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. We've finished our run through the six BCS conferences, so now we'll shift out focus to the little guys, beginning with Conference USA.
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 Conference USA teams in conference play (championship game excluded) was 3287.17 yards. The standard deviation for yards gained was 854. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 442.34. Memphis gained 3350 yards in conference play and allowed 2850. Their offensive SDPI was 0.07 = ([3350-3287.17]/854). Their defensive SDPI was 0.99 = ([3287.17-2850]/442.34). Their total SDPI was 1.06 which ranked 4th in the conference.
To refresh your memory, here are the 2008 CUSA Standings.
Now here are the 2008 SDPI Standings sorted by total SDPI, with conference rank in offense, defense, and total SDPI in parentheses.
Needless to say, there was a big disconnect between the actual and SDPI standings particularly in the East. Southern Miss and Memphis both outplayed East Carolina on a down-to-down basis, yet the Pirates were the only team in the East to finish with a winning record. In the West, Tulsa and Houston were effectively tied in SDPI at the top of the division, but in the actual standings, the Cougars late-season loss to Rice cost them the division crown.
Best Offense: Houston 1.77
The Cougars did not miss a beat on offense after the departure of coach Art Briles following the 2007 season. Houston was on the cusp of averaging 600 yards of offense per game against Conference USA foes (averaged 599.5). They also got better as the season wore on, averaging 667 yards over their final four conference games.
Worst Offense: Central Florida -1.65
Whereas Houston averaged almost 600 yards per game in conference play, Central Florida averaged 235. The Golden Knights highwater mark for offense came when they faced off against the worst defense in the conference (UTEP). They lit up the Miners for 336 yards (about 164 less than the Miners allowed on average to conference foes).
Best Defense: East Caroina 1.45
This facet of the game is why East Carolina was able to win Conference USA. After allowing 621 yards to Houston in their second conference game, the Pirates allowed an average of 285 yards per game to their next six conference opponents. That trend continued into the postseason, when they held the second best offense (Tulsa) to 399 yards in their Conference USA Championsip Game upset win (178 yards below Tulsa's average offensive output against conference foes).
Worst Defense: UTEP -1.61
Outside of a spirited effort against SMU, when they held the Ponies to 201 yards, the Miners were deplorable on defense. Houston and Tulsa themselves combined to bludgeon the Miners for 1491 yards.
Hardest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): Marshall 5.35
In their three games against the West, the Thundering Herd drew the three best teams from that division (Tulsa, Houston, and Rice). All told, Marshall played the eight strongest teams they could have. The Herd were the eighth best team, and they played the teams ranked 1-7 and 9.
Easiest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): Tulsa -4.99
Conference USA's western division in 2008 had concentrated power at the top (Tulsa and Houston were the top two teams in the league) and a trio of very bad teams at the bottom (UTEP, SMU, and Tulane ranked 10th, 11th, and 12th in the league respectively). In their games against the East, Tulsa faced the three worst teams in the division (UCF, Marshall, and UAB). Outside of their game against Houston, Tulsa faced the bottom seven teams in the conference.
Entire Schedule Strength (hardest to easiest)
East Carolina -0.63
Southern Miss -3.39
Looking ahead to next season, the prohibitive favorite should be...
