As a reminder, I’m posting one thought per day in a series of 15 posts over the course of 15 days until we get to game day.
With 13 days left until kickoff, this is the third post of the series.
If you missed the other posts, the links are below
Texas needs to score more points
Sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Well, it is. If the Longhorns are to get to eight or more wins in 2016, they’ll need to score more points than they did last year.
In 2015, the Longhorns’ 26.4 points-per-game average left them hanging at 83rd in the nation and 8th in the Big 12. For Texas to have a real chance at getting eight wins, the Longhorns have to score more points while continuing to improve the defense.
Below is a chart that lists the final Big 12 standings from 2015. Next to each team is that team’s season totals for “points per game”, “average points allowed”, and the “average scoring margin” (the amount given after subtracting the second average from the first). Also, each average has a ranking to the side for where that average stacked up in the Big 12 Conference last season.
We should also note that the strength of schedule, especially non-conference games, is a factor to consider when viewing each team’s totals.
Stats collected from NCAA.com (the totals include bowl game stats)
The most telling stat is the average scoring margin on the far right. Teams with positive average scoring margins finished in the top half of the Big 12 and with a winning record overall. Teams with a negative margin finished in the bottom half of the conference and with a losing record (Tech’s margin wasn’t negative but it wasn’t that far from dead even at +1.5)
The ranks of the margins within the conference also aren’t far off from where each team finished in the standings.
Oklahoma’s 21.5 margin topped the Big 12, and the Sooners won the conference. Tech’s average margin of almost 0 (thanks to scoring the second most points in the conference while giving up the second most points) left them hanging around the middle of the standings at 6th. And at the bottom of the conference in the standings, Kansas and Iowa State also posted the worst margins.
(Oklahoma State could be considered an outlier thanks to some breaks they caught late in games and a high turnover margin last season, but that’s for another day. Did I mention I’m calling the upset of Texas over OSU this season?)
The way this all shakes out shouldn’t surprise anyone. If you average less points than your opponent each game, more often than not, you’ll be on the losing end of games. The key for Texas in 2016 is to improve that scoring margin into a positive number.
The team that Texas fans should pay most attention to on that chart is West Virginia. Last season, the Mountaineers averaged 34 points per game while giving up almost 25 points per game. Those numbers are within the range Texas should realistically be shooting for this season.
An improved offense
Of the 16 FBS teams across the nation that finished with eight wins last season, they averaged 31.5 points per game.
And given that nationally, the Big 12 had four teams in the top-10 and a total of five teams in the top-15 for points per game, Texas probably needs to get really close to the 34 points per game West Virginia averaged last season to have a real shot at eight wins. Points matter in the Big 12 more than other conferences.
A realistic scoring target for Texas should be 33-36 points per game. Compared to last season’s totals, reaching the low end of that would mean Texas averages an extra touchdown per game (7 points). Reaching the high end means Texas averages around an extra touchdown & field goal per game (10 points).
Fortunately for Coach Strong and Texas, an extra seven to ten points per game may not be out of reach even with questions at quarterback heading into the season.
From the moment the offseason began, Strong had key additions throughout. Offensive Coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was hired to revamp the offense. Another impressive recruiting class was signed that included some late additions this summer. And kicker Trent Domingue joined the roster via grad-transfer from LSU (Texas could also add freshman walk-on kicker Chris Naggar if he makes the team - apparently he has a strong leg and is set to try out soon).
With a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive scheme, talent added to the supporting cast, and a new kicker, Texas has pieces in place across the offense to give it a fighting chance at scoring more points.
Averaging 33-36 points per game should not only the goal, it’s also probably the ceiling for this team in 2016. If the Longhorns offense starts pushing 40 points per game, one of the quarterbacks will have emerged as a star.
And let’s be realistic, banking that either Swoopes or Buechele will be a star this season is a stretch. I’m not saying a quarterback won’t emerge. Either one or both of those guys could be solid. But we’re talking about a senior that’s never looked comfortable as a passer for an entire season and a true freshman who’s yet to take a snap in a real college game. Let’s pull back on the 40-point reigns there a bit.
Even if the quarterback position is just above average to solid, Texas can still improve its overall margin if it can generate points and plays from its supporting cast on offense and special teams while getting some help from its defense.
A step forward on defense
If we agree 33-36 points on offense per game is a reasonable goal and necessary, then the Texas defense needs to do its part by shaving off 3-5 points per game.
The 16 FBS teams that ended the 2015 season with eight wins gave up 25.7 points per game on average. West Virginia’s 24.6 per game mark was in that ballpark, about one point better than the average
The Big 12 “spread offense conference”, as I like to call it, isn’t known for good defenses. Giving up an average of 22 points each game ranked best in the Big 12 but it left Oklahoma tied for 28th nationally.
Giving up an average of almost 30 points per game left Texas at 5th in the Big 12 and 87th nationally. The Texas offense isn’t the only unit that needs to improve, the defense has to take a step forward as well.
We’ll dive into the defense in an upcoming post in this series, but in short, the ranking of 5th in the conference says it all about last year’s defense. There were some things that unit did well, other things they did poorly, and overall the group was average in 2015.
This season, considering who is returning on defense, I wouldn’t say shaving off 3-5 points per game is out of the question. It actually probably needs to happen to get to eight wins. That means this Texas defense will need to be one of the better units in the conference.
An argument for improvement can be made. Many of the struggles last season could be attributed to youth and inexperience. And with a large chunk of the players on defense returning, a step forward is a reasonable assumption. Trying to figure out how big that step will be is probably the better question.
A lot of the focus this offseason has been on the offense, but without improvements on the defensive side of the ball as well, reaching eight wins (or even seven) becomes a lot harder.
Improving the margin
On the low end, if Texas averages around 32-33 points while giving up 28-29 points per game, the scoring margin would sit around 3-5 points per game. If Texas does end up with a positive 3-5 point margin, six or seven wins is probably where the Longhorns sit at the end of the season, with at least a couple games that could have gone either way.
On the higher end of these realistic goals, if Texas averages 34-35 points while giving up around 25-27 points per game, Texas averages a 7-10 point margin and should have a good chance at reaching eight wins.
Again, it’s important to remember that other factors, like schedules, play into these numbers. And each year, overall averages and totals can fluctuate within a conference.
During the Mack Brown’s last season in 2013, the last time Texas recorded an eight win season, the Longhorns had a scoring margin that hovered around four points per game better than their opponents.
Regardless of what the two averages end up being in 2016, the key for Texas will be to get on the positive side of the scoring margin (the old “score more points than your opponents” strategy). And to really get to eight wins, Texas probably needs to post about a 12-point swing to a +8 point margin from the -4 points it averaged last season.