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Lousiana is the New Favorite

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Thanks to an impressive first half performance from Georgia Southern last week, in which the Eagles built a lead too large for App State to climb back from, there’s a new favorite in the race for the Sun Belt title.

Thanks to an impressive first half performance from Georgia Southern last week, in which the Eagles built a lead too large for App State to climb back from, there’s a new favorite in the race for the Sun Belt title.

I’ve started tinkering with win probabilities recently, using my OAYP advanced metric, and what better test case could there be than taking a look at a now wide open fight for SBC East supremacy.

The West, on the other hand, seems to be locked down.

Louisiana is going to win their division. They just are. Mathematically speaking, it’s not a 100% lock, obviously, but pretending otherwise, based on the information at hand, is pointless endeavor.

Their remaining games are at Coastal Carolina, this Thursday, at South Alabama, and then home for Troy and ULM.

The trip to Conway could be tricky, but the Chants are seventh in the league in both offensive and defensive OAYP, while the Cajuns are first in each metric. I just don’t know where the matchup advantages are for the home team.

After that, according to OAYP, South Alabama is the worst team in the league and one of the ten worst in the country, so that should be a blowout. Troy’s high-octane offense is threatening, but Louisiana’s pass defense has come leaps and bounds in the past 12 months, and Troy’s defense is second to last in the Sun Belt in OAYP. The only one worse? ULM.

Even under the incredibly flawed premise that Louisiana will lose one of those games (they won’t), they have the head-to-head over Arkansas State (not that it will matter), and ULM would have to win out against Georgia State, Georgia Southern, CCU, and then beat Louisiana in Lafayette (not happening).

So, even though Billy Napier’s squad doesn’t have a 100% chance of winning the West, they have a 100% chance of winning the West. Wagering on anything else would be like betting against the sun coming up.

The West is settled. The East is not.

Closing out the season with Louisiana and App State, Troy would need nothing short of a miracle to get in, and they would still need some help. Same goes for Coastal. Basically, it’s down to Georgia State, Georgia Southern, and the Mountaineers.

The Panthers are in a tough spot. Not because they don’t control their own destiny -- they do -- but because their destiny includes hosting App State and a trip to Statesboro. Right now, OAYP favors the latter by a touchdown, and would have them as more than a two touchdown dog to the former.

#3 in the league in offensive OAYP, Dan Ellington and company can rock and roll with the best in the conference, just three spots below App State in the national rankings, and 12 spots under Louisiana.

The problem is that #8 defense, sitting at #113 in the FBS, at large. Yes, this team is 6-2, and playing good football of late, but they’ve still only held two teams below 30 points, and their 2.91 points per drive allowed is down at 107th.

With a 2.79% probability of winning out, their chances of winning the East are better than either Troy’s or Coastal Carolina’s, but not that much better.

Georgia Southern, on the other hand, is a legit threat to earn a rematch with the Cajuns. They vaulted up the national OAYP rankings from 83rd to 62nd after winning in Boone.

And, in many ways, even though it didn’t feel like it going into the game, Chad Lunsford and company are in better shape right now than many expected them to be in at this point, ahead of the season.

They’re 0-2 against two currently unbeaten Power Five teams. Their one conference loss came to a super impressive Louisiana group that will likely find itself back in the title game, in December. They’re 4-0 against the teams they were supposed to beat (granted, probably not in the fashion the Eagle faithful would have preferred). And, above all else, they’re 1-0 against App State, which no one saw coming.

Moreover, after beating the Sun Belt favorites in Boone, and gaining the head-to-head edge in the divisional race whilst doing so, what once looked like a challenging final third of the season doesn’t feel quite as daunting.

Troy’s defense is nowhere near what it was last year, and is arguably one of the two or three worst in the conference, ULM’s might be even worse, Arkansas State has been bitten harder by the injury bug than anyone else in the league, and though Georgia State has impressed of late, that’s also the same team that gave up 34 to an anemic Texas State offense in a three-point win, and lost by 47 to Western Michigan.

The Eagles will almost certainly need to win out in order to get in, but they’ll be favorites in three of the four, at least, and possibly all four by the time the A-State game actually rolls around. Even right now, OAYP effectively has that game as a pick ‘em, and the Red Wolves only have the edge because it’s in Jonesboro. Put that game on a neutral site and Georgia Southern would be favored by a little more than a field goal.

The problem is, it’s going to be much harder to win all four than winning any of them individually. That’s how probability works. Georgia Southern will likely be the better team in each of those contests, but the better team doesn’t always win. The better team that day doesn’t even always win. One slip and App State is right back in the driver’s seat.

The winner of the Sun Belt East, whoever it is, is going to win out in conference play. The combined win-out probabilities of Georgia State, Georgia Southern, and App State is 99%.

With one fewer remaining conference game than the other top two contenders, that’s one less opportunity for chaos that the Mountaineers have to deal with. This is also still a really good team, #26 in the national OAYP rankings, 37th in offense and 28th in defense, and as far as their schedule goes, manageable is understatement.

And yes, OAYP even favors them against South Carolina this weekend. Irrelevant to the Sun Belt East race, that’s a breakdown for a different day, but it would not be the least bit surprising if they did come away with that win.

As far as conference play, They’ll be at least two score favorites, per the formula, in each of their final three contests, and multi-score favorites in the last two, as the rankings are currently constituted.

Of course, there’s still that 20% chance that they win out but don’t get to the title game because Georgia Southern did too, but even still, with a 75.56% probability of beating Georgia State, Texas State, and Troy, it’s hard not to think that we’ll get yet another battle between the Mountaineers and the Cajuns.

Then again, 21% is better than the odds of a dice roll, so it can’t be totally discounted.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Louisiana actually jumped App State in the OAYP rankings after beating Texas State handily, given App’s letdown versus Georgia Southern.

So, despite losing head-to-head earlier this season, which the formula predicted at the time, the metric now views the Cajuns as not only the most complete team -- #1 in the SBC in both offense and defense, #28 and #27 nationally -- but, obviously, the best team overall -- 24th in OAYP’s full FBS rankings.

As such, on a neutral site, OAYP would actually like Louisiana by about a point if given the opportunity to avenge their lone conference loss.

On the 21% probability that Georgia Southern wins out and gets another shot at Napier and company, that would be a two score line in favor of the Cajuns.

And, on the outside chance that Georgia State’s 2.8% win-out probability comes through, well, let’s just call that the best case scenario for the West Division favorite.

Again, under that premise that Louisiana has a 100% chance of winning the West (realistically, they do), here’s what the SBC title odds look like:

Best offense in the league? Check.

Best defense in the league? Check.

Sounds about right.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP