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. This week, we'll examine the strongest of the non-BCS conferences, the Mountain West.
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 Mountain West teams in conference play was 2860.11 yards. The standard deviation for yards gained was 401.26. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 680.81. BYU gained 3364 yards in conference play and allowed 2948. Their offensive SDPI was 1.26 = ([3364-2860.11]/401.26). Their defensive SDPI was -0.13 = ([2860.11-2948]/680.81). Their total SDPI was 1.13 which ranked 3rd in the conference.
To refresh your memory, here are the 2008 Mountain West Standings.
Now here are the 2008 SDPI Standings sorted by total SDPI, with conference rank in offense, defense, and total SDPI in parentheses.
The biggest difference between the actual and SDPI standings comes at the very top. As everyone knows, Utah finished as the nation's lone unbeaten team and with their Sugar Bowl upset over Alabama, finished the season ranked as high as number 2 in some polls. And yet SDPI holds that they were not even the best team in their own conference. How can this be? For starters, an eight game conference season is an extremely small sample size. If we replay the 2008 Mountain West season over a million times or so, Utah will probably win a rather high percentage of conference titles. However, TCU will probably win more. It just so happens, in the actual season Utah came out on top. Secondly, for anyone with access to CBS College Sports, who actually watched the TCU/Utah battle that ultimately decided the conference title, you'd be hard-pressed to argue Utah was the better team. The Horned Frogs outgained the Utes by 141 yards and averaged more than a yard more per play. However, TCU kicker Ross Evans missed two makeable field goals of 26 and 35 yards (he would only miss two other field goals all season), Utah kicker Louie Sakoda made kicks of 49 and 39 yards, the Horned Frogs threw two interceptions, the Utes fell on both of their own fumbles, and it still took a touchdown pass with 48 seconds left to for the Utes to emerge victorious at home. Credit Utah, for you know, actually winning the game, which is why its usually played in the first place, but just remember they were extremely fortunate to do so.
Best Offense: BYU 1.26
Only TCU was really able to put the clamps on the Cougar offense. BYU gained at least 364 yards against every other conference foe (the Frogs held them to 297).
Worst Offense: San Diego State -1.46
I'll say this for the Aztecs, they did get better as the season progressed. In their first three conferences games, the Aztecs were on the verge of becoming historically dormant. They averaged 159 yards of offense in those games. In their last five games, they more than doubled that output to 360 yards per game.
Best Defense: TCU 1.85
No conference opponent topped 300 yards against the Frogs, and only Oklahoma (in Norman) made them look mortal on defense.
Worst Defense: San Diego State -1.49
The Aztecs had the dubious distinction of having both the worst offense and defense in the conference. And while the offense improved, the defense was awful for the duration. Four of their eight conference opponents topped 500 yards against the Aztecs, with TCU only a whisker (498) and Air Force a wing tip away (473).
Looking ahead to next season, the prohibitive favorite should be...
The number one offense in the conference last season returns a senior quarterback (Max Hall) and a 1000-yard rusher (Harvey Unga). The Cougars do lose their top receiver, Austin Collie, who split with a year of eligibility remaining, but returning tight end Dennis Pitta also had 1000 yards receiving last season. The main concern for the offense will be replacing four starters along the line. Even if the offense dips a little, it should remain one of the best in the conference. Last season, the defense was a liability for the first time since 2005, finishing a disappointing sixth in the conference. The Cougars integrated eight new starters last season, and consequently experienced some growing pains. They have eight starters back this season, so the improvement by the defense should make up for any lost productivity on offense. However, perhaps the main reason to like the Cougars in 2009 is the schedule. Both TCU and Utah must come to Provo where the Cougars have not fallen to a Mountain West foe since 2005. In addition, the road schedule is very inviting. Three of BYU's four conference road games come against teams that finished seventh (Wyoming), eighth (UNLV), and ninth (San Diego State) in SDPI last season.
The team(s) you should be buying are...
