Beyond the Box Score: SEC edition (Part One)

So at my current rate, I'll be sick of writing about the Big 12 by about Week Three of the season.  I mean...how many words have I written about the Ne-----a defense at this point?  7,000?  8,000?  And Ron Prince's JUCOs?  2,000?  I've still got a few more BTBS previews of Big 12 teams to write, but as I get the chance over the last month of the offseason, I'm going to branch out a bit and write about other conferences.  And naturally we'll start with the OMG, greatest, fastest, most talented, most awesomely amazing conference known to man, the SEC.

Now, I'm calling this a "Beyond the Box Score" preview, but I'm going to make it as non-number friendly as possible.  I'm going to use some BTBS concepts to set up the team previews, but the rest will be more standard analysis.  And hopefully that will make you want to learn the BTBS concepts.  Yeah, that's the ticket!

Here's what we're going to do: I'm going to address each team's four main "Game-Changing Stats" emerging from their WinCorr's (I didn't figure anybody would care if I didn't list out the top 20 statistical categories as I've been doing recently...correct me if I'm wrong).  Then I'll look at their national '+' rankings and list their best and worst categories.

So let's just get started.  I'll list teams in order of where they finished last year, I'll determine a 'balance of power' for each division, and then I'll look at the schedules.  East Division today, West Division and schedules tomorrow.

(And one last note: I removed all 'pressure situation' categories from the list, as...well...pressure situations are important for everybody...we don't need stats to figure that one out...)

East Division

Tennessee (6-2)

Game-Changing Stats (i.e. stats with the highest impact on the team's W/L's, and what they mean for 2008)

  • Pass Defense, close games.
  • Q2 Defense.
  • Rushing Offense, Non-Passing Downs.
  • Q2 Offense.

Top Ranks

#11: Offensive Q4 Line Yards+.
#11: Offensive Q2 S&P+.
#12: Offensive Q2 S&P+, Passing.
#13: Defensive 2nd Down S&P+, Rushing.

Bottom Ranks

#117: Offensive 3rd Down Line Yards+.
#105: Offensive Q4 S&P+.
#102: Offensive Q4 S&P+, Passing.
#102: Offensive Q2 Line Yards+.

Remember how the Vols won the East last year instead of Florida or Georgia?  Remember that?  Me neither.

I've expressed my theory in the past that, in general, teams are either 1st and 3rd quarter teams or 2nd and 4th quarter teams.  The 1st/3rd's are generally teams who derive advantages from gameplanning and adjustments.  The 2nd/4th's are the teams with talent and athleticism that overcome you once the gameplanning is exhausted.  It's a relatively viable theory, I think, but UT blows that for now.  You see, Tennessee's best quarters were Q2 and Q4.  Their worst quarters were...Q2 and Q4  Their passing game found a rhythm in Q2, while their run blocking ground to a halt.  Then, in Q4 the opposite happened...the run blocking in Q4 was top-notch, while the passing game faltered.  How does this happen?  And more importantly...what does it mean?  I wish I had an answer.

All I know is this: their secondary returns intact, and while you could make something of a case that that isn't a good thing (they weren't very good, so you'd kinda want some new talent in there), I'll say that it is, in fact, good.

Also tied to wins and losses: the rushing game.  Let's see: a) the line appears to have blocked better as the game wore on, b) Arian Foster returns, and c) Phil Steele calls UT's OL the best in the SEC.  Another good thing.

So now they just have to get this whole "Q2" thing figured out.  They lose 18-year starting QB Erik Ainge, so that's bad, but if Q2 really is a "talent" quarter, former stud recruit Jonathan Crompton should lead the offense relatively well.

Summary: I'm pretty torn on this team.  These numbers suggest that Tennessee should be as good or better at the things that where most important to them last year, and that could spell success.  Only, the teams around them possibly improved more.

I always thought Erik Ainge was rather overrated, so I don't feel that replacing him will be completely murderous.  The running game should click along pretty well as long as Crompton isn't a total liability in the passing game, and the defense isn't the best in the conference, but I think their success will come down to what's more important: the positive impact of getting better in the secondary, or the negative impact of getting worse on the D-Line.  For now we'll say the offense is better, the defense the same.

Verdict: Tennessee could be a bit better than what most are assuming (then again, SMQ and others have them in the Top 20, so whaddo I know).  If they slip in the SEC East, it's because...well, they play in the SEC East, and Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina should all improve quite a bit in '08.

Georgia (6-2)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Total Offense, close games.
  • Q1 Defense.
  • Rushing Defense.
  • Passing Offense.

Top Ranks

#2: Defensive Q3 Line Yards+.
#5: Offensive Redzone S&P+, Passing.
#5: Defensive Q3 S&P+.
#6: Defensive Redzone S&P+, Passing.

