I understand the reflex. I've had it myself once or twice. "Oh look, the media is propping up [insert fallen blue blood here]. What a surprise." My Twitter mentions got hit pretty hard when my 2020 SP+ projections declared Texas a top-15 college football team and Nebraska a top-25 team earlier this offseason, and I'm sure those associated with ESPN's Stats & Information Group Twitter account had the same experience when the updated FPI rankings placed Texas at 11th.
Instead of lingering on whether something is #typicalmedia and whatnot, let's move past that and on to something more constructive: What will it take for the Longhorns and Cornhuskers to live up to these semi-lofty projections? (And yes, calling Nebraska in the top 25 or Texas in the top 15 lofty in any way tells its own story.)
Believe it or not, friends, it's been less than 16 months since quarterback Sam Ehlinger stood on a stage at the Sugar Bowl and chanted "We're baaaaaack" following an upset of Georgia. UT began 2019 in the AP top 10 for the first time in nine seasons but went just 8-5, barely beating Kansas at home and going just 1-3 on the road in Big 12 play.
Technically, though, that was overachievement. While the Longhorns did win just seven regular-season games and finish 26th in SP+, they were projected to rank 31st with 6.9 wins.
The numbers were pretty skeptical about the Horns last season, in part because of some of the unsustainable ways they went about winning in 2018. Dividing out your best performances for the biggest games -- 48-45 over Oklahoma in Dallas, 28-21 over Georgia -- and trying to just get by in a host of others doesn't always work out incredibly well. In 2019, it resulted in tight losses to OU and LSU and some frustrating road trips. (And, it must be said in fairness, a pounding of Utah in the Alamo Bowl.)
Texas coach Tom Herman did not take 2019's perceived setback lying down -- he changed coordinators on both sides of the ball. That's where we begin our look at Texas' "musts" list.
1. The coordinators must ... coordinate, somehow
Herman replaced defensive coordinator Todd Orlando with Chris Ash, his former co-worker at Ohio State and most recently Rutgers' head coach. He also made an offensive coordinator change -- despite the fact that the Horns overachieved their offensive projections by a good margin and finished 10th in offensive SP+ -- in switching out Tim Beck for former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and Ohio State passing-game coordinator Mike Yurcich.
In a normal offseason, both Ash and Yurcich would have plenty of time to install their changes, get to know their personnel, break in new arrivals and get all set for the fall. But with practices canceled throughout the country, this has been the least normal offseason in 75 years. It's impossible to project the effects this might have, especially for teams with new head coaches or coordinators. We're all flying blind attempting to figure out the effects of these past few weeks and the months ahead.
2. Ash must find a pass rush
Ash took on an almost impossible job at Rutgers these past few years, but RU did field occasionally effective defenses. It was not the reason he won just eight games in four years.
Ash didn't have the defensive personnel to do serious damage at Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights still handled certain specialty situations better than Texas did last season.
Rutgers allowed a 50% success rate on run-pass option (RPO) passes last season (64th in FBS), and Texas allowed 57% (102nd).
Rutgers allowed a 37% success rate while blitzing last season (36th) and enjoyed a passing-downs sack rate of 11% (17th). In obvious pass situations, its pass rush got home. Texas, on the other hand: 41% success rate while blitzing (61st) and a 5% passing-downs sack rate (110th).
If Texas improves in those two areas while remaining the same in all others, Ash will have improved the defense, perhaps significantly.
Texas was good in big-boy situations last season -- when the Longhorns could fill the box with eight-plus defenders, they allowed a 41% success rate (34th) and zero explosive plays. They were excellent as you got close to their end zone, too: sixth in success rate allowed between their 21 and 30, ninth between their 11 and 20, 34th inside the 10, 26th on the goal line. But when you could use the entire field, the Longhorns struggled.
Injuries were certainly part of the reason. Safeties Caden Sterns, Chris Brown, B.J. Foster and Anthony Cook all missed at least two games, cornerback Jalen Green missed three, and corners Josh Thompson and Kenyatta Watson II played in only four games each. All of those players are scheduled to return, and Texas will have 12 defensive backs who logged at least 70 snaps last season.
Simple experience and health might not solve the pass-rush issue, though; that's where Ash's tactics have to come into play.
Texas' pass-rushers might have been a smidge unlucky in 2019. Jack linebacker Joseph Ossai generated a pressure rate of 17%, and ends Marqez Bimage and Jacoby Jones each had pressure rates in the 9% range. Combined with their number of pass-rush attempts, those rates should have produced about 10 combined sacks on average. But this trio had just six. Progression to the mean could be kind. So could Ash's own blitz capabilities.
