By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
While college football might be a numbers game to some, putting objective numbers down to predict a team’s chances in the upcoming season can be a challenge – some say impossible.
The system we present to you tries to do the impossible. What follows is a ranking of every position group of every team in the SEC, and we try to make the results as objective as we can.
Via a process that first went to press nine years ago, TideFans/NARCAS expanded its rating system beyond the simple six-class system employed in the past. In all 14 SEC previews, you’ll notice eight unit divisions – quarterbacks (QB), running backs (RB), wide receivers and tight ends (WR), offensive line (OL), defensive line (DL), linebackers (LB), defensive backs (DB) and kickers, punters, return men and coverage units (ST, for special teams).
Prior to 2004, ratings were doled out to each team during the individual previews. The only way to compare teams was for the reader to manually swap back and forth between two separate reports. In the individual reports, ratings are assigned as follows: Excellent (Ex), Very Good (Vg), Average (Av), Fair (Fr) and Poor (Pr). It also bears mentioning that teams can have a great starter at a particular position, but if depth is poor behind that starter, the ranking for the unit as a whole can be affected. These are unit rankings, not rankings of individuals.
In this first comparison box, you’ll see the teams compared against each other within their respective divisions. The team with the highest score is ranked first. At the end of the report, we’ll summarize.
In this first graphic, a numerical value is assigned – seven points for first place in the division, six for second and so forth. Here’s each team’s point total after the first comparison:
1. Georgia 49 points
2. South Carolina 45
3. Florida 40
4. Missouri 24
5. (tie) Kentucky 23
7. Vanderbilt 20
1. Alabama 39 points
2. LSU 37
3. Mississippi St. 36
4. (tie) Auburn 34
Ole Miss 34
6. Texas A&M 23
7. Arkansas 21
The first thing to note is that the strong teams in the SEC East – Georgia and South Carolina – have far more points than SEC West-leading Alabama. Even third-place Florida outscores the Crimson Tide, but this is more the fault of a weak bottom half of the SEC East than it is a commentary on Alabama, LSU or Auburn.
In fact, the big surprise among east teams is either that Missouri seems to have fallen off precipitously, at least in comparison to its division rivals, or that Vanderbilt has quickly dropped back to its familiar spot in the cellar.
On the SEC West side, there are two big shocks. Mississippi State outscored Auburn and in-state rival Ole Miss, largely due to the strength of the Bulldog defense. While few people expect the Bulldogs to compete for the division crown, the numbers suggest it might not be that much of a longshot. The second big surprise is undoubtedly Texas A&M scoring only 23 points and nearly falling back into the clutches of a dismal Arkansas team. We believe the data is skewing both teams’ evaluations too far.
Moving on to the second graph, we compare all 14 SEC teams against one another. It’s not as simple as shuffling two sets of seven figures. Compared against the entire league, a team could be both fourth-best in its division and also fourth-best across the entire league when taken as a whole. Again, a summary follows this report.
1. Georgia 88 points
2. Alabama 81 points
3. South Carolina 77 points
4. LSU 76 points
5. (tie) Florida 72 points
Mississippi State 72 points
7. Ole Miss 71 points
8. Auburn 66 points
9. Texas A&M 49 points
10. Arkansas 42 points
11. (tie) Missouri 38 points
Tennessee 38 points
13. Kentucky 37 points
14. Vanderbilt 34 points
The first takeaway here is that Texas A&M isn’t a contender for the conference title, if numbers are to be believed. There is a sizable step down from Auburn to the Aggies in ninth place. As for the top of the rankings, Georgia pulls away from Alabama by way of the special teams category – the Bulldogs got 12 points for a third-place overall finish, while Alabama came in dead last and scored just 1 point.
The rest of the top group is pretty close, and Auburn could just as well be third as eighth. The only major surprise in the second tier of the rankings is that Mississippi State remained in the group even after the two divisions were combined and compared against one another.
Compared to last year, Georgia falls short of Alabama’s 97-point finish, which set the all-time TideFans.com/NARCAS preseason mark. A perfect score is 112, meaning Alabama’s 2013 team received a score 86.6% of ideal, whereas Georgia is at 78.6% in 2014 and Alabama is at 72.3%. Again, the Tide’s failure to mark in the special teams category hurt UA’s ranking considerably here.
So how accurate are these rankings, exactly? Over TideFans/NARCAS’s history, ratings have typically varied between highly accurate to mid-pack. Last season proved to be probably the worst in the system’s history. Auburn ranked 10th in the preseason with 51 points, yet wound up playing for a national title. Missouri, Auburn’s opponent in the SEC Championship Game, ranked 11th with 45 points. If the same holds true this year, Arkansas will be facing either Missouri or Tennessee in Atlanta at season’s end.
On the other side of the coin, Florida was 2013’s most overrated team, coming in 3rd in the preseason with 74 points yet failing to make a bowl game.
Two of the things that most affect this poll’s accuracy, on a historical basis, are the presence of weak units and poor unit balance. To wit, if all 14 SEC teams have strong running back corps, it’s possible to finish 14th yet still be strong at the position. Conversely, in a poor year for offensive linemen, a team could have a very weak line yet still grab 13 points for a second-place finish among its peers.
This year, there is no such runaway category. Instead, there are several categories in which a ranking of “Average” is enough to land scores of 9, 10 or 11 points – such as quarterback, which is one of the weakest in recent memory, or the offensive line group.
As always, take this research for what it really is – entertainment.
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