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Offseason Stat Series: What if the season started in October?

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Does starting the season later change our inferences about Big 12 narratives going into the 2019 season?

NCAA Football: Texas at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Hello friends, and welcome to yet another installment of the offseason stat series. Last week, I took a small detour from football to look at the Fayetteville regional and how TCU’s chances to advance looked. This week, I’m going to attempt to construct a bit of an odd counterfactual from last season. I admit, I might be grasping at straws for ideas here, but can you fault me? We’re in that weird space where we are almost too far away from last season to really keep making meaningful inferences about teams, and we aren’t quite close enough to this season to start the previews.

Think back to the first three weeks of last season, especially the marquee matchups. We had touted games between Alabama and Louisville, Auburn and Washington, Michigan and Notre Dame, Miami and LSU, VaTech and FSU, Clemson-A&M, USC-Stanford, Ohio State-TCU, LSU-Auburn, Washington-Utah, Boise State-Oklahoma State, USC-Texas and more. Each one of these games served as a focal point, a mental anchor as we all interpreted the ensuing season. Going into these games, we had mostly-arbitrary rankings associated with each team, and the results of each game became a lens through which we saw a team’s season. We didn’t know, for instance, Louisville had fallen off the face of the planet when Alabama crushed them, or that FSU or USC weren’t exactly living up to the historical standards of their programs, or that TCU was on track to have a middling 6-6 regular season thanks to a revolving door at QB.

All in all, while the first few weeks of the season provide us with some meaningful information, that information is noisy and unreliable in that it encompasses a lot about a team’s circumstances (strength of schedule, sequence of opponents, efficiency of summer practice), and not necessarily a team’s true quality. By filtering out the first third of the season, we lose some information and sample size, which is less than desirable, but we also might eliminate some noise that distracts us from a team’s true quality. My question for this week: If the season started in October, how would our opinions and perceptions about Big 12 teams change?

In this article, I’ll briefly trace out the weekly narrative of our new Big 12 season, running October 1st to the first week in December, and then I’ll discuss what inferences we can take from this shorter, focused season.

2018 Season Results, October Start

Week 1:

Texas (1-0) 48, Oklahoma (0-1) 45
WVU (1-0) 38, Kansas (0-1) 22
Iowa State (1-0) 48, Oklahoma State (0-1) 42

Bye: Texas Tech, TCU, Baylor, Kansas State

Week 1 starts us out with a bang, with a revamped Texas announcing their “back”-ness by edging out conference favorite Oklahoma. Kansas surprises some doubters with a reasonably competitive loss to high-powered offense West Virginia. Iowa State takes a stride towards carving out their place in the second tier of the Big 12, securing a win against perennial contender Oklahoma State.
Conference Favorites: Oklahoma, Texas

Week 2:

Texas (2-0) 32, Baylor (0-1) 17
Iowa State (2-0) 30, West Virginia (1-1) 17
Kansas State (1-0) 31, Oklahoma State (0-2) 12
Texas Tech (1-0) 17, TCU (0-1) 14

Bye: Oklahoma, Kansas

Texas continues in stride as a Big 12 front runner, while Iowa State makes yet another statement for their case as a Big 12 contender. Oklahoma State looks to be on the verge of a stride, and Texas Tech and TCU both look lost in a back in forth, sloppy game.
Conference Favorites: Oklahoma, Texas, (Iowa State longshot?)

Week 3:

Oklahoma (1-1) 52 TCU (0-2) 27
Texas Tech (2-0) 48, Kansas (0-2) 16

Bye: Texas, WVU, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State

In week 3, Oklahoma climbs back into the win column after a rough start, and TCU slides to the bottom of the standings. Kansas’s 22 points against WVU looks more like a fluke than reality, and Texas Tech establishes their worth by knocking off a lesser opponent.
Conference Favorites: Oklahoma, Texas, (Iowa State longshot?)
Conference Leaders: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Texas tied for first.

Week 4:

Oklahoma State (1-2) 38, Texas (2-1) 35
Oklahoma (2-1) 51, Kansas State (1-1) 14
Kansas (1-2) 27, TCU (0-2) 26
West Virginia (2-1) 58, Baylor (0-2) 14
Iowa State (3-0) 40, Texas Tech (2-1) 31

With everyone in action, we get some clarity at the top of the standings. Texas falls out of the top spot, and Iowa State dispatches Texas Tech back to the second tier. Oklahoma takes care of Kansas State to continue to climb in the standings. Baylor and TCU both look like their skids are real and just getting started.
Conference Favorites: Iowa State, Texas, OU, WVU (long shot?)
Conference Leaders: Iowa State 3-0 sits alone in first.

Week 5:

West Virginia (3-1) 42, Texas (2-2) 41 (The “horns down!” game)
Oklahoma (3-1) 51, Texas Tech (2-2) 46
Iowa State (4-0) 27, Kansas (1-3) 3
Baylor (1-2) 35, Oklahoma State (1-3) 31
TCU (1-2) 14, Kansas State (1-2) 13

West Virginia reminds everyone of their presence in the field of Big 12 contenders. Tech continues their slide against harsher opponents, and Oklahoma’s ascent is uninterrupted. Texas falls out of contention with a second loss, and the media now questions the Longhorns’ ontology: Is Texas back, or not back? Iowa State is a sneakily good 4-0 now, in the driver’s seat more than halfway through our “season”. Baylor and TCU both stop their skid, while Oklahoma State and Kansas State both face the realities of a wash of a season.
Conference Favorites: Iowa State, West Virginia, Oklahoma
Conference Leaders: Iowa State (4-0) alone in first.

Week 6:

Texas (3-2) 41, Texas Tech (2-3) 34
Oklahoma (4-1) 48, Oklahoma State (1-4) 47
Kansas State (2-2) 21, Kansas (1-4) 17
West Virginia (4-1) 47, TCU (1-3) 10
Iowa State (5-0) 28, Baylor (1-3) 14

With just three weeks left in the season, the championship race is heating up. West Virginia cruises to its fourth win while Oklahoma merely survives. At the top of the standings, Iowa State doesn’t blink. Matt Campbell is rumored as talking to schools on both coasts as teams are impressed with his program’s dominant start. Texas keeps its head above water, just barely, securing their third win in their 4th one-score game of the season.
Oklahoma State is in free fall, having lost four of five and coming up short against their rival. Kansas State pulls to five hundred, and rumors of David Beatty’s demise are right on the nose.
Conference Favorites: Iowa State, West Virginia, Oklahoma (Texas longshot?)
Conference Leaders: Iowa State (5-0) continues their streak atop the standings.

Week 7:

Texas (4-2) 24, Iowa State (5-1) 10
Oklahoma (5-1) 55, Kansas (1-5) 40
Oklahoma State (2-4) 45, West Virginia (4-2) 41
Kansas State (3-2) 21, Texas Tech (2-4) 6
TCU (2-3) 16, Baylor (1-4) 9

Iowa State finally stumbles, looking human in their loss to Texas. West Virginia falls, and with only one week left in the season and a game against Oklahoma looming, effectively writes their Big 12 Championship chances a Dear John. Texas claws back, though, into contention. Oklahoma State corrects course a little bit, while Kansas State and TCU do enough to keep a five hundred record in play. Everyone’s favorite upstart, Matt Rhule’s Baylor, evidently have a lot more work to do next season.
Conference Favorites: Oklahoma, Iowa State, Texas (West Virginia longshot?)
Conference Leaders: Oklahoma and Iowa State tied in first at 5-1

Week 8:

Texas (5-2) 24, Kansas (1-6) 17
Oklahoma (6-1) 59, West Virginia (4-3) 56
Iowa State (6-1) 42, Kansas State (3-3) 38
TCU (3-3) 31, Oklahoma State (2-5) 24
Baylor (2-4) 25, Texas Tech (2-5) 24

The final week of the season brings us few surprises, as favorite win in every game. Anti-climactically, Oklahoma and Iowa State, the leaders all season, will move on to the Big 12 championship game. West Virginia can’t dethrone Oklahoma, and TCU’s win puts them closer to tier two than tier four of the Big 12 pecking order, finishing the season on a high note.

FINAL STANDINGS (Actual Finish):

  1. Oklahoma 6-1 (1)
  2. Iowa State 6-1 (3)
  3. Texas 5-2 (2)
  4. West Virginia 4-3 (4)
  5. TCU 3-3 (5)
  6. Kansas State 3-3 (7)
  7. Baylor 2-4 (6)
  8. Oklahoma State 2-5 (9)
  9. Texas Tech 2-5 (8)
  10. Kansas 1-6 (10)

What did we learn?

Going through the standings 1-10, here’s the perception of each team in the Big 12.

  1. Oklahoma - The preseason favorites got a little bit of pressure off their shoulders, dropping an early game to Texas, but looked the part of the champion the rest of the way, winning 5 games in a row by an average margin of 17.2 points. This is basically in line of what we thought when the Sooners embarrassed FAU and UCLA to start the season. The doubt and narrative was a little lighter in this alternate reality, where the Sooners’ only blemish was a close loss to rival Texas, and the Army OT game never happened. The Sooners are headed back to the playoff.
  2. Iowa State - The Cyclones have to feel great about this alternate reality. It’s easy to forget that ISU stumbled over themselves as they fought QB battles, but once they decided on a starter, they were hard to beat. The defense was the best in the conference, allowing only 24 points a game and holding some of the better offense to season lows in scoring. The Cyclones also, of course, benefit from not playing Oklahoma in this scenario. Iowa State won’t win the Big 12 championship, but they will play in a NY6 bowl for the first time.
  3. Texas - Sequencing did a lot for the Longhorns in this reality: they had to face Oklahoma, Iowa State, and West Virginia, going 1-2. That tough schedule definitely put a damper on Texas’s season, as their 5-2 stretch run cost them an NY6 bowl. The questions surrounding whether Texas is back were all over the sports media, as the Longhorns’ hot start (beating OU) put them on the map.
  4. West Virginia - A season laced with disappointment for the Neers didn’t get better in the shorter sample. WVU beat Texas, but couldn’t compete with Iowa State and couldn’t seal the deal against a beatable Oklahoma. Add in an embarrassing loss to Oklahoma State, and the Mountaineer coaching circus looks a little bit more understandable.
  5. TCU - This shorter season was a whirlwind for TCU, who fell to 1-3, but bowed up and ended the season on a positive note. You wouldn’t call TCU’s end of season a hot streak, per se, but the Frogs survived a season in which they lost to Kansas with a five hundred record.

6-10: Nothing changed in the standings for these teams. While the above teams had some volatility and streaks (hello Iowa State). These teams, 3 of which have new coaches going into 2019, mostly had no hopes of competing this season. Oklahoma State knew losing Mason Randolph would hurt, but not this badly. The Cowboys’ 2-5 in this alternate reality feels especially harsh in a season where they beat a G5 power and started 4-1.

Conclusion

This is an obviously silly exercise, and cutting out information in an already small sample of college football games isn’t a meaningful exercise. There are a few important takeaways we get from just looking at an October-on season: Oklahoma’s throne was actually a little more tenuous than it’s been the last couple of years. Iowa State is a bonafide contender. West Virginia and Oklahoma State are a little uncertain about their futures, having struggled all season. Texas is on the rise, but perhaps not in the way most of the media think. If nothing else, this short season counterfactual is a reminder that narratives often have little to do with on-field reality, and to properly analyze and understand the sport, we have to distance ourselves as much as possible from the noise and bias of insignificant data points.