If there were a September Championship, UCLA and Texas A&M would have been big time contenders the last three seasons. The winner of Saturday’s season opener has a chance to make some early season noise and attract some of the hype that has been slower in coming this offseason—siphoned off by newer shiny objects like Washington and Houston. What can last season’s stats tell us about how the two teams match up?
As in previous years and in the Statistical Season Preview, we use the following stats:
- Yards Per Stop: A measure of efficiency
- Yards Per Play: A measure of explosiveness
- Points Per Drive and Points Per Trip Inside the 40: A measure of scoring proficiency
- Field Position Margin
- Turnover Margin
We can immediately see why the Aggies had to go looking for a new offensive coordinator. Only two years removed from Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans, and an elite-level offensive line, Texas A&M was mediocre at best on offense last year. Despite (or perhaps because of) having two different elite quarterback recruits start games for them, the Aggies only managed a paltry 5.5 Yards Per Play. That’s not good even before we take into account the wealth of receiving talent on the team.
Interestingly, last year was among Noel Mazzone’s best years as far as explosive plays, with the Bruins managing a very good 6.5 yards per play. The NZone isn’t normally built for the big play, but it will be interesting to see how the Mazzone and his new stable of receivers are able to deal with a UCLA defense that was still pretty good at preventing big plays last season.
It must have been especially infuriating for the 12th Man to watch A&M flail away on offense with a Passing Success Rate of 38.6% (good for 82nd in the country according to Football Study Hall) when they actually had a pretty solid run game, with a Rushing Success Rate of 48.0%, good for 17th in the country. On standard downs, the Aggies ran the ball only 52.8% of the time, 101st in the country. It looks like the new-look UCLA run defense may have to wait a couple of weeks before its first real test, as Mazzone’s offense ran the ball 53.0% of the time, 100th in the country last season.
The game thus appears that it may play into what has long been a Mora-era strength—the UCLA pass defense. However, as every UCLA fan probably knows, the Mazzone offense is really built for efficiency rather than the big play, while the UCLA defense has been geared to prevent big plays. It will be interesting to see how patient new A&M quarterback Trevor Knight is in looking for the short pass, plus whether the UCLA defense makes any schematic adjustments to account for Mazzone’s tendencies.
Under SEC defensive maestro John Chavis, the Texas A&M defense turned into a pretty solid, if unspectacular group last season. Interestingly, it appears that the Aggies were much better at preventing efficiency (their 34.83 Yards Per Stop is just outside of Top 25 level) than explosiveness in 2015. The Sports Illustrated story on Josh Rosen this offseason told the story of Rosen throwing a big play dart for a touchdown, then telling Mora that he just figured “why not.” Despite the formidable Aggie pass rush (tenth in the country in Adjusted Sack Rate last season), there does appear to be an opportunity to find some big plays in the passing game. Just in time for UCLA to transition from bigger possession receivers to smaller deep threats.
The real interesting opportunity, however, exists in the ground game. The A&M defense was a mediocre 81st in the country at Rushing Success Rate Allowed last season. Using thepowerrank.com’s rushing Yards Per Play numbers, which remove quarterback sacks from the mix, the Aggies were a dreadful 117th in the country at yards per rush allowed. Therefore, it appears that while the sexy matchups may be preseason All-Americans Connor McDermott and Myles Garrett squaring off in the pass rush and Josh Rosen’s ears squaring off against the Texas A&M fan base’s lungs, it is in fact the UCLA run game that will dictate the Bruins’ ability to successfully score points against A&M. If new offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu wants to stamp his offense with a new, hard-nosed identity, it appears that there is no better way than running the ball down the throat of an SEC opponent.
Thanks to the electric kick returners Christian Kirk and Speedy Noil (Noil is suspended for the game) and senior kicking specialists, the Aggies did a very good job of winning the hidden yards battle last season. Their Average Starting Field position margin of +3.2, Top 25 level. While it is unclear how A&M’s new kicking specialists will fare, Kirk is a clear danger to a UCLA team that allowed the Southern Cal game to turn last year with a punt return touchdown for the Trojans’ own return specialist. UCLA coverage teams must be on high alert against Kirk—they may not face a more dangerous return threat this season. Also, recall that Ka’imi Fairbairn was the best kickoff specialist in the nation, so we can probably expect fewer touchbacks overall this season. It sure will be nice to have a punter again though!
As turnover margin has been shown to revert to the +0 mean over time, we won’t focus too much on last season’s turnovers, though it’s interesting to note that the Aggies were +3 in their 8 wins and -9 in their five losses.
The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 58 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #27 team in college football, while Texas A&M is #31. The Bruins’ rankings range from #10 to #51 with a standard deviation of 9.85. This standard deviation is about the same as teams with similar ranking levels, meaning there is a fair amount of agreement on where UCLA belongs. The Aggies rankings range from #14 to #63, with a standard deviation of 10.29. This standard deviation is about the same as teams with similar ranking levels, meaning there is a fair amount of agreement on where A&M belongs.
?Using Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings, FEI predicts a 24-23 Texas A&M win. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ has the Bruins as favorites by 0.5.
As we did last season, every week we are going to give you the optimal college football Saturday viewing schedule, recommending the games with the highest mean Massey Composite ratings. Here is our recommendation this week:
??Morning Slot: Oklahoma-Houston (average rating: 9). This is actually the highest-rated game of the day—it will be very interesting to see if Houston and BRO favorite Tom Herman can kick off a dark-horse title run with a win against fellow title hopeful Oklahoma.
??Noon Slot: The Bruins kick off in this time slot because CBS doesn’t care about heat stroke.
??Early Evening Slot: Alabama-Southern Cal (average rating: 10). That 2000-2001 UCLA-Alabama series seems like a lifetime ago now, doesn’t it?
??#Pac12AfterDark Slot: Arizona vs. BYU (average rating: 45) should be a fun look at two future Bruin opponents. It’s kind of sad that three of the four recommended games are happening in NFL stadiums, though we suppose it’s better than not getting those games at all.
The stats are predicting a close, hard-fought game between the Bruins and the Aggies to open the season. It should be a lot of fun. Remember your sealed 1 liter bottle of water in a clear stadium bag (yes, Kyle Field also has a clear bag policy)!
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