Will Auburn beat Florida State in the BCS title game and make it 8 straight titles for the SEC?
Or will Florida State dominate as they have all year and cover the 8.5 point spread?
Modern football analytics can shed light on these questions. First, you need to look at efficiency metrics. Yards per game is a dinosaur in this age that features teams that play at warp speed while others struggle to snap the ball. Yards per play is a much better metric.
Moreover, sacks count as rush plays in typical college football statistics, which makes no sense. To properly evaluate rushing and passing, these sack plays must count as pass plays before one calculates efficiency.
This visual, presented by Onside Sports, accounts for these factors in showing football efficiency statistics. Better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons. The unit further to the right has a higher positive deviation from the FBS average.
The visuals show Florida State has an edge on both sides of the ball but especially on offense (click on Florida State to see this). Does this imply they will cover?
Here, we’ll dig past these raw efficiency metrics to find out.
How much better was Auburn the second half of the year?
The most difficult aspect of evaluating this game is Auburn’s improvement over the season. In coach Gus Malzahn’s first season as head coach, QB Nick Marshall didn’t get his first practice until August. The Auburn team that takes the field Monday night is probably different from the one that beat Washington State by 7 to open the season.
I looked at this in two different ways. First, consider the team rankings, which take margin of victory and adjust for strength of schedule. By only considering Auburn’s last 7 games and not the first 6, you get an estimate of their improvement.
But it’s also important to factor in luck. Against Georgia, Auburn scored an improbable touchdown on a bomb that deflected off a Georgia defender. Against Alabama, they returned a missed field goal for a game winning touchdown. I subtracted these two lucky scores from the margin of victory.
Auburn’s team rating, or predicted margin of victory against an average FBS team, was 4 points higher for the second half of the season than the entire season. I also performed the same calculation for yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule and got about the same answer (3.5 points).
Auburn performed about 4 points better over the second half of the season than the entire season.
How great was this Florida State team?
Some have criticized Florida State for playing a soft schedule. However, it’s not their fault that their conference is weak and Florida had an off season. Florida State pounded every opponent that took the field against them. Their closest game was a 14 point affair against Boston College.
The team rankings consider margin of victory and rate Florida State 36 points better than the average FBS team. This rating is higher than the 2011 Alabama team (35.2) that pounded LSU in the BCS title game. It’s better than the 2005 Texas team (33.6) led by QB Vince Young that defeated USC in the BCS title game.
In fact, the only team to end the season with a better rating than this Florida State team was the 1995 Nebraska team (40.9).
However, the team rankings most likely overestimate the strength of Florida State. The 36 point rating is an estimate, and regression to the mean implies it’s too high. This clearly has consequences for the title game.
Auburn’s passing attack
Auburn likes to run the ball with QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. They run on over two thirds of their plays for the season.
However, they are also efficient at throwing the ball. In my pass rankings that consider yards per pass attempt adjusted for strength of schedule, they rank 16th in the nation.
In addition, Auburn is even more efficient in situations in which they typically run. On first down in the first half, Auburn runs on 78% of plays, showing their true identity. But on those other 22% of those plays, they throw for 9.9 yards per attempt, significantly more than the 7.7 they average over the game.
Nick Marshall can get it done through the air.
Does Florida State have any weakness?
With the dominance of Florida State on both sides of the ball, it’s difficult to find any weakness. I could only find one thing.
Florida State’s offense gets tackled for a loss on 9% of plays, 71st worst in the nation. QB Jameis Winston probably holds on to the ball too long looking for open receivers. It’s something to watch for in this game.
Florida State’s offense makes up for these negative plays with big gains. They average 7.8 yards per play, best in the nation.
The back up running backs.
Running backs Tre Mason and Devonta Freeman have carried the load for Auburn and Florida State respectively. However, their back ups might be the players to rip off a big play.
Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne gets 6.8 yards per carry compared to 5.7 for Mason.
Florida State’s Karlos Williams, who started the season as a safety, averages 8.2 yards per carry over a significant 86 carries. Freeman gets 5.8 yards per carry.
Florida State has been great this season. They should put points on an Auburn defense that ranks 61st in yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. And if they can slow down Auburn’s rush attack? The game could get ugly for Auburn.
However, funny things happen in bowl games after these kids get another 15 practices under their belt. Michigan State’s offensive line handled Stanford’s pass rush, allowing QB Connor Cook to pick apart the defense. Oklahoma’s defensive line racked up 7 sacks against Alabama’s offensive line.
Auburn’s defense will need to have a similar performance for the Tigers to win this game. I do not see this happening, so I’m leaning towards Florida State to cover the point spread.
Florida State 38, Auburn 28.
UPDATE: When I wrote this on the Friday before the game, the line favored Florida State by 8.5. Now it’s less than 6 hours before the game on Monday night, and the line has shifted to 10.5.