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Statistically Speaking: April 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Conference USA SDPI

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)
Marshall 5.35
UAB 4.09
SMU 2.27
UTEP 1.80
Tulane 1.35
Rice 0.76
UCF 0.58
East Carolina -0.63
Memphis -3.22
Southern Miss -3.39
Houston -3.81
Tulsa -4.99

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.

West: Houston
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...

SMU
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.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

SEC Review: 2005-2008

In addition to the SDPI posts, another offseason interest of mine has been to look at how each IA conference has shaken out since 2005. I chose 2005 as the starting point because that was the year the ACC expanded to 12 teams, the Big East added 3 new members and booted Temple, Conference USA added a championship game, the Mountain West added TCU, the WAC looted the Sun Belt after several of its members joined Conference USA, and the Sun Belt added 2 independents from Florida (FAU and FIU). Since 2005, there has only been one change in any IA conference. That was the expansion of the MAC by a single team with the addition of Temple. And one final note, each of the statistics posted here are for conference games only (championship games excluded). Since each school plays a vastly different non-conference schedule, this offers a better standard of comparison. So far we've looked at all the BCS conferences save one. Now its time to turn our attention to the SEC, God's gift to college football. Here are the cummlative SEC standings since 2005.No big surprises here. The team with multiple conference (and national) championships comes out on top. The other conference winners (LSU and Georgia) are tied for second. I don't know if this is parity, or just a trait of a good conference, but every team in the SEC has finished at least 4-4 or better in conference play once in the past four seasons. In addition, every team except Florida and Georgia has also finished with a losing record in conference play at least once.

Now here is each team's home record in conference play since 2005.Once again, Florida finished at the top of the conference. The Gators two home losses in the past four seasons have come by three points (Auburn 2007) and one point (Ole Miss 2008). Surprisingly, only half the league's teams have a winning record at home. There have been only six undefeated home seasons in the past four years (a total of 48 team seasons). They are in chronological order: Auburn 2005, Florida 2005, Florida 2006, LSU 2006, Tennessee 2007, and Alabama 2008. To put that in perspective, there have been nearly as many winless home seasons (four) in that same time span: Mississippi State 2006, South Carolina 2006, Vanderbilt 2006, and Ole Miss 2007. The biggest disparity between home and road performance belongs to the Florida Gators. They have the best home record in the conference at 12-2, but are a more mortal 9-5 on the road for a difference of three games. Amazingly, half the league is as good or better on the road over the past four seasons. Auburn and LSU have the same home and road records, Arkansas and South Carolina are a game better on the road, Vanderbilt is two games better on the road, and Georgia is three games better outside the hedges.

Now here is how homefield advantage shakes out in the SEC (in conference play only) with respect to the nation at large (with rank out of the 11 IA conferences in parentheses).As you can see, homefield advantage has meant next to nothing in the SEC over the past four seasons. Home teams have won about 51% of the time, meaning its accounted for a little more than what we would expect from a coin flip.

Next up is how each SEC team stacks up offensively for each season. This is the ranking of yards per game in conference play.The first question you must be dying to ask is: What the heck happened to Auburn? After leading the conference in offense in 2005, the Tigers looked to be set up for a nice little run. Quarterback Brandon Cox had two years of eligibility remaining, Kenny Irons had another year of eligbility at running back, and his backup Brad Lester had just finished his freshman season. The 2006 team also had four senior offensive linemen, three of them returning starters. However, the Tigers did lose their top three receivers from the 2005 team. Irons and Lester declined somewhat running the ball, but Cox actually improved his quarterback rating slightly in 2006. Then in 2007, the bottom fell out. Lester ceded his starting job to Ben Tate, and both posted decent numbers, but Cox turned in the worst performance of his career as a senior, throwing nearly as many interceptions (13) as he had in his previous two years as a starter (17). The Tigers got frustrated, hired Tony Franklin to run the spread, got frustrated again, canned the spread and Tony Franklin, fired one of the most successful head coaches in school history, and hired a proven failure as a head coach. Auburn fans, your team jumped the shark when Brandon Cox forgot how to play quarterback. Urban Meyer's impact at Florida has been quite profound to put it mildly. After treading water for two seasons while he installed his spread option, the Gators have been humming right along with the league's best offense two years running. Arkansas has consistently been in the top half of the league in offense despite switching from a run based attack featuring elite athletes Darren McFadden and Felix Jones to a passing team featuring...Casey Dick? If not for Ole Miss in 2006, the Mississippi State Bulldogs would have the worst offense in the SEC four years running. The Ol' Ball Coach has not exactly breathed life into the Gamecock offense. South Carolina has finished in the top half of the conference in offense only once in four seasons. A quick glance at Vanderbilt's offensive rankings will clue you in as to when they had a first round draft pick under center.

