In the spirit of kicking the dangerous habit of resting on our laurels, I think by now most of you are familiar with my application of Pythagorean Wins to SEC football. As we've come to realize, Pythagorean Wins is about the best indicator of team quality we have, and it comes with a long history of being a consistent predictor of future performance as well.
From the beginning, let's look back to the notable teams from a year ago, and see how they fared in 2008. In my analysis of 2007 Pythagorean Wins, I pinpointed two overachievers and one underachiever. The two overachievers were the Tennessee Volunteers, who won the SEC West at 6-2 despite having only 3.94 Pythagorean Wins, and Mississippi State, who went 7-5 (4-4) despite having only 2.58 Pythagorean Wins. Ole Miss, on the other hand, went 0-8 in conference play despite having 1.40 Pythagorean Wins.
As it has a tendency to do, the Pythagorean analysis accurately predicted future performance on all three counts. Tennessee was one of the biggest overachievers in Pythagorean history in 2007, and predictably they imploded with an incompetent offensive showing in 2008, and the 5-7 season resulted in the ousting of long-time head coach Phil Fulmer. Likewise, Mississippi State overachieved after getting many lucky breaks throughout the course of the season, and though it convinced many that it was Croom's breakout season, they fell apart again in 2008, and Croom ultimately "resigned" after a 45-0 thumping at the hands of arch rival Ole Miss. And speaking of the Rebels, the 2007 underachievers rebounded in a big way in 2008, surging to a 9-4 season that saw them beat national champion Florida, take Alabama right to the wire, and win the Cotton Bowl, all of which combined to constitute one of their best seasons in the 40+ years since the glory days under Vaught.
All in all, I hate to sound too self-congralutory about Pythagorean Wins, but the concept nailed trends in future performance in 2007, as it usually does.
With 2007 now in the books, let's move forward to the 2008 analysis. Click here for a print screen of the Excel spreadsheet. As you see, there was relatively little Pythagorean activity in 2008, as we only have two underachievers (Alabama and Georgia), and no underachievers. Let's take a bit of a closer look at the two overachievers.
The Crimson Tide is an overachiever, but in this case I don't think it really portends anything unexpected. We did go 8-0 in conference play, despite posting "only" 6.95 Pythagorean Wins, so the Tide just narrowly fit inside the window for Pythagorean overachievers.
From the outset, I do think that it should be stated that we probably weren't that big of an overachiever, and actually I don't think we were one at all. As those of you who have followed this piece the past three years know, I really haven't figured out an effective way to take into account garbage time points scored against opponents and allow it to be applied uniformly, so all of the garbage points scored against Alabama take a negative toll on our Pythagorean projection. Included in that are meaningless touchdowns by Tennessee and Arkansas against our scrubs, plus Georgia's "comeback" in the Blackout, and the meaningless late touchdown in the Kentucky game. If I had an effective way in place to factor out the garbage time points allowed, we wouldn't be an overachiever at all.
That said, however, it still doesn't likely mean anything for the Tide. Regardless of what the Pythagorean projection tells us, we are almost guaranteed to regress next season, keeping in mind that even going 7-1 would constitute regression. All the Alabama projection really tells us is that we almost certainly aren't 8-0 for the second year in a row, but considering back-to-back undefeated seasons in SEC play hasn't happened since the glory days under Bear Bryant, that is really a surprise to no one that is paying attention. All our Pythagorean projections tell us is effectively what we knew all along.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, could very well be another story. Even though they greatly disappointed nearly everyone by going just 9-3, the dirty little secret of their 2008 campaign was that they were lucky as hell to even do that well. They ended up going 6-2 in conference despite having a mere 4.02 Pythagorean Wins. By that metric, this was a team that "should" have gone 7-5 that lucked into a 9-3 finish record, so preseason disappointment notwithstanding, it could have been a lot worse.
And it shouldn't come as any great surprise to those paying close attention. The Dawgs were absolutely annihilated in both of their losses to Alabama and Florida, but the wins were ugly as hell. They needed a goal line fumble to hold off average-at-best South Carolina, and even both Vanderbilt and Tennessee kept them close. They did beat a 7-5 LSU team in one of the ugliest games played all year, but from there they needed a last-minute touchdown pass to beat Kentucky, and then needed a last-minute goal line stand to hold off 5-7 Auburn. All in all, they went 6-2 in conference play, but were much closer to going 2-6 than 7-1, which ought to make their Pythagorean case in its own right.
Moving forward, things don't look too good for the Dawgs. It will help if they can rebound from having so many injuries last year, but the odds they face are nevertheless almost impossible even with good health. They will have to replace Matt Stafford at quarterback -- who, despite past criticism from me, was a true difference-maker at the quarterback position -- plus Knowshon Moreno, and they also have several key losses on defense. When you put it together with their almost ungodly tough schedule in 2009, and continuing questions about the quality of defensive coaching, it seems almost like a hopeless situation for the Dawgs.
I have previously said that if Richt can get this team back to 9-3, he ought to win Coach of the Year, and I still stick by that statement. There are few certainties in life, but I think you can safely bet the farm that UGA will be regressing in 2009.
Finally, I'll wrap things up with a few quick-hitters from around the rest of the conference:
- Gator hate all you want, but the Florida Gators were simply unreal in 2008. Despite an early loss to Ole Miss, they ended up with more Pythagorean Wins than any team in the modern history of the SEC, and in all fairness they were probably the best team this conference has seen since 1979 Alabama. And scary enough, despite all of that, they were actually the biggest underachiever in the entire conference. Say what you will about the Gators, but with their offense looking to be elite again in 2009, combined with a defense that returns nearly everyone, there is absolutely no objective reason whatsoever to think that the Gators won't repeat in 2009. Hate 'em all you want, but do so with the appropriate respect.
- For a few years all we heard with Les Miles was a bunch of Larry Coker comparisons. I thought those comparisons were baseless then, and I still think they are baseless now. Nevertheless, if you look at Pythagorean Wins, there has been a slow, gradual decline with LSU since he arrived. His first team posted 6.53 Pythagorean Wins, and in his sophomore campaign that dropped to 6.03 Pythagorean Wins. And despite winning the national championship, it dropped even further in his third season, down to 5.47. And this year, of course, it dropped even further, down to 3.05. Now I wouldn't necessarily read too much into that because LSU is still recruiting at an elite level and will remain one of the most talented teams in the country for years to come, but you cannot help but have your interest taken by those numbers. Regardless of how you spin it, declining Pythagorean Wins in four consecutive years is never a good thing.
- Speaking of a team that declined in Pythagorean Wins for four consecutive years, that also includes the 2004-2007 Auburn Tigers, who fell from 7.23 to 6.88 to 4.92 to 4.58. Perhaps we should have seen the collapse of 2008 coming -- though Lord knows I didn't -- as the level of elite talent and quality depth slowly dwindled over the years, as did offensive production. One way or the other, though the decline was slow, they are firmly in the basement now, and look to remain there at least for 2009. Truth be told, it was a slow descent to the basement, and it will likely be a slow ascent out of it as well.