Tiger-Eye Review—Outlaw Edition
The classic definition of an outlaw is a literal one. It refers to someone who operates outside the normal protection of law, who neither conforms to nor is protected by the norms of society extended to law-abiding or even minor criminal agents. The word comes to us from Old Norse nearly a millennia ago and is preserved in that original form in current day Norse-speaking Iceland: útlagi (out + law).
I mention this in a discussion of statistics to illustrate that in that realm there are also outlier data that seems to skew averages disproportionally and dynamically. Oftentimes as one collects this data the urge arises to discount or, even worse, delete such data as unworthy of study or consideration.
But this is a mistake, IMHO. To rationalize data is to disrupt and confuse the story it tells us. To eliminate any data, however well intentioned, is to make all other collected data almost useless. Once you begin to favor one set of data gathered over another, you run the risk of introducing an element of prejudice and begin to blind yourself to the facts as they are being presented to you. Where you end up after beginning that process is going to be some distance away from the truth and nowhere near a proper understanding of the facts.
A more favorable exercise is to see that outlier data for what it is, and instead of discounting it, investigate more deeply how it occurred. Outlaw outlier numbers are not to be discounted. They exist to be hunted down and understood fully. You may never capture their meaning entirely, but by pursuing them you will at least have a better understanding of why they occurred.
There were several examples of such data in this last weekend’s games: Georgia’s incredible first half with Kentucky, Vanderbilt’s surprise anchoring of Missouri, and even the Alabama, LSU and Auburn games that produced significantly different numbers than what was expected. But when faced with such data, it is up to us to endeavor to persevere in our quest—to understand and track which teams are championship caliber in our conference.
SEC West Offense
It would be too easy to account for Alabama’s drop in red zone percentage by attributing it to Tua Tagovailoa’s injury, but in reality one of the two failed red zone attempts in the game was an intercepted pass thrown by Tua. The other was a failed fourth and one at the seven-yard line with just 29 seconds on the game clock. But those were just enough to drop their previous success into the average range. Likewise it would be a mistake to attribute Auburn’s apparent jump in production numbers just to a single blowout game. This is actually not much of a difference than last week or even before the Florida loss. All that occurred was that the team crossed a fraction of a point above the average-to-good range, and the color changed. They were near that point in any case. The actual change was minor.
More significant changes are evident in the Mississippi teams and Texas A&M as they normalize what had previously been team strengths into a more rational representation of their efficiency as their in-conference season progresses. These are incredibly average teams, nowhere near their preseason expectations. But this is a much more realistic representation of their potential and their current won-loss records.
SEC West Defense
The same goes for the recent drop in numbers on this table above. All top-three teams in the West have very good defenses, just not necessarily at the level of their early game results. As the data accumulates, this is illustrated by some interesting numbers. Take a close look at the yards- per-play and 3rd-down conversion rates against the leaders. Auburn, Alabama and LSU aren’t as different statistically as one would imagine, and Auburn actually leads the conference in 3rd downs.
The next three in the conference? Are all in the East, with Vanderbilt ahead of everyone in the West. Maybe that Missouri Boat Ride wasn’t that big of a surprise after all. Alabama’s rate is actually in the bottom half of the conference after the seventh game, and it has yet to face a ranked opponent. LSU is holding down sixth in the conference and is third in the West in this key statistic.
Significant? Could be, especially when you consider that LSU’s offense is based on big plays in addition to consistent drives. One thing it cannot eliminate entirely with such defensive numbers is a shootout game situation. Any team that can keep pace with the LSU offense has a chance late in the game to have one more round in the chamber at the right time.
Since the AU–LSU game is in the morning rather than afternoon or evening, hell might indeed be coming for breakfast this Saturday.
SEC East Offense
The East has had a couple of shocks these last couple of weeks: Georgia and Florida two weeks ago and Georgia and Missouri last week. But is that really the case? Georgia’s offense seemed to stall against Kentucky on paper. But if you watched any of that game, the weather conditions were such that not a single pass was thrown more than four yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Kentucky only completed two passes the entire game. Georgia had one that went 22 yards, but most of those were after the catch. All other passes were only what the conditions allowed. It wasn’t necessarily due to mismanagement or mistakes, but even so I include it as if the weather were clear and sunny. All data is valid.
So where does this leave us? Georgia has the most productive offense in the East. All others are relatively average in nearly every respect. Some few like Florida and Missouri are above, and South Carolina is slightly below, but there isn’t really a comparison on the offensive side of the ball. Georgia is out front, and there isn’t likely a rival that can match them, at least on offense. They are by no means unbeatable as South Carolina proved, but the difference has to come from Georgia’s mistakes and not necessarily from its rivals’ abilities on defense—at least in the games played so far.
SEC East Defense
As I stated before, Vanderbilt’s upset of Missouri was a shock, but perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised when you consider what Vandy’s defense has done game to game. Sure, they’ve been bit by the long ball time and again and blown out by many of the high-ranked teams. But in terms of efficiency on defense, play by play, they’ve had some interesting success from time to time. That they peaked on Mizzou when they did was interesting, and the fact that Missouri was burned by the big play and turnover bug as well is also interesting, but the end result is that the three top teams in the East still have identical conference records and have yet to play each other.
It’s still anyone’s game in the East, and only one team has played all three of the current division leaders. South Carolina scored fewer points against the Tigers from Missouri than they did against Florida and Georgia.
But it would be a mistake to overlook any opponent, even the likes of Vanderbilt and Kentucky. There is still a great deal of football to be played in the next few weeks.
State of the Conference
The picture of the conference is a little more in focus after this last weekend’s games and looks to coalesce in the coming weeks as key games are played that will determine who will represent the division in the championship. The first of these is this week between Auburn and LSU and next week at the Florida–Georgia Classic.
But there are also other games of note in terms of where the conference as a whole is going and not just among the top six contenders for the title. The bottom eight in the table above are collecting losses at a frightful rate, and many are in danger of finishing below .500 in the ever critical “bowl eligible” criterion. If the Southeastern Conference has one or even two selected for the College Football Playoff, there is a real danger that the conference will not be to fulfill the required number of teams to send to the normal post season bowl tie-ins. There are currently six teams in the conference that are underdogs in nearly every remaining conference game, and a couple more that have only a touchdown advantage here and there based upon current betting models.
Granted, it is way too soon to call this one way or the other, but even considering the possibility so early in the season is a troubling development in the apparent quality of SEC conference play this year. Whatever the results at the end of the 2019 season, the fact remains that as a conference the SEC is not performing as a whole anywhere near what it has done in the recent past.
At least, that is what the numbers are showing so far.
We’ll find out which team is the real “Tigers of the West'” this weekend