25 more days and counting until kickoff! In today's preview, we come to our final BCS conference, the SEC. In you've been following the SEC for the past 2 season, the projection system expects the title game in Atlanta to be the same for the 3rd year in a row. Outside of Florida and Alabama, there don't appear to be any other elite teams, but I wouldn't be totally shocked if 11 of the conferences 12 members end up bowl eligible. If you wonder where these numbers are coming from, read over the ACC Preview for a primer. Check back in a few days when we tackle the Independents.
Wild, Wild, West
As you have probably surmised by now, the first 5 years of the Urban Meyer Experiment have been a resounding success for the Florida Gators. Florida has the best SEC record of any team over that span (32-8), a pair of SEC and BCS titles, and 3 SEC East championships. The Gators have done this by absolutely dominating their fellow East division schools. Since losing to former Florida coach Steve Spurrier in his first season, Meyer is an incredible 19-1 in his last 20 games against SEC East schools. Here's how he's done against each school in the SEC (these numbers do not included SEC Championship Games where Meyer is 2-1).As you can see, Meyer has still been very successful against the SEC West, but a far cry from his dominance against the East. I don't have an explanation for this interesting split, just thought I would share. Keep this in mind if you plan on taking some other teams to win the SEC East this season.
Get on the Ball!
One reason for Georgia's (relatively) disappointing season in 2009 was the historically low percentage of their opponent's fumbles they recovered. The Bulldogs forced 18 opponents fumbles (a modest amount, tying them with a handful of other schools at 85th in the nation). However, they were only able to fall on 2 of those fumbles! That recovery percentage of 11.1% ranked dead last in the nation and helped contribute to Georgia's gruesome turnover margin of -16 (tied with Tulane for 2nd to last nationally). The good news for Bulldog fans is that fumble recovery rates tend to trend back toward 50% year to year, so the ball should bounce their way a few more times in 2010. As a frame of reference, they recovered 31.3% of their opponent's fumbles in 2008, 47.8% in 2007, and 50% in 2006.
The Disappearing Passing Game
Not long ago, the Kentucky Wildcats featured one of the most prolific passing attacks in the nation. Led by quarterback Andre Woodson, the Wildcat passing game produced 1000-yard receivers in 2006 (Keenan Burton) and 2007 (Steve Johnson). The 2007 team also had 4 players with more than 600 yards receiving. Woodson graduated following the 2007 season, and coupled with a season-ending injury to star receiver Dicky Lyons in 2008, the passing attack has not been the same. Despite his injury (he played in only 6 games in 2008), Lyons led the team with 264 receiving yards in 2008. Converted quarterback Randall Cobb led the team with 447 receiving yards last season, meaning Kentucky's leading receivers in 2008 and 2009 combined for 711 receiving yards, one of the worst totals in the nation.That's right. Only a pair of service academies that avoid throwing like the plague have posted worse team-leading receiving totals since 2008.
The Thinnest of Margins
The Gamecocks fought valiantly through a very difficult schedule in 2009, winning 7 games (3 in the SEC) despite facing 9 bowl teams in their 13 games. When examining their schedule what I found interesting is that each of their 3 league wins was very close. They beat Ole Miss (then ranked in the top-5) at home by 6. Their other league wins came at home against Kentucky and Vanderbilt by 2 and 4 points respectively. Is their an identifiable trend in the conference record of teams that win their conference games by a small margin? To find out, I looked at BCS-conference teams that won at least 3 league games (indicating they are at least a decent team and not a bottom-dweller) by 8 points or less since 2005. Prior to 2009, 11 teams fit this criteria (Northwestern joined South Carolina with 5 league wins all by 7 or less in 2009). The table below lists those teams, their league record, the amount of their average league win, their league record the next year, and the difference in the 2 league records.There doesn't seem to be any real trend amongst these teams. 6 of the 11 previous teams declined the next season and 5 improved. None of the teams that improved became elite, so I wouldn't bank on the Gamecocks winning the East in 2010, but just their second winning SEC record under Steve Spurrier (5-3 in 2005) is a distinct possibility.
Straight Outta Crompton
The first (and only) season of the Lane Kiffin Experiment delivered tepid results. The Vols blew out Georgia and nearly upset eventual national champion Alabama. However, they also suffered defeats to UCLA (at home) and a blowout loss in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to Virginia Tech. All in all, it was a pretty meh season for a program just a decade removed from a national title. Lane Kiffin did accomplish one thing though. The offense, in particular the passing of Jonathan Crompton, drastically improved. In 2008, the passing duo of Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens looked more like they belonged in the SAC rather than the SEC. Then, presto, Jonathan Crompton has the look of a 4th round pick.Crompton improved his numbers, drastically, in every area. But, how much did he really improve against the better teams? Tennessee played 13 games last season. 10 came against BCS conference foes, including 8 conference games and non-league dalliances with UCLA and Virginia Tech. Their other 3 games came against non-BCS opponents. 2 of those came against a pair of the worst teams in IA, Western Kentucky (0-12) and Memphis (2-10). The other came against a respectable Ohio outfit (9-5).As you can see, Crompton was still pretty good against the tougher competition he faced, but a good portion of his 2009 numbers (almost half his touchdown passes) came in the 3 games when his teammates were vastly superior to his opponents.
Commandeer an Offense
Last season, fresh off a surprising bowl bid (and bowl win), the Vanderbilt Commodores hit rock bottom. They failed to win an SEC game, and also lost a non-conference clash with Army. Their lone win against a IA team came against Rice (a team that was 2-10). The biggest reason for their slide toward oblivion was an offense that just disappeared. The table below lists Vanderbilt's offensive touchdowns in SEC games since 2005.You may remember that in 2005, the Commodores were led by a senior quarterback, and future NFL draft pick, Jay Cutler. Without him, Vanderbilt settled into a consistent mediocrity on offense, scoring between 16 and 18 offensive touchdowns each season. For 8 league games, that equates to a little more than 2 per contest. Then last season, Vanderbilt scored 5. For the year! Vanderbilt never scored more than a single offensive touchdown in any league game, and were held without an offensive touchdown in 3 of their SEC games (Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Florida).
The Last of a Dying Breed?
Alabama's run to the national championship on the heels of an undefeated season has been seen as something of a rarity in this day and age. The Crimson Tide became the first unbeaten national champion since Texas in 2005. But has the landscape of college football changed? Is a team like Alabama the exception rather than the rule? Has the ubiquitous p-word (parity) reared its socialistic head (thanks to the Washington liberals) in college football? Parity may be alive and well in college football, but in this past decade we were no more likely to crown a champion with at least one loss than we were in the previous two decades. From 2000-2009, 4 national champions had at least one loss. For split titles, if either team had a loss, they are counted, but if both had a loss, only one is counted. For example, in 2003, Southern Cal and LSU shared the national title and both had a single loss. That counts as one champion with a blemished record . From 1990-1999, 3 national champions had at least one loss (again the same bookkeeping rules apply). From 1980-1989, 4 national champions had at least one loss. And if not for the BYU Cougars of 1984, the last mid-major to win it all, the 80's would have produced 5 champions with a loss. The undefeated champion is not about to go extinct, rather we just experienced a little regression to the mean, so to speak, from 2006-2008. In those 3 seasons, the eventual champion ended up with a loss (and LSU ended up with 2 in 2007). However, in the 9 seasons prior to 2006, we had 8 undefeated champions.
In what came as a surprise to no one, the Arkansas offense improved substantially in their 2nd season under Bobby Petrino. In the first season of the shift from Houston-Nutt's run based attack to a more passer friendly offense, the Razorbacks averaged 21.9 points per game. After ridding themselves of 'game-manager' Casey Dick at quarterback, and inserting highly-touted Michigan transfer Ryan Mallet, the Razorbacks improved their average to 36.0 points per game. This increase of 14.1 points per game ranked as the second best improvement in 2009.Their improvement was eclipsed only by their SEC West brethren at Auburn.
So You Figured Me Out Eh?
When Gus Malzahn was brought in to coordinate an Auburn offense that had been sub-par for 4 straight seasons, many fans had visions of the Auburn Tigers finally fielding a competent offense. At the aggregate level, Malzahn succeeded in 2009. The Tigers went from having the 9th best offense in the SEC (SDPI ranking) to the 3rd best. Overall, they went from averaging 302 yards and 17.3 points per game (both figures ranked below 100 nationally) to averaging 432 yards and 33.3 points per game (both figures ranked in the top-20 nationally). However, a keener investigation may reveal that SEC defenses caught up to Malzahn's pedal to the metal attack. In their first 2 conference games, Auburn faced Mississippi State and Tennessee. The Tigers averaged 524 yards in those 2 games (breaking 400 both times) at a robust 6.3 yards per play. Not surprisingly, the Tigers won both those games. Over their final 6 league games, the Tigers managed to top the 400 yard barrier just once (their only win in that stretch). Over those 6 games, the Tigers averaged 328 yards per game at a much more meager 5.0 yards per play. of course, maybe the schedule just got a littler tougher. So let's adjust for schedule strength. Now, take a gander at the chart below.What this means is that against Mississippi State, Auburn gained 589 yards. In SEC play, Mississippi State allowed an average of 365 yards per game (it ranked 7th in the league). Thus the Tigers gained 224 more yards than we would have expected if they had an average offensive performance. They are 'in the black' 224 yards. As you can see, in the first 2 games, the Tigers were nearly 350 yards in the black. However, the rest of the way, they were below average offensively twice as often as they were above average. They performed poorly against good defenses (LSU) and against bad defenses (Arkansas and Kentucky). For the season, they gained 199 more yards than an average team facing their same schedule. I don't use this chart as an indictment against Malzahn, just another way to look at the issue. It will be interesting to see how much, if any, the offense improves with another year under his tutelage.
Don't Bet on It
I'm of the opinion that Les Miles is not a very good coach. I think he was given the keys to a Ferrari when he took over for Nick Saban, but has driven it more like a Lexus. A fine car to be sure, but not anywhere near the same class as the Italian supercar. Sure he has a national title, but he still lost 2 games (to Kentucky and Arkansas) with that stacked team. Plus his clock management skills leave a lot to be desired.
Whether or not Miles is a good coach is not something I plan on positing an argument for here. However, I will give the degenerates who view this blog some advice. Do not bet on LSU while Miles is still the coach.In the past 3 seasons, there have been 5 active coaches to post ATS (against the spread) winning percentages below .400. Only 2 coaches have fared worse than Les Miles ATS in that span. If you peruse the overall records (overall records include slightly more games because games versus non-IAA teams are not included in the ATS records), you see that LSU is the only consistent winner in the bunch. Miles is joined by a Conference USA patsy, a middling Sun Belt team, perhaps the worst team in IA over the past few seasons, and a solid MAC team. To say Miles is working with a little more talent than those 4 schools is understating the obvious. Keep this is mind when filling out your parlay card this year and that LSU/Vanderbilt spread looks too good to be true.
Mullen Over Some Offensive Improvement
You don't have to follow college football very closely to know that Mississippi State is not typically a dynamo on the offensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs have not averaged at least 30 points per game over an entire season since 2000. Heck, since 2000, they have only scored 30 points or more 24 times (the same number of times they have been held below 10). But things could be changing. Against SEC teams, the Bulldogs posted their best recent offensive performance last season, their first under head coach Dan Mullen.The Bulldogs not only improved their offensive performance by over 100 yards per game in the league and finished outside the bottom two, but if you look at their SDPI number, they were very close to being average offensively! That's quite an improvement considering they have been more than a full standard deviation below average offensively for the previous 4 seasons (as far back as I have SDPI data). The improvement was mostly on the ground, where the Bulldogs rushed for more than double the yards they did in 2008. While running back Anthony Dixon has departed (nearly 1400 rushing yards last year), the Bulldogs also got 500 rushing yards from quarterback Chris Relf who will likely see his role increase in the second year of Mullen's system.
The McCluster Fluster
One of the most fun players to watch in all of college football will no longer be taking handoffs, catching passes, returning punts, or throwing the occasional forward pass in Oxford. Dexter McCluster, a jack-of-all-trades running back has moved on to the NFL. Perhaps the most unreported aspect of McCluster's career at Ole Miss, which included the lowly depths of the Ed Orgeron era and the (relatively) unbridled peaks of the Houston Nutt era, was McCluster's stark improvement as a passer. McCluster threw his first collegiate pass as a junior in 2008 (against my alma mater no less). In fact he threw 5 passes that year. He completed none of them. Or I should say, he completed none of them to fellow Rebel players. 3 of his 5 passes fell harmlessly to the ground. However, 2 of them ended up in the hands of the opposing team. Overall, McCluster was 0-5 passing with 2 interceptions for a passer rating of -80.0. In 2009, McCluster threw just a single pass, but did he ever make it count. It went for 21 yards and a touchdown against LSU. McCluster's passer rating for 2009? 656.80. Or over 5 times that of starting quarterback Jevan Snead. I sincerely hope he received the 'Most Improved' trophy at the fall awards banquet.