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Beyond the Box Score: SEC Edition (Part Two)

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We pick up today where Part One left off: with the West Division.

West Division

LSU (6-2)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Pass Defense.
  • Total Defense, Passing Downs.
  • Total Defense, close games.
  • Total Offense, 1st Downs.

Top Ranks

#2: Defensive 1st Down S&P+.
#2: Offensive 1st Down Line Yards+.
#3: Defensive 2nd Down S&P+, Passing.
#3: Defensive EqPts+.

Bottom Ranks

#91: Defensive Q3 S&P+, Passing.
#85: Defensive 3rd Down S&P+, Rushing.
#65: Offensive Q2 S&P+, Passing.
#60: Defensive Q4 Line Yards+.

How far does "They're LSU" get you?  The #1 thing that impacted LSU's success in 2007 was pass defense. Overall, their pass defense numbers were great, but they had some Passing Down breakdowns here and there, and it sometimes kept opponents in games.  So now All-American safety Craig Steltz is gone, stud CBs Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon are gone...and all that remains is a whole mess of young 4- and 5-star recruits.  They're LSU, after all.  Phil Steele projects their starting secondary to be a senior FS (Curtis Taylor), two sophomores (Jai Eugene, Chad Jones) and a freshman (Patrick Johnson).  You know that these players will end up strong one day, but...well, how much did an inexperienced pass D hold Florida back in 2007?

The one thing LSU will have that Florida didn't last year is an insanely good defensive line.  It's amazing how much better you cover when opposing QBs only have about 1.5 seconds to find a target.  DEs Kirston Pittman and Tyson Jackson return, as does DT Marlon Favorite.  Granted, they have to replace new Kansas City Chief Glenn Dorsey, but...his replacement was the defensive MVP in the national title game last year.  Folks are assuming that Ricky Jean-Francois is ready to dominate every bit as much as Dorsey did last year, and he's done nothing to prove that the assumptions are incorrect...as long as he can stay on the field (he was under academic suspension for the entire 2007 regular season).  With possibly the best DL in the country, the DBs shouldn't find themselves in too many awkward situations.

As for their offense (particularly their 1st-down offense)...well, when you lose your leading rusher (Jacob Hester), it's nice to have the option of replacing him with any number of guys (Keiland Williams, Trindon Holliday, Charles Scott, Richard Murphy) who averaged well over 6 yards per carry.  It's also nice to have them running behind one of the best OL's in the country.

Summary: Really, the only reason LSU's not a runaway #1 pick in 2008 is that Ryan Perrilloux went and got himself kicked off the team, and LSU's starting QB will either be a RSFr (Jarrett Lee), a true Fr (Jordan Jefferson), or a Harvard transfer (Andrew Hatch).  But let's be honest--Matt Flynn wasn't exactly Joe Montana.  LSU's QB just has to not be a liability, and whoever wins this job should do fine in that regard.

Verdict: When Perrilloux got kicked off the team, LSU fell a bit further in everybody's rankings...I saw them pretty consistently in the #8-11 range, and as a fan of a fellow Top 10 team, I was hoping those projections were correct.  But this is still going to be a really, really good team.  I can see a QB mistake or pass defense breakdown costing them a shot at the national title, but from week to week there's still no other West team this good.

Auburn (5-3)

Game-Changing Stats

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

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive Q3 S&P+.
#1: Defensive Q3 S&P+, Rushing.
#3: Defensive Q1 S&P+, Passing.
#5: Defensive Close-Game S&P+, Passing.

Bottom Ranks

#109: Defensive Q4 S&P+, Rushing.
#104: Offensive 3rd Down S&P+, Passing.
#102: Offensive Q3 S&P+, Passing.
#100: Offensive Redzone S&P+, Passing.

Another fun split.  They were the best rushing defense in the country in Q3...and one of the worst in Q4.  In all, though, the Auburn defense was outstanding in 2007 (though, like LSU, they were prone to some Passing Down breakdowns), while the offense (passing offense in particular) held them back.  So they lose their defensive coordinator to Texas and change up their offense to a more spread attack...what's the result of that?  If you trust Phil Steele, then these changes mean great things for Auburn--he's picking them to win the West over LSU.

So if we assume that "This is Auburn--their defense will be just fine," let's get right to the major question: will the pass offense get better?  Stationary target Brandon Cox just was seemingly around forever, but he just wasn't very good.  Now with a spread offense and a QB (Kodi Burns) as suited to running as passing (he subbed in for a change of pace a lot in '07), the identity of the offense will change, and that might not be a bad thing...I'm not even sure they had an identity last year.  And honestly, I think that'll help the passing game as much as anything.  Burns might not be as good a pure passer as Cox, but the offense should very well suit his skills, and with decent receivers around him--the awesomely named Rodgeriqus Smith, Montez Billings, a couple of highly-touted sophomores in Chris Slaughter and Tim Hawthorne--things might click pretty well.  However, with a young, run-first QB, staying out of Passing Downs will be key.

Summary: Phil Steele predicts two things from the Auburn defense: they'll be extremely young (he projects 4 sophomore starters, 6 junior starters, and only 1 senior), and they'll be extremely good.  I think their young defense could cost them at some point, but it helps that the road conference slate (Miss. St., Vandy, Ole Miss, Alabama) is extremely manageable.  I understand the hype for Auburn, and I think Auburn in general is always a bit too overshadowed compared to their SEC counterparts, but the young defense and the new offense are a bit too much for me to completely back them.  But then again...

Verdict: ...their home-away split for the conference season rules.  If they didn't play LSU so damn early in the season (September 20), while the growing pains are still in existence, I think they really could win the West.  But they do, so...no.

Arkansas (4-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Offense, 1st Downs.
  • Total Offense, Non-Passing Downs.
  • Passing Offense.
  • Total Defense, close games.

Top Ranks

#3: Defensive 1st Down S&P+, Passing.
#3: Defensive 3rd Down S&P+, Passing.
#3: Offensive 1st Down S&P+, Passing.
#3: Offensive Non-Passing Down S&P+, Passing.

Bottom Ranks

#117: Offensive 2nd Down S&P+, Passing.
#91: Offensive Q1 Line Yards+.
#90: Defensive Q2 S&P+, Rushing.
#88: Offensive 3rd Down S&P+, Rushing.

These numbers are my favorite.  How much did opponents gameplan for defending Darren McFadden and Felix Jones?  Quite a bit, if you take "#3 in the country on 1st-down passing and Non-Passing Down passing" into account.  Any time Arkansas wasn't in a Passing Down situation, their opponents assumed they'd be running.  And when Arkansas tried to pass on 2nd downs (with it being much more likely that they were facing a passing down)...well...they dropped from #3 to #117.

Of course, it all changes in 2008.  No Darren McFadden...no Felix Jones...hell, no Houston Nutt.  The offense will be a) completely retooled and b) probably not very good.  Jonathan Luigs and Mitch Petrus lead a solid O-Line, but they'll be blocking for super-young RBs (stud freshman De'Anthony Curtis is a possible starter) and...Casey Dick.  So the question becomes this: will the defense be able to keep them in games if the offense is strugg-a-ling?

Signs point to no.  The Hogs lost their six leading tacklers (five to graduation, one to being a violent idiot), and while Arkansas always has good athletes, the likely poor offense will put the defense in a lot of awkward situations.

Summary: Bobby Petrino succeeds wherever he goes, but he's really not going to have a lot to work with in 2008.  Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett becomes available in 2009, and the young guys likely going through growing pains in '08 will be more experienced, so...

Verdict: Expect good things from Arkansas in 2009.  And expect Bobby Petrino to be back in the NFL by 2010.  Just kidding.

Mississippi State (4-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Total Defense, Non-Passing Downs.
  • Offensive Success Rates.
  • Q4 Defense.
  • Rushing Offense (including Line Yards).

Top Ranks

#3: Defensive Q1 Line Yards+.
#7: Defensive Q4 S&P+.
#9: Defensive Non-Passing Down S&P+.
#10: Defensive Non-Passing Down S&P+, Passing.

Bottom Ranks

#124: Offensive Q4 S&P+, Passing.
#123: Offensive Q2 S&P+.
#121: Offensive Q2 S&P+, Passing.
#119: Offensive Close-Game S&P+, Passing.

The Bulldogs were the poster boys for my 'leverage' idea.  They shut offenses down on Non-Passing Downs, played great defense late...and managed to make a bowl game because of it, despite an absolutely horrendous passing offense.  This was encapsulated by their Liberty Bowl win over UCF (what was the score in that game, Miss St 3, UCF -2?).  They focused all their energies in leveraging UCF into Passing Downs and didn't even try to take a chance offensively.  And it worked.  It was a dangerous game to play--if the defense ever didn't play well, the offense really had no ability to bring them back into the game--but they pulled off a nice 2007 season.  Can they improve in 2008?

The answer to that question, I think, starts with the defensive front seven.  They were most instrumental in MSU's success despite not having any specific stars (LB Jamar Chaney is the only truly notable guy), and their success seems to derive as much from philosophy and execution as anything else.  Led by LBs Chaney and Dominic Douglas and a super-experienced D-Line, this will again be a strength for MSU.

Despite that, you have to figure that the passing offense will need to improve in '08 to duplicate '07 success.  They were playing with fire last year, and it worked, but they can't count on it working again.  Wesley Carroll's no longer a freshman, so that will help...and leading receiver Jamayel Smith (the "leading" receiver despite catching only 33 passes) does as well, but...this unit's still limited.  They'll probably improve simply because they really can't get much worse, but the improvement will only be marginal.

Summary: Mississippi State was a great story last year--Sylvester Croom's such a likeable guy, and it was great to see him succeed.  That said...they'll be playing the same dangerous "don't screw up on offense, and hope your defense makes the big plays" game in 2008, and with road games against Georgia Tech, LSU, Tennessee, Alabama and a likely-much-improved Ole Miss, the margin for error here is certainly pretty small.

Verdict: I hope they succeed, I really do.  But it's pretty damn hard to predict it.

Alabama (4-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Offense.
  • Offensive Points Per Play, close games.
  • Total Defense, Non-Passing Downs.
  • 2nd Down Offense.

Top Ranks

#4: Defensive Q4 Line Yards+.
#14: Offensive Q4 S&P+.
#17: Offensive Q1 Line Yards+.
#20: Offensive 3rd Down S&P+, Rushing.

Bottom Ranks

#117: Offensive 3rd Down S&P+, Passing.
#111: Defensive Q3 S&P+, Passing.
#106: Offensive Redzone S&P+, Passing.
#105: Offensive Q3 S&P+, Rushing.

So 'Bama was horrendous in Q3 and pretty good in Q4...my "Q1/Q3 vs Q2/Q4" theory suggests, then, that the talent level was pretty high already last year.  And they just added the #1 recruiting class in the country, so...I'm thinking the bar should be set pretty high for 2008, right?

Looking at the Game-Changing Stats, I'm going to say that the following two positions are most important for The Tide in '08: #1 RB, #1 WR.  First, the RB.  The O-line was pretty damn strong last year, and four of five starters return.  So the onus falls on sophomore Terry Grant...or junior Roy Upchurch...or one of the incoming freshmen...whoever the starter is, will need to produce.

Next, the WR: a deep threat has to emerge.  DJ Hall and Keith Brown were the only two 'Bama receivers last year to a) catch more than 10 passes and b) average more than 13 yards per reception.  Even with them, overall Points Per Play was an issue.  Guys like Mike McCoy and Terry Grant caught plenty of passes last year...but they averaged 7.4 and 6.8 yards per catch, respectively.  That's hideous.  Somebody has to be able to go deep, and it appears likely that that guy (if one exists) will be a newcomer.  From Rivals.com:

4. Who will emerge at the wide receiver position?

When camp opens, a cast of veteran candidates and a trio of redshirt freshmen will try to show incomers Julio Jones and Burton Scott where their place in line is. None of those returning has shown potential to be a No.1 target, however, so playmakers of any age will find themselves in the forefront quickly. A major contribution from either Jones or Scott would make a huge difference, but finding more reliable options among those returning is equally important. It's safe to fit veteran Mike McCoy for playing time, but whether that's as a leading man or a supporting actor remains to be seen. It's also a now-or-never season for senior Nikita Stover.

Summary: I don't like John Parker Wilson very much at all, but if strong, reliable talent is around him, I think this team could threaten for the West division crown.  But that's miles from being a given right now.  We know Julio Jones was all-world in high school, but...is he going to be immediately ready for SEC play?  He'll need to be.  Alabama will be quite strong in the trenches, and their overall defense should be fine despite the losses of DE Wallace Gilberry and LB Darren Mustin, and CB Simeon Castille, but you need to be able to score some easy points, and Alabama didn't have that ability last year.

Verdict: I want to take a risk and put them at the top of the West, but that would be under the assumption that a true freshman WR takes over and dominates...and I can't make that assumption, not with how strong LSU and Auburn look.  So I'm chickening out and sticking them in the #3 slot like everybody else.

Ole Miss (0-8)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Passing Offense, Q4.
  • Total Defense, close games.
  • 2nd Down Offense.
  • Rushing Defense.

Top Ranks

#8: Offensive Q2 Line Yards+.
#17: Offensive Non-Passing Down Line Yards+.
#18: Offensive Line Yards+.
#18: Offensive Q1 Line Yards+.

Bottom Ranks

#125: Defensive 2nd Down S&P+, Rushing.
#124: Defensive Q4 S&P+, Rushing.
#124: Defensive Q4 S&P+.
#121: Defensive 2nd Down Line Yards+.

They were good at one thing--run blocking--and #100 or worse in 33 categories overall...33 more than LSU.  They seem to have always had some decent size and raw athleticism under Ed Orgeron, but...Orgeron was not ready for prime time.  So now Houston Nutt, who proved at Arkansas that he could take raw athleticism and create something decent out of it, steps in.  He inherits a strong O-line, a strong D-line, a highly-touted transfer in QB Jevan Snead, a potential sleeper star in WR Mike Wallace, and all sorts of potential in the LB corps and secondary.

Summary: Nutt hit the ground running at Arkansas, winning 17 games in his first two seasons in Fayetteville (Arkansas had won only 8 the previous two years).  A quick turnaround is possible here too, though road games against Wake Forest, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU will likely only make for a limited turnaround in year one.

Verdict: Shreveport or bust for the Right Reverend Nutt.  Ole Miss is in much better shape as a program now than they were about eight months ago, but the schedule's too tough to expect too much in Year One.

BALANCE OF POWER

  1. LSU
  2. Auburn
  3. Alabama
  4. Ole Miss
  5. Mississippi State
  6. Arkansas

SCHEDULE

Okay, so we've got our SEC power structure.  What does the schedule have to say about things?

East Division

Georgia

Likely wins (8): Georgia Southern, Central Michigan, @ South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, @ Kentucky, Georgia Tech

Likely losses: none

Tossups (4): @ Arizona State, @ LSU, vs Florida, @ Auburn

Prediction: Beat Arizona State, Florida.  Lose to LSU, Auburn (that one just screams 'upset').  10-2 (6-2).

Florida

Likely wins (8): Hawaii, Miami-FL, Ole Miss, @ Arkansas, Kentucky, @ Vanderbilt, South Carolina, The Citadel

Likely losses: none

Tossups (4): @ Tennessee, LSU, vs Georgia, @ Florida State

Prediction: Beat LSU, FSU.  Lose to Georgia, Tennessee (upset!).  10-2 (6-2).

Tennessee

Likely wins (5): UAB, Northern Illinois, Mississippi State, Wyoming, Kentucky

Likely losses (2): @ Auburn, @ Georgia

Tossups (5): @ UCLA, Florida, Alabama, @ South Carolina, @ Vanderbilt

Prediction: Upset Florida, beat Alabama and Vanderbilt.  Lose to UCLA, SC.  8-4 (5-3).

South Carolina

Likely wins (4): NC State, Wofford, UAB, Arkansas

Likely losses (3): Georgia, @ Florida, @ Clemson

Tossups (5): @ Vanderbilt, LSU, @ Ole Miss, @ Kentucky, Tennessee

Prediction: Beat Vandy, Kentucky, Tennessee.  Lose to Ole Miss, LSU (though I came really close to picking the upset here).  7-5 (4-4).

Kentucky

Likely wins (4): Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee, W'ern Kentucky, Arkansas

Likely losses (4): @ Alabama, @ Florida, Georgia, @ Tennessee

Tossups (4): @ Louisville, South Carolina, @ Mississippi State, Vanderbilt

Prediction: Beat Vandy, lose the other tossups.  5-7 (2-6).

Vanderbilt

Likely wins (2): Rice, Duke

Likely losses (6): @ Ole Miss, Auburn, @ Mississippi State, @ Georgia, Florida, @ Wake Forest

Tossups (4): @ Miami-OH, South Carolina, @ Kentucky, Tennessee

Prediction: As always, Vandy has to win all the tossups to have a chance at 6-6.  Only...they won't even come close.  Beat Miami-OH, lose the rest.  3-9 (0-8).

West Division

LSU

Likely wins (8): Appalachian State, Troy, North Texas, Mississippi State, Tulane, Alabama, Ole Miss, @ Arkansas.

Likely losses: none

Tossups (4): @ Auburn, @ Florida, @ South Carolina, Georgia

Prediction: Lose to Florida, win the other tossups.  11-1 (7-1).

Auburn

Likely wins (7): UL-Monroe, Southern Miss, @ Mississippi State, Tennessee, @ Vanderbilt, Arkansas, UT-Martin

Likely losses: none

Tossups (5): LSU, @ West Virginia, @ Ole Miss, Georgia, @ Alabama

Prediction: Lose to LSU, WV.  Beat Ole Miss.  Upset Georgia.  Keep the win streak alive against Alabama (never bet against a streak!).  10-2 (7-1).

Alabama

Likely wins (7): Tulane, Western Kentucky, @ Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Arkansas State, Mississippi State

Likely losses (3): @ Georgia, @ Tennessee, @ LSU

Tossups (2): vs Clemson, @ Auburn

Prediction: Lose the tossups...barely.  Actually, no.  Beat Clemson (upset!), lose to Auburn.  8-4 (4-4).

Ole Miss

Likely wins (4): Memphis, Samford, Vanderbilt, UL-Monroe

Likely losses (3): @ Florida, @ Alabama, @ LSU

Tossups (5): @ Wake Forest, South Carolina, @ Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State

Prediction: Upset Wake, SC.  Beat up on Arkansas (Nutt's former team).  Beat MSU.  Lose to Auburn.  8-4 (4-4).

Mississippi State

Likely wins (5): @ Louisiana Tech, SE Louisiana, Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee, Arkansas

Likely losses (4): Auburn, @ LSU, @ Tennessee, @ Alabama

Tossups (3): @ Georgia Tech, Kentucky, @ Ole Miss

Prediction: Lose to Ole Miss, beat Kentucky, beat Georgia Tech (can you tell I don't think much of the ACC?).  7-5 (3-5).

Arkansas

Likely wins (2): Western Illinois, UL-Monroe

Likely losses (8): @ Texas, Alabama, Florida, @ Auburn, @ Kentucky, @ South Carolina, @ Mississippi State, LSU

Tossups (2): Ole Miss, Tulsa

Prediction: Ouch.  I have enough faith in Petrino to say that they'll beat Tulsa...barely.  3-9 (0-8).

FINAL STANDINGS

East

Georgia (6-2)
Florida (6-2)
Tennessee (5-3)
South Carolina (4-4)
Kentucky (2-6)
Vanderbilt (0-8)

West

LSU (7-1)
Auburn (7-1)
Alabama (4-4)
Ole Miss (4-4)
Mississippi State (3-5)
Arkansas (0-8)

SEC Championship

Georgia > LSU

Bowls

Sugar Bowl: Georgia (11-2)
Orange Bowl: Florida (10-2)
Capital One Bowl: LSU (11-2)
Outback Bowl: Auburn (10-2)
Cotton Bowl: Tennessee (8-4)
Chick-Fil-A Bowl: Alabama (8-4)
Music City Bowl: Ole Miss (8-4)
Independence Bowl: South Carolina (7-5)

Papajohns.com Bowl: Mississippi State (7-5)