By this point in the season, we should be able to say with some confidence which teams are out-performing their preseason expectations. Several perennial bottom-feeders have multiple wins at this point, and some teams are surprisingly leading the race for their conference championship. My preseason ratings are inherently conservative--they can't extrapolate small improvements into greater improvements in the future, which would have been useful for a team like Allegheny. Despite this "flaw," my preseason projections generally are able to predict about two-thirds of teams end-of-season point differentials to within six points per game, so they provide a good benchmark for each team's expectations.
Most Improved Teams
After four weeks of play, the most-improved team (by nearly a touchdown per game) is Loras. Going back to 2013, when they went 1-9, the Duhawks had shown incremental improvement every season, culminating in a 4-6 record in 2015. In 2016 D3Football and the IIAC coaches both predicted the Duhawks would finish above 0.500 in the conference for the first time since 2008. Instead, they went 1-9 (1-7).
This season though, Loras has reignited the offensive spark that was missing last season (they still give up a lot of points). Their Week 1 win over Elmhurst was the most unexpected result from the first week, and their two losses so far are both by less than a touchdown.
This drastic change is undoubtedly powered by the passing game, which ranks 51st in the country in Points Above Average, a new metric I've developed that uses efficiency (first down & TD rate) and explosiveness (yards per play) to determine how much value a unit adds to a team. They're averaging over seven yards per dropback (including sacks, and adjusted for opponent), which is one yard per play above the national average. They're also picking up first downs through the air on nearly 40% of passing plays, compared to a national average of around 33%. The defense is still suspect at times, as noted by the loss to Aurora in Week 2 and the 42 points allowed against Nebraska Wesleyan, but overall, they're heads & shoulders above where they were a year ago.
Among the rest of the ten most-improved teams this season, Albion is another team bouncing back after a surprisingly poor showing in 2016. While it may be easy to assume it's the up-tempo passing game causing the jump up for the Britons, the running game actually ranks in the Top 40 in opponent-adjusted yards per play, and in the Top 25 in first down rate. Just like the Duhawks, the defense struggles at time, but they don't have any glaring holes to be exploited by offenses in the MIAA.
Some of the other teams in the Top 10 are probably little surprise to followers of DIII--Springfield is on its way to what could be an undefeated season in the NEWMAC. Allegheny has already won as many games in five weeks as they did in the last four years. Trine hasn't allowed more than 14 points in a game yet this season, and ranks in the Top 25 nationally in first down rate. SUNY-Maritime is undefeated and playing Husson in the de-facto ECFC championship game this week. George Fox nearly upset UW-Platteville at home in Week 1, and beat a different WIAC school and the heavy favorite to win the SCIAC. And Berry is in the Top 25 polls, able to maintain high-levels of performance after graduating their first recruiting class (George Fox is in a similar boat in that regard).
Least Improved Teams
This feels like a more diplomatic way of saying, "These teams are a huge disappointment." It's hard to fault teams like Brevard and Occidental for making the list. In my personal opinion, Brevard is actually vastly out-performing expectations coming into the season. Thomas More being in the bottom 10 shouldn't be any surprise either, they're 1-4 this season, after having won a share of the PAC every season for the last four years. Northwestern, too, won their conference last year, and appears to be completely out of the hunt this season.
McMurry by and large has the largest difference between their preseason projection and their current rating. They've been blown out twice against decent teams (Sul Ross State and Southwestern), and those were games the War Hawks were keeping close last season. None of their losses have been within one score, and they can't stop the run to keep teams from running out the clock. Not that it would matter much--McMurry doesn't rank above average in any of the following offensive categories:
Rushing 1st Down Rate
Passing 1st Down Rate
It's hard to gain traction in an improving ASC if you can't put up points, and without one unit to hang your hat on, you can be left floundering.
Most- & Least-Improved Conferences
By combining team ratings, we can also take a look at which conferences are improving their national standing. A conference with more non-conference games (like the MIAA & ODAC) has more of an opportunity to move around in the ratings, because I specifically designed my model to avoid overfitting. That makes the drop by the UMAC impressive for two reasons.
Each team only plays one non-conference game, and
They were already really, really bad.
The MIAA and ODAC had more games to show their improvement, but that also means they had more games to regress. The ODAC right now, despite not having a single team that would likely win a first-round playoff game, has the best worst team of any conference in the country. To say that another way, in a round-robin featuring the worst team in each conference, the ODAC's representative would be favored in every game.
The MIAA is obviously boosted by the rise of Albion and Trine. With fewer teams, the ascent of a couple has an out-sized affect on the average. Similarly, the Liberty League, without the members who left for the NEWMAC, is falling due to the struggles of the teams at the top of the conference--Hobart and St. Lawrence. Both teams consistently rated in the Top 40 last season, but neither is there this season.
And just in case you were wondering, yes. I included the Top and Bottom 6 (instead of 5) conferences just so that the IIAC made the cut. So much #disrespekt from the "national media." SMH...