Bowl games are great for looking at statistical profiles. In most cases, you have teams with very few common opponents. For the Sugar Bowl, Auburn and Oklahoma have only one common opponent, and that was Louisiana-Monroe. ULM ended the season ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams in S&P+. Monroe was so terrible you can’t gain much from how the Tigers and Sooners played them. So let’s take a look at Oklahoma and see what we can expect. First, check their Advanced Stat Profile. I recommend keeping it open on a tab while we go. If you need a glossary for some of the terms, that can be found here.
What does Oklahoma do well?
Offense. Man alive this offense. This is the number 1 offense in the country by S&P+. That adjusts for opponents too, so it isn’t some LOL BIG 12 DON’T PLAY DEFENSE PAAWWWLL kind of situation either. Where do they excel?
- Efficiency - The Sooners have the 2nd most efficient offense in the country, with 52.6% of their plays marked as “successful” (that is, gaining half of the necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second down, and all of the yardage needed on third or fourth down). They’re the 3rd best offense (adjusted) on Standard Downs, which means they are great when they stay ahead of the chains. However, they’re the best offense (adjusted) when it comes to Passing Downs, with a 45.7% success rate. Even when you get them behind the chains, they’re still likely to burn you. There are a few ways you can get this good on Passing Downs: 2013 Auburn did it by being so good at running the ball that defenses could never just sit back and expect a pass. Oklahoma does it by having a terrific passing offense, which we’ll see later.
- Explosiveness - Oklahoma rank 10th in IsoPPP, meaning that on their successful plays (which is over half of their plays, as we just learned), they tend to get big chunks of yards too. It’s one thing to be successful, to be successful and explosive? That’s not fair.
- Rushing efficiency - Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook get the press (rightfully so we’ll see in a moment), but the Sooners also run the ball well. 49.5% of their runs are successful, which is even better than Auburn.
- Passing - Normally I’d narrow it down, but the only area in the passing game where Oklahoma isn’t downright elite? They’re 40th in adjusted sack rate, which is still better than average. They’re first in Success Rate (56.5%) and 7th in IsoPPP. The adjusted numbers have them with the best passing offense in the country. Mayfield averages 10.2 yards per attempt, and has only been sacked 18 times in 330 attempts. For comparison, Sean White was sacked 15 times in 198 attempts.
What does Oklahoma do poorly?
Alright now that I’ve sufficiently scared the crap out of myself, let’s see where Oklahoma struggles*.
- Starting Field Position - On average, Oklahoma starts drives inside their own 29 yard line. That’s 89th in the country. So their offense is great, but it has to be because they don’t get much help from their defense or special teams. Speaking of defense....
- Allowing Big Plays on Defense - Oklahoma combats having the #10 offense in explosiveness by having the 96th best defense against allowing explosive plays. Their success rate allowed is about average, so when you get a successful play, it’s often a big one. It gets even worse when they face a passing down, as they’re 104th in IsoPPP on passing downs. By the way, Auburn’s offense is 10th in the country in that same area.
- Allowing touchdowns instead of FGs - The Sooners allow 4.68 points per trip inside the 40, which is 0.22 points worse than the national average. For comparison, Auburn’s defense is 3rd in the country in this area.
- Stopping the run - They’re average with their success rate allowed (42.6% is slightly better than the national average of 43.1%), but they tend to allow explosive plays when they allow successful plays (83rd in rushing IsoPPP). The closest comparison to their rushing defense S&P+ ranking (55th) among Auburn opponents is Mississippi State (51st).
- Sacking the quarterback - OU is 98th in adjusted sack rate. They do have one player, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, with 9 sacks, but no one else on the team has as many as 3 sacks this season.
- Creating havoc - Havoc rate takes tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed (which includes interceptions) and divides them by the number of plays. It’s a quick way to see how often a defense affects the offense. Oklahoma is 88th in overall havoc rate at 14.8%. The closest Auburn opponents to that number are Mississippi State at 82nd (15%) and ULM at 95th (14.2%). They’re even worse when trying to create havoc with their defensive line at 3.1%, which is 108th in the country. This means in order for them to create havoc, they have to be aggressive with their back 7.
- Causing incomplete passes - This is another big differential I found between the two teams. Auburn is the best in the country for Passes Defended/Incompletions ratio at 41.7%. In contrast, Oklahoma is 106th, with only 29% of the incomplete passes against them coming on passes they defended. If Sean White is back, healthy, and on target, he could have a big game.
- Returning punts - The Sooners are 124th in the country in punt return success rate. Honestly, I don’t think this one matters much. Auburn has allowed just 5 punt returns all year, and they gained 17 yards. Total.
- Returning kickoffs - I see this mattering even less than punt returns. 80% of Daniel Carlson’s kickoffs are touchbacks, and most of the 20% that weren’t were kicked short on purpose (mortar kicks or practicing coverage against Alabama A&M).
What does it all mean?
The biggest thing we can see by looking at these numbers is that it confirms what everyone told us about Oklahoma: their offense is outstanding and their defense is not very good. However, now we see exactly where they’re great on offense, and where they struggle on defense. I would expect Oklahoma to watch the Ole Miss and Vanderbilt game films and lick their chops. Auburn struggled against quick passing offenses in those games, and now they’ll face the most prolific passing offense of the season.
What should Auburn do against them? Well, the fact that Auburn runs the ball well should help. It controls the line of scrimmage and controls the clock. As much as Gus wants to go fast, this is a game where we may want to limit Oklahoma’s time with the ball. Auburn also can’t abandon their identity. Oklahoma faces far fewer running plays than the national average, and part of that is because teams get behind and feel they need to air it out to keep up with them. Having a truly healthy backfield should give Auburn a chance to control the game and keep Mayfield and Westbrook on the sidelines.
Looking at the records and the rankings, this game looks like a bit of a mismatch. However, there’s a reason this game has the closest spread (Oklahoma -4) of any New Year’s Six bowl game. The S&P+ projection has Oklahoma by just 0.3 points, which is tied for 4th smallest for the bowl season (behind the Citrus, Sun, and Quick Lane, and tied with the Camellia). If October Auburn comes back, it should be a great game.
*-I purposely didn’t point out all of the places where they are average. We’re only looking for below average points where Auburn can exploit problems.