One of my favorite set of posts from the past two offseasons has been the SDPI recap/early preview. Don't know what SDPI is? It stands for Standard Deviation Power Index and is a tool Eddie Epstein used in his book Dominance to rate pro football's best teams. The basic idea is to look at how far above or below average (by standard deviations) a specific team is relative to their conference brethren. Since each team plays the same number of conference games, it can give us a good idea about who the best team was within the conference. However, it cannot tell us which conference is better. But the purpose of these posts is not to determine which conference is superior, but rather project ahead which teams in a conference will be contenders or also rans in the upcoming season. In the first post on SDPI two years ago, I calculated SDPI based on points scored and allowed within conference play. Last season I used points scored and allowed as well as yards gained and allowed. This season, I'm sticking with yards only. The yardage version of SDPI has a better correlation with future performance than points, and including both last season made the post seem (at least to me) quite muddled. Of course, this is by no means, the end all be all rating system, but it can give us an idea of which teams will improve and decline in 2009. Last time we looked at the ACC. In this post we'll examine the Big East and see what the conference has in store for 2009.
If you want the meat of the article, skip this next paragraph as it just gives an example of how SDPI is calculated. The mean yardage for and against for all Big East teams in conference play was 2379.88 yards. The standard deviation for yards gained was 321.16. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 302.12. Pitt gained 2425 yards in conference play and allowed 50 Their offensive SDPI was 0.14 = ([2425-2379.88]/321.16). Their defensive SDPI was 0.43 = ([2379.88-2250]/302.12). Their total SDPI was 0.57 which ranked 3rd in the conference.
To refresh your memory, here are the 2008 Big East Standings.
Now here are the 2008 SDPI Standings sorted by total SDPI, with conference rank in offense, defense, and total SDPI in parentheses.
Cincinnati and Rutgers were effectively tied at the top of the league, with the Bearcats owning the top spot by the slimmest of margins. Cincinnati did it with great balance, boasting the league's third ranked offense and second ranked defense. Rutgers had the league's best offense (by a wide margin), but a slightly below average defense. SDPI also shows how close together the middle of the conference was clustered. The teams ranked third through sixth (Pitt, South Florida, Connecticut, and West Virginia) were all within six tenths of a standard deviation. It should be no surprise then, that four of the six games between these four teams were decided by six points or less.
Best Offense: Rutgers 1.42
In their first three conference games, the Knights averaged 273 yards per game and scored 39 points (1-2 record). Over their last four conference games, the Knights averaged 504 yards per game and did not score fewer than 35 points in any one game (4-0 record). The most shocking offensive statistic in the Big East is that West Virginia, with Pat White, finished sixth in th league in offense!
Worst Offense: Syracuse -1.96
The Orange averaged 306 yards per game over their first four league games (still would have ranked last in the conference), but over their final three games they broke the 200 yard barrier only once and average a paltry 175 yards per game.
Best Defense: Connecticut 1.09
If only they had a passing attack to compliment the defense and running back Donald Brown.
Worst Defense: Louisville -1.75
Yes even worse than Syracuse. In fact, these guys were more than half a standard deviation worse than the Orange. After playing decent defense in their first four conference games (allowed 334 yards per game), injuries and fatigue caught up with the Cardinals as they allowed 525 yards per game over their final three.
Looking ahead to next season, the prohibitive favorite should be...
There is no prohibitive favorite.
If the Big East is anything in 2009, it is a league in flux. League champion Cincinnati loses a pair of talented 1000-yard receivers, the G-Unit if you will, in Marshwan Gilyard and Dominick Goodman, as well as their top-5 tacklers and number one sack man (defensive end Connor Barwin) from a defense that was the second best in the league. Connecticut will be without the services of workhorse running back Donald Brown (first in the nation in rush yards and second in rush attempts in 2008) who departed left early for the NFL. Louisville loses a solid senior quarterback in Hunter Cantwell from an offense that was the second best in the Big East last season. And of course, it bears mentioning that the defense will have to improve substantially to be mediocre. Like Connecticut, Pitt is also victimized by a running back leaving school early for the riches of the NFL. LeSean McCoy (1488 rushing yards) is gone, and his backup, the diminutive LaRod Stephens-Howling, has exhausted his eligibility. Rutgers must break in a new starting quarterback in 2009, but the biggest loss is likely junior receiver Kenny Britt (averaged 130 yards receiving in the Scarlet Knight's 7-game win streak to end the year), another early entrant to the NFL. South Florida may be poised to make a run at the conference title, but it should be noted they have yet to win more than four conference games since joining the Big East. West Virginia loses one of the best collegiate quarterbacks ever, and is still coached by Bill Stewart. And Syracuse, well they suck. If you are trying to pick a favorite for next season, take a seven-sided die (sans the Orange of course) and give it a throw.
The team(s) you should be buying are...
