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South Carolina-Auburn Football Preview: Advanced Statistics

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The Gamecocks travel to the Plains as deserved underdogs against an Auburn team that still finds itself in the hunt for the SEC West and the College Football Playoff.

Nick Marshall's passing capabilities are often lost when looking at the Auburn offense.
Nick Marshall's passing capabilities are often lost when looking at the Auburn offense.
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, statistics simply reinforce what we already know, particularly as the season moves further along and the random variance inherent in the early portion of the season begins to smooth out.  Despite credible performances against two good offenses - Georgia and East Carolina - the numbers see the Gamecock defense for what it is - a tire fire.

That's not a recipe for success traveling to Auburn, where the Tigers come into this game as a legitimate top-10 team.  Meanwhile, Carolina limps in with a two-game losing streak in conference play, finding itself as mediocre as its been in Steve Spurrier's 10-year tenure.

Overall
Record AP Rank F/+ Rank S&P+ Rank FEI Rank
South Carolina 4-3 (2-3) NR 41 39 44
Auburn 5-1 (2-1) 5th 5 4 11

The Gamecocks find themselves deservedly out of the national polls at this point in the season, and it'll take a run of wins over SEC opponents (and likely Clemson) to get back into them.  That said, as we'll see below, they have at least one top-25 unit on the field; they just need the other side of the ball to catch up.  Unfortunately for Carolina, there's no signs that'll happen before 2015.

For Auburn, the pollsters tend to generally agree with the computers that this is an incredibly good football team, born out in part by its impressive win in Manhattan over Kansas State, to go along with two impressive in-conference victories thus far: at Arkansas, and a 34-point destruction of LSU.  There only loss is to the top-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, in Starkville.

When South Carolina has the ball
USC Offense Auburn Defense
S&P+ 118.6 (26th) 127.6 (11th)
FEI 4th 26th
Success Rate 48.2% (15th) 40.4% (62nd)
IsoPPP .83 (74th) 0.82 (59th)
Rushing S&P 130.1 (14th) 135.8 (12th)
Passing S&P 120.2 (32nd) 133.2 (15th)
Std. Downs S&P 118.7 (26th) 129.1 (10th)
Pass. Downs S&P 136.0 (18th) 150.2 (10th)
Std. Downs Run% 61.4% (43rd)
Pass. Downs Run% 22.0% (116th)

While Ellis Johnson has put together a very strong unit in Auburn, the Gamecocks come into this game no slouches themselves on the offensive side of the ball.  Despite perceptions, Carolina's high success rate shows they do a good job of staying on schedule, while the lower IsoPPP (which measures explosiveness) indicates they don't break enough big plays to stand as a truly elite offense.

Confirming fan protestations, the passing downs run rate shows that Carolina really does abandon the run when it gets behind schedule, and that's an adjustment Spurrier should consider making.  Of course, given the lack of explosive plays in general, it's reasonable to suspect that we're not likely to get the types of big plays we need when we're behind the chains to keep the ball when we're in passing downs, but that level of imbalance suggests Carolina's become far too predictable when facing second or third down-and-long situations.

For their part, Auburn's put together a defense with very few weaknesses, stopping the run and pass equally well and not allowing offenses to find success either on standard or passing downs.  The Gamecocks need to succeed on this side of the ball to have a chance, but there's no reason to think this is anything other than an even fight.  If the Gamecock offense and Auburn defense play to a draw, Carolina's in big trouble.

When Auburn has the ball
Auburn Offense USC Defense
S&P+ 132.4 (6th) 104.9 (65th)
FEI 16th 93rd
Success Rate 46.9% (25th) 46.0 (105th)
IsoPPP 0.91 (36th) 0.86 (78th)
Rushing S&P 140.5 (6th) 96.3 (80th)
Passing S&P 175.1 (1st) 103.2 (68th)
Std. Downs S&P 124.1 (19th) 103.4 (58th)
Pass. Downs S&P 201.7 (1st) 91.2 (85th)
Std. Downs Run% 74.1% (12th)
Pass. Downs Run% 31.4% (67th)

And here's the mis-match.  Despite all the hype for its running game, Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense have also put together an outstanding passing attack this year.  That's obviously easier to do when you spend 74 percent of your plays on standard downs running the ball, because as defenses shift to try to stop the run, they leave themselves susceptible to the passing game.  Credit to Marshall for taking full advantage.

Interestingly, when Auburn gets behind schedule, they mix run and pass much more evenly.  They also become devastatingly explosive, with an S&P that rates first in the nation at 201.7 (S&P is scaled so that 100 is average, so 201.7 means that Auburn's twice as good at offense in these situations as the average NCAA football team).

Carolina's defense stands as an almost perfectly perverse mirror of the Auburn offense - while the Tigers have almost no weaknesses, the Gamecocks have almost no strengths.  Sure, they play slightly better on standard downs, but Carolina simply can't get teams off schedule, and when they do, they can't get teams off the field.

There's no reason to think this won't be a bloodbath on this side of the ball, and Carolina needs to force turnovers in order to win this game.  Unfortunately, it's one of the worst defenses in the nation when it comes to breaking up passes, forcing fumbles, or accruing tackles for loss.  These are the types of plays that, while not necessarily predictable, can create more variance in a game, which is just what the Gamecocks need to have a chance to win.  Seven games into the season, there's no sign this defense can make those types of plays.

Special teams
South Carolina Auburn
ST Points -1.7 +23.0
Field Position Adv. 107th +23.0
Avg. Field Pos. 27 yard line (104th) 31.7 yard line (25th)
Avg. Opp. Field Pos. 30.6 yard line (88th) 29.3 yard line (60th)
Delta -3.6 (104th) 2.4 (37th)

Similarly, special teams gives teams that get outplayed a chance to win games they shouldn't through a few big plays that shift the field or put up points in one big burst.  Unfortunately, as is tradition for the Gamecocks recently, there's no sign that Carolina can shift the field through its punting game or change the game through a big play.  Nick Jones looked decent returning punts against Furman last week, so it may be interesting to see if he gets a chance against Auburn, given the concerns about Pharoh Cooper's workload.

On the whole, this game looks like what most people think it looks like, though I think some are actually underestimating the strength of the Auburn defense.  The offense should move the ball at times and continue its season-long trend of putting up at least 20 points a game.  The problem with that is, there's no way Carolina wins this game with only 20 points.

Many say the Gamecocks need big plays and to shorten the game to have a chance to win this one, and I agree.  I can understand how they might shorten the game, given their running game and their low explosiveness - oddly, while they'll want big plays in order to try to win the game without having to win every down, the lack of big plays shortens the game by decreasing possessions, at least on offense.  Where they really need the big plays - defense and special teams - they haven't made them all season, and there's no reason to think they'll start on Saturday.

The Auburn Tigers are big favorites to win over Carolina this weekend.  There's a damn good reason for that.