Can Utah’s New-Look Offense Lead The Pac-12 Back To The Playoff?

The most realistic shot for the “Conference of Champions” to break its College Football Playoff drought rests on the shoulders of one of its newest and most unproven members. It falls on a coach who traditionally oversees .500 ball once the regular season passes the midway point and on a quarterback whose last two seasons have been derailed by upper-body injuries.

And with the Pac-12 Conference’s preeminent powers having already lost, Utah is perhaps the last team standing between the conference and a third consecutive season of missing the playoff.

But contrary to what the school’s trophy case might indicate, Utah is now more than just a powerhouse on the slopes. The Utes’ football team has made a convincing case to be taken seriously so far this season: They have three wins, with each decided by at least three possessions.7 Kyle Whittingham’s 15th full season at the helm in Salt Lake City opened with unprecedented expectations: They were ranked in the preseason top 15 for the first time, picked by the media and oddsmakers to win the Pac-12 and even deemed a national title contender by the lovably eccentric Lee Corso. And the prognostications were for good reason, too: Utah returns more than half of its starters on each side of the ball and features arguably the best defensive line in the nation. As Stanford coach David Shaw candidly put it at Pac-12 Football Media Day, “I think it’s great they’re not on the schedule for us this year.”

The program’s trajectory has reached an inflection point in recent years. From 1950 through 2013, Utah managed to crack the Associated Press Top 25 poll in just seven seasons. This year marks the sixth consecutive that the Utes have barreled into the top 20.

Since joining the Pac-12 eight years ago, the Utes have finished each season with a defense more efficient than its offense.8 The team’s average defensive efficiency over that time (73.3) grades out as tops among all defenses in the conference, while its offense (46.9) grades out as the second worst. This season, the two are within 2 points of each other, as the Utes feature a smashmouth offense that has vaulted the program onto the national scene.

In a conference marketed by speed and governed by spread offensive principles, Utah has been as deliberate as it gets. That’s the work of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig, who returned to Salt Lake City this offseason after previously serving in the former role from 2005 to 2008.9 Like many coordinators, Ludwig adapts his system to the personnel on hand. This season, that flexibility has arguably produced the kind of offense that, according to Utah backup quarterback Jason Shelley, will “smash you right in the face.”

Last season, Utah huddled on just 60.7 percent of snaps. Two seasons ago, only 27.5 percent of offensive plays involved that traditional gathering. But this year, Ludwig has the Utes huddling before 98.4 percent of plays, a rate outpaced by only a handful of teams. The Pac-12 averages a huddle rate of 52.2 percent, with six teams opting to huddle on less than 40 percent of snaps. In turn, Utah has gone almost entirely under center. While Arizona, Oregon and Washington State have used just two under-center snaps this season combined, Utah has racked up 78. By average time of possession per play and per drive, this is easily Utah’s slowest offensive cadence in at least 15 years — and it’s on pace to be the slowest Pac-12 offense over that same stretch.

Utah has slowed its offense way down

The Utah Utes vs. Pac-12 average in four metrics, for the 2019 season

Metric Utah Pac-12 average
Huddle percentage 98% 52%
Under-center rate 43% 15%
Time of possession per drive 3:12 2:30
Time of possession per play 34 seconds 26 seconds

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

And it’s working. Since 2005, only once has Utah had a more efficient start to the season offensively. Trailing only Mike Leach’s perennially magnificent Air Raid at Washington State, Ludwig oversees the conference’s second-best offense, which ranks in the top 25 nationally in expected points added on passes a season after it finished 96th. If maintained, the Utes’ 2.59 points per drive would be their best mark since 2008, when they went undefeated.

Starting quarterback Tyler Huntley reportedly spent the offseason packing on 25 pounds. Armed with a new physique, the senior leads the country in adjusted completion percentage (90), ranks fifth in yards per pass attempt (11.2) and is 12th in QBR (85.4). He hasn’t thrown an interception or been sacked.10 He has help in the backfield from Zack Moss, who is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. Moss has accumulated more yards after first contact this season than all but two players in college football and will likely leave as the school’s all-time leading rusher.

These team performances have come via an abridged playbook. “Ludwig has done a very good job of just keeping things really basic,” Moss said after the Utes thrashed Idaho State. “We’ve just been running the first couple installs we did going into this year. If you can win with your basic stuff, that’s really good for your offense.”

Friday’s matchup at USC presents an opportunity for the Utes to allay fears that the moment will grow too big for them. It would mark a historic victory for Utah, which hasn’t beaten the Trojans in Los Angeles since 1916 (though in only nine attempts). Since arriving in the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah has never shown the flash of Oregon or the imagination of Washington State. It has even found itself in the shadow of Stanford, another program that bucks conference norms behind a conservative, play clock-drowning style. So it’s fitting that Utah, a program conventionally known for a stout defensive front, is gunning for contention behind an old face and a new offensive blueprint.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

It Doesn’t Hurt To Hire Alumni As Head Coaches. But It Doesn’t Help, Either.

When David Shaw informed his parents that he was Stanford’s new head football coach, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. “Pride,” he recalled in an interview this offseason, “is such a small word for that feeling.”

Shaw remains at the helm nearly a decade later.

Stanford is where Shaw was a four-year letterwinner and where his dad was nearly elevated to head coach. It’s where Shaw met his wife and where he proposed; where he left and where he returned. The lockscreen on his iPad is a family photo taken among the eucalyptus trees on campus in 1975, then replicated some 35 years later. “To have so much of your life associated with a place,” Shaw told me, “is weird.”

An alma mater, Shaw contends, is an extension of home. In turn, its people — from the dining hall staff to the university board of directors — are akin to family. In 1957, Paul “Bear” Bryant left a winning program in College Station to return to Tuscaloosa, where the Alabama Crimson Tide had endured a fourth consecutive losing season. Why? “I’ve heard mama calling,” he told his players.

Hiring an alumnus1 has been a marketable, low-risk, high-reward strategy for athletic departments for almost a half-century. Unless a splashy move is feasible, if an athletic director seeks to turn around a program — or merely wants to sell more tickets — there are far worse blueprints to follow than returning someone to their roots. Which is perhaps why alumni have permeated the market for much of the modern era. Since 1975, 38 FBS football programs2 hired more than one alumnus as head coach.3 Over that period, there was only one season in which alumni didn’t hold at least 10 percent of the available head coaching gigs.

