Experts -- a group in which I do not belong -- have billed this weekend’s tilt for the SEC title as a sort of high-noon standoff. In a battle of wits and will between the bare-bottomed Joe Burrow and the no-name UGA defense, who will be fastest to the draw?
And this, I think, is a fundamentally sound way of looking at the game. But this column, much like UGA’s offense, is neither fundamentally sound nor logical in its execution. So I’m going to give you a different analogy in gif form:
In the name of consistency, I intend to be just as contrarian in my analysis today as I have been in my analogies. One, because I think it’s more fun to read; two, because America has fundamentally devalued expertise, so for some reason y’all will still read this. So, without further gilding the lily, and with nary a speck more ado, let’s talk about what advanced stats can tell us about the 2019 SEC Championship.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Those experts? They’re right. If you like good football, you should pretty much watch this game no matter what your affiliation is. Because when LSU has the ball, this is, statistically at least, a real clash of the titans:
Let me help you interpret that: these two units are basically good at everything. And the things they aren’t good at are matched by their opponents (relative) flaws. LSU, for instance, is only above average at preventing stuffed runs -- runs of 0 or 1 yards. Fortunately for the Bayou Bengals, Georgia is only slightly above average at creating stuffed runs. To stay in the minutiae for a moment more, I think one of the very few areas one of these units can claim to have over the other is in the rushing game. UGA has been truly elite in defending the run this year, while LSU has only been good to great at running the ball. But still, I’m not sure how much that will matter in this game because LSU may simply ask Terrace Marshall and Ja’Marr Chase to win the game on the perimeter. But even that plan might not be incredibly effective, because these two teams are equally well-matched when it comes to explosiveness.
Again, UGA may have a slight advantage in defending the explosive run here, but LSU could easily game plan around that, and win with pure efficiency. Also of note in this chart is the SR by down section. LSU has a distinct advantage on 1st down. One of the paths to victory for the Tigers, in my estimation, is to win first down, and keep Georgia’s incredibly effective 3rd down sub package off the field. Regardless of their success on first down, by the way, I do expect to see a lot of hurry up from 2nd to 3rd down from LSU. Keeping Jermaine Johnson, Nolan Smith, and Travon Walker off the field should, and I think will, be a priority for the law firm of Ensminger Brady and Orgeron. And yes, I would 100% retain their services. Especially if I was involved in an arson case connected to an air-boat rental business.
Anyway, my core thesis after thinking about this matchup when LSU holds the ball was that it’s actually less important than what happens when UGA is on offense. These teams are both so good, the margin between them so razor thin, that I thought we can expect it to be a little bit of a wash. UGA will hold LSU under their season averages, but won’t be able to contain the Tiger passing attack completely. If that held true, then the most important chart of the weekend will actually be this one:
And herein lies the rub. If you operate under the assumption that: 1) the difference between UGA’s Defense and LSU’s offense is statistically too close to call, and that 2) therefore, it matters most what UGA can do offensively, you aren’t really helped by anything in these numbers. It’s actually a little spooky (sorry, I’m a millennial, spoopy) how close these two teams are in both strengths in weaknesses. Even UGA’s slight advantage in the run game is undercut by the anecdotal evidence of, I don’t know, ANY OFFENSIVE PLAY FROM THE ENTIRE SEASON. *takes a deep breath, meditates, gets a prescription for Beta Blockers, then begins writing again* And this pattern continues when we look at the explosiveness numbers for these two teams.
What’s crazy about this game is that, even down to the SR by down chart, is how close these stats mirror each other. Just as UGA has a 3rd down advantage defensively, LSU should look to force UGA into 3rd and medium and up situations, which should help them unleash their bevy of talented defensive backs (Grant Delpit can run, y’all) in pass rushing situations. Genuinely, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more closely matched game, ranking wise. Every time I think about it, I get into this sort of recursive loop of “But LSU ________….. But also, UGA can _________.” It’s mildly infuriating. But none of this means, fortunately for my sanity, that we can’t use numbers to determine the outcome of this game. I’ve ultimately come to the conclusion that the most important chart in predicting this game is actually this one:
To clarify, this is LSU and UGA’s success rate offensively by down, charted from last year to this one. (Hat tip to the geniuses over on the SBN Analytics Slack) I’m not here to bury James Coley, but I think this is a visual representation of what will be the deciding factor in this game: coaching. Orgeron has, quite famously, reinvented himself at LSU by allowing his excellent coaching staff do their jobs without interference. I don’t have any sources inside Butts-Mehre, but I do think that a reasonable person can infer based on results that Kirby isn’t there yet. I don’t necessarily think that the CEO head coach model is better than the obsessive micromanager model, but I do think that, in big games, a play-caller with fewer mandates from on high has a better chance of feeling out the flow of the game. And in matchup where you can barely fit a sheet of paper between the two participants, that makes a hell of a lot of difference.
So what do I think will happen? Let me go back to my initial analogy. (Seriously, watch this scene, and the entirety of Duck Soup, if you haven’t) The UGA defense (Harpo) is going to come pretty close to doing something basically impossible - stop the LSU offense (Groucho) until they are foiled by the ineffectiveness of the UGA offense (Chico), who will continue to blunder into frame, unable or unwilling to read the damn room. But at the end of the day, that really doesn’t bother me. There’s a nobility, a gravitas, a sense of virtuosity to Harpo’s performance here. If watching UGA football in 2019 has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a beauty in doing something flawlessly, even if you’re just screaming into the abyss of another inside zone read option. God bless Harpo Marx, Jordan Davis, and Dan Lanning, is I guess what I’m saying.
I’ll catch you guys in the ATL this weekend, but until then:
Once A Dawg, Always A Dawg, How Sweet It Is,