GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida last lost to Tennessee in 2004. So it was a surprise to me in July when the SEC Media overwhelmingly chose Tennessee to win the SEC East (225 first-place votes compared to 57 for Florida).
I understand that Florida finished the season terribly, but the Gators did end the year with Florida State, Alabama and Michigan. They also clearly overachieved in Jim McElwain’s first year and so, surely, we should expect them to be better in year two, right?
That was my gut feeling, but because I’m a nerd I decided to look into the numbers. Fortunately there are three statistics that are predictive when it comes to understanding how a team will either improve or regress the following year. (These ideas have been emphasized repeatedly by ESPNs Bill Barnwell and applied to his excellent NFL analysis.).
- Record in close games
- Fumble luck
- Predicted record by Pythagorean expectation
The rationale is that there is enough luck in a 13-game season that there is an extremely small difference between going 8-5 and 10-3. This makes intuitive sense for anyone who watched the miracle pass from Will Grier to Antonio Callaway last year. So the question is, as a giant Florida homer, I believe the Gators were better than Tennessee last year, but what do the numbers say?
Record in Close Games
First we examine each team’s record in close games.
Typically, games decided by seven points or less are a 50/50 proposition, so that’s the definition I’m using for close games.
This does not mean that a team that goes 7-1 in close games one year will go 1-7 the next, but it does mean that it is more likely to go 4-4 than 7-1 again.
Tennessee went 2-4 in close games last year, including the heartbreaker (for the Vols) in Gainesville and an overtime home loss to Oklahoma. Florida went 5-1 in close games, including a squeaker against Florida Atlantic.
Creating fumbles requires some skill. You often hear about coaches placing an emphasis on ripping the ball out and flying to the ball. Those are skills that can be taught.
Fumble recoveries, however, are typically random, and anything more than a 50-percent recovery rate is usually attributable to luck. Again, this doesn’t mean that if a team recovered all of its fumbles last year that it will recover none this year. It just means that it is more likely that its fumble recovery distribution will be close to 50 percent.
In 2015, Tennessee recovered seven and lost seven fumbles. Florida recovered 11 and lost seven, with one of those recoveries being a huge play by Bryan Cox Jr. in the second half to keep Florida in the game against Tennessee.
The final statistical indicator of future performance is expected wins via the Pythagorean expectation — a statistic invented by famed Sabermatrician Bill James — which can be used to give a true measure of how a team performs.
This statistic looks at points scored and points allowed and predicts what a team’s record should have been based on those numbers.
For this analysis, I looked at both the entire schedule and then games I’ve deemed “competitive” to eliminate the effect of a 50-point win over a cupcake opponent.
Close your eyes, Gators fans. Based on their point differential, Tennessee should have won the East Division handily in 2015. This is even more striking because the wins calculation is based on a 14-game schedule for Florida but only a 13-game schedule for Tennessee.
Additionally, in competitive games, Tennessee widened the gap on Florida, indicating that Florida had more issues as the competition got better than Tennessee did.
This is reflected in the overlap between the two team’s schedules as well, as Florida outscored common opponents by 7.5 points compared to 12.0 points for Tennessee.
The statistical case looks bleak for Florida this year. The statistics say that Tennessee should be the heavy favorite to win the SEC East, and after taking a close look, I understand why the SEC media predictions are so heavily slanted toward the Volunteers.
However, I can’t get past the feeling deep down that Florida still is going to find a way to win the East. This has nothing to do with these statistics at all, and everything to do with Butch Jones deciding to kick an extra point to go up by 13 with 10:19 left in the game last year.
That was an indefensible coaching decision at the moment it happened and is a microcosm of how his decisions have directly contributed to Tennessee’s issues in close games. It also led to one of my favorite moments of the season.
Conversely, coach McElwain put his team in position to win games in which it had no business competing. He also had to deal with the Will Grier suspension, which clearly had an impact on the statistics I’m citing here.
This season Florida fans are going to learn more about coach McElwain and whether his coaching acumen, player development and recruiting has closed these statistical gaps. If the Gators do make it to Atlanta this season — even with an identical record — they will have improved significantly from year one to year two of the McElwain era and he will again deserve SEC coach of the year.
I can’t wait to find out.