And recently, hiring from within has been a successful strategy. Alumni accounted for roughly a quarter of the coaches represented in last season’s final Top 25 rankings. This season, alumni will command 18 programs, or 13.8 percent of the market. The fraternity includes long-tenured stalwarts (Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Air Force’s Troy Calhoun) in addition to the more idiosyncratic personalities in the sport (Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy).

Shaw was hired to “take the dips out of Stanford football.” He became the winningest coach in program history two years ago. But was the university seal on Shaw’s diploma in any way predictive of that success? And more broadly, does an alumnus traditionally make for an exceptional hire?


There were 27 head-coaching changes this offseason, but only one — Northern Illinois’s hiring of Thomas Hammock — involved an alumnus returning home. Hammock and 11 other head coaches — all non-alums — made their FBS coaching debuts over the weekend, while Miami’s Manny Diaz made his debut the previous Saturday.

If the recent success of certain high-profile alumni head coaches is predictive, Hammock should lead a successful squad in 2019. Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs were among the most efficient teams in the country. Fitzgerald led Northwestern to its first appearance in the Big Ten title game a third consecutive bowl game victory. Jeff Tedford coached Fresno State to its best season in school history. Scott Satterfield turned Appalachian State into the darlings of the Sun Belt and parlayed it into a job at Louisville. Bryan Harsin led Boise State to the Mountain West championship game for the second consecutive season.

In total, alumni head coaches went 159-122 (.566) in 2018. According to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the average alumnus-led program was 4.16 points better than the average team in 2018, the highest mark of any season since 1975. However, alumni-coached teams have also seen a broad range success relative to the average team in this time period.

There were 146 alumni head coaches from 1975 through 2018. In total, they won 52.6 percent of their games, and the median alumnus-coached team was 2.2 points better than the average team in a given season. Non-alumni head coaches, of which there were 641, won 51.1 percent of their games and were on average 0.37 points better than the average team in a given season.

That divide has increased over the last 20 years. Alumni head coaches have gone 2469-2029 (.549), while non-alumni have gone 13177-12299 (.349).4

In addition to recent success, there are several qualities that make the alumni coaches unique. Alumni traditionally begin their college head coaching careers where they suited up. Of the 146 alumni head coaches from 1975 to 2018, only 26 (17.8 percent) had previous Division I head coaching experience. That has continued to be the norm. Since 2000, of the 53 alumni head coaches who were hired, all but eight were becoming first-time head coaches.

Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich knew at some point in his career he’d return to Honolulu. It ended up being where he got his first crack as the man in charge. “One of my real goals in coaching is to repay Hawaii [for] what Hawaii as a state and a university gave me,” Rolovich said. “Which is everything.”

And once installed at the head of the program, alumni seldom leave. Of the aforementioned sample, more than 75 percent didn’t take another Division I head coaching gig after securing the job, and nearly 70 percent spent their entire college coaching careers at their alma mater.

One potential reason for this continuity is that alumni seem to be working with a longer leash, perhaps as a result of performance. Since 1975, more than 80 percent of alumni head coaches lasted at least three years with a program, while the same is true for just 15 percent of non-alumni. While more than 12 percent of alumni last at least 10 years, only 2.2 percent of non-alumni can say the same.5

Some alumni coaches attribute this trend to their one of their strengths: having already demonstrated an ability to represent the university well as a student-athlete. “It’s very easy for me to talk about Boise State,” Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin said. “I don’t need a map.”

“If you can have success, then hopefully they’ll be proud of you,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s the hope, at least.”


That isn’t to say there aren’t obstacles. The allure of returning home is countered by increased expectations, both from inside and outside the locker room. Happiness is fickle and patience wears thin when losses pile up. And sometimes winning isn’t enough, even at your alma mater. At Maryland, Ralph Friedgen was fired after going 9-4 and winning ACC Coach of the Year. He later burned his diploma.

“A lot of times, criticism is a faceless person,” Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester said. “But at your alma mater, sometimes it’s a little bit harder because you do know who they are.”

It can be a challenge to remember that it is, in fact, a job.

“You have to be able to mix the business side with the side where your heart is,” Rolovich said.

Regardless of the campus where a coach cut his teeth, the terms of employment remain clear. In college football, the long-term prognosis isn’t stable. “Either we’re going to get fired or we’re going to leave,” former Tulsa head coach Bill Blankenship said. Blankenship coached at Tulsa, his alma mater, from 2011 to 2014. “The odds of retiring at the school that hired you is a pretty low percentage.”


But is hiring an alumnus predictive in any significant way?

Not especially.

To measure how predictive hiring an alumnus is of on-field performance, I pulled all of the head coaches from 1975 to 2018 as well as their alma maters, their head coaching experience and their team’s SRS (as well as its previous season SRS), removing interims from the sample.6 Then I ran a linear regression. Controlling for the coach’s experience and the previous SRS of the team, coaches at their alma maters are statistically indistinguishable from non-alumni.

However, a team’s previous season SRS (0.72) is far more predictive of on-field performance — each point of SRS in a previous season is worth around three-quarters of a point in the current one. Furthermore, whether it was the first year of a head coach at a given school is also more predictive of on-field performance than whether they were an alumnus; being a newcomer is strongly negatively correlated with performance (-1.53 SRS).

Plus, despite the recent success they’ve had, in terms of historic single-season performance, alumni haven’t produced a ton. Of the 20 best single seasons, as defined by SRS, only one7 was coached by an alumnus.

Phillip Fulmer is the last coach to win a national title at his alma mater. That was in 1998. Since 1949, only Steve Spurrier, Bryant, Ralph Jordan and Frank Leahy can say the same.


When Shaw’s legacy is written, it will no doubt be penned in cardinal red.

“It’s one thing to fit the program, it’s another thing to fit the entire institution,” Shaw said. “Because I went to school here, I understand the ethos, I understand the air of this place.”

But despite the recent tear of success, that indelible connection that he and fellow alumni head coaches have isn’t terribly predictive of future success.

Neil Paine contributed research.

Want To Bet Now On The Heisman Trophy Winner? Maybe Don’t.

The college football season starts in less than a month, and bold predictions are rolling out. Just don’t believe everything you hear, especially when it comes to the Heisman Trophy. Making picks about the sport’s preeminent award is as difficult as ever.

The Heisman is always a standard futures bet before the season kicks off. But in the past decade, according to Sports Odds History, only one of the 10 players favored to win the award entering Week 1 has hoisted the trophy in December: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014, who was a slim favorite after leapfrogging returning winner Jameis Winston of Florida State in the offseason. If we add up their implied probabilities, the past 10 favorites should have produced 2.14 winners. But a $10 bet on each of the 10 would have cost $100 and paid out just $42.50, on Mariota.

In fact, of the past 10 winners, four started the season off the board — Alabama’s Mark Ingram in 2009, Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Winston in 2013 — as did 15 of 40 finalists. That’s because college football is filled with unexpected breakout stars. Especially as the top performers have been younger recently,1 predicting which candidates will live up to the hype is a tough task.

On paper, the Heisman winner seems like a reasonable thing to handicap as the winners tend to fit a longstanding mold. Almost all are quarterbacks or running backs, and most will be competing in the national title picture late in the fall. If the teams favored to compete for the title this season hold up, that would seem to whittle the Heisman field to a pair of easy choices: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Neither is mired in a quarterback competition this summer,2 and both were brilliant for much of last season. They’re co-favorites at 11-4 odds, according to the Westgate Superbook. In the past 10 years, only Tim Tebow (9-4) in 2009 was a bigger preseason favorite.

But change comes quickly in college football. One year ago, neither Tagovailoa nor Lawrence was even certain to start his team’s season opener. Tagovailoa spent much of the fall as the Heisman front-runner until he went down with an ankle injury and Kyler Murray surpassed him for the Heisman. Lawrence ended the season as the spectacle of the national championship game. But now Tagovailoa is healthy again and coming off a season in which he had better overall numbers than Lawrence. Would you bet money on one of the two weathering another long season to prevail as the country’s most outstanding player? And even if you would, which one?

Of the top five Heisman contenders according to Westgate, three — Lawrence, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s Justin Fields — are in their first full year as the starting quarterback on their current team. Two of the five are transfers, and only Tagovailoa has been a finalist before.3 Then contend with the fact that five of the past 10 winners started with odds of 100-1 or longer, which opens the door to the likes of Arizona’s Khalil Tate, Washington State’s Gage Gubrud and Florida’s Feleipe Franks. If they seem obscure, just remember Manziel in the summer of 2012.

That 2012 race was perhaps the wildest in recent memory, complete with the awarding of a “September Heisman.” Through five weeks, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith was unstoppable, it seemed — a 1-1 favorite. In his first five games, Smith completed 81.4 percent of his passes with 399.2 yards per game, 24 touchdowns and zero interceptions. But in his last eight games, he completed just 64.6 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. Manziel, meanwhile, went from off the board to 7-4 in five weeks. If that sounds quick, this is Lawrence’s 2018 in comparison: He was a 40-1 contender entering Week 1 despite the fact that he wasn’t the starter until Week 5. Then Lawrence threw more touchdowns and fewer interceptions in his last five games than Manziel did in the last five of his redshirt freshman season.

The odds are not a science,4 for many reasons. They also favor big names. The “leaderboard” trends toward returning winners (like Tebow in 2009 or Ingram in 2010), even though only Ohio State’s Archie Griffin has won the Heisman twice, in 1974 and 1975. Who might make a rise from relative obscurity this year to win the trophy?

It should be clear by now that guessing is a fool’s errand. But the winner has typically been someone with a combination of a firm hold on the starting job, a place on a team that will contend and a role in an offense conducive to big numbers. Outside the top five preseason contenders, Washington’s Jacob Eason and Notre Dame’s Ian Book fit that profile. The winner could be someone better-known. It could also be someone you’ve never heard of.

The NFL Is Drafting Quarterbacks All Wrong

No position in professional sports is more important or more misunderstood than the quarterback. NFL scouts, coaches and general managers — the world’s foremost experts on football player evaluation — have been notoriously terrible at separating good QB prospects from the bad through the years. No franchise or GM has shown the ability to beat the draft over time, and economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler have convincingly shown that the league’s lack of consistent draft success is likely due to overconfidence rather than an efficient market. Throw in the fact that young QBs are sometimes placed in schemes that fail to take advantage of their skills,1 that red flags regarding character go unidentified or ignored2 and that prospects often lack stable coaching environments, and there is no shortage of explanations for the recurring evaluation failures.

All of this uncertainty makes the NFL draft extremely exciting: You never know for certain who will be good and who will be an absolute bust. Last year, much of the pre-draft speculation surrounded where current Buffalo Bills starting QB Josh Allen — who is tall and can hit an upright from his knees from 50 yards away — would be selected. This year, when Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray decided to forgo a career in baseball for a chance to become a top pick in the 2019 NFL draft, his measurables captured attention in a different way. Murray, listed at 5-foot-10 and 194 pounds, is 7 inches shorter and more than 40 pounds lighter than Allen, and he’s the the smallest top QB prospect in recent memory. While some scouts and NFL decision makers think Murray’s odds for NFL success are long — or have him off their draft boards entirely because of his lack of size — there is strong evidence in the form of metrics and models that he is actually a good bet to succeed.

Like the rest of the league, practitioners of analytics have a pretty poor track record at predicting QB success. It wasn’t just Browns fans who were high on Johnny Manziel — many predictive performance metrics liked him as well. If some of the world’s best football talent evaluators are convinced that Murray’s height is at least a minor red flag, how can we be confident that a 5-foot-10 college QB will be productive in the NFL? When it comes to the draft, deep humility is warranted. Still, there are solid reasons to be excited about Murray.

Completion percentage is the performance measurable that best translates from college to the NFL. The metric’s shortcomings — players can pad their completion percentage with short, safe passes, for instance — are well-known. But even in its raw form, it’s a useful predictive tool.

Completion percentage translates from college to the NFL

Share of NFL quarterback performance predicted by college performance in seven measures, 2011-18

share predicted
Completion percentage 17.9%
Average depth of target 16.7
ESPN’s Total QBR 12.1
Yards per game 9.2
Touchdown rate 8.5
Yards per attempt 7.0
Adjusted yards per attempt 4.2

For players who attempted at least 100 passes in the NFL.

“Share predicted” here refers to the amount of variance in the dependent variable explained by the independent variable in a bivariate regression.

Source: ESPN Stats & information group

Its kissing cousin in the pantheon of stats that translate from college to the pros is average depth of target: Passers who throw short (or deep) in college tend to continue that pattern in the NFL. These two metrics can be combined3 to create an expected completion percentage, which helps correct the deficiencies in raw completion percentage. If you give more credit to players who routinely complete deeper passes — and dock passers who dump off and check down more frequently — you can get a clearer picture of a player’s true accuracy and decision-making.

Another important adjustment is to account for the level of competition a player faced. ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating does this, and we’re doing it, too. For instance, passes in the Big Ten are completed at a lower rate than in the Big 12 and the Pac-12. We should boost players from conferences where it is tougher to complete a pass and ding players whose numbers are generated in conferences where passing is easier.

