Tuesday, June 02, 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. This week, we'll examine the Western Athletic Conference, home to the Gonzaga of football, the Boise State Broncos.

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 WAC teams in conference play was 2986.44 yards. The standard deviation for yards gained was 610. The standard deviation for yards allowed was 384.39. Louisiana Tech gained 3091 yards in conference play and allowed 3002. Their offensive SDPI was 0.17 = ([3091-2986.44]/610). Their defensive SDPI was -0.04 = ([2986.44-3002]/384.39). Their total SDPI was 0.13 which ranked 3rd in the conference.

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

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

As you can see, Boise State thoroughly dominated the league. The difference in their SDPI and that of second place Nevada (1.64) was greater than the difference between third place Louisiana Tech and eighth place Nex Mexico State (1.07). Outside of the top of the league (Boise and Nevada) and the very bottom (Idaho), the league's members were bunched very tightly last season. That means minor improvement from teams like New Mexico State or Utah State, coupled with some regression from teams like Louisiana Tech or Hawaii could turn the conference upside down in 2009.

Best Offense: Nevada 1.71
The 'Pistol' offense ran roughshod over the WAC last season. Nevada gained at least 500 yards of offense against six of their eight conference foes, failing to do so only against Boise State (385) and Hawaii (481).

Worst Offense: San Jose State -1.50
The worst part for the Spartans is that the terrible offense hamstrung the second best defensive unit in the WAC. San Jose State managed to finish 6-6, despite featuring an offense that was held under 300 yards in six of their eight conference games. If not for Herculean efforts (by their standards) against Utah State and Idaho (802 combined yards), the Spartans would have barely averaged over 200 yards of offense in the conference.

Best Defense: Boise State 1.84
The Broncos boasted the league's best offense by a mile, finishing a whole standard deviation above second place San Jose State. No WAC foe gained more than 385 yards against the Broncos, and the only teams to top 400 yards were a pair of top-10 finishers (Oregon and TCU).

Worst Defense: Idaho -1.93
Idaho was more than one and a half standard deviations below the second worst WAC defense (New Mexico State). Yardage wise, they allowed about 80 more yards per game in conference play than the Aggies.

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

Boise State
No surprises here. Boise has won or shared six of the eight WAC titles that have been awarded since joining the league in 2001. They have never lost more than two conference games in any season, and have never fallen to a conference foe at home. Quarterback Kellen Moore, an inexperienced freshman last season, is now a seasoned veteran with a win at Oregon and an undefeated WAC championship on his resume. The backfield does lose Fiesta Bowl hero Ian Johnson, but Johnson split time last season with Jeremy Avery in a committee running game, so there should be no considerable dropoff there. The Broncos will be without the services of receiver Jeremy Childs who entered the NFL draft with one year of eligibility remaining, but was not selected. The defense also loses two of its top-three tacklers in defensive back Ellis Powers and linebacker Kyle Gingg. Unfortunately though, if you're looking for intrigue in the WAC in 2009, it won't be coming at the top of the conference. Look to the middle and you'll be in luck.

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

Nevada and Utah State
Statistically, Nevada was the second best team in the WAC last season. By a large margin. Unfortunately, they lost some some close games (1-3 in one-score games against conference foes), had a hard time falling on loose balls (recovered only a third of all fumbles in their games) and played pretty poorly on special teams (63rd nationally in opponents punt return average and 115th in opponents kickoff return average). Those three factors conspired to cause the Wolfpack to finish tied for second in the league standings with two other teams (Hawaii and Louisiana Tech) that they significantly outplayed on a down to down basis. For 2009, Nevada returns the bulk of their arsenal that led the conference in offense. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick maintained his stellar play in his sophomore campaign, throwing for nearly 3000 yards and 22 touchdowns, while adding over 1100 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. Joining Kaepernick in the 'Pistol' backfield is the best running back you've never heard of, Vai Taua. The vowel-intensive Tuau rushed for over 1500 yards last season and averaged nearly six and a half yards per carry. Kaepernick will be without his favorite target, receiver Marko Mitchell, who gained 1141 yards last season. However, the 'Pistol' offense is predicated on the run, and despite the loss of center Dominic Green, the tandem of Kaepernick and Taua should keep the chains moving. The real question for the Wolfpack is whether they can stop anyone on defense. Last season Nevada finished sixth in the WAC in defense, but remember this is the WAC, not the SEC. Nationally, Nevada was 86th in pass efficiency defense and 120th (or dead last) in passing yards allowed per game. The defense returns eight starters, so the hope is that with experience comes at least marginal improvement. The Pack must play Boise on the Smurf Turf, but their other conference road games are against Utah State, San Jose State, and New Mexico State. I don't think Nevada can win the conference crown, but the potential exists for them to win their seven conference games not involving Boise. Nevada was a little on the unlucky side last season with the close losses and fumble recovery issues, so if the defense improves, and their luck reverts to normal, a double-digit win season could be in the coffers. Meanwhile, in Logan, Utah, 2009 is a season of new beginnings. The Aggies have not participated in a bowl game since December of 1997 when they lost the Humanitarian Bowl to Cincinnati. New coach Gary Andersen comes to the Aggies after being the defensive coordinator of the Utah Utes for the past five seasons. Utah State was far from a good team last season, but statistically they were better than Fresno State, a team that appeared in a bowl game, and San Jose State, a team that finished bowl-eligible. The road to the postseason for Utah State may not be a pipe dream in 2009. Utah State does not have the offensive talent to match the upper-eschelon WAC schools like Boise State and Nevada, but they do have a player to build around in junior quarterback Diondre Borel. In his first season as a starter, Borel led the team in both passing and rushing yards. He didn't put up great numbers, but he did throw more touchdowns (11) than interceptions (10) and added five scores on the ground. Outside of leading receiver Otis Nelson (only 455 receiving yards) every other significant contributor in the passing game is back. It wouldn't be a total shock if Borel improved in his second season in the lineup, and keep in mind, the Aggies were only a shade below average offensively (in the conference) last season. The defense, Andersen's area of expertise, gets eight starters back, including leading tackler, linebacker Jake Hutton. Any marginal improvement on that side of the ball will give the Aggies an above-average WAC defense, something that has been unheard of for a long time. The non-conference schedule is loaded with road trips to Utah, BYU, and Texas A&M, so the heavy lifting to get to six wins and bowl eligibility will have to be done in conference play. The Aggies are certainly not favored to go bowling in 2009, but I think their odds are better than most prognosticators would give them.

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

Louisiana Tech
2008 was a banner year for the Bulldogs. Under the guidance of second-year head coach Derek Dooley, Tech finished tied for second in the WAC and won their first bowl game since 1977. And while statistically the Bulldogs were the third best team in the WAC, they were much closer to the eighth best team (New Mexico State) in terms of performance than they were to the second best team (Nevada). A lot of the good that befell Tech in 2008 is unlikely to be repeated in 2009. Tech was 5-2 in one-score games (3-1 against conference foes), which is a big reason they were able to win eight games despite outscoring their opponents by only 12 points over the course of the season. They also recovered a high percentage of fumbles in their games (58%) and scored five more non-offensive touchdowns (scores by special teams or defense) than their opponents. Tech brings back a host of starters (ten by most estimations), with the lone loss receiver Philip Beck, from an offense that ranked third in the WAC last season. However, that ranking is a little misleading, as the four teams bunched around the middle offensively (Louisiana Tech, Fresno State, Utah State, and Hawaii) were only separated by about 25 yards per game. The Tech offense may improve, but that improvement will likely come on the ground. Quarterback Ross Jenkins, who took over for Taylor Bennett a little less than halfway through the season completed only 52.9% of his passes (98th nationally among qualifying players) and finished with a passer rating of 118.46 (77th nationally). This despite playing in a league not known for its defense. On defense, the Bulldogs bring back seven starters and could improve upon their fourth place finish in that category last season. However, once again those teams that finished between third and eighth defensively were bunched very closely together (separated by about 16 yards per game). Louisiana Tech may improve upon their performance from last season, but their luck will probably be a little worse, and a non-conference schedule that includes trips to Auburn, Navy, and LSU will likely keep them out of a bowl game this season.

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

Fresno State
2008 was supposed to be the year Fresno State broke through and won the WAC. They brought back a senior quarterback and tight end (Tom Brandstater and Bear Pascoe respectively) who ended up being taken in the 2009 NFL draft. They also brought back eight starters on defense. The lone fly in the ointment was a season-ending trip to Boise State, where the Broncos have yet to lose to a WAC foe. And yet it was not to be. The season began well enough with an upset win at Rutgers on Labor Day. They then gave Wisconsin all they could handle in a 13-10 loss at home. The next week showed the first real signs that maybe Fresno was not all they were cracked up to be. It took the Bulldogs two overtime periods to knock off a Toledo team that would finish 3-9. Worse yet, that Toledo team that averaged 334 yards per game on the season (84th nationally), gouged the Bulldogs for 598 total yards. Fresno also had a closer than expected tussle with UCLA the following week (won 36-31), but entered WAC play with a 3-1 non-conference record. Alas, Fresno would go on to lose four more times in the league. Some were close (Hawaii and Louisiana Tech edged the Bulldogs by three points apiece), and some were not (Boise State ripped the Bulldogs by 51). Fresno then went on to lose the New Mexico Bowl to Colorado State. Statistically, the team thought by many to be one of the best in the conference, was ranked sixth (below Utah State). Now Brandstater and Pascoe are gone from an offense that was already below average by WAC standards. The defense does return nine starters, so there is hope that for improvement there. Unfortunately, the non-conference slate once again includes three road dates with likely bowl teams from BCS leagues (Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Illinois). If the Bulldogs have a notion of returning to the postseason, they must sweep every home game save the once against Boise.


Patrick H said...

I've been reading your blog for well over a year or so and I appreciate your work. As a fan of the WAC in general and Nevada in particular it's nice to see a blog that focuses on something more than just the BCS teams. So, thanks!

matt said...

Thanks for the kind words Patrick. Nevada is one of my favorite teams (along with Boise and San Jose) to watch from the WAC. I'm a huge fan of the Pistol and Colin Kaepernick.