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Projecting the SEC's 2014 conference race using advanced stats

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Let's use F/+ win probabilities to project the SEC title race. Y'all are ready for Mississippi State vs. Missouri in Atlanta, right? (Last week on Win Projection Wednesday: the Big Ten.)

This Saturday, the SEC West gauntlet begins. The division features six teams in the top 11 of the F/+ rankings and six in the AP top 15, and those six are all fighting amongst themselves. And the schedule is perfectly spaced, to boot: Texas A&M-Mississippi State at noon ET, Alabama-Ole Miss at 3:30 p.m., and LSU-Auburn at 7:00.

Then in Week 7, you've got Auburn-MSU and Ole Miss-A&M (not to mention perhaps the biggest remaining East game, Georgia-Missouri). In Week 8, A&M-Alabama. In Week 9, Ole Miss-LSU. Et cetera.

With all of the huge games on the horizon, the SEC race might be decided by the number of not-so-huge games. When you've got so many teams bunched together, the odds will tell you that everyone will beat up on each other. What could determine the SEC race, then, is who has the most easy games.

And that is why a Mississippi State vs. Missouri SEC title game is a distinct possibility.

Win projections

From the Week 5 Numerical:

In this week's F/+ rankings, just 4.7 percentage points separate No. 1 Alabama (plus-25.1 percent) and No. 10 LSU (plus-20.4 percent). After five weeks in 2013, the difference between No. 1 Oregon (plus-33.1 percent) and No. 10 Oklahoma (plus-17.8 percent) was 15.3 points. In 2012, the difference between No. 1 Alabama (plus-48.2 percent!) and No. 10 Georgia (plus-18.9 percent) was a staggering 29.3.

This year, No. 1 is lower than normal and No. 10 is higher. Pray for the selection committee.

Actually, don't. They'll be fine. Conference championships might matter more this time around, if the stats and eyeballs can't distinguish between the best teams and the almost-best teams. But there will still probably be two or three obvious candidates and a heated argument about No. 4. But what the rankings tell us right now is that the balance of power might not be settled until we're through the first weekend of December.

There is still plenty to learn about college football's landscape in 2014. That's always the case after five weeks. A year ago, thanks to great defense and favorable preseason projections (which still play a small role through seven weeks), Florida was still in the F/+ top 10. Two years ago, West Virginia was still hanging on as a top-10 team at this point. Injuries kill an offense or defense, September tactics stop working for an up-and-comer, or a fickle set of 19-to 22-year-olds loses focus, and poof, a team that was good isn't anymore.

So while Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M have played like nearly elite teams (as have more predictable squads Alabama, Auburn, and LSU), we might soon find that one or more of them doesn't have staying power.

But while we can assume we know which of these teams will fade away, we don't know for sure. Neither do the numbers. And with no teams separating from the national pack just yet, we have even more to learn than normal in the coming weeks.

The way things currently stand, we could have an incredible SEC race on our hands.

East F/+ Ranking Proj. conf. wins
Missouri (1-0, 4-1) 29 5.17
Georgia (1-1, 3-1) 16 4.66
South Carolina (2-2, 3-2) 26 4.12
Florida (1-1, 2-1) 37 3.86
Tennessee (0-1, 2-2) 47 3.11
Kentucky (1-1, 3-1) 76 2.22
Vanderbilt (0-3, 1-4) 98 0.74
West F/+ Ranking Proj. conf. wins
Mississippi State (1-0, 4-0) 7 5.54
Alabama (1-0, 4-0) 1 5.38
Ole Miss (1-0, 4-0) 5 5.23
Texas A&M (2-0, 5-0) 11 4.88
Auburn (1-0, 4-0) 8 4.73
LSU (0-1, 4-1) 10 4.08
Arkansas (0-2, 3-2) 24 2.27

Those are three East teams projected within 1.05 wins of the top spot ... and those are five West teams projected within 0.8. That's incredible. This is something you tend to see when projecting lower-caliber conferences without standout teams. This isn't what you expect from the best conference in the country (and while the SEC is not the best every year, it absolutely is this year).

Sure bets

So for now, let's assume that the teams that are currently bunched together do beat up equally on each other. If we're figuring out who's going to win the conference (and the West in particular), then scheduling becomes doubly important.

Mississippi State earned a service break by upsetting LSU on the road in Week 4. It didn't look like an upset -- the Bulldogs jumped on top early and looked in position to cruise until a late LSU rally -- but it still changed the race. And when combined with their number of winnable games remaining, the Bulldogs could be in the best position to win the West.

Let me say that again. The SEC West is the best division in the country and might end up the best division of all time, and Mississippi State might have the best chance of winning it.

Through five weeks, the F/+ win probabilities have been pretty much on-track. They have been conservative with heavy favorites, however. Heading into last week, teams with 70 to 80 percent chances of winning were winning 85 percent of the time. In all, teams with 70 to 100 percent chances were winning 90 percent of the time. (Missouri's loss to Indiana is the obvious exception to the rule. Even a 90 percent win probability means there's a 10 percent chance of an upset.)

If we look specifically at the games with high win probabilities, we get a look into how Mississippi State and Missouri currently have the highest win projections in their divisions.

Team / Range 0-19%
Chance
20-29%
Chance
30-39%
Chance
40-49%
Chance
50-59%
Chance
60-69%
Chance
70-79%
Chance
80-99%
Chance
Alabama (1-0)

2
3 2
Arkansas (0-2) 1 4
1

Auburn (1-0)
3
1 2 1
Florida (1-1) 1 1 1 2
1
Georgia (1-1)

3

2 1
Kentucky (1-1) 3 3




LSU (0-1)
2
2 2
1
Mississippi State (1-0)
2

2 1 2
Missouri (1-0) 1
1 2 1
2
Ole Miss (1-0)

2 1 3
1
South Carolina (2-2) 1
1

2
Tennessee (0-1) 1 2
1 1
2
Texas A&M (2-0) 1 2
1 1 1
Vanderbilt (0-3) 3 2




70+% games: Mississippi State 3, Georgia 3, Alabama 2, Missouri 2, South Carolina 2, Tennessee 2, Auburn 1, Florida 1, LSU 1, Ole Miss 1, Texas A&M 1, Arkansas 0, Kentucky 0, Vanderbilt 0

Mississippi State already has the LSU win in its pocket. It gets Kentucky on the road and Vanderbilt and Arkansas at home. That group gives the Bulldogs four likely wins. That means they would only have to split the four other games -- Texas A&M, Auburn, at Alabama, at Ole Miss -- to get to 6-2.

Meanwhile, look at a team like Auburn. The Tigers host LSU this Saturday and South Carolina and Texas A&M in future weeks. None of those is a slam dunk, though with South Carolina's iffy play, Auburn currently has about a 73 percent chance of winning that one. But the Tigers also face road trips to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama, and the East's best team (by the numbers), Georgia. That's brutal.

Auburn and Mississippi State are almost even in the F/+ ratings, but MSU's win probability is quite a bit higher, and it's obvious why.

(One last thing: Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country and now has a lower-than-50 percent chance of winning two particular games. This is a ridiculous division.)

Slog Level Delta

Record West Winner East Winner
4-4 0.0% 2.2%
5-3 1.7% 33.4%
6-2 40.0% 47.1%
7-1 48.4% 15.7%
8-0 10.0% 1.6%

Despite the evenness of the top teams, the West's dominance over the East ensures that there is still a 58 percent chance of the West winner reaching 7-1 or 8-0, and there's only a 2 percent chance the winner is 5-3 or worse. The East winner, on the other hand? There's only about a 17 percent chance the East winner tops 6-2.

Odds of SEC conference records

Thanks to home games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, Missouri has two games in the 70+ percent category (yes, just like Indiana). Thanks to home games against Georgia and Arkansas, the Tigers have a better than 50 percent chance of winning each remaining home game. And thanks to last week's road win over South Carolina, the Tigers have also broken serve, so to speak. The odds of them reaching 7-1 are better than anybody else's in the East (in part because they're the only team that hasn't lost yet), but with the greatest number of likely wins remaining, they also have the best chances of going 6-2.

This all changes if Georgia wins in Columbia West next week.

This week

  • Florida at Tennessee (12:00 p.m. ET, SEC Network). Win probability: Tennessee 59.4%.
  • Texas A&M at Mississippi State (12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN). Win probability: Mississippi State 67.2%.
  • Alabama at Ole Miss (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). Win probability: Ole Miss 59.8%.
  • Vanderbilt at Georgia (4:00 p.m. ET, SEC Network). Win probability: Georgia 92.1%.
  • LSU at Auburn (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN). Win probability: Auburn 65.5%.
  • South Carolina at Kentucky (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). Win probability: 71.4%.