New Mexico and Wyoming
After a moderately successful eleven year run at New Mexico, Rocky Long resigned at the end of last season's 4-8 campaign. Long finished with a losing record (65-69), but guided the Lobos to five bowl games in six seasons from 2002-2007. His replacement is former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, and the road back to a bowl game may be shorter than initially expected. Though the Lobos finished only 2-6 in the conference, they were the only team outside of the Big 3 (BYU, TCU, and Utah) to actually outgain their conference opponents. Their poor record masked a solid down to down performance. Why was there such a difference in performance and achievement? For starters, the Lobos had a very poor record in close games. They were 1-3 overall in one-score games and 0-2 against Mountain West foes. Secondly, and this fact also attributed somewhat to the close losses, the Lobos featured one of the worst passing attacks in the nation. Lobo quarterbacks threw three touchdowns all season. If we add in the one touchdown thrown by running back Rodney Ferguson in his lone attempt, the Lobos finished ahead of only Army in touchdown passes. They accomplished this feat despite attempting more than twice as many passes as the run-based Black Knight offense. Can the passing game expect to see improvement in 2009? Yes. Quarterback Donovan Porterie's struggles last season (zero touchdown passes and a quarterback rating of 95.00) can be partially explained by the knee injury that cost him the second half of the season. He'll be back in 2009. One positive thing about his absence was that it allowed freshman Brad Gruner to gain experience. If he is pressed into action, either because of injury or ineffectiveness, he should be able to answer the call. The Lobos won't become BYU overnight, but with a proven offensive coach in Locksley, better health, more experience, and simple regression, the passing game will be a little bit better. The Lobos do lose running back Rodney Ferguson who topped 1000 yards rushing in each of the previous three seasons, but the reinvigorated passing attack should allow the running game to remain above average. The defense was New Mexico's real strength last season, finising second in the Mountain West to TCU. That unit loses a lot of talent, particularly in the back seven where two starting linebackers and two starting defensive backs are gone. The Lobos defense should fall back toward the middle of the pack in the Mountain West, but with a better offense and little better luck, the Lobos should return to their usual position of flirting with a winning conference record. Unfortunately, the Lobos will need every league win they can muster as the non-conference slate includes daliances with Texas A&M and Texas Tech from the Big 12, and a home date with one of the best teams from Conference USA (Tulsa). If you would have told Wyoming fans prior to last season that their team would win three of their four non-conference games, included among those a win at Tennessee, then they would have probably expected to be in contention for the conference crown. Not so. The Cowboys won only once in league play (against San Diego State), and the tie for last place cost Joe Glenn his job. New coach Dave Christensen, last seen coordinating the Missouri offense, actually has some positive indicators for his first season on the job. While the offense was deplorable last season, finishing ahead of only San Diego State in league play, the defense finished a solid fourth. Collectively, the Cowboys were the seventh best team in the Mountain West, and while this may sound like damning with faint praise, they were in fact much better than the bottom two teams (UNLV and San Diego State). The Cowboys turnover margin in conference play last season was -22, easily good for last in the league. San Diego State was second to last at -6. There's a very good chance this turnover margin will improve significantly in 2009, and that will mean a few more short fields for the offense and a few less for the defense. The primary culprit for Wyoming's putrid turnover margin was their inability to fall on fumbles. The Cowboys lost 19 of their 23 fumbles and only managed to recover five of their opponent's 18 fumbles. All together, the Cowboys recovered only 22% of fumbles in their games. Fumble recovery is totally random, so the Cowboys should see their recovery perentage trend back toward 50%. Another area to expect improvement from the Cowboys is in non-offensive touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns are touchdowns scored either via defense or special teams. In 2008, Wyoming scored two non-offensive touchdowns. They were both interception returns and this feat is not entirley remarkable. However, opponents scored an amazing nine non-offensive touchdowns against the Cowboys (a punt return, two kickoff returns, four interception returns, and two fumble returns). While the punt and kickoff returns are indicative of poor play on special teams, the interception and fumble returns are the result of pure dumb luck. You can rest assured the Cowboys won't be seven touchdowns in the hole on non-offensive touchdowns in 2009. The Wyoming offense is certainly a work in progress, and with the loss of last season's only offensive threats, running backs Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon, it won't become great in a hurry. However, the defense should remain solid with seven of the top-ten tacklers returning. Wyoming was far from a good team last season, but their poor luck masked a potential bowl squad. Still, it was clear Glenn was not a good fit for this team as he could never develop a consistent offense. In the long run Christensen should be able to fix the offense, and in the short run, with a little luck, he could have the Cowboys bowl eligible in season one. At worst, this team should triple last season's conference win total.
