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Advanced Stats: Projecting the 2016 Penn State Team Using S&P+ Rankings

Penn State's defense has been the rock-solid foundation for the program for many years. If that defense is finally in for some regression, will a step forward in offensive efficiency be enough to mask that regression?

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The two biggest on-field complaints that Penn State fans have raised concerning the James Franklin-led Nittany Lions have been the head coach's clock management and lack of offensive success. The defensive side of the ball, however, has been a delight to watch.

The upcoming 2016 season is starting to look like things are going to be a little different, though. While Joe Moorhead and his fast-paced, high-scoring offense are getting settled in Happy Valley, the 2016 version of the defense is missing some major pieces from the 2015 product.

That's not to say that Brent Pry and company won't be able to overcome this issue and find yet another future NFL defensive tackle, but it would be truly shocking to see the 2016 team end up with a defensive line that matches the 2015 line's level of play.

What sort of effect might that have on the Nittany Lions in 2016? The offense is sure to improve (it just has to at this point, right?), but will they be able to stay afloat with a defense that takes a step back?

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Using Bill Connelly's S&P+ rankings system, let's take a look back at how Penn State finished in said rankings during the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Year Record Overall S&P+ Offensive S&P+ Defensive S&P+
2014 7-6 46 109 4
2015 7-6 30 59 15

Man, that 2014 defense was something, huh? The main point, however, is that the 2014 team hinged completely on the defense, because that offense was rough to watch. Plenty of fans would argue that the 2015 offense was just as difficult to watch, but the team's confusing ability to make big plays, along with Saquon Barkley, was enough to make for a significantly improved unit overall. The defense, however, while fueled by a ferocious defensive line, took a small step back thanks to some regression in the secondary and inexperience in the linebacker corps.

It's hard to find a college football expert, analyst or even fan, who doesn't think that Penn State's offense will improve under Joe Moorhead. The question is, however, if the defense will be able to keep up. Most people are plenty optimistic about Brent Pry as the new defensive coordinator, but any team would have trouble replacing three big-time starters on the defensive line and a starting safety.

If the defense takes a step back in 2016, will the projected improvement on the offensive side of the ball be enough to propel this team to higher heights than a a third consecutive season of 7-6? What sort of record could Penn State expect by finishing somewhere in the range of 35 on offense and 25 on defense? Let's compare to other Big Ten teams from the past two years and try to fit them in.

Team Record Overall S&P+ Offensive S&P+ Defensive S&P+
Ohio State (2014) 14-1 1 1 11
Ohio State (2015) 12-1 3 14 7
Michigan State (2014) 11-2 12 10 22
Michigan State (2015) 12-2 13 28 12
Wisconsin (2014) 10-4 25 29 29
Wisconsin (2015) 10-3 31 83 8
Nebraska (2014) 9-4 31 28 46
Michigan (2015) 10-3 6 32 2

The two teams that pop out here that seem like they could potentially be the most comparable to the 2016 Penn State team are the 2014 Nebraska team and the 2014 Wisconsin team. Joe Moorhead's offense should be a major upgrade, but expecting the Nittany Lions to jump all the way to the teens or single digits in terms of offensive S&P+ is silly. The mid-twenties/low-thirties feels like a reasonable landing zone, however.

As far as the defense, the 2016 Penn State defense will likely be better than 2014 Nebraska's, but 2014 Wisconsin finished No. 29, which feels like the right sort of landing spot for Brent Pry's defense, as the linebackers will be a very strong unit, the defensive line is due for regression and the secondary is half-solid and half-wild card. Even with taking the low-end projection for the defense, considering their schedule, a finish in the area of a 29 ranking should be plenty feasible.

Looking at Bill C's 2016 projections, his numbers expect Penn State to finish around an S&P+ ranking of 28 (still one spot ahead of Pitt, might I add). This falls right in line with our "out-of-thin-air" projections, as that 2014 Wisconsin team finished No. 25 overall, and the 2014 Nebraska team finished No. 31 overall. And if the Nittany Lions actually finish closer to the 35th ranked offense and 25th ranked defense as we originally predicted, that would have them falling right in line with the 2015 West Virginia team that finished No. 24 in the overall rankings.

To get even more optimistic (this is being written in May, after all), what if the Penn State defense doesn't regress? What if they are able to stick in the teens as far as defensive S&P+, and improve their offensive ranking to somewhere in the high-twenties? Then you start to see a team that could be pretty special, like 2015 Michigan State.

I think a reasonable projection right now for this Penn State team is finishing similarly to that 2015 West Virginia team- solid on defense, and solid, but not spectacular on offense. This should be enough to help Penn State win most of the games on their schedule. However, don't expect to see this team ranked in the AP and Coaches polls, just because the advanced stats might be kind to them.

But what do you think? Am I being too optimistic about the offensive and defensive sides of the ball? Will the special teams weigh the 2016 Penn State team down more than I'm accounting for? Am I not being optimistic enough? Let me know in the comments.