Suffice it to say, the first half of Auburn football’s 2017 season didn’t go too badly.
Six games in, Auburn is ranked No. 10 in the nation, represents a third of a clearcut top-3 atop the SEC, and suffered its only loss at second-ranked Clemson, the defending national champions, by a one-possession score. It hasn’t been all wine and roses by any means — Mercer’s touchdown to come within 17-10 in the fourth quarter felt like a far lower point than it’s proven to be — but the Tigers head into season’s second half with every one of their goals still 100 percent attainable.*
That’s not to say attaining those goals will be easy, of course, because arguably the five toughest games on the Tigers’ SEC schedule are all still to come. Two of them form potentially the most imposing Amen Corner in decades. Before that loom three road games of varying trickiness, two of them against teams possessing at least as much raw talent as Auburn itself. But after six games, the Tigers have positioned themselves to accomplish the things they want to accomplish. Could they ask for more than that?
Hitting the season’s halfway point is a good opportunity to review Auburn’s advanced statistical profile (courtesy of Football Study Hall and SBNation’s Bill Connelly) and answer … maybe. It won’t surprise you to learn that the hard numbers love Auburn’s defense, or that for now they remain more skeptical of Auburn’s offense. But there’s still plenty to learn from diving into the nuts and bolts.
The statistics you should know:
Points allowed by Auburn’s defense per opponent’s trip inside the 40-yard line, the best mark in the FBS even after allowing Ole Miss an uncharacteristic 4.0 points per such trip last Saturday. (That’s still below the national average, by the way.) The Tigers will occasionally let you get within sight of putting points on the board. They just won’t let you actually do it.
Auburn’s FBS rank in defensive “IsoPPP,” an explosiveness metric. Similarly, the Tigers are tied for fourth nationally in number of plays longer than 30 yards allowed, having given up just five all season. (Given the widespread love for Auburn’s fearsome defensive line, is it possible Greg Brown’s equally effective secondary — particularly safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts — have been underappreciated? Quite possibly.)
Put those two bits of data together and you get a clear picture of why the Steele Curtain has solidified itself as one of the nation’s premier defenses. Auburn won’t allow its opponents to finish drives, but it also won’t allow them to score via the big play. No, the Tigers aren’t above yielding a few first downs here and there, but it’s not by accident a team ranked No. 101 in most plays faced is still sixth in scoring defense anyway.
Retweeting this because Big-boy. Auburn defense packing ‘big-boy pants’ for looming trip to LSU’s Death Valley https://t.co/lUY3SQUeAc
— Lauren Shute (@LShute13) October 9, 2017
Auburn’s rank in Connelly’s defensive and offensive S&P+ rankings, respectively. (The Tigers rose to ninth overall in these rankings after beating Ole Miss, identical to their rank in Jeff Sagarin’s computer version.) Why the gap? Let’s start with…
10.6 percent, 14.8 percent
The Tigers’ sack rate allowed on passing downs (second- or third-and-long) and “standard” downs, respectively, good for only 100th and — woof — 129th in FBS. For an offense that’s relies so heavily on giving its quarterback time to complete downfield passes, especially on first- and second-down play-action, that’s not good.
But at least when the line can keep Stidham upright on those standard downs, Auburn’s made some hay, ranking a reasonable 44th in passing IsoPPP. But that’s despite ranking an ugly 101st on passing downs. Basically, for the bulk of the season, if an opponent has forced Auburn into a passing situation, the end result was exceedingly likely to either be a sack or a short completion.
Auburn’s running game has been productive even when it hasn’t been generating explosive plays — its 46.1 percent rushing success rate ranks a decent 37th — but that’s a lot of pressure on it to keep the chains within comfortable reach. But lately, when they have …
Auburn's offense so far…
5 possessions. 5 TDs. pic.twitter.com/sN56a6MMYp
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 7, 2017
Auburn’s marks for IsoPPP on standard downs against Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Those numbers don’t mean a thing in isolation, but they’re both about double the national average (1.05). If you’re looking for an offense capable of both springing explosive rushing plays as part of its usual early-down approach and uncorking the occasional downfield bomb via play-action, you’re looking for what the Auburn offense has grown into since the Mercer game.
Daniel Carlson and the kickoff coverage team’s kickoff success rate, thanks to Carlson’s 86 percent touchback rate and no meaningful returns yet. You’ll be shocked to know that no other team in the nation has bettered this mark.
The Tigers’ actual turnover margin vs. their “expected” turnover margin, based on average rates of fumble recoveries and converting passes defended into picks. Though the Mercer game obviously weighs heavily here, both games against the Mississippi schools could have been even more lopsided had Auburn collected their expected turnovers (or exceeded that expectation, as they did at Missouri.) The point is that the improvement on the scoreboard in SEC play hasn’t remotely been a turnover-fueled mirage.
S&P+’s estimation of Auburn’s chances to win at least 9 games this season. From a game-by-game standpoint, those odds might seem a little off because they give the Tigers only a 34 percent chance of winning the LSU-Arkansas-Texas A&M road game trifecta, but a 70 percent chance of beating either Georgia (52 percent) or Alabama (37 percent).
The guess here is that those calculations overemphasize the chance of an upset, both in Auburn’s favor and against. But after the Clemson game, a 77 percent chance of going 9-3 would have been welcomed with open arms — and given the Tigers’ rapid improvement both on the stat sheet and the eye test, even that might be underselling them.
* Well, unless “finish season undefeated” was a goal, but given the rarity of such an accomplishment, that seems like less of an expectation and more a New Year’s-style “this is the year I make full use of the gym membership and drop 2o pounds” hope.
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