Tight odds, like the ones you see in all three SEC West battles above, turn into 1s and 0s when the games are played. So as blurry as the SEC West picture is at the moment, the picture will become a little bit more clear after Saturday, especially if a road team wins.

Odds of going 6-2 or better

Team Now Win on Saturday Lose on Saturday
Alabama 46.9% 67.4% 33.3%
Auburn 26.7% 35.5% 9.9%
LSU 11.9% 26.0% 4.8%
Mississippi State 52.3% 64.9% 26.4%
Ole Miss 43.0% 56.2% 23.1%
Texas A&M 29.5% 52.3% 18.0%

You could say that Alabama has the most to gain on Saturday; the Tide have only two road games against top-20 teams, and if they survive Saturday's trip to Oxford, that leaves only one more (at LSU on November 8). They will be favored in every remaining game, but Ole Miss represents one of the least likely wins. Clear that hurdle, and the Tide are in the driver's seat.

MSU probably has the most to lose. Perhaps because of the name on the helmet, MSU has more than its fair share of doubters despite owning the most impressive conference win of the early season. Perceptions aside, their home games against A&M and Auburn over the next two weeks are vital. With late trips to Tuscaloosa and Oxford, they will probably lose ground in the race later, and they need to stake their claim to a gaudy win total now. Lose to A&M, and the chances of reaching even 6-2 get cut in half.

Appendix

I thought some might be interested in the current win probabilities for all future SEC games here. These are based on current F/+ ratings and are subject to drastic change over the course of the coming weeks. But for now, this will give you a glimpse at where the biggest challenges lie for each SEC contender.

Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
6 04-Oct-14 Alabama Ole Miss 40.2%
6 04-Oct-14 Florida Tennessee 40.6%
6 04-Oct-14 LSU Auburn 34.5%
6 04-Oct-14 South Carolina Kentucky 71.4%
6 04-Oct-14 Texas A&M Mississippi State 32.8%
6 04-Oct-14 Vanderbilt Georgia 7.9%
Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
7 11-Oct-14 Alabama Arkansas 68.1%
7 11-Oct-14 Auburn Mississippi State 36.5%
7 11-Oct-14 Georgia Missouri 42.7%
7 11-Oct-14 LSU Florida 68.9%
7 11-Oct-14 Ole Miss Texas A&M 42.4%
Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
8 18-Oct-14 Georgia Arkansas 40.8%
8 18-Oct-14 Kentucky LSU 9.7%
8 18-Oct-14 Missouri Florida 43.3%
8 18-Oct-14 Tennessee Ole Miss 14.4%
8 18-Oct-14 Texas A&M Alabama 28.5%
Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
9 25-Oct-14 Alabama Tennessee 78.0%
9 25-Oct-14 Mississippi State Kentucky 83.5%
9 25-Oct-14 Ole Miss LSU 40.7%
9 25-Oct-14 South Carolina Auburn 22.9%
9 25-Oct-14 Vanderbilt Missouri 10.6%
Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
10 01-Nov-14 Arkansas Mississippi State 23.6%
10 01-Nov-14 Auburn Ole Miss 35.2%
10 01-Nov-14 Florida Georgia 25.8%
10 01-Nov-14 Kentucky Missouri 17.9%
10 01-Nov-14 Tennessee South Carolina 26.9%
Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
11 08-Nov-14 Alabama LSU 44.3%
11 08-Nov-14 Florida Vanderbilt 75.8%
11 08-Nov-14 Georgia Kentucky 75.6%
11 08-Nov-14 Texas A&M Auburn 33.0%
Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
12 15-Nov-14 Auburn Georgia 59.3%
12 15-Nov-14 Kentucky Tennessee 25.4%
12 15-Nov-14 LSU Arkansas 61.0%
12 15-Nov-14 Mississippi State Alabama 32.2%
12 15-Nov-14 Missouri Texas A&M 25.4%
12 15-Nov-14 South Carolina Florida 44.1%
Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
13 22-Nov-14 Missouri Tennessee 58.6%
13 22-Nov-14 Ole Miss Arkansas 64.9%
13 22-Nov-14 Vanderbilt Mississippi State 4.1%
Week Date Road Home Road Team's %Chance
14 27-Nov-14 LSU Texas A&M 38.4%
14 28-Nov-14 Arkansas Missouri 38.6%
14 29-Nov-14 Auburn Alabama 32.0%
14 29-Nov-14 Mississippi State Ole Miss 35.5%
14 29-Nov-14 Tennessee Vanderbilt 72.7%