Bottom Ranks

#119: Defensive Q2 Line Yards+.
#117: Defensive Q4 Line Yards+.
#113: Defensive 2nd Down Line Yards+.
#113: Offensive Q4 Line Yards+.

The Line Yards+ rankings are simply fascinating.  As you'll see, Tennessee and Georgia are not the only two teams that are fantastic at run-blocking/stopping the run in some quarters and quite bad in others.  For UGA, there was nobody better at stopping the run in the "talent" quarters (Q2, Q4), but they were pretty lacking on D in Q3.  I think the Q1/Q3 vs Q2/Q4 thing is worthy of its own post in the future, but...well, I have to finish this post first!

What I also find interesting here is...not only were they great defensively in Q2 and Q4 and pretty poor in Q3...on top of that, Q1 Defense was one of the "game-changing" stats.  If they could keep you off the scoreboard early, before settling in in Q2, you were toast.  You had to jump on the Bulldogs early to have a chance.

Okay, so obviously UGA's defense set the tone for UGA games--what does that mean for 2008?  Well, they lose top sack man Marcus Howard and DB stalwarts Kelin Johnson and Thomas Flowers...and return everybody else.  If they thrived in the "talent" quarters last year, they should thrive even more this year.

In 2007, the offense just had to take advantage of giftwrapped opportunities and put together a couple other decent drives, and they were going to be successful.  Matt Stafford's numbers were far from amazing, but they were certainly good enough with the defense he had working for him.  I'm extremely far from an "It's Knowshon Moreno's Heisman to lose this year" guy--he did have Thomas White taking a lot of key carries last year, and you never know how a guy's going to react the first year his name is on the marquee.  But while he could be ready for a Heisman push, he certainly won't have to be for UGA to be strong in '08.  His backups are as highly-touted as ever, and the UGA offense should click along at least on the level of last year.

Summary: The conventional wisdom on Georgia is that they were an underachieving team until Mark Richt had them dance in the endzone in Jacksonville...and then poof, the switch flipped and Georgia was the best team in the country.  Was it really that simple?

It was exactly that simple offensively.  Before the Florida game, their average Offensive S&P+ number was 105.6; after, it was 135.6 (remember: anything over 100 on the '+' scale is good, anything over 150 is top-tier).  Defensively, they averaged only a 98.4 Defensive S&P+ before Florida, and then a 87.9 after.  So their identity changed more than their overall quality--they became an Offense First team (meanwhile, their overall defensive numbers were lower than you or I would have assumed...guess that Q3 lull really hurt them).

Is their offensive surge sustainable?  Initial thoughts are...yes!  Matt Stafford!  Knowshon Moreno!  Brilliant!  And those initial thoughts are probably relatively correct; I just have one concern: their biggest improvement on offense came on passing downs (their Passing Down S&P+ went from 100.0 pre-Florida to 175.7 during-and-post-Florida).  I mentioned before that, while I don't have trend data yet, I'm concerned that teams with strangely high Passing Down success one year will have trouble duplicating it the next.

This concern, however, does not give me enough ammo to buck conventional wisdom.  With the talent returning here, I can't not make Georgia one of my top teams in the country.

Verdict: This team is Top 5-6 caliber without a doubt, and maybe Top 1-2, but it comes with a caveat--their offense may not be as good as we all assume.  They may not be able to bail themselves out on Passing Downs as well, and if they don't, the pressure will be on the defense to produce even more than it did in '07.

Florida (5-3)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Offense, redzone.
  • Total Offense, close games.
  • Total Defense, Non-Passing Downs.
  • Passing Offense, close games.

Top Ranks

#1: Offensive S&P+, Rushing.
#1: Offensive 1st Down S&P+, 2nd Down S&P+, 3rd Down S&P+, Non-Passing Down S&P+.
#1: Offensive Redzone S&P+, Rushing.
#1: Offensive Q1 S&P+, Q2 S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#118: Defensive Passing Down S&P+.
#110: Defensive 2nd Down S&P+, Passing.
#104: Defensive Close-Game S&P+, Passing.
#103: Defensive Q2 S&P+, Passing.

In total, they were #1 in 22 offensive categories and 1 defensive category (Defensive 2nd Down Line Yards+)...and pretty damn low-ranked in almost every pass defense category.

For 2008, they've lost next to nothing in the WR corps, have added a (for now) healthier, bigger Percy Harvin*, and they return all their key rushers while adding Emmanuel Moody.  Yikes.  Add to this Urban Meyer's coaching prowess, and this is pretty clearly (to me) the best offense in the country.

* Am I the only one a bit alarmed by just how much weight Harvin has (supposedly) gained in one offseason?  I don't mean this in a "cough cough steroids cough cough" way, but in a "how in the hell does he not lose at least some of his agility?" way.  I mean, it might be worth it to lose a little agility if it means he's healthy all year, but...does it even mean that?  Stacking on a ton of muscle quickly isn't always known to lead immediately to fewer injuries.

Defensively?  I guess the question is, how much can a defense improve in one year?  Just about everybody on the Florida Defense was highly-touted on the recruiting end, they're all super-athletic, and just about everybody returns for '08.  The D-Line does have to replace Derrick Harvey, their leader sacker, but they replace him with a variety of highly-touted recruits like sophomore Carlos Dunlap or freshman William Green or RSFr Jaye Howard.  They should be fine there.  Maybe not better, but fine.  Sophomores and juniors now litter the secondary, and I think all the prognosticators picking UF #1 are just assuming that they'll get their act together at some point. But they were soooooo bad defending the pass in 2007. It's hard to ignore that.

SummaryFlorida was just about the worst team in the country at having Passing Down breakdowns in '07, and that will almost certainly improve in '08; however, the pass rush might not be any better, so the pressure will be on all those '07 frosh and sophs to develop on the job.  They will, but it might not be enough to dodge all the landmines on the schedule.  Then again, they had the #1 offense in the country, and all the key cogs return.  So if the offense and defense both improve incrementally...well...yikes.

Verdict: Unbelievable offense, improved-but-maybe-not-enough-to-win-a-national-title defense, decent slate for an SEC slate (they leave the state all of three times, and two of those trips are to Arkansas and Vanderbilt), great coach...like I said about Georgia, this is clearly a Top 5-6 team, but they have an Achille's Heel in that their pass defense just has so far to go.  They really could be the most improved defense in the country, but...until they actually prove that, it's going to hold them back in my mind.

Kentucky (3-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Passing Offense, Non-Passing Downs.
  • Total Offense, Non-Passing Downs.
  • Rushing Offense (particularly in Q3).
  • 2nd Down Defense.

Top Ranks

#2: Offensive Line Yards+, close games.
#4: Offensive Q3 S&P+.
#5: Offensive Q3 S&P+, passing.
#6: Offensive Passing-Down S&P+.

Bottom Ranks

#116: Defensive 3rd-Down S&P+.
#115: Defensive Q4 S&P+, Rushing.
#111: Defensive Q2 S&P+.
#110: Defensive 3rd-Down S&P+, Rushing.

Andre Woodson was a hit-or-miss magician in 2007.  One moment, he's cutting a coin out of his arm (i.e. beating LSU in OT), the next he's accidentally breaking car windows (i.e. waiting way too damn long to make a decision in OT against Tennessee).  But even with all the good magic tricks, UK only went 3-5 in 2007.  And now they're starting from scratch from a leadership perspective.

So...looking at their Game-Changing Stats, I'm pretty sure we can say that the Passing Game is going to suffer, what with the QB situation in disarray and the receiving corps losing four of its top five targets.  The RB corps is strong, and the OL is decent, but with a potentially disastrous passing game, it's hard to predict great things from the offense.  Meanwhile, the defense should be better across the board, but if they still struggle with 3rd down breakdowns, then they've pretty much got no major chance of competing in '08.

Summary: Rich Brooks has their program on a much healthier trajectory than it was on before he got here, and I didn't have a problem with him having enough pull to name his own successor.  But this year is going to be a step backwards; there's just no way around it.

Verdict: Chances are this season will look more like Rich Brooks' first three years (average wins: 3) than his last two (average wins: 8).  But they've got a couple good RBs!

South Carolina (3-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Offense (particularly line yards).
  • Q1 Passing Defense.
  • Rushing Offense (Non-Passing Downs).
  • Total Defense.

Top Ranks

#5: Defensive 1st Down S&P+, Passing.
#9: Defensive Non-Passing Down S&P+, Passing.
#11: Defensive Passing EqPts+.
#11: Offensive Passing EqPts+.

Bottom Ranks

#122*: Defensive 2nd Down Line Yards+.
#118: Defensive Redzone S&P+, Rushing.
#116: Defensive Q3 Line Yards+.
#110: Defensive Q2 S&P+, Rushing.

* Now's a good time to mention that these rankings are based on 126 teams: the 120 D1 teams and the 6 ''generic' 1-AA teams (separated into Tiers 1-6, based on record).  I probably should have mentioned this earlier, actually, but oh well.

Great passing defense in 2007...bad, bad, bad rushing defense.  Solid passing offense despite the lack of a solid #1 QB.  Despite these two things, what was most likely to swing a South Carolina game last year?  The rushing offense.  If the O-line was knocking people over, SC was doing pretty well.  And you don't need BTBS numbers to see that--their game-to-game stats show that they were 5-2 when rushing for over 100 yards (which, let's face it, is not a grandiose total)...and 1-4 when not reaching that benchmark.

So will the rushing game improve in 2008?  Well, the O-line returns 8 players from it's 10-man 2-deep, so that's a good thing...and senior Mike Davis could be ready to carry the load--at least to the tune of hitting 100 yards more often than not--so that bodes well.

Summary: They have a higher ceiling at QB if RSFr Stephen Garcia is involved, but he's been busy getting into trouble just like UK's Curtis Pulley, so we'll see.  Either way, incremental improvement throughout the offense is likely, and hey...Phil Steele says "I think SC will have one of the most improved rush defenses in the country", so who am I to question that?  SC should take a step forward in '08, but not a huge one.

Verdict: Steve Spurrier is being tripped up at South Carolina by the same thing that nailed him with the Washington Redskins--he's only as good a coach as the athletes around him.  He got the best of the best at Florida, and they were unbeatable for long stretches of his tenure there.  He went to the Redskins, didn't have the best athletes anymore, and found that his Playstation style didn't work quite as well.  Now at SC, he hasn't had many recruiting breakthroughs, and until he does, SC will only be a solid team, not a great one.  The competition is too fierce.

Vanderbilt (2-6)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Q1 Offense.
  • Rushing Defense (particularly line yards).
  • Q1 Defense.
  • Total Defense, close games.

Top Ranks

#4: Defensive Q4 S&P+, Passing.
#10: Defensive Q4, S&P+.
#14: Defensive 2nd Down S&P+, Passing.
#18: Offensive 2nd Down S&P+, Passing.

Bottom Ranks

#123: Offensive Q2 Line Yards+.
#119: Offensive 2nd Down S&P+, Rushing.
#118: Offensive 2nd Down Line Yards+.
#115: Defensive Redzone S&P+, Passing.

On first blush, I think it's pretty easy to explain why Q1 was so important to Vanderbilt: because sometimes the game was somewhat out of reach by the end of the quarter.

I realize Vanderbilt is just seen as the Baylor of the SEC, and while that's more or less true in overall results, 2007's Vandy team was far more competitive than their counterparts in Waco.  Of their 7 losses, 5 were by 14 points or less, including a 3-point home loss to Georgia and a 1-point road loss to Tennessee.  Bobby Johnson has built a competitive program in Nashville--the question is just, can he ever actually get the talent in place to win more than 4-5 games?  The talent gap in the SEC East* is just too wide right now.

And here's a sad inconvenience for Vandy: they actually shouldn't even be in the SEC East--Auburn is further east than Nashville, and Tuscaloosa is just about equally east...only you can't break up Auburn and Alabama, so Vandy got stuck in the division in which they can never really compete.  Poor smart kids...

So anyway, the talent gap.  Vandy came close to two major upsets last year (UGA, UT), which would have made them 7-5 and immediately gotten a bronze statue of Bobby Johnson erected outside the stadium (okay, maybe not).  They appeared close to turning the corner...and now they have to replace 8 offensive starters in 2008, including stud WR Earl Bennett (75 catches in '07), leading rusher Cassen Jackson-Garrison...oh yeah, and the entire starting OL.  Two experienced QBs--Mackenzi Adams and Chris Nickson--return, but...they'll be protected by an entirely new OL and won't have the bailout option of Bennett.  Ouch.

Defensively, things are a bit more encouraging. Looking at the rankings, it's pretty easy to see why the rushing defense was such a big variable on Vandy's wins/losses as well--because their pass defense was pretty damn solid.  And the longer they were able to keep the game close, the better their pass defense appeared to play.  DJ Moore is an absolute stud at CB (he's also a good kick returner), and the rest of the secondary returns as well.  However...the entire starting DL has to be replaced, along with all-conference LB Jonathan Goff.

Summary: It kind of appears that Bobby Johnson was building toward the 2007 season.  A lot of experienced talent came to the forefront for Vandy last season--talent that won 14 games in three seasons, which, honestly, is quite encouraging for Vandy.  However...they're all gone now.  If Johnson is going to break through with the Commodores, it's going to be with a new batch of players...and it's almost certainly not going to be in 2008.

Verdict: I like Bobby Johnson, but 2008 is not his year.  Not totally sure his year will ever come.

BALANCE OF POWER

Okay, so after this discusssion, how do I see the balance of power in the East for 2008?

  1. Georgia
  2. Florida
  3. Tennessee
  4. South Carolina
  5. Kentucky
  6. Vanderbilt

These aren't my predictions, mind you...those will come at the end of Part Two when we look at the schedule. Stay tuned.

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