Tiger, Tough: How Luck and the SEC Schedule Could Hurt Auburn in 2014

The 2014 college football season is rapidly approaching. Are you excited? We’re excited! We’re also here to help you prep for the impending campaign with a steady stream of preview content. So check back daily (well, not on weekends!) for more on the players, teams, leagues, trends, and emojis destined to define this season. Roll Tide. Or War Damn Eagle. Whichever.

No college football team exceeded expectations more than Auburn in 2013. Coming off a winless 2012 SEC campaign, and with new head coach Gus Malzahn at the helm, the Tigers ripped off a 7-1 conference record, earning a spot in the league title game and subsequently a spot in the national title game. Though the Tigers’ historic turnaround fell four points shy of a national championship victory, they reminded college football fans nationwide that power programs rarely stay down for long, and that Malzahn is capable of instantly translating talent into wins.

Now the Tigers enter 2014 amid much higher expectations. Bruising running back and Heisman finalist Tre Mason is in the NFL, but quarterback Nick Marshall returns to power Malzahn’s elite rushing attack. The preseason magazines picked the Tigers to finish second in the SEC West behind in-state rival and perennial national power Alabama, and while that may seem like a slight against the almost-champs, it may actually be too generous. After last season’s unprecedented ascent, Auburn’s roller-coaster ride looks to be headed toward another dip due to two factors: luck and schedule.

Lucky or Good?

The Tigers had talent last season, but they also had extraordinary luck.

Against Georgia, Auburn trailed 38-37 before scoring the winning touchdown on a freak tipped Hail Mary from Marshall to Ricardo Louis on fourth-and-18 with 36 seconds remaining:

CBS commentator Gary Danielson called the desperation heave the “play of the year,” but that label proved premature, because Auburn delivered an even more miraculous comeback in its next contest, against Alabama. With one second left and the game knotted at 28 apiece, Nick Saban elected to have his backup kicker attempt a potential game-winning field goal from 57 yards out. Every college football fan knows what happened next:

You might want to call that divine intervention, but I’ll call it luck. When statisticians talk about “luck,” we’re referring specifically to an occurrence that has a tiny probability of happening again. Sometimes, we can prove luck by examining the correlations; other times, we need only to watch something unfold to know intuitively that it’s a lucky outcome. Marshall could throw the same pass against Georgia 1,000 additional times without getting the same result.

When I rank teams on my website, The Power Rank, I adjust margin of victory based on strength of schedule. To get the best possible feel for a team’s true ability, however, it makes sense to go one step further and strip out lucky scores for a more accurate read. Auburn finished fourth in my rankings last season but would have dropped to seventh without the Georgia and Alabama results. That’s still an incredible rebound from a disastrous 2012 campaign, and it still positions Auburn as a talented top-10 team … but not as a team that would crack the sport’s new four-team playoff.

Maybe Auburn will get lucky again in 2014, but there’s no way to know for sure. And all logic points toward the opposite outcome: less luck and a subsequent regression. Without luck as a reliable variable, Auburn will have to improve to match last season’s success, let alone exceed it. This is especially true with a new obstacle looming:

SEC Schedule Injustice

In the age of the mega-conference, the schedule plays an increased role in each team’s fate. The SEC employs an eight-game conference slate, with each team playing six games against division opponents and two against cross-division opponents. In an effort to preserve traditional rivalries, one of those cross-division games comes against the same foe each year, while the other rotates.

The fixed cross-division opponent has a big impact on the SEC West each year. Auburn plays Georgia, a traditional power that should have beaten Auburn last season. LSU gets Florida, another tough opponent. Alabama, however, draws Tennessee, a formerly formidable rival that has proven an unequal match since firing national championship–winning coach Phillip Fulmer. Among the SEC West’s presumed top three contenders, Auburn look likely to face the toughest fixed cross-division game this year — Georgia is considered a favorite to win the SEC East. Worse, Auburn must face two of its toughest opponents, Georgia and Alabama, on the road.

In this season’s rotating cross-division game, Auburn will play South Carolina, a strong team expected to challenge Georgia in the East. This is a much tougher rotating contest than Auburn faced last season, when it landed Tennessee. Meanwhile, LSU will face Kentucky, while Alabama will play Florida. Once again, Auburn has the toughest draw.

The SEC’s scheduling approach means one team will always fall victim to a tougher slate, and this year it looks like it’s going to be Auburn. Analytics can help us quantify this injustice: My preseason rankings take into account a team’s performance over the previous four years, its number of turnovers in each of those seasons, and its number of returning starters. Combining these factors allows me to predict correctly about 70 percent of game results for the upcoming season based on expected margin of victory:

ncaaf2014_preseason_rank

While Auburn looks like it’s going to be a formidable team, it also looks like it’s going to be the third-best team in its own division, rating sixth nationally behind Alabama (second) and LSU (fifth). Using these rankings to examine division win probability nets the same outcome, with Auburn finishing in a respectable position, but behind Alabama and LSU:

winprob_ring

To isolate the effect of the cross-division games, I ran a second simulation in which LSU and Auburn traded opponents. If LSU played Georgia and South Carolina while Auburn landed Kentucky and Florida, Auburn’s win probability would rise to 15 percent, while LSU’s would drop to 16.1; that’s still an edge for LSU, but a drastically smaller one. Auburn’s schedule widens the gap and decreases its odds of winning the West.

Outlook

Auburn has plenty of reason for optimism this season, particularly on offense. Malzahn is a master at molding his scheme to fit his talent, and he could strap pads on most of you and still keep the offense rolling. Cameron Artis-Payne averaged 6.7 yards per carry last season and should be able to replace Mason’s production. Marshall may miss time following an offseason marijuana citation, but considering Malzahn has yet to announce a ban, it seems unlikely the quarterback will be out for long.

The defense, which allowed 5.96 yards per play last season (95th among FBS teams, though better if we adjust for strength of schedule), lost Dee Ford to the NFL and touted replacement Carl Lawson to a knee injury, and it could struggle this season with only six returning starters. Still, if Auburn hopes to return to the SEC and national title games, it’ll need to conquer bigger foes than an inexperienced D. It’ll need to win without luck despite getting the short end of the SEC’s schedule stick. 

Ed Feng (@thepowerrank) has a PhD in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs ThePowerRank.com, a sports analytics website.

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, College Football, Auburn Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, SEC, SEC West, College Football Playoff, Schedule Matters, Gus Malzahn, Nick Marshall, Win Probability, College Football Power Rankings, The Power Rank, Ed Feng