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Auburn football: Offense and defense by quarter

The Auburn Tigers have played well enough to earn a 6-1 record, but mid-game lulls by the offense and late starts by the defense have prevented this team from dominating any BCS-level teams so far.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I can't go back and track everything down, but I've heard and read over and over about the up-and-down nature of this Auburn team in game. Something like this:

"The offense jumps out and takes a quick lead, while the defense doesn't provide much resistance against the other team, letting them scoring early. Auburn stops putting points on the board in the middle of the game as Coach Gus Malzahn curiously starts calling plays out of the team's comfort zone. Eventually, the offense gets straightened out and the defense comes roaring into the fourth quarter to seal the win."

Auburn has not won a game this against BCS-level competition by more than eight points, and any in-game inconsistency could be to blame. But does this actually exist?

How can we compare quarters?

First, let me explain where the data below came from and what it means. The raw numbers come from the College Football Data Release from The basics like total yards and yards per play are easy enough to extract. But this data is also the source behind Bill Connelly's S/P+ at Football Study Hall.

S/P stands for Success Rate and Points per Play, and the plus sign means it has been adjusted for schedule. If you hate numbers, don't care about silly acronyms, majored in S/P+ or if a hoard of statisticians raided your village when you were a child, then just skip to the pretty charts. Otherwise, allow me to explain what S/P tries to measure.

Success Rate is an extension of a team's third down conversion rate. For example, Auburn was 7-of-14 on third downs against Texas A&M, so it was successful on 50 percent of its third downs. But what about first and second downs? According to Bill, a play that gains 50 percent of the needed yardage on first down or 70 percent of the needed yardage on second down is considered a successful play. And, of course, a play that must gain 100 percent of the needed yardage on third and fourth downs.

As an example, suppose Auburn gains 6 yards on first-and-10 (successful). 2 yards on second-and-4 (unsuccessful), and 4 yards on third-and-2 (successful). These three plays have a Success Rate of 67%.

Points per Play measures how much a team increased its chances of scoring in each play. Based on the data from 2005-2010, a team at the 50 will, on average, score 2.095 points. If it gains 20 yards to the opponent's 30, it will now score, on average, 3.334 points. So, in a way, that 20 yard play was worth the difference, or 1.239 points. Points per Play is an average of how explosive each play is. Keep in mind that the close the team is to the end zone, the more valuable the yards are.

In baseball, on-base percentage is a simple yes/no stat. Did the batter reach base or not. Slugging tries to measure how potent the at bat was by totaling the number of bases earned with one swing. On-base plus slugging, or OPS, combines these two. S/P can be thought of as the football equivalent of OPS.

It's pretty clear in the first graph that Auburn's offense does indeed hit a rough patch in the second quarter that continues into the third. Against Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, the offensive output drops significantly from the first to the second quarter. The Tigers then recover quite nicely in the third. And keep an eye on the S/P against Texas A&M. That fourth quarter included three touchdown drives in which Auburn seemed to just run the ball for 5 yards a pop. That shows up with a fourth quarter S/P of 1.36.

The first two games of the season are the exceptions. Against Washington State and Arkansas State, the second quarter was Auburn's best offensive quarter. And, of course, against LSU, the offense started in the dumps, but showed its true potential by exploding into the third quarter.

Just as it has seemed all season, the Tigers defense gets better as the game continues, especially in the fourth quarter. On average, Auburn allows a successful play less than 50 percent of the time, no matter what quarter, but in the fourth quarter, it only allows one about 36 percent of the time.

Mississippi State, LSU and Ole Miss all clearly made some adjustments during halftime, because their third quarter numbers are huge. But Auburn played its best against them in the fourth quarter. This allowed the Auburn offense to come from behind against the Bulldogs and protect the lead late against the Rebels.

Watch the S/P bar for Texas A&M. It starts incredibly high, around 1.39. But for the rest of the game, it hovers around 0.90. Looking at the number behind the graph, Auburn was able to cut down on the Aggies' explosive plays as the game went along. For a more detailed look at the Texas A&M game, look at the advanced box score. Yes, the S/P numbers by quarter don't exactly match mine, but they're close. Pretend like you didn't see that.


So, what to make of this? Well, it's good to know that the numbers support what our eyes have seen throughout the season. Overall, I think that if a team has to have ups and downs over the course of a game, these ups and downs are OK. The offense starts strong and ends strong, while the defense gets better as the game continues, especially at the end of halves.

Against Florida Atlantic, look for Auburn to put up similar numbers to what it did when playing Arkansas State. In the game against the Red Wolves, the Tiger offense stormed out of the gate with an S/P right at 1.0. Likewise, the defense put a stranglehold on the opposing offense in the second quarter and limited it to an S/P of only 0.50. In the second half, Auburn was able to let off the gas, and the numbers back this up.

With road trips to Arkansas and Tennessee and home games against Georgia and Alabama left, this is the last tune-up game for Auburn this season. Winning one-score games just won't continue to happen. Football is a little too random for that. So, hopefully, we'll start to see Auburn play its best for all four quarters and win a few of those games convincingly.

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