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Statistically Speaking: MAC Look-Ahead: SDPI

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

MAC Look-Ahead: SDPI

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 MAC post. As you can see, SDPI was a useful tool in predicting some of the rise and fall among the MAC'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.

First off, I'd like to extend my middle finger to the MAC and their juvenile scheduling practices in 2007. If you didn't know, the MAC added Temple last season, boosting their membership to 13 teams. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that they decided to let some teams play 7 conference games, and others play 8. Not even every team in each division played the same number of games. The MAC decided to user inter-division games to determine which teams played in the MAC Championship Game. Those intra-division games? According to the MAC, those are pretty much glorified exhibitions. But the real reason the schedule irked me was because of the performance analysis aspect. Since each team did not play the same number of conference games, the numbers have to be averaged together. Instead of calculating SDPI by total points and total yardage, it is done based on averages. Thankfully, the MAC has gone to a complete 8-game schedule for everyone in 2008.

If you want the meat of the article, skip this next paragraph as it just gives an example of how the SDPIis calculated. The mean points scored for all MAC teams in conference play (Championship Game excluded) was 28.17 per game. The mean points allowed for all MAC teams in conference play (Championship Game excluded) was 28.07 points per game. The difference is due to rounding. The standard deviation for points scored was 7.42 per game. The standard deviation for points allowed was 5.31 per game. Bowling Green scored 33.875 points per game in MAC play and allowed 27.375. Their offensive SDPI was 0.77 = ([33.875-28.17]/7.42). Their defensive SDPI was 0.13 = ([28.07-27.375]/5.31). Their total SDPI for points (SDPIP) was 0.90 which ranked 4th in the conference. The mean yardage for all MAC teams in conference play (Championship Game excluded) was 394.75 yards per game. The mean yardage against all MAC teams in conference play (Championship Game excluded) was 393.05 yards per game. The difference is due to rounding. The standard deviation for yardage for was 60.20 per game. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 42.70 per game. Bowling Green gained 407.38 yards per game in conference play and allowed 405.75 per game. Their offensive SDPI was 0.21 = ([407.38-394.75]/60.20). Their defensive SDPI was -0.30 = ([393.05-405.75]/42.70). Their total SDPI for yards (SDPIY) was -0.09 which ranked 7th in the conference.

To refresh your memory, here are the 2007 MAC Standings.
Now here are the 2007 SDPI standings.

See why the MAC scheduling sucks? Miami of Ohio finished 5-2, technically a half game behind Bowling Green, yet still won the division thanks to a better record against divisional teams.

Best Offense: Central Michigan 1.98 (SDPIP) and 1.94 (SDPIY)
The offense didn't miss a beat wit the departure of Brian Kelly.

Worst Offense: Temple -1.44 (SDPIP) and -1.78 (SDPIY)
Held below 10 points 3 times in conference play.

Best Defense: Miami 1.79 (SDPIP) and 2.29 (SDPIY)
The Redhawks were outstanding in the regular season, allowing only 295 yards and 18.6 points per game to their MAC opponents. Central Michigan proceeded to shred them for 452 yards and 35 points in the MAC Championship Game.

Worst Defense: Toledo -1.87 (SDPIP) and -1.35 (SDPIY)
The second-best offense in the conference was wasted by a defense that couldn't stop anyone.

Schedule strength is not evaluated thanks to the MAC's decision to have some teams play 7 conference games, while others played 8, and to only count division games in the standings.

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

East
Look to the Bottom of the Standings
In 2005, Ohio went 3-5 and finished in 4th place in the MAC East. Kent State was 0-8 in MAC play in 2005 ad dead last in the MAC East. In 2006, those teams finished 1st and 2nd respectively in the MAC East with a combined conference record of 12-4, with Ohio winning the division at 7-1. In 2006, Bowling Green finished 3-5 and tied for 3rd in the MAC East. Miami finished 2-6 and alone in 5th place. In 2007, both schools combined to finish 11-4 in MAC play and atop the standings. Look for a similar phenomenon to occur in 2008. Ohio (4-4) and Kent State (1-7) are two teams to look out for in 2008.

