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Why Texas and these 6 other teams probably aren’t as good as their rankings

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Win games, and you’ll move up in the polls. But that doesn’t mean the advanced stats will trust you.

Baylor v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Even if I never went outside, I could tell how fall was advancing by checking my Twitter mentions. As a college football season gets further down the road, I get yelled at more and more about my S&P+ rankings.

By this point in each season, it’s a few specific fan bases doing most of the yelling, and you can typically figure out which fan bases those are by comparing S&P+ to the AP’s top 25. Teams ranked really high in the latter but far less in the former are probably the ones with supporters yelling about flawed algorithms.

So who’s yelling this year? Let’s take a look.

Michigan State

  • AP rank: 24th
  • S&P+ rank: 33rd

One sure path to regard in the polls is to win big games against big opponents, and Mark Dantonio’s Spartans just beat a top-10 team (Penn State) on the road. That was enough to jump back into the polls despite what has otherwise been a mediocre 2018.

MSU was projected 13th in S&P+ and began 11th in the AP poll, but losses to Arizona State (No. 57 in S&P+) in Tempe and Northwestern (68th) at home justifiably dropped the Spartans quite a bit. Their narrow win over Utah State has begun to look more impressive — the Aggies have destroyed all comers since then and are up to 20th — but the two losses and a mostly mediocre performance against CMU dragged them down.

Plus, they needed significant turnovers luck to survive against PSU. They fumbled four times and lost none of them, and they had 16 passes defensed against them, which would typically result in about four interceptions instead of one. So while they got dinged for their losses, they also didn’t get a ton of statistical credit for their big win.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

LSU

  • AP rank: fifth
  • S&P+ rank: 14th

The biggest issue is sustainability. The Tigers’ offense seems to have about two big-play cards to play in each game and has managed to play them at exactly the right time in each win. That’s hard to keep up. They are dreadfully inefficient (102nd in marginal efficiency), which means they are constantly in passing downs, and they aren’t efficient on passing downs either (101st in passing downs marginal efficiency). They produce fewer big plays on what I define as blitz downs (second-and-super-long or third-and-five or more) than anyone in the country.

And yet, there’s Derrick Dillon, reeling in a 71-yard pass late in the win over Auburn. There’s quarterback Joe Burrow, rumbling 59 yards to put the nail in Georgia’s coffin. There’s Nick Brossette, ripping off a 50-yard score to open up the floodgates against Miami. There’s Dee Anderson, catching a 28-yard pass on second-and-9 after Louisiana Tech had cut a 24-point deficit to 3.

LSU has mastered timely offense, but that’s rarely something you can count on for an entire season. The Tigers couldn’t against Florida, and with Alabama and two other S&P+ top-25 opponents remaining on the schedule (they’ve already faced four), LSU’s season will likely end up more in the 9-3 range than 11-1.

Against this schedule, that’s still an accomplishment, even if it doesn’t make you a top-five team.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia

  • AP rank: 13th
  • S&P+ rank: 24th

This one’s easy enough to explain — AP voters didn’t punish WVU enough for how truly putrid the Mountaineers’ offense was on Saturday in Ames.

The damage was stunning: 42 plays, 152 yards, 29 percent success rate. Quarterback Will Grier, regarded as a Heisman candidate, attempted 22 passes, got sacked seven times, and netted just 40 yards, including sacks. Kennedy McKoy had a 19-yard reception and a 26-yard run in the first quarter; those two plays accounted for nearly one-third of WVU’s yardage.

Iowa State has a top-30 defense, per S&P+, and is allowing just 14.3 points per game against teams from outside of Oklahoma. But this was still a level of offensive ineptitude that one couldn’t have expected. The only reason the game was a mere 16-point loss was that WVU returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown.

The fact that the Mountaineers fell only seven spots in the poll, from sixth to 13th — while Washington fell eight spots for losing on the road to what is now a top-15 team and Penn State fell 10 for losing via last-second score to what is now a ranked team — is baffling. The Mountaineers fell 13 spots in S&P+, which feels a lot more apt.

West Virginia Mountaineers v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Cincinnati and USF

  • AP rank: 20th and 21st, respectively
  • S&P+ rank: 31st and 41st

The AP poll has no direct impact on the College Football Playoff and is basically a ceremonial conversation piece. I say this with no disdain — that’s what it should be, and it can still serve a healthy role by connecting us to the sport’s history. “First time ranked in the top-15 since...” “First win over a ranked opponent since...” Things like that.

