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LSU and the 2019 S&P+ Projections

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Tigers check in at No. 4, but what does that mean for the rest of the schedule.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - LSU v Central Florida Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

SB Nation’s Bill Connelly released his final preseason S&P+ projections for the 2019 season on Monday, with LSU checking in at No. 4 in the country,

Of course, with Alabama at No. 1 (again) and Georgia at 2, that still leaves the Tigers at third in the SEC. And second in the Western Division.

Interestingly, Connelly’s numbers point towards the Tiger defense being the nation’s best, and the offense 15th. Given that returning production is a pretty big factor, that probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise.

So, a couple quick thoughts:

  • Bama may be the only team ahead of LSU on the schedule, but four are right in the neighborhood: Florida (6), Auburn (8), Mississippi State (10) and Texas A&M (13). Of course, last year LSU had five scheduled opponents ranked ahead of them.
  • Other LSU opponents in the top 40(ish): Texas at 35, Ole Miss at 39 and Utah State at 42.
  • As a loyal PAPN listener, Texas being that low isn’t a huge surprise since the Longhorns will be replacing a ton, but Ole Miss moving up? That’s a surprise. Yeah, the Rebs return a lot but...how much of it is any good?
  • Bill also explains about how a recent adjustment gave a boost to the SEC teams’ ratings:

In January I made revisions to the S&P+ algorithm, discussed here and elsewhere. One of a few tweaks was a conference-wide strength adjustment.

After the ratings are determined, I project previous games based on those ratings, and I track each conference’s average performance versus projection. For the top conference, I found that by the end of the season it was aiming low by two or three points per game per team. For the bottom conference, it was the reverse.

Shifting each team’s rating based on this conference average, and increasing the weight of said adjustment as the season progresses, basically improves against-the-spread performance by about 1 percentage point per season and cuts the average absolute error by somewhere between 0.2 and 0.3 points per game.

That doesn’t seem like much, but look at the Prediction Tracker results and note how much of a difference 1 percent and 0.3 points per game could make to your projective ranking there.

It does, however, mean a fundamental shift in how mid-major teams are judged.

For a given season, shifting each conference team in this manner can mean that the best conference in FBS ends up with quite a few teams near the top. For the 2008 season (as presented in the example above), that means a heavy Big 12 presence. And for 2018, it means that the SEC dominated the ratings as much as any conference ever has — as much as SEC fans like to think their league dominates every year.

In the adjusted S&P+ rankings for 2018, SEC teams occupied six of the top nine spots in the rankings. That’s ... significant ... but transitively, it ties together pretty well. No. 1 Alabama’s only loss came to No. 3 Clemson (with wins over five other top-10 teams); two of No. 2 Georgia’s three losses came to teams in the top five; No. 5 LSU lost only to the No. 1, No. 9, and No. 11 teams while beating No. 7, No. 8, and No. 18; etc.

(This adjustment also means that national champion Clemson now ranks third instead of second. That’s awkward, but again, the conference-level adjustment makes S&P+ more accurately predictive overall. Nothing’s going to fit perfectly with our perceptions.)

So if the SEC was easily the best-graded conference in 2018 — far better than it had in any season since 2014 — and only a couple of league teams are on the bad side of the returning production measure, there’s probably no reason to think it will be projected much lower in 2019. And I would figure “10 teams in the top 21” qualifies as “not projected lower.”

  • Florida is going to be an interesting case study. The Gators return almost all of their key contributors on offense — but they’re all at the skill spots. The offensive line will have just ONE starter back. At some schools, that’s not a big deal, but they usually have loaded groups coming up behind the departed. I’m not so sure that’s the case with Dan Mullen’s Florida right now.
  • Florida also may have to contend with a late defensive coordinator hire, if Todd Grantham is headed back to the NFL.
  • Auburn has the shoe on the other foot; a returning offensive line, plus some veteran backs. Underachieving 2018 aside, recent history suggests that Gus Malzahn’s offenses bounce back well with veteran lines and experienced runners, much more so than quarterback. The defense keeping Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown was big as well.
  • Mississippi State may lose some big names in Simmons and Sweat, but they return a decent core of defenders — Kobe Jones, all three linebackers and Cameron Dantzler at cornerback. Likewise, most of the offensive line and Kylin Hill. Big question will be what they can get out of the passing game.
  • And with A&M, it’s more a question of quality vs. quantity; a lot back, but Trayveon Williams and Jace Sternberger on offense, plus Daylon Mack, Kingsley Keke, Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson on defense.

Anyway, to steal an idea from Bud over at Tomahawk Nation, I thought it might be fun to see how these ratings translate to LSU’s actual schedule in terms of point spreads and win probabilities. The spreads were calculated with basic S&P+ differential with home field being worth another three, while the win probability conversions were (rounded) through this calculator from BoydsBets.com. It’s certainly not a perfect calculation or prediction, but it’s food for conversation in February:

LSU’s 2019 Schedule through S&P+

Schedule Opponent S&P+ Point Spread Win Probability
Schedule Opponent S&P+ Point Spread Win Probability
Georgia Southern -1.5 -27.3 100%
at Texas 8.9 -19.9 98%
Northwestern St. NA NA NA
at Vanderbilt 5.2 -17.6 94%
Utah St. 7.6 -15.2 87%
Florida 24.6 -4.2 48%
at Mississippi St. 21.4 -1.4 52%
Auburn 22.6 -6.2 67%
at Alabama 35.4 12.6 17%
at Ole Miss 8.5 -14.3 86%
Arkansas 6.1 -22.7 100%
Texas A&M 18.7 -10.1 77%

That puts LSU favored in 10 of 12 regular season games (most sports books wouldn’t even put a spread on an FCS opponent like NSU so go ahead and count that with 100 percent) and as a double-digit favorite in eight games, including the trip to Texas.

I certainly don’t expect that narrative to hold over the remainder of the offseason, but it’s fun to talk about for now, at least.