An Iron Bowl Preview – A Look at Common Top 25 Opponents

Many thanks to the Notorious PAB for statistically breaking down the Iron Bowl this week. Here’s the first of his two installments this week!  Enjoy!

Looking Ahead to the Iron Bowl –

Games Against Common Opponents Texas A&M and LSU

Introduction

Keeping with long-standing and respected tradition, this season’s Iron Bowl – to be played on November 26 at Bryant-Denny Stadium – is the last SEC and regular season game for the Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. Having wrapped up the SEC West Division when Georgia bested Auburn, 13-7, on Nov. 12, Bama’s next stop will be the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to vie for the SEC Championship.   (Par-tay in The ATL for sure.)

Conference rules require each SEC team to play all other teams in its division. Thus, the Tide and Tigers have five common West opponents in 2016: Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. (There are no common foes from the East Divison this season.) In this article, we’re going to focus on the two common opponents included in CFP rankings that were released on Nov. 15: the LSU Tigers at #16 and the Texas A&M Aggies at #25.

A Look at Bye Weeks and “Tune-Up Games”

One interesting aspect of the Iron Bowl is what Bama and Auburn do the preceeding week. There are four alternatives: schedule a bye week, compete against a non-FBS team in a so-called “tune-up game,” play an SEC team, or face an opponent from one of the FBS (aka Power Five) conferences. Not surprisingly, the Tide and the Tigers have taken different approaches over the years. Let’s look at what’s happened since Coach Saban set up shop in T-Town in 2007.

Bama

From 2007, Bama has been very consistent in its approach to the “week before.” In 2008, the Tide played Mississippi State, winning 32-7. In all other years of Coach Saban’s tenure, Bama has played non-FBS foes:

2007         Louisiana-Monroe         LOSS   14-21

2009         Chattanooga                   WIN   45-0

2010         Georgia State                   WIN   63-7

2011         Georgia Southern            WIN   45-21

2012         Western Carolina             WIN   49-0

2013         Chattanooga                     WIN   49-0

2014         Western Carolina             WIN   48-14

2015         Charlestown Southern   WIN   56-6

2016         Chattanooga                     WIN   31-3

In the nine games against non-FBS squads, the Tide is 8-1, scoring a total of 400 points (44.4 ppg), while surrendering 72 (8.0 ppg). The only loss was in 2007, when the Louisina-Monroe Warhawks topped the Tide by one touchdown, 14-7. That season, the Warhawks were 6-6 overall, 4-3 in the Sun Belt Conference. But the team had experience against big-time programs, playing Clemson and Texas A&M earlier that season before taking the field at Bryant-Denny.

This year’s opponent, the Chattanooga Mocs, entered the game 8-2 overall / 6-2 in Southern Conference play, and led the Tide, 3-0, at the end of the initial quarter.

Auburn

The “week before” experience for Auburn since 2007 has been a mix of bye weeks and contests versus non-FBS teams. The Tigers’ schedule is shaped by its annual rivalry game with the Georgia Bulldogs, the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” (The series started in 1892; there have been 115 games; and, since 1947, the contest has been played on the second or third Saturday in November.)

2007 – 10   bye week after Georgia game

2011           Samford                             WIN 35-16

2012           Alabama A&M                 WIN 51-7

2013           by week after Georgia game

2014           Samford                             WIN 31-7

2015           Idaho                                   WIN 56-34

2016           Alabama A&M                   WIN 55-0

In these five contests, Auburn is 5-0, accumulating 228 points (45.6 ppg), and allowing only 64 (16.0 ppg).

We note that since Gus Malzahn became head coach in 2013, Auburn has had only one bye week. Schedules can be, and often are, made years ahead, but there is relatively more flexibility in arranging late-in-season games with non-conference, non-FBS opponents. (We realize that money – i.e., “major payday for a small school” – can play a big part.) It would not surprise us if Coach Malzahn, who faced Saban-led Bama teams as Auburn’s OC/QB Coach in 2009-2011, decided that when it comes to preparing for an Iron Bowl, playing a game is more useful than having a week off.

This season, Auburn defeated the Alabama A&M Bulldogs of the Southwestern Atlantic Conference. The Bulldogs were 3-6 overall / 3-5 in SWAC games going into their matchup withg the Tigers.

Schedule Context for the Texas A&M and LSU Games

Sometimes, when and where teams meet can affect a game’s outcome. (On the other hand, elite teams are little influenced by such factors, which has been true of the Tide so far this season). Let’s place the Texas A&M and LSU games in the context of Bama’s and Auburn’s 2016 schedules.

Auburn

9/17     Texas A&M (#17 AP)     Jordan-Hare Stadium     LOSS 16-29

9/23     LSU (#18 AP)                 Jordan-Hare Stadium     WIN   18-13

Texas A&M was Auburn’s first SEC contest of the season. The Tigers were 1-1 going into the game, previously losing to Clemson (AP #2) and topping Arkansas State, 51-14.   Auburn played the Aggies and Tigers on consecutive Saturdays, the third and fourth of five straight home games. The winning score against LSU was comprised of six field goals; Auburn scored no TDs in the contest.

Bama

10/22   Texas A&M (#6 AP)        Bryant-Denny Stadium     WIN 33-14

11/5       LSU ( #15 CFP)               Tiger Stadium                     WIN 10-0

First, we note that the opponents came in the same order – Texas A&M first, then LSU.   Bama had to go on the road, however, traveling to Baton Rouge to play the Tigers. In that game, the Tigers were led by a new head coach. After losing to Auburn, Les Miles was replaced on an interim basis by Ed Ogeron, who had been in charge of the defensive line. Orgeron was also interim head coach at Southern Cal in 2013.

Bama faced the Aggies and Tigers in consecutive games, not on consecutive Saturdays. Bama and LSU both had bye weeks prior to their epic defensive struggle. These games came during a very challenging stretch: prior to taking the field against the Aggies, Bama had back-to-back contests against ranked SEC West teams: Arkansas (#16 AP) on 10/8 and at Tennessee (#9 AP) in the “Third Saturday in October” game (10/15).

The Tide’s 10-0 victory at Tiger Stadium produced Bama’s smallest winning margin of 2016 and its only shutout. LSU’s only SEC losses have been to Auburn and Bama. (The loss to Auburn likely cost Les Miles his job, while a win over Bama would have certainly boosted Ed Orgeron’s case to have his “interim” designation removed.) The Tigers’ other defeat was at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers (8-2, now #7 CFP) on Sep. 3 at Lambeau Field.

Game Statistics

Opponent – Texas A&M

    Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Total
Scoring by quarter TEXAS A&M 0 7 7 0 14
  BAMA 6 7 13 7 33

 

  TEXAS A&M 3 13 3 10 29
  AUBURN 7 3 0 6 16

 

Bama didn’t have an “offensive explosion” in any quarter against the Aggies, just solid production and scoring in each period. As usual for this season, the second and third stanzas were when the Tide put up the majority of their points. The Auburn defense, in a losing effort, thwarted several A&M drives, forcing the Aggies to settle for field goals five times. Unfortunately for the Tigers, those 15 points exceeded the eventual margin of victory.

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
Time of possession 35:50 24:10   31:04 28:56
Total yards 451 278   399 478
First downs 28 17   26 19
3rd-down conversions 7 / 14 5 / 16   6 / 17 2 / 15
4th-down conversions 0 / 1 1 / 3   0 / 2 1 / 1

 

We looked at these “high-level” stats from the Bama / A&M game and thought, “Maybe A&M was lucky to have lost by only 19 points.” The Tide enjoyed +11:40 in time of position (essentially 3:2 ratio), +173 total yards and +11 first downs.

Auburn, in its losing effort, had the ball a little longer (+2:08), but generated 79 fewer yards, despite 7 more first downs. The most interesting/confusing anomaly in the game are the third-down conversions. At 35.3%, Auburn did OK, but A&M was abysmal, converting only twice on 15 opportunities (13.3%)

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
PASSING          
Passing yards 164 164   163 247
Comps/atts 15 / 25 (60.0%) 14 / 31 (45.2%)   22 / 35 (62.9%) 20 / 40 (50.0%)
Yards/att 6.6 5.3   4.7 6.2
Yards/comp 10.9 11.7   7.4 12.4
Passing TDS 2 2   0 1
INTs 1 2   0 0

 

The Tide and Aggies accumulated equal passing yardage, but Bama had six fewer attempts, and a far superior completion rate (60.0% – 45.2%). Yards per completion were essentially the same. The Aggies were hurt by one additional interception. In the Auburn game, A&M threw more (40 – 35 attempts) with a lower completion rate (50.0% – 62.9%), but accumulated 1.5 yards for every one yard by Auburn. The yards per completion ratio was 1.7:1.

