By Jess Nicholas
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 13 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. Georgia||47 points|
|5. South Carolina||27|
|1. Alabama||47 points|
|2. Mississippi State||41|
|5. Texas A&M||25|
|6. Ole Miss||24|
These graphs always seem to be good for at least one surprise every year, and you don’t have to look far to find it in 2018. Missouri ranks second in the SEC East with 43 points, only 4 off Georgia’s 47, and the third-highest intradivisional score overall.
This is especially interesting given we predict Missouri to finish 7-5 with 5 conference losses. It’s also worth watching given Missouri’s presence on Alabama’s regular-season schedule.
Two SEC West teams are also valued outside of their respective predictions; LSU ranks third with 34 points but is predicted in our subjective rankings to miss the postseason at 5-7, while Ole Miss comes in sixth with 24 points, but is ranked in our preseason Top 25 at 25th with an 8-4 finish. In the SEC East, South Carolina’s numerical rating also differ from its predicted finish of 8-4, 5-3.
For those pundits who posit that Georgia is Alabama’s equal, the numbers seem to bear that out, at least when judged solely against other teams in their respective divisions.
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||98 points|
|4. Mississippi State||71|
|7. (tie) Auburn||60|
|9. South Carolina||51|
|10. Ole Miss||46|
|12. Texas A&M||40|
Right out of the gate, the importance of combining divisions for the purposes of weighting units is apparent. Alabama sets a TideFans.com/NARCAS record with 98 points overall, besting the previous record of 97 last reached in 2016, also by Alabama. Georgia, meanwhile, falls 12 points behind at 86, a significant gap.
Had Alabama’s special teams ranking (8th overall, for which Alabama received 6 points) been a little higher, the Crimson Tide would have broken the 100-point barrier, something TideFans.com believed nigh-impossible a few years back. So is Alabama really that good, or is the rest of that league just that bad?
The answer is in the middle. Except for the quarterback rankings, where there is quality all the way down to 9th-place Texas A&M, the 2018 preseason produced more “Average” ratings than in any year prior. One needed only to look at the defensive back category, where there was one team rating “Excellent” (Kentucky), one ranking of “Very Good” (Alabama), and a jaw-dropping nine teams ranking “Average,” including the entirety of the SEC East behind the Wildcats. TideFans tries not to throw out “Excellent” rankings too often, out of fear of cheapening the tag, but with the amount of athleticism the SEC usually produces, it was still odd to see only two “Ex”-rated running back groups (Alabama, Kentucky) and one “Excellent” wide receiver group (Ole Miss).
Other takeaways from the cross-divisional rankings was that Missouri hung in the top group with 83 points, while there was a significant gap down to a team we have predicted to finish at 10-2, Mississippi State, which brought home only 71 points. And next in fifth place, LSU, with a solid tally of 68 points, something you don’t usually see in teams predicted to finish 5-7. LSU’s predicted struggles are all about its coaching staff, in particular the volatile and overwhelmed Ed Orgeron and his hand-picked offensive coordinator, Steve Ensminger, whose previous SEC work was borderline at best.
The reshuffling of teams also helped Arkansas overtake Texas A&M, 42-40, a shocker given many believe the Aggies are a darkhorse contender, while the Razorbacks are expected to flirt with a 10-loss season.
So how did last year’s rankings do? TideFans was blessed with above-average accuracy, although 2017’s statistical outlier turned out to be a mirage.
Kentucky was last year’s Missouri, coming in fifth with 75 points in our cross-divisional rankings. Our subjective analysis pegged the Wildcats as a team that would finish 6-6 in the regular season, and the Wildcats tracked very closely to that prediction, finishing 7-5 in the regular season and then losing their bowl game to put up a final mark of 7-6, rather than align with the numerical data. The biggest miss was, ironically, Missouri, which came out of our objective rankings in 14th place with 30 points, but finished bowl-eligible.
One thing our objective analysis absolutely hit on, though, was that media darling Tennessee would struggle. While some were mentioning the Volunteers as a potential SEC East title contender, TideFans.com/NARCAS’s matrix was unimpressed, pegging Tennessee at 10th place overall with 52 total points. The on-field results were even worse, with Tennessee finishing at the bottom of the SEC East and failing to win a single conference game.
The second-biggest miss was the over-valuation of Ole Miss, which TideFans had in a tie for 2nd in the SEC West with Auburn. Instead, the Rebels finished sixth in the division, while the Tigers represented the West in Atlanta after its upset of Alabama. It bears mentioning in both the one we got right (Tennessee) and the one we didn’t (Ole Miss), that we were helped in one case and hampered in the other by a completely immeasurable and subjective force known as momentum. Once teams and seasons start to go off the rails, whether because of injury, the loss of a head coach or both, the rush to the bottom can come swiftly and proceed unabated.
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 seen most notably in 2018 in the defensive back category, where separating nine “Average”-ranked teams is a both a chore and a statistical risk for the teams at the bottom end of such a head-to-head comparison. The penalty for not being as “Average” as a team four or five slots up the line can significantly impact one’s points.
As always, take this research for what it really is – entertainment.