3. Is there enough speed on the perimeter?
Texas had depth concerns at running back last season, but Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson -- a quarterback who filled in as backup RB -- not only held up but thrived. They combined for six 100-yard games and 5.6 yards per carry, and instead of a weakness, UT had a better overall run game than it's had in quite a while.
A lot of that excellence came between the tackles -- Texas ranked third in success rate between the tackles (53%) and rushed for at least 12 yards on 14% of these carries (sixth). The interior line was solid, and both Ingram and Johnson are large men. (They've evidently gotten larger in the offseason: They're now listed at 235 and 215 pounds, respectively.) Assuming Johnson remains at RB with Ehlinger at quarterback, they could be fun weapons again in 2020 despite some turnover on the line.
Texas could get physical in a way few in the Big 12 could, especially when you factor in about 10 non-sack rushes per game from the 230-pound Ehlinger. Speed on the edge was lacking, however. Beck instead tested the perimeter of the defense with quick passes, primarily to slot man Devin Duvernay, who exploded for 106 receptions, 1,386 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior.
Incredibly, 40 of those catches were at or behind the line of scrimmage; even more incredibly, he produced a 53% success rate on these plays. If the run game wasn't peeling defenders out of the box, a diet of quick passes to Duvernay did the trick. It also set up feints and deeper shots to Duvernay.
Duvernay's gone, though, as is X receiver Collin Johnson, and I'm curious how Yurcich chooses to compensate. He's got an incredible deep-ball threat in Brennan Eagles (32 catches, 522 yards), but the most important player in the receiving corps could be sophomore Jake Smith, another former blue-chipper and Duvernay's 2019 understudy in the slot. Smith caught 25 balls for 274 yards and proved valuable in the red zone, but he'll have to adapt to a much larger role.
The second-most important player might be a different running back: freshman Bijan Robinson. The Tucson, Arizona, product was ESPN's No. 21 overall prospect in the 2020 class after rushing for -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- 6,658 yards and 13.7 yards per carry, per MaxPreps, over the past three seasons. (He also had 603 receiving yards at 20.1 per catch, which just seems gratuitous.) If he can provide some pop on the perimeter, that gives Yurcich too many options for defenses to account for.
The numbers were even more skeptical about Nebraska heading into 2019, and it wasn't hard to see why. Texas had at least gone out and won games in 2018, but Scott Frost's Huskers had gone just 4-8. And while it was an encouraging 4-8, if there is such a thing -- after an 0-6 start, Nebraska finished 4-2, with a blowout of Minnesota and narrow losses to Ohio State and Iowa -- the corresponding hype even confused some Nebraska fans. Sports books had the Cornhuskers among the top 15 national title favorites, and they began 2019 24th in the AP poll.
That they failed to live up to that hype was not a surprise, but the magnitude with which they failed was a bit jarring. The Huskers dropped toss-up games to Colorado and Indiana and got blown out by Ohio State and Minnesota, and after a 4-2 start, they won just one of their last six games.
They went 2-4 in one-score games and are now 3-9 in such games over two years -- go .500 in those games, and you're bowling in either or both seasons. That fortune will likely reverse itself at some point.
Unlucky or not, though, they were also simply disappointing. Projected 39th in SP+, they finished just 55th.
I spent a good portion of last offseason loudly scoffing at NU's top-25 hype, so there's a certain irony in the fact that the numbers I lean on for a lot of my work are now proclaiming NU a top-25 team. Let's talk about what the Huskers have to do to actually play like such a team.
1. Redshirt years must pay off
A lot of the 2019 hype had to do with what Frost did in his second season at UCF. After he produced decent results while undergoing a youth movement there, UCF exploded in 2017, going 13-0, beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl and loudly claiming a share of the national title.
If he could do it in Orlando, Florida, he could do it in Lincoln, right?
To his credit, Frost never seemed to treat 2019 as Breakout Time. After signing the 18th-ranked class of 2019, he didn't start ripping redshirts off willy-nilly, looking for every possible edge and pushing for a big season. In fact, only three true freshmen, and two of 11 four-star prospects (RB/WR Wan'Dale Robinson and corner Quinton Newsome), avoided a redshirt. Despite the pressure that comes from heavy hype, Frost crafted his lineup with an eye toward the future. Now the future has to come through for him with redshirt freshman contributions.
2. You have to defend the run in the Big Ten
The Nebraska pass defense improved significantly last season -- from 66th to 33rd in passing marginal efficiency (which compares your success rate to a baseline expectation based on down) and from 112th to 66th in sack rate -- but the run defense was a problem.
The Huskers fell from 103rd to 112th in rushing marginal efficiency allowed, and if you had a good run game in 2019, it was a great run game against Nebraska: Ohio State's, Wisconsin's and Minnesota's top two backs averaged a combined 34 carries and 239 yards against the defense formerly known as the Blackshirts. And now all three starting linemen, plus linebacker and leading tackler Mohamed Barry, are gone.
