The sad thing is that UGA will likely see this Tony Barnhart post as a call to action for the SEC to adopt Georgia’s drug policy for student-athletes.
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.
I always enjoy Matt Melton’s postmortem take on conference yards per play numbers. He’s just posted his take on the SEC here. The picture may surprise you a little.
… here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each SEC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
Yep, that’s Georgia boasting the best net number in the division and third best in the conference. Obviously nobody’s going to describe Georgia’s season in that way, so how to explain? Well, first start with Matt’s general caveat.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games. Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings.
There are a few factors inside of our perception that can play a role, too. Here are four:
- Georgia was twelfth in the SEC last year in offensive plays run in conference games. With a couple of exceptions, that was a pretty steady reflection of Richt’s approach on offense over the years.
- Georgia was +1 in turnover margin in its eight 2015 conference games. (It was +14 in 2014.) That was good for fourth. Unfortunately, Florida was first last season, at +8.
- Georgia finished thirteenth in third-down conversion rate last season. Missouri was the only team worse.
- In 2014, Georgia was the top team in the country in Football Outsider’s field position rankings. Last season, the Dawgs wound up 63rd on the list. That was only good for eighth best in the SEC. Florida and Tennessee finished in the top five.
All of that was a drag on a team that at least statistically generated respectable ypp numbers.
… As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s Yards per Play (YPP). Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards per Play and Yards per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or underperforming by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2015 season, which teams in the SEC met this threshold? Here are the SEC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Aha, he said. Suddenly there’s a little more to the perception of how the teams in the East finished. Here’s more from Matt:
… The two teams that vastly exceeded their YPP results also happened to meet in the SEC Championship Game. A confluence of factors allowed the Gators to win the SEC East in their first season under Jim McElwain. Florida finished 3-1 in one-score conference games, boasted the best in-conference turnover margin (+8), and scored three non-offensive touchdowns. For Alabama, the results are more mystifying. The Crimson Tide lost only once all season (by six points), and won just a single conference game by fewer than thirteen points. The Tide were not especially buoyed by turnover margin either, finishing a respectable, but hardly superb +1 in SEC play. However, the Tide did take advantage of unconventional touchdowns. They returned four interceptions for touchdowns in SEC play, including three against Texas A&M.
Georgia, in essence, was what ypp showed it was and nothing more. Richt didn’t exactly underachieve; however, Florida and Tennessee managed to overachieve. Alabama did, too, surprisingly. Are there lessons for Kirby to take from that and apply in Athens this season?
Why you gotta bring me down like that, Ed Aschoff?
You simply can’t fight change. Doing so is foolish. That’s one reason the SEC has been so successful during the past decade. Those eight national championships in 10 years didn’t just materialize overnight. Careful planning and excellent business sense from league officials, universities and coaches have helped the SEC rise above the rest in college football.
Thanks to the skillful mind of former SEC commissioner Mike Slive, the SEC has stayed ahead of the curve for most of the 2000’s. New commissioner Greg Sankey is in the infancy of his reign as league commissioner, but if he wants to give the SEC another leg up on the competition, he could take a radical step into future planning.
Petition the NCAA to get rid of divisions in college football … even though the SEC created them in 1992.
Honestly, what’s the point? They are outdated, and hurt the conference more than help it.
And why so?
Elimination of divisions would also ensure that the two best teams would play in Atlanta every year. The West has won seven straight conference titles, six by 14 points or more. Florida (2008) is the last East team to win the conference. Let’s not act like there hasn’t been an imbalance of power in the SEC, thanks to divisions. There is an obvious disparity, creating more worry for teams and their true playoff hopes…
Nothing wrong with getting the most competitive game possible in your most important game every year by guaranteeing No. 1 vs. No. 2, which — wait for it — increases playoff hopes even more!
The SEC’s won, what, eight of the last ten national titles… so I guess if there were no divisions, it would have been a clean sweep.
At some point, my insistence that an expanded postseason is going to dilute the most unique thing college football has going for it, the most meaningful regular season in American sports, is going to resonate more generally. When? Well, if you ask Aschoff, probably ten years from now.
Cherish these days, SEC fans, because in 10 years you won’t recognize your league.
Another wave of expansion will hit and with the College Football Playoff expanding to at least eight teams within the next decade (sooner rather than later if the NCAA is smart), the SEC will go to nine conference games. The league finally will get rid of divisions (you’re welcome, Auburn and Missouri) and crown its winner by having an outright champion.
What, no SEC title game? Well, once the playoff expands (thank you) and the SEC moves to nine conference games, coaches will let their athletic directors and presidents know that they aren’t going to want to play more than 12 games before the playoff. Makes sense, so you either eliminate a nonconference game or the championship games. Less nonconference games hurts the smaller schools and since championship games affect fewer teams, buh-bye.
Gosh, I feel better already. ‘Scuse me while I kiss the brackets.
OMG! It turns out the Big 12 Commissioner was wrong when he said that adding two teams and a conference championship game would increase the Big 12’s chances of cracking the college football playoffs by 4-5%. It’s moar!
Analytics from Navigate Research are expected to show the Big 12 has at least a 10-15 percent better chance of reaching the CFP in any given year if it expands as opposed to staying in its 10-team configuration.
That percentage at least doubles than the “4-5 percent” improvement commissioner Bob Bowlsby spoke about in Phoenix on Monday. That smaller figure discussed by Bowlsby only included the addition of a conference championship game, CBS Sports has learned.
The particular analysis used by Navigate for Wednesday’s presentation includes expanding the league to 12 with two additional teams, playing an eight-game conference schedule and staging a league championship game…
Oops. This, of course, changes everything. Except for this guy:
While the new data seems to suggest it would be in the 10-team conference’s best interest to expand, one league source called the existing analytics “statistically insignificant.”
If nothing else, expansion would provide a “buffer” of members if schools leave in the future.
Now there’s a comforting thought. If Texas and Oklahoma leave, at least the rest of the conference would have the likes of BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, UConn, Houston and Memphis to fall back on for comfort.
You have a bright future ahead of you, Bob.