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
RUSHING          
Rushing yards 287 114   236 231
Rushing atts 57 38   54 37
Yards / rush 5.0 3.0   4.4 6.2
Rushing TDs 1 0   2 1

 

We’ll cut to the chase: Bama’s run game really stood out. Fifty-seven attempts is evidence of a deep commitment to rushing the football. That commitment was rewarded with 287 yards, which is just over 2.5X what the Aggies gained. 5.0 yards/carry is definitely conducive to moving the chains and keeping the clock running. (Only one rushing TD is a bit curious.) Auburn and A&M generated about the same total rushing yards, but Auburn required about 1.5X as many plays, so the Aggies were clearly more efficient on the ground.

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
OFFENSIVE BALANCE          
Total plays 82 69   89 77
Total yards 451 278   399 478
Yards/play 5.5 4.0   4.5 6.2
           
Rushes 57 38   54 37
Percentage of plays 69.5% 55.1%   60.7% 48.1%
Rushing yards 287 114   236 231
Percentage of yards 63.7% 41.0%   59.1% 48.3%
           
Passes 25 31   35 40
Percentage of plays 30.5% 44.9%   39.3% 51.9%
Passing yardage 164 164   163 247
Percentage of yards 36.3% 59.0%   40.9 51.7%

 

First, a question about the current pace of offense in big-time college football: “Are you kidding me?” Look at the total plays – 82, 69, 89 and 77. The average is 79.3 plays/team/game, a little more than 2.6 plays per one minute of game time. Bama and Auburn both favored the run game against A&M, the Tide a bit more so. The Aggies had a supremely balanced offensive effort versus the Tigers with rush/pass play mix 48.1% – 51.9%, and rush/pass yardage 48.3% – 51.7%.

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
PENALTIES          
Number / yards 7 / 44 9 / 81   6 / 28 9 / 70
           
TURNOVERS          
Fumbles lost 0 1   1 0
INTs 2 1   0 0

 

A penalty is never a good thing, but these 31 penalties were called during a total of at least 317 plays. (Penalties are called during special-teams plays, of course, as we all know too well from the ubiqitious “block in the back” foul during punt and kickoff returns.) Bama and Auburn both played “cleaner” games than the Aggies. The Tigers were very disciplined – only 6 penalties that cost them 28 yards.

Opponent – LSU

Auburn and LSU are both known as the Tigers, so we’ll use school names in this section to avoid any confusion.

    Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Total
Scoring by quarter BAMA 0 0 0 10 10
  LSU 0 0 0 0 0
             
  LSU 7 0 6 0 13
  AUBURN 3 6 3 6 18

 

Defensively, the 2016 Bama / LSU matchup was one for the ages, recalling the epic 6-9 overtime contest in 2011. With the score 0-0 going into the fourth quarter, cell towers in the Baton Rouge area were no doubt overwhelmed by calls from NFL scouts, all telling defensive coordinators about the wealth of talent on the field. Auburn scored no TDs, but kicked six field goals in its win over LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Note that Auburn stayed close during all periods, allowing them to stick to a game plan that paid off in the end.

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
Time of possession 33:55 26:05   32:11 27:49
Total yards 323 125   388 338
First downs 16 6   18 14
3rd-down conversions 7 / 17 4 / 15   8 / 9 4 / 13
4th-down conversions 1 /2 0 / 2   0 – 1 0 – 0

 

In this time of fast-strike, “impact play” offenses, time-of-possession doesn’t matter as much as it once did… unless we’re talking about low-scoring games in which excellent defenses hold sway. Bama had the ball for 7:50 longer and made great use of that time – 198 more in total yards and a +10 margin in third-down conversions. (Holding LSU to 125 total yards was amazing.) Auburn held a smaller time-of-possession edge (+4:22) on its way to amassing 50 yards more in total offense (388 – 338). Auburn’s ability to keep drives going was absolutely first-rate: eight of nine third-down opportunities were converted.

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
PASSING          
Passing yards 107 92   234 118
Comps/atts 10 / 19 (52.6%) 11 / 24 (45.8%)   19 / 26 (73.1%) 15 / 27 (55.6%)
Yards/att 5.6 3.8   9.0 4.4
Yards/comp 10.7 8.4   12.3 7.9
Passing TDS 0 0   0 1
INTs 1 1   0 0

 

LSU’s passing attack was ineffective in both games: 26 completions in 51 attempts (50.1%), 210 yards and one touchdown. One touchdown in eight quarters. Bama’s approach was quite conservative, but efficient: 107 yards from 10 completions. Auburn outgained LSU by almost 2:1 in the air, averaging 12.3 yards/completion with a stellar 73.1% completion rate. But LSU kept Auburn receivers out of the end zone all game.