The two biggest reasons for improvement in pass defense, cornerback Lamar Jackson and pass-rusher Khalil Davis, have both departed. I'm not particularly worried about the secondary because safety Marquel Dismuke, corner Dicaprio Bootle and corner/safety Cam Taylor-Britt are all back, and safety Noa Pola-Gates was one of the more well-touted of last season's redshirts. But coordinator Erik Chinander will have to get more creative in how he deploys his pass-rushers. Linebackers JoJo Domann and Collin Miller should be solid in this department, but end Ben Stille is the closest thing to a proven entity up front, and he had all of three sacks and a 6% pressure rate last season.
Needless to say, losing all three starters on the line also makes it hard to feel too optimistic about improvement in run defense, even if there's a low bar. Beef certainly isn't a problem -- junior Damion Daniels is 6-foot-3, 340 pounds; redshirt freshman Ty Robinson is 6-foot-6, 315 pounds; and juco transfer Keem Green is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds -- and the linebacking corps is experienced. But the Huskers' schedule features Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern's revamped, heavily paced run attack and what are likely solid run units for Cincinnati, Central Michigan and South Dakota State. It's going to be awfully difficult to take a big step forward without serious improvement against the run.
3. Rediscover offensive efficiency
Ozigbo and two interior linemen graduated, Washington played in just seven games and got dismissed from the team in January. Martinez and juco transfer Dedrick Mills had their moments, but Nebraska plummeted to 86th in rushing marginal efficiency.
NU returns Mills, Martinez, and five linemen with 106 career starts among them, so experience won't be an issue. But without being able to threaten defenses physically and stay on schedule, Martinez's passing abilities proved lacking.
Martinez threw 83 passes at or behind the line of scrimmage but completed only 75% of them (you should be at 85% or above on these extended handoffs), and while he had some brilliant moments up the seam and on deep balls in general, throwing intermediate passes to the sidelines -- something any successful quarterback has to do at some point -- was a massive struggle. On passes thrown (a) outside the hash marks and (b) zero to 20 yards downfield, Martinez completed just 51% with two touchdowns to six interceptions.
One of the more interesting QBR pass charts I've come across: Adrian Martinez was good at deep balls, lovely up the seam, and absolutely horrid throwing toward the sidelines.https://t.co/BIt9c87Yzz pic.twitter.com/iW4OSFduxE— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) April 16, 2020
While the Huskers had a couple of solid efficiency options in JD Spielman and Robinson, they are 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10, respectively. There weren't a lot of big post-up options for Martinez, who really could have used one.
That makes Omar Manning an interesting acquisition. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound wide receiver transfer from Kilgore (Texas) College caught 35 passes for 727 yards (20.8 per catch) and six scores last season. You never want to rely too much on savior-transfers to turn things around, but he is exactly what the passing game lacked last season, and his readiness, or lack thereof, could have a huge impact. The same might go for 6-foot-2, 200-pound blue-chip freshman Zavier Betts.
This is still a Frost offense, though. The former option quarterback wants to run the football, and it's unclear how much the Huskers can improve in that regard.
NU is scheduled to face eight SP+ top-50 opponents, and each of the last five teams on the schedule are in the top 30. If the Cornhuskers are able to generate one more solid, efficient drive per game, the close losses could flip the other way, and they could enjoy something of a breakthrough. If not, it could be more of the same.
The art of the close win
Both Herman and Frost have been privy to the whims of the god of close games. Frost's first UCF team went 1-3 in one-score finishes, and the second went 4-0 and "won" the national title.
Herman's career has been similarly defined. He won his first three one-score games at Houston in 2015 as his Cougars bolted to a 10-0 start, but he went just 2-3 the rest of the way at UH. At Texas, he lost five of his first six, then won seven of nine to drive the 10-win 2018. In 2019, things were actually an even 3-3. If the close-game bounces were more evenly distributed, Herman might have had three consecutive 8-5 seasons in his UT tenure. Not sure if we'd think more or less highly of him if that were the case. Probably less.
