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OAYP: App State at UNC Preview

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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SP Editor Jim Johnson breaks down the keys for App State to upset North Carolina, through the lens of his OAYP advanced metric.

One of my preseason Sun Belt “Spoilers” was that App State would go at least 3-1 against other Carolina teams. With the assumption being that they would take care of business against Charlotte and Coastal Carolina, the former of which has already been accomplished, that meant going on the road and upsetting one of their P5 foes, either North or South Carolina.

At that point, UNC, in the midst of what many assumed to be a transitional year, felt like the best bet. However, a few weeks into the season, it appears that it may be the other way around.

After two consecutive come from behind upsets over South Carolina and Miami, Mack Brown’s squad did fall at the hands of Wake Forest, last Friday, despite its best efforts to muster some more fourth quarter magic. Nevertheless, this is a team that feels a lot less beatable than it did on paper, in the preseason.

Of course, on the flipside, given South Carolina’s early struggles and the loss of quarterback Jake Bentley, 4-0 is also now more in play than it was for App State.

The Mountaineers can’t worry about that now, though. For the time being, the only focus is going 1-0 this week. Vegas likes the Heels by a field goal at home, but OAYP’s not so sure about that.

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 an 87.5% rate straight up, and 69% 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.

Also of note, we’re still only counting full or secondary qualifiers from 2018’s scores. I do have the 2019 data for non-qualifiers, but they don’t become eligible for the main database until they’ve made a qualifying appearance in four FBS games this season. So, even if they’re listed as N/A in the image, we’re not going in blind like we were a couple of weeks ago.

Below, you’ll find the marginal OAYP scores for the projected starting lineup for App State’s offense and UNC’s defense, with an accompanying breakdown of the biggest deciding factor. We’ll also hit the vice versa, further down, and you can find OAYP’s projected margin of victory at the bottom.

Deciding Factor: Rushing Efficiency

On paper, this is App’s greatest offensive advantage over the UNC defense. As B.J. Bennett pointed out recently, Darrynton Evans is on a historically good tear right now:

Evans is currently the only player this millennium with 200 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns and a kickoff return for score in a single game. For frame of reference, the closest player to that distinction before Evans was NFL superstar Todd Gurley, who met those minimums with 198 rushing yards for Georgia against Clemson back in 2014.

Rolling Evans' recent production into the equivalent of one full regular season, he has 1,454 rushing yards over his last dozen games. In that theoretical 12-week span, he is averaging over 7.3 yards per attempt. Given the current standard for Appalachian State, however, 14 outings seems like a more accurate measure…

For all of the numbers Evans has compiled, wins might be the most impressive. Notably, Appalachian State is 10-0 when he has rushed for at least 65 yards.

Meanwhile, North Carolina’s defensive front was among the worst in the nation against the run, in 2018 -- 105th in line yards and 110th in percentage of 5+ yards carries allowed, and 105th in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Curiously, given their early success, though the numbers have gotten better, they haven’t gotten a lot better -- up to 86th in percentage of five yard carries allowed and 53rd in stuff rate, but down a spot to 106th in line yards.

Now, for as dynamic as Evans is, and his yard per carry average is off the charts right now, his success rate betrays a relative lack of genuine efficiency. He’s a bonafide homerun hitter, and there’s certainly a place for that, but he strikes out more than the raw YPC would indicate. Sometimes, just getting on base is enough.

A fifty-yard gash followed by nine runs for a total of zero yards is still five yards per carry, but ten five yard carries are going to keep the chains moving and end up in six more often.

If Vic Johnson is feeling like himself again at left tackle, that will certainly help things, and center Noah Hannon will be one of the best players on the field, regardless of position, for either team, but it’s going to take a cohesive effort.

This is a vastly improved UNC defense under Jay Bateman, but there’s still efficiency to be had against them on the ground. With that safety duo of theirs, even given the personnel attrition at cornerback, the Heels will continue to be stingy in pass defense, and without Corey Sutton, one can’t expect much of a downfield air attack for the Mountaineers in this one, even with a quarterback the caliber of Zac Thomas.

That means it’s going to be on Evans and company to keep Eli Drinkwitz’s offense on schedule, because for all of UNC’s struggles against the run, that defensive line can absolutely get after opposing passers.

To continue this baseball metaphor, singles will suffice at the cost of home runs with the risk of K’s. Of course, a couple of dingers wouldn’t hurt either.

Deciding Factor: Get After Sam Howell

The Tar Heels’ new signal caller Sam Howell has been good, not great, but very good for a true freshman, thus far.

In the opener, against an upper echelon South Carolina front seven, albeit with a really questionable secondary behind it, he averaged over ten yards per attempt with two touchdowns and no picks.

Then, versus what was expected to be an elite Miami pass defense, he was spectacular, averaging almost 11.5 yards per pass, with two more scores and no interceptions.

His efficiency took a hit last week, averaging just 6.5 yards per throw against Wake Forest, but he did notch another two touchdowns, and is still yet to turn the ball over.d

Altogether, that’s good for 25th in the nation in YPA and 31st in passer rating. The reason I’m sticking with very good, as opposed to great, is the way in which he’s acquired said production. The efficiency is clearly there, but that’s in part because offensive coordinator Phil Longo has done a good job of limiting his dropbacks, placing a higher workload on their trio of ball carriers.

Obviously, that means stopping the run will be the first order of business, so as to force UNC into obvious passing downs, but I would argue that, given how good App’s run defense is, beefing up the pass rush will be more important to this specific contest.

Even whilst trying to establish the run, and somewhat succeeding, their pass protection has been almost nonexistent. When Howell has time, he’s consistently taken what the defense gives him, but he hasn’t always had much time.

UNC currently ranks 127th in sack rate allowed -- 111th on standard downs and second to last, at 129th, on passing downs.

It’s not really in Ted Roof’s nature, but if there was ever a week to dial up some creative blitzes when Howell and the Heels get behind the sticks, it’s this week.

That does potentially open up the door for more explosive offensive plays, but, even with those inexperienced cornerbacks, Josh Thomas and Desmond Franklin should go a long way in assuaging any concerns in that respect.

OAYP PROJECTED MARGIN OF VICTORY: App State by 4.85

In fairness to North Carolina, they had baffled OAYP more than any other team this season, prior to last Friday. The formula was 0-2 in their games, ahead of the Wake Forest matchup, but it did nail the six point loss to the Demon Deacons to within a point, so maybe it’s starting to figure them out.

North Carolina is much better than anyone thought a month ago, and App State’s defensive performance against Charlotte was less than inspiring, but I tend to agree with my metric on this one.

If Darrynton Evans’ consistency can start to match his explosiveness, and Ted Roof gets a little more creative than usual, the Sun Belt is going to notch its third victory over a P5, in 2019, this Saturday.

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