Saturday, April 05, 2008

C-USA Look-Ahead: SDPI

One of my favorite set of posts from last offseason was the conference recap using SDPI. SDPI is a statistic I borrowed from Eddie Epstein that he used in his book, Dominance, to rank pro football's all-time greatest teams. SDPI stands for Standard Deviation Power Index and looks at how teams performed relative to the league average (or conference average in this case) and standard deviation in terms of points scored and allowed. The more standard deviations a team is above the mean, the better they are, and vice-versa. Here is the link to last year's Conference USA post. As you can see, SDPI was a useful tool in predicting some of the rise and fall among the Conference USA's teams. In the interest of providing an even better offseason analysis, I will now be conducting another SDPI, this time for yardage. It is calculated in the same manner as the SDPI for points, but will obviously be measured against the conference mean and standard deviation for yards. Think of it this way: Points are the end result and yards are the means to that end. Thus, looking at both sets of data, we can get an even better idea about which teams are likely to improve or regress in 2008.

If you want the meat of the article, skip this next paragraph as it just gives an example of how the SDPI is calculated. The mean points scored and allowed for all Conference USA teams in conference play (Championship Game excluded) was 267.75 points. The standard deviation for points scored was 52.79. The standard deviation for points allowed was 54.96. Rice scored 308 points in Conference USA play and allowed 340. Their offensive SDPI was 0.76 = ([308-267.75]/52.79). Their defensive SDPI was -1.31 = ([267.75-340]/54.96). Their total SDPI for points (SDPIP) was -0.55 which ranked 8th in the conference. The mean yardage for and against for all Conference USA teams in conference play (Championship Game excluded) was 3619.25 yards. The standard deviation for yardage for was 437.64. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 531.93. Rice gained 3702 yards in conference play and allowed 4176. Their offensive SDPI was 0.19 = ([3702-3619.25]/437.64). Their defensive SDPI was -1.05 = ([3619.25-4176]/531.93). Their total SDPI for yards (SDPIY) was -0.86 which ranked 9th in the conference.

To refresh your memory, here are the 2007 Conference USA Standings.
Now here are the 2007 SDPI standings.
It's pretty clear that in 2007, the UAB Blazers were in a class of ineptitude all by themselves. In SDPIP they were more than one standard deviation below the second worst team and in SDPIY they were more than two standard deviations below the second worst team.

Best Offense: UCF 1.54 (SDPIP), Tulsa 1.89 (SDPIY)
Tulsa gained the most yards in Conference USA play, but UCF scored the most points. Why?
1. UCF scored 4 non-offensive touchdowns (punt, kickoff, fumble, or interception returns) in conference play while Tulsa scored but 1.
2. UCF made 12 of 13 field goal attempts in conference play while Tulsa made only 4 of 6 attempts.
3. UCF was +5 in turnover margin in conference play while Tulsa was dead-last at -9.

Worst Offense: UAB -2.08 (SDPIP) and -2.06 (SDPIY)
Neil Callaway's maiden voyage was a long one. The Blazers were a very feast or famine offensive team. In 4 of their conference games, they scored 32 points and gained 1102 yards; never scoring more than 10 points nor gaining more than 338 yards. In their other 4 conference games, they scored 126 points and gained 1614 yards; never scoring fewer than 26 points nor gaining fewer than 343 yards .

Best Defense: Southern Miss 1.54 (SDPIP), UCF 1.62 (SDPIY)
Southern Miss was very close to netting the SDPI clean sweep as the league's best defense last season. They allowed 7 more yards than UCF in Conference USA play.

Worst Defense: UTEP -1.55 (SDPIP) and -1.25 (SDPIY)
When you're worse than Rice and SMU, there are problems.

Hardest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): UAB 5.91 (SDPIP) and 6.14 (SDPIY)
The Blazers played in the tougher division and in their intradivision games they drew the two best teams from the West (Tulsa and Houston).

Easiest Schedule: Houston-4.45 (SDPIP) anf -5.55 (SDPIY)
The Cougars played in the the easier division and avoided the best team from the East (UCF), while drawing the worst (UAB).

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

Southern Miss
Things are set up quite nicely for Larry Fedora as he takes over for Jeff Bower. The Golden Eagles were easily the second best team in the East last season despite their 4th place finish. They were markedly better based on yards and points than two of the three teams that finished ahead of them (East Carolina and Memphis). They do lose two signal callers to graduation, Jeremy Young and Stephen Reaves, but their team pass efficiency rating of 114.90 ranked 88th in the nation and ahead of only two teams in Conference USA (Tulane and UAB), so the loss may not be as pronounced. Perhaps more importantly than the quarterbacks they lose, are the offensive skill players that return. Junior running back Damion Fletcher is back after a 1500 yard season. Seven of the top eight pass-catchers are back, including sophomore receiver Torris Magee and senior tight end Shawn Nelson, the top two pass-catchers from 2007. On the other side of the ball, the Golden Eagles have some major personnel losses on the defensive line with Matthew Chatelain and Martavius Prince both departing (combined for 14 sacks). However, linebacker Gerald McRath, arguably the team's best defensive player, returns. The real reason to like the Golden Eagles in the East though, is the attrition at the other alleged contenders. Defending champ UCF loses their stud running back Kevin Smith and his 2500+ yards as well as starting quarterback Kyle Israel and two stars off the offensive line, center Kyle Smith and tackle Josh Sitton. Their best defensive linemen, Leger Douzable and his 7.5 sacks, is also gone so the Golden Knights should fall back to the pack. Memphis loses its starting quarterback and running back as well. Plus the Tigers were actually outscored in conference play despite their 6-2 record. 5 of those 6 wins were by 3 points or fewer. It's likely the Tigers will not be as fortunate in close games in 2008. As for East Carolina? We'll get to them in a moment.

Like Larry Fedora at Southern Miss, another rookie coach, Kevin Sumlin, likely has the best team in the division. According to the yardage version SDPI, Houston was actually the best team in Conference USA. They were also very balanced. They gained the second most yards and allowed the third fewest points. Unfortunately, most of those points allowed came in a 56-7 beatdown at the hands of Tulsa. Things will probably be a little different in that game this season primarily because it is in Houston instead of Tulsa, but also because while Tulsa loses their senior quarterback Paul Smith, the Cougars bring back two competent quarterbacks in sophomore Case Keenum and junior Blake Joseph. Do-everything running back Anthony Aldridge is gone as are the top two receivers, but the defense should remain stout while the offense works out its kinks. 8 starters return to one of the best units in Conference USA, led by defensive end Phillip Hunt and his 10.5 sacks. Look for the 2008 Conference USA Championsip Game to be a rematch of the 2006 contest won by Houston over Southern Miss 34-20.

The team(s) that will improve are...

Marshall, SMU, and Tulane
It's been rough going in Huntington since Bob Pruett called it quits after the 2004 season. His replacement, Mark Snyder, has won only 12 games in 3 seasons, bottoming out at 3-9 in 2007. However, 2008 should be the year the proverbial worm turns. The Thundering Herd were a middle of the pack Conference USA team according to both measures of SDPI, yet finished only 3-5 thanks to a poor record in one-score games (1-3). The Thundering Herd were also -4 in turnover margin in conference games (8th in the league) so a market correction in both categories could help the Herd climb in the standings. The Herd do lose their starting quarterback, Bernard Morris, but the top 3 running backs and 4 of the top 5 pass-catchers return to aid the development of the new quarterback. Defense though is where the Herd should be much improved. Defensive end Albert McClellan had 11.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2006. He went down in the 2007 preseason with a knee injury and missed the entire season. In his absence, the Herd sacked opposing quarterbacks only 13 times in 2007 (tied for 111th in the nation). That lack of pressure also resulted in a lack of forced turnovers. The Herd forced only 7 turnovers in 2007 (dead last in the nation). The return of McClellan, even if he is not 100%, will mean more sacks, more turnovers, and a better team. The non-conference slate is tough, with Illinois State standing as the only likely win, but the Herd are a good darkhorse pick to win the East. For SMU, there is nowhere to go, but up. June Jones is now the coach, so what can we expect from the Pony Express in his first year in Dallas? Here's what he did at Hawaii in 1999.As you can see, the Hawaii offense improved substantially under Jones. However, it should be noted that any offense that averages only 12 and half points per game should improve the following season. So Jones gets a lot of the credit, but the simple nature of the world--piss-poor and great performances are extremely hard to sustain over the course of time, also gets a little. Unlike Hawaii in 1998, SMU's problems in 2007 were not the fault of the offense. The Mustangs were 7th in yards gained in Conference USA play (just a little below average). In fact, the team averaged 28.3 points per game over the course of the season. The culprit was the defense, turnover margin, and bad luck in close games. The Mustangs allowed 507 yards per game in Conference USA play. Amazingly, that number was better than 3 other teams (Rice, UAB, and UTEP), but it was clearly the team's weakest link. In conference play, the Mustangs turnover margin was -6, which ranked 10th in the conference. But the main reason the Mustangs failed to win a single conference game was their bad luck. 5 of their 8 conference losses were by 7 points or fewer, and the combined margin in those 5 games was only 20 points. With any kind of luck, the Mustangs could have eked out 2 or 3 conference wins. While that is certainly not an impressive number, it serves notice that SMU was not nearly as bad as their winless conference record would seem to indicate. Quarterback Justin Willis returns in 2008, looking to improve upon his somewhat disappointing sophomore season. With Jones' tutelage, there's a good chance he will. The situation in Dallas is not nearly as dire as it was nearly a decade ago in Honolulu, but a bowl game may be asking a bit too much. For starters, Texas Tech, TCU, and Navy dot the non-conference slate, so coupled with the likely win over Texas State, the best the ponies can hope for is a 2-2 record outside the league. In the West, it's possible SMU could line up third behind the big dogs Houston and Tulsa, but an improving Tulane team, and dangerous squads at Rice and UTEP could curb that line of thinking. 5-7 seems about right for SMU, primarily because Jones' biggest strength--offense, just needs some fine-tuning, not a complete makeover. The play of the defense will determine how high SMU climbs in the conference standings. And speaking of that improving Tulane team, they may be the third team from the West that goes bowling. How can Tulane improve when they lose 2000 yard rusher Matt Forte? The answer, everybody else on offense is back (almost). Quarterback Anthony Scelfo cut his teeth as a sophomore and looks to improve as his top four receivers and his entire offensive line are back. While the running attack may dip without Forte, the passing game should improve and the running game should be steady. In fact, despite Forte's excellence last season, the Green Wave only finished 8th in yards gained in conference play. The strength of the team last season, besides the rushing attack, was the defense. That unit does lose a pair of stout linemen, Antonio Harris and Avery Williams, but 7 other starters return. Plus Bob Toledo, while he may not be Bear Bryant, is a fine coach, and with a little luck the Green Wave will be bowling in 2008.

The team(s) that will decline are...

East Carolina and Memphis
What's not to love about East Carolina? They pulled off one of the biggest shockers of the bowl season, stunning heavily favored Boise State on a last-second field goal. That win marked the second straight bowl appearance for the Pirates under Skip Holtz. The offseason coaching carousel also avoided Greenville and Skip Holtz is around for at least one more season. So why won't we see the Pirates in the Conference USA Championship Game? For starters, despite their 6-2 record in Conference USA, the Pirates were actually outgained by league foes. The offense that gained 476 yards in the Hawaii Bowl against a pretty good Boise State defense was actually well below average. The Pirates gained more yards in conference play than UAB. That's it. Every other squad in the conference gained more yards. And the hero of that Hawaii Bowl win, running back Chris Johnson? He's gone. So one of the league's worst offenses loses its best player. That's not the recipe for a conference or division title. Plus, East Carolina was on the right side of a lot of good fortune in 2007. They were 4-1 in one-score games (2-1 in conference play) and their turnover margin of +11 in conference play led the league. Both of those facets of the team are likely to regress in 2008. And finally, the schedule, particularly the non-conference slate, is very tough. An ACC trio of Virginia Tech, NC State, and Virginia dot the schedule as well as a game against West Virginia. Best case, the Pirates wind up 1-3 against those teams. That would require at least 5 conference wins to even get to bowl eligibility. Don't be surprised if the Pirates wind up at home for the holidays. The Memphis Tigers could also find themselves at home come late December. Despite being outscored by 23 points over the course of the conference season, the Tigers finished 6-2 in league play. That record was greatly aided by a 5-2 record in one-score games (5-0 in conference play) and a turnover margin of +6 in conference games (2nd in Conference USA). Quarterback Martin Hankins and running back Joseph Doss are gone so the offense will need some serious retooling if it is to be anywhere near as productive as it was last season. With the offensive personnel losses, in order for the Tigers to avoid a losing season, the defense will have to take a major step forward. The defense allowed 442 yards per game last season, which ranked 100th in the nation. 8 starters are back on that unit, but while limited improvement would be expected, a miracle is unlikely. The Tigers will likely not be as fortunate in pulling out close games or consistently winning the turnover margin, so expect a 2nd bowl-less season in 3 years for Memphis.