East: Southern Miss
While the final results may have been nothing new to Southern Miss fan's (at least five losses for the seventh time in eight seasons), there were some signs of change in Larry Fedora's first season as head coach. After finishing 96th, 71st, 68th, and 63rd nationally in total offense over the final four seasons of the Jeff Bower era, the Golden Eagles finished 20th in total offense in 2008. Freshman quarterback Austin Davis threw 23 touchdowns against only 8 interceptions. His favorite target was fellow freshman DeAndre Brown. Brown hauled in 67 passes for over 1100 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008. As you may know, Brown suffered a horrific broken leg in the New Orleans Bowl against Troy. However, Brown appears to be on schedule to return for the Golden Eagles in 2009, and while the injury may hinder his production somewhat, he is still likely the best receiver in Conference USA. The Golden Eagles also have a playmaker at running back. Damion Fletcher has rushed for at least 1300 yards in each of his three seasons in Hattiesburg. However, Fletcher had a little run-in with the law this past offseason. He was put on probation and suspended for spring practice, but appears to be on track to play for the Golden Eagles in 2009. Its just unfortunate, he didn't enroll at South Carolina. Southern Miss should continue to boast one of the best offenses in the conference in 2009 (they were the fourth best in 2008), and with the personnel and coaching losses at Rice and Tulsa, could challenge Houston for the best offense in the league. The defense (also fourth best in the league last season) loses its top two tacklers, including linebacker Gerald McRath who declared for the NFL draft with one year of eligibility remaining, but returns every other significant contributor, and should remain in the top quarter of the league defensively.
Last season, the Cougars had to replace a senior running back who had nearly 1600 yards on the ground in 2007, and a pair of senior receivers who combined for over 140 catches. Oh, and they had to do all this with a new head coach. The result? After a 1-3 start, Houston rebounded to win seven of their last nine, including the school's first bowl win since 1980. Houston finished with the same conference record (6-2) and actually went from second in the league in offense to first. Not too shabby. This season the Cougars bring back nearly every offensive skill position player, with the lone loss tight end Mark Hafner. Junior quarterback Case Keenum threw for over 5000 yards and 44 touchdowns in his first full season as a starter. Sophomore running back Bryce Beall rushed for over 1200 yards and averaged over 6 yards per rush as a freshman. The receiving duo of Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards combined for 124 catches as freshmen. The only concern for the Houston offense should be the loss of four starters along the line. Now, losing four starters is nothing to write off, but with the amazing skill position talent and a year of continuity on the coaching staff, the Houston offense should still be among the best in the league. Additionally, if Keenum stays in school, he may get some Andre Ware-esque Heisman hype as a senior in 2010. The defense, average by Conference USA standards last season, does lose seven starters, including pass rushing specialist Phillip Hunt (14 sacks in 2008), and may suffer a decline, but the offense is built to win shootouts, so its hard to envision anyone other than Tulsa usurping Houston's spot in the Conference USA Championship Game.
The team(s) you should be buying are...
A lot of folks, me included, expected June Jones to work the same kind of magic with the Pony Express that he did on the islands almost a decade ago. Alas, this rebuilding project may take a little longer. For the second consecutive season, the Mustangs were winless in Conference USA. In fact, they have not won a conference game since beating Tulsa on November 18, 2006. The stats also indicate that SMU did not improve at all in 2008. The offense went from seventh in the league in 2007 to ninth in 2008, while the defense went from ninth to tenth. Like the 2007 team (0-5 in one-score games), the 2008 team also had miserable luck in tight contests, finishing 0-4 in one-score games. After two seasons of horrendous fortune, luck will likely shine on the Mustangs a little more in 2009. Another reason to be at least somewhat optimistic is the fact that the offense has had a full season to digest Jones' run-n-shoot attack. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell played in all 12 games last season, and while he did throw 23 interceptions, he also managed 24 touchdown passes as a true freshman. If Mitchell can cut down on his interceptions, the offense will obviously improve and SMU can hope to best their atrocious turnover margin of -13 (113th in the nation last season). The defense, despite its poor play last season, did gain a great deal of experience--the top four tacklers were freshmen or sophomores. Marginal improvement by both the offense and defense combined with a little luck should give the Mustangs a handful of conference wins, and if things break right, could get them back to the postseason for the first time since 1984.
The team(s) you should be selling are...
