Tiger-Eye Review—Preseason Buzz Edition
I’ve had a bee in my bonnet all summer. I’ve been trying to make sense of the incessant chitter of rankings, predicted outcomes and opinions from the media beat reporters. I sometimes wonder if many of these predictions are actually based upon real analysis of coaching and player talent, team experience or other such data, or if they are based simply on casual observation. It sometimes feels that the comments on practices and interviews by a given beat reporter are merely flowery descriptions of a team based entirely on warm-up throws between quarterbacks or a series of wind sprints by a team’s defensive backs. What has been bugging me is trying to decode whether these reports and articles are true journalistic insight into what is likely to happen during games in the coming season or just lazy SWAGs* because of editorial deadlines?
Then there is the drone and chirping from the various fan bases and blogs, complete with wildly unfounded expectations that any given team’s performance will be equal or exceed previous years regardless of player turnover or coaching changes. We know from hard experience in this league that coaching changes are essentially a gamble by a program to find the coach that will “turn it all around” after the previous coaching staff was fired or traded jobs for more fruitful positions elsewhere.
So are there definable numbers that will give a hint of what can be expected of a given team in the coming season? I know that there are a wealth of statistics that point to this or that factor as important or vital, but can those be relied upon or are there too many variables to base any valid predictions upon them? Phil Steele is an excellent source of data and insight, but even his numbers can vary widely on what they show and are difficult to discern as to how they apply to each and every team. Especially with the disparity of athletic ability between schools in terms of the athletes they can successfully recruit.
It seems to depend on what one wants to measure and the value placed upon those measurements more than a simple compilation of all existing data. Additionally, one should never rely solely on predictions in any case. You have to allow for achievement by individuals, teams and coaching staffs. You must also consider how long the odds are for any such prediction – over twelve or more successive contests against other teams for a single hour of game time, accounting for injuries, replacements, weather, and even off-the-field activities that might impact all of the above. With that in mind, predictions based on preseason measurements will only take you so far. The nagging bites and stings of in-game experiences can alternately prove annoying or catastrophically deadly and there is almost no real way to honestly say that a prediction is even valid, no matter how sure a bet it is.
About the best one could hope for then is a measure of collective potential based on several significant factors. However, this is with the understanding that whatever teams and coaching staffs do with that potential is only revealed in actually playing the games. Whether they busy themselves and efficiently collect victories week to week or waste their time in grasshopper-like indulgence over the waning days of summer is entirely up to them.
The conference may well feel our bite and sting on the tail end of the season
In my analysis, I began with the basis of the length of time coaching staffs have had with their players. Not only do we have a unique situation of multiple changes of head coaches this year and in recent previous years, even long-established head coaches have had recent coordinator changes that will bring new changes to playbooks, sets, and philosophies on the field of play. I also wanted to record some data about the level of returning talent to each team, both offensive and defensive. While it seemed important to look at how many starters returned, that didn’t give me the full story. Therefore I added one additional metric of those returning starters—how many yards they contributed to the offense and how many tackles they recorded on defense the previous year (both as a percentage – thanks to Phil Steele).
Lastly, in recognition of the talent levels of the various teams in the conference and the types of athletes they have recruited, I’ve included an average value of the last five years of recruiting rankings. This is purely a rationalization of a brutal truth—that no matter how many starters a team like Vanderbilt returns year to year, they’ll never match the recruiting potential of the SEC power teams like Auburn, Alabama and Georgia. They simply cannot be expected to entice the top talent in the nation like those powerhouse programs.
Let’s be honest, the last time the Commodores were anywhere near the top ten, they had Lionel Richie and were singing Brick House.
Once I collected this data, putting a value on each one seemed the logical choice. I then reverted to the tried and true Cafe Malzahn practice of assigning points – 4 points (green) for the top tier, 2 points (yellow) for above average, 1 point (white) for slightly below average and no points (pink) for the bottom of the conference. Color coding those fields accordingly gives a quick, easy method to focus in on the strengths and weaknesses for each team. Then the trick was to look back a few years and see if these metrics showed any validity.
Due to limited time, I started with the 2015 season and worked forward three years as this included the firings of two of the longest-tenured coaches in the history of the SEC and I thought the results of analysis might be interesting. Turns out I was not disappointed. The last column “Potential” is the summation of the other column scores per team.
These are the results of the preseason analysis of 2015. Take a good look at the numbers for returning talent for South Carolina, Georgia, Auburn and Alabama for that year. The important thing to note is that whereas Alabama had just as poor numbers as any other team their depth of recruiting talent on the bench and long standing defensive coordinator may have helped them a great deal to continue to perform. However, not all the teams had that luxury, and the results of the season bore this out. By December, Nick Saban was still at the top of the league having lost a game to Ole Miss and having squeaked out two narrow defensive victories against conference teams. But the teams with less accumulated talent AND a turnover at the offensive coordinator position were impacted to the point that both Steve Spurrier and Mark Richt were out of a job, despite their vast experience. There was even strident discussion of replacing Gus Malzahn for a similar drop in offensive production.
Also, consider LSU’s performance in 2015. They had top level returning talent on offense, a long standing coaching staff, but a change in defensive coordinator garnered the team three key conference losses, all in a late-season collapse. That would play a significant part of what happened the following year.
Now look at LSU at the start of 2016. Expectations couldn’t have been higher as the Bengals had the most returning talent on both sides of the ball and the longest-tenured coaching staff on offense in the conference. But yet another change at defensive coordinator and an inexplicable failure to move the ball at key times in two critical early games meant that head coach Les Miles would be another casualty in the coaching turnover in the conference.
Which is one of the reasons I classify this look at statistics a reflection of potential rather than predictive outcome. Coaches, players and teams still have to perform on the field of play and win ball games. The numbers and statistics are only a guide of what they could achieve, not what they will actually do during the course of the season. A team could have every advantage possible and still not achieve its full potential.
2017 saw the departure of no fewer than six head coaches, and while some of those can be attributed to the numbers I show above, not all of them are as easy to illustrate. There were many problems identified in each of the teams whose coaches were fired or moved, but I still feel there is validity in looking at coordinator turnover, returning talent and recruiting performance. Maybe these issues were not severe enough to fire someone prior to the season, but they are indicative enough to identify issues and areas that were questionable going into that season. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at Mississippi State’s and then Florida’s recruiting history and see why Dan Mullen might be coerced into choosing one over the other.
Which brings us to the discussion of the upcoming 2018 season, and where the three previous annual review of potential points us.
I’m sure you see what I see in terms of problem areas for many of these teams in 2018.
The first thing that jumps right off the page at you is LSU’s returning offensive talent. This is the lowest return of talent for the entire conference since Auburn’s woeful 2012 season. I hate to say it because I rather like the guy, but we may be seeing the last of Ed Orgeron as a head coach in the Southeastern Conference. Their first game is against Miami on September 2. Mark Richt and both of his coordinators have been coaching and recruiting the Hurricanes for three straight years and have filled that team of with top-10 recruiting classes year after year. Their performance in Arlington might be an indication of how the LSU season might go. Because if that start is rough, it won’t get any easier for DaCoachO since the Bayou Bengals play two of the three SEC East power teams that are above his squad in this preseason potential—Florida and Georgia. With only 17% of his yards returning and two of four scholarship quarterbacks walking off the team in frustration, there is definitely trouble brewing in Baton Rouge this year. That team is just a sprained ankle and a couple of interceptions away from having to consider a walk-on non-scholarship scout team quarterback to operate that offense in conference play.
Secondly, watch out for both South Carolina and Ole Miss this year. Both teams return a significant number of starters and talent and could accordingly make some noise in their respective divisions. Even with a new offensive coordinator in Columbia, this might be Will Muschamp’s year. Similarly, Matt Luke and Ole Miss might become a dark-horse contender as their manageable schedule and the numbers above show a tremendous potential for accomplishing a lot in Oxford this year.
Lastly, that remark that Nick Saban made this weekend about the expectations of the fans and media for him to just “S—- another player” to fill gaps in his depth chart might be an indication that he’s looking at similar numbers and beginning to worry deeply about how his team will navigate the coming season. The Tide have two new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and from the numbers I illustrate, may be in for a very rough time as the season progresses.
Those elephant dung beetles in Tuscaloosa might not find this year so easy to roll.
*Scientific Wild Ass Guesses