Many a pundit is predicting big things for the 2005 incarnation of the Tennessee Volunteers. Some notables: The media pegged Tennessee as the team to take the SEC championship at SEC Football Media Days, Foxsports.com has Tennessee ranked 3rd in their preseason poll behind USC and LSU. Is this a reasonable expectation for Tennessee? Lets take a look.
Here are the SEC East standings from last year:
South Carolina 4-4
Now here are the SEC East teams ranked by point differential in conference games:
Points For Points Against Net
Georgia 231 133 +98
Florida 251 187 +64
Tennessee 215 199 +16
South Carolina 185 190 -5
Vanderbilt 133 213 -80
Kentucky 106 253 -157
A brief segue. In 1980 noted baseball analyst and the founder of sabermetrics, Bill James, developed a theory for predicting a team's winning percentage based on the number of runs a team scored and allowed. He called it the Pythagorean Theorem of baseball and it looked something like this:
(Runs Scored)^2 +(Runs Allowed)^2
The resulting ratio was a team's estimated winning percentage. Over the course of a 162 game season the Pythagorean Theorem predicted the final record for most teams within three or four games of their actual performance. The Pythagorean Theorem has application beyond baseball (and some triangles I hear). It could also be applied to predict a football team's actual performance.
Now here are the Pythagorean Standings from 2004 based on points scored and points allowed:
South Carolina 4-4
Now a quick caveat to this argument. A sample size of 8 football games is nowhere near the sample size of 162 baseball games so the Pythagorean Theorem is not a perfect measure of a football team's performance. However, the fact that Tennessee outscored their conference opponents by a mere 16 points (excluding the SEC championship game), and still went 7-1 in conference play means that they were probably a bit lucky. Incidently, if you ask a Florida fan, they may use stronger language in describing Tennessee's luck and the prowess of SEC officials.
The reason Tennessee's scorring margin is so low is that they played so many close games. And they won all their close games. They beat Florida by 2, Georgia by 5, Ole Miss by 4, Alabama by 4, Vanderbilt by 5, and Kentucky by 6. Now some will tell you that winning close games is the sign of a good football team and that it shows character and determination. I am inclined to replace the words 'character' and 'determination' with 'luck'. Tennessee was a 4 or 5 win SEC team that won 7 games thanks in large part to a number of good breaks. In my opinion, Tennessee should be favored to finish the season ranked 3rd.....
in the SEC East, behind Florida and Georgia.