Hot Reads: Texas to the Playoff
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Hot Reads: Texas to the Playoff, Nebraska to the Gator?

May 23, 2019

Being conventional can be pretty boring. I get it. One of my cognitive biases is for novelty. I enjoy the thing I haven't seen a hundred times before more than the thing I have. That's often a problem for me this time of year when the season predictions are rolling out and they all look mostly the same.

That said, my natural predilection for novelty still isn't enough for me to put Texas in the College Football Playoff just to have a set of projections that look a little different. Sporting News, however, has the Longhorns facing Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl (and losing).

There's nothing in the way of explanation online, but you know the snapshot look at Texas by now. The Horns went 10-4 a year ago beating Oklahoma once before losing to the Sooners in the Big 12 title game, but closing on a strong note with a surprising 28-21 win over Georgia as a 12.5-point underdog in the Sugar Bowl. Texas ranked ninth in the final AP poll, it's best ranking since 2009, and it has Sam Ehlinger (41 total touchdowns in 2018) back at quarterback.

Based on those facts, and only those kind of facts, Texas is a buzzed-about team this offseason. But all that glitters from 2018 ain't necessarily gold. Based on the postgame win probabilities at SB Nation––perhaps my favorite stat––Texas "earned" 8.22 wins last year based on comparing its game-by-game stats to those of its opponents. The Longhorns beat Oklahoma 48-45 last October, but would've won that game just 8% of the time based on how the stats in that game compare to the historical model. Its win over Texas Tech came with a 20% postgame win probability.

Pythagorean wins are a less elegant way to attempt a similar evaluation, but that formula says basically the same thing based on the Longhorns' scoring differential. It was more of an 8.5-win team than a 10-win team. Here's perhaps an even easier way to look at that. Texas outscored its opponents by a total of 73 points last year. That's pretty similar to the point differentials 5-7 Texas Tech (75), 7-5 Boston College (76) and 7-6 Oklahoma State (77) produced.

Preseason rankings that are aware of this reality––and that Texas lost a lot from last year––reflect that in their projections. The first S&P+ rankings had the Longhorns ranked 35th. FPI gives the Longhorns less than a 1% chance to make the Playoff. 

Texas has the curb appeal of a recently renovated historic mansion in a rejuvenated neighborhood. It was grand once and could be again, maybe now. But it's only when you get out of the car and into the house that you can see that, while improvements have been made, there still might have been some corners cut during renovation. Nothing that can't be fixed with a little more time, but there’s pressure to sell it now in this market and, right now, it's still not exactly what it seems.

And because it's Texas, a program that's always going to draw a ton of attention, that makes for some interesting contradictions. The power-ranking based projections are compartively low on the Horns, the opinion-based rankings reward them for 10 wins and having Ehlinger. Athlon's preview magazine has a "Texas Is Back (For Real This Time)" cover blurb and a short writeup on that topic on page 21. On page 41, Texas is listed as a team on the decline. Watching this push and pull is a ton of fun.

More likely, at least in my mind, is that Texas and Nebraska could be matched up in a bowl if such Big Ten-Big 12 matchups existed. They don't, really, but I think the Huskers and Longhorns could be competing for the same type of bowl games at the end of the year. Sporting News has Nebraska headed to the Taxslayer Gator Bowl to face Tennessee. Athlon slots Nebraska for the Citrus Bowl against Texas A&M. It also has the back-but-also-on-the-decline Longhorns making a short trip to San Antonio to face Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.

That seems a lot more likely than a trip to Phoenix.

The Grab Bag

  • Nebraska baseball jumped out to an early lead and beat Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. (Photos) The Huskers face Iowa tonight.
  • Greg Smith catches up with Iowa Western offensive tackle Jacob Gamble. (Premium) 
  • More from Greg as he looks at the role junior-college recruiting is playing at Nebraska.
  • Really good read from Derek Peterson on redshirt freshman cornerback Braxton Clark.

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