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Previewing Texas A&M-Mississippi State and LSU-Auburn

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There are six intra-SEC games this weekend, and man, there are some good ones. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

Wesley Hitt

Saturday's slate of SEC games is a veritable cornucopia of awesomeness. Pity those poor souls whose loved ones scheduled a wedding on 10/4/2014. Never forget. Determining which two games to preview was a lost cause, because at least five match-ups are worth digging into the numbers (unless you're a Georgia or Vandy fan in which case all six). For this post, attention will be paid to four equally matched SEC West teams who are all still in the hunt for the the College Football Playoff if they can run the vaunted gauntlet of their division.

Let's breakdown the F/+ numbers to see how these teams match-up. Keep in mind these ratings are still taking into account decreasing levels of preseason data until Week Seven. F/+ rankings are comprised of the S&P+ ratings and the FEI ratings. This is how those ratings are described:

The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) considers each of the nearly 20,000 possessions every season in major college football. All drives are filtered to eliminate first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores. A scoring rate analysis of the remaining possessions then determines the baseline possession expectations against which each team is measured. A team is rewarded for playing well against good teams - win or lose; and is punished more severely for playing poorly against bad teams than it is rewarded for playing well against bad teams.

The S&P+ Ratings are a college football ratings system derived from both play-by-play and drive data from all 800+ of a season's FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). There are four key components to the S&P+

If interested, here is a glossary for additional use.

Lastly, the F/+ percentage ratings measure every team against a perfectly average team. So, if the F/+ rating of a team is 0 percent, that team is considered perfectly average by this rating system.

The F/+ and S&P+ View of Texas A&M-Mississippi State

OVERALL

When TAMU Has the ball...

When MSU has the ball...

Category

TAMU

MSU

TAMU Off.

MSU Def.

TAMU Def.

MSU Off.

F/+ Rk (Overall)

11 (19.4%)

7 (22.0%)

F/+ Change From Last Week

11 (-6)

10 (+3)

S&P+ Overall

14 (235.6)

5 (251.8)

FEI Overall

5 (0.259)

12 (0.208)

S&P+ Rk (Overall)

235.6

251.8

15 (118.5)

10 (122.6)

14 (117.1)

2 (129.3)

Rushing S&P+ Rk

4 (0.624)

2 (0.312)

37 (0.439)

16 (0.595)

Passing S&P+ Rk

7 (0.680)

42 (0.479)

31 (0.467)

9 (0.658)

Two great teams will have a showdown in Starkville Saturday at noon ET, and if this was just about any other weekend, this game is probably happening in the prime 3:30 or 7 p.m. slots. The overall rankings shows both S&P+ and FEI think highly of these two teams but have them rated almost in opposite slots. Since FEI hasn't released more specific ratings, this preview will use the S&P+ that slightly favors the Bulldogs.

The first thing that leaps out is the 'Dogs' offense has an edge both running and passing the ball against the Aggies. The Aggies defense gave up 484 yards last week against an Arkansas team ranked 7th overall in S&P+ offense, and for the second week in a row they'll face a powerful offense. Despite giving up that many yards last week, the defense still held Arkansas to 21 non-special teams points, which confirms the unit is definitely improved this season, and may have a bend-don't-break style. Notably, the defense only allowed 7 points after the half while only forcing one turnover against a great offense.

The Bulldogs offense is more than just Dak Prescott. Running back Josh Robinson is averaging 120 yards per game, while receivers Jameon Lewis and De'Runnya Wilson keep defensive coordinators honest. These skill players, along with a good offensive line, are averaging nearly 42 points per game this season. LSU's 8th ranked S&P+ defense could barely slow them down, and the Aggies come into this game ranked 14th.

