Is Texas the Big 12 Contender to Watch in November?
NCAA Week 9 - Sorting out the Big 12 conference power hierarchy has been almost impossible this season. (The win-loss standings are clear cut, but bear with me). The conference has distinguished itself by raising its floor above all others, led by the Kansas Jayhawks' surge from preseason FEI No. 118 to current No. 52. The worst team in the conference through Week 9 according to FEI (West Virginia, No. 68) trailed the only undefeated team in the conference (TCU, No. 12) by three points with less than a minute left in the game in a 41-31 final on Saturday. The only team in the conference with zero league wins (Iowa State, 0-5 in Big 12 play to date) has four losses by a combined 14 points and a defense ranked eighth in DFEI with four 90th-percentile defensive performances. The Kansas State Wildcats slugged it out with the Cyclones back last month in a 10-9 win, then blew out the would-be contender Oklahoma State Cowboys last week to the tune of 48-0, the third best opponent-adjusted single game performance of the season. But the 5-3 Texas Longhorns (FEI No. 6) might be the best of the bunch.
Texas has remained a standout in the FEI ratings (and the SP+ ratings, and many other rating systems) throughout the year, even though they are already out of the national championship hunt and are precariously close to officially falling out of the conference championship race as well. With a 3-2 conference record, 5-3 overall, it is a bit perplexing to not only have them ranked clearly ahead of the rest of the Big 12 but also hanging around the same neighborhood as legitimate national championship contenders. What is it about Texas' statistical profile that is lifting them up, and are the Longhorns in position to make the most of the home stretch of the season?
FEI ratings are produced from single-game opponent-adjusted possession efficiency data, and Texas has had several very impressive outings. Their 49-0 romp over Oklahoma in Week 6 is the second-best performance of the season (42-0 in 18 non-garbage drives), tops among four Texas games that rank in the 90th percentile of overall game performances this year. Just as significantly, the Longhorns have played well in all of their games, win or lose. A collection of no real albatrosses and several big wins is a good indicator that a team may be better than its record, and that's backed up by the efficiency numbers. Texas ranks 10th nationally in net points per drive through Week 9, and the nine teams ahead of the Longhorns in that metric have lost a total of four games combined. They rank seventh nationally in net yards per play, and the six teams ahead of them have only one loss.
Texas let leads slip away against Alabama, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State, so they are certainly not infallible. But building those leads in the first place suggests they are more than capable. And chaos may reign simply because every potential Big 12 conference game result over the remainder of the season is plausible. Closely bunched teams will play each other, and everyone can win or lose. Only three of the 20 remaining Big 12 regular-season games currently have an FEI projected win likelihood greater than 80%, none exceed 90%, and half of them are firmly in toss-up range (50% to 65% win likelihood for the projected winners).
Texas will face Kansas State and TCU over the next two weeks, teams currently situated at the top of the Big 12 standings but behind the Longhorns in the FEI ratings. If those team ratings hold, my numbers will favor Texas by a small margin in both games. Over the final four weeks of the regular season, FEI gives the Longhorns the best chance at a 4-0 finish in the Big 12 (26%) with a remaining mean wins total of 2.9 for a mostly likely record of 8-4. Kansas State is next in line for a strong finish with only a 20% likelihood to win out (2.8 remaining mean wins), followed by Oklahoma State (13%, 2.4), Oklahoma (11%, 2.4), and TCU (10%, 2.3).
If there are any TCU fans still reading that haven't yet thrown their device across the room in disgust at these numbers and the obvious disrespect, I can certainly understand the perspective that these ratings and projections are meaningless in the context of producing a Big 12 champion. The Horned Frogs are undefeated (8-0 overall, 7-0 against FBS opponents, 5-0 against Big 12 conference mates) and in control of their destiny not only for a conference crown, but also a playoff berth. (They are only ranked seventh in the initial College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night, but an undefeated Power 5 conference champion is a safe bet to make the field if it wins out.) They already have wins over two of the three other teams above .500 in conference play, and they might even be able to overcome a stumble or two in the final month because they have already bagged some key potential tiebreaker wins.
But even though they have cleared some big hurdles, TCU is probably not going to go 12-0, and they currently have a greater chance (16%) of finishing 9-3 according to FEI. Their offense has been strong, but their defense is a liability, ranking below average in defensive efficiency, points per drive allowed, available yards percentage allowed, and touchdown rate allowed. They have overall good special teams (No. 23 in STR), but they aren't forcing their opponents regularly into poor field position (90th nationally). Compare that to Texas (No. 5 in STR, No. 20 in opponent starting field position average), and it's another reason the Longhorns might be a better bet in November than the current league leader.
I'll be genuinely surprised if any Big 12 team has a 4-0 finish this month, whether it be Texas, TCU, Kansas State, or anyone else. A conference this deep is probably going to eat itself, which would sink the Big 12's chances of landing a playoff berth but provide an exceptional stretch of entertaining football. I can't wait to be right or wrong.
2022 FEI Ratings (through Week 9)
Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (FEI) are opponent-adjusted possession efficiency data representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) are opponent-adjusted drive efficiency data representing the per-drive scoring advantage a team unit would be expected to have against an average opponent unit. Net drive efficiency (NDE) is the sum of offensive drive efficiency and defensive drive efficiency data representing scoring value earned by offense and defense units per drive. Strength of schedule ratings represent the expected number of losses an elite team two standard deviations better than average would have against each team's schedule to date (ELS), the expected number of losses a good team one standard deviation above average would have against the schedule to date (GLS), and the expected number of losses an average team would have against the schedule to date (ALS). Ratings for all 131 teams are found here, and expanded ratings including projected win totals are found here.
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