And finally, here are the defensive rankings for each team. This is yards allowed per game in conference play.Think Bo Pelini may know a thing or two about defense? LSU was either first or second in defense during his three seasons in Baton Rouge. After he left, the Tigers dropped procipitously. The new defensive coordinator for LSU is former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis. Chavis appears to alternate very good defenses with very bad ones, at least over the past four seasons at Tennessee. As Mississippi State was to offense, so Kentucky is to defense. If not for the best efforts of Ole Miss and Tennessee in 2007, the Wildcats would own the league's worst defense four years runnings. Alabama has been the most consistent defense, finishing in the top four each of the past four years.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

SEC 2008 SDPI

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 already looked at the other five BCS conferences, so now its time to examine the SEC, owner of the past three BCS national titles.

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 SEC teams in conference play (championship game excluded) was 2558.083 yards. The standard deviation for yards gained was 578.40. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 289.74. Georgia gained 3171 yards in conference play and allowed 2581 Their offensive SDPI was 1.06 = ([3171-2558.083]/578.40). Their defensive SDPI was -0.08 = ([2558.083-2581]/289.74). Their total SDPI was 0.98 which ranked 4th in the conference.

To refresh your memory, here are the 2008 SEC Standings.

Now here are the 2008 SDPI Standings sorted by total SDPI, with conference rank in offense, defense, and total SDPI in parentheses.

The top of the SDPI standing reflect the top of the actual standings for the most part. According to SDPI, the two best teams matched up in Atlanta to decide the conference championship, and the best team won. SDPI also views the rise of Ole Miss as no fluke, ranking the Rebels the third best team in the SEC. The biggest surprise is probably at number five, where the Tennessee Vols rank in the top half of the league despite their 3-5 conference finish. Down towards the bottom of the standings, we have three SEC West teams bunched closely together (Auburn, Arkansas, and LSU). Which of these three teams (if any) is on its way back up? And finally at the very bottom of the conference, we have...the Kentucky Wildcats? Yes Kentucky did manage to pull out a win in the Libery Bowl against East Carolina to salvage a winning record, but in SEC play their two wins came by a point each (over Arkansas and Mississippi State).

Best Offense: Florida 1.52
Maybe this whole spread option thing can work in the SEC after all? This is the second straight year that the Gators have owned the most prolific offense in the SEC.

Worst Offense: Mississippi State -1.33
The Bulldogs averaged about 224 yards per game in the SEC. It looked like they may have finally put it all together in late November when they rang up 445 yards against Arkansas in a 31-28 win. That marked their first 400 yard or better performance since they racked up 501 against the Hogs in 2007. It should be noted that Arkansas did post the second worst SEC defense in 2008. They would be brought back to reality a mere six days later when they accumulated... wait for it... 37 yards of offense in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss.

Best Defense: Tennessee 1.43
Only two teams topped 300 yards against the Tennessee defense all season (including non-conference opponents). Georgia had 458 and Alabama gained 366 yards against the Vols. In their other six SEC games, their opponents averaged 220 yards per game.

Worst Defense: Kentucky -1.58
The Wildcats came out of their soft non-conference schedule looking like an elite defense, allowing 227 yards per game to the likes of Louisville, Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee State, and Western Kentucky. SEC play was a rude awakening as every conference opponent, even the offensively challenged Bulldogs of Mississippi State gained at least 304 yards against the Wildcats.

Hardest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): LSU 3.65
The Tigers had a bad draw from the SEC East, facing Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. All told, they faced the top four teams in the conference (Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Georgia) and five of the top six, while avoiding the worst team (Kentucky).

Easiest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): Alabama -3.35
The Crimson Tide didn't have a fantastic draw out of the SEC East, as they faced Georgia and Tennessee, but they did avoid Florida (until the title game) and faced Kentucky. Of the bottom six teams in the SEC last season, the Tide faced five of them. Of course, it helps that four played in the SEC West.

