Monday’s 3 bowl losses were not the end of the world for the Big 12
Bowl season makes us say silly things and leap to silly conclusions.
The Big 12′s awful Monday did not prove why TCU and Baylor didn’t make the College Football Playoff, that Charlie Strong was the wrong hire in Austin, or that Bob Stoops is almost done in Norman. Three games don’t have to be a referendum on anything in particular.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a really, really bad day for the 10-team conference with the 12-team name.
Here are the key numbers from Monday’s bowl wins by Arkansas over Texas, Clemson over Oklahoma, and Texas A&M over West Virginia.
In Monday’s preview, I expressed skepticism regarding whether Texas could move the football.
That could be problematic. The ‘Horns rank 94th in Off. F/+, and Arkansas ranks 19th in Def. F/+. Texas faced two top-20 defenses in 2014 (No. 6 TCU, No. 16 Baylor) and averaged 4.3 yards per play and 8.5 points per game.
Texas aims for balance — the Longhorns rank 48th in standard downs run rate and 84th in passing downs run rate — but can’t pass. They are 86th in Passing S&P+ and 92nd in Passing Downs S&P+; they have a solid No. 1 target in John Harris (1,015 receiving yards, 10.3 per target), but their next five have combined to average an awful 5.3 yards per target. Only once in the last five games did Arkansas allow a passer rating higher than 116.0; Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes‘ passer rating against Baylor and TCU: 70.9 and 94.4, respectively.
Let’s say 4.3 yards per play and 8.5 points were a bit too optimistic. Texas managed 1.4 and seven, respectively, in a 31-7 Texas Bowl pasting against Arkansas. The ‘Horns gained 44 yards on an eight-play touchdown drive; they gained 15 yards — fifteen — in their other 35 snaps. Second-half drives: three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, interception.
Swoopes’ passer rating against Arkansas was a brisk 63.2. And the passer rating formula doesn’t include sacks. Take three sacks into account, and Swoopes’ 28 attempts netted a cool 20 yards. Average yards per attempt: 0.7.
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Let’s put that another way. If, instead of dropping to pass, Swoopes plunged forward on QB sneaks, his 28 attempts probably would have gained at least 25 yards. By actually attempting to complete forward passes, Swoopes lost five or more yards. Swoopes would have been just 20 yards worse off if he had chosen to spike the ball on every attempt.
Arkansas has a strong defense, and Texas’ struggles are not new. But this was an exaggerated version of what was expected. All of Swoopes’ bad habits — his loss of footwork when facing pressure, his propensity for waiting too long before checking down for a tiny gain — were on display against Arkansas’ fierce front. His line didn’t give him any help whatsoever, his run game was horrific (Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray: 13 carries, 34 yards), and his receivers in no way stepped up. They all asked Swoopes to carry them, and he isn’t ready to do that. It’s pretty easy to assume he won’t ever be ready.
Considering the program reset at hand, reaching six wins was an accomplishment in Charlie Strong’s first year as Texas head coach. But the Texas Bowl proved how many questions the Longhorns have to answer before they can be considered Texas again.
When West Virginia’s Skyler Howard found All-America receiver Kevin White for a 49-yard score three minutes into the second quarter of the Liberty Bowl, it put the Mountaineers up over Texas A&M, 27-21. Howard’s passing line to that point: 7-for-13 for 179 yards and a touchdown. Though “on pace for…” projections early in games are mostly for fun, WVU was on pace for 90 points.
Howard’s passing line over his next 25 attempts: 7-for-22, 67 yards, three sacks, 1.8 yards per attempt.
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Conceptually, the Liberty Bowl was a shootout: 82 points, 49 first downs, 1,001 yards. But after the first 18 minutes, WVU was mostly shot out. A&M went on a 17-0 run in the second and third quarters, and while WVU rallied — Howard found a rhythm again late and threw a touchdown to cut the score to 45-37 with 2:32 left — the damage was done.
In a game marred by penalties, flaring tempers, and crazy student assistants, A&M’s defense stepped up for a while. Young Howard, making his third start, was unable to control his throws. A&M freshman Kyle Allen overcame an early mistake (a pick six that put WVU up 17-7 in the first quarter) and completed 22 of 35 for 294 yards and four touchdowns. WVU was expected to run well, but the Aggies held Mountaineer back Rushel Shell in check (12 carries, 22 yards) while A&M runners Tra Carson and Trey Williams combined for 219 yards on 36 carries. After some early haymakers, A&M seized control of the game (and its student assistants).
Barry Switzer went 7-4-1, 8-4, and 8-4 in his ninth through 11th seasons at Oklahoma. Bud Wilkinson went a combined 15-14-1 in years 13-15. Bear Bryant went 6-5 and 6-5-1 in his 12th and 13th seasons at Alabama. Darrell Royal, after whom Texas’ stadium is named, lost at least four games in six of his 20 seasons in Austin. John McKay went 12-8-1 in his 11th and 12th years at USC. Bo Schembechler lost at least three games five times in a six-year span during his second decade at Michigan. Woody Hayes went 6-3 or worse at Ohio State five times between 1959 and 1967.
Just as long marriages can grow stale, great coaches have down periods. Maybe an iffy recruiting cycle failed to bear as much fruit as expected. Maybe a position group cratered with no quick fix. Maybe some assistants left, and their replacements weren’t up to the same level.
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Stick around and win long enough, and you’ll find yourself with the occasional down year. Safe to say, Bob Stoops’ 16th season at Oklahoma was one of those. Supposed title contenders in the preseason, the Sooners suffered three unlucky, tight, could-have-happened-to-anybody losses to TCU, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State. But they also got blown out twice. First came a 48-14 drubbing at home against Baylor. And on Monday came an even more demoralizing 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
We always talk about how a coach “didn’t have his team ready to play” in a game with a disappointing outcome. But that’s not quite right. It almost always seems like your players are ready to play; they go through stretches and warm-ups, they listen to your pre-game speech, they run out on the field. They feel ready. What you don’t know in advance is if they’re ready to take a punch. Sometimes a team that isn’t dialed in can figure out how to get in the right mode if the opponent isn’t able to connect major shots early.
And sometimes games start like Oklahoma-Clemson. Oklahoma went three-and-out on the bowl’s opening possession, and Clemson’s first play was a 2-on-3 pass to Artavis Scott on the sideline that somehow went for 65 yards and a touchdown. Oklahoma went three-and-out again, and Clemson drove for a field goal; the Tigers missed, but OU was offside, and Clemson made the retry.
Oklahoma kept finding more feet to shoot. Down 20-0 and in need of a huge spark, the Sooners got one when Charles Tapper made a leaping interception of a Cole Stoudt pass and took it 50 yards for a touchdown. Only, OU was AGAIN called offside, and Clemson scored to make it 27-0 three plays later.
OU was not ready to take a punch, and with the way Clemson’s defensive line was playing, it might not have mattered. End Vic Beasley finished his career with three tackles for loss (one sack) and a pass break-up. Senior tackle Grady Jarrett finished with 3.5 TFLs and a forced fumble. Clemson made a havoc play (tackle for loss, forced fumble, pass defensed) on more than 26 percent of Sooner snaps, and when they weren’t making a disruptive play, Trevor Knight was making an iffy pass, a receiver was dropping a catchable ball, someone was committing a penalty, et cetera.
Not including his first season in Norman, Stoops has had three down years: 2005 (8-4), 2009 (8-5), and 2014 (8-5). He responded with 34 wins in three years following the first setback and 43 in four after the second. But neither 2005 nor 2009 ended like THIS. The Sooners have work to do heading into Year 17.