One way to look at team strength, taken from Eddie Epstein’s fantastic book Dominance, is to look at teams points scored and allowed relative to the league average and standard deviation. The more standard deviations they are from the mean, the better (or worse they are). For those unfamiliar with what standard deviation is here’s the wikipedia link. In the coming weeks, I will be looking at each Division IA conference and ranking each team in regards to their Standard Deviation Power Index in conference play. Keep in mind, the SDPI does not adjust for schedule strength for conferences such as the ACC where each team does not play each other and it ignores special teams which can play a significant role in both points scored and points allowed.
If you want the meat of the article, skip this next paragraph as it just gives an example of how the SDPI is calculated. The mean points scored and allowed for all Conference USA teams in conference play (championship game not included) was 206.75 points. The standard deviation for points scored was 38.90. The standard deviation for points allowed was 43.09. East Carolina scored 188 and allowed 154 points. The Pirates' offensive SDPI was -0.48= ([188-206.75]/38.90). Their defensive SDPI was 1.22 = ([206.75-154]/43.09). Their total SDPI was 0.74. This was the fourth best mark in Conference USA in 2006.
First here's the link to the 2006 Conference USA Standings to refresh your memory.
Now here are the 2006 SDPI Standings:
Southern Miss 1.90
East Carolina 0.74
Southern Methodist 0.12
Central Florida -0.97
Conference USA played out according to form in 2006 as the two best teams squared off in the Championship Game with Houston taking the title.
Best Offense: Houston 1.75
The Cougars not only were very good offensively, but also very balanced. Quarterback Kevin Kolb threw for over 3800 yards and 30 touchdowns (with a scant 4 interceptions). Two players had over 900 yards rushing and three had over 600 yards receiving.
Worst Offense: Tulane -1.97
The Green Wave were actually just a shade below average until their last three conference games when they scored 3, 10, and 3 points respectively while averaging just 177 yards per game. During that stretch they averaged 1.6 yards per rush and 4.8 yards per pass.
Best Defense: Southern Miss 1.73
The Golden Eagles held every conference opponent under 20 points except Memphis and Houston.
Worst Defense: Memphis and Tulane -1.14
Both the Tigers and Green Wave were very similar in terms of defensive ineptitude. In their eight conference games, both gave up at least 40 points twice, at least 30 points five times, and at least 20 points seven times. Tulane was able to hold one opponent to single digits (Central Florida managed only 9 points), while Memphis' best defensive showing was against UTEP when they held the Miners to 19.
Best Team that Didn't Go to a Bowl: Marshall 0.32
The Thundering Herd went 4-4 in conference play, but only 5-7 overall thanks to non-conference trips to West Virginia, Kansas State, and Tennessee.
Worst Team that Went to a Bowl: Rice 0.38
The Owls finished 6-2 in conference play and went to their first bowl game since 1961. However, they were an extremely fortunate team. Of their eight conference games, six were decided by 6 points or less, including 3 by a single point. The Owls had a 5-1 record in those close games.
Toughest Schedule (ranked by sum of opponent's SDPI): Tulane 4.96
The Green Wave played in the tougher division in 2006 (West), plus they drew the top team from the East (Southern Miss) and avoided the worst (Memphis). Schedule strength also a bit misleading because teams cannot play themselves and Tulane was far and away the worst team in Conference USA.
Easiest Schedule (ranked by sum of opponent's SDPI): Marshall -4.93
Played in the weaker division and had the fortune of drawing the bottom three teams from the West in their intra-conference schedule (Tulane, UTEP, and Southern Methodist) while avoiding the top three (Houston, Tulsa, and Rice).
Entire Schedule Strength (hardest to easiest):
East Carolina 0.88
Southern Methodist 0.46
Central Florida 0.19
Southern Miss -1.36
Team(s) Likely to Decline: Rice and Houston
As a Wake Forest alum and fan, I was as delighted as anyone that Rice, another diminutive Division IA school, went bowling in 2006. However, their great conference record masked a team that was both extremely lucky (the aforementioned 5-1 record in close games) and terrible defensively (112th nationally in scoring defense). The Owls also recovered 30 of 49 fumbles in 2006 (combined offense and defense)--over 61% compared to an NCAA average of 50%. Couple those three things with the departure of head coach Todd Graham who bolted for another small school--Tulsa, and you have all the trappings of a team that will seriously regress in 2007. On the other hand, Houston paired a great record with great performance in 2006, but lose a ton of talent. Gone are the starting quarterback, running back, and leading receiver. The team does return four offensive linemen and seven starters on defense, so a bowl bid is an attainable goal, but another conference title is not.
Team(s) Likely to Improve: Memphis and Southern Methodist
2006 was a year of change for the Memphis Tigers. They lost both their starting quarterback and superstar running back (DeAngelo Williams) from the previous season. This season they return both their starting running back, Justin Doss, who may be light years away from DeAngelo Williams, but is still a productive college player, and quarterback Martin Hankins. Hankins had a solid season in his first year as a starter (60% completion rate with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions) and should improve as he enters his senior year. The defense will be hard pressed to be any worse than last season and the schedule also improves with the Tigers avoiding Tulsa and Houston from the West, while picking up Tulane and a Rice team that should not be as strong as last years incarnation. The cherry on top is that the Tigers will surely improve on last season's 0-5 mark in close games. Down in Dallas, the Pony Express may have the league's most exciting player in sophomore quarterback Justin Willis. As a redshirt freshman in 2006, all Willis did was throw 26 touchdown passes against a paltry 6 interceptions in helping the Mustangs to their first non-losing season since 1997. The Mustangs also bring back four starting offensive linemen and six starters on defense. However, the rub is in the schedule as they draw what likely will be the league's top three teams (Southern Miss, Tulsa, and Houston) on the road. If they can steal one of those games, they will be heading to a bowl game for the first time since 1984.
Best Chance to Crash the BCS: Tulsa
This was a tough call between Tulsa and Southern Miss. Both schools avoid each other in the regular season, so should they play each other, it will be in the Conference USA Championship Game. In conference play, Tulsa gets their strongest competition (Houston and Southern Methodist) at home and the road slate is relatively light with trips to Rice, Tulane, UTEP, and Central Florida. In non-conference play they travel to Army and Louisiana-Monroe, two teams they should handle. Their home non-conference schedule is a different beast as they will take on BYU and in-state rival Oklahoma. Still, better to play the Sooners in Tulsa than Norman. The Golden Hurricane return their senior quarterback Paul Smith who should shine under new coach Todd Graham. However, they do lose four offensive linemen and and six starters on defense, so an undefeated season in conference play (which barring an upset over the Sooners is likely the resume needed for a BCS bid) is unlikely. Southern Miss (who plays at Tennessee) and Tulsa probably have similar chances of crashing the BCS, which is to say fans of neither school should fret about making other New Years' plans.