West
Central Michigan
What Brian Kelly hath begun, let not Butch Jones tear asunder. Jones did an admirable job replacing Kelly, leading the Chippewas to an 8-6 record, another MAC title, and a near upset of Purdue in the Motor City Bowl. The Chips once again dominated their MAC opponents, going 6-1 in the conference (7-1 if we count the MAC Championship Game) after a 7-1 season in 2006. However, there were some rough patches outside the league. Kansas beat them by 45, Purdue beat them by 23 in the first meeting, Clemson hung 70 on them, and Division IAA North Dakota State beat them by 30. The Chips have a host of positive indicators as they begin their quest to become the first 3-peat MAC Champions since Marshall completed a 4-year run in 2000. For one, the coaching staff is intact. Despite interviewing for the vacant West Virginia job, Butch Jones is back in the fold to begin his second season as head coach. Having a 3rd head coach in as many seasons would have made the 3-peat quest much more difficult. But perhaps most importantly, Dan LeFevour is back for his junior season. The poor man's Tim Tebow (+3600 yards and 27 TD's through the air and +1100 yards and 19 TD's on the ground) is back along with 8 other starters to lead an offense that should once again be the best in the conference. The defense which was rather porous in 2007 (9th in the MAC in yards allowed in conference play) returns 8 starters and merely needs to be competent to give the Chips a chance to win every week (against MAC foes). The Chips also get two of the better contenders in the MAC West (Western Michigan and Ball State) at home. However, aside from Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois, any one of 4 teams (the aforementioned trio plus Toledo) could realistically be expected to walk away with the MAC West title.

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

Kent State, Northern Illinois, Ohio, and Western Michigan
Despite their 3-9 finish, solitary MAC win, and 7-game losing streak to end the season, Kent State has a real chance to gain bowl-eligibility and perhaps even get to the MAC Championship Game in 2008. The Golden Flashes, who had tough luck in just about every category in 2007, should see their fortunes improve in 2008. They were 1-4 in one-score games and had a turnover margin of -3 in conference play (8th in the MAC). Plus the starting quarterback, Julian Edelman, missed the last 4 games. Edelman should begin the 2008 in good health, and if he can remain that way, the Golden Flashes should rise in the standings. Like their conference brethren in Kent, Ohio, the Huskies of Northern Illinois managed only one conference win in 2007. That number should double, likely triple, and perhaps quadruple in 2008. Longtime head coach Joe Novak has departed and Jerry Kill has stepped in to take his place. Kill had a very successful run in Carbondale at Southern Illinois, where he made 5 postseason appearances in 7 seasons (5 straight to close his career). At Southern Illinois, his specialty was offense. The Salukis averaged at least 34 points per game every season save his first. Northern Illinois finished 9th in the MAC in yards per game in conference play, but they were even worse defensively finishing 12th in yards allowed per game. The deplorable defense gets all 11 starters back and should improve by default, while the offense should improve under Kill with the starting quarterback, running back, and top 5 receivers returning. The Huskies were also a tough luck 2-5 in one-score games (1-4 in conference play) and had a MAC-worst -10 turnover margin in conference play. Both of those facets of the team should also see a market correction and leave the Huskies as one of the nation's most improved teams in 2008. After a sensational 2006 campaign that saw them win the MAC East, the Ohio Bobcats fell back to the pack and finished in a tie for 4th place in 2007. A lot of things went right for the Bobcats in 2006. They were 3-0 in one-score games and finished 9-5 despite being outgained on the season. Based on how well they played, their 9-5 record was a bit of a mirage. The universe adjusted in 2007, and despite keeping their play at nearly the same level, the team stumbled to a 6-6 record (still good by recent Ohio standards). Though the defense regressed from one of the MAC's best to mid-level, the passing game experienced a significant uptick. After averaging only 5.5 yards per pass attempt in 2006, the Bobcats raised that number by almost 2 yards to 7.4 in 2007. While the player responsible for most of those passes, Brad Bower, is gone, his replacement, Theo Scott, received significant playing time in 5 of the team's 12 games last season so inserting him into the lineup this year won't be akin to throwing him to the wolves. On the whole, the offense gets 8 starters back, although the unit does lose running back Kalvin McRae. He of the 3 consecutive 1000-yard seasons. The defense gets 7 starters back and should improve upon last year's version. The Bobcats also had a turnover margin in MAC play of -5. Only 3 teams (Akron, Western Michigan, and Northern Illinois) were worse. Their turnover margin should be better this year as turnovers are highly variable. In the wide-open MAC East, Ohio has a decent shot of returning to the MAC Championship Game. Big things were expected of the Western Michigan Broncos in 2007. A lot of publications had them taking the MAC West. Unfortunately, a tough non-conference schedule (including top-10 teams in West Virginia and Missouri), a poor record in one-score games (1-3), and a poor turnover margin (-6 in MAC play) caused them to finish below .500 in conference play. The most gut-wrenching close loss can be viewed (in all it's grainy detail) below.
Going into 2008, the Broncos should challenge Central Michigan not only for the MAC West title, but also for the best offense in the conference. Quarterback Tim Hiller missed all of the 2006 season with an injury and struggled somewhat upon his return to the team in 2007. However, he closed with a bang (see below), and with his two-top receivers (Jamarko Simmons and tight end Branden Ledbetter) and starting running back (Brandon West) returning, the Broncos should be able to move the ball quite efficiently. The defense loses only one contributor in safety Anthony Gebhart, and should again be one of the league's best. The only fly in the proverbial ointment is that the Broncos must travel to Mt. Pleasant to take on the Chippewas of Central Michigan. Otherwise the Broncos would be the favorites to take the MAC West in 2008.

