Here are the 2020 Big 12 standings.
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each Big 12 team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games (typically fewer in 2020). Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2020 season, which teams in the Big 12 met this threshold? Here are Big 12 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Texas Tech was the lone Big 12 team to see their actual record differ significantly from their expected record based on YPP. The Red Raiders under-performed, but we can't blame close games. All three of their conference victories came by a touchdown or less and they were a respectable 3-2 in close conference games. Instead, the culprit was turnovers. The Red Raiders forced the fewest turnovers in Big 12 play (9) while committing the most (18), causing them to fall short of their expected record. Which, speaking of...
Matt Wells' Teams Almost Always Under-Perform
At least relative to their YPP numbers. Matt Wells has been a coach at the FBS level for eight seasons; six at Utah State and two at Texas Tech. I happen to have YPP data for all those seasons (and a few more going back to 2005) and in that span, his teams almost always fall short (sometimes a little, other times a lot) of their expected conference record based on YPP.
During his six seasons at Utah State, the Aggies were undoubtedly a successful team. They played in five bowl games, won a division title, finished in the top 25, and went 30-18 against Mountain West opponents. However, in that six season span, Utah State finished with the largest average negative disparity between their conference record and their expected record based on YPP in the Mountain West.
As you might expect over a sample size of six seasons, most teams finished with a negligible average disparity. Teams over-perform one year and under-perform the next with little rhyme or reason save for the randomness inherent in a college football season. However, two teams really stood out. Air Force and Utah State. Air Force finished with a conference winning percentage that was on average .141 better than their expected winning percentage based on YPP. In an eight game conference season, this means they won about 1.13 more additional games than we might expect based on their YPP numbers. By contrast, Utah State finished with a conference winning percentage that was .109 lower than their expected winning percentage. This equates to 0.87 fewer wins in an eight games conference season.
After guiding Utah State to eleven wins and a top 25 appearance in 2018, Wells was hired by Texas Tech. In his first two seasons in Lubbock, the Red Raiders have struggled. They are just 8-14 overall and 5-13 in Big 12 play. They lost to Kansas in 2019 and nearly lost to them again in 2020. Despite the poor record, Texas Tech has put up mediocre per play numbers. Last season, they ranked ninth in the Big 12 in Net YPP, and while finishing ahead of Kansas should be the default for any Big 12 team, their record was still slightly worse than one would expect based on their YPP numbers. Then in 2020, the Red Raiders actually posted a positive per play differential, yet lost twice as many conference games as they won. Through two seasons, Texas Tech has under-performed worse than any other Big 12 team.
That -.146 equates to 1.31 fewer wins than expected over a nine-game Big 12 conference season. Two seasons is not nearly a large enough sample to draw any meaningful conclusions, but paired with his six seasons at Utah State, a pattern has started to develop.
In eight seasons, Wells' teams have been in the top half of their conference once when it comes to performance against expected record based on YPP. Meanwhile, they have finished last three times, second to last once, and third to last once. Why have his teams consistently struggled to finish within range of their lofty YPP numbers? Well, we can't blame turnover margin. His teams are collectively +10 in 66 conference games. No, the primary culprit appears to be plain old close game luck. In conference games decided by a touchdown or less, his Utah State teams were 5-9. In conference games decided by more than a touchdown, those Aggies were 25-9. Meanwhile, in two seasons at Texas Tech, his teams are 3-6 in close conference games and 2-7 in all other conference games. Doing the math, overall, his teams are just 8-15 in close conference games (and 27-16 in all other conference games). Is Matt Wells a poor close game coach or is this record a function of small sample size randomness? History is not destiny, but if Matt Wells wants to keep his job, he better start winning more of these close games.