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
RUSHING          
Rushing yards 216 33   154 220
Rushing atts 51 27   49 32
Yards / rush 4.2 1.2   3.1 6.9
Rushing TDs 1 0   0 0

Using an old-school, four-function calculator, we find that 33 X 6.55 = 216. That’s how superior Bama’s run game was throughout the evening of Nov. 5. We don’t know exactly what LSU’s game plan was going in, but being held to an average of 1.2 yards/carry no doubt threw a big, rusty wrench in the works. The Tide rolled up 216 yards against a defense with a lot of guys who’ll be playing on Sundays and kept the clock moving.

Stifling the LSU running game, of course, meant controlling RB Leonard Fournette. And that’s exactly what the Tide did. Fournette was held to 35 yards on 15 carries (2.1 yards/rush) and 0 TDs. (In 2015, his numbers were: 19 carries, 31 yards, 1 TD; in 2014: 21 carries, 79 yards, 0 TD. Mr. Fournette must have nightmares about large, fast men, clad in crimson and while, chasing him relentlessly.) Even if we take away QB Danny Etling’s -16 yards rushing, the LSU ground attack would have generated only 48 yards.

After any stellar defensive game, it’s a good idea to look at how punting affected field position.   In this contest, Bama and LSU punting efforts – by kickers and cover men alike – were nothing short of spectacular.

LSU       8 punts     average – 42.0 yards     longest – 51 yards     2 punts returned for 1 yard

Bama   6 punts     average – 51.6 yards     longest – 66 yards     3 punts returned for 16 yards

Field goals determined the outcome. Auburn’s Daniel Carlson – who also handled kickoff duties – went into the contest 6-for-6 and came out 12-for-12. He was successful three times from 29 yards and from distances of 31, 37 and 51 yards. (Carlson was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award in 2015 and will surely be so again this season.) His counterpart, Colby Delahoussaye, made two of three field goal attempts, scoring from 25 and 19 yards.

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
OFFENSIVE BALANCE          
Total plays 70 51   75 59
Total yards 323 125   388 338
Yards/play 4.6 2.5   5.2 5.7
           
Rushes 51 27   49 32
Percentage of plays 72.9% 52.9%   65.3% 54.2%
Rushing yards 216 33   154 220
Percentage of yards 66.9% 26.4%   39.7% 65.1%
           
Passes 19 24   26 27
Percentage of plays 27.1% 47.1%   34.7% 45.8%
Passing yardage 107 92   234 118
Percentage of yards 33.1% 73.6%   60.3% 34.9%

 

Bama was clearly focused on the run, on offense and defense, against LSU. Running plays accounted almost 73% of play selections and just over two-thirds of the total yards that Bama gained. Bama achieved a massive +183 margin in rushing yards. The Tide outgained LSU marginally on passing plays (+15 yards), but was able to do so on five less attempts, a good thing against a secondary with LSU’s talent. Your basic fewer passes = lower risk situation.

Auburn, in contrast, threw one less pass than LSU (26 – 27), but the margin in passing yards was +116, almost doubling what LSU gained through the air (234 – 118). Auburn did not emphasize the passing game (only 34.7% of the play calls), but the aerial effort delivered just over 60% of Auburn’s total yardage for the afternoon. Excellent “return on investment” right there.

By comparison, Auburn’s running game was (no pun intended) pedestrian. 154 yards against an LSU defense is not bad, but 3.1 yards per carry is not going to sustain enough drives to win. LSU got 66 more yards on 32 fewer running plays.   Leonard Fournette did not play, but Kerryon Johnson stepped up big time, contributing 93 yards on 22 caries (4.2 yards/carry; longest run – 14 yards).

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
PENALTIES          
Number / yards 6 / 29 3 / 20   5 / 50 4 / 28
           
TURNOVERS          
Fumbles lost 1 0   1 1
INTs 1 1   0 0

 

Bama prevailed despite more penalties (6 – 3 ) and one additional turnover. It helped that the six turnovers only cost the Tide 29 yards. An interesting coincidence – both games had a total of nine penalties called. In each contest, LSU was whistled fewer times and had the turnover advantage.

 

 

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