Entire Schedule Strength (hardest to easiest)
LSU 3.65
Kentucky 2.20
Auburn 0.59
Arkansas 0.40
Vanderbilt 0.28
South Carolina 0.18
Georgia 0.04
Tennessee -0.22
Ole Miss -0.33
Mississippi State -1.54
Florida -1.90
Alabama -3.35

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

East: Florida
No surprise here. The Gators were the best team in the SEC last season, with their lone loss coming by a single point to Ole Miss. With quarterback Tim Tebow back for his senior season, and a defense that returns every significant contributor, the Gators are primed for a repeat. Of course, it won't be a cakewalk with the offensive line down three starters, speedster Percy Harvin gone to the NFL, and leading receiver Louis Murphy having exhausted his eligibility. But its hard to envision anyone besides Florida winning the East. Georgia will be without their leading passer, rusher, and receiver from 2008. Tennessee, while likely much improved still has issues at quarterback and must travel to Gainesville to face the Gators. And the other three teams (South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt) in the division have yet to win it.

West: Ole Miss
Expect the Ole Miss Rebels to get a lot of press this summer to potentially bag their first ever SEC West championship. Now there is a very real chance that could happen, but let's not forget about a little something called The Plexiglas Principle. This phenomena, uncovered by noted baseball analyst Bill James, holds that teams that improve a great deal one season, tend to decline the next. If you just started watching football in 2008, you can be forgiven for believing that Ole Miss is some football power that consistently produces great teams. Quite the contrary. The Rebels were winless in the SEC in 2007, and statistically were the worst team in the conference as well. They managed to win five conference games in 2008, and according to SDPI were the third best team in the conference. A lot had to change for Ole Miss to go from the outhouse to the penthouse. The offense improved dramatically because a competent quarterback (Texas transfer Jevan Snead) emerged. The table below lists the Rebels team pass efficiency and national rank in each of the past five seasons. Not only did the Rebels go from awful to pretty good, Jevan Snead threw as many touchdowns in 2008 (26) as the Rebels threw as a team in 2006 and 2007. If Snead can improve his accuracy (completed 56.3% of his passes last season), he could be a Heisman contender in 2010. Joining Snead to key the Rebel attack in 2009 is jack of all tradester Dexter McCluster (a poor man's Percy Harvin), who had over 600 yards rushing and receiving in 2008. Let's just hope Houston Nutt doesn't call anymore pass plays for him. McCluster was zero for five throwing the football with two interceptions for a laughable quarterback rating of -80. The Rebels also improved substantially on the other side of the ball, going from the second worst defense in the conference to the fourth best. This is where Ole Miss may experience some growing pains. Four of the top five tacklers from last year's team are gone so the defense may slip a little. Ah, but the schedule makers have done the Rebels a very big favor. There is no Florida or Georgia from the East, and the road schedule is as light as you could ask for in the SEC. The Rebels must travel to South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Mississippi State. Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, and Tennessee must all come to Oxford. If the Rebs are going to win their first division crown, this is the year to do it.

The team(s) you should be buying are...

Arkansas and Tennessee
Despite the fact that he endured the worst season of his career record-wise, notorious snake Bobby Petrino did a fine job of switching the Arkansas offense from a run based attack to a pass happy bunch as the following duo of tables can attest. Overall, the Arkansas offense finished a respectable fourth in the SEC despite the fact that quarterback Casey Dick was not especially efficient (65th in quarterback rating among qualifying players). Dick is gone, but Petrino should be able to coax at least an equal performance at worst from Michigan transfer Ryan Mallet. The real key to an Arkansas rebound will rest on the shoulders of a defense that was the second worst in SEC play (Kentucky). The defense was bad last season, but the Hogs were able to get playing time for a lot of youngsters. The leading tackler was freshman linebacker Jerry Franklin. In fact, six of the top ten tacklers were freshmen or sophomores. If the Arkansas defense can just trend a little toward average, it will mean a great deal to the bottom line. The defense will probably be more fortunate in forcing turnovers in 2009 as well. The 2008 team forced only 16 all season (105th in the nation). The prime culprit was an inability to fall on opponent's fumbles. The Arkansas defense forced 20 fumbles last season, but were only able to fall on five of them (teams recover about half of opponent's fumbles). The Hogs will definitely be back in a bowl game in 2009, and with a little luck could challenge for the division title. Things will look awfully different on the Tennessee sideline in 2009. The Great Pumpkin (Phil Fulmer) is gone and tattletale/Raider whipping boy Lane Kiffin is the new head man (and if you haven't heard, his wife is uber-hot). Before we delve into what to expect from the Vols in 2009, I just wanted to share something I found very interesting. The Vols hired Lane Kiffin on December 1st. At that time, his father, Monty Kiffin, was employed as the defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Bucs. The Bucs were 9-3 at the time, and were in prime position to win the NFC West. Kiffin's charges were their usual strong selves on defense, allowing about 280 yards per game. It was immediately speculated that Monty would join his son at Tennessee as the defensive coordinator. Two weeks later, on December 15th, Monty made it official that he was leaving the Bucs at season's end. Apparrently, the speculation tooks its tole on Monty's current duties. In the final four games of the 2008 season, the Bucs went 0-4, losing out on a playoff spot, as their once strong defense allowed 386 yards per game over the final quarter of the season (over 100 yards more per game than they allowed over the first 3/4ths of the year). Seeing as how the Bucs late season collapse cost head coach Jon Gruden his job, I wouldn't imagine Lane would be on his Christmas card list. Anyway, back to what to expect from these Vols in 2009. The defense was the best in the SEC last season, and despite some key losses, four starters, including linebacker and leading tackler Ellix Wilson, are gone, the defense should remain in the top half of the conference. The key for improvement will be the play of the offense. Only Mississippi State proved to be more anemic than Tennessee last season. The Vols could never find a competent quarterback, and their team passer rating of 99.80 ranked 107th in the nation. Whichever member of the unholy trinity (Jonathan Crompton, Nick Stephens, or BJ Coleman) wins the job, the offense will likely see some marginal improvement. Combine that with better luck in 2009 (the Vols were 1-3 in one-score games in 2008) and Tennessee will return to the postseason. However, the Vols are still a year or two away from competing for the division crown.

The team(s) you should be selling are...

Vanderbilt
2008 was the best season for the Commordores since the late 1970's. They began the year 5-0 and snuck into the top-25. They won only once in their final six regular season games, but it was enough to qualify for postseason play for the first time since 1982. In the Music City Bowl against Boston College, the Commodores used some of their magic (more on that in a moment) to win their first bowl game since 1955. Alas, the only real difference between the 7-6 bowl winning squad of 2008 and the 5-7 bowl-less squad of 2007 was a great deal of luck and turnovers. The 2007 team was outscored by 11 points on the season and went 0-3 in one-score games. The 2008 team was outscored by 6 points on the season and went 5-2 in one-score games. The team offense and defense was basically the same both years. The offense was bad in both 2007 (11th in the SEC) and 2008 (10th in the SEC) and the defense was solid (6th in the SEC both seasons). However, the defense possessed an uncanny ability to force turnovers at the most opportune times in 2008. The 2007 team forced 23 turnovers (70th in the nation) and the 2008 team forced 30 turnovers (15th in the nation). Can the defense continue to force turnovers at such a prodigious rate? With no reason to believe the offense or defense will improve substantially, they better. Unfortunately, stud corner and the best playmaker on the team, corner DJ Moore departed with one season of eligibility remaining. Vanderbilt will be competitive in 2009, as they always have been under Bobby Johnson, but the run of good fortune from last season is bound to expire.

The team(s) you should be holding are...

LSU
It's amazing what one bowl rout will do. LSU absolutely laid the lumber to Georgia Tech in the bowl formerly known as the Peach. However, that does not change the fact that LSU dropped five conference games, including three at home. Granted, they all came to top-15 teams, but two of them (Georgia and Ole Miss) were not particularly close. The Tigers also nearly lost to at home Troy before mounting a furious rally. In the regular season, LSU beat one team that played in a bowl game (South Carolina). They weren't paticularly unlucky either. They were 2-2 in one-score games, and based on SDPI, they were about the ninth best team in the conference. The defense was especially bad, as only Arkansas and Kentucky allowed more yards to conference foes. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson looked like the real deal against Georgia Tech, but let's not forget that was the only game where he completed more than half his passes (completed 49.3% on the year). The offense (middle of the pack last season at 6th in the conference) can expect to be at least a little better with experience at quarterback and a returning senior running back (Charles Scott). The big question will be whether or not the defense can round back into form. Six of the top eight tacklers or back, so marginal improvement can be expected there as well. The problem for LSU in 2009 is the schedule and what should be an improved divsion. LSU must endure road games at Alabama, Ole Miss, and Georgia. Add Florida and Arkansas to the home schedule and you can see where a division title seems like a pipe dream. LSU will likely win more than three conference games in 2009, but expecting them to win or even compete for the division title is a stretch.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Pac-10 Review: 2005-2008