A&M's offense was held to 21 points until late in regulation against Arkansas. Is Arkansas' 45th ranked S&P+ defense underrated, or is A&M's offense regressing to the mean after a near-transcendent start to the season? Maybe a bit of both, but MSU's defense appears to be the Aggies biggest challenge yet. The Aggies won't easily run the ball, but they may not have to given a stark advantage throwing the ball against the Bulldogs' secondary, according to these figures. LSU's Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris combined for 340 yards passing two weeks ago. Kenny Hill and his crew is superior to the LSU squad at this point in the season.

Mississippi State's offense probably has enough in the tank to score 27-34 points in this game, given its distinct advantages in its rushing and passing ratings compared to the Aggies' improved defensive ratings. The Aggies, meanwhile, will likely have opportunities against Mississippi State's secondary that will lead to points. Unfortunately for the Aggies, a one-dimensional advantage isn't usually enough to beat a good team on the road. The scene also feels set for a letdown game coming off the heels of an emotional overtime victory last week. It should be a great game between two quality teams regardless of the outcome.

The F/+ and S&P+ View of LSU-Auburn

OVERALL

When LSU Has the ball...

When Auburn has the ball...

Category

LSU

AUBURN

LSU Off.

AU Def.

LSU Def.

AU Off.

F/+ Rk (Overall)

10 (20.4%)

8 (21.9%)

F/+ Change From Last Week

11 (+1)

9 (+1)

S&P+ Overall

7 (247.1)

9 (242.7)

FEI Overall

13 (0.202)

3 (0.271)

S&P+ Rk (Overall)

247.1

242.7

10 (120.2)

11 (122.5)

8 (126.9)

11 (120.1)

Rushing S&P+ Rk

47 (0.513)

30 (0.426)

57 (0.466)

52 (0.502)

Passing S&P+ Rk

23 (0.617)

52 (0.503)

8 (0.386)

10 (0.657)

In terms of F/+, it doesn't get much closer than this. The number 8 and 10 ranked teams are squaring off, and only FEI puts a little space between the two schools. Keep in mind that "Les Miles Magic" is a qualitative variable that remains impossible for statisticians to accurately quantify to this day. Every doctoral and academic journal proposal on this topic has been rejected thus far, because Miles' complex magic remains beyond the realm of human understanding. That factor alone could throw this whole preview off by a factor of infinity.

Auburn stats are a bit interesting from an offensive perspective. They rank 52nd in the and 10th in the pass, despite having a near top ten S&P+ offense overall. War Eagle was held to 128 yards rushing against Kansas State, but still has a great backfield along with a mobile quarterback. Things could change in a hurry. While LSU is not great against the run, the two teams are evenly matched in that area. LSU's tremendous secondary also matches Auburn's ability to pass the ball. Auburn may struggle to score, according to these stats.

Comparing Auburn's defense to LSU's offense, it's apparent Auburn's defense holds a distinct advantage against LSU's run game. It will be interesting to see if Auburn can force LSU to pass the ball. Mississippi State (2nd S&P+ rush defense) and Wisconsin (13th S&P+ rush defense) both held LSU's running attack to less than 130 yards rushing. Meanwhile, Auburn's rush defense held Kansas State's 15th ranked S&P+ rushing offense to only 40 yards.

Despite some quarterback questions, though, LSU has thrown the ball effectively this season. LSU has a fleet of young skill players who are getting better every game. Brandon Harris will reportedly get the start after going 6/9 for 140 yards against Mississippi State, and 11/14 for 170 yards against New Mexico State. Auburn's 52nd ranked pass defense should be challenged, especially if they are forced to slide an eighth defender in the box.

Both teams have quality offenses and defenses that may cancel each other out, but they are both so good that if one is given just the slightest crack of opportunity they will exploit it. This game feels like it will be defensive struggle that finally pops open upon a big play. The key here may be a potential slow start by LSU. The Bayou Tigers have started games slow when facing Top 25 quality opponents. Against Wisconsin and Mississippi State, LSU was outscored 35-10 in the first half. If Auburn gets an early lead, its defense probably has enough to hold on until the end, unlike Wisconsin.