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What Advanced Stats Tell Us About UGA’s Matchup Against Tennessee

Arachne, Johnathan Edwards, Phil Fulmer, and the high price of sports-hubris. (Oh, and I looked up that RGB codes for both team’s colors, so if the charts don’t look right to you, you’re the problem)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Notre Dame at Georgia
Jake Fromm Sets Charisma to Stun

There is nothing a Classical education will teach you to hate more than hubris. Not just pride, but the kind of excessive damn-the-torpedoes, yes-I’m-a-better-weaver-than-Athena confidence that makes ol’ Zeus (no, not that one) reach for his thunderbolts. Like the Greeks of old, sports fans — regardless of their religious beliefs — live in a perpetual state of humility-panic. No one wants to be the next surrender cobra, and this causes most sports fans to prepare for games like they’re listening to a live recording of Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God on a continuous loop. As a long-suffering Georgia sports fan, I’m not immune to this. I’ve had “28-3”, “2nd and 26”, and “1980” hurled at me through bad dental work on Skoal-scented breath enough times to know the price of failure. So let’s keep the fates happy by not just saying “we’re gonna win big,” and by looking deep into the numbers to find What Advanced Stats Tell Us About UGA’s Matchup Against Tennessee.

Actually scratch everything I just said. Humility is not my strong suit. Like many lightning-singed fools before me, I tend to think that my pronouncements, confidence, and general unwarranted-white-guy swagger have very little impact on that game. So even though I’m going to spend the rest of this column trying to figure out how Tennessee can win this game, let me start by saying that it is staggeringly unlikely that they do so.

And here’s the thing: no matter how many Tennessee fans screenshot that last sentence to mock us after a (staggeringly unlikely) Tennessee upset, those words won’t have impacted the result of the game. That’s not a statistical thing, it’s just part of my philosophy on life. If Zeus still punished pride, I’d have been dead about 15 years ago, so let’s just call balls and strikes from here on out and see what happens.

So anyway, why do I think the Dawgs are incredibly likely to win this game? Because when they have the ball, they should be able to pick their score:

The statistical version of Little Brother Syndrome
Nathan Lawrence
For those of you who prefer it in written form
Nathan Lawrence

Against a lower quality of opponent than UGA, Tennessee’s D is allowing successful rushing plays about 38% of the time. Against defenses about the same quality as or better than Tennessee’s, the Georgia rushing attack has been successful about 57% of the time. While that rushing SR number from the Vols D is respectable (Notre Dame, by comparison was at 40% coming into the UGA game), it doesn’t indicate to me that Tennessee is capable of forcing Smart and Co. to do anything other than what they want to do: Run The Damn Ball. And, as I discussed earlier this week, UGA has been dominant in the Smart Era when they’ve been able to establish the run. Despite their record, the Orangepeople have a not-insignificant amount of talent lining up on the Defensive side. I’m not confident that UGA will win this game comfortably because Tennessee is “bad” (whatever that means), but because they have so significantly under-performed UGA throughout the season while facing — with the exception of Florida — a lackluster schedule.

In fact, there are only two statistics where these two units are even remotely in the same zip-code. One, 4th down SR, has a lot to do with small sample size from a conservative UGA team. The other, Havoc Rate vs. Havoc Rate Allowed, is only a relative weakness for UGA insofar as they are ranked in the top 10 nationally in it, and not in the top 5.

Further, when the gaps are large between these two teams, they are VERY LARGE. Check out the difference in rankings on Passing Down SR. UGA runs a successful play 37% of the time in obvious passing situations. The Vols surrender successful plays 36% of the time in similar situations. This is one of those times when raw numbers can be deceiving. While those two numbers are close, the aggregate nature of percentages means that they include plays against defenses better than UT’s, and offenses worse than Georgia’s. Given that, I expect this to be a very third-and-Grantham: East Tennessee Edition kind of game.

In the Notre Dame preview, I talked about how UGA matched up well against ND because there were several specific performance gaps in statistics that presaged at UGA win. Those gaps however, were significantly closer and less consistent than what the data shows us here. So if, on this week’s episode of Chapel Bell Curve, I demonstrated a little bit more swagger than the nervous-minded among you were comfortable with, rest assured that it’s not because I think that we are guaranteed to blow this UT team out. Rather, it’s because we so consistently outmatch them when we have the ball, and the team that scores more points usually wins.

While the Bulldog defense is not nearly as formidable as their offense, they still match up well against the Phil Fulmer and The Technicolor Orangecoat attack:

A little bit closer now...
Nathan Lawrence
Again, if you like actuarial tables more than paintings, this one’s for you.
Nathan Lawrence

Things look a little bit closer here. Two important things to monitor during this game will be how successful the Volunteer rushing attack can be, and to what extent UGA can create havoc. To this point on the season, the Vol’s offense is more successful at producing positive run plays than the Dawgs are at stopping them. One of the the key prerequisites to a Tennessee win is a wildly successful rushing attack. Not only because it is one of the few areas where UT may have an advantage, but also because they are so thoroughly out-manned in the passing game. If you’re a Vol fan (why are you reading this?) you also have to hope that the UT offensive line can limit negative plays. While UGA has not been incredible at creating havoc plays to this point in the year, Tennessee has been even worse, relatively speaking, at surrendering them. A couple of early sacks on Jarrett Guarantano, or even worse, a defensive score, may seal the deal on a game where Tennessee has an incredibly small margin for error.

Ultimately, the spread for this game is UGA -25. That seems a bit large to me. SP+, by comparison has it at about 16 points, which feels like it’s probably a little more accurate. I’m not expecting a 2017 level blow-out here, but I do feel that this will be a pretty comfortable win. But hey, I’ve been wrong before — just look at everything I said before the Notre Dame Game.

I’ll catch you this weekend in Knoxvegas. But until then, as always: GO DAWGS!!!