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The Underachieving and Overachieving Teams of the SEC West

Applying Pythagorean projection to help make sense of the SEC West.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC West got a lot of deserved coverage last fall, largely based on its sterling 28-0 non-conference record, but things got ugly in the postseason. After the teams with the two worst records in the SEC West—Arkansas and Texas A&M—won their bowl games, the rest of the teams lost their postseason matchups. The division finished 2-5, and while some of those losses were close, others were blowouts.

Regardless of how last season finished, it's a safe bet those performances were not predictive and the division will be highly regarded and fiercely competitive again this season. In fact, S&P+ currently ranks five of the SEC West teams in the preseason Top 12. Applying Pythagorean projection to the division may give us an idea which teams will improve on last year's performance, but also which teams are poised to regress. Remember, all wins are not created equal. Point differential has proven to be a better indicator of future success than winning percentage itself.

This is how Pythagorean projection views SEC West teams last season:

Pythagorean Projection
SEC East Record Pyth. Diff.
Arkansas 6-6 +2.9
LSU 8-4 +1.3
Ole Miss 9-3 +1.3
Texas A&M 7-5 +0.5
Auburn 8-4 0
Mississippi State 10-2 0
Alabama 11-1 -0.7

According to this metric, Arkansas improving this season is a reasonable assumption. A big reason for that is Arkansas' improved play towards the end of last season, but the team was generally unlucky going 0-for-4 in one-score games. Arkansas' expected win total was actually 8.9 games, giving a Pythagorean differential of 2.9 wins. Teams with a higher expected win total than actual win total tend to win more games the following season. LSU and Ole Miss are also expected to improve on last year's record. NFL teams sharing LSU or Ole Miss' Pythagorean differentials on average win two more games the following season. Arkansas' Pythagorean differential on average is 2.6 more wins.

The next tier contains Texas A&M, Auburn, and Mississippi State. Auburn and Mississippi State are projected to neither improve nor decline, which is probably music to the ears of those in Starkville. Once again this season, the road to the playoffs seemingly runs through the state of Mississippi. Texas A&M looks to win either 7 games again this fall, or to improve to 8 wins.

At the bottom, rests Alabama. The Crimson Tide were 3-1 in one-score games last season, which is quite the achievement. Their fortunes aren't expected to continue this season, and two regular season losses are expected instead of one. Alabama could win tight road games again this season -- like last season's 20-13 win at LSU, and the 14-13 win at Arkansas -- but identical achievements don't typically repeat year-to-year. If you're "lucky" one year you may just as easily be "unlucky" the next. By the same token, it's unlikely Alabama has a negative turnover margin again this season.

Pythagorean projection is merely one metric, and there are countless more. It doesn't take into account qualitative factors like Lane Kiffin's refusal to run the ball in the Sugar Bowl, or rivalry games causing underdogs to punch above their weight. It definitely doesn't predict the future, but it has proven to be a useful guide to determine which teams are legitimate sleepers.

If nothing else, it can help set reasonable expectations during the optimistic months of summer.