When SB Nation statistician Bill Connelly developed the advanced analytical system S&P+, one of the five factors he deemed most critical to winning a college football game was finishing drives. Writes Bill:
No matter how you approach it, the game of football changes when the field shrinks. It’s a good problem to have—what are we going to do once we get close to the end zone?—but it’s a question that needs an answer. The teams that make the most trips will win more often than not.
That neatly explains why Ole Miss was beaten 31-16 by Auburn in Oxford on Saturday afternoon. Don’t be misled by that final score—this was a six-point game midway through the third quarter. But the Rebels’ inability to finish drives doomed their chance to upset a struggling Auburn team at home.
Ole Miss travelled inside the Auburn 40-yard line on six of its first eight drives. Those drives concluded with a blocked field goal, a turnover on downs, a punt and three field goals. Six trips inside the 40, nine points.
The Rebels moved the ball consistently against an elite Auburn defense. It just couldn’t find the end zone. It wasn’t until A.J. Brown scored with 2:24 left in the game that Ole Miss finally crossed the goal line.
That wasted what was a surprisingly solid first half from Ole Miss’ defense. Auburn’s offense, whose season-long struggles have Gus Malzahn on the hot seat, had just 10 points at the half. The dam finally broke as the Tigers piled up 21 points in the third quarter, but this could have been a very different game if the Rebel offense had finished drives earlier in the game.
Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo has built his attack around simplicity—he famously runs variations of less than 30 plays. That seems to work in games in which his wildly talented offense has an athletic advantage: in 13 games against opponents ranked outside the top 60 in defensive S&P+, Longo’s offense has averaged 42.4 points per game and 8.3 yards per play. But in seven games against defenses inside the top 20, those numbers plummet to 17.1 points per game and 5.1 yards per play.
This was winnable game deep into the third quarter. Thanks to offensive inefficiency and yet another defensive collapse, it turned into a lopsided loss.