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What does it take to win the SEC East?

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Let’s let the past 10 division champions tell us.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Missouri
What can Missouri do to contend for an SEC East title this year? Better pass defense and more takeaways would be a good start. DeMarkus Acy can help in those departments.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t so long ago that Missouri won an SEC East title. Two, in fact.

The first time, 2013, was an offensively talented team with an opportunistic defense. The second time, 2014, was a stingier defense and an offense that did what it had to. With Drew Lock and his offensive weapons coming back for 2018, it looks like these Tigers’ most likely path to the top of the East — were they to get there this season — would more closely resemble 2013 than 2014.

So what can we learn about what it takes to win the East from champions past? I took the previous 10 East champions — 2017 Georgia, 2015-16 Florida, 2013-14 Missouri, 2011-12 Georgia, 2010 South Carolina and 2008-09 Florida — and plotted them out to see which stats ended up meaning the most to them.

A brief accounting of the results — and how 2017 Missouri stacked up to them — is below:

Offense

Turnover Margin

None of the past 10 SEC East champions have turned the ball over more times than they’ve collected turnovers. South Carolina came closest, coming in at an even 0.00 margin per game. But, other than those 2010 Gamecocks, the other East champs all ended up top 50 in margin per game, with 2008 Florida (+1.57) and 2013 Missouri (+1.14) coming in top 10. Avg. Rank: 27.6

MU 2017 Rank: 111 (-0.62); The one knock on Lock continues to be his fairly frequent interceptions. That, coupled with a season-long bout of fumbleitis, caused the Tigers to cough the ball up 25 times in 13 games last year, or 1.92 per. Only South Carolina and 2011 Georgia came close to that mark. But their defenses also held serve by causing at least that many turnovers.

Third-Down Conversions

Aside from one MAJOR outlier – 2015 Florida and its abysmal offense, which finished 94th on third downs at a 36.4-percent clip – the rest of the East champs from the past decade came in at 55th or better nationally in third-down conversions and all recorded conversion percentages of 41.7 or better. South Carolina and 2008-09 Florida all ranked in the top 10 nationally, converting on about half of their chances. Avg. Rank: 32.7

MU 2017 Rank: 20 (45.1%); The Tigers acquitted themselves well in this department, and only seemed to get better as the year went on. Missouri converted at least half of its third downs in five of its final six regular-season games. All wins, remember. Then the Tigers dropped precipitously to 3-of-14 (21.4%) in the Texas Bowl loss.

Yards per Pass Play

Again, aside from the 2015-16 Florida outliers – and the mercurial, Maty Mauk-led 2014 Tigers – average yards per pass attempt is a pretty good metric for SEC East champions. Five of them – 2017 Georgia, South Carolina and 2008-09 Florida – ranked in the top 14 nationally. The Bulldogs’ 8.70 ranked them 11th last season in a year in which, by bulk, they ranked 106th in pass yards per game. All but the 2016 Gators had better rankings in yards per pass than pass yards per game. Even if you’re going to be a run-heavy team, you’ve got to get consistent results when you pass. Unless you’re the Jim McElwain Gators. Or the Mauk Tigers. Avg. Rank: 34.0

MU 2017 Rank: 5 (9.33); Oh yeah, the Tigers are pretty well set in this department. And, even with J’Mon Moore gone, Lock still has guys like Emanuel Hall, Johnathon Johnson and Albert Okwuegbunam to be his big hitters in the pass game. Missouri’s 2017 offense, unsurprisingly, stacks up pretty favorably to a lot of past East champions in a lot of categories.

Defense

Points Allowed per Game

Here is where the shortcomings start. None of the previous 10 SEC East champions finished lower than 43rd nationally in points allowed per game. That was South Carolina, at 23.1. All but two others – 2013 Missouri and 2011 Georgia – finished top 20 nationally, and 2017 Georgia, 2016 and 2008-09 Florida were all top 10. Avg. Rank: 16.8

MU 2017 Rank: 93 (31.8); Gulp. That’s even with the “turnaround” in the second half of the season, when the Tigers started shutting down juggernauts like Idaho, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Hard to see a team playing for an SEC Championship that gives up more than 30 points a game.

Yards Per Play

A slightly better indicator, on the whole, than yards allowed per game. Six of the 10 teams – 2017 and 2011 Georgia and all four Florida teams (2015-16, 2008-09) – finished in the top 10 nationally in this metric and allowed fewer than 4.7 yards per play. Even the most lenient defense in this bunch, 2013 Missouri (82nd nationally at 417.8 yards per game), came in at a respectable 56th in yards allowed per play (5.42). So teams can put up big yard numbers against you. Just have to make them earn it a little. Avg. Rank: 21.0

MU 2017 Rank: 63 (5.60); Like their 2013 foreTigers, last year’s Missouri defense did better in per-play metrics than per-game ones (414.1 yards allowed per game was 83rd nationally). But they didn’t have the turnover piece that the 2013 Missouri defense could rely on. That defense turned teams over 2.29 times a game, a top-10 mark nationally. Last year’s defense recorded only 1.31 takeaways per game.

Yards per Pass Play

Even more than a stingy run defense, a pass defense that made teams inefficient was a key to success in the East. Six of the 10 past champions – again, 2011 and ’17 Georgia and all of the Floridas – ranked in the top 15 nationally in yards per pass play. Only 2011 Georgia, South Carolina and 2009 Florida did so in yards per rush. And a team like 2013 Missouri made its way by giving up lots of yards but making people earn it and turning them over frequently. Those Tigers ranked 109th nationally in pass yards per game against (264.9) but 24th in yards per pass play against (6.54). That’s pretty striking. Avg. Rank: 21.3

MU 2017 Rank: 80 (7.50); Last year’s defense did have a better rate stat than bulk (254.5 yards a game, 107th nationally), so that’s a positive. But only 2010 South Carolina (82nd) touched these depths of the rankings. And, as we’ve said repeatedly, that team turned people over about two times a game. Missouri didn’t come close to that last year.

Other Areas for Improvement

  • Third-Down Defense: Avg. rank – 27.9; MU rank – 101
  • Red-Zone Defense: Avg. rank – 40.0; MU rank – 124
  • Turnovers Gaines: Avg. rank – 25.4; MU rank – 81

(Also, in another bit of bad news for these Tigers, it appears that SEC East champions are, on the whole, better defensively than offensively. The past 10 champions have averaged ranking between 28th and 64th in the pertinent stats on offense, but between 17th and 40th on defense. The only real counterexample is 2013 Missouri. And maybe 2010 South Carolina.)

Some Defensive Pride Points

  • TFL per game: Avg. rank – 38.8; MU rank – 9
  • Sacks per Game: Avg. rank – 24.5; MU rank – 28

Experience

Here’s the thing. You’d probably expect this cohort of teams to be pretty heavy on senior starts. Experienced teams win championships, right? But the proportion of senior starts was kind of all over the place: from 15.4 percent (2016 Florida) to 46.1 percent (2013 Missouri).

More instructive? Junior starts. There’s less variation there, from 28.6 percent (2008 Florida) to 50 percent (2009 Florida). And that kind of makes sense, since all of those sophomores from the 2008 team (47.7 percent of the team’s starts) moved on to become starting juniors on the 2009 team.

Overall, you’re looking at an average of 65.4 percent of these teams’ starts coming from upperclassmen: juniors and seniors. On offense, that number is 60.6 percent. On defense, it’s 70.3.

The 2017 Missouri Tigers got 62.1 percent of their starts from upperclassmen: 54.6 percent on offense, 70 percent on defense. The good news, though, is that juniors and sophomores made up 61.5 percent of total starts last year, 66.5 on offense and 56.7 Those are the starting points, with more juniors and seniors who didn’t start last year possibly adding on.

Of course, that’s counting Kaleb Prewett. Which means it’s time for the weekly “Where’s Kaleb Prewett?” section of the blog.

Where’s the boy, String?! Where’s Kaleb?!?!

OK, enough of that.

If you wanted to see all the work laid out, keep on reading.

A couple notes. First, a brief legend:

  • PPT, TO section = plays per turnover
  • PPT, RZ section = points per red-zone try (6 for a TD, 3 for a FG)
  • PPS = passes per sack (pass attempts + sacks divided by sacks)
  • PPTFL = plays per tackle for loss

Second, you’ll see a “#Goals” line underneath Missouri’s 2017 stats. That’s taking the average rank of the 10 previous champs and applying it to the 2017 national rankings, for a set of standards that 2018 Missouri can shoot for if it wants to put itself in a possible position to contend.

You’ll find that 2017 Missouri easily surpassed most of those #Goals on offense. On defense...got some work to do.