This Longhorn team is difficult to get a grasp on. We've gone everywhere from a flat half against one of the worst teams in college football and giving up 550 yards rushing to BYU (still can't wrap my head around that) to thrashing Oklahoma and winning in overtime. So yeah... this team is 6-0 in conference. Go figure.
The changes in this team have been so dramatic (at least on the surface) that I wanted to look at the statistical progression so far this season and make some brief comments on them. Unfortunately, Football Outsiders does not list the FEI or S&P rankings for every single week, which makes sense because those stats are influenced by strength of schedule and average numbers across all teams. There are some who still look down on those advanced metrics, but I think it's due to a lack of understanding of what they measure and how one should use them. In any case, because of that, I'll look at more traditional stats and rankings, though I will comment on advanced metrics when I can. This is by no means an attempt to be a very deep statistical analysis; it's just a rough picture how things have been going and what that might tell us for our remaining three games.
Remember BYU? Yeah, that was fun. We gave up 550 yards rushing at 7.64 yards per carry. This one game is still nearly 25% of BYU's rushing offense for the entire season. Even Middle Tennessee State only gave up 309 yards rushing at 5.62 ypc to them. Ouch, Manny Diaz. Small wonder why our August/September stats look like this:YPC: 5.39 (#113)
YPG: 260.25 (#119)
This is, mind you, including games in which we bottled up a bad New Mexico State offense and a Kansas State team that isn't as good as it is now. On a funny side note, despite our terrible showings against BYU and Ole Miss, Texas A&M's defense in this period still ranks lower than ours in yards per carry.
In the three games in October, things started to look a lot better:
YPC: 3.51 (#31)
YPG: 125.33 (#28)
These numbers are partially helped by TCU's terrible offense, but Oklahoma came into our game with them averaging well over 200 yards per game and just came off of averaging over five yards a carry against a solid TCU defense. Clearly, the improvement our eyes were seeing matched up with production.
In the two games so far in November, we handled the rush attacks of Kansas and West Virginia pretty well, even when adjusting for sacks. Accounting for all nine games in the season, we stand here:YPC: 4.35 (#78)
YPG: 185.11 (#84)
Which is still not great, but certainly a sharp trend upward since the disasters in September. That BYU game, I imagine, will continue to haunt us: Texas still only ranks 80th in opponent-adjusted rushing S&P, so there is no significant difference between our raw stats and advanced stats. Still, I also remember our rushing defense S&P ranking after Ole Miss to be around #120, so the improvement has been good enough to pull that number up to #80 in six games.
To get a sense of our opponents, here are their raw rush offense rankings for the season:
Ole Miss (#55)
Kansas State (#37)
Iowa State (#99)
A few good rushing teams, but mostly bad ones (and BYU's ranking is high because they run so much; their ypc isn't nearly as good). Our improvement is undeniable and Robinson deserves a ton of credit for that, but we've also had the benefit of playing teams who are mostly incapable of hurting us badly in the run game, save Oklahoma, who couldn't punish us with the pass with Blake Bell when we schemed to take that away.
Who's coming up next?
Oklahoma State (#67)
Texas Tech (#106)
Texas Tech seems to be in a tailspin and I liked our matchup with them better anyway. Okie State will be a challenge because they can sustain some semblance of offensive balance (#37 in passing). Baylor... well, at least we didn't play them in early October. They might have scored 100 back then, and I distinctly remember using Huck L Berry's matchup analyzer before we played OU to find that Baylor had nearly a 100% chance of beating us back then. I just checked it now and it's down to 97%. I can haz improvement, I guess. Baylor ranks #3 in total pass offense and #1 in yards per attempt at an astonishing 12.7 yards per pass.
In other words, while our defense is much improved and may even be one of the better units in the conference now (we certainly have the best defensive line, though the loss of Whaley hurts), Baylor is good enough to wreck our defense even if we started the season strong. Even WVU was able to punish our defense for certain coverage looks, and one can only imagine the carnage that Baylor is capable of. Either hope for an off day for the Bears or for our offense to keep the ball for over 40 minutes. Probabaly need both.
Speaking of offense, I'll be brief. Our rushing stats per month have actually trended downard, but that is partially due to the statistical outlier provided by NMSU. Minus that game, the trend is positive from the showings against BYU and Ole Miss, and we now stand at #38 in total rushing offense at 4.54 yards per carry (#56).
As far as passing, if we again remove NMSU (who gave us 356 yards at 11.9 yards a throw), it's been mostly pretty pedestrian and fairly even across the board, seeing a brief jump against OU and TCU. Over the season, we are only 65th in the country in passer rating at 130.56. If we remove NMSU, our overall passer rating drops to 122.73. Case McCoy's is 122.26 (#81).
That said, interestingly enough, our rush S&P ranking is only #75 while our passing S&P is #19, which I think matches up well with the fact that Case has seen some important situational success despite the lack of consistency. These rankings, however, do not yet include the West Virginia game.
Our remaining opponents' defensive rankings in yards per play are as follows:
Texas Tech (5.07, #28)
OSU (4.67, #9)
Baylor (4.08, #2)
I was admittedly surprised how good these raw rankings were. Advanced metrics aren't kind to Texas Tech (#77 S&P, #64 FEI), but the Pokes (#16 S&P, #11 FEI) and Baylor (#11 S&P, #24 FEI) still come out looking pretty good. Basically, we're about to face our stiffest defensive challenge outside of TCU, and unlike TCU, the defenses of OSU and Baylor have offenses with a pulse. For Baylor, that pulse is superhuman.
What does this tell us? Our offense's improvement isn't nearly as dramatic as our defense's, so our "turnaround" this season can be mostly attributed to the jump by our defense from "awful" to "average." On offense, our most important improvement is the run game's ability to grind out tough yards and keep Case's attempts down, though we aren't world-beaters there and just lost our best cutback runner.
For Case McCoy fans, you probably need to chill with your pronouncements that he somehow jumpstarted this team's success. David Ash wasn't remotely responsible for the craptastic display in
Palo Alto Provo, and Case has had bad moments against not-so-good defenses. Despite throwing three touchdowns on Saturday, he failed to consistently punish a bad West Virginia secondary that was cheating to stop the run, a secondary that had been shredded to pieces by other offenses (though you can partially blame Applewhite for that as well). On the other hand, Case-haters should give him credit for situational successes; he's hit some nice fades and converted some key third and fourth downs. He's done as much as we can reasonable ask of him, so Texas fans should respect that. However, the truth is that it simply doesn't look like enough take the conference outright. Our defense will need to continue to improve, our run game needs to somehow get better without Jonathan Gray, and we need a lot of luck. If we get to Baylor undefeated in conference (certainly no guarantee of that), we'd have to win with their defense cheating to stop the run and daring Case McCoy to score more points than their offense can. I don't know about you, but I'm not exactly confident about that.
In fairness to our team and coaches, it's not hard to see us losing to Baylor even if our defense met expectations from the get-go; Baylor is simply legitimately good. It is, however, unfortunate that it feels like we lost significant time to develop and improve. Our trend upward is nice to see and we've been winning games, but I have a feeling that the mistakes from the offseason and beginning of the season are going to resurface in a bad way. I will be happy to be proven wrong, though.