Previewing the 2011 Texas Longhorns Football Season

BON readers: We have a favor to ask of you. Today we're treated to a preview of 2011 Texas Longhorns football, courtesy of Bill C. of the indispensable Rock M Nation. If you're a regular reader of RMN, as you should be, you already know the exceptional statistical work that Bill does, and in particular how he uses it to preview games, teams, and seasons. Well, Bill is about to begin previewing about 80 of the 120 FBS football teams, and the idea is for the previews to be both informative and accessible.

That's where you come in. Bill has asked to preview Texas here at BON so that he can get your feedback on the content and style of the preview format. Please, if you would, take a minute in the comments section to leave us feedback. Did you read the whole thing? Did you understand it all? Was it accessible? What did you like and dislike about it?  What's missing? What can be cut? Does the style and presentation work? If you encountered this on a website like sbnation.com would you have read it? And been pleased with it?

Any and all thoughts that you have: we want to hear them. Feel free to be critical, but be courteous and respectful. Bill's put in a ton of work on this, and it's a treat to have it to consume. Enjoy.

--PB--

Texas Longhorns 2011 Football Preview

By Bill C., Rock M Nation

For a long time now, Mack Brown has been known as the quintessential CEO coach. Find yourself a bunch of talented people, delegate, and stand back while the wins roll in. In that way, he is perfect for a program like Texas, which has the built-in combination of history and money of which few programs can brag. And clearly CEO Brown has brought home the results recently. Texas made two national title appearances in five seasons and missed out on a third by decimal points.

In 2011, however, Brown will have the unique experience of running a company with a brand new, and much younger, set of top executives. Some of his long-time assistants were put out to pasture, others left for better jobs. Some made horizontal-at-best moves. Gone are offensive coordinator Greg Davis ("resigned") and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (hired away to be Florida head coach), along with five other assistants – offensive line coach Mac McWhorter (retired), receivers coach Bobby Kennedy (moved/bailed to Colorado), defensive tackles coach Mike Tolleson (retired), secondary coach Duane Akina (moved/bailed to Arizona), and strength-and-conditioning head Mad Dog Madden (slight change of responsibilities).

In their stead? Youth. Precocious, exuberant, new-blood-in-all-its-glory youth. Holdover Major Applewhite (32) and Boise State import Bryan Harsin (34) are the new offensive co-coordinators. Mississippi State’s Manny Diaz (36) is the new defensive coordinator. Coaching alone was not the entire problem with this past season’s Texas squad, but clearly Mack Brown felt he needed a jolt of energy with this new staff … and clearly he got it.

 Read on after the jump...

2010 Schedule & Results

Below is a look at Texas’ 2010 season. The 'Adj. Score' below is a look at how the team's offense and defense would have performed if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers, each given week. It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

Record: 5-7 (2-6) | Adj. Record: 6-6
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
Sept. 4 Rice 34-17 W 25.1 - 18.2 W
Sept. 11 Wyoming 34-7 W 28.1 - 18.9 W
Sept. 18 at Texas Tech 24-14 W 15.8 - (-5.2) W
Sept. 25 UCLA 12-34 L 16.3 - 31.7 L
Oct. 2 vs Oklahoma 20-28 L 31.2 - 17.7 W
Oct. 16 at Nebraska 20-13 W 26.9 - (-1.0) W
Oct. 23 Iowa State 21-28 L 20.9 - 34.0 L
Oct. 30 Baylor 22-30 L 21.5 - 22.7 L
Nov. 6 at Kansas State 14-39 L 15.2 - 30.5 L
Nov. 13 Oklahoma State 16-33 L 23.7 - 26.7 L
Nov. 20 Florida Atlantic 51-17 W 37.4 - 26.5 W
Nov. 25 Texas A&M 17-24 L 17.9 - 25.3 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 23.8
88
23.7
49
Adj. Points Per Game 23.3 89 20.5 13

Despite the losses of key players like Colt McCoy, Jordan Shipley and Sergio Kindle, Texas began the season ranked fifth in the preseason AP poll because, well, they're Texas. And from a statistical standpoint, that is actually rather defensible logic. In the oligarchy known as college football, the greatest predictor of future success is past success, and there was little reason to think that the latest batch of four- and five-star studs wouldn't fill in the gaps and lead Texas to another 10- or 11-win season.

Of course ... they didn't. The way the season was set up, Texas was looking at three seemingly easy wins and a dicey trip to Lubbock before the Oklahoma-Nebraska corridor decided their season's fate. It was easy to assume that the Horns' October 2 and 16 games would decide whether they were playing for another national title or 'settling' for a likely BCS bowl bid, and against Oklahoma and Nebraska, they actually played rather well. The problem was, they only truly played well against Oklahoma and Nebraska. They crept by Texas Tech despite an inept offensive performance, they were mauled by mediocre UCLA ... and following their inexplicable upset win in Lincoln, they lost five of six to end the season.

The Nebraska game was seen as both a jolt of energy and verification of what this offense could be capable of over the long haul, but really it was just a great individual gameplan against a Nebraska team psyched for revenge (after seeing this picture every night in their dreams for 315 nights) and vulnerable to overpursuit on every play. They used Garrett Gilbert on a lot of surprising keepers -- something that was really only going to work once -- and left Lincoln with a 20-13 win. Only once in the last half of the season did they score over 24.0 adjusted points or 22 real points. The defense was as solid as always, especially considering it was taking on the typical slate of solid Big 12 offenses, but the offense was putrid.

I am typically not a fan of firing coordinators. I feel blaming offensive coordinators and/or play-calling is both lazy and misguided about 95 percent of the time. It is a cop-out designed for misplaced rage. However...

...Greg Davis just had to go. Colt McCoy's passing downs magic act (we'll come back to this) disguised and bailed out an offense that had otherwise been trending toward underwhelming for quite some time. Standard downs struggles hinted at problems with play-calling and execution long before 2010, and when McCoy left, it was like taking off Vader's helmet.

(So in this analogy, I guess McCoy and "Colt McCoy's roommate™" Jordan Shipley were the badass suit protecting Greg "Anakin" Davis? Is this a great analogy or a horrendous one? I can't decide. Leaning toward horrendous.)

Thanks to inexperience, development, or any number of other issues common when dealing with 18-21 year olds, sometimes offenses are just inconsistent in ways that are somewhat out of an offensive coordinator's control. But in this case, the talent, even if overrated, was just too great for an offense to rank 88th in scoring and 89th in adjusted scoring. Texas' 2010 offense was just plain bad, and a change was gonna come. (Sam Cooke must have been a Texas football fan.)

Offense

What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football.

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 98 95 102
RUSHING 73 66 77 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 107 102 110 80th
Standard Downs 86 84 84 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 93 61 107 42nd
Redzone 106 97 112
Q1 Rk 83 1st Down Rk 81
Q2 Rk 94 2nd Down Rk 102
Q3 Rk 98 3rd Down Rk 78
Q4 Rk 68

As jarringly bad as Texas' overall stats were, what might have been even more jarring was the complete and total lack of big-play potential. If this were purely a bad-play-calling, bad-coordinator issue, we might have expected the stats to play out like this with the talent Texas' supposedly has on scholarship: poor success rates, poor standard downs success (I often call standard downs the "play-calling downs" or "game-planning downs," since once you get to passing downs, the gameplan goes out the window), often bailed out by big plays or passing downs success. And to be sure, Texas had the success rates and standard downs part down pat. But the big plays never bailed them out. If not for Kansas (oh, poor, pathetic Kansas), Texas would have had the worst PPP+ rankings in the Big 12, and that is both inexcusable and baffling.

Was it youth? Obviously bad things sometimes happen with a first-time starter at quarterback; plus, by the end of the season, Texas was starting a true freshman (Trey Hopkins) at left guard and had plenty of true and redshirt freshmen scattered throughout the depth chart. But at the same time, there was a decent amount of experience, too; the tackles were both three-year lettermen, the running backs were experienced, and receivers like James Kirkendoll and Malcolm Williams have seemingly been around forever. (Amazingly, Williams still has eligibility to use in 2011. No idea how that's possible.)

So if it wasn't experience ... was it talent? Did Texas, TEXAS!, just not have the horses?

We'll see soon enough, of course. A lot of name-brand contributors return for Harsin and Applewhite. Gilbert will be a junior (and if he just isn’t up to snuff, Connor Wood and Colt McCoy’s brother Case are hovering behind him in this "wide open competition"). Unless your name is Carson Palmer, you make your biggest leaps between years one and two, and between years two and three, so whatever Gilbert is going to be, he’ll be most of the way there in 2011. He’ll have the whole stable of running backs of different sizes – big Cody Johnson, fast Fozzy Whittaker and D.J. Monroe – along with a good portion of his receivers (everybody but Kirkendoll and John Chiles, who combined for 81 catches and 1,125 yards but, let’s be honest, were quite replaceable) and the interior of his offensive line. Offenses as bad as Texas' don't bounce back with any major magnitude in just one off-season, but if the Horns can just get back to "decent" in 2011, and (as we'll see below) if they can get a few more bounces, the defense should be more than capable of winning a lot of games.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 23
9
38
RUSHING 38
19
52
Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 11
5
20
27th
Standard Downs 28
15
35
Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 8
2
15
2nd
Redzone 62
75
64
Q1 Rk 18 1st Down Rk 18
Q2 Rk 35 2nd Down Rk 12
Q3 Rk 33 3rd Down Rk 39
Q4 Rk 6

First things first: Texas' defense was not the problem in 2010. Texas fans got frustrated with the D at times, but that was most likely because they had long since given up on the offense and expected the defense to make all the plays. That said, the Horns gave up more big plays than the typical Texas defense should. The front seven was rock solid, especially when it came to the pass rush, but despite starting nine juniors and seniors, they suffered enough breakdowns to cause problems. Once they had a team leveraged into passing downs, they teed off as well as ever, but they were vulnerable in standard downs, particularly against the run. They must replace both starting ends -- Eddie Jones and Sam Acho -- but ... good lord, they sign about 26 five-star defensive ends in every recruiting class. Some work out better than others, but between soon-to-be sophomores Jackson Jeffcoat and Reggie Wilson, incoming stud Cedric Reed, and whatever other former four- and five-stars they have clattering around on the depth chart, they should be fine in this regard.