The team(s) you should be selling are...
2008 was a dream season for the Utes. They finished the regular season undefeated and ambushed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to win their second BCS bowl game in five years. The Utes were a very good team in 2008, but a great team they were not. Remember, they survived the worst Michigan team perhaps in history by two points, they scored a touchdown with under a minute to play to edge Air Force by seven, they needed a furious rally including a recovered onside kick to knock off Oregon State by three at home, and of course the aforementioned good fortune to get past TCU. As said before, Utah should be congratulated for winning all their games, but lady luck is a fickle mistress and she will probably not be as kind to the Utes in 2009. Add to that the loss of starting quarterback Brian Johnson and a trio of senior receivers and it certainly seems the offense will experience growing pains in 2009. The defense returns eight starters, but does lose perhaps its two best players in defensive end and quarterback nightmare Paul Kruger and corner Sean Smith. Both were second round picks in last year's draft and will be sorely missed. The Utes must also replace All-American kicker Louie Sakoda who made 22 of his 24 field goals last season. The Utes won't go to the outhouse from the penthouse, but with a schedule that includes road games at BYU and TCU in league play, along with a road date with Oregon outside the league, three or even four regular season losses are a distinct probability.
The team(s) you should be holding are...
TCU and San Diego State
TCU was far and away the best team in the Mountain West last season, and with a little better execution in their showdown with Utah, they may have been playing in the Sugar Bowl. While its tempting to pick TCU to win the league this season, the phenomenal defense from last season (the best mid-major unit by far) loses it top three and four of its top seven tacklers, not to mention two defensive line stalwarts (Cody Moore and Matt Panfil) who combined for 10.5 sacks. The Frogs do return their best quarterback terrorizer, defensive end Jerry Hughes, who led the team and the nation with 15 sacks last season. Still, this unit has nowhere to go, but down. The offense (second in the league last season) should remain near the top of the league, but the dropoff in defense, along with a road trip to BYU will likely prevent the Horned Frogs from capturing the league crown. San Diego State, fresh off their last place finish in the Mountain West, begins a new era under the tutelage of Brady Hoke, the former head coach at Ball State. Can Hoke cajole a winning season from the Aztecs and get them back to a bowl game for the first time since 1998? While many casual fans may only know Hoke as the hot new coach who nearly guided Ball State to an undefeated season last year, and as the pseudo-fringe candidate for the Michigan job in 2007, he was actually at Ball State for six years. And his first few seasons were not any better than those of his predecessor. It took Hoke half a decade to even match the win total the team achieved the year before his arrival. Skeptics may also point out that Hoke rode the coat tails of one Nate Davis, the best quarterback in Ball State history, during his three most sucessful seasons. I'm not here to pass judgement on Hoke's coaching acumen just yet, but San Diego State was clearly the worst team in the league last season. Expecting a coach who struggled to win in the MAC to come in and win immediately in a league with three very strong mid-major programs is an extreme leap of faith. San Diego State has some building blocks, such as sophomore quarterback Ryan Lindley, who played surprisingly well in his freshman season. With nine other starters rejoining him on offense, the Aztecs could go from awful to decent on that side of the ball. However, the defense should remain among the worst in the league as two of that unit's best players have matriculated. With Southern Utah and Idaho on the non-conference slate, the Aztecs could match last season's win total by late-September. Unfortunately, its hard to concoct a scenario where they get to bowl eligibility. If the program can double last season's win total, 2009 should be considered a success.