Georgia football fans can get their statistical fix each week with By the Numbers — a stats-based look at how UGA coach Kirby Smart is doing in his attempt to keep the Bulldogs on top of the SEC and continue the program’s pursuit of a national championship. Today’s edition of By the Numbers looks at the good and bad news regarding UGA’s chances of upsetting Alabama.
Mark Twain once spoke of “lies, damn lies and statistics.” The sentiment he expressed seems relevant for the SEC Championship Game, a contest in which some stats seemingly argue against each other regarding Georgia’s chances of pulling off the upset vs. Alabama.
Some of the numbers suggest good news for UGA, and others offer less reason for optimism.
Let’s take a look…
Alabama’s special teams have been terrible. Its missed five of its 18 field goal attempts, eight extra points and it had a punt blocked last week vs. Auburn. The Crimson Tide is 87th in ESPN’s Football Power Index rating of special teams efficiency. Alabama ranks 92nd in Football Study Hall’s version of those rankings.
On the other hand, UGA is No. 10 in special teams rankings according to Football Study Hall.
UGA coach Kirby Smart thinks too much is being made of Alabama’s special teams blunders.
“I don’t look at it as a weakness,” Smart said Tuesday. “Their kickoff returner and punt returner are two of the best in the whole country…Have they struggled some with some kicks? Yeah, sure. That hasn’t been something new for them. They’ve dealt with that before. So they’ve overcome it with a lot of really strong special teams. They’ve got the best kickoff coverage I think I’ve ever seen.”
The numbers don’t necessarily support Smart’s conclusion. Alabama is just fifth in the SEC in kickoff return yards allowed, and trails UGA in average yards per kickoff and punt return.
However, Alabama is similar to UGA in its use of starters on special teams — most of which were highly-rated recruits. Therefore, besting the Crimson Tide in the special teams category might not prove to be as easy as it seems on paper.
UGA’s stats are close to the Crimson Tide in a number of areas — despite the fact Alabama has been No. 1 in the polls all season.
“UGA is Bama’s equal in almost every category,” Bill Connelly wrote this week, and Connelly’s claim is pretty easy to support.
Alabama is No. 2 in ESPN’s FPI offensive efficiency ratings, the Bulldogs are No. 3. Alabama is also FPI’s No. 2 defense, and UGA is No. 3.
Alabama is slightly better in both regards, but UGA isn’t too far behind.
While Connelly points out Georgia’s similarities with Alabama, he’s also forced to acknowledge the one area where the Bulldogs have been nowhere close to the Crimson Tide.
“Just imagine how good the Dawgs would look with a competent goal line offense,” Connelly stated bluntly.
He also pointed out some ugly facts:
UGA is 129th in the country in offensive success rate inside its opponent’s three yard line.
Its success rate on goal line plays was just 19 percent against Florida, Auburn and Kentucky — the best defenses its faced during its current five-game winning streak.
And Connelly pointed to a possible reason for the short-yardage failure: unimaginative playcalling, including a series of four handoffs and two quarterback sacks that produced zero yards at the goal line vs. the Gators during a particularly-forgettable possession in an otherwise-enjoyable 36-17 win.
If UGA stalls at the goal line vs. Alabama as it has in other games this season it is likely to lose.
Nobody seems to believe in UGA’s chances to win against Alabama, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The gambling-centric website, The Action Network reported earlier this week that 39 percent of bets on the SEC Championship had been placed on the Bulldogs.
Since 2005, teams in conference championship games receiving less than 40 percent of bets have gone 24-15-1 against the spread. That’s a 61.5 percent cover rate for the unpopular picks.
Most UGA fans won’t be satisfied by seeing the Bulldogs simply cover the spread. They want UGA to win the game, and sizable underdogs haven’t done that a lot in recent conference championship games.
ESPN’s Chris Fallica tweeted some data about that earlier in the week, and his numbers probably won’t make DawgNation feel better about UGA’s chances of winning.
According to Fallica, double-digit underdogs have lost 13-straight conference championship games dating back to Florida State’s 38-35 upset vs. Virginia Tech in the 2005 ACC Championship Game as a 14-point underdog.
UGA has been a 13.5 point underdog vs. Alabama for most of the week.
No matter how the numbers are crunched, the fact remains unchanged: Alabama’s going to be hard to beat. However, there’s plenty of data that also suggests UGA’s chances of pulling off the upset are greater than just about any other team’s would be.
It would certainly help for one of those Crimson Tide miscues on special teams to show up on Saturday, and it would be nice if UGA could demonstrate it’s better than the team that continually tripped over itself at the goal line earlier in the season.
If those things happen, UGA’s chances of shocking the world might turn out to be a little better than many people realize.