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Conservative offense, conservative defense

Vanderbilt’s statistical profile doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

NCAA Football: Florida at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Analytics have been slow to come along with respect to football (compared to baseball, where Bill James was screaming about how dumb sacrifice bunts were back in the 1980s.) And compared to basketball, analytics have been much slower to be accepted in the football world. You can see that in the infrequency of fourth-down conversion attempts, in the face of evidence that over the long run going for it on fourth down will lead to more points scored.

That’s why SB Nation’s advanced statistical profiles are such a great resource. It doesn’t quite tell you everything you need to know about your team, but it’s still great. So what do advanced statistics tell us about Vanderbilt?

Well, for those of us who have been watching the team, it tells us a lot of stuff we already know.

For example, Vanderbilt’s offense ranks 128th in explosiveness (measured by IsoPPP.) To put 128th in perspective, there are 128 teams in FBS. Yeah, Vanderbilt has the least explosive offense in major college football. (The Commodores’ offense doesn’t exactly shine in terms of efficiency, either, and while they’re closer to the national average in terms of finishing drives they’re still below average in that area.)

On the defensive side of the ball, Vanderbilt ranks 68th in explosiveness and 84th in efficiency — slightly above the national average in terms of explosiveness, but below average in terms of efficiency. Where the Commodores shine is in finishing drives — once opposing offenses get inside the 40, Vanderbilt is actually pretty good at preventing them from scoring, or at least holding them to a field goal.

Of course, it’s better if you prevent opponents from getting deep in your own territory in the first place. And that’s been something of a problem for Vanderbilt’s defense.

(If you’re curious, the big difference between this season’s defense and 2015’s is that the Commodores last year were 22nd in defensive efficiency while being about the same in terms of preventing big plays and even better once opposing offenses got inside Vanderbilt territory.)

So over the course of a year, Vanderbilt’s defense has regressed from a legitimately strong unit to more of a standard-grade “bend-but-don’t-break” defense. And while sometimes that philosophy can be a solid choice, it frequently means that the defense will be on the field for a long time. Although the other team’s offense is more likely to make a mistake on a 15-play drive than a 5-play drive, sometimes, the dam breaks and you give up points. It’s usually a bad idea to depend on your defense to buckle down in the red zone, rather than just keeping the offense out of the red zone in the first place.

On the other side of the ball, advanced stats tell us that Vanderbilt’s offense is exactly as conservative as we thought it was. The Commodores run the ball 66.5% of the time on standard downs, 30th in the country (national average is 59.4%), and they run 38.1% of the time on passing downs, 36th in the country (national average is 34.2%. Passing downs are defined as 2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd- or 4th-and-5 or more; standard downs are everything else.)

You can also see the problem with a conservative offense when you dive deeper into the numbers. On standard downs, Vanderbilt’s offense is still not all that explosive, but the Commodores do have a better-than-average success rate on standard downs. But when they fall behind schedule, the Commodores’ offense craters: Vanderbilt ranks 121st nationally in passing downs success rate.

That might be something of a problem with the personnel, but here’s why it’s important to consider both statistics and what we see with our own eyes. Kyle Shurmur isn’t a bad quarterback, but the coaching staff seems to refuse to take the kid gloves off. And the run-heavy play-calling on standard downs means that most of the time when he’s passing, it’s when the defense is expecting the pass.

But the general problem with Vanderbilt’s philosophy is that they’re far too reliant on other teams beating themselves. That’s a strategy that might work against the Middle Tennessees and Western Kentuckys of the world, but against three Power 5 opponents, not only is Vanderbilt 0-3, but they’ve finished with win expectancies of 21% (South Carolina), 0% (Georgia Tech), and 16% (Florida.) In other words... in spite of what the scoreboard said in the South Carolina and Florida games, Vanderbilt was playing a game that they only would have won if the other team had beaten themselves. (Which, well, South Carolina almost did, but still.)

It’s fairly obvious that a more aggressive philosophy would take Vanderbilt a long way. Yeah, there might be some ugly losses — if you’re playing aggressively, sometimes the other team just whips your ass, pardon my French — but over the long haul it would probably lead to more wins.