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What Advanced Stats Can Tell Us About the 2019 Edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry

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Palms are sweaty, something something, Mom’s spaghetti.

Auburn v Georgia
Terry knew how to give it to ‘em.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

I’ve noticed something about the way I react to stress. Well, ways, I guess, as there are only two. First, and most common, is what I think of as pissy stress. My stomach curdles, I start to tense up, I lose my focus, I’m always hangry, and I’m generally (more of) a pain in the a** to deal with. The second kind is what I think of as energy stress. Sometimes, in big moments personally or professionally, I’ll get more focused. I’ll still feel pressure, but I get this boost of confidence even in the face of a high-leverage situation. I look angry all the time, sure, but I’ll also get this incredible, unbidden urge to smile manically. It’s actually a pretty good feeling, as feelings go. (All feelings are good feelings; the alternative is much worse.)

This all comes to mind because I can’t decide which kind of stress I should be feeling about the Dawgs game against Auburn this weekend. So, because I know that UGA’s fan base is entirely composed of misanthropes, pessimists, worriers, and general ne’er do wells: let’s define our stress, and talk about What Advanced Stats Can Tell Us About the 2019 Edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.

Since the end of the Missouri game, my feelings on the Warteagleplainsman Classic have wildly vassilated between the remorse one feels about the inevitable death of everyone one loves and why-are-you-at-this-level-of-intensity-on-a-Tuesday-afternoon Kirby Smart Energy. The problem — and the source of about 25% of my latent anxiety this week — is that the stats support this kind of emotional confusion. It’s probably not accurate to say that these two teams are evenly matched, in the sense that they have wildly different statistical profiles. I think it’s better to say that these two teams are uniquely suited to match each other. Well, no, let me be less vague and say that both of these teams have defensive units that appear to be capable of completely stifling their respective offensive foes:

MAN BALL: THE APOCALYPSE
UGA vs. Auburn Matchup Chart (Georgia w/ Ball)
Nathan Lawrence, SBN Analytics

The number, much to my chagrin, sync very well with the national narratives surrounding this game. When Georgia has the ball, they are statistically pretty even to a punishing Auburn defense. The core of UGA’s offensive philosophy, the run game, is evenly matched by the Tiger’s excellent defensive efficiency metrics. Given that these numbers are season long, and don’t adjust for UGA’s recent defensive struggles, you could be forgiven for thinking that this spells disaster for the humans in red and black. What complicates that are the equally pessimistic numbers for Auburn’s offense:

I love this defense so effing much
UGA vs. Auburn Matchup (Auburn w/ Ball)
Nathan Lawrence, SBN Analytics

Two things stand out to me here. 1) Auburn’s pass offense has been.... desultory (?) this year. Given an experienced offensive line and a freshman starter in Bo Nix, that doesn’t surprise me. What does raise my eyebrows, however, is that 2) statistically, this UGA defense has outperformed the Auburn D on the year. Maybe it’s because of my still-smoldering hatred regarding Derrick Brown’s recruitment, or the fact that I’ve pre-traumatized myself coming into this weekend, but I would not have guessed that. But really, even the surprises here have all led me back to the same confusion: who the hell is gonna score during this game?

To answer that question, I think it would be useful to analyze not simply unit rankings and raw numbers, but the relative differentials between the ranks of these two teams. To put it more simply, it’s not enough to find that both of these defenses appear to outperform their offensive counterparts. What’s revealing is to find by what margin the units who will actually play against each other over- and under- perform their opponent.

That was still confusing, so let’s just dive in and see what happens. Through SBN analytics, I have access to 2e season-long statistics, and their respective national rankings. Because of the wide range of what a “good” number looks like across these numbers, I’m going to be using rankings here for my comparisons. Rankings aren’t a perfect vehicle for this exercise, because clustering means that the difference between team #50 and team #1 could be only a few percentage points. So it’s important to remember that this comparison isn’t exhaustive, nor does it give us specifics about how this game will play out. Rather, it will give us a better idea how far apart these two teams are when one is better than the other in a specific category.

So, when UGA’s offense is on the field, in the 25 statistics I track, they are “tied” with Auburn’s defense at 12 - 12 - 1 in terms of which team is higher ranked in each category. That seems pretty even, but a deeper examination tips things slightly in the Tiger’s favor. In categories in which UGA outranks Auburn, they are, average, 13 ranks above the Plainsmen. In categories where Auburn has the advantage, the Dawgs average 22 ranks lower than their opponent. To put that in a more concise way: the advantages the Auburn D has are bigger than the advantages the UGA offense has.

When Auburn is holding the ball, this exercise yields a much different result. The Dawg’s defense has consistently outperformed the Tiger’s D: they outrank the Tigers in 24 of 25 statistical categories. The average ranking differential between these two units is also stark. The only statistical advantage the orange and blue have on offense is their ability to prevent havoc, where they are ranked 24 in the nation, far outstripping the Dawgs 74th ranked havoc rate. However, in the other 24 categories, UGA’s defense is out-performing the Auburn offense by an average of 44 ranks. The biggest statistical advantage to UGA here is in defending the explosive pass, where UGA is ranked 4th in the nation, and is facing the 114th most explosive passing attack in the country. It’s not just that UGA’s D has done a better job this year than Auburn’s O; it’s that, statistically, these two units aren’t even in the same zip-code.

So let’s go back to my initial premise. Right now (and don’t ask me how I’m feeling on Saturday) I’m firmly in my energy stress phase of my reaction to this game. I’m worried about our interior offensive line, yes. And, yes, I’m praying for wisdom for James Coley, pocket-presence for Jake Fromm, and patience for myself. But I can’t get past the fact that UGA has — by far — the best unit on the field when its defense puts the helmets on. Will this game be ugly? It wouldn’t be a UGA game if it wasn’t. Will Jordan Davis pull another running backs into the inky, uncharted abyss like the leviathans of old? If I were a betting man, I’d put money on it. This feels like a first to 24 affair from what I can see, and with more to play for, and a dominant defense, I (tentatively) like UGA here.

I’ll catch you in Jeeeeerdeeen Heeeerrrr stadium this weekend, but until then:

Once, Always,

Nathan

P.S. I know everyone Likes the Radar Charts, so I’ve attached a couple below.

UGA vs. Auburn Radar (UGA w/ Ball)
Nathan Lawrence, SBN Analytics
UGA vs. Auburn Radar (Auburn w/ Ball)
Nathan Lawrence, SBN Analytics