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Ole Miss has a Good Chance of Winning the SEC West, Presuming Almost Nothing Changes

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Through the first four games of the season, Ole Miss has put itself in a great position to contend for a title.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Beginning with this college football season, SB Nation's Bill Connelly is maintaining advanced statistical profiles for all 128 FBS football programs sorted by overall S&P+ rankings. Ole Miss, currently ranked No. 5 overall in S&P+, is fortunate enough to have its advanced statistical profile towards the top of the list for now. These profiles are pretty damn slick, and capture both a team's overall and individual statistics, along with more advanced football metrics, such as measurements of a team's efficiency or "explosiveness" on both sides of the ball. We've always been a fan of Bill's work, and this is just another feather in his already well-adorned cap that we will make a point to take advantage of for this season and seasons to come. So do yourselves a favor and bookmark his Ole Miss guide, and peek at the his advanced football statistics glossary, which will help you better understand this story as well as many others we are likely to pen this season.

At this juncture in the season, there's enough data on college football teams to get a pretty good idea as to how teams look -- e.g., Bama is still an elite team, whereas New Mexico State is not, and neither of those situations are liable to change -- but not enough data to fully understand just how capable each team is relative to every other team. Accepting that our understanding of the 2015 season is not yet complete, and accepting that everything we know thus far is very much subject to change, let's use the data we have available to look at what Ole Miss has done thus far and what we can project Ole Miss to do over the remainder of the regular season.

What has Ole Miss Done?

Record: 4-0 | Second-order wins (diff.): 3.7 (-0.3) | F/+ Rk: 3 | S&P+ Rk: 5
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
5-Sep Tennessee-Martin N/A 76-3 W 91% 55.6 100%
12-Sep Fresno State 107 73-21 W 98% 48.2 100%
19-Sep at Alabama 1 43-37 W 81% 11.5 89%
26-Sep Vanderbilt 60 27-16 W 74% 10.2 86%

So far, the Rebels have four wins, all of which are statistically convincing. As Bill explained to us, the percentile performance should be thought of as the percentile score from a standardized test. Interpret that to read that Ole Miss' performance against Fresno State was better than what 98% of FBS football would have been expected to have done, whereas the Rebels' narrow win over Vanderbilt was just outside the top quarter of the field (or, in other terms, 33 teams would be projected to have had a better performance against the 'Dores).

Though Ole Miss played "down" against Alabama and Vanderbilt compared to their first two weeks of football, the Rebs' win expectancies in those games did not take such precipitous drops. Win expectancy is a way of judging an individual game performance as if it were a repeatable event. Simply, it says that if you were to replay a game exactly, what percent chance you would you have of winning it. Rebel fans are wringing their hands over a narrow win over Vanderbilt, but given the team's performance it can be said that Ole Miss played better than meets the eye. The same goes for the Alabama game, which, if duplicated, Ole Miss would have won almost nine times out of ten. A turnover margin of five in favor of Ole Miss surely has a lot to do with that, as do Ole Miss' two most talked about plays from that night - a wacky tipped touchdown pass to Quincy Adaboyejo and a controversial pop pass to Cody Core.

The numbers, as you know, don't judge plays the way we people do. They don't say "Chad Kelly threw a pass he probably shouldn't have and got a ridiculous bounce off of a defender's head right into the arms of Quincy Adaboyejo for a highly improbable touchdown;" they say "On 3rd and 1, Chad Kelly completed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Adaboyejo." Understanding that, you can see how Alabama's performance against Ole Miss could be judged as one that they're only going to win 11% of the time. You can't turn the ball over without taking it away from a team with a big play offense, no matter who you are.

Also, in understanding that, you can also see how any sort of analysis made with these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.

What's Left for Ole Miss?

In looking at Ole Miss' advanced statistical profile, Ole Miss fans should be more than happy to see just how highly the numbers think of the No. 3 Rebels after four weeks of play, and what their performances thus far can project for the eight remaining games of the season. From the Rebs' profile, here is the rest of the Ole Miss schedule, complete with the team's win probability, projected scores, and cumulative projected wins (or "projected record," if you will).

Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Win
Probability
Proj.
W-L
Proj.
Margin
Proj.
Score
Cumulative
Proj. Wins
3-Oct at Florida 36 68% W 8.0 32.4 - 24.5 4.68
10-Oct New Mexico State 123 100% W 48.6 57.9 - 9.2 5.67
17-Oct at Memphis 64 90% W 21.8 44.2 - 22.4 6.57
24-Oct Texas A&M 17 82% W 16.0 39.6 - 23.5 7.39
31-Oct at Auburn 43 84% W 17.3 38.0 - 20.7 8.23
7-Nov Arkansas 29 83% W 16.7 42.1 - 25.4 9.07
21-Nov LSU 5 57% W 3.1 31.5 - 28.4 9.64
28-Nov at Mississippi State 25 78% W 13.6 37.0 - 23.5 10.42

This weekend, the Rebels have what is projected to be the second-most difficult game remaining on their schedule in a trip to the Swamp to take on Florida. Even though the Gators boast a solid defense, Ole Miss is still projected to win by eight points, and has nearly a 70% chance of winning outright. Games against Texas A&M, Auburn, and Arkansas all don't seem particularly daunting now, with all three of those teams having less than a 20% chance of beating Ole Miss. LSU will be a tough out, and Mississippi State has a shot at playing a spoiler role at home. But even then, the rest of the Rebels' year is certainly manageable.

