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OAYP: App State at Louisiana Preview

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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SP Editor Jim Johnson breaks down the key matchups within the matchup between the two best teams in the Sun Belt.

The game of the year in the Sun Belt should be this Wednesday night’s matchup between App State and Louisiana. A rematch of last season’s conference championship game, the Mountaineers actually beat the Cajuns twice in 2018. Once in October, and then again in that title bout.

However, a lot has changed since then. In the intervening ten months, since their last contest, Louisiana inked the league’s top recruiting class and seem to have addressed most, if not all, of the defensive issues that held them back a season ago. On the flipside, App State lost its head coach, and their last three games point to a substantial regression on their own defense.

Plus, whereas both of the games were in Boone last season, the Mountaineers must now travel to Lafayette.

That said, App State has still looked like the best team in the league, though perhaps not the most complete team. Louisiana probably holds the latter distinction.

The point is, there’s very little to separate the two, on paper. Vegas, favoring the home team by just one, seems to agree.

So, let’s break down the matchups within the matchup through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric.

For the uninitiated, OAYP combines a reflective team component with individual player scores to make it predictive, which also helps when it comes to accounting for injuries, suspensions, etc. Thus far, the formula is hitting at a 65% rate against the spread, and has pegged more than a few games right on the number. The team aspect is best boiled down to a combination of opponent adjusted yards and points. As for individual players, it resembles something like WAR, in baseball. Both value and efficiency are taken into account, and while it doesn’t exactly correlate to wins or points, necessarily, it does display each player’s said value and efficiency relative to the positional mean.

The rule of thumb I’ve been using is: <-1.0 is a red flag, -1.0 to -0.01 is below average, 0.0 is the mean, 0.1 to 0.49 is above average, 0.5 to 1.0 is very good, 1.0 to 1.99 is a star, and 2.0+ is a bonafide superstar, which I suppose would make the handful of 3.0+ guys aliens or something.

Below, you’ll see the matchup graphic for Louisiana’s offensive OAYP and App State’s defensive OAYP, with the vice versa further down, accompanied by the projected winner and margin of victory at the bottom. It is worth noting, however, that the formula is still partially taking the 2018 data into account. I’ll also make references to the 2019-only data, which, given the great strides Louisiana’s defense has taken, could be especially useful.

Louisiana’s offense might actually be unstoppable. I’m convinced they could run the ball with some modicum of efficiency on anyone in the country. They’ve certainly done it against everyone they’ve played so far, ranking first in the nation in rushing yards per game and touchdowns, and second in yards per carry. As the matchup chart clearly displays, a big reason for that is the offensive line.

Led by Robert Hunt and Kevin Dotson, the number one tackle and guard in the league, respectively, the Cajuns have been mauling their opponents in the trenches, ranking second in the FBS in line yards per carry and stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, and first in percentage of 5+ yard carries.

It’s not just those two headliners, though. Even in the face of some injury losses, new starters Shane Vallot and Max Mitchell both made OAYP’s midseason All-Sun Belt first team. The former has been the metric’s top center so far, in 2019-only OAYP, while the latter only trails Hunt.

Of course, it’s not just the blocking. This trio of ball carriers is special in its own right. Trey Ragas currently sits at fourth, nationally, in yards per carry, with six touchdowns, and none of the three guys ahead of him have even 30 carries. Ragas has 56. Among guys with at least 50 runs, the next closest competitor to Ragas is averaging over a yard and a half fewer per carry than his unfathomable 9.79.

Raymond Calais is also in the national top ten in yards per carry, and though Elijah Mitchell’s efficiency has taken a moderate hit from last season, he’s still tied for fourth in the nation in rushing touchdowns, despite having only 67 attempts. All three guys ahead of him have run the ball more than 100 times.

These running backs behind this offensive line… the height of symbiosis.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, this particular App State defense probably isn’t the best bet to slow down that runaway train.

App State’s average defensive line starter runs about 6’1, 263 lbs. Louisiana’s average O-line starter? 6’4, 313. Now, the Mountaineers have found success for years favoring smaller, more athletic defenders. With proper execution and good playcalling, that can work a lot of the time. But what happens when small and athletic runs into bigger, stronger, longer, and arguably as athletic? We’ll find out Wednesday night.

For what it’s worth, after playing four offensive lines (and running back groups) that pale in comparison to Louisiana’s (yes, including North Carolina’s), App State’s defensive front ranks 42nd in line yards per carry allowed, 26th in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, and 88th in percentage of stops made at or behind the LOS. That’s not bad, but hardly elite.

Akeem Davis-Gaither and Noel Cook are top end edge defenders for the Mountaineers, but their biggest questions arise between the tackles. Demetrius Taylor has a good number, but that largely stems from a singular, otherworldly performance against the Tar Heels. Eliah Drinkwitz said after the game that he didn’t want Taylor to just be a one-hit wonder. If there was ever a game to prove that he’s closer to Outkast than Milli Vanilli, it’s this one.

App State’s pass rush has also been good, but not great, ranking 42nd in sack rate. Louisiana isn’t as dominant in that respect, 28th in allowed sack rate, but that’s still an advantage.

App State’s pass defense has also taken a big hit after losing Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes from last year’s team. Getting behind that safety tandem is still a heckuva lot easier said than done, even for an offense that boasts an elite receiver like Ja’Marcus Bradley, but that doesn’t mean they can’t move the ball with some success through the air against those relatively inexperienced cornerbacks, if necessary.

And that’s a pretty big if. Levi Lewis is a perfectly serviceable quarterback, if only about average, according to OAYP, but forcing Louisiana to throw the ball is no simple task.

There may have been some Mountaineer fronts of yesteryear that could hold their own against this rushing attack, but, based on what they’ve shown so far, this isn’t one of them. That’s no knock on App, either. Louisiana’s offense is just that good.

Louisiana’s offense might be unstoppable, but OAYP still ranks App State’s offense even higher, so take that as you will. Both of those units are simply elite.

They’ve both gone with about a 60-40 run-pass distribution, but App State is a more complete group, on that side of the ball. While Louisiana’s passing game gets by with an average quarterback and one elite pass catcher, App State has the best quarterback in the league, and a bevy of options for him to get the ball to.

In Corey Sutton’s early absence, Thomas Hennigan regained his 2017 form and has continued to earn a higher target share than last year, even after Sutton’s absence. And speaking of Sutton, with him back in the fold, App State also boasts the premier big play receiver in the Sun Belt, in 2018. Arkansas State’s Omar Bayless has probably grabbed that title from Sutton for now, but there’s no denying the K-State transfer’s talent.

However, for whatever reason, Louisiana’s otherwise spotty pass defense had its two best performances of the year against the Mountaineers last season. And that was when the unit had largely struggled against everyone else. So far in 2019, it’s been amongst the best in the country -- 10th in yards per attempt allowed and 13th in opposing passer rating. Just going by all the red on the backend of Louisiana’s defensive matchup chart, there would be cause for concern.

Looking at just the 2019 data, though, not so much. Both Michael Jacquet and Eric Garror earned midseason all-conference nods from the metric, and the cornerback duo currently sits at third and fourth, respectively in CB OAYP. The safeties still leave a little something to be desired, but they’re all in the top ten in 2019-only OAYP, among qualifying Sun Belt safeties, and while none of their marginal scores are grading out positively right now, they’ve all shown improvement from where they were entering the season.

The pass rush has also been solid, 37th in sack rate, especially when they get aggressive on blitz downs, but App State’s solid up front in their own right, ranking third in the Sun Belt in OL unit OAYP, only behind the two Louisiana schools, and second using the 2019-only data, just behind the Cajuns.

The safety play would be concerning against the likes of Zac Thomas and Corey Sutton, even with the improvement at cornerback, but Louisiana was able to effectively neutralize the latter in both 2018 matchups -- holding him to 37 yards on three catches with a stifling gameplan.

The real cause for concern is stopping the run. App State’s run blocking isn’t what Louisiana’s is, but they aren’t messing around either. And, while you could probably make a case for any one of the Cajuns’ backs as the best ball carrier in the conference, you could also make for Darrynton Evans, currently second behind Ragas in 2019-only RB OAYP.

Louisiana’s pass defense has come a long way. The run defense has gone in the other direction. At 86th in yards per carry allowed, 126th in defensive line yards per carry, 124th in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, and dead last in the FBS at 130th in stops at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Evans should have a field day against that.

PROJECTED MARGIN OF VICTORY: App State by 4.9

Okay, I guess. OAYP looks at Louisiana as the more complete team -- #2 in the Sun Belt in offensive OAYP, #1 in defensive OAYP -- but App State as the better team overall -- #1 in offense, #4 in defense.

Granted, just looking at the conference rankings, there’s an easy case to be made for the Cajuns in this game. However, looking at the national rankings, and the actual scores themselves, what it really looks like is two overmatched defenses against nationally elite offenses.

App State’s marginal offensive OAYP is 1.90, good for 8th in the FBS. Louisiana’s marginal defensive OAYP is 0.01, which, while first in the SBC, is 65th in the country. That’s a 1.89 disparity and a top ten offense against basically an average defense.

On the flipside, Louisiana’s marginal offensive OAYP is 1.09, 16th in the FBS. App’s marginal defense is -0.56, 93rd. That’s a 1.65 disparity.

So, even though these are two great offenses, the offenses aren’t playing each other. And even though Louisiana has been better defensively, the defenses aren’t playing each other. The difference in App’s offense and Louisiana’s defense is greater than that of Louisiana’s offense and App’s defense.

Moreover, and especially problematic for the two defenses, neither offense is easily defended. These aren’t especially complicated offenses -- both are more rush-oriented than average -- but they execute. They aren’t one dimensional, though. Stacked boxes and cover one or cover zero are less likely to slow either one down, and more likely to end up in six points for either Sutton or Bradley.

Ultimately, Vegas can slightly favor Louisiana, which is totally reasonable, and OAYP can like the Mountaineers a little bit better, which is also fine, but the smart money is on the game never ending because no one can get a stop. Just take the over, sit back, and enjoy the game of the year in the Sun Belt.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP