 2019 version of the Missouri football Tigers. With 33% of the schedule completed and a bye week upon us, it’s a good time to take stock of what we’ve seen. SB Nation has a tremendous advanced stats community that is working hard to harvest game data to give all fan bases some specificity on what we’re seeing and give better context to how each team is performing. I wanted to dive into that raw data and take the time to process it into something that can give us a fuller view of how the Tigers are doing so far. Today we’ll dive into the offensive side of the ball, and tomorrow we’ll visit the defense.
To the pointsy-boys!
What you’re going to quickly realize as we go through the offensive side of the ball is that the Tiger offense isn’t really great at anything, yet only has a few glaring issues. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially paired with this defense, but our collective hopes coming into the season were that Kelly Bryant could slide in and — with a few tactical changes — click at the same rate as the Drew Lock offense did. Four games in, that’s certainly not the case. Last year’s offense was 9th in success rate, 86th in explosiveness, 28th in Field Position, and 36th in points per scoring opportunity. So far this year, the Tigers are 33rd, 82nd (improvement!) 74th, and 99th, respectively. Granted, we are looking at the culmination of the entire 2018 Missouri year versus a 4-game sample for 2019, but just at a basic operations standpoint, there’s been regression across the board. An offense that can reliably take 14-plays to score is nice, but a) that’s really hard for a college offense to do consistently, and b) there will be drives where you need to catch up to the chains and the effectiveness of the explosive plays is not getting it done. And when you do get scoring opportunities, it’s important to capitalize, which the Tigers have not been doing effectively.
A 46% success rate is good! It means that 46% of the time, the ground game is getting at least 50% of yards needed on 1st down, 70% of yards needed on 2nd down, and 100% yards needed on 3rd and 4th down. Rushes of less than five yards have been pretty effective, rushes of over five yards have.... yeah, again, been pretty effective, and the line has been in the top half of teams as far as keeping defenders out of the back field. The line hasn’t, however, been all that great in generating 4 yards of space for running backs (that’s opportunity rate) and that might be part of the hold up with the running game. Again, being merely “good” isn’t the end of the world, but we all expected more from Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie once Kelly Bryant came on board. Perhaps the fault can be shared with the offensive line? After losing multi-year starters in Kevin Pendleton and Paul Adams and shaking up the o-line cohesion for the first time in two years, the replacements just haven’t (yet) been able to produce the same amount of unit success that they had in previous years. That’s not saying that they can’t — offensive line success relies so much more on cohesion rather than individual talent and experience — but they certainly haven’t been the road-graders that we have seen in the past.
I have mentioned this several times in the Beyond the Box Score series, but I’ll say it again here: the Missouri ground game has been less efficient and more explosive, while the Missouri passing game has been more efficient and less explosive. Seriously, just look at the disparity between efficiency and explosiveness! I know that I’ve been waiting four weeks to see Jalen Knox or Jonathan Nance or Kam Scott streak 30 yards down the field and haul in a deep pass, but those types of routes and throws have been much less frequent with Bryant at the helm. Part of the reasoning is that Bryant does not have the patented Drew Lock arm-strength, and the other part is that neither Knox/Nance/et al have the speed of Emanuel Hall. (editor’s note: does anyone?) The point is, explosive pass plays can also be a receiver turning a 5-yard slant or a quick out route into a 15/20/30-yard gain by eluding defenders, and that has not been a frequent occurrence this year. Just keep in mind: success in the passing game is highly reliant on experience and with a first (and only) year starting quarterback, a receiving corps stocked with sophomores, and the most reliable targets being two giant tight ends, a hyper-efficient/low-explosive passing game is to be expected and can absolutely get you through a season. In my “Count the Ifs” piece from the preseason, I mentioned that the 2019 team might resemble the 2010 team in regards to an efficiency-based passing game reliant on tight ends and slot receivers. Four games in, that’s exactly how the Tigers have done it.
As a reminder, the definition of a Standard Down is any 1st-down, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, 3rd-and-4 or fewer, 4th-and-4 or fewer. Essentially, a standard down is a situation where the offense is just as likely to run or pass and - in theory - has the advantage over a defense. Is Missouri flexing that advantage? Eh...mostly. Again, none of these stats are terrible but given the expectations of this unit it feels like a let down. It is surprising to see that the majority of sacks given up are on Standard Downs, but other than that, not much to take away here.
