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The Numerical: Why the SEC’s disappointing *again*, despite having Alabama

The most important numbers of Week 5, from gunners to big plays to the SEC East’s chronic disappointment.

Georgia v Tennessee Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

1. Overachiever watch

Through the first month of the season, I used part of this weekly Numerical space to take a look at which teams and conferences were over- or underachieving, compared to their S&P+ projections (which were still mostly grounded in the preseason numbers).

Now that most teams have played at least four games, and their ratings are therefore at least 50 percent based on in-season results, let’s rotate the prism a bit and look instead at achievers. Five weeks into the season, what conference has been the best in the land?

We’ll look at this answer in two different ways. First, average rating.

FBS conferences in order of average S&P+ rating

  1. SEC (+9.7)
  2. ACC (+8.7)
  3. Big 12 (+8.5)
  4. Big Ten (+8.3)
  5. Pac-12 (+7.6)
  6. AAC (-2.1)
  7. Mountain West (-4.5)
  8. MAC (-6.1)
  9. Conference USA (-8.1)
  10. Sun Belt (-8.6)

The SEC is still on top, though it’s only by a margin of “we have Alabama, and you don’t.”

The main story here might be how close all the conferences are. Each has at least two teams in the top 15; the Big Ten has four, the Pac-12 has two, and the others each have three.

Of course, this is an average, which means conferences can be dragged up or down by outliers. What if we look at the ratings midpoint of each conference?

FBS conferences in order of median S&P+ rating

  1. ACC (+8.9)
  2. Big 12 (+8.4)
  3. SEC (+8.1)
  4. Pac-12 (+7.5)
  5. Big Ten (+5.4)
  6. Mountain West (-4.1)
  7. AAC (-4.5)
  8. MAC (-5.2)
  9. Conference USA (-6.5)
  10. Sun Belt (-10.3)

Now things get interesting. With a lack of Bama Effect, the SEC gets dragged down, while the incredibly top-heavy Big Ten gets dragged down by not having many middle-class teams. There are four B1G teams among the top nine, but only two others are in even the top 40.

Granted, preseason projections do still play a role here and will continue to do so until each team has played at least seven games. But your eyes have not deceived you: despite returning a ton of last year’s production, the SEC isn’t really any better than it was last year.

The other conference with a particularly high level of returning production, the Big 12, has improved as expected. The SEC has not.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

The SEC West hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory. Alabama is Alabama, Auburn has shown some sustained flashes, and Mississippi State and Arkansas have played at basically the expected level (though MSU has done so in a hilariously volatile way). However, Texas A&M has underachieved a bit, LSU has obviously disappointed, and Ole Miss — the hardest team to project besides UAB — is on the verge of collapse.

Still, the primary blame here lies in the East. Again.

SEC teams’ current S&P+ rankings vs. 2017 projections

  • Georgia: +11 (projected 21st, currently 10th)
  • Mississippi State: +3 (projected 33rd, currently 30th)
  • Alabama: 0 (projected first, currently first)
  • Vanderbilt: -1 (projected 58th, currently 59th)
  • Auburn: -4 (projected eighth, currently 12th)
  • Arkansas: -4 (projected 29th, currently 33rd)
  • Florida: -10 (projected 15th, currently 25th)
  • Texas A&M: -13 (projected 22nd, currently 35th)
  • Ole Miss: -13 (projected 23rd, currently 36th)
  • LSU: -15 (projected fourth, currently 19th)
  • Kentucky: -24 (projected 45th, currently 69th)
  • South Carolina: -26 (projected 39th, currently 65th)
  • Tennessee: -27 (projected 25th, currently 52nd)
  • Missouri: -31 (projected 47th, currently 78th)

Georgia is doing great, and Vanderbilt has performed as expected (again, in rather volatile fashion). But Florida has underachieved by 10 spots, and the other four teams have all underachieved by at least 24. Guh.

Typically when I talk about the preseason projections, a portion of readers and/or commenters respond with a snide remark about recruiting rankings. It’s true that recruiting affects SEC teams in a net positive manner. But recruiting rankings in general have long proved to be statistically predictive of team success, and an overestimation of recruiting doesn’t entirely explain the 2017 SEC’s four biggest underachievers.

Kentucky and South Carolina both projected to improve primarily because of returning production, more than recruiting. They each ranked in the top 10 on that list. But while other teams atop the list — TCU, Oregon, Wake Forest — have taken steps forward as projected, the Wildcats and Gamecocks have not.

Injury has played a major role. UK lost No. 2 returning receiver Dorian Baker to a preseason ankle injury and starting left tackle Cole Mosier to an ACL injury, while South Carolina star Deebo Samuel was playing at an All-American level before suffering a Week 3 leg injury.

Consequently, both offenses have collapsed. South Carolina ranks 87th in offensive success rate, and Kentucky ranks 102nd. Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr., so incredible as a freshman in 2016, is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, while the Cocks’ Rico Dowdle is averaging 2.8. That’s putting a lot of pressure on QBs to play beyond their capabilities, each with a banged up receiving corps.

Missouri was in a similar preseason position. The Tigers ranked 31st in returning production, 10th on offense, and looked to keep advancing offensively and rebound from a 2016 defensive collapse. Instead, the offense has stagnated (the Tigers are 61st in success rate, powered by a great performance against Missouri State) and have somehow managed to get worse defensively. They are 118th in defensive success rate and 119th in explosiveness.

Head coach Barry Odom made a point of moving toward a base nickel defense. The nickel has been by far Missouri’s worst set. Whoops.

And then there’s Tennessee. The Vols have a pretty good pass defense, and running back John Kelly is one of the conference’s most fun players to watch. He is pulling off a poor-man’s-Saquon act, leading the team in both rushing and receiving. UT’s return game is strong, too.

I just listed all of Tennessee’s strengths. The run defense is miserable, place-kicking is unreliable, and after Quinten Dormady’s overwhelmed performance against Georgia, let’s just say the Vols aren’t any further along with their QB situation than when the season began.

Tennessee had to deal with more turnover than any East team not named Florida, and the Volunteers’ projections were propped up by recruiting rankings. LSU’s, too. But the league’s primary issue appears to be more on the developmental side. Key players at Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, LSU, Texas A&M, Florida, and Arkansas have either regressed or failed to improve.

This brings up a philosophical question of sorts: Are SEC athletic directors focused too heavily on finding recruiters for head coaches?

The SEC has been Sabanized; Nick Saban’s almost unfathomable level of sustained success at Alabama has driven every other school crazy, and quite a few have attempted to find their own Sabans.

Typically that means either finding a former Saban assistant, finding an elite recruiter, or both. (It also often means finding a defense-first guy more than happy to play big, conservative, rocks-bashing-together football.) But Saban’s success has come not only because of elite recruiting but also because those elite recruits learn, develop, and grow throughout their three to five years in Tuscaloosa.

Either a lack of development, tactical miscues, or both have dragged down Saban imitators. (And in Florida’s case, an incredible run of non-success at quarterback has held the Gators back.) We’ll see if this ever changes.

2. Big play watch: Oklahoma State vs. Penn State, Week 5

Each week in the Numerical, I’ve been comparing the big-play exploits of the two most fun offenses in football. Four weeks into a 12-round fight, OSU has won two rounds, PSU has won one, and one was a draw.

Round 5 goes to the Pokes (making it 3-1-1 on the year), who responded to a loss to TCU with what we’ll call anxious aplomb. They beat Texas Tech 41-34, despite a long pick six and a fourth-quarter surprise onside kick, and they did so mostly because of — you guessed it — big plays. (A blocked punt helped, too.)

  • OSU vs. Tech: 82 snaps, 25 gains of 10-plus yards (30 percent), 10 gains of 20-plus (12 percent)
  • Penn State vs. Indiana: 74 snaps, 13 gains of 10-plus yards (18 percent), seven of 20-plus (nine percent).

Granted, PSU won some bonus points by solidifying Saquon Barkley’s September Heisman with a kick return touchdown and a touchdown pass. But the 2017 Nittany Lions have been more efficient and less big play-oriented this fall — their success rate ranking has risen from 80th in 2016 to 18th thus far, but their IsoPPP (explosiveness) ranking has fallen from second to 33rd. That’s great for your long-term title prospects; it’s less great for winning this competition, but that’s probably fine with PSU.

3. Gunner of the Year Watch

East Carolina v South Florida
Nate Ferguson is your GOTY leader as we approach the season’s midway point
Photo by Jason Behnken/Getty Images

Out of pure curiosity, I’ve been tracking special teams tackles this year. Maybe we’ll give a pretend award out to whoever has the most of them at the end. Winner of the award gets it named after him.

Your fake award watch list at the moment:

  • USF’s Nate Ferguson continues to shine on special teams. The junior cornerback is tied for the national lead with 7.5 special teams tackles, and the averages are still excellent; opponents are averaging just 5.7 yards per punt return and 20.7 yards per kick return when he’s in on the tackle.
  • WMU’s Alex Grace makes his first GOTY watch list appearance. He has tied Ferguson with 7.5 tackles, and his averages are solid, too: 8.3 yards per punt return and 19.3 yards per kick return.
  • BC’s Isaac Yiadom remains one of the best punt return defenders. He’s made six total special teams tackles, but the three punt returns he’s helped to stop have averaged just 2.7 yards.
  • South Alabama’s Deonta Moore is the Yiadom of kick returns: he, too, has six total special teams tackles, and the four kick returns he’s helped to stop have averaged a paltry 16.5 yards.
  • Be on the lookout for Arkansas’ Ryder Lucas. The junior DB has made five total special teams tackles, and most have come on kick returns — the five KRs he’s helped to stop have averaged just 12.4 yards.