Wednesday, April 08, 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'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...

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...

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.

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