## Sunday, April 13, 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 Sun Belt post. As you can see, SDPI was a useful tool in predicting some of the rise and fall among the Sun Belt'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 Sun Belt teams in conference play was 195.88 points. The standard deviation for points scored was 41.39. The standard deviation for points allowed was 48.83. Louisiana Monroe scored 176 points in Sun Belt play and allowed 166. Their offensive SDPI was -0.48 = ([176-195.88]/41.39). Their defensive SDPI was 0.61 = ([195.88-166]/48.83). Their total SDPI for points (SDPIP) was 0.13 which ranked 4th in the conference. The mean yardage for and against for all Sun Belt teams in conference play was 2749.13 yards. The standard deviation for yardage for was 401.89. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 310.12. Louisiana Monroe gained 2911 yards in conference play and allowed 2825. Their offensive SDPI was 0.40 = ([2911-2749.13]/401.89). Their defensive SDPI was -0.24 = ([2749.13-2825]/310.12). Their total SDPI for yards (SDPIY) was 0.16 which ranked 4th in the conference.

To refresh your memory, here are the 2007 Sun Belt Standings.

Now here are the 2007 SDPI standings.
Once again, a team that statistically dominated the league lost out on a Sun Belt conference title due to a close loss in the final game. In 2006, Middle Tennessee State had outscored it's conference brethren by almost 19 points per game before losing by a single point to Troy in the regular season finale. Troy and Middle Tennessee shared the Sun Belt title, but Troy had the tiebreaker and garnered the New Orleans Bowl berth. Thanks to a dearth of bowl-eligible BCS member teams, Middle Tennessee was invited to play in the Motor City Bowl. The karmic justice of college football played out in 2007, as Troy dominated their first 6 Sun Belt foes, winning by almost 26 points per game and even shocking Oklahoma State of the Big 12. But alas, in the season finale the Trojans fell to Florida Atlantic 38-32 and were forced to share the Sun Belt title. Florida Atlantic earned the New Orleans Bowl bid thanks to their head-to-head win over the Trojans, and Troy was denied an invite to postseason play despite an 8-4 record and a Sun Belt co-championship.

Best Offense: Troy 1.43 (SDPIP) and 1.39 (SDPIY)
The Trojans did not score fewer than 24 points or gain fewer than 368 yards against Sun Belt opposition. As a point of reference, Louisiana Monroe (the 5th most proficient scoring offense in Sun Belt play) averaged a shade over 25 points per game. North Texas (the 5th most proficient total offense in Sun Belt play) averaged 383 yards per game.

Worst Offense: Florida International -1.13 (SDPIP) and -1.47 (SDPIY)
It;s hard to not improve after going 0-12. The Panthers averaged only 21.2 points per game in conference play, but that was nearly 3 times what they averaged in those same games in 2006 (7.7 points per game).

Best Defense: Troy 1.84 (SDPIP) and 1.39 (SDPIY)
Another clean sweep for the Trojans. If not for their in-conference turnover margin of -6 (tied for last with North Texas), the Trojans would have been even more dominant.

Worst Defense: North Texas -1.13 (SDPIP), Louisiana Lafayette -1.30 (SDPIY)
Florida International avoided the cellar. Hoo-rah.

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

Florida Atlantic
Rusty Smith, the best quarterback in the Sun Belt, is back and though it will be tough to improve on his outstanding 2007 season, a little decline shouldn't hurt the Owls bottom line. 9 other starters return to what should be the league's top offense, including senior running back Charles Pierre, and every receiver who caught at least 5 passes. The defense has 8 starters back and should remain one of the better units in the Sun Belt. Still, there are a few causes for concern. For starters, the Owls have only 4 true home games, and their non-conference schedule is dotted with trips to Texas, Michigan State, and Minnesota (who will surely be out for revenge). While those games obviously won't count in the Sun Belt standings, it's vital the Owls do not lose confidence if they open the season 1-3 before playing their first conference game. Fortune also smiled on the Owls last season as their turnover margin in conference play (+10) ranked second behind Middle Tennessee State, and they were 4-1 in one-score games (3-1 in Sun Belt play). The vagaries of turnover margin and close games could dent the Owls title hopes this season. While the Owls are hardly a sure thing in the ever-changing Sun Belt, they are the best bet at becoming the first repeat champions (Troy lost the tiebreaker to Florida Atlantic last season) since North Texas won 4 Sun Belt titles in a row from 2001-2004.