When we make these adjustments, and then subtract expected completion percentage from a QB’s actual completion percentage, we get a new metric: completion percentage over expected, or CPOE. An example: In 2011 at Wisconsin, Russell Wilson had a raw completion percentage of 73 percent. We would expect an average QB in the same conference who attempted the same number of passes at the same depths that Wilson attempted to have a completion percentage of just 57 percent. So Wilson posted an incredible CPOE of +16 percentage points in his last year of college. CPOE translates slightly less to the NFL than either raw completion percentage or average depth of target,4 but it does a substantially better job of predicting on-field production. In stat nerd parlance, we’ve traded a little stability for increased relevance.

CPOE best predicts yards per attempt in the NFL

Share of an NFL quarterback’s yards per attempt predicted by college performance measures, 2011-18

share predicted
Completion percentage over expected 15.5%
Completion percentage 13.5
ESPN’s Total QBR 13.2
Yards per attempt 7.0
Average depth of target 0.0

For players who attempted at least 100 passes in the NFL.

“Share predicted” here refers to the amount of variance in the dependent variable explained by the independent variable in a bivariate regression.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information group

The test of a good metric is that it is stable over time (for example from college to the NFL) and that it correlates with something important or valuable. Completion percentage over expected is slightly more stable than other advanced metrics like QBR. CPOE is also the best predictor of NFL yards per attempt. Since yards per attempt correlates well with NFL wins, and winning is both important and valuable, we’ve found a solid metric. It should help us identify NFL prospects likely to be good — so long as they are drafted and see enough playing time to accumulate 100 or more passing attempts.5

But before we stuff the metric into a model and start ranking this year’s quarterback prospects, it’s worth asking why CPOE in college might be a good measure of QB skill. One possible explanation is that it’s measuring not just accuracy but also the signal from other qualities that are crucial to pro success. The ability to consistently find the open receiver and complete a pass to him requires a quarterback first to read a defense and then to throw on time and on target. Throwing with anticipation and football IQ are both crucial to playing in the NFL at a high level, and they are likely both a part of the success signal in the metric.

CPOE is also probably capturing the ability to execute a system efficiently. A quarterback who understands how each piece of the offense complements the others and constrains the opposing defense is a huge asset for his team. The term “system QB” has a negative connotation in player evaluation circles that is probably unwarranted. If a quarterback is operating at a high level, he is inseparable from the system he’s being asked to run. It’s also likely the case that the mental and physical abilities to run any system efficiently are traits that translate — even if only imperfectly — to the pro game.

CPOE also measures accuracy, of course — which many believe is the most important trait a QB can posses. Some coaches believe accuracy is an innate skill and not something that can be taught once a player has reached college. Others believe that mechanical flaws can be corrected if other traits like arm strength are present. The Bills clearly hold this view or they wouldn’t have drafted Allen, a player with an incredibly live arm but who had a college completion rate 9.2 percentage points below expected. But regardless of whether accuracy can be taught at the NFL level, all evaluators acknowledge its importance.

With all this in mind, I built a simple logistic regression model that attempts to identify players who will go on to establish a career mark of at least 7.1 yards per attempt in the NFL — the league average from 2009 to 2018. The model took into account CPOE and six other metrics, all calculated for the player’s college career.6 There are 49 quarterbacks who have entered the NFL since 2012 who have also attempted at least 100 passes — except for small-school QBs for whom advanced college data wasn’t available. I randomly split those players into two sets and used one set to build the model and the second set to test to see if the model is any better than random chance at identifying which prospects will go on to play productive NFL football. Though the model is relatively simple — and it would be wonderful if the sample size were larger — the results are promising. The model correctly identified many players who went on to have NFL success and many more who didn’t. The best estimate for its generalized accuracy is that it will correctly identify a QB prospect as a hit or a bust in around 74 percent of cases.7 The table below shows the results of the model, labeled Predict, and includes players’ college stats.

Results from the quarterback prospect model

A random sample of the 49 quarterbacks who were drafted since 2012* by model probability, along with college stats including completion percentage over expected (CPOE)

College stats
name CPOE YPA Avg. depth of target Total QBR Predicted prob.† Career NFL YPA
Russell Wilson +16 10.3 10.4 94 >99% 7.9
Johnny Manziel +9 9.1 8.8 89 99 6.5
Jameis Winston +8 9.4 9.6 83 98 7.6
Kellen Moore +10 8.7 7.8 86 97 7.5
Deshaun Watson +5 8.4 8.8 86 93 8.3
Sam Darnold +5 8.5 9.5 80 77 6.9
Matt Barkley +4 8.2 8.1 77 73 7.4
Jared Goff +1 7.8 9.0 74 61 7.7
Kevin Hogan +4 8.5 9.3 80 37 6.1
Marcus Mariota +4 9.3 8.2 90 33 7.2
Kirk Cousins +4 7.9 8.5 58 29 7.6
Paxton Lynch +2 7.4 7.9 59 14 6.2
Geno Smith +3 8.2 7.3 74 5 6.8
Nathan Peterman +1 7.9 8.9 71 4 4.3
Zach Mettenberger +4 8.8 10.5 71 4 6.8
Trevor Siemian 0 6.4 8.2 53 3 6.8
Matt McGloin -2 7.2 8.5 60 2 6.7
Blake Bortles +4 8.5 7.5 78 1 6.7
Lamar Jackson 0 8.3 11.0 82 0 7.1

*And have attempted at least 100 passes in the NFL.

†Probability the player will meet or exceed a career yards per passing attempt average of 7.1.

Source: ESPN stats & information group

Humility is warranted at this moment, so let’s point and laugh at the failures first. After all, all models are universally wrong, but some can be useful. This one was wrong about Johnny Football, as it practically guaranteed Manziel to be an above-average NFL quarterback. What it didn’t know about was Johnny’s love of all-night parties and other off-field shenanigans. Kellen Moore, a lefty passer who had a decorated career at Boise State, is another hiccup for the model. Moore is an interesting case of a player who just barely reached the 100 passing attempt threshold and eclipsed 7.1 yards per attempt for his NFL career but still bounced around the league and never found success or even a starting job. So the model predicted his statistical success in yards per attempt but not his actual success on the field. The problem here is that our success metric — career yards per attempt over 7.1 — doesn’t perfectly discriminate between good and bad NFL QBs. Much like human evaluators, models can sometimes be right for the wrong reasons, and Moore is a prime example.8

The model was also suspiciously bad at predicting Lamar Jackson, ranking him as an almost sure bust as a passer. Jackson’s career yards per attempt — most of those attempts coming in just seven games — is right at the 7.1 threshold, and while he is no one’s idea of Drew Brees, a success probability of zero seems an overly harsh assessment for a player that has clear talent — especially running the ball — and has already helped his team to the playoffs.

Still, the good outweighs the bad. The only other false negatives in the bunch are Kirk Cousins and Marcus Mariota, both of whom have career yards per attempt figures above 7.1. Meanwhile the low probabilities assigned to passers like Nate Peterman, Zach Mettenberger, Paxton Lynch, Geno Smith and Blake Bortles all appear reasonably prescient.

Looking forward and applying the model to the current draft class, we find a few surprises. Kyler Murray sits comfortably at the top with a 97 percent probability of being an above-average pro quarterback. Murray’s physical and statistical production comps with Russell Wilson are especially striking. Wilson and Murray had roughly the same yards per attempt in college, identical average depth of target and similar Total QBR.9 Both are also under 6 feet tall and played baseball at a high level. As far as comps go for short QBs, you really can’t do any better.

Murray isn’t just a scrambler who excels working outside of the pocket and on broken plays, either. According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, 91 percent of Murray’s 377 pass attempts in 2018 came inside the pocket, and 81.6 percent of those throws were on target and catchable. Murray faced five or more defensive backs on 82 percent of his passing attempts and threw a catchable pass 78.8 percent of the time. Against nickel and dime packages, he was even better when blitzed, with 79.1 percent of his passes charted as catchable when the defense brought pressure. And Murray didn’t just check down to the outlet receiver when the other team sent heat. Kyler pushed the ball downfield at depths of 20 yards or greater 21 percent of the time vs. a blitzing defender.

Meanwhile the other consensus first-round talent, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, is viewed as much less of a sure thing by the model. While his CPOE is identical to Murray’s and his QBR is similar, the model rates his yards per attempt and low average depth of target as red flags that drag down his probability of success. Nickel is the base defense in the NFL, so a quarterback’s performance against it is important, and Haskins faced five or more defensive backs far less often than Murray, dropping back against nickel or dime on just 63 percent of his pass attempts. And when Haskins was blitzed out of those looks, he was not as adept at delivering on-target passes, with 76.4 percent charted as catchable despite only 6.6 percent traveling 20 yards or more in the air.

Kyler Murray’s accuracy and rushing put him atop his class

College quarterbacks invited to the 2019 NFL combine by their career statistics and predicted probability of success*

College stats
Player CPOE YPA Avg. depth of target Total QBR Predicted Prob.†
Kyler Murray +9% 10.4 10.4 92 97%
Will Grier +6 9.0 10.2 78 90
Ryan Finley +4 7.6 8.5 76 78
Jordan Ta’amu +6 9.5 10.1 72 72
Dwayne Haskins +9 9.1 7.8 87 63
Brett Rypien +5 8.4 9.9 67 39
Jake Browning +3 8.3 8.8 73 38
Clayton Thorson 0 6.3 7.9 61 29
Trace McSorley +3 8.1 9.7 73 22
Daniel Jones -2 6.4 7.7 62 17
Gardner Minshew +2 7.1 6.8 70 4
Jarrett Stidham +3 8.5 8.3 69 3
Kyle Shurmur -3 7.0 9.0 59 1
Drew Lock -1 7.9 10.3 66 <1
Tyree Jackson -2 7.3 10.4 59 <1
Nick Fitzgerald -4 6.6 10.2 72 <1

*Excluding Easton Stick because of lack of data

†Probability the player will meet or exceed a career average of 7.1 yards per passing attempt

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Other surprises from the consensus top-four prospects are the rankings of Duke’s Daniel Jones and Missouri’s Drew Lock — both of whom completed fewer passes than we would expect, and both of whom were assigned a low probability of NFL success. Teams should probably be very wary of both players. Since 2011, college QB prospects with completion percentages under expected — a list that includes Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Mike Glennon, Matt McGloin and Jacoby Brissett — have all failed to post career yards per attempt above the league average of 7.1. Meanwhile West Virginia’s Will Grier — a player few experts have mocked to go in the first round — looks to be the second-best QB prospect of the class. With his excellent college production and nearly prototypical size at 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, Grier is a player whose stock could rise with a good performance on and off the field at the combine.

There are many weeks of interviews, testing and evaluation left to come for each of these prospects, and analytics are just one piece of the process. Models are certainly not a player’s destiny. Murray might end up profiling as a selfish diva who can’t play well with others. Lock could somehow morph into Patrick Mahomes. But ultimately the model and the metrics agree with Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury’s assessment that Murray is worthy of the top overall pick in the draft. Ship him off to a team with an early pick and a creative play-caller, and enjoy the air raid fever dream that follows.

The Pac-12 Is In Shambles

Immediately after the Pac-12 football championship game in late November, an on-screen interview with commissioner Larry Scott at Levi’s Stadium was interrupted by a chorus of boos. Attendees, it seemed, weren’t too fond of the leadership of the “Conference of Champions.”1

For nearly six decades, the Pac-12 managed to emulate its ostentatious slogan across the collegiate sports landscape. The Pac-12 has finished an academic year with the most total national championships of any conference in 52 out of the past 58 years, including the past 13 years.

The conference has no shortage of star power on the women’s side: Sabrina Ionescu is piling up unprecedented stat lines on the court with the Oregon Ducks; Ella Eastin is breaking records in the pool for the Stanford Cardinal; and Katelyn Ohashi of the UCLA Bruins recently stole the collective heart of the country on the mat. Last year, women collected nine of the conference’s 12 national titles. The Pac-12 women have already won two titles this year, in volleyball and cross-country, with the men claiming only water polo.

But when it comes to the two high-profile men’s sports of football and basketball, the Pac-12 is falling short. Months removed from Scott’s boo-inducing interview, as the college basketball season winds into its final stretch, the conference’s vertiginous fall in the top two revenue-generating sports is unmistakable.


While the Pac-12’s performance in football has been steadily declining since the College Football Playoff was introduced, the conference’s decline in men’s basketball seems more abrupt. Two years ago, the Pac-12 featured three 30-win teams for the first time. Three teams reached the Sweet 16, and Oregon punched the conference’s first ticket to the Final Four in nearly a decade. The abundance of talent was confirmed when the conference produced three lottery picks in the NBA draft — including Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, the top two overall selections.

The Pac-12 saw the top overall pick in the NBA draft again last season, in Arizona’s Deandre Ayton. But the conference face-planted at the NCAA tournament. Each of the three teams to reach the tourney failed to get out of the first round, including Ayton’s Arizona.2 Not since the Big 12 was formed in 1996-97 had one of the six major conferences3 failed to send a team to the second round of the tournament. No Pac-12 team finished inside the top 25 of KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric, either. Of course, this came after three UCLA Bruins were arrested for shoplifting on international soil in the days preceding a game meant to showcase the conference, and the FBI’s investigation of corruption in college basketball led to the arrests of assistant coaches from USC and Arizona4 before the season even tipped.

But that didn’t curtail the enthusiasm of the commissioner heading into this season. “Really excited about what our teams look like,” Scott said at the Pac-12 media day. “Feel like we’ve got a very, very strong conference.”

On paper, he wasn’t wrong. The conference accounted for seven of the top 40 recruiting classes, with UCLA and Oregon pulling in two of the top five. Three teams were ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. But as the calendar year came to a close, the Pac-12 was mired in the worst December by a major conference in 20 years. By January, UCLA had fired head coach Steve Alford, and Oregon had lost Bol Bol, the conference’s most marketable player and the crown jewel of the 2018 recruiting class, for the year to a foot injury. Dana Altman’s Ducks, which checked in at No. 14 in the preseason poll and were considered an early favorite to reach the Final Four, are now longshots to even reach the tournament.

Cal is one of the worst teams in any conference and in the midst of its worst season in program history. Washington is the highest-ranking team in the conference by KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric and checks in at No. 35. No other Pac-12 team ranks in the top 50.

The conference has hardly proved itself against top-notch opponents. In any Quad 1 games,5 the Pac-12 is 11-51. The ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC each have at least three times as many wins over that caliber of opponent.

Conference record in Quad 1 games, 2018-19

Conference Games Win %
Big Ten 164 .372
ACC 135 .326
SEC 134 .313
Big 12 104 .365
Big East 95 .379
Pac-12 62 .177

Quad 1 games are home games against teams 1-30 in NET ranking, neutral games against teams 1-50 and away games against teams 1-75.

Source: BartTorvik.com

As it currently stands, the conference would be lucky to receive two bids to the tournament, with the Huskies projected to be a No. 9 seed and Arizona State possibly squeaking in as a 12 seed. It’s been a quarter-century since a major conference produced a one-bid campaign.

According to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the Pac-12 collectively is just 7.31 points better than an average Division I team this season. That’s on track to be the conference’s worst single-season mark since the 2011-12 campaign and the third worst in the past three decades. The last time a major conference produced a worse SRS was 1997-98, when the Big 12 put up a 7.17 in its second season of existence. You have to go back at least 30 years to find a worse mark produced by the Big East, Big Ten or SEC.

If recent history serves, next month’s tournament will reinforce what many already know: The Pac-12, which hasn’t won a national title since Arizona cut down the nets in 1997, has fallen off considerably in terms of prestige.

Over the past decade, the Pac-12 has made two Final Four appearances and failed to reach a national championship game. Every other major conference has been to at least twice as many Final Fours and made at least two title game appearances. The Big East has won more national titles in the previous eight years than the Pac-12 has in the past 45. In particular, the performance of the Pac-12 in the 2016 tournament, relative to seeding, was the second worst performance by any conference since at least 2000. And over the past three years, no conference has underperformed more than the Pac-12 when it matters most.


The Pac-12 is also struggling in college football. Over the past two seasons, the conference is a combined 4-12 in bowl games, with three wins coming by a combined 4 points.

If this feels like a sudden drop, it’s because it is. The Pac-12 has won a single national title in the past 20 years, but you only have to go back three years to find an ESPN segment debating whether it was the best conference in college football. Since the playoff was introduced, the Pac-12 has made two appearances — going 1-2 — and failed to appear in three of the five seasons.

In total, the conference was 3.53 points better than the average FBS team in 2018-19, the lowest mark by a Power Five conference6 in six years. Since 2010, the conference has produced three of the seven worst seasons, two of which came in the past two seasons.

Oregon State has arguably been the worst Power Five football team for two consecutive years, and programs like Oregon, Stanford and USC, which traditionally have been competitive on a national level, have fallen off considerably. Washington’s good-but-not-good-enough seasonal cadence seems to have run its course, too. This offseason, perhaps the conference’s biggest story was that Kliff Kingsbury almost became an assistant coach at USC.


Arizona State is the lone Pac-12 school with a Division I hockey team,7 and there’s a reasonable chance it will end up ranked higher at season’s end than any team the conference fielded in football or men’s basketball.

Living up to the standard established by John Wooden, who won 10 national championships over 12 years at UCLA, would be impossible. But falling to the bottom of the major-conference barrel in the two sports most scrutinized is a disastrous turn for a conference literally branded around dominance.

To some, the Conference of Champions® has transformed into the Circle of Suck. This may be the bleakest moment in the illustrious history of the Pac-12, as the conference continues its stroll away from relevancy.

CORRECTION (Feb. 22, 2019, 12:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said the Pac-12 had no football teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the end of the 2018 season. Two teams were ranked: No. 10 Washington State and No. 13 Washington.

Can Oklahoma Survive The Opening Half To Compete With Alabama?

One year ago, the Oklahoma Sooners fielded the worst defense to ever qualify for the College Football Playoff. Under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, and behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma took a 17-point lead on Georgia, the eventual national runner-up, before losing in the Rose Bowl semifinal. Twelve months later, Riley has another Heisman-winning quarterback in Kyler Murray and has piloted another one-dimensional Sooners team to a playoff berth.

The reward — a date with Alabama, college football’s lead power broker — seems more like a punishment. The Tide, long a defensive force under coach Nick Saban, now boast what’s likely the best offense in program history. Las Vegas oddsmakers cared not for Oklahoma’s three-game winning streak against the Tide and opened with Alabama as two-touchdown favorites. According to FiveThirtyEight’s college football prediction model, Alabama has a 41 percent probability of winning the national title. Oklahoma faces much taller odds, with an 11 percent probability of winning it all.

Here’s what to look for the when the two programs meet in the Orange Bowl semifinal Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Will Tua Tagovailoa or Kyler Murray win the QB showdown?

Seldom do a Heisman winner and his runner-up meet after the winner is crowned. Even given that rarity, this may be the best postseason clash of college quarterbacks we’ve ever seen. Both are coming off of historic regular seasons, with each in line to trump the record for Total Quarterback Rating, which ESPN has tracked since 2004 and is measured on a scale of 0 to 100.