Connecticut and South Florida
Yes Connecticut loses their star running back Donald Brown and senior quarterback Tyler Lorenzen. However, three starting offensive linemen return to block, likely for either sophomore Jordan Todman (averaged over 6 yards per carry in limited action last season) or senior Andre Dixon who was slated to be the starter in 2008 (2nd Team All Big East in 2007 with over 800 yards rushing). The running game should suffer a bit of a decline, but conversely, even without Lorenzen, the passing game has nowhere to go but up. As a team, the Huskies ranked 110th in the nation in completion percentage, 106th in yards per pass, 117th in touchdown passes, and 117th in quarterback rating. And let's not forget the defense, which was statistically the best in the Big East in 2008. Five of the team's top-6 tacklers return, so despite the loss of both defensive ends (Julius Williams and Cody Brown combined for 17 sacks in 2008), the defense should remain among the best in the conference. Despite beginning the year 5-0, and finding themselves ranked as high as number 10 at the end of September, the South Florida Bulls managed only a 2-5 record in Big East play. They failed to win a conference game on the road, and managed only a split of their four conference home games. Half of their league wins came against moribund league doormat Syracuse, and the other was a squeaker over Connecticut. So why do the Bulls stand a good chance at improving next season? As mentioned previously, between the top (Cincinnati and Rutgers) and bottom (Louisville and Syracuse) of the league, there wasn't a whole lot of difference between Pittsburgh, South Florida, Connecticut, and West Virginia, at least on a down-to-down basis. In fact, based on SDPI, the Bulls were the fourth best team in the conference. Unfortunately for South Florida, they were beset by a poor turnover margin (-6 in conference play, ahead of only Louisville) and just plain bad luck (1-3 record in one-score conference games). Both those trends should improve in 2009 and give the Bulls a winning record in Big East play and a shot at the conference title. And that conference title shot may well come down to the play of senior quarterback Matt Grothe. Grothe is a little overrated, as he is nowhere near the caliber of uber-stars and Heisman contenders like Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy, and Sam Bradford, but he is an above average quarterback. In my opinion, the biggest knock on Grothe is that he has not improved. The table below lists Grothe's key passing stats in his three seasons as a starter. See if you can pick out which seasons are his freshman, sophomore, and junior campaigns.Year A is his sophomore year, Year B is his junior season, and Year C is his freshman campaign. Basically Grothe is the same player he was when he entered South Florida, albeit now his arm shoulders a larger burden of the team's offense. If Grothe can cut down on his turnovers (12 of his 15 interceptions in 2008 came in Big East play), and maintain his solid completion rate, the Bulls could very well rise to the pinnacle of the Big East.
The team(s) you should be selling are...
Bill Stewart is a hard guy not to pull for. In an age where many coaches (I'm looking at you Bobby Petrino) are out looking for number one, Stewart realizes what an honor and privilege it is to coach college football and be paid handsomely to do it. Unfortunately, I'm not sure he is good at what he does. Stewart took over a West Virginia squad that brought back a talented senior quarterback (Pat White) along with a sophomore speedster (Noel Devine) and proceeded to produce the sixth best offense in an eight team league. The defense also regressed (fifth in the conference), but this was somewhat expected as only four starters returned from the 2007 unit. Believe me, West Virginia was very lucky to go 5-2 in Big East play last season. Their biggest ally in 2008 was their turnover margin (first in Big East play at +11). Five Connecticut turnovers turned a close game (West Virginia trailed 13-7 at half) into a 35-13 Mountaineer romp and five Louisville turnovers allowed West Virginia to emerge victorious from a 7-all halftime tie to win 35-21. Does West Virginia deserve credit for forcing those turnovers? Absolutely. But, this fact remains, teams with a good turnover margin one season tend to see that margin reduced the next season and vice-versa. Add to that, the fact that White will be absent from the Mountaineer backfield and West Virginia should have its first season of more than two conference losses since 2001.
The team(s) you should be holding are...
Pitt and Rutgers
As mentioned earlier, LeSean McCoy's departure leaves a gaping hole in the Pitt backfield. Even with McCoy, the Panther offense was only the fifth best in the conference. Without him, the onus of the offense falls to quarterback Bill Stull who has yet to prove he is anything more than an average (at best player). Pitt's defense did finish third in the league in 2008, but it was still well below the top two units at Connecticut and Cincinnati. In addition, four of the top-5 tacklers from that unit are gone, so we'll have to wait and see if Wanny's recruits are ready to step in. After beginning the season 1-5, with the lone win coming against IAA Morgan State, the Scarlet Knights streaked to the finish line by winning seven in a row, only two of which were by fewer than 18 points. The main difference in the streak? The play of senior quarterback Mike Teel who went from terrible to offensive player of the year. Seriously. Take a look at the numbers. If you prorate the final seven games over a whole season, Teel is easily the best quarterback in the conference. Alas, Teel and his top-target, wide receiver Kenny Britt, as well as receiver Tiquan Underwood (494 yards in 2008) and tight end Kevin Brock (300 yards in 2008), will be gone in 2009. The Knights also lose their leading tackler on defense (linebacker Kevin Malast), a pair of strong defensive tackles who led the team in sacks (Jamaal Westerman) and tackles for loss (Pete Tverdov), and the only gentlemen in the secondary with multiple interceptions (Jason McCourty and Courtney Greene). The Knights have a lot of pieces to replace, but after seeing the job he did in righting the ship, not just after the 1-5 start in 2008, but overall, its hard not to have faith in Greg Schiano.