Why Tennessee and TCU Have Failed to Meet Preseason Expectations
Peter Lynch, one of the most famous money managers and investors of all time once said, “The real key to making money in stocks is not to get scared out of them.”
Tennessee and TCU were both trendy preseason picks to topple more established conference foes and vault into the College Football Playoffs. They looked like relatively inexpensive stocks that were ready to skyrocket in value.
Three weeks into the season, Tennessee is 3-0 and TCU is 2-1 with the Horned Frogs’ loss coming in a contested battle against non-conference opponent, Arkansas. On the surface, both teams look well-positioned to make a run at the playoff.
But a deeper dive into some of the advanced metrics suggests that if you are holding a Tennessee or TCU title ticket, now might be an appropriate time to be scared and sell.
It’s hard to call a team that is 3-0 disappointing, but that label seems to fit comfortably on the 2016 Tennessee Volunteers. That’s because the Vols, the runaway favorite to win the SEC East, struggled mightily against two inferior opponents from non-Power 5 conferences.
Appalachian State thoroughly outplayed Tennessee for much of their game on the opening night of the season. The Vols needed overtime to survive 20-13, a game where SB Nation’s Bill Connelly win expectancy for Tennessee was only 56 percent.
After beating Virginia Tech in Bristol in Week 2, the Vols went back home and found themselves in a fight with Ohio from the MAC. The Vols hung on to win 28-19, but the less-heralded and less-talented Bobcats trailed by only two points early in the fourth quarter.
The metrics systems are still relatively high on Tennessee -- they're 8th in ESPN’s FPI, 9th via The Power Rank, 13th in S&P+, and 16th in FEI. But several factors suggest things are more likely to get tougher for Tennessee, not easier.
The first main factor is injuries. Tennessee’s All-SEC cornerback, Cam Sutton, will be out for an “extended period of time” due to an ankle injury suffered against Ohio. The Vols will also be without star linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. -- and perhaps linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive end LaTroy Lewis, who are questionable going into Saturday’s showdown against Florida.
With a banged up defense, Tennessee’s offense will have to shake off some early-season ineffectiveness -- quickly. Bill Connelly rates Tennessee’s offense just 60th in efficiency, while ESPN’s FPI ranks them 66th. And even more concerning is that the passing game has produced virtually nothing in the way of big plays. There is not a single receiver on the roster who is averaging more than 13.1 yards per target.
Part of the problem is inconsistent play along the offensive line, thought to be one of the potential strengths of the team in the offseason. As Mike Griffith of SEC Country noted, “Tennessee entered this season as one of the most experienced units in the SEC, and most equate experience with improvement. That has not happened, and the Vols’ rotation looks to be more out of desperation than strategy. UT has allowed 2.33 sacks per game -- 84th-worst in the nation -- and even worse when one considers the escapability of Josh Dobbs.”
The Vols have also benefitted from some extreme luck that is almost certainly not repeatable. In all, Tennessee has lost only one fumble after putting the ball on the ground 11 times. Against Ohio alone, Tennessee fumbled five times and recovered all five. According to Connelly, Tennessee has an expected turnover margin of -2.48, 119th in the nation. The Vols’ actual turnover margin is +2, and that is good for +7.47 points in turnover luck. