## Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One of my favorite set of posts from last offseason was the conference recap using SDPI. SDPI is a statistic I borrowed from Eddie Epstein that he used in his book, Dominance, to rank pro football's all-time greatest teams. SDPI stands for Standard Deviation Power Index and looks at how teams performed relative to the league average (or conference average in this case) and standard deviation in terms of points scored and allowed. The more standard deviations a team is above the mean, the better they are, and vice-versa. Here is the link to last year's Big East post. As you can see, SDPI was a useful tool in predicting some of the rise and fall among the Big East's teams. In the interest of providing an even better offseason analysis, I will now be conducting another SDPI, this time for yardage. It is calculated in the same manner as the SDPI for points, but will obviously be measured against the conference mean and standard deviation for yards. Think of it this way: Points are the end result and yards are the means to that end. Thus, looking at both sets of data, we can get an even better idea about which teams are likely to improve or regress in 2008.

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 Big East teams in conference play was 186.75 points. The standard deviation for points scored was 41.35. The standard deviation for points allowed was 45.16. Rutgers scored 171 points in Big East play and allowed 195. Their offensive SDPI was -0.38 = ([171-186.75]/41.35). Their defensive SDPI was -0.18 = ([186.75-195]/45.16). Their total SDPI for points (SDPIP) was -0.56 which ranked 5th in the conference. The mean yardage for and against for all Big East teams in conference play was 2684.13 yards. The standard deviation for yardage for was 373.40. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 447.01. Rutgers gained 2832 yards in conference play and allowed 2578. Their offensive SDPI was 0.40 = ([2832-2684.13]/373.40). Their defensive SDPI was 0.24 = ([2684.13-2578]/447.01). Their total SDPI for yards (SDPIY) was 0.63 (difference due to rounding) which ranked 3rd in the conference.

To refresh your memory, here are the 2007 Big East standings.

Now here are the 2007 SDPI standings.

The one team very far removed from their place in the actual Big East standings and their performance is the Connecticut Huskies. The Huskies were co-champions with West Virginia, and if we look at SDPIP, they still finish a respectable 4th; having outscored their Big East opponents by a scant 4 points over the course of the season. However, if we look at the Huskies in terms of yardage, they fall all the way to the bottom of the league; ahead of only Syracuse. The Huskies gained only 333 yards per game in Big East play (ahead of only Pitt and Syracuse) while allowing 417 per contest (ahead of only Syracuse). How were the Huskies able to overcome their down-to-down inferiority and win 5 of 7 conference games? Turnover margin.

The Huskies were tops in Big East play gaining 8 more turnovers than they committed over 7 conference games. In the 5 conference games where the Huskies won the turnover battle, they won. In the 2 conference games where they were in the red, they lost. The Huskies also scored 5 non-offensive touchdowns in conference play to aid their cause. An interception return for a touchdown provided the winning margin in a 7-point home defeat of South Florida. A 74-yard punt return by wide receiver Larry Taylor (illegal I might add) was the difference in a 4-point home win over Louisville. The previous few sentences were not intended to demean the accomplishments of the Huskies, merely to serve as a reminder that they may not be so fortuitous next season. Elsewhere, point and yardage differentials have very different views on Cincinnati (3rd in points and 5th in yards), Rutgers (5th in points and 3rd in yardage), and Louisville (7th in points and 4th in yardage). We'll get to Louisville later. For now, let's see how Rutgers, Cincinnati, and Connecticut performed in a few areas in Big East play in 2006 compared to 2007 with conference rank in parentheses.

The Big East as a whole, was much more stingy in regards to yardage in 2006. Rutgers gained about 70 more yards per game in 2007 than 2006, yet only moved up one spot in conference rank. They also allowed about 63 more yards per game, but fell only from 2nd to 3rd. The biggest difference between Rutgers Cinderella season in 2006 and their somewhat disappointing follow-up in 2007 was turnovers. The Knights led the Big East with a margin of +6 in 2006, but were tied for last at -8 in 2007. Under first year head coach Brian Kelly, the Bearcats improved substantially on offense, averaging about 73 more yards per game. Unfortunately, the defense allowed 94 more yards per game and their yardage differential actually decreased. A lot of people think Cincinnati was much better in 2007 than they were in 2006. Not so. Did you know they beat the same 4 Big East teams both seasons (Rutgers, Connecticut, South Florida, and Syracuse) while losing to the same 3 Big East teams (West Virginia, Louisville, and Pittsburgh). So why did Cincinnati finish 8-5 in 2006 and 10-3 in 2007? The Bearcats played road games at Ohio State and Virginia Tech in 2006, while in 2007 their toughest non-conference tests were against Oregon State and Miami of Ohio. And finally we have the aforementioned Huskies. Their slight improvement in offense was nearly offset by their regression on defense. The Huskies owe most of their success to an improvement in turnover margin, going from worst to first, and subsequently doing the same in the standings.

Best Offense: West Virginia 1.29 (SDPIP), Louisville 0.88(SDPIY)
West Virginia scored the most points of any Big East team in conference play, but were only 4th in yards gained. Louisville gained the most yards, but were only 4th in points scored. The reason for this disparity is twofold. The distance between Louisville and West Virginia in yardage gained in conference play was only 54 yards (less than 8 per game). The other reason? Of course it was turnovers. Louisville turned the ball over 20 times in conference play, while West Virginia committed only 16.

Worst Offense: Syracuse -1.35 (SDPIP) and -1.40 (SDPIY)
While the Pitt Panthers were close in terms of offensive ineptitude, Syracuse sweeps both measures.

Best Defense: West Virginia 1.35 (SDPIP), Pitt 1.48 (SDPIY)
Any question towards the validity of Pitt's ranking should be quelled by looking at the boxscore from their season finale.

Worst Defense: Syracuse -1.87 (SDPIP) and -1.76 (SDPIY)
Another clean sweep for a once proud program.

Looking ahead to next season, the prohibitive favorite should be...

West Virginia
Yes the Mountaineers lost a great coach in Rich Rodriguez. Yes they may have pulled the trigger too soon on Bill Stewart, while basking in the afterglow of a Fiesta Bowl win. Still, if Bill Stewart is the wrong man for the job, that won't be known until a few years down the road. His presence next season will not make Pat White or Noel Devine slower, nor will it make the 5 returning starters on the offensive line weaker, nor will it prevent the Mountaineers from having 4 Big East home games. Stewart was a failure at VMI, but if Norv Turner can succeed with superior personnel in the NFL, Bill Stewart should be able to do the same at West Virginia for at least a few seasons.

The team(s) that will improve are...

Louisville and Rutgers
Louisville went from the BCS to bowl-less in less than one calendar year. A revival in 2008 is not out of the question despite the loss of star quarterback Brian Brohm and receivers Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia. For starters, the Cardinals do bring back a host of talented running backs (Anthony Allen, Brock Bolen, and George Stripling) for their new quarterback to hand off to. And while that quarterback will not be Brian Brohm, Hunter Cantwell has some experience, subbing for the injured Brohm in 2006 when he put up pretty good numbers. The Cardinals defense should also improve next as 7 of their top 11 tacklers return. Their defense was bad last season, but not not nearly as terrible as the most folks believe. They were 5th in the league in yards allowed, about 1/4th of a standard deviation below average. The Cardinals should also see their luck in the turnover department rebound. They were -7 (6th in the conference) in turnover margin in league play. Finally, for all the criticism he endured, Steve Kragthorpe is a fine football coach. You don't resurrect the Tulsa football program without possessing a solid football acumen. Louisville gets 4 conference home games in 2008 and one of their road games is at Syracuse, so the Cardinals are a lock for at least 4 conference wins, and if things break right could find themselves as the Big East champion. As for the Scarlet Knights, they do lose their workhorse running back Ray Rice, but also return a veteran senior quarterback (Mike Teel) who has improved substantially in his 3 seasons. Teel also gets his 2 playmaking receivers, Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, back for another campaign. Britt averaged 19.9 yards per catch (5th in the nation) and Underwood averaged 16.9 (30th in the nation), making them the epitome of a big-play duo. The defense also returns 7 of its top 10 tacklers and should continue to be one of the Big East's best. The Knights do lose 3 starting offensive linemen, but that is likely the only area of concern. Their -8 (last in the conference) turnover margin should also improve as they continue their improbable rise under Greg Schiano.

The team(s) that will decline are...

Connecticut
Only Syracuse allowed more yards than the Huskies and only Pitt and Syracuse gained fewer yards. As their league-best +8 turnover margin regresses closer to the middle of the pack, the Huskies will certainly not repeat as Big East co-champs and even with Hofstra, Temple, and Baylor on the schedule outside the league, they could find themselves on the outside looking in come postseason time.

What about the other 4 teams? What is their prognosis. If Ben Mauk is allowed to return for a 6th year of eligibility (and he should be), the Bearcats could hold their place in the upper-half of the league. Remember though, despite the improvement by the offense under Kelly, the defense regressed and 5 starters from that unit are gone. Keep those predictions of a Queen City renaissance under wraps until about 2010 (if Kelly sticks around that long). South Florida was the second best team in the league based on points or yardage. However, for an offense that relies so much on Matt Grothe (65.7% of team's total offense), the Bulls are one injury or bad game from Grothe of being an also ran offensively. The defense was stellar in the 2007, but the unit loses linebacker Ben Moffitt and both starting corners (Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins). Plus the defense was shredded the last two games by Pitt (unacceptable) and Oregon (somewhat acceptable even without Dixon) so it remains to be seen how consistent they can be. Finally in 2008, they must travel to Louisville and West Virginia so I don't foresee them taking the conference crown either. If Pitt can find an offense, they will be dangerous in 2008. They had the league's best defense in 2007 and return a host of talent from that unit. LeSean McCoy is a playmaker at running back, but Pitt should see if there is any eligibility left for Tyler Palko. Finally Syracuse is bad, and has been ever since Paul Pasqualoni left. Should be the same old song and dance in 2008.