East Carolina and Rice
Skip Holtz's 2008 Pirates looked a lot like his father's last few South Carolina teams...on steroids. He paired a bad offense (tenth in the conference) and great defense (first in the conference) with a plethora of close wins (in the league and out) to a conference crown. The offense may improve a little in 2009 as seven players with starting experience return along the offensive line. However, the team has a severe lack of playmakers on that side of the ball. Last season's starting quarterback, Patrick Pinkney, was recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Pinkney posted good numbers, ranking 46th in the nation in pass efficiency, but that appears to be his ceiling. His favorite target from last season. receiver Davon Drew is gone, so it would be unlikely for Pinkney to top last year's performance. The defense should once again be one of the best in the conference with seven of the top ten tacklers back. With a slightly improved offense and steady defense, why is it likely the Pirates will decline in 2009? Our old friend lady luck. Ah, she is a fickle mistress. The Pirates were a remarkable 6-2 overall in one-score games last season (4-0 in league play). Included in those close wins were impressive victories over Virginia Tech and Tulsa, but the Pirates also struggled to put away league whipping boys Tulane, UCF, Marshall, and UAB. The fates will probably not be as kind to the Pirates in 2009, and while their overall play may improve, their record will likely decline. Last season was a historic one for Rice. They played in only their second bowl game since 1961, won their first bowl game since 1953, and won 10 games for the first time since 1949. Rice was a very unbalanced team in 2008, leaning heavily on its offense to win football games (third in the conference in offense and eleventh in defense). That offense loses its top three contributors from last season, including the best wide receiver in school history, Jarett Dillard, arguably the best quarterback in school history, Chase Clement (I hear ya Tommy Kramer, Tobin Rote, and Frank Ryan), and tight end James Casey who actually lead the team with over 100 catches. The offense has nowhere to go but down, and the defense has been a liability for the better part of half a century. 2008 was a special season for the Owls, but 2009 will be a rebuilding project.
The team(s) you should be holding are...
Tulsa and UAB
In his first two seasons at Tulsa, Todd Graham guided the Golden Hurricane to 21 wins, a pair of blowout bowl victories, and two division titles. Graham did it with two difference quarterbacks, first with seasoned veteran Paul Smith, and then with inexperienced senior David Johnson. Despite the quarterback shuffle, there were some constants. First, running back Tarrion Adams topped 1200 yards on the ground each season. Second, receiver Brennan Marion became the best big-play threat in the country (averaged an amazing 28.7 yards per catch combined in 2007 and 2008). Third, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn instituted his wide open hurry up offensive attack when he came on board in 2007. All of those gentlemen are gone in 2009, and only time will tell what type of team Graham can mold in their absence. Graham comes from a defensive background, having been the defensive coordinator at West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez in 2002 and then at Tulsa from 2003-2005. However, since his return, Tulsa's defense has only been average, The Golden Hurrican finished seventh in the conference in defense in 2007 and fifth this past season. If Graham has serious designs on a third straight division title, that unit must improve in 2009. UAB bottomed out in Neil Callaway's first season as coach in 2007, finishing dead last in the conference in offense and second-to-last in defense. Last season, they improved to seventh in offense and eighth in defense. Is an uprising on the horizon in Birmingham? Maybe. Everybody is back on offense for the Blazers including do-everything quarterback Joe Webb. If you get the CBS College Sports Network (where most Conference USA games are found), be sure to check out Mr. Webb. While he's far from a polished passer (quarerback rating of 115.52 ranked 83rd in the nation), he is both a fun college player to watch and very valuable to his team. He gained over 1000 yards on the ground to go along with over 2300 through the air last year. With his line and receivers back, he could put up some big time numbers and move the UAB offense near the top of the conference. Unfortunately the defense loses its three best players, linebacker and leading tackler Joe Henderson, safety and second leading tackler Will Dunbar, and corner and leading interceptor Kevin Sanders. That's not exactly great news for a defense that was below average to begin with. UAB is certainly a darkhorse team in 2009. If the offense really clicks, it could make up for the iniquities of the defense and land the Blazers in their second bowl game in school history.