Georgia, some of you may recall, won 10 wins last year (seems like an eternity now, I know). We’ve had a fairly lively on-and-off discussion in the comments about what the expectations for the win total in Kirby Smart’s maiden voyage might be. I thought it might be useful to explore that topic in a series of posts over the offseason.
Today, I thought I’d start with the schedule. According to Sagarin, Georgia wound up playing the 55th-most difficult schedule in the country last season, which was the second-easiest in the SEC. No doubt that helped a little in getting to the ten-win mark.
How does 2016 shape up in that department? Well, first, click here to review the schedule. In comparison with what was lined up last season, Georgia plays the East, swaps Alabama at home for Ole Miss on the road and drops one non-P5 opponent for North Carolina. Overall, it appears fairly similar, or maybe slightly tougher. Is there much data to back that up?
At this point, not much. One place to start is with Phil Steele’s compilation of what he refers to as “the NCAA method for strength of schedule”, which is simply to add last season’s won-loss totals of a school’s opponents together for a grand total. Obviously, this doesn’t take into account the relative strength of schedule for each of those teams and thus is limited in value.
Anyway, based on that, Georgia’s 2015 strength of schedule was 10th. This year, in significant part because of the collapse of Georgia Tech’s, South Carolina’s and Missouri’s records last season, that SOS ranking has dropped all the way to 84th. Will all those schools perform as poorly again this season? If so, that would be a reason for optimism about Georgia’s win total.
The other place to go, with an allegedly more robust approach to analyzing this, is ESPN’s preseason SOS rankings based on its proprietary FPI formula (I know, I know). Before you judge me too harshly here, it’s hard to argue with this:
There are many ways to evaluate schedule strength; the traditional method sums opponents’ records from the previous season to determine the toughest schedules heading into the following year.
Although this measure of SOS is a decent starting point, it has some major flaws. First, opponents’ records in the previous season are not predictive of how strong teams will be going forward. For example, Michigan went 5-7 and missed a bowl in 2014, but many expected the Wolverines to improve under Jim Harbaugh in 2015. ESPN’s FPI expected Michigan to be the second-most improved Power 5 school entering 2015, and it doubled its win total from the previous season.
Another flaw of the traditional method is that not all teams with the same records are created equal. Would you rather play Appalachian State or Oklahoma next season? Both were 11-2 in 2015, but an average FBS team would have a 51 percent chance to beat the Mountaineers at a neutral site in 2016, and a 6 percent chance to beat the Sooners, according to ESPN’s FPI.
Finally, the traditional method fails to account for other factors such as game site, distance traveled and rest. For example, beating the 35th-ranked team (or Penn State, according to preseason FPI) on the road is about as difficult as beating the 15th-ranked team (Notre Dame) at home.
Further, playing a game after a cross-country flight or facing a team that is coming off a bye only adds to the difficulty.
FPI’s projected SOS ranks are designed to account for all of these factors to produce the truest measure of schedule strength entering the 2016 season. Opponent strength is measured with preseason FPI, which incorporates past efficiencies, returning starters, talent on the roster (with recruiting ranks) and coaching tenure.
Is the result accurate? Me, you’re asking? All I can do is paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld here and observe that you go to war with the stats you have, not the stats you might want or wish to have at a later time. That being said, where does Georgia’s 2016 strength of schedule shake out in the vast scheme of things? FPI sez 16th. Before you gulp, that is only the eighth-most difficult ranking in the SEC. (Before you smile, Tennessee’s is 35th and Florida’s is 49th.)
All in all, ESPN projects Georgia to finish with a 9-3 mark in the regular season. I haven’t made my final projection yet – and won’t until we get much closer to the season’s start – but I don’t think nine wins is at all unreasonable. It’s also not unreasonable to think that the schedule itself won’t be an insurmountable barrier to Smart notching that tenth win in his first season.