Referendum: Adding the Title Game Was a Good Idea
When the Big 12 announced that they were adding a title game a few years back, I was not a big fan. I thought it was an overreaction to post-hoc reasoning for the committee. If you recall, the phrase du jour was “13th data point.” In 2014 the committee was asked to defend its inclusion of Ohio State over Baylor or TCU and often used this reasoning. Well, the Big 12 said, we will give you your 13th data point.
At the time, I thought this was rash and short-sighted. For one, a Big 12 title game is different than every other league’s: it guarantees a match-up between your two highest ranked teams. Other conferences, such as the SEC and the Big 10, have massive disparities between their two divisions meaning that the title game is usually a weaker game than one of those teams has already played. On the other hand, in the Big 12, you are not only guaranteed a face-off between #1 and #2, but in a rematch. This, I thought at the time, just gives more opportunities for your hellishly above-average conference to knock your top title contender down and make that “13th data point” work against you.
But I’ve changed my tune now. The Big 12 title game rules. And here is the thing: all of what I said above is still true. The thing is, while the league office added the title game to appease the committee and give its league champion a great probability of making the playoff (which is what I found spurious), in actuality it lessened the focus on the playoff and made the regular season that much more interesting.
Just think about it: if there was no title game this year, the de-facto title game would’ve been in Waco 3 weeks ago. Exciting, to be sure, but meaning that everything that happened afterwards would’ve meant that much less. Instead there was that much more intrigue for the 3 or 4 teams still in the race with less than a month to go. Fun stuff.
Now, of course, we get that rematch. If either OU or Baylor was undefeated, the Big 12 office would be kicking itself for potentially knocking their champ out of the playoff. Instead, both Baylor and OU have one, painful loss and have the chance to finish the regular season with a great taste in their mouth.
Round 1: Baylor Played Quite Well
The first match-up between OU and Baylor was a very strange game. Baylor finished the game with a 71% post-game win expectancy*:
*Post-game win expectancy takes the 5 stats most predictive of a win (efficiency, explosiveness, field position, turnovers, and finishing drives) and outputs a number based on what happened in the game. If you’re having trouble understanding this concept, I find it helpful to start at the extremes; e.g., if Baylor had a 99% success rate and Kansas a 5%, you can say Baylor wins that game 100% of the time. Then just take that principle and apply it all the way down.
As we can see from this box score, Baylor bested OU in 4 of the 5 most important categories and OU was only 1% more efficient than Baylor. This was no fluke that OU won—29% is far from rare—but the game was certainly there for Baylor’s taking and Baylor played quite well across the board. I could talk all day about stuff like this, so if you have questions please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments or @Travis_Roeder on twitter.
Round 1: The Problem of Sequencing and Allotment
The thing that box scores cannot show is the importance of sequencing and allotment. Whenever a team wins with the “inferior” statistics one can usually point to either of these as the answer. What I mean by allotment is this: let’s say you are a terrible offensive team and I allotted you 120 yards for a game and you get 12 possessions. The correct thing to do is NOT to spread those out—indeed, 10 yards per possession is barely better than a 3 and out, you’re still punting—but instead to sequence them together so that you can at least get a few scores. Next I look to sequencing, which affects the flow of the game. If you have 5 TDs and 5 three-and-outs in a game, you’d probably rather they be interspersed than all back to back one way or the other.
Let’s look quarter by quarter to get a closer view of how this game sequenced:
A couple of things stand out. For one, as any fan knows without the aid of advanced stats, this was a tale of two halves. Baylor dominated the first half with a 67% offensive success rate*, a truly monumental number—the average FBS success rate is 42%—while holding OU to ~42.5%. OU has the highest offensive rating in SP+ by a country mile; holding them to the national average for success rate is more impressive than holding an FCS opponent to 0%.
*For those who don’t recall or have yet to learn, success rate is defined as follows: 50% of needed yards on 1st down, 70% on 2nd, and 100% on 3rd or 4th. It is a terrific measure for how well a team is staying “on schedule.”
And for as good as Baylor’s 1st half was, the second half was equally bad. OU’s season average for success rate is 57% and Baylor gave up ~65%. Overall, the Baylor defense was still playing rather well as OU was getting essentially zero big plays, but they could not get off the field. OU had a 56% success rate on passing downs overall—the national average is 31%—which means it was even higher in the second half. By in large this was because Baylor’s pass rush began to tire out which gave more time for OU’s wide receivers to beat man coverage and make a tired DB miss the tackle.
