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. Only two more conferences left. Our penultimate review will be the Mid-American Conference.
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 MAC teams in conference play (championship game excluded) was 30777.46 yards. The standard deviation for yards gained was 376.11. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 302.15. Kent State gained 3344 yards in conference play and allowed 3019. Their offensive SDPI was 0.71 = ([3344-3077.46]/376.11). Their defensive SDPI was 0.19 = ([3077.46-23019]/302.15). Their total SDPI was 0.90 which ranked 4th in the conference.
To refresh your memory, here are the 2008 MAC Standings.
Now here are the 2008 SDPI Standings sorted by total SDPI, with conference rank in offense, defense, and total SDPI in parentheses.
The big head-scratcher here involves the eventual league champion Buffalo Bulls. On a down-to-down basis, the Bulls were about the fourth best team in the MAC East. However, they created a ton of turnovers (MAC best turnover margin of +10 in conference play), completed a Hail Mary to beat Temple, and outlasted Bowling Green in overtime to win the division. In the MAC Championship Game, they capitalized on a spate of Ball State fumbleitis (ran two fumbles back for touchdowns) and won their first conference title as a IA school. Speaking of Ball State, they were clearly the class of the conference, riding the top offense and third best defense to an undefeated regular season, including a 22-point beating of the Big 10's Indiana.
Best Offense: Ball State 1.59
Prior to their bowl game meltodown against Tulsa, Ball State failed to gain at least 400 yards in any game just once, when Toledo held them to 355. Heck, they gouged Buffalo for 503 in their MAC Championship Game loss, but could not overcome four lost fumbles and an interception.
Worst Offense: Temple -1.58
The Temple offense was bad, but without quarterback Adam DiMichele it was awful. In the five conference games DiMichele played in, the Owls averaged 338 yards of offense (would have ranked 11th in the conference), but in the three he missed, they averaged 264 yards.
Best Defense: Northern Illinois 1.76
Ball State put a hurting on the Huskies (529 yards of offense) and Central Michigan moved the ball reasonably well (430 yards), but the Huskies held five of their six remaining conference opponents to under 300 yards.
Worst Defense: Eastern Michigan -1.48
This is sad since Eastern Michigan had an offense capable of getting them to their first bowl game since 1987 (fourth best in the league). No surprise that when they matched up with Central Michigan (second best offense and second worst defense in the conference) the final score was 56-52. The victor may have been a little surprising though.
Hardest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): Miami 2.70
The Redhawks faced the four best statistical teams in the MAC (Ball State, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, and Kent State) along with the eventual league champion (Buffalo).
Easiest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): Bowling Green -2.95
The Falcons avoided the league's best team (Ball State) and had the good fortune of facing three of the bottom four teams (Eastern Michigan, Toledo, and Miami).
Entire Schedule Strength (hardest to easiest)
Eastern Michigan 2.06
Kent State 1.11
Central Michigan 0.60
Northern Illinois 0.48
Western Michigan -0.22
Ball State -2.50
Bowling Green -2.95
Looking ahead to next season, the prohibitive favorite should be...
East: Look to the bottom of last year's standings
Ohio won the MAC East in 2006 one season after finishing with a 3-5 conference record. Miami won the division in 2007 after a 2-6 campaign in 2006. Buffalo, last year's East champ, did have a winning record in the league in 2007, but prior to that, they had not won more than two conference games since joining the MAC in 1999. Keep an eye out for some combination of Akron, Ohio, Kent State, or Miami. I'd be inclined to give the nod to Ohio.
West: Central Michigan
After two straight MAC West titles (and two wins in the MAC Championship Game), the Chippewas ceded control of the division to Ball State last year. Those Cardinals lost their coach, quarterback, and four starters along the offensive line. Without those key pieces, its hard to envision a repeat. On the other hand, Central Michigan returns a three-year starter at quarterback, senior Dan LeFevour, from the league's second most prolific offense (Ball State was first). LeFevour has already thrown for the most yards in school history, and with a monstrous season, he could pass Timmy Chang for most yards of total offense in NCAA history (a little over 5200 behind). LeFevour is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback (a Tim Tebow light), having thrown for over 9000 yards and 74 touchdowns in his career to go along with over 2200 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground. LeFevour has his top three receivers from last season (Antonio Brown, Bryan Anderson, and Kito Poblah) back to throw to. Neither topped 1000 yards, but each had at least 532. The only concern any Chippewa fan should have about the offense is that fact that three starters depart along the offensive line. Even if the line takes some time to develop, the plethora of talented skill position players should keep the Chippewa offense near the top of the league. The other side of the ball is where Central Michigan must improve if they have designs on winning the division. The Chippewas had the second worst defense in the league last year, and they ranked 106th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Of course, that kind of defense does not necessarily preclude a conference title as they finished 106th in the same category in 2007. The major difference was that in 2007, they grabbed 18 interceptions and last season they only managed 8. As mentioned ad nauseum on this blog, extreme performances are unlikely to be repeated, so there's a great chance Central Michigan manages more than 8 interceptions in 2009. The defense should grab more interceptions and should also be a little better as 10 starters (including the top-13 tacklers) return. If the defense can just become mediocre, Central Michigan should roll to the MAC title.
The team(s) you should be buying are...
Eastern Michigan and Ohio
Last season, perennial MAC East doormat Buffalo rose up and won the whole conference. Can the MAC West doormat (Eastern Michigan) do the same this season? Probably not, but there is reason to believe Eastern Michigan could be much improved and perhaps challenge for a bowl game in 2009. For starters, the offense, which was the fourth best in the conference returns nine starters, including four starters along the offensive line, last season's leading receiver (Jacory Stone), last season's leading rusher (Terrence Blevins), and quarterback Andy Schmitt. Schmitt had a pair of historic games to close 2008, throwing a combined 156 passes against Temple and Central Michigan for 1000 yards and 8 touchdowns. Eastern Michigan scored 108 combined points in those games and only won one! I wouldn't expect Schmitt to post such amazing numbers over the course of 2009, but the offense should once again be one of the best in the conference. Improvement on defense will determine how successful Eastern Michigan is. Last season, they were dead last in the league in yards allowed within the conference. The good news is seven starters return in 2009. The bad news is the four leading tacklers from 2008 are gone. The other good news is new head coach Ron English has a solid track record of coordinating good defenses (we'll give him a mulligan on last season's unit at Louisville thanks to all the injuries suffered by the Cardinals) and like Central Michigan, they should come up with a few more interceptions on defense. The Eagles nabbed only 8 interceptions last year and should see that number improve. The Eagles are a long way from fielding a good defense (even by MAC standards), but with a little luck could find themselves in a bowl game for the first time since 1987. The Ohio Bobcats followed up consecutive non-losing seasons under Frank Solich with a 4-8 campaign in 2008. They finished 4-8 despite the fact that they outgained their opponents (both in conference play and overall). The primary culprit in their poor record was a 2-4 mark in one-score games (though they were 2-2 in league play) and a turnover margin of -13 which ranked 113th in the nation. Extreme turnover margins are rarely duplicated so the Bobcats should see their margin trend back toward zero in 2009. They should also experience better fortune in one-score games. But most importantly, the Bobcats have a number of key contributors returning in 2009 that should have them in contention for a MAC East title. Senior Boo Jackson is the best quarterback the Bobcats have had under Solich. Jackson threw 19 touchdown passes last season (a school record) against just 12 interceptions. In Solich's first three seasons as coach (2005-2007) the team had combined to throw 31 touchdowns and 40 interceptions. If we only consider conference games, Jackson was even better, throwing 16 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He also showed solid athleticism, rushing for 333 yards and two scores on the ground. Joining Jackson in the backfield are last season's two leading rushers Chris Garrett and Donte Harden. The pair combined for nearly 1000 yards on the ground last season (983) and with three starters back along the offensive line, should continue their solid production. Last season's two leading receivers are also back (Taylor Price and LaVon Brazill), meaning the offense should break into the top half of the league (they were eighth last season). The defense also brings back seven starters from a unit that ranked fourth in the league in yards allowed, including linebacker and leading tackler Noah Keller, a 2nd Team All-MAC selection in 2008. The defense should remain in the top half of the league, and coupled with improvements on offense, and a better turnover margin, the Bobcats should return to a bowl game for the second time under Solich.
The team(s) you should be selling are...
Let me preface this by saying that the job Turner Gil has done at Buffalo in three short seasons is phenomenal. However, a ton of good fortune went into last season's MAC title campaign. For starters, the Bulls recovered an amazing 2/3rds of their opponents fumbles (26 of 39), aiding them in their turnover margin of +20 (3rd best in the nation). Forcing fumbles is a skill, and the Bulls clearly swarmed to the ball in 2008. However, recovering fumbles is not a skill. Case in point, the Bulls recovered only 8 of their opponents 23 fumbles in 2007. There's a great chance the Bulls won't force as many turnovers in 2009, which means their defense will have to improve in forcing 3 and outs in order to successfully defend their conference title. The Bulls were ninth of 13 teams in yards allowed last season, hardly numbers befitting a league champion. Fortunately for the defense, the top-eight tacklers are back from last season, so some improvement is likely imminent. On the other side of the ball, the offense did not fare much better, finishing seventh in the league despite the presence of Drew Willy, the school's all-time leading passer, a four-year starter, and a free agent signee of the Baltimore Ravens. The Bulls still have plenty of talent on offense, including the leading rusher in school history (James Starks) and the second-leading receiver in school history who also happens to be a likely NFL draft choice (Naaman Roosevelt). However, with 3/5ths of the offensive line gone and a new starter at quarterback, the offense will be hard pressed to improve. Gil has done great things here, and the future is much brighter than it was when he was first hired. However, 2009 looks to be a season when the Bulls have to pay the piper for all the good fortune they experienced last year.
The team(s) you should be holding are...
Bowling Green and Western Michigan
Last season Bowling Green was statistically the best team in the MAC East, and second best team in the league overall. However, they were snakebitten in close games, going 1-4 in games decided by one score. Those four close losses each occurred in conference play, including one to Buffalo, which caused them to finish tied for second in the division. After the disappoinment of not winning the division, the administration got rid of head coach Gregg Brandon, who was 44-30 in six seasons at Bowling Green with only a single losing season. They then hired Tennesee offensive coordinator Dave Clawson to replace him. Keep in mind, Tennessee had one of the worst offenses in college football last season (116th in total offense and 111th in scoring offense). To be fair, Clawson has had success as a head coach before at Fordham and Richmond. He lead Fordham to one playoff appearance and three winning records in five seasons and he got Richmond into the playoffs twice in four seasons. Still, schools like Bowling Green should work hard to keep coaches like Gregg Brandon, not let them go. That being said, Bowling Green has some conflicting indicators going forward, I already mentoned their poor record in close games which saddled one of the league's better teams with a .500 record. However, the strength of last year's team was the defense, which ranked second in the conference. That unit returns only three starters in 2009 and loses the best pass rusher on the team, defensive end Diyral Briggs, who lead the team with 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season. On offense, the team does bring back a senior quarterback (Tyler Sheehan), who has thrown 43 touchdowns against just 20 interceptions the past two seasons. However, the leading rusher (Anthony Turner) and leading receiver (Corey Partridge) from last year's team are gone. It's hard to get a good read on this team going into 2009. The coaching change and the loss of so many starters from the defense may make this a rebuilding year despite the likely improvement in luck. While Bowling Green could not buy a win in a close game, Western Michigan seemed unable to lose one. The Broncos won three MAC games by six points or less and also knocked off Illinois from the Big 10 by six. Those close wins pushed Western Michigan to a 9-4 record despite the fat that they did not do any one thing particularly well. The Broncos were fifth in the MAC in offense and seventh in defense. The offense returns a senior quarterback (Tim Hiller) who threw 36 touchdowns last season and has a shot at becoming the school's all-time leading passer with another good year. Four starters also return along the offensive line, but Hiller will be without the services of his two leading receivers from last season (Jamarko Simmons and Schneider Julien) who combined for 163 catches and nearly 2000 yards. The defense loses eight starters including seven of the top-ten tacklers, and will be breaking in an entirely new secondary. Bill Cubit is an outstanding head coach, Tim Hiller is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and the Broncos host MAC West favorite Central Michigan, however, I'd be hesistant to predict them to win the division with all the losses on defense and the likely reversal in good fortune. In addition, a bowl game is not a certain proposition with games at Michigan, Indiana, and Michigan State adorning the non-conference ledger.