Where This Fits in the West

It's an imperfect exercise, but one can take those win percentages and calculate a the likelihood that the Rebels go undefeated as well as the team's most likely record. Just as easily as we can do this for Ole Miss, we can do it for the rest of the SEC West and project the division's final understandings. To do this, it is important to understand the difference between the "projected record" for these teams and their "record with projected wins." The projected record is what is projected as the most likely outcome based on the chances of each team in each of their remaining games.

Think of it like this: if a team has a 51% chance of winning a game, then you can say they're favored to win while describing the predictability of that game's outcome as a near equivalent to a coin toss. The chance of winning that game one time is 51%. The chance of winning it multiple times, though, is much lower. That's how we can say that Ole Miss, for example, could have a 12-0 record based on projected individual wins/losses as binary outcomes, while saying that they really only have a 15.56% chance of going undefeated. Being the favorite in eight games is nowhere close to the same thing as being favored to actually win all eight of those games.

To better understand this, consider how the "chance of winning out" figure is calculated. Each team's advanced statistical profiles contain win probabilities for each game remaining on the these teams' schedules. If you assume that these games are independent events -- which they are not -- you can calculate the likelihood that a series of outcomes (i.e., winning out) will take place. Think, again, of a coin toss. Assuming a coin is completely fair and that a coin toss is completely random, you have a one-in-two chance of a toss turning up heads, or 50%. Two tosses, however, has four sets of outcomes: heads/heads, heads/tails, tails/heads, and tails/tails. You then therefore have a one-in-four chance of a pair of coin tosses both turning up heads, or 25%. So, if you have a 50% chance of winning a game, then you have a 25% chance of winning it twice. That same arithmetic is used to calculate each team's chance of winning out and what their projected record is based on those win percentages.

As that relates to Ole Miss, the Rebels have 15.56% chance of winning out and projected win total of 10.42, which we've rounded down. You could look on the brighter side of that and think of that as a projected loss total of a mere 1.58 (which we would round up to two anyway). That gives the Rebels a projected record of 10-2 on the year, but a 10-2 that is barely shy of 11-1.

Again, allow us to reiterate how overly simplistic and flimsy this whole exercise is. We're projecting the outcome of two thirds of a college football season based on the first third. Using those already imperfect projections, we are treating individual football games played by emotional, fragile, imperfect human beings as predictable and completely independent events. Because of that, please do not think of this as any sort of prediction. We are not yet comfortable to say that anything herein will or even should happen. However, we are comfortable with saying that if the teams in the SEC West play in the next eight games exactly as they played in the first four, then the division should shake out thusly:

Chance of winning out Projected Record Record with Projected Wins Projected Losses Remaining
Ole Miss 15.56% 10-2 12-0
Alabama 43.11% 10-2 11-1
LSU 3.14% 9-3 10-2 Ole Miss and Alabama
Texas A&M 0.07% 8-4 9-3 Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU
Mississippi State 0.04% 7-5 7-5 Alabama, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Ole Miss
Arkansas 0.02% 5-7 5-7 Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU
Auburn 0.003% 5-7 4-8 Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Georgia, Alabama

We're sure that it's just eating y'all up inside that Arkansas and Auburn are projected to miss bowl eligibility this year. On top of that, the projections also favor Ole Miss and Alabama to win every game on their schedule, a situation which would put Ole Miss in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for the first time in program history. Even with the projected 10-2 record, Ole Miss is still in the SEC Championship Game if you believe the projection of another SEC loss lurking on the Alabama schedule. As it has been for the better part of a decade now, beating Alabama is paramount to any team's bid for a division crown, and with them currently atop the S&P+ rankings, Ole Miss is damn fortunate to have that hurdle cleared. Tough tests remain on the schedule, particularly LSU at home and Mississippi State in Starkville, but the Rebels are favored to win those as of right now.

Oh, so we're totally winning this thing then?

Again, using this data as any sort of predictor of future outcomes is foolish. The fates of college football teams are highly subject to change, especially mid-season. Ole Miss' struggles to establish a ground game could cost them in any number of games. LSU and Leonard Fournette could churn out an undefeated season on the way to a Heisman trophy and a College Football Playoff berth. Ole Miss could very easily struggle against Manny Diaz's Mississippi State defense and wilt under the pressure brought about by a chorus of #clanga. Texas A&M's lightning fast pass rush could prove too much for Chad Kelly and company. Arkansas and Auburn could re-learn how to win. Nothing in later weeks of the SEC West is a given, even if your team has looked pretty solid early in the season. This is something with which all Ole Miss fans are very familiar. But if the Rebels can keep playing at as high of a level as they have been relative to the rest of their division, then the SEC West is theirs to lose.