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

Ball State, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, and Temple
2007 was a special season for the Ball State Cardinals. The prolific offense, led by quarterback Nate Davis, guided the team to 7 wins, their first bowl game since 1996, and a near epic upset of Nebraska in Lincoln. That game was the first real indication that the Husker defense had serious issues. For 2008, Davis and the other 10 starters return on offense, so they should crank out the points. The defense also gets 8 starters back so it appears Ball State should in for a big-time season in 2008. Were it not for the Cardinals' tremendous turnover margin in 2007, I'd be inclined to agree. Ball State was an astounding +12 in MAC games last season. They accumulated that tremendous margin in only 7 conference games, meaning the Cardinals averaged nearly two fewer turnovers per game than their conference opponents. How did they do this? Nate Davis simply did not throw interceptions. As a team, the Cardinals threw 6 on the year (Davis accounted for all of them). Only 3 teams in the NCAA threw fewer. Fresno State, Air Force, and Navy each threw 5. However, Navy attempted only 136 passes on the year, Air Force 214, and Fresno State 343. Ball State put the ball in the air 483 times. Davis is a great quarterback, but expecting him to repeat that extremely low interception percentage is folly. In 2006, Davis threw 8 interceptions in 245 attempts. That's a great ratio (3.3 per 100 passes), but much lower than his other-worldly 2007 numbers (1.3 per 100 passes). Despite the returning personnel, Ball State will not enjoy such an extreme turnover margin in 2008, and will not be able to win the extremely tough MAC West. Another team that enjoyed a special season in 2007 was the Buffalo Bulls. Since returning to Division IA football in 1999, the Bulls had won 12 games prior to the 2007 season (never winning more than 3 in any one season), while losing 79. The Bulls proceeded to go 5-7 and actually finished with a winning record (5-3) in the MAC under second-year head coach Turner Gill. Instead of acting as a stepping stone season, it appears the Bulls will fall back in 2008, in the hopes of taking another step forward in 2009. Why? For starters, while the team won more than they lost in MAC play, they were not technically a 'good' team. The Bulls were outgained by about 31 yards per game in conference play. Those are not numbers befitting a team that wins more than half their games. The Bulls were greatly aided by their turnover margin of +4 in conference play (3rd best in the MAC). With 10 starters back on offense and 8 back on defense, the Bulls will probably improve performance-wise, but they won't post a winning conference record. Eastern Michigan quadrupled their win total from 2006, posting a 4-8 record and finishing in a tie for 3rd in the MAC West. The Eagles closed the year with a huge road upset of eventual champion Central Michigan. The Eagles, like the Buffalo Bulls, were consistently outgained (on average by about 41 yards per game in MAC play), but thanks to their phenomenal turnover margin of +11 (2nd in MAC play), they were able to tread water. In 2008, that turnover margin should normalize and the Eagles will return to their rightful place at the bottom of the MAC West. Yet another perennial also-ran achieved moderate success in 2007, as the Temple Owls won 4 conference games despite an offense more inept than the cops in Hazard County. Temple averaged only 288 yards per game in conference play, the worst performance by a wide margin. The second worst team (Akron) averaged 346 yards per game. The Owls made up for it by playing very good defense (344 yards allowed per game in conference play--2nd best), winning the close ones (3-1 in one-score games), and winning the turnover battle (+2 in conference play). 3 of the Owls 4 conference wins were by a combined 12 points. In the one close game the Owls lost (22-17 to Connecticut), they should have won if not for a blown call that was also blown upon review.
While the Owls return a host of personnel on offense and defense, that appears to be a common refrain for every team in the MAC. Because of their good fortune last season, and because of the strength of the rest of the conference, Temple will have trouble matching last season's 4 MAC wins.

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