That said, it’s going to always vault some mid-season unbeatens further up than it probably should. Again, that’s fine. But a predictive measure like S&P+ has not seen any reason to treat Cincinnati and USF, two solid teams, as top-20 programs. USF crept into the top-30 before Week 7, then proceeded to drop 14 spots after nearly losing to 1-5 Tulsa.

Cincinnati has been a hell of a story. Luke Fickell’s rebuild is a year ahead of schedule; projected 89th in S&P+, the Bearcats are 6-0 and up to 31st. But their best wins are over S&P+ No. 66 Miami (Ohio) and No. 76 UCLA. They needed every bit of 60 minutes to get past No. 94 Ohio by 4. The defense is legit, but this team is still figuring itself out.

The good news for both of these teams is that, if they’re legitimate top-20 teams, we’ll find out soon enough. The AAC East is outstanding, and the division race is going to feature not only these two teams but also S&P+ No. 8 UCF (10th in AP) and No. 45 Temple. We’ll learn everything we need to, and everyone will end up ranked appropriately.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon

  • AP rank: 12th
  • S&P+ rank: 34th

Oregon stared down the Pac-12 North’s heavyweights and has maybe become the new division favorite. The Ducks are presenting a newer, more physical version of themselves, and the results are exciting. They’re 5-1, and the only blemish, the 38-31 overtime loss to Stanford, was oh so close to being a win. Oregon matters again, and that’s exciting.

So why is S&P+ lukewarm on the Ducks? Defense, mostly. After inching up to 65th in Def. S&P+ after the 3-0 start, they have fallen back to 91st after giving up 8 yards per play to Stanford (season average: 6) and 5.9 to Cal (5.2) and needing two late Washington miscues (a muffed snap on a fourth-and-1, then a missed 37-yard field goal) to keep the Huskies under 30 points despite 437 total yards.

At 12th in Off. S&P+, the Ducks’ offense is as good as advertised, and Justin Herbert has established himself as almost certainly the top quarterback in next year’s NFL draft.

But a one-dimensional team is only going to rise so high in S&P+. The defense will at least need to return to its early-season form if the Ducks are going to survive road games to Washington State and Utah.

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Texas

  • AP rank: seventh
  • S&P+ rank: 43rd

Only Tom Herman teams seem capable of pulling off this balancing act. The only way to possibly understand how this team can be 6-1 and unbeaten in its (power) conference, with a win over an S&P+ top-five team, is to pretend that Texas has been two different teams this year.

One Texas is 3-0 against the three top-50 S&P+ teams it has faced (No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 30 USC, No. 46 TCU), winning by an average of 38-25. The Horns pulled away against USC and rode turnovers and late-game defense to a comfortable win against TCU. Then they surged to a commanding lead against Oklahoma (with help from the turnovers fairy), gave it all away, then calmly drove for the game-winning field goal.

The other Texas is a top-60 team at best. The Horns lost to No. 55 Maryland, beat No. 59 Baylor by six at home, beat No. 88 Kansas State by five, and beat No. 93 Tulsa by seven.

That has created one of the strangest dichotomies you’ll see:

  • Average scoring margin vs. the top 50: plus-13.7
  • Average scoring margin vs. the bottom 80: plus-3.5

That is not how that’s supposed to work. This only makes sense when you realize it is a Herman team. In Herman’s first year at Houston, his Cougars beat three 10-win teams (Navy, Temple, and FSU in the Peach Bowl), survived Louisville and Lamar Jackson, and destroyed the SEC’s Vanderbilt on their way to a 13-1 finish. They also needed quite a few bounces to get past Cincinnati and Memphis and lost to UConn. Final S&P+ ranking: 46th.

The next year, they beat Oklahoma and Louisville by a combined 36 and lost to SMU.

This is the Herman m.o. at this point. You will always get the best version of his team in big games, and that team will turn around and show you as little as possible against everyone else. It makes them almost impossible to project or to trust.

S&P+ is basically throwing up its hands at this point. It says the Horns have a 20 percent chance of going 10-2 or better and a 15 percent chance of going 7-5 or worse. But let’s not pretend the 11-1 scenario — win at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, dominate WVU at home, and then just barely survive with the bare minimum against Iowa State and Kansas — isn’t on the table. Herman knows how to navigate this, as frustrating as it might be to watch.