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

Arkansas State
Yardage wise, the Red Wolves (formerly the Indians) were the third best team in the Sun Belt last year, behind only the juggernaut at Troy and the surging Owls of Florida Atlantic. But turnovers, as is often the case, did them in. Their turnover margin of -3 in Sun Belt does not seem terrible at first, but it ranked ahead of only Troy and North Texas (both at -6) in the Sun Belt. As a result they managed only 3 conference wins and finished tied for 5th with Louisiana Lafayette. Things could change quickly in 2008, as the Red Wolves have one of the league's biggest stars. With the departure of Calvin Dawson of Louisiana Monroe, the best running back in the Sun Belt now resides in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Entering his junior season for the newly christened Red Wolves, Reggie Arnold has racked up over 2100 yards on the ground. His backfield mate, junior quarterback Corey Leonard, also returns as do 4 of the top 6 pass-catchers. The biggest problem for the offense, despite the return of many skill position players will be the offensive line that loses 4 starters. Of course, that may not be a bad thing as the line allowed more sacks (39) than all but 8 teams last season. Defensively, the Red Wolves bring back 5 starters from the front 7, but lose all 4 starters from the secondary. Still, last season's second best Sun Belt defense (based on yards allowed), should remain competent. The biggest reason to expect big things from the Red Wolves is the schedule. While Arkansas State has only 3 conference home games, one of those games is against Florida Atlantic. A win there would give the Red Wolves a realistic shot at taking the conference crown, especially with two of their four conference road games coming against North Texas and Florida International, arguably the league's weakest teams. If the ball bounces their way, and if the offensive line jells, Arkansas State could well find themselves in New Orleans in late December. And another thing...

No matter your feelings on 'political correctness' or 'insensitivity', this...
is much cooler than this...

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

Middle Tennessee State
On the surface, 2007 looked like a pretty good rebuilding year for the Blue Raiders. One season after sharing the Sun Belt title with Troy, the Blue Raiders rebounded from an 0-4 start to finish 5-7, and in a tie for 3rd in the Sun Belt with a 4-3. But the roots beneath that veneer of success may not be as strong as they appear. Although the Blue Raiders scored 207 points in conference play (3rd in the league), they were not very proficient moving the ball on a down-to-down basis. Only one team in the Sun Belt (Florida International) gained fewer yards in conference play that Middle Tennessee State. The offense that you're likely to hear a lot about in some preseason magazines, featuring two exciting quarterbacks in Joe Craddock and Dwight Dasher, was actually well below average. To be fair, Dasher and Craddock were very efficient, as the Blue Raiders posted a combined pass efficiency rating of 136.42 (27th in the nation). However, when you consistently gain fewer yards than 6 of your 7 conference mates, it doesn't take much for the offense to begin to sputter. Also working against the Blue Raiders is the fact that their fantastic turnover margin (+11 in Sun Belt play) is unlikely to continue. If the turnovers don't come as often, the deficiencies of the offense will show up on the scoreboard and not just in the box score.

Step Up
The Sun Belt has been in existence for 7 seasons. It's league members have participated in 9 bowl games. Sun Belt teams have gone 3-6 in those 9 games. Those certainly aren't SEC numbers to say the least. However, there has been improvement. From 2001-2004, Sun Belt teams were 1-4 in bowl games, losing by an average of nearly 13 points per game. More recently, from 2005-2007, Sun Belt teams have managed a 2-2 mark, winning by an average of 3 points per game. Here's how the Sun Belt compares with the MAC in bowl games over those two separate time frames. So has the MAC justified their bowl tie-ins or does the Sun Belt deserve to snatch one up?