In baseball, they say defense matters most up the middle (catcher-2B-SS-CF). If the same could be said in football, Manny Diaz will like what he has to work with in 2011. Tackles Alex Okafor, Kheeston Randall and Calvin Howell return, as do middle linebacker Emmanuel Acho (more like Emmeanuel ... amiright? Anyone?) and safeties Blake Gideon, Christian Scott and Kenny Vaccaro. Corners Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams (early entry) depart, but there are options aplenty, and a great front seven can work wonders for new cornerbacks.

Coming out of the SEC West, Diaz has a lot of both recent experience and relative success against the spread. Like Kansas’ defense does in basketball, Texas will attempt to make offenses’ choices for them and force them to call certain plays to certain areas of the field. Diaz's MSU defenses were outstanding in standard downs (seventh in Def. Standard Downs S&P+) and adept at leveraging teams into less-comfortable passing downs. In other words, his defense in Starkville was good in all the ways Texas needed to be good and wasn't last season.

Texas' 2010 Season Set to Music

A Tribe Called Quest's "What?" Because there are no songs entitled "LOL, Whut?" and because "What the F***" by Lil Scrappy is not on my iPod.

And because I have no idea who Lil Scrappy is.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

In 2008 and 2009, Texas' offense was actually better on passing downs (2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd-and-5 or more) than on standard downs. Let that sink in a bit. They succeeded more on 3rd-and-8 than 1st-and-10, better on 2nd-and-9 than 2nd-and-3. Colt McCoy pulled rabbits out of his hat so often on passing downs (thanks in part to magician's assistants Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley) that the Horns came within decimal points of back-to-back BCS title game appearances despite being only good on standard downs (25th in 2008, an improved 13th in 2009) instead of great.

Heading into 2009, I expected Texas' offense to slide because they were too disproportionately good on passing downs. I compared it to teams being a little too good at hitting with runners in scoring position. (In other words, I compared the 2008 Longhorns to the 2003 Kansas City Royals. Tell me again why I get to write for respectable organizations?) It turns out, disproportionate success on passing downs is tied as much to quarterbacks as to luck. With McCoy gone, Garrett Gilbert couldn't pull off the same tricks. He was Gob Bluth to McCoy's Criss Angel.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 11th
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 3rd
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* -12 / -1
Approx. Ret. Starters 13
Yds/Pt Margin** +3.4

* Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

If the coaching staff gels even halfway, signs point to Texas bouncing back like round ball. They recovered only 17 of 56 fumbles that took place in their games, a staggering 30.3 percent; in the previous five seasons, only five teams (2007 Wyoming, 2008 Florida, 2009 Florida, 2007 Western Michigan, 2007 Tennessee) recovered fewer than 30 percent of all fumbles. While it's not a guarantee that Texas will automatically fall on more bouncing balls in 2011 (Florida did, after all, land on this list in 2008 and 2009), odds are still pretty good. If they had recovered 50% of all fumbles, that would have made a staggering difference of almost plus-1 turnovers per game, and in a season where they lost four games by eight points or less, that could have made a significant impact. Meanwhile, the Yds/Pt Margin suggests that Texas' offense was almost comically inefficient and/or unlucky. They are likely to rebound in this category, too, at least a bit.

So if Texas a) brings in another strong recruiting class, b) gets a jolt of energy from a young, hungry group of new assistants, and c) gets a normal number good bounces after a year in which they got none, then there's little reason why they won't be a Top 15 team again in 2011. All the pieces are there. But they might have to settle for improvement defined as "8-4 and an Alamo Bowl bid" if the players don't quickly figure things out under new management, or, of course, if those four-star offensive players just simply aren't as good as their Rivals rankings suggest.

I assume the best for Texas in 2011, but it would be silly not to at least acknowledge the worst. When other talented teams (other Texas teams, for that matter) have a "down season," it means 9-3 and 'only' a Cotton Bowl (or, in other conferences, Outback Bowl or Chick-Fil-A Bowl) bid. Texas' 2010 fall was alarming in its magnitude, no matter what kind of bad coaching and bad breaks were at hand. And no matter how "re-energized" Mack Brown says he is now, there is no guarantee that Texas will simply bounce back in 2011 like nothing happened. FO's 2011 projections will almost certainly have Texas back in at least the Top 20 ... but it will be a high-risk projection, to say the least.

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