Tuesday, January 20, 2009


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'll begin our offseason sojourn with a look at the ACC, followed by the five other BCS leagues in alphabetical order, and conclude with the five non-BCS leagues in an as yet to be determined order. For fans of Army, Navy, and Notre Dame, I apologize, your teams will not be examined.

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 ACC teams in conference play (championship game not included) was 2545.75 yards. The standard deviation for yards gained was 226.32. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 322.39. Boston College gained 2529 yards in conference play and allowed 2249. Their offensive SDPI was -0.07 = ([2529-2545.75]/226.32). Their defensive SDPI was 0.92 = ([2545.75-2249]/322.39). Their total SDPI was 0.85 which ranked 4th in the conference.

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

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

The stats speak loud and clear, proclaiming Georgia Tech the best team in the conference. The Jackets performed exeptionally well in Paul Johnson's first season at the school, flanking the number one offense in the conference with the fourth best defense. They were one of only three teams (Clemson and Florida State were the other two) to be above average on both sides of the ball in conference play. Of course, the season did not end well for the Jackets as they were dismantled in the Chick Fil-A (still Peach to me) Bowl by LSU. I don't know if this is true, as I have not studied the issue and this is pure conjecture, but it seems like option teams such as Georgia Tech are more likely (than 'normal' teams) to be blown out if they fall behind early because of the nature of the offense they run. If they fall behind by two scores, it seems like an avalanche comes and the offense loses its poise and timing (see the loss to LSU and the 28-7 loss to North Carolina). That's not to say that Tech is incapable of winning championships, as Johnson won two IAA national titles at Georgia Southern and seems to have the bona fides to win at least a few conference titles (I would be hesistant to suggest national crowns) at Tech, just a trend that may be worth watching in the future. And one more Tech nugget before moving on, if they can get over their propensity to fumble, they will be very scary on offense in 2009. Tech fumbled 36 times in 2008 (only Washington State and Michigan fumbled more) and lost 20 of them. This does not appear to be a trait shared by offenses coached by Johnson, as his last four teams at Navy fumbled 19, 21, 34, and 21 times respectively.

Best Offense: Georgia Tech 1.63
As I've already stated, Paul Johnson's offense worked wonders in his first season in Atlanta. Surprisingly, NC State posted the second best offense in conference play. If Russell Wilson stays healthy, they could make some noise in 2009.

Worst Offense: Duke -1.69
Duke's offensive numbers are immensely influenced by the two games where quarterback Thaddeous Lewis missed significant time. In the losses to Clemson and Virginia Tech (Lewis threw 5 passes before being injured against Clemson and missed the following game against Virginia Tech) Duke gained 304 yards of offense. In their other six conference games, they averaged 310 yards per game. If we extrapoltate those numbers over an eight game conference season, Duke would have finished a much more respectable 8th in yards gained. Though it may not appear as such on the surface, there was progress in Year 1 of the Cutcliffe era.

Best Defense: Virginia Tech 1.38
Surprise, surprise. Bud Foster. Australian for defense.

Worst Defense: NC State -1.63
The defense did improve substantially in the second half of the conference season (allowed 432 yards per game in the first four ACC contests and 336 yards per game in the final four), but it was not enough to avoid the cellar.

Hardest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): Florida State 2.86
The 'Noles were the second best team in the ACC according to SDPI and their schedule included tilts against the number one team (Georgia Tech), number three team (Clemson), number four team (Boston College), number five team (Virginia Tech) and number six team (Miami). In their three games against the Coastal Division, they drew the three strongest teams possible.

Easiest Schedule (based on cumulative SDPI of opponents): NC State -2.23
In their games against the Coast Division, the Pack drew the two weakest teams (Duke and North Carolina) and a Miami team that was middle of the road.

Entire Schedule Strength (hardest to easiest)
Florida State 2.86
Boston College 2.54
Duke 1.55
Maryland 1.52
Virginia Tech -0.22
Georgia Tech -0.38
North Carolina -0.61
Clemson -0.87
Wake Forest -1.10
Miami -1.49
Virginia -1.57
NC State -2.23

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

Atlantic: Florida State
While I wouldn't buy into the hype that Florida State is 'back' (that is in the sense that they are ready to compete for a national title), they should well be 'back' as the best team in the Atlantic. As mentioned earlier, the 'Noles had the toughest conference schedule in the league last season, and still almost took home the Atlantic title. This year they swap North Carolina for Virginia Tech (a definite upgrade for them no matter what kind of pub North Carolina gets in the preseason), and keep Georgia Tech and Miami from the Coastal Division. The road schedule is rough (Clemson, Boston College, Wake, and the aforementioned Tar Heels), but the 'Noles should have the best team in the division. The 'Noles will be especially dangerous if they can get improved play from quarterback Christian Ponder. While Ponder showed promise in his first year at the helm (over 2000 yards passing and 400 yards rushing), he still made a lot of mistakes (13 interceptions) and had too many passes hit the ground (his completion percentage ranked 84th among qualifying quarterbacks). If he improves, the 'Noles could run away with the division title.

Coastal: Georgia Tech
Statistically, the Jackets were the best team in the conference, and with another offseason to learn the offense and fill the team with 'option' players, Georgia tech should be in the thick of things once again in 2009. The schedule is also condusive for a division title, as resident overlord Virginia Tech must travel to Atlanta.

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

Florida State and Georgia Tech
I've discussed these two ad nauseum already, but they appear to be the ACC's cream of the crop in 2009.

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

North Carolina and Wake Forest
I know it seems like sacrilege to dismiss the Tar Heels as they are coached by Butch Davis, who has been stockpiling recruits in Chapel Hill as he readies his charges for a run at a conference title. But look at the numbers. North Carolina was below average at moving the sticks (9th in yards gained in conference play) and at stopping opponents sans the turnover (8th in yards allowed in conference play). The table below lists Carolina's statistics in yards gained, yards allowed, turnovers forced, and turnovers committed in its four conference wins and four conference losses.The defense was practically identical in the wins and losses, and thats with the debacle against NC State (allowed conference season high 466 yards) driving up the average. The offense was significantly worse in the losses, but the real difference was turnovers. The Tar Heels were plus +7 in the wins and -12 in the losses. When the offense protected the ball, and the defense took it away, the Tar Heels won. When they didn't, they lost. Even in their wins, the Tar Heels have a pedestrian down-to-down profile, and now they lose their game-changing receiver Hakeem Nicks to the NFL. FYI, the leading returning receiver in 2009 will be running back Greg Little, who had a robust 146 yards in 2008. Maybe the Tar Heels will improve in 2009 and take the division title, stranger things have happened, but to paraphrase Dennis Green, don't crown them just yet. And what of Wake Forest? For three years running my alma mater has parlayed a great turnover margin (+29 over the past three seasons) and a schedule that includes Duke each season (thank you ACC gods) into a 15-9 conference record. Well, now the defense will be without the services of eight starters including a pair of NFL draft picks in linebacker Aaron Curry and corner Alphonso Smith. While the offense does return a savvy senior quarterback and a pair of talented running backs, keep in mind, Wake gained more yards than only Duke in ACC play. Seems its time to pay the piper, and Wake will likely be out of the bowl picture for the first time since 2005.

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

So what's the deal with this Dabo Swinney kid? Is he the next Danny Ford as some writers have hinted at, or is he just another coach? For all the goodwill a Gator Bowl bid bought him, it still pays to remember Clemson only went 7-6 in 2008. They were only 5-6 against IA teams, and Dabo was only 4-3 as head coach. Clemson did win their final three games to garner the bowl bid, but remember those wins came against Duke, Virginia, and South Carolina (combined record of 16-21). On the other hand, the stats love Clemson, pegging them as the third best team in the conference and second best in the Atlantic Division. The Tigers were also a hard luck 1-4 in one-score games, a statistic that often evens out over time, perhaps portending good things for 2009. Clemson could well break through and win the division in 2009 (they do host their likely biggest challenger in Florida State), but there are too many questions to dub them the favorite.

Coming later this week: A look at the ACC over the past four seasons (since the division format was created), complete with standings, tendencies, and a look at homefield advantage.

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