2016 Previews: Rating the Units
By Jess Nicholas
August 7, 2016
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 11 years ago, TideFans/NARCAS expanded its rating system beyond the simple six-class system employed in the past. 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. Tennessee||51 points|
|5. South Carolina||26|
|1. Alabama||48 points|
|3. Ole Miss||32|
|5. Mississippi State||26|
|7. Texas A&M||24|
In comparison to the 2015 analysis, both divisions are more top-heavy than a year ago. The most interesting takeaway here is not necessarily that Tennessee outscored Alabama – the Volunteers benefit from the fact that as many as four of its division rivals are expected to struggle, as they lag UT greatly in terms of raw talent – but rather that Florida managed to place decisively in second with 42 points. The excitement in Athens over the hiring of Kirby Smart as head coach has masked somewhat the fact that Georgia has more holes to fill, especially on defense, than in recent seasons. Kentucky placing fourth in the division would be a needed outcome for the current UK coaching staff, which is on the verge of having its honeymoon with the fans come to an abrupt halt.
In the SEC West, the fact that Alabama leads LSU by 6 point is a mild surprise, but the much larger surprise is that Ole Miss lands in a distant third with 32 points. The Rebels have questions on both lines of scrimmage and in the linebacker corps. The superior depth of the SEC West is on full display, as fourth through seventh place are separated by one point each. In TideFans.com’s predictions of the order of finish of the divisions, all seven SEC West teams finish with winning records. Looking at how closely they are in the objective analysis, such a finish might actually happen.
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. Alabama||97 points|
|4. Ole Miss||74|
|5. (tie) Arkansas||62|
|7. (tie) Georgia||58|
|(tie) Mississippi State||58|
|10. Texas A&M||50|
|12. South Carolina||41|
|13. (tie) Missouri||29|
The biggest shock here isn’t that Alabama leads, or that Tennessee is second; it’s that Alabama, with 97 points, ties the all-time high set in 2013.
The numerical rankings back up TideFans.com’s subjective predictions, in regards to the depth of the SEC in 2016. TideFans.com projects all seven SEC West teams and five of the seven SEC East teams will qualify for the postseason. Objectively, our statistical analysis draws a clear line at the 12th-place mark, with Missouri and Vanderbilt the only two teams truly struggling in the rankings.
For the Alabama fans who would claim bragging rights based on this year’s objective analysis, a word of warning: Alabama is ahead of Tennessee in the overall rankings only because of the special teams category. Tennessee maintained a small lead on Alabama through the first seven categories, only to be undone because of questions regarding the kicking game. Alabama’s lead assumes placekicker Adam Griffith will continue to improve while punter J.K. Scott picks up where his 2015 season left off. If either of those things does not happen, or if Tennessee improves at placekicker, the Volunteers could easily go to the top. Alabama picked up five points on the Vols in the special teams category, which is tenuous at best as a deciding factor, as neither team is expected to struggle there.
Looking back on the 2015 rankings, LSU led the list last year with 85 total points. Georgia was second with 82, with Alabama coming in third with 80 points. While Alabama and LSU were close enough in the final totals to be considered peers, and while Alabama’s game against LSU was thoroughly competitive, there was no explaining what happened on the SEC East side of the ledger.
In fact, the Florida Gators ranked dead last in the SEC East with 25 points, and 12th overall with 41 points. As such, it became the biggest outlier in poll history, surpassing the scenario that came to pass in 2013, when 11th-ranked Missouri (at 45 points) advanced to the SEC Championship Game to face Auburn. Either the TideFans/NARCAS poll got 2015 badly wrong, or Florida head coach Jim McElwain is the second coming of Vince Lombardi.
A perfect score here is 112, meaning Alabama’s 97 points equate to 86.6% of all points available. Time will tell if Alabama is really as good as the numbers suggest.
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 2013, and Florida last year, 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). Even with the miss on Florida last year, the rankings were generally accurate, and correctly identified a drop for Auburn and South Carolina and the emergence of Tennessee. On the flip side, the system underrated Mississippi State (13th overall, 40 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 is evident in the defensive line category for 2016, where aside from Tennessee, which finished second overall out of 14 teams, the entire SEC West ranked ahead of the SEC East. Therefore, the second-highest ranking SEC East team – Missouri, which got 6 points in the intradivisional ranking for a second-place finish – only got 6 points for a 9th-place overall finish once the two divisions were combined.
As always, take this research for what it really is – entertainment.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN