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Tiger-Eye Review—Fearful Symmetry Edition

By on September 12th, 2018 in Football 5 Comments »

Tyger Tyger burning bright, In the forests of the night – William Blake

After the second week of the season, the Tiger-Eye Review has some additional meaty data to peruse. For four SEC East teams, the start of inter-division play revealed some key issues on each team that may illustrate what can be expected from them going forward through their busy schedules. Another SEC West squad battled a top-ten-ranked team down to the wire and came away with a clearer understanding of its relative strengths and weaknesses in relation to the rest of the division. Still other teams feasted on welcome cupcake opponents to fine tune their play and grant game-time experience to their benches in the hope of garnering vital depth as the season wears on and injuries to starters mount.  As we approach the second half of the first month of play, the grind of the conference season begins, and the teams emerging as the dominant leaders will drive where the conference and,ultimately, the College Football Playoff championships go. 

A few observations on the games just played.

Overall, most teams have played two teams of varying ability, and the numbers are beginning to coalesce into some meaningful data. By no means is the process complete or truly indicative of the true potential of each team within the league, but there are some observable hints that might indicate trends going forward. I found that there are some unique pairings of teams that display remarkable similarity both on offense and defense and on overall quality of play.

Some of these are easy. For instance, it’s not much of a revelation that the Tennessee Volunteers are in for a very humbling season. With their stats so far and playing three top-ten ranked teams in a row, it will be a hard sell to count on making a bowl game this year. Additionally, with what looks like a resurgent Kentucky and Missouri and, possibly, Vanderbilt showing promise, the Vols may have difficulty even winning a conference game. Likewise, it’s hard to believe that Arkansas will make much headway in its season, not with their defense unable to keep a team like Colorado State from scoring three touchdowns in a single quarter.

South Carolina and Florida looked entirely beatable in their first conference games. Both looked capable in the first half, but then saw the game drift away from them later in the third and into the final quarter of the game as the better team was obviously not sitting on the home bench. Another easy pairing is the quality of play from both Mississippi State and Georgia. Both teams seem to be remarkably capable on both offense and defense, not just against cupcake teams but against power-5 opponents as well. Both have another warm-up game before conference play begins in earnest, but it’s hard to find anything wrong with the way those teams are playing.

A fearful symmetry, indeed.

The start of conference play is always a welcome treat

SEC West Offense

In our division, the similarity is most pronounced by the early season output of the two Tiger offenses. Uncharacteristically, both teams seem to struggle on third down and scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Maybe this is an indication of lack of depth in key positions as the starters are benched early. Perhaps these are simply early-season growing pains for new personnel. It’s hard to say, other than there seem to be problems that both teams are experiencing almost equally. We’ll find out if these issues still apply to both teams with the game this weekend, but it doesn’t give a clear indication of which team has an advantage on offense.

Another remarkable parity is the output of both Alabama and Texas A&M.  Both offenses seem highly capable in all aspects of the game. Despite the loss this weekend, Jimbo Fisher has his offense ready to play at the highest level, and Nick Saban’s decision on a sophomore QB with only a single start instead of a junior with a 28–2 record is evident by the effectiveness of his offense when Tagovailoa is on the field.

It’s also fun to listen to the various announcers absolutely butcher his name. Even funnier are the ones who retreat to just using “Tua” for the entirety of their time on camera. 

SEC West Defense

Yet another remarkable similarity is the quality of the two Tiger defenses this year.  Both are deep, capable and punishing defenses without any apparent weaknesses against either the run or the pass. Alabama, Texas A&M and Mississippi State have quality defenses too, but not on the same level as LSU and Auburn in their first two games.

The only oddball team in the conference defensively is Mississippi. Statistically, it has the worst defense in the league yet is standing at 2–0 for the year due to itsr top-scoring offense, having won both games easily by a margin of 3+ scores. What will happen when Ole Miss meets a quality defense? We’ll find out this weekend when Alabama shows up Saturday night.

SEC East Offense

In the East, Georgia and Missouri are displaying almost zero issues offensively. Both run and pass extremely well, and can score from nearly every part of the field. The rest of the division is showing signs that the Eastern Division will be Georgia’s to lose. No team other than Missouri has given any indication of being able to knock Georgia out of the SEC conference game, which means the only obstacles for the Dawgs will be the Tigers: Missouri (September 22), LSU (October 13) and Auburn (November 11).

SEC East Defense

Here’s the concern. Georgia seems dominant on defense in a way that no other SEC East team has been in early games. The only team close is Vanderbilt, but that won’t likely be the case when those teams meet in early October. With a defense this good, I don’t see any team on Georgia’s schedule giving it a run for their money outside of the three Tigers I mentioned above.

Where that leaves the rest of the SEC East is anyone’s guess. With Kentucky’s victory over Florida, I’d like to say that the Wildcats might make it into a major bowl game, were it not that they’ve drawn Texas A&M and Mississippi State this year as cross-conference opponents. Instead, even with a loss, it looks like South Carolina might still end up as the second-best team in the East.  Missouri has a chance too, but it also draws Alabama cross conference, and that might sink Mizzou even if it catches a break here and there.

State of the Conference

If you notice, the symmetry begins to show again when the divisions are combined. Both teams of Dawgs (UGA and MSU) are playing tough. So are Missouri and Alabama but with slightly less significant numbers on defense. Surprisingly, both Kentucky and Vanderbilt are also showing impressive results in their first two games, and as I’ve pointed out, LSU and Auburn are nearly identical in terms of defense and also have issues on offense that may or may not be excused by the level of their opponents. 

Of the rest, the only strange beast is the Old Miss Black Bear Colonel Ackbar. A top scoring offense and abysmal defense is not a confidence builder for a glorious season, but it could potentially create havoc when they race some ranked team throughout an offensive shootout. I’m not saying it will happen this weekend (despite my fervent hope that it does), but with all of their play-makers they could very well ambush an unwary opponent sometime this season. Call it a trap game, if you will.

So what do the first two weeks of the season show us? Cause for concern, at the very least, especially with Auburn’s upcoming schedule. For even when we complete our rivalry game with LSU this week, we still have the daunting task of preparing for a line of quality opponents beginning in early October that quickly escalates to incredible levels in the month of November.  Texas A&M might not be ranked as of today, and while they still have to get by Alabama and Mississippi State before facing Auburn, the Aggies are looking like an incredibly tough game at home in front of even tougher road games for Auburn as the season closes.

Currently, both SEC West Tigers may not be burning as brightly as we might hope. But what happens this weekend will likely go a long way in determining the future of the division and, possibly, the conference race.

One of us will prove to be the true King of the Jungle

 

5 Comments

  1. War_Eagle_2010 War_Eagle_2010 says:

    I’d be interested if you could include a knockdown factor for the quality of opponents faced. It’d have to be based off last years results (or perhaps the average recruiting star ranking for their players) for the first games of the season but I think that would help morph the numbers into something more representative of reality for these early season games. I think your model tends to be pretty spot on around game 5-6, because most teams will have played a mix of good/bad teams at that point. I think most would agree Auburn is clearly a top three SEC team at this point, so trying to quantify that would be useful IMO.

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      The problem I have with extrapolating from last year’s data is that it was last year. Players, coaching staffs and scheduling changes year to year can be significant and I’m hesitant to try and capture that in any discussion of this season’s analysis. There would simply be too many exceptions for those games to be relevant in the current season.

      Can you imagine discussing any team playing Auburn in say 2011 with a discussion about the statistical impact of what Cam Newton accomplished in 2010? The games and statistics from just don’t translate well over the break.

      I’m afraid we’re stuck with wildly variable data points until trends reveal around mid season. What I’m trying to accomplish in these early games are identifying those that are significant from those that are circumstantial.

      • War_Eagle_2010 War_Eagle_2010 says:

        Understood and I agree for the most part, however since its the only data available it seems a shame not to try to use it. The 2010 vs 2011 Auburn teams, or an even more extreme example would be the 2012 vs 2013 Auburn teams, are outliers I believe. Normally teams are around as good as they were in the previous year.

        An alternate method could be to knockdown the positive value of wins over non-power five. For example, last year Missouri was pretty bad against power-five teams scoring just 29.6 ppg, but against the three non-power five teams they played they scored a whopping 64 ppg. Overall they averaged scoring 37.5 ppg. Auburn on the other hand averaged scoring 34.0 ppg vs power-five and only 33.5 ppg vs non-power five, giving an overall average of 33.9 ppg. I believe using your model, last year Missouri was the 1st or 2nd rated offense in the SEC, but they clearly were not as good as their overall numbers suggested due to the way they ran up the score on the worst teams they played. On the flip side Auburn was clearly better than the way they played against non-power five schools.

        • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

          “Normally teams are around as good as they were in the previous year.” – a fact that Dan Mullen is just now learning the hard way.

          While your idea has merit, along with the FPI index that ESPN is running, I am still very cautious about changing my metrics from year to year. But I’ll keep it in mind as we go.

  2. sparkey sparkey says:

    So, you are saying Auburn goes 8-4 if not 7-5.

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