Stats say it will take an elite performance from Feleipe Franks for Florida to beat Texas A&M

I have to admit that I was shocked to see that Florida opened up as a 5.5 point favorite over Texas A&M.

This wasn’t so much a statement about the quality of the Aggies, but more a statement about the futility of this incarnation of the Gators.

A defense that gave up 16.8 points per game versus FBS opponents is now averaging 24.2. And while the offense looks like it has improved from a scoring perspective – averaging 25 points per game against FBS opponents – that number is drops to an average of 20.8 if the three touchdown returns from the defense are removed. That would drop the Gators offense down to a ranking of 103, worse than last year’s ranking of 97.

So nothing is going right in Gainesville. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks is struggling. The suspended players aren’t coming back. Tyrie Cleveland, and now Kadarius Toney, are questionable with injuries.

So how did the Gators open as 5.5 point favorites (now down to 3) against a 4-2 Texas A&M squad that just put up a pretty good fight against Alabama?

Offensive Comparison

Looking at points per game rankings, this doesn’t even look close. Against FBS opponents, Texas A&M appears to be in a completely different class (stats compiled from www.teamrankings.com).

Offensive comparison between Florida and Texas A&M for 2017 thus far. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

And for the most part, that is true. The Aggies are running the ball particularly well, but are struggling a little in the passing game. That kind of split should be expected considering that Texas A&M is starting true freshman QB Kellen Mond.

The interesting thing here is that based on a yards per rush attempt and yards per pass attempt ranking, Florida’s offense doesn’t look too bad. It’s only when it comes to scoring points that Florida ranks extremely low. Florida has also scored every time it has been in the red zone. So what is going on?

Well, the Gators run the ball considerably more than they pass (almost 60 percent of the time) but are getting no benefit in time of possession (29:03, ranked 82). This is because the Gators are only converting third downs at a 34.5-percent clip.

And this ends up being a circular problem because the way to convert third downs is to call plays that are more efficient. And while Florida has been fairly successful running the ball, 7.8 yards per attempt passing is way more efficient than the 4.3 yards per rush the Gators are currently averaging.

This doesn’t mean that Florida should abandon Perine, Davis or Toney. On the contrary, I think the Gators need to get those guys the ball more. But I would suggest that they need to add those touches through the air rather than just turning around and handing the ball to the back or having Toney line up in the wildcat.

As for Texas A&M, they’re a better offensive team. But they’re not that much better when you account for pace. While Florida averages 63.6 plays per game, A&M averages 78.8. The Aggies have only converted 38.0 percent of its third downs, so the increase in plays isn’t mainly due to being a more successful offense, just a quicker one.

If you normalize points per game based on Florida’s pace, the Aggies average 29.4 points per game. This is still much worse than Florida, but much better than the unnormalized 36.4 point per game average would suggest.

The other big factor the Aggies bring into the Swamp is that this is only the second road game for true freshman Kellen Mond, and it is his first road start.

If you look at all of the quarterbacks who have started games in the SEC this season, 9 of them started as true freshman. If you look at the splits of the group as true freshman, the difference between home and road/neutral games is striking.

Freshmen home/away splits for current SEC starting quarterbacks. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

The overall statistics are fairly respectable. But there is a 27-point difference in QB rating home vs. away. And these aren’t bums. These are the splits of Jake Fromm, Jacob Eason, Jarrett Stidham, Shea Patterson, Jalen Hurts, Jake Bentley, Kyle Shurmur, Drew Lock and Mond. The message is clear: true freshmen QBs really struggle on the road, regardless of how good they are.

The same has been true for Mond.

Home/away splits for Texas A&M starting QB Kellen Mond in 2017. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

This is admittedly a really small sample size, and Mond’s away statistics are certainly influenced by his 3-for-17 performance to open the season against UCLA. But that game happened, and UCLA is ranked 116 against FBS opponents in point per game allowed.

In fact, A&M has faced three absolutely terrible defenses in UCLA (39.2 ppg allowed), Louisiana Lafayette (45.8) and Arkansas (37.5). The Aggies averaged 46.3 points per game in those games. Against opponents with better defenses in South Carolina (21.0) and Alabama (10.6), A&M averaged 21.5 points per game.

It’s a legitimate question whether the A&M offense is really that good. Of course, there’s no question that Florida’s offense is bad. But the difference between the two – both because of pace and because of quality of competition – brings them closer than initial inspection.

Throw in that it is Mond’s first start on the road, and this gap could prove much smaller than anyone would believe. This an advantage for Texas A&M, but I think it’s only a slight one.

Advantage: Texas A&M

Defensive Comparison

Kevin Sumlin has been known for offense in his tenure, first at Houston and now at Texas A&M. That has been a bit unfair, as his defenses have ranked 48 and 28 in points per game the previous two seasons. However, this year the Aggies defense has taken a step back.

Defensive comparison between Florida and Texas A&M thus far in 2017. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

But the Aggies ranking here is also impacted by pace. In this case, the Aggies are getting off the field on third downs at a 69 percent clip but still are being exposed to 74.4 plays because of the offense’s inability to convert on third down. Normalizing this to Florida’s pace and the Aggies average is more like 28.2 points per game. So while Florida’s defense is better, it is not the advantage you would think at first glance.

This is reflected in the explosive plays by the Aggies defense, as 12.9 percent of total tackles have been tackles for loss. Compare that to Florida (who also has a pretty explosive defensive line) with 10.3 percent of total tackles as TFL.

All this penetration manifests itself in turnovers, and the Aggies dominate the Gators in that category. While the Gators have three interceptions returned for touchdowns, the defense has been unable to consistently force turnovers with only 5 interceptions all year. Conversely, Texas A&M has forced 5 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles, of which it has recovered 7. Some of this is likely tied to sacks, as A&M has 23 sacks to Florida’s 13 (albeit in one more game).

Other than points allowed, there really isn’t anything to suggest that Florida’s defense is any better than Texas A&M. And that doesn’t account for the difference in schedules.

A&M has face teams that have averaged 34.6 points per game and have allowed an average of 30.6 points per game against those opponents. Florida has faced teams that have averaged 22.4 points per game and have surrendered an average of 24.2 points per game against those opponents.

Based on that, it appears that Texas A&M is actually outperforming what it should while Florida is underperforming. Despite what the point totals say, the Texas A&M defense looks to be better than Florida’s. And it doesn’t look like it is particularly close.

Advantage: Texas A&M

The Pick

Texas A&M has a slight advantage on offense and a significant advantage on defense. That should be a recipe for an easy Aggies win.

But I expect to see Mond struggle, because true freshmen always struggle on the road. There is a difference when the crowd starts roaring, and it takes a year or two for quarterbacks to get used to it.

But the Gators don’t just have significant problems on offense. Florida has significant match-up problems against A&M.

The Aggie defense is explosive up-front, and Florida’s offensive line has struggled against elite talent on the defensive line against Michigan and – in some cases – LSU. If A&M can get penetration and shut down the Florida running game, the game will fall on the shoulders of Franks. And if Florida falls behind, does anyone believe that he’s going to be able to stand tall in a collapsing pocket to find receivers who also appear to be struggling to get open?

It is more likely that Franks – who has excelled at not turning the ball over – is going to see that luck end against a team that is constantly chasing him. And with all of the criticism about the lack of downfield shots, Franks may attempt some throws he otherwise shouldn’t.

Can Florida win? Certainly. But it’s going to take a complete meltdown by Mond or an elite-level performance from Franks for Florida to pull it out. That is certainly possible, but that’s not something anyone should count on. Mond has continually improved this season from that opener against UCLA. Franks has really struggled.

I expect that to continue. Texas A&M wins, 30-17.

The post Stats say it will take an elite performance from Feleipe Franks for Florida to beat Texas A&M appeared first on SEC Country.

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