In some years end results align almost perfectly with expected outcomes. In others the world just burns. Consider 2010 one of the latter.
A year after almost every team in the SEC finished the regular season with a record almost exactly reflecting their Pythagorean win projection, 2010 saw nothing but chaos, with literally half of the conference either over-performing or under-performing their Pythagorean projection by at least one full game. Accordingly, with projections going back to the 1998 season, that makes 2010 the most turbulent year on record to date.
The following is the raw breakdown of Pythagorean projections from 2010, sorted by overachievement rank:
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Auburn leading the way in terms of overachievement should come as no surprise to anyone who paid attention. Despite a complete lack of quality depth, Aubie somehow managed to pull off several second half comebacks and finished the season a stupefying 7-0 in games decided by one possession. (By comparison, 2009 Alabama and 2008 Florida played in only three games combined in two seasons decided by one possession). How that happened, given that dearth of quality depth throughout the roster, is something almost impossible to even fathom, and should serve as a reminder to all the occasionally bewildering oddities that can result with small sample sizes.
That Auburn overachieved, however, is not so telling as how much they are overachieved by. To generically outperform a Pythagorean projection is one thing, but to do it to the extent that Auburn overachieved is to almost enter uncharted territory. The following is a list of the ten greatest overachievers in the SEC since 1998:
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Only the 2004 Tennessee Volunteers overachieved more than 2010 Auburn, and as you can tell from browsing that list the typical outcome the following season in the wake of such overachievement is a significant decline, with several programs outright crashing and burning. Oddly enough, the only overachiever on the list that did not decline the following season is 2001 Auburn, who actually improved the following season with the loss of Daniel Cox, the continued development of four budding stars, and the addition of Bobby Petrino and Gene Chizik to the coaching staff. The 2002 Auburn team overachieved in its own right, too, but it all came crashing down in 2003 with significant regression and midnight charter flights to Louisville.
With the loss of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley combined with an arguably tougher schedule and several difficult road games, a soft landing seems highly unlikely for Auburn in 2011. Increasing young talent on the roster, mixed with a QB-friendly offense, may dampen the blow a bit, but it's hard not to see a significant decline in the immediate future. The biggest post-national championship decline in recent memory is LSU's 2008 fall from BCS champions to 8-5 Peach Bowl champions, and Auburn looks to be somewhere in that general range in 2011.
Also outpacing its Pythagorean projection was Mississippi State, who fought its way to a 4-4 finish in conference play despite being outscored a combined thirty points on the season. MSU pulled out a handful of close wins, but two lopsided defeats to Alabama and LSU heavily weighed down their projection, and coming off their best season in over a decade regression seems highly likely. Dan Mullen has done much with little in his first two seasons in Starkville, but the next coach who can consistently win this league over the long-term with an undermanned team will be the first. If Mullen is to make 9-4 campaigns a routine in Starkvegas, he'll need a greater influx of talent and depth that will only come with greater successes on the recruiting trails. Until then, though, expect regression.
Moving to the opposite end of the spectrum, Georgia... well, look, Mark Richt is the butt of jokes everywhere for a reason. Georgia underachieved significantly because their three conference wins were generally all lopsided blowouts -- an average margin of victory of 27 points -- while they routinely lost competitive games outside of those blowouts, and in doing so somehow found a way to lose to Mississippi State, Colorado, Central Florida, and the worst Florida team in the post-Zook era. Going into 2011 improvement seems likely, especially with the continued development of Aaron Murray and the almost-laughably weak SEC East, but this is a team with far more holes than they ought to have given their recruiting prowess, and a return to Richt's glory years doesn't seem very likely.
Alabama did somewhat of the same thing as the Dawgs, albeit to a lesser extent. 'Bama followed up a national championship season by once again leading the SEC in Pythagorean Wins, but second half collapses against LSU and Auburn ended with the Tide falling to 5-3 in conference play and fourth in the SEC West. In doing so, 'Bama fit the mold of the typical Pythagorean underachiever, the team that combined blowout victories with heartbreaking losses in close games. Improvement in 2011 can legitimately be expected, but a shaky defensive line mixed with question marks in the wide receiver corps, the interior offensive line, and special teams may result in some degree of improvement that is not as great as those who bleed crimson would prefer.
Ole Miss and Kentucky, however, are different stories entirely.
Kentucky opened the season with wins over in-state rival Louisville and two cupcakes, but stumbled badly down the stretch with a 3-7 record in its final ten games. With the exception of an upset against South Carolina and a strong showing in a loss against Auburn, the final three months of the season were nothing short of a train wreck for the 'Cats. Joker Phillips may see improvement in year two, but truth be told Kentucky has been stuck in the same funk for years, consistently able to feast on cupcakes and the bottom feeders of the SEC such that they qualify for bottom-tier bowl games, without ever actually becoming good enough to be a consistent threat to the league's best teams or challenge for the ultimate prizes of college football. Kentucky may improve in 2011, but it's hard to see them going above and beyond what they've done in recent years despite the likely weakness of the SEC East. Much like with Mississippi State, undermanned teams with little star power have low ceilings in the modern day SEC.
Meanwhile, in Oxford, Autumn remains the never-ending nightmare. Ole Miss faces just as bleak of an outlook as they have at any point in recent memory, perhaps even more so. Johnny Reb was an underachiever in 2010, but truthfully only an underachiever to the extent that it's exceedingly difficult to go 1-7 in conference play and not underachieve. Nothing in this analysis should lead anyone to believe that the rise of Ole Miss is imminent. Improvement would be no surprise -- again, even 2-6 is technically improvement -- but with the loss of Jeremiah Masoli, roster attrition, highly questionable coaching, depth issues everywhere, a lack of elite talent, and a serious injury to the best defensive player on the team, even returning to a bottom-tier bowl game would be something of a surprise. General teachings of Pythagorean Wins analysis be damned, it's far more likely that Houston Nutt will cash a severance check in 2011 than Ole Miss will make any serious gains.
Editor's Note: The lone underachiever from 2009, Arkansas, held true to Pythagorean form, moving from 3-5 in conference play and fourth in the SEC West to 6-2 in the conference while finishing second in the division.