In addition to the SDPI posts, another offseason interest of mine has been to look at how each IA conference has shaken out since 2005. I chose 2005 as the starting point because that was the year the ACC expanded to 12 teams, the Big East added 3 new members and booted Temple, Conference USA added a championship game, the Mountain West added TCU, the WAC looted the Sun Belt after several of its members joined Conference USA, and the Sun Belt added 2 independents from Florida (FAU and FIU). Since 2005, there has only been one change in any IA conference. That was the expansion of the MAC by a single team with the addition of Temple. We've already examined the ACC, Big East, Big 10, and Big 12. Now I'll try and shed my East Coast bias by looking at the Pac-10. First here are the cummlative Pac-10 standings since 2005.Remember the Florida State Seminoles in the mid-to-late 1990's? If they played in a stronger conference (and on the west coast), they would be the present day Trojans. Southern Cal has thoroughly dominated the league, but thanks to the relative strength of the other nine teams, the Trojans have surprisingly lost five conference games. See the table below for each team's scoring margins in Pac-10 play since 2005. That +690 means Southern Cal has won their conference games in the past four seasons by an average of 19.7 points per game.

Now here is each team's home record in conference play since 2005.You'll notice that half the league's teams have played 17 home games, and the other half have played 18. That is because the Pac-10 instituted a nine-game conference schedule in 2006 (to ensure each team plays every team each season) which means half the league's teams play five home games, while the other half only play four. Those teams with five home games play four the next and vice-versa. Since that scheduling policy has been in effect for three seasons, the home schedule is not even. Southern Cal's lone home loss? Maybe you remember it.

The biggest discrepancy between home and road record belongs to the Cal Golden Bears. The Bears are a robust 14-4 at home (with two of the losses coming to Southern Cal), but only 6-11 on the road for a difference of 8.5 games. UCLA receives an honorable mention, as they are 13-5 at home, but equally as poor as Cal (6-11) on the road for a difference of 7.5 games. Surprisingly, half the league is either as good or better on the road as they are at home. Arizona is half a game better at home, Oregon State is half a game worse, and the three bottom-feeders (Stanford, Washington, and Washington State) are all 1.5 games worse at home.

Now here is how homefield advantage shakes out in the Pac-10 (in conference play only) with respect to the nation at large (with rank out of the 11 IA conferences in parentheses).As you can see homefield advantage in the Pac-10 has improved a little each season, culminating with home teams winning at the second best clip of any conference in 2008 (second to the Sun Belt). That's a far cry from 2005, when home teams didn't even win half their games.

Next up is how each Pac-10 team stacks up offensively for each season. This is the ranking of yards per game in conference play.Surprisingly, Oregon has had the best offense in the Pac-10 for three years running. That's quite a coupe for the departing Mike Bellotti, to beat Southern Cal in any statistical category. Notice how much Arizona improved when they brought in Sonny Dykes to be their offensive coordinator prior to the 2007 season. Could Dykes, the son of former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, and disciple of Mike Leach and Hal Mumme, be running a team of his own in 2010? California's relatively pedestrian finishes in offense under Jeff Tedford (alleged offensive guru) are a tad surprising. In a moment, we'll see that defense played a much larger role in the Golden Bears continued resurgence. Give Jim Harbaugh some credit. He has raised the Stanford offense from the dead, and made it the team's strength. If only Washington State had some semblance of a defense when Alex Brink played quarterback. Brink became the full-time starter in 2005, and its clear the offense, under his guidance, was more than capable of getting the Cougars to the postseason.

And finally, here are the defensive rankings for each team. This is yards allowed per game in conference play.Southern Cal has had the top spot on lock down for the past four seasons. The only other defense that has consistently been among the best in the conference is Oregon State's. The Beavers have been in the top half of the conference defensively each of the past four seasons. This is somewhat ironic considering head coach Mike Riley's forte is offense (he calls the plays). As mentioned previously, another offensive minded coach (Jeff Tedford) has seen his defense become the team's greatest asset. Aside from a poor performance in 2006, The Cal defense has been amongst the best in the Pac-10. And don't look now, but New Mexico State may have hired themselves one hell of a defensive coach. DeWayne Walker took over the defensive coordinator duties for the UCLA Bruins prior to the 2006 season and produced solid to stellar defenses each year. He'll be running a BCS conference team by 2013.
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