Here is where sequencing comes in. In one respect, Baylor’s offensive allotment—putting nearly all of their offensive yards into 4 TD drives and 1 FG—was incredibly efficient. The problem, of course, was the sequencing. Baylor’s pre-last-drive-of-the-game second half possessions were: Hasty’s fumble after a 35 yard run and then 3 consecutive three-and-outs. Baylor would’ve traded anything to swap one of those three-and-outs in the second half for a touchdown drive in the second. Because Baylor’s defense was so good at limiting big plays, OU needed the entire second half clock to complete the comeback. Baylor’s offense is what really did them in.
For me, the operative question is this: which half was more indicative of the actual level between these two teams? Of course, the likely answer is “somewhere in-between,” but hey that’s boring. I’ll argue below that the first half is more representative of what we can expect in Round 2.
Round 2: Baylor Has An Easier Plan To Replicate
In my preview for the Texas game, I made this analogy: “Think of playing defense like plugging holes on a ship. If one man can stay at each hole, no water comes in. But if one man has to leave his post to help another, the water starts to flow.” Much has been made of OU’s defense tightening the screws in the second half, but I think it had much more with Baylor making a few critical mistakes than what OU was doing. You can’t take too much from 11 offensive plays, which is all Baylor had prior to their final drive against OU.
On the first post-Hasty fumble possession, Brewer made a couple of bad reads and Baylor couldn’t convert on 3rd and 13. On the next possession, Baylor began with a solid gain to Fleeks, a bad read on a QB draw by Brewer, and then Thornton’s now infamous drop on 3rd down.
Rhule mentioned that OU’s defense is built to create negative plays. It is notable that on the three consecutive three-and-outs Baylor suffered a negative play on each. OU is to be commended for these plays to be sure, but with one better read or one easy catch Baylor isn’t in this position.
Here’s what Baylor has to be excited about: by the second half Baylor had OU’s defense running around plugging holes. Brewer established himself as a running threat in the first half which led to OU keying safeties and linebackers on him in the second. This left receivers in one on one match-ups. But Brewer didn’t recognize that OU’s LBs and safeties were keying on him, tucking and running in situations like this where he had Mims open.
This was just a failure to adjust quickly enough to OU’s more aggressive style. Baylor dominated in the first half with this play. You’ll notice that in the first half OU’s linebackers were keying on the pass which left the big lane for Brewer. He picked up 4 yards and a first down on this play.
In the first half Baylor showed that they can tear up OU’s base defense. In the second, OU made a few adjustments and Baylor likely just needed one first down to get rolling (as shown in their final drive before the interception).
Baylor dominated OU (and Texas) with this play and it will be interesting to see what OU does to stop it Dec. 7th. Baylor should have some fun stuff built off it. pic.twitter.com/2lg5U5I0wT— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) November 25, 2019
The heart of my argument is this: Baylor stretched OU’s defense to the limit in round 1 and now has a lot of time prepare for OU’s changeups; OU’s offense started worked like compound interest in the second half, benefiting from its initial long drive, Hasty fumble, long drive, and then the three and outs. Basically, OU’s win was a result more of circumstance that is unlikely to repeat itself.
CeeDee Lamb is Back
Of course, as I am sure much will be made of it this week, Oklahoma’s other-worldly WR is back for this round after being out with a concussion the first time. Lamb is an amazing player, and he likely gives them a big play or two that Oklahoma went without in the first game, but I do not think this is as big of a deal as many others probably do.
Lamb has feasted on two primary victims this year: weaker DBs and bad open field tackling. Baylor suffers from neither. As I wrote in my preview of the first game, “Jameson Houston has more or less shut down every top WR he has faced this year. He held Jalen Reagor to 1 catch for 8 yards and Tylan Wallace to 6 catches for 69 yards. If the Bears can hold Lamb to under 100 yards this game they’ll have to feel pretty good about their chances.” By the way, that preview is still probably worth reading because I delve into some schematic stuff that I am not going to repeat here.
Baylor outplayed OU in Round 1 and that is not just my opinion. OU has an incredible offense and is going to score some points, but they are not going to get the benefit of Baylor running 10 plays in 28 minutes of game time again. Last time I predicted Baylor 34 - 31 and OU took it by the same score. Because Lamb is back and this is a rematch I expect it to be a little higher scoring this time. Look for Baylor to play more zone on defense while still mixing in some pressure packages, but mostly look for Baylor to take some deep shots and blow the top off OU’s aggressive defense. Give me Baylor 38 - 35.