What's up with UTEP's late-season swoon?
Since coming to the west Texas town of El Paso in 2004, Mike Price has tried to do his best Don Haskins impression and turn around the downtrodden fortunes of the UTEP football program. He's done a fine job in 4 seasons of work, compiling a 25-23 record with two bowl appearances, at a school where the previous coaching regime won only 14 games (and lost 34) in 4 seasons. But the Miners also seem to come apart at the end of the season. In 2004, in their final season in the WAC, UTEP rebounded from a 1-2 start with the defeats coming by a combined 48 points, to win 7 straight games. They stumbled and lost their final two games, the first to a bad Tulsa squad (4-8) in the regular season finale, and the last to a decent Colorado team (8-5) in the Houston Bowl. In 2005, the Miners looked to improve upon their surprise 2004 campaign. After 9 games, they stood 8-1 (5-1 in their first season in Conference USA), and were staking out a place in the innagural Conference USA Championship Game. Alas, they lost their final two regular season games to two teams that both finished 5-6 (UAB and SMU). Tulsa took their spot in the title game, and the Miners headed to Mobile and the GMAC Bowl where they were throttled by Toledo 45-13. The Miners regrouped and began 2006 with a 4-2 record, with their only losses coming to Texas Tech (in a 38-35 squeaker) and New Mexico. They proceeded to lose 5 of their last 6 games and finished 5-7 to miss out on the postseason for the first time under Mike Price. 2007 was eerily similar. The Miners began the year 4-2, with their only losses coming to Texas Tech and New Mexico State. But the Miners one-upped themselves by losing their last 6 games to finish 4-8 and ahead of only winless SMU in the Conference USA's West Division. Words can give us a good idea of how things happened, but as they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I am no Shakespeare. Below is a summary of UTEP's record under Mike Price split by months.
As you can see, the Miners tend to fall off substantially in their last few regular season games and on into the postseason. Why is this? Are the Miners poorly conditioned? Does the rugged El Paso climate wear out even the heartiest of men? Let's delve a little deeper.
Close games here are defined as one-score games (those decided by 8 points or fewer). This split helps explain some of the difference in UTEP's record. If we normalize the close game record to .500, for both sets of games the Aug-Oct and Nov-Jan differences are not as pronounced. UTEP's Aug-Oct 'luck' adjusted record drops to 17-14 and the Nov-Jan 'luck' adjusted record rises just a shade to 6-11. That's still a pretty significant difference, but not nearly as pronounced as the actual record. Before we assume it's the conditioning accounting for this split, let's look at one more thing.
Yardage differential can give us a good idea about how well UTEP played in each time period. The amazing thing is, in 2004 and 2005 when UTEP closed with a 4-5 record in November and January, they were playing nearly just as well (2004) and better (2005) than they were when they were a combined 12-3. The difference is even more pronounced in 2006. While UTEP stood 4-4 after October, the Miner's were actually being outgained by 42 yards per game. Over the final 4 games, during which time they went 1-3, the Miners outgained their opponents by 12 yards per game. While 2007 doesn't seem to fit in with the other 3 years, it does to some extent. The Miners were truly much worse in Nov-Jan as their entire team went to hell and they were outgained by 131 yards per game. However, the Miners were busy being outgained by 58 yards per game from Aug-Oct and yet still managed a 4-4 record, which is quite a feat for a team being outplayed so consistently. A glance at the totals can give us an idea at what is actually happening. The Miners from Nov-Jan are not substantially worse than the Miners from Aug-Oct. The offense is a bit better and the defense is a bit worse, but the net result is the same--the Miners have been outgained by about 5 yards per game over the course of 31 games from Aug-Oct in the Mike Price era and by about 5 yards per game over the course of 17 games from Nov-Jan. Thanks to random chance, the Miners have played over their heads from Aug-Oct and a bit under from Nov-Jan. We would expect a team that is outgained on average by about 5 yards per game to finish with a winning percentage around .500, maybe a little above and maybe a little below. The Miners' winning percentage under Mike Price? .521.

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