University of Texas football doesn’t exactly suffer from low expectations. Even coming off of a 7-6 season under first-year coach Tom Herman (and before that, three losing seasons under Charlie Strong), the Longhorns go into Saturday’s opener against the University of Maryland—who beat UT last year—ranked. They’re number 23 in the AP top 25 and number 21 according to the coaches, with a fourth-place finish in the Big 12 preseason poll.
But what if they’re better than that? A lot better? According to analyst Dave Bartoo, known in the sports world as the “College Football Matrix,” UT is one of just three teams with the potential to go 12-0.
How could that happen, you might ask? UT has great players (including all those highly-ranked, but thus far disappointing, Strong recruiting classes). And its schedule, despite being ranked by Bartoo as the eleventh-hardest in the country, is nevertheless the thirteenth-most winnable (what Bartoo calls “ease of schedule”), since the Horns get most of their tough games at home. So if the coaches don’t screw it up and the eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds live up to their potential . . .
“Texas is a playoff conversation team right now,” says Bartoo, a former consumer finance data guy and sports-talk regular whose Matrix Analytic Solutions does statistical consulting for both broadcasters and schools. “At least for me. They have a double-digit-win schedule, and teams that start out with that designation are your New Year’s Six bowl teams. And your playoff teams.”
Now, Bartoo’s not actually saying they’ll win twelve games. For one thing, it very rarely happens (in the college football playoff era, which started in 2014, only three teams have done it). But that’s what his numbers say. Even he’s right about West Virginia, he could be wrong about the Horned Frogs. The Red River Rivalry is inherently unpredictable. And if you were a betting man or woman, would you go against Kansas State’s Bill Snyder in Manhattan on September 29, especially if the Horns have just survived both USC and TCU?
But if you do like to gamble, consider this: Bovada’s over/under for Texas wins this year is 8.5. “I will take the over on Texas all day long,” says Bartoo. “I think they’re going to finish in the top 25 and be 9-3 or better. I actually think they’re going to win ten games, and it’s possible for eleven.
“This year is a great opportunity for Texas, and I think they’re going to take advantage of it and win the Big 12.”
Bartoo sometimes calls his system “TLC” (for talent, location, and coaching). His full spreadsheets are only available to subscribers on his Patreon, but here is what’s behind his thinking on the Horns.
“Recruiting equals national titles” is a truism that Bartoo claims he helped popularize (having first heard about it via Vegas sports books). And though UT may not currently have the players to beat the Clemson, Georgia, or Alabama in a College Football Playoff game, they definitely have the personnel to beat everyone on their own schedule. Bartoo’s spreadsheet says the Longhorns have the ninth-best talent in the country.
“Everybody they play, they’ve out-recruited except USC,” says Bartoo, who ranks the Trojans third in talent. “They’re vastly out-recruiting everybody on their schedule except for Oklahoma. When you have more talent, you’re going to win the game 80 percent of the time.” (Bartoo ranks Oklahoma at eleventh for recruiting talent.)
The schedule, specifically the home field, is crucial to this season’s success. The Longhorns almost beat USC in LA last year. This year, the Trojans come to Austin. “If they were playing at USC, I would call it an 11-1 schedule,” says Bartoo.
UT also gets both TCU—the only other Texas team to make the AP’s top 25—and West Virginia at home, plus the usual game with Oklahoma (more on those later). And the Longhorns September 1 opener against Maryland is at the Washington Redskins’ 82,000-seat FedEx Field instead of the Terrapins’ 52,000-seat on-campus stadium. That likely means more burnt orange in the stands, as well as both teams dealing with an unfamiliar bench and locker.*
This is where analytics start to get a little fuzzy. The other key component to Bartoo’s system is grading the offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators for every team. In the cold logic of his system, when you lose a game you’re supposed to win, it’s probably due to coaching.
Bartoo says that the “coach effect” cost 7-6 Texas four games that they should have won last season. If that repeats, even with the so-called 12-0 schedule, they’d be 8-4 before the bowl. But he expects improvement—in general and specifically from the coordinators (with one caveat).
Bartoo believes, as do many fans, that defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is a stud. “He’s one of the top ten defensive coordinators in college football by our grading,” says Bartoo. “He’s very, very good. And he’s going to get better.” (Orlando’s grade is an A-; by contrast, Bartoo’s grade for Oklahoma and USC’s defensive coordinators are a D and D+, respectively).
Bartoo only gives a C to UT quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Tim Beck, but his pessimism is also a form of optimism. Bartoo is convinced Beck will struggle and give way to some combination of Herman (a former offensive coordinator himself) and new offensive line coach Herb Hand (who was previously part of high-octane offenses at Penn State and Auburn).
…and the Big 12
The Big 12 is weak—and that’s good news for the Longhorns.
UT is behind fellow conference members Oklahoma, West Virginia, and TCU in both the national rankings and the conference poll. But Bartoo’s not impressed. He thinks the Mountaineers are the most overrated team in the top 25, with the talent of quarterback Will Grier negated by head coach Dana Holgerson.
“I think they’re going to be lucky to make a bowl,” he says. “Holgerson has underperformed the whole time he’s been there.” UT, Bartoo believes, wins that one in Austin.
And TCU? “Gary Patterson is brutal no matter what. Getting him at home is important, and TCU is not returning a lot of starters.”
As for the Sooners, “Oklahoma’s on a neutral field with a still-terrible defensive coordinator,” Bartoo explains. “And they lost the guy [Heisman winner Baker Mayfield] that carried them last year.”
*(On top of that, Maryland is reeling from the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who suffered heat stroke during practice in late May. Head coach DJ Durkin remains on leave due to the incident, and McNair’s parents have called for him to be fired.)