Passing Downs are 2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd-and-5 or more, and 4th-and-5 or more. Passing Downs are essentially a workshop for any given quarterback to show off his skills: Johnny Manziel, Bo Wallace, Marcus Mariota, Baker Mayfield... all of these quarterbacks had a knack for making a big play and converting their passing downs. So far, Missouri has been much better at passing downs than standard downs, and Kelly Bryant’s elusiveness has definitely contributed to that. Other than that, it’s more of the same here: efficiency is key, explosiveness is low, and the line is not nearly as good as it was last year.
Following the theme of “efficiency first!” for the Tiger offense, the overwhelming majority of 1st-downs come on first or second down for this offense. Again, they do a good job of chaining together enough successful plays to keep them on schedule and avoid passing downs/third downs. It is curious, then, to see that they only rank 58th; I’m sure 70% will look stronger as conference play begins and teams start playing their peers rather than non-conference and FCS foes. The other notable stat from this grouping is the average 3rd down distance of 7.1 yards. At 61st, that’s better than more than half of the teams in the country, but for an efficiency-based offense, 3rd-and-7 or more is a killer, especially with our lack of effective explosive plays. Keep in mind this 4-game sample includes the notable 2-10 third down conversion performance against SEMO where the average yards-to-go on third down was seventeen, but it’s definitely something to monitor throughout conference play and something that can cause a close game to end up in a close loss.
Breaking out third downs even further you see that 3rd-and-long is 41% of our total third downs, while 3rd-and-short (1 or 2 yards) is only 9%. The Tigers are, unsurprisingly, one of the worst teams in converting 3rd-and-long and — in an absolutely shocking revelation to me — a bottom 30 team when it comes to converting 3rd-and-short. But hey, at least we’re Top 40 in.... converting 3rd-and-medium? Sure! An average college team should be converting about 50% of all third downs in a given game, and Missouri has not done that in any game this season, so over this specific sample, it’s not that surprising that it’s been that bad, but you certainly hope that doesn’t continue.
I don’t put much stock in the red zone — within the opponents’ 40-yard line is a better sample size and more indicative of what a team does to score — but it is an aspect of the game and I know there are many who do put stock in red zone performance, so I’ll add it here as well. I wish I hadn’t, though, because it is not pretty! Missouri operates with a high success rate from the opponents’ 20-yard line, but once they’re inside the 10, the problems arise. Again, this is a four-game sample size and the number of plays the team has run inside the 10 aren’t numerous, but for the samples we have? It’s certainly disappointing. Play calling, offensive line, bad player decisions, turnovers... lots of places to potentially point fingers, but whatever the root cause may be, it certainly plays a part in the team’s 99th ranking for points per scoring opportunity.
I reviewed the offense first because, well, people tend to gravitate to offense more than defense, and it’s been the shakier performer of the two units. Coming in to the season, the Missouri offense was projected 12th in SP+; after the Wyoming game it was ranked 9th, after West Virginia it fell to 29th, after SEMO it rose a bit to 24th, and after South Carolina it currently ranks 34th. Again, this not a bad unit, just a disappointing one. However, one thing I do enjoy is looking at the percentile performance of an individual unit (i.e. with the raw stats and advanced metrics, at what level of play did the offense perform?) and here’s how those percentiles shake out (respective, current defensive SP+ rankings in parentheses):
- Wyoming (62nd) - 93%
- West Virginia (57th) - 67%
- SEMO (FCS) - 71%
- South Carolina (41st) - 25%
I’m banking on the offensive line gelling, the receivers becoming more familiar, and the playbook opening up a little more to allow Bryant to be more of a threat on the ground. That is to say, I believe that Missouri will improve on the performance that we’ve seen so far. The schedule is as such that I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to improve, mind you, but I feel confident in declaring that we’d all like to see a little more success, a few more explosive plays, and a higher level of finishing drives as we work our way through the conference. Otherwise an excellent defense will be worn the hell out by November.