Only a few coaches tend to have lasting control over close games. In the decade of the 2010s, only five coached in at least 20 one-score games and won more than two-thirds of them:
Urban Meyer (Florida, Ohio State): 24-5 (.828 win percentage)
Dabo Swinney (Clemson): 27-9 (.750)
Bob Stoops (Oklahoma): 18-7 (.720)
Nick Rolovich (Hawai'i): 14-6 (.700)
Bryan Harsin (Boise State): 19-9 (.679)
Only three won fewer than one-third of their chances:
Jeff Tedford (California, Fresno State): 7-16 (.304)
Mark Whipple (UMass): 6-16 (.273)
Matt Wells (Utah State, Texas Tech): 7-20 (.259)
That's not to say that coaches on the good records list are automatically good and coaches on the bad list are bad. Alabama's Nick Saban had just a .560 win percentage in such games in the 2010s (14-11), and legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder was at .580 (29-21). Are they worse coaches than Willie Taggart (.581), Kyle Flood (.588) or Clay Helton (.600)?
Few coaches manage to both attain and maintain control in tight situations. Most see their fortunes oscillate from year to year based on quarterback play, special teams or, most of the time, good, old-fashioned randomness.
Consider that a warning for the following teams, who enjoyed win percentages higher than .800 in at least three one-score finishes last season: Miami (Ohio) (5-0), Louisville (3-0), LSU (3-0), Navy (3-0), Minnesota (6-1), Hawai'i (5-1), Nevada (5-1), Oklahoma (5-1), Toledo (5-1).
Miami's presence atop this list is particularly wild considering how horrid the Redhawks' execution/luck had been in previous years under Chuck Martin -- they were 7-20 in such games before 2019.
On the flip side, good things could be coming for these teams, which had a win percentage worse than .200 in at least three one-score games: Ole Miss (0-5), Texas Tech (0-4), Washington (0-4), Missouri (0-3), Middle Tennessee State (0-3), Troy (0-3), TCU (1-6), Fresno State (1-5).
Poor Matt Luke. His Ole Miss Rebels had lost four one-score games even before the infamous dog-peeing incident that led to a one-point Egg Bowl loss. Flip one of those games (particularly the last one), and he's probably still running the show in Oxford.
One way to potentially improve your close-game fortune: hire Kalen DeBoer. The new Fresno State head coach went 9-1 in one-score finishes as a three-time national title-winning head coach at NAIA's Sioux Falls a decade ago before serving stints as offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State and, in 2019, Indiana. Each of his FBS bosses fared far better in one-score games when he was calling the plays than when he wasn't.
With Fresno State's Tedford retiring suddenly this past offseason, the Bulldogs named DeBoer as his replacement. With my MWC West preview on deck for this Friday, I asked him for a quick Q&A.
DeBoer on the challenges of being a first-year coach in 2020:
"I think, in our case, it's probably one side of the ball more than the other. The defensive side has four coaches brand new to our program and a brand-new system that we're going to be installing. We haven't had a chance to really do much of anything with our players. We still are able to communicate, obviously, but getting those reps is critical. We haven't had any yet."
On how much practice and time he'll need to feel comfortable about getting a squad onto the field once practice is allowed:
"We aren't going through a summer workout program like normal. We're going to have to see where guys are at when they come in. I'm sure we're going to have a variety of levels of conditioning. The guys are all working hard on their own, but there's a difference when they're on their own compared to when they're around each other and motivated and every single rep is maximized.
"So we're going to have to see where they're at and then make sure we're doing everything we can to put them in a position where they feel that they're safe. I think if you're talking about, you know, the second week in July, I think we're still OK [to be ready for the scheduled Week 1]."
On the biggest differences between coaching in NAIA and in high-level Division I:
"The number of people that you have working with you, whether it's an offensive staff, the support staff you have around you with quality control [coaches], the amount of academic support you have. You know, the equipment.
"I just got all my stuff in my office, and I'm looking through old files, and one of the files I found was my 2006 [Sioux Falls] spring folder. That spring folder had a list of things that ranged from me personally checking the equipment, making sure that our inventory was good, to all kinds of academic things. Fortunately you now have other people that look after those things at this level. You have a greater amount of people that you manage and work with. I think that that's probably the biggest thing."
On what surprised him the most as he moved further up the ladder:
"As you go through the different levels, you see some young coaches that are so much further ahead of where I was at when I was their age. That's what's so impressive to me. Let's take the coordinators at IU, guys like [new offensive coordinator] Nick Sheridan and [defensive coordinator] Kane Wommack, whose dads were coaches. The amount of football that they've seen and what they know, it's been part of who they were their entire life. But it's also, I think these younger coaches have had a lot of access to technology. You can learn a lot watching clinic presentations online these days. It's a lot easier to access now. It's really impressive how many really good young coaches there are. And that's exciting."
On taking the Fresno State job:
"It's a special place, and I was hoping I might someday get the opportunity to come back here. I love Coach Tedford, and it's unfortunate, kind of bittersweet -- I get the great opportunity that I was hoping to have some day, but it happened sooner than I expected. That's a little bit tougher to handle just because I have so much respect for who he is and what he accomplished here in a short amount of time."