2017 Previews: Rating the Units

The SEC trophy, Photo Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC trophy, Photo Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
August 6, 2017

As the number of expert (and not-so-expert) opinions available on the internet has exploded over the past 20 years, what has been lacking in many of those prognostications is objective data of any sort. While ranking the strength of all position units at this point in the preseason demands some degree of subjective judgment, TideFans.com continues to do its best to add some hard numbers to the mix.

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 12 years ago, TideFans/ 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.

       
QB RB WR OL DL LB DB ST
UGA UGA UF UK UGA UGA UT UF
USC VU UK USC UF UK UK UK
UM UK USC UF VU USC VU UT
UF UF UM UM UT UT UGA UGA
UK USC UT UGA USC UF UF VU
VU UT UGA UT UK VU USC UM
UT UM VU VU UM UM UM USC
 
QB RB WR OL DL LB DB ST
UA UA UA Ark AU UA UA OM
MSU LSU OM OM UA AU LSU AU
AU AU TAM TAM OM OM OM TAM
OM TAM AU UA LSU MSU AU UA
Ark MSU LSU LSU TAM LSU MSU Ark
TAM Ark MSU AU MSU Ark TAM LSU
LSU OM Ark MSU Ark TAM Ark 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. (tie) Georgia 41 points
(tie) Kentucky 41 points
3. Florida 39 points
4. South Carolina 31 points
5. Tennessee 28 points
6. Vanderbilt 25 points
7. Missouri 19 points
SEC West 
1. Alabama 49 points
2. (tie) Auburn 39 points
(tie) Ole Miss 39 points
4. LSU 28 points
5. Texas A&M 27 points
6. Mississippi State 22 points
7. Arkansas 20 points

Ordinarily, we’d talk about the spread of the points and whether parity exists, but looking at these numbers, we realize the only discussion to have out of the gate is: “Kentucky?!?”.

Not only do the Wildcats spring up to tie Georgia for the SEC East points lead, they do so in the face of TideFans.com/NARCAS’ prediction of a 6-6 season. So either the individual parts aren’t adding up to a more valuable sum, or most prognosticators, including us, aren’t giving Kentucky enough of a chance to contend. Either way, Kentucky is certainly an outlier – but the Cats aren’t the only ones.

Ole Miss, which has been written off for dead in the face of Hugh Freeze’s embarrassing resignation and an NCAA investigatory staff that is threatening to have a campus building named after it thanks to its tenure on the ground in Oxford, still has talent on its roster, and that shows through with a 39-point ranking that is good enough to tie Auburn for a clear second place in the SEC West. Alabama, to no one’s surprise, leads with 49 points (for comparison, Alabama led this same comparison last year with a score of 48).

As for the rest of the SEC West, LSU scored a disappointing 28 points, thanks largely to struggles at quarterback, linebacker and potentially on special teams. Texas A&M, which is TideFans’ pick for third in the SEC West, doesn’t seem to have the point spread to back up that prediction. Mississippi State and Arkansas land about where the pickers think they will.

In the SEC East, Florida scores much more highly than its record might suggest, which actually isn’t a surprise given Jim McElwain’s uncanny ability to navigate choppy waters and still wind up with a strong finish. It will be tougher than usual for Florida to get back to the SEC Championship Game, given the objective strength of the Georgia program, but Florida shouldn’t be counted out.

But if the rankings are to be believed, Tennessee is to be counted out. TideFans has questioned the offseason hype that was poured onto Tennessee in light of the Vols’ potential issues on both lines of scrimmage and especially the quarterback position. However, a meager ranking of 28 points is still a bit of a surprise. Of no surprise at all is Missouri coming in with a ranking in the teens, as this Mizzou team might be one of the worst in the SEC in years.

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
UGA UA UA Ark AU UGA UT UF
UA UGA OM OM UGA UA UK OM
USC LSU UF UK UA AU UA AU
MSU VU UK TAM OM UK LSU UK
AU AU USC UA LSU USC OM TAM
OM TAM UM USC UF OM UGA UT
Ark UK UT LSU TAM MSU VU UGA
TAM UF TAM AU VU UT AU UA
UM MSU AU UF UT LSU MSU VU
UF USC UGA UM USC UF UF UM
UK Ark LSU UGA MSU VU USC Ark
VU UT MSU UT UK Ark TAM LSU
UT OM VU MSU Ark UM Ark MSU
LSU UM Ark VU UM TAM UM USC
TOTAL POINTS 
1. Alabama 95 points
2. (tie) Georgia 80 points
(tie) Ole Miss 80 points
4. Auburn 78 points
5. Kentucky 73 points
6. Florida 63 points
7. (tie) South Carolina 56 points
(tie) Texas A&M 56 points
9. LSU 55 points
10. Tennessee 52 points
11. (tie) Vanderbilt 42 points
(tie) Mississippi State 42 points
13. Arkansas 38 points
14. Missouri 30 points

When the two divisions are combined and judged against each other, Kentucky slides enough that its presence is just a shock and no longer a harbinger of the apocalypse. Still, the fact the Wildcats rank solidly above Florida, South Carolina and especially vaunted Tennessee makes the UK season well worth watching.

Alabama’s ranking of 95 points overall is just 2 points off last year’s record-tying 97-point performance. A perfect score is 112, meaning Alabama captured 84.8% of available points. Last year Alabama grabbed 86.6% of available points and more than backed it up on the field.

While last year’s numerical rankings backed up TideFans.com’s subjective picks, this year does not. TideFans staff “over-ranks” Tennessee and Mississippi State and “under-ranks” Kentucky and Florida. We hate to keep coming back to the UK example but it’s such an outlier that watching the Cats is going to be more than just a pastime this fall.

So how did last year’s rankings do? For the most part, we got it right.

The team that most fell short of its ranking was Tennessee, which managed to pull in 94 points overall, quite a feat given that the maximum possible score for the second-place team is 104, meaning the Vols pulled in 90.4% of the available points at that level. Of course, Tennessee’s season did not live up to billing, and Butch Jones leads a rather lengthy list of coaches either flirting with the hot seat or in absolute danger of being replaced at the end of the coming season.

Florida ranked 5th overall in the SEC and 2nd in the SEC East with a score of 63, which given the way the Gators performed in the SEC Championship Game relative to the tests Alabama had faced out of its own division, was as dead-on accurate as we could probably hope to be.

We pegged Auburn as a middle-run team correctly, we identified the potential soft spots in the Texas A&M team and correctly identified Missouri as paper Tigers. Our biggest misses, other than an overrate of Tennessee? Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. TideFans didn’t see the Commodores’ strong finish coming. As for the Rebels, we had good company in missing the boat there, although the confluence of NCAA investigation and injury to the Rebels’ starting quarterback is a tough combination to predict. In all, 2016 was one of the best years for this system we’ve ever had.

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, in fact, is evident in the offensive line category for 2017, where Arkansas led the league in the unit evaluation and grabbed 14 points because of it. If judged in the context of last year’s SEC teams, the Razorbacks would have been somewhere around the bottom of the upper third of teams, but certainly not leading the pack.

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

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessn

 

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