But it’s not just the quarterbacks. In terms of offensive efficiency, this is the best matchup since the playoff began in 2014. Oddsmakers have taken notice, setting a points over/under total that’s unprecedented in the playoff era.

It seemed logical that the departure of Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, would abate Oklahoma’s offensive horsepower. That 2017 team had the most efficient offense ever tracked, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group.1 But in Murray’s first full season as a starting college quarterback, the Sooners’ offense has actually improved. “Kyler Murray has accomplished more in one season and had more impact on the Sooners’ tradition in one season than any other player in our history,” former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told The Athletic. “He’s broke all the damn records.”

The Sooners have gotten better under Murray

Oklahoma’s offensive production in 2018, with Kyler Murray at quarterback, vs. 2017, with Baker Mayfield at quarterback

Metric 2018 2017
Offensive points per game 47.0 43.6
Yards per play 8.8 8.3
Percentage of first downs or TDs per play 41.0% 37.6
Percentage of first downs or TDs per pass attempt 51.1% 49.4
Percentage of plays for zero or negative yards 25.6% 26.6

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

As if spring-loaded, Murray’s legs have minced opposing defenses. On a 75-yard touchdown run against Kansas, a broadcaster declared, “You’re not going to catch him,” before Murray had passed the 40-yard line. The junior is the country’s pre-eminent dual-threat wizard, whose 892 rushing yards place him seventh among all Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks this year.

At the same time, Tagovailoa has been the figurehead of the Tide’s offensive ascension since replacing Jalen Hurts in last season’s national championship game. Saban has been in Tuscaloosa since 2007, and this year’s offense has been his best in terms of, well, everything.

This is Saban’s most dominant Alabama offense

Alabama’s offense by season under head coach Nick Saban

Per play Per Game
Season Yards Yards Passing
Yards
1st Downs Offensive Points
2018 7.92 527.6 325.5 24.6 43.9
2017 6.59 444.1 193.4 22.2 36.1
2016 6.47 455.3 210.3 21.0 31.9
2015 5.89 427.1 227.1 21.9 30.1
2014 6.66 484.5 277.9 24.3 36.3
2013 7.15 454.1 248.5 23.2 34.2
2012 6.95 445.5 218.0 21.6 37.2
2011 6.46 429.6 215.2 21.6 32.1
2010 6.96 444.1 261.2 22.1 33.4
2009 5.96 403.0 187.9 20.6 30.1
2008 5.52 355.8 171.1 18.8 25.6
2007 5.05 373.8 224.5 22.6 26.4

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Both Murray and Tagovailoa are having little difficulty stretching the field. If they keep up this pace during the playoffs, each would rank in the top three among all QBs since 2004 in single-season passing yards per attempt, with Murray’s current 11.92 mark in line to set the all-time record.

They won’t, however, be competing against equally proficient defensive units. Murray will be staring down a top-flight fortress that spent the past few months razing offensive lines and leveling quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide rank second in defensive efficiency, behind Clemson, and they lead the country in adjusted defensive quarterback rating, which accounts for the strength of the opposing quarterback. The Tide ranks among the 15 best teams in opponent completion percentage (51.8 percent) and yards allowed per pass attempt (5.86).

Tagovailoa will have the luxury of playing against a defense that might seem as though it’s providing Alabama an escort to the end zone. Oklahoma ranks 92nd in defensive efficiency, unseating last year’s squad as the new worst defense to make it to the playoff; the Sooners have allowed 56 touchdowns this year, 13 more than Alabama has allowed since the beginning of the 2017 season. Uninspired performances led to the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. But the unit’s play hasn’t improved. After giving up 39 first downs to Oklahoma State, the most allowed by any FBS team this season, interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill found room to praise his team for making “critical stops.”

Pass defense, in particular, has been ghastly for the Sooners. No FBS team allows more passing yards per game (291.4), and only five allow more completions (22.3). The Sooners love to give up the long play, having allowed 56 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the fourth-most by any team.

It’s unlikely that the turnover margin will favor the Sooners — even though Tagovailoa threw as many interceptions in his last outing as he did the rest of the season total. Oklahoma has generated 11 takeaways all season, the fewest of any qualifying team in the playoff era. Alabama has forced 11 since the beginning of October — and 21 in total.

On the opening drive of the SEC championship game, Tagovailoa suffered a high ankle injury, which required surgery the following day. The sophomore has said that he’ll be unencumbered come game time, and given how little he rushes — generating just the 89th-most rushing yards among QBs — he won’t need much mobility. Even a pocket-locked Tagovailoa can still shred an opposing defense.

Can Oklahoma survive Alabama’s first-half avalanche to win the second half?

Players come and go, and each season carries idiosyncrasies, but the narrative arcs of the Sooners’ two previous playoff appearances were seemingly penned by the same author. In both, a lead evaporated and a dominant first half gave way to a second-half dud.

In those appearances — in the 2015-16 Orange Bowl and the 2017-18 Rose Bowl — the Sooners outscored opponents 48 to 33 in the first half and were pummeled 49 to 14 in the second.2 Those losses, Riley said,3 could be traced to physical opponents and conservative play-calling.

Rewriting the script, then, will be paramount this time around for Oklahoma.

Offensively, the Sooners seem to have the first half covered. No team puts up more first-half yardage than Oklahoma, which averages 313.4 yards a game. The team racks up 9.5 yards per first-half play — nearly a first down on each play. Riley’s offense is outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 points in first halves this season, the eighth-best mark in the country.

Of course, what separates Alabama from Oklahoma is its defense. The Tide allow 7.9 points per game in first halves, 12th-fewest in the nation and 7.9 fewer points than the Sooners. Alabama doesn’t just shut the door on its opponents in the opening 30 minutes — it packs their bags, shuttles them to the airport and ushers them through TSA. Remember when the Tide turned Tiger Stadium into a morgue by the third quarter of November’s top-five showdown with LSU? Or when the Tide took a trip to Oxford, watched Ole Miss score on its opening play and then blitzed the Rebels with 62 unanswered points, including 49 in the first half?4

LSU and Ole Miss aren’t alone. Saban’s squad is outscoring opponents 388 to 103 in first halves this season. On average, the Crimson Tide enter the locker room at halftime with a 21.9-point lead, the second-biggest margin by any team since at least 2004, the first year for which data is available.5 Ninety-three teams have scored fewer total touchdowns than Alabama has scored in first halves. Only four teams in the past 15 seasons have scored more first-half touchdowns than the Tide’s 53.

These lopsided first halves mean that the Tide hardly ever fall behind on the scoreboard. The average college football team this season played 178.6 first-half offensive snaps when trailing. Alabama played 18 — 32 fewer than the next-closest team.

Bama rarely plays from behind

Total first-half snaps when trailing for this year’s playoff participants

Team Offensive Snaps Defensive Snaps
Alabama 18 12
Clemson 63 24
Notre Dame 69 40
Oklahoma 128 54
National average 177 129

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Coming into the SEC title game, teams had run a combined 388 first-half plays against the Tide defense. They didn’t have the lead on any of them. Georgia finally broke through in the SEC championship; the Bulldogs ran 43 first-half offensive plays against the Tide and led for 12 of them.

The nightmare doesn’t end for Alabama opponents in second halves: Then they’re outscored by a touchdown and a half, on average. In second halves, teams score 0.92 touchdowns per game against the Tide, tied for the sixth-fewest.

Conversely, Oklahoma’s dominance tapers off considerably in the final two quarters, when it outscores opponents by only 5.2 points, which ranks 24th nationally.

Little if any of that decline is attributable to the offense, which roars from start to finish. But defensively, the bottom seems to fall out for the Sooners after halftime, as they allow an average of 2.23 touchdowns per game in second halves, the most by any team in the Big 12 and tied for the 20th-most nationally. Riley’s defense has allowed 29 second-half touchdowns, the most by an Oklahoma defense since at least 2004.

However, should Oklahoma keep the game close down the stretch, it has a peerless crunch-time quarterback in Murray. The Sooners have played seven games decided by 14 or fewer points, while Alabama has played only one. In the fourth quarter, when the scoring margin is within 14 points, Murray has a nation-leading quarterback rating of 99 — that’s on a 1-to-100 scale, mind you.

There’s an argument to be made that Oklahoma is better equipped — certainly more experienced — to handle high-leverage situations.6 But Alabama has been so dominant that it simply hasn’t mattered.

Iowa State Is A Contender (Finally)

For most of the century-plus that Iowa State has been playing college football, the Cyclones have toiled in misery, the doormat of virtually every conference they’ve been a part of. That neighboring programs at the University of Iowa and University of Nebraska rose to national prominence, in part at the expense of the Cyclones, no doubt made this fact more painful for the faithful in Ames.

But despite losing to Iowa in the first game of their season, the No. 16 Cyclones are the class of the region this year.

At 6-3, Iowa State’s record doesn’t jump off the page, but coach Matt Campbell has turned the program around. In 2017, Campbell’s second season on the job, the Cyclones snapped a seven-year streak of losing records and capped the season with a win in the Liberty Bowl — just the fourth bowl victory in school history.

Now currently on a five-game winning streak against conference foes,1 including two wins over ranked opponents, Iowa State has a chance to play in the Big 12 championship game if it beats Texas on Saturday and Kansas State next week, and West Virginia loses either to Oklahoma State or Oklahoma. The Cyclones haven’t won a conference title since before the television was invented, last doing so when they were a part of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Even being ranked this late in the season has the Cyclones on the brink of another accomplishment: The team has finished a season in the Associated Press rankings only twice in school history — and never higher than 19th. By comparison, their rival to the west, Nebraska, has finished 48 seasons in the rankings.

Iowa State is 12.89 points better than the average team this season, according to Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System. That would be the team’s third-best season of all time and the best mark since 1976. Not bad for a program that, through the 1990s — despite having a transcendent talent at running back — averaged an SRS of negative-4.7 and won less than 26 percent of its games.

Campbell, at least at podiums, is hardly satisfied. “I think what’s exciting is that I sit here right now knowing that our best is still out there,” he said after the team’s most recent win.

Iowa State’s five-game winning streak coincides with Campbell’s decision in early October to play true freshman quarterback Brock Purdy, who spurned a scholarship offer from Alabama. Purdy’s Total Quarterback Rating of 85.0 trails only Shea Patterson of Michigan (85.2), Kyler Murray of Oklahoma (95.3) and Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama (95.8).

Purdy has an elite target in Hakeem Butler, the successor to recently graduated star receiver Allen Lazard. At 6-foot-6, Butler is a ball-hawking skyscraper who ranks second nationally in yards per reception (22.7) and share of receptions resulting in a first down or touchdown (86.1 percent). Add in a bruising tailback like David Montgomery — a consensus first-team All-Big 12 selection from a season ago who has amassed 1,108 yards after contact over the past two seasons, the fifth most of any running back — and the Cyclones have a frightening offensive triumvirate. In the seven seasons under Paul Rhoads, Campbell’s predecessor, Iowa State never ranked in the top 50 in offensive efficiency, but the team is on track to crack it for the second season in a row.

But the pulse of Iowa State’s success is in the dominant defense installed by Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. This season, the Cyclones rank 13th in defensive efficiency at 79.22 — 8.79 points higher than any previous season in the previous 10 years and 30.62 points higher than their average over that stretch. Iowa State leads the Big 12 in rushing yards allowed per attempt (3.1), opposing passer efficiency rating (125), yards allowed per play (4.94) and opponent drive score percentage (25.9 percent), among other metrics.

The Cyclone defense displayed its chops on Oct. 13 against West Virginia, which touts a top-five passing offense (337.3 per contest) and top-10 scoring attack (40.89 per contest). Will Grier, a likely Heisman finalist, was held to a season-low 100 passing yards, and the Mountaineer offense managed just 7 points. (West Virginia finished with 14 total points, but 7 came by way of a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown.) “We didn’t do anything right,” West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said afterward.

Iowa State’s toughest assignment left on the regular-season schedule comes Saturday against No. 15 Texas, before the Cyclones close with matchups against Kansas State and Incarnate Word.2 But that last game, scheduled for Dec. 1, would be canceled if Iowa State can reach the conference championship.

For decades, conference foes worked Iowa State like a speed bag on Saturdays, turning Jack Trice Stadium into a virtual burial ground. Opposing coaches like Tom Osborne at Nebraska and Hayden Fry at Iowa inflicted substantial punishment, year after year. But under Campbell, the cardinal and gold have shown that they won’t be pushed around. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating pegs the Cyclones higher than it does Central Florida, a team largely crowdsourcing its playoff candidacy but that does have the nation’s longest current winning streak. A win Saturday in Austin, a game some consider to be the program’s most significant in the past decade, wouldn’t vault Iowa State into the playoff conversation. But it would rubber-stamp a growing notion: The Cyclones — yes, those Cyclones — are finally ready to contend.

Check out our latest college football predictions.