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How is the LSU Offense Outperforming Its Underlying Stats?

No one likes to say, “I don’t know”

LSU v Auburn
OK, maybe he’s not really a secret
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After its upset of national title contending Georgia, LSU finds itself back in the top five. LSU now has three wins over teams which were in the top ten at the time of kickoff. Even if Auburn is doing their patented punt on the season after an early loss to LSU just to spite our strength of schedule routine, LSU’s opponents are a combined 33-15, easily the best of the current AP top ten teams.

Even using the current S&P+ rankings, LSU has an impressive resume, boasting wins over the #6, 17, 31, and 38 teams to go with a loss to #13 Florida. There’s not another team with four wins over top 40 teams and either no losses or a loss to a team of Florida’s quality.

The usual knock on LSU is that it doesn’t win by a big enough margin. However, outside of the last-second one-point thriller against Auburn, LSU has a comfortable scoring margin against its brutal schedule, beating Miami by 16, La Tech by 17, Ole Miss by 29, and Georgia by 20. That’s an average margin of victory of 16.6 points against its FBS opponents, who have an average S&P+ rank of 32.6.

However, the computer formula still doesn’t like LSU due to its underlying metrics, and Bill Connelly wrote about why LSU is overrated in the AP poll. I don’t really like the use of the term “overrated’ in this context, I think it is more accurately, “outperforming” its underlying metrics, but you say potato… Anyway, here’s how Bill explained LSU’s success:

The biggest issue is sustainability. The Tigers’ offense seems to have about two big-play cards to play in each game and has managed to play them at exactly the right time in each win. That’s hard to keep up.

This theory doesn’t really hold up. He cites some anecdotal evidence of LSU getting big plays in each of its wins, but it would more note-worthy if LSU didn’t have any big gaining plays. The median team in college football averages five plays of 20+ yards a game. It would be shocking if LSU didn’t have any.

It’s also not like LSU is squeaking out wins, so there’s not really any evidence that LSU is getting these plays at the right time, save the Auburn game. LSU’s big plays seem to be as randomly distributed as anyone else’s.

Now, before we go any further, let’s not take this on attack on the legitimacy of S&P+ or Bill’s fine work. We use S&P+ all the time, and it remains the best publicly available statistical metric for college football. Bill also puts out a ton of awesome data, for free no less, and he should have a statue built to him for his efforts. I’m talking about S&P+ not because it’s a bad metric, but precisely because it is a good one.

There’s nothing worse than doing poorly in a rating system, so you simply attack the rating system. That’s not what I’m concerned about. S&P+ is a great metric, but LSU is clearly outperforming its underlying stats. What I’m trying to get at is how are they doing this?

We’ve been down this road before. Under Les Miles, LSU churned out cover-your-eyes awful offenses that drove fans to the brink, yet S&P+ consistently rated these offenses as very good and even excellent. That’s right, my previous complaint is that S&P+ was too kind to LSU.

Bill wrote a terrific piece this week on the nature of big plays. You should read the whole thing, but to summarize it (poorly), big plays are the single most important factor in winning games, but the best way to create big plays is to be efficient. There’s a bit more to it than that, but explosiveness is generally unpredictable, so the best way to create explosiveness is to keep the offense on the field. And teams do that by staying efficient.

If you don’t feel like reading the rest of the column, we went through the data and found that LSU was incredibly efficient, yet never got those explosive plays, primarily due to its glacially slow pace.

The 2018 offense loses a lot of that efficiency. LSU ranks 77th in yards/play and 70th in total offense. On top of that, LSU’s offense is not particularly explosive, ranking 65th in plays over 20 yards. S&P+ likely gives LSU a bit of credit for its schedule, as the LSU offense comes in as the 43rd ranked offense, which seems more than fair.

So how is LSU managing to put forth a top 10 team while still playing with a fairly pedestrian offense? Well, for one thing, LSU still doesn’t turn the ball over. LSU ranks 16th in the nation in fewest turnovers lost, keeping up the trend from the Miles’ days.

But it would be a mistake to confuse this as a Milesian offense. The big thing that has changed is that LSU currently ranks 21st in the nation in total plays. Previously, LSU flirted with being dead last in pace, and was always in the bottom quartile. Now? LSU ranks 21st in the nation in pace.

It’s not like LSU is suddenly running a fast break offense, but LSU is playing with significantly higher pace than it has in the past. There’s even been instances of the offense running a genuine hurry up. This sheer increase in the number of plays has allowed LSU to keep roughly the same number of explosive plays despite being less efficient. To paraphrase my previous column on LSU’s slow pace, the offense is finding a different a way to get more bites at the apple.

Is LSU getting more timely explosive plays? I’m not sure how one would define that, but it’s not like LSU has needed many timely plays. LSU second closest margin of victory was 16 points. Sure, LSU got timely plays against Auburn, a one-point victory secured by a field goal on the game’s final play, but LSU’s other wins aren’t in any way similar. They have been relative blowouts in which LSU has staked itself to a huge lead, then cruised to the final gun.

There is where we see how LSU’s offense is likely befuddling the formula. LSU has raced out to double digit leads in every single game this season, save Florida which, not coincidentally, is LSU’s sole loss. Against FBS teams, LSU has usually taken a huge halftime lead, outscoring opponents in the first 115-44. In victories, that number goes to 105-30.

LSU has, on average, gone into the locker room with a 15-point lead in its victories against FBS teams. That’s not so much timeliness, but roaring out of the gates to stake yourself to a big lead. In the second half? Well, that’s where the trouble starts.

We’ve bemoaned LSU’s third quarter swoons this season, and it’s not a trick of the memory. LSU has actually been outscored by its opponents in the third quarter, 22-30. LSU has rallied in the fourth to outscore its FBS opponents 56-40 in the fourth. That’s a mere 78-70 second half scoring edge for LSU.

This doesn’t suggest that LSU is getting timely scoring down the stretch. Rather, quite the opposite. LSU is getting its scoring done early, staking itself to a huge lead, and then strangling the life out of the game in the second half as the opponent tries to come back.

Just look at the halftime scores and the final margin in so much of LSU’s schedule. LSU raced out to 27-3 lead against Miami, and won 33-17. La Tech fell behind 24-7, and lost 38-21, the same exact margin. Ole Miss was down at the half 28-6, losing 45-16. LSU only extended the lead by a touchdown. Georgia is held up as the big blowout win, and that game was 16-0 at the half, 36-16 at the final gun. LSU extended the lead by all of four points in the second half. Even the SELA game followed this pattern, as LSU turned a 24-0 halftime lead into a 31-0 victory.

The only Tiger victory which broke this pattern was Auburn. LSU did need big plays down the stretch to win that one, but it’s hardly odd for a team to get a big play when it needs it every now and again. In LSU’s other close game, the offense failed to come up with the big plays down the stretch and lost to Florida. As far as coming up with big plays in high leverage situations, LSU is essentially one of two on that front. A coin flip.

There are real issues with LSU’s offense. The offensive line was a question mark even before it turned into a MASH unit. The receivers have been inconsistent. Joe Burrow has all of the intangibles you could want, but all the moxy in the world doesn’t erase a 53.3% completion percentage. S&P+ is right to have LSU ranked 43rd in offense.

But LSU has another secret weapon when it comes to outperforming its underlying metrics: Cole Tracy.

Kick Tracy ranks first in the country in field goals made, with 17. He’s 15th in the nation in accuracy (89.5%, 17-19), and he is literally perfect from inside 50 yards. The average team hits about one field goal a game. 30 teams have 6 or 7 field goals made on the season, tied for 52nd and 68th in field goals made. Tracy is giving LSU a full extra three points a game at the least.

It is also camouflaging a fairly ineffective red zone offense. LSU is 10th in the nation in red zone attempts with 33, yet ranks 117th in red zone touchdown percentage at 51.52%. However, LSU ranks 15th in red zone scoring percentage (93.94%) because LSU never misses a field goal. LSU has scored on 31 of its 33 red zone trips. The problem for LSU is that 14 of those scores are field goals.

It’s better to kick the field goal than come away with nothing, but Tracy’s metronome-like reliability is covering up the offense’s inability to cash in on its scoring opportunities. And the reason they don’t score touchdowns at a good rate is not because there is a problem with the red zone offense specifically, but because this is a mediocre offense. It has problems all over the field, not just inside the 20.

However, when the team fails inside the 20, heck, even the 30-yard line, there is this huge safety net. LSU is always getting its three points at the very least. And those field goals really add up, as Georgia learned. LSU had plenty of chances to put the Dawgs away early, but failed to push it into the end zone. That was a disappointment, but it wasn’t as bad as it could be thanks to a ridiculous kicking game.

LSU isn’t getting lucky. It’s not sequencing its big plays or anything like that. What LSU has is an amazing kicker, and he turns this mediocre offense into a scoring machine.