2015 Previews: Rating the Units

Apr 18, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line during the A-day game at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 18, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Crimson Tide offensive line during the A-day game at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

While college 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 , and we try to make the results as objective as we can.

Via a process that first went to press 10 years ago, TideFans/NARCAS expanded its rating system beyond the simple six-class system employed in the past. In all 14 SEC , 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 (ST, for special teams).

Prior to 2004, 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, 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.

SEC East
QB RB WR OL DL LB DB ST
UT UGA UT UGA UT UGA UF UGA
UK UT UGA USC VU UF UT UK
UM UK USC UK USC VU UGA USC
UGA USC UF UM UM UM UM VU
VU UM UK UT UGA UK VU UT
UF UF VU VU UF UT UK UM
USC VU UM UF UK USC USC UF

 

SEC West
QB RB WR OL DL LB DB ST
MSU Ark OM Ark UA UA TAM
Ark LSU TAM LSU OM LSU OM LSU
TAM UA AU UA AU OM UA UA
AU TAM LSU OM TAM AU Ark OM
LSU AU Ark TAM MSU MSU TAM AU
UA OM UA AU LSU Ark AU Ark
OM MSU MSU MSU Ark TAM MSU MSU

Summary

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:

SEC East
1. 46 points
2. 41
3. 31
4. 28
5. 27
6. 26
7. 25
SEC West
1. LSU 40 points
2. Alabama 38
3. 35
4. 33
5. 32
6. 28
7. 18

There are several items of interest in these numbers, the first of which is Alabama’s placement behind LSU. The differential is mostly the fault of Alabama’s inexperience at QB and WR, which causes the ratings to rely more on projection than production. But the bigger surprise for Alabama is that the Crimson Tide trails both Georgia and Tennessee.

In fact, the entire SEC East is interesting. Georgia’s 46 points would seem to make the Bulldogs the clear favorite to win not just the SEC East, but the SEC Championship as well. Tennessee’s total of 41 points is somewhat of a shocker, especially given the lack of respect many analysts have for either of the team’s two lines. Tennessee was expected to have good skill-position talent in 2015, but the Vols also led the SEC East in DL ranking, even though Tennessee was rated just average in that department. This is due to a lack of good DL talent across the SEC East, but numerically, it doesn’t matter: Tennessee gets 7 points for leading the weak SEC East just like Alabama got 7 points for leading a strong SEC West.

Missouri, again, is undervalued here, continuing a two-year trend. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, though, is not Florida’s cellar ranking, but rather the third-place, 31-point rating given to Kentucky, a team TideFans/NARCAS projects to finish the season at 4-8.

In the SEC West, Mississippi State becomes an unpleasant surprise, scoring just 18 points. It bears mentioning that TideFans/NARCAS has been far more accurate – particularly in recent years – when the SEC West is the topic. The unit ranking system correctly pegged Texas A&M as a mediocre ballclub in 2014, and also correctly foresaw Mississippi State becoming a contender. On the East side, the system correctly identified Vanderbilt as a pretender, but just as we underrated Missouri for a second straight year, we inflated Florida’s fortunes. Perhaps the system was simply identifying potential, which would explain why Will Muschamp was ultimately relieved of his duties in Gainesville.

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.

 

TOTAL RANKINGS
QB RB WR OL DL LB DB ST
MSU Ark UT Ark UA UA LSU UGA
UT UGA OM UGA OM UGA OM UK
Ark LSU TAM LSU AU LSU UF TAM
TAM UA AU UA TAM OM UA USC
UK UT LSU OM MSU UF UT LSU
UM TAM UGA TAM LSU AU UGA UA
AU UK Ark USC UT VU UM VU
UGA USC USC AU VU UM Ark UT
LSU UM UF UK USC UK VU OM
UA UF UA UM UM MSU UK UM
VU AU UK UT UGA UT TAM AU
UF OM MSU MSU Ark Ark AU Ark
USC MSU VU VU UF USC MSU UF
OM VU UM UF UK TAM USC MSU
TOTAL POINTS
1. LSU 85 points
2. Georgia 82
3. Alabama 80
4. (tie) Ole Miss 70
(tie) Tennessee 70
6. Texas A&M 69
7. Arkansas 64
8. Auburn 58
9. Kentucky 53
10. Missouri 46
11. South Carolina 44
12. Florida 41
13. Mississippi State 40
14. Vanderbilt 38

Summary

While it wouldn’t ordinarily be a surprise to see LSU leading the league’s predictions in the preseason, it probably is in 2015. The Tigers have issues at quarterback and on the edges of its defensive front seven. Still, the Tigers find themselves ranked atop this list, ahead of both Georgia and Alabama, teams TideFans/NARCAS has advancing to the end-of-year playoff.

However, this second chart is telling in that it re-rates Tennessee significantly below Alabama, a team it led in intradivisional points earlier. With the divisions combined, the Volunteers, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Auburn all fall into the big middle, where surprise contenders often lurk. Kentucky retains its better-than-expected rating, but it is a step back from the true contending teams. Again, we believe Missouri’s numbers here may be misleading, as the Tigers seem to find unexpected ways to win thanks to its wily coaching staff.

Looking back on the 2014 rankings, Georgia led the list last year with 88 total points. Alabama was second with 81, but the Crimson Tide wound up playing 11th-ranked Missouri (tied with Tennessee with 38 total points) in the SEC Championship Game rather than Georgia. It was one of the biggest misses in rankings history, and coupled with our similar underrating of Missouri prior to the 2013 season, TideFans/NARCAS has considered gifting Missouri with 30 additional points or so each year out of general principle.

Alabama holds the all-time record with 97 points (2013). A perfect score is 112, meaning Alabama’s 2013 team received a score 86.6% of the ideal. For this cycle, LSU ranks 75.9%, while Georgia is at 73.2% and Alabama at 71.4%.

So how accurate are these rankings, exactly? Over TideFans/NARCAS’s history, ratings have typically varied between highly accurate to mid-pack. Even with the miss on Missouri in 2014, the system usually gets it right more often than not, especially when it comes to identifying teams that are large movers from the year before (i.e., Mississippi State in 2014). However, things occasionally slip through the cracks; Missouri was the largest underrate, while South Carolina, not Florida, actually took the title of most overrated team in 2014: TideFans/NARCAS had the Gamecocks ranked 3rd in the SEC overall with 77 points.

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, the defensive line category is the one to watch, as only four teams are ranked “Very Good” or “Excellent” in the list. Tennessee, for instance, grabbed 7 points in the SEC East rankings, ranking “Average” but still leading the division. On the other side of the coin, only one team, Mississippi State, ranked worse than average in special teams.

As always, take this research for what it really is – entertainment.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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