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Baylor Bears vs. Michigan State: Advanced Stats Preview

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Taking a look at what Football Outsiders' advanced metrics have to say about the Cotton Bowl Matchup between the Bears and the Spartans.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Back when the matchups for the New Years Six bowls were announced and we learned that the Baylor Bears would be squaring off against the Michigan State Spartans, I immediately expressed my satisfaction with the matchup. While some were disappointed, feeling that our case for national prominence would be best stated by defeating a team from the SEC, I felt like the Spartans were the perfect opponent for the 2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl. Michigan State was Ohio State's best win in 2014, thus giving the Bears the opportunity to send the statement that the CFP Selection Committee got it wrong by beating the Spartans even more convincingly than the Buckeyes did. I also felt like Michigan State isn't the pushover that some folks may have originally thought they are. As I looked deeper into the advanced stats, that sense was confirmed. This group of Spartans is very, very good.

I mentioned above that I felt like this was an opportunity for a statement to the Selection Committee about leaving Baylor out. Apparently the team doesn't see it that way; as Bryce Petty said yesterday, this isn't about revenge on the committee; it's about making a statement that Baylor is a national power. Either way you look at it, the Bears have a tremendous opportunity to make a statement in a game that appears to be the best matchup outside of the College Football Playoff. The Football Outsiders advanced metrics certainly agree, rating this game as the #5 bowl in terms of overall quality and potentially the most exciting of any this bowl season.

The World According to Football Outsiders' Advanced Metrics

Mark started these posts a couple of years ago, and they've undergone changes and refinements over the years. They can be confusing, so I wrote a post that attempts to explain in plain English what these stats mean. You can check it out in the sidebar on the right. Since I wrote that post, I've also added the Football Outsiders' metrics for offensive and defensive lines in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding for what's happening in the trenches and why the stats look the way they do. If you need a refresher on what those stats mean, check out the Stats Preview from the K-State game, which has explanations for the Line. These stats give us a window into the overall performance of each team throughout the season, but they're not always the most accurate predictors of how a game will play out (see the game vs. Oklahoma for an example). So, take what's said with a grain of salt. Enough talk. STATS!

All of these stats are created by Brian Fremeau and Bill Connelly, and can be found here at footballoutsiders.com and on supporting pages. If you're new to these previews, the EDGE category is an arbitrary assignment of value where EVEN=10 ranks or fewer difference between the two units, Lower Case=11-39 rank difference between each unit, and UPPER CASE=40+ rank difference.

Overall

Category

Baylor(11-1)

MSU(10-2)

EDGE

Overall F/+ Rk 9 (27.0%)
11 (23.6%)
EVEN
Overall FEI Rk 9 (.218)
19 (.165)
Baylor
Overall S&P+ Rk 8 (243.9)
6 (248.9)
EVEN
Field Position Advantage 7 (.553)
9 (.549)
EVEN

Like with the last Top 10 matchup the Bears had in K-State, this is an even matchup. It may surprise you to see Michigan State so highly ranked or it may not, But the truth is that the Spartans are every bit a Top 10 team. FEI slightly favors Baylor over Michigan State (which is encouraging to me, since I've been somewhat of a fan of FEI this season), but the rest of these stats are just about as close as two teams can get.

Ranking the Individual Units:

  1. Baylor Offense (11th in F/+)
  2. Michigan State Special Teams (14th in F/+)
  3. Michigan State Offense (15th in F/+)
  4. Baylor Defense (16th in F/+)
  5. Michigan State Defense (24th in F/+)
  6. Baylor Special Teams (33rd in F/+)

Baylor's glaring lack of a Special Teams coach shows up once again as the only unit on the field that isn't ranked in the Top 25 in F/+. Other than on a few occasions early in the season, that hasn't had much practical effect on the games, unless you absolutely hate pooch kicks.

When Baylor Has the Ball...

Category

Baylor Off

MSU Def

EDGE

Offensive/Defensive FEI Rk
12 (.504)
43 (-.187)
Baylor
Raw OE/DE 10 (.537)
19 (-.362)
EVEN
First Down Rate 3 (.793)
4 (.508)
EVEN
Available Yards Rate 4 (.604)
6 (.327)
EVEN
Explosive Drives 11 (.207)
79 (.145)
BAYLOR
Methodical Drives 6 (.207)
1 (.032)
EVEN
Value Drives 6 (.542)
13 (.270)
EVEN
Offensive/Defensive S&P+
11 (120.0)
6 (127.4)
EVEN
Success Rate
9 (49.3%)
2 (30.9%)
EVEN
IsoPPP
24 (0.93)
120 (1.00)
BAYLOR
Std. Downs S&P Rk 15 (123.8)
20 (117.6)
EVEN
Pass. Downs S&P Rk 24 (125.3)
5 (158.7)
Michigan State
Rushing S&P+ Rk 23 (121.1)
14 (126.5)
EVEN
Passing S&P+ Rk 11 (131.4)
8 (135.0)
EVEN
Drive Rating
9 (134.0)
8 (151.0)
EVEN

NOTE: Spartans Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi accepted the head coaching position at Pitt, but will coach his team in the Cotton Bowl on Thursday. I don't anticipate that having any practical effect on the game.

There's no denying that this is the most even matchup that Baylor's had all season on the offensive side of the ball. Usually the numbers are much closer in the play-based S&P+ rankings, but even drive-based FEI agrees that this matchup is a dead heat. As Ian Boyd pointed out in his Cotton Bowl preview, the Spartans play a very aggressive style of defense geared towards stopping the run. In fact, it's not unlike Baylor's defense, in that it relies on aggressiveness and dares you to beat you over the top.

That's where the massive mismatch occurs, according to the advanced statistics. Both S&P+ plus and FEI agree: Michigan State's vulnerability on defense is the same Baylor's: explosive plays. Michigan State is incredibly good at limiting your success, but when you're successful, it's for big chunks of yardage. Because they play tight to the line, speedy receivers like Corey Coleman and K.D. Cannon may find wide open spaces in front of them if they're able to get behind their coverage. The fact that FEI's Explosive Drives rating doesn't love the Michigan State defense also suggests that this option may be available throughout. Oregon and Ohio State, the most explosive teams that Michigan State faced before the Cotton Bowl, were able to find success over the Spartans in this manner, though with both it came in the second halves of the respective games.

Baylor O-Line vs. Michigan State D-Line

Category

Baylor(11-1)

MSU(10-2)

EDGE

Adj. Line Yds 26 (113.2) 4 (132.3) Michigan State
Std. Down Line Yds 30 (3.24) 11 (2.44) Michigan State
Pass DownLine Yds 3 (4.28) 15 (2.53) Baylor
Opportunity Rate 25 (0.431) 3 (0.296) Michigan State
Power Success Rate 17 (0.753) 117 (0.774) BAYLOR
Stuff Rate 8 (0.137) 28 (0.224) Baylor
Adj. Sack Rate 56 (107.2) 24 (126.2) Michigan State
Std. Downs Sack Rate 74 (0.049) 4 (0.09) MICHIGAN STATE
Pass Downs Sack Rate 33 (0.058) 41 (0.088) EVEN
Front 7 Havoc --
11 (12.1%) --

Really interesting stuff here. Michigan State is excellent against the run like we've been saying. Their defense is aggressive and focuses primarily on the run. Thankfully for Baylor, the bears don't get stuffed very often; the Bears are one of the nation's best at getting at least some yardage on rushing plays. The most interesting aspect here is the fact that Michigan State, while excellent against the run in general, is one of the nation's worst in short yardage situations where power rushing is the name of the game. With Devin Chafin cleared to play, this is good news for the Bears. But the Spartans are big and athletic, getting into the backfield with regularity and creating serious havoc.

Petty will have to make quick reads and get the ball out rapidly in order to avoid sacks. On standard downs, Michigan State is one of the best in the business at getting to the quarterback. Interestingly, Baylor's advantages come on passing downs, which again suggest that Michigan State is somewhat vulnerable to passes over the top of their defenders. Baylor's receivers will have to avoid having their routes disrupted at the line of scrimmage in order to get into the open space where their talents can best be on display.

When Michigan State Has the Ball...

Category

Baylor Def

MSU Off

EDGE

Offensive/Defensive FEI Rk
23 (-.353)
22 (.333)
EVEN
Raw OE/DE 35 (-.206)
23 (.324)
Michigan State
First Down Rate 12 (.566)
10 (.764)
EVEN
Available Yards Rate 29 (.385)
17 (.538)
Michigan State
Explosive Drives 94 (.169)
47 (.154)
MICHIGAN STATE
Methodical Drives 22 (.096)
85 (.122)
BAYLOR
Value Drives 31 (.323)
18 (.495)
Michigan State
Offensive/Defensive S&P+
11 (123.9)
8 (121.5)
EVEN
Success Rate
30 (38.0%) 12 (48.5%)
Michigan State
IsoPPP
49 (0.82) 8 (0.99)
MICHIGAN STATE
Std. Downs S&P Rk 40 (109.6)
10 (128.4)
Michigan State
Pass. Downs S&P Rk 24 (122.5)
7 (144.1)
Michigan State
Rushing S&P+ Rk 19 (120.3)
17 (124.5)
EVEN
Passing S&P+ Rk 45 (108.2)
4 (145.9)
MICHIGAN STATE
Drive Rating
5 (167.0)
20 (127.4)
Baylor

This... is not a stellar look for the Baylor defense. The Bears' numbers have taken a significant tumble, especially when looking at explosiveness, in the last three or four games, owing to the fact that the secondary was gashed for significant amounts by Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Kansas State in the final stretch of the season. The upshot of the matchup with Michigan State is that the Spartans' offense is much more of a pro-style offense, something more akin to K-State than Tech or OSU. What's more, the Spartans are much more heavily reliant on their top three guys, Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford, and Tony Lippett. Langford is the workhorse of the Spartans offense, which looks to establish the run game and control the pace of the game. Their offense utilizes several different sets effectively, confusing the defensive front and keeping them on their heels. Connor Cook, while by  no means a dual-threat quarterback, runs just enough that you have to account for him. He's not a home run threat, but sleeping on him would be disastrous for the Bears. Baylor's front 7 will have to be disciplined in sticking with their assignments and not overcommitting when shown space.

The interesting aspect of these numbers to me is through the air. Michigan State is highly ranked on the ground, but they're 4th in the nation according to passing S&P+. What's interesting to me about that is that their passing attack is run through Tony Lippett. As I mentioned yesterday, Lippett's got nearly triple the number of catches AND yards as any other receiver in the Spartans' lineup. That may actually be good news for the Bears; if they can lock down on Lippett and get to Cook, they may be able to limit those big plays that have hurt them in so many games this season. But to do that, the Bears will have to get into the backfield and disrupt Connor Cook. Let's look at the line stats.

Michigan State O-Line vs. Baylor D-Line

Category

MSU(10-2)

Baylor(11-1)

EDGE

Adj. Line Yds 34 (110.2)
9 (123.2)
Baylor
Std. Down Line Yds 29 (3.26)
14 (2.48)
Baylor
Pass Down Line Yds 77 (3.17)
6 (2.26)
BAYLOR
Opportunity Rate 39 (0.415)
21 (0.34)
Baylor
Power Success Rate 50 (0.692)
6 (0.538)
BAYLOR
Stuff Rate 33 (0.169)
16 (0.239)
Baylor
Adj. Sack Rate 8 (176.8)
9 (144.9)
EVEN
Std. Downs Sack Rate 24 (0.03)
35 (0.062)
Michigan State
Pass Downs Sack Rate 14 (0.041)
27 (0.096)
Michigan State
Front 7 Havoc --
20 (11.7%)
--

Hope springs eternal. Since we started looking more closely at the line stats, I've become a big fan of the information that they provide. We've been saying that the Spartans are a team that looks to establish the run and punish you with Jeremy Langford. Their offensive line uses different schemes to keep defenders confused, but the Bears' line is incredibly good against the run. If the Bears can stymie Langford and the rest of the Michigan State rushing attack, that could force the Spartans to the air.

The Spartans offensive line is much better in pass protection than it is against the run, which does not bode well for Baylor's defensive front. The two fronts are equal in terms of adjusted sack rates, while the Spartans are slightly better than the Bears when you break out standard and passing downs. That being said, I don't believe that the Bears need large amounts of sacks to throw a monkey wrench into Michigan State's passing attack; all they have to do is be quick about getting into the backfield and force Cook's hand before Lippett has the chance to get open. IF the Bears are able to do that, the defense could have a very successful day.

Special Teams

Category

Baylor(11-1)

MSU(10-2)

EDGE

F/+ Special Teams
33 (1.6%)
14 (2.8%)
Michigan State
Special Teams Efficiency
33 (.913)
14 (1.556)
Michigan State
Field Goal Efficiency
39 (.168)
95 (-.250)
BAYLOR
Punt returns vs. punt efficiency
79 (-.126)
19 (-.243)
MICHIGAN STATE
Kickoff returns vs. kickoff efficiency
28 (-.070)
29 (-.216)
EVEN
Punting vs. punt return efficiency
17 (-.247)
70 (-.099)
BAYLOR
Kickoff vs. Kickoff return efficiency
90 (-.090)
6 (.048)
MICHIGAN STATE
Opponent Field Goal Efficiency
45 (-.112)
53 (-.069)
EVEN

As usual, I don't have a whole lot to say here. The Bears have gotten pretty good at mitigating special teams success of teams that have been much higher ranked than they are, if sometimes at the expense of a few extra yards of field position. On the flip side, you never know when Spencer Roth is going to tuck a punt and gash you for all the yardage. Be afraid, Spartans. Be very afraid.

Final Thoughts

This is a very interesting matchup from a statistical perspective. Both offenses are favored over their defenses, at least in certain areas, but a closer look at the trenches seems to muddy the waters a bit. For the offense, I think the key will be receivers avoiding getting jammed at the line and quickly finding space, giving Petty the chance to make quick reads and get the ball out before that solid defensive front is able to wreak any havoc in the backfield. If the Bears can back up the Spartans' safeties and put them on their heels a bit, then Baylor can effectively use Shock LInwood, Devin Chafin, and Johnny Jefferson effectively. But given the aggressiveness of Michigan State, I think that if the receivers can get behind the defense, we might see some really fast drives for Baylor.

Interestingly enough, our game plan on the defensive side of the ball is likely similar to Michigan State's: suffocate the run game, get to Connor Cook and prevent big plays over the top. The good news for Baylor is that they have fewer weapons to contend with in the passing game than Michigan State does, it just happens to be the best receiver in the Big 10. If we see the Bears jump out to a quick start, that forces the Spartans into the place where they go one-dimensional and they do not want to go there. If the Bears' secondary struggles against Lippett, then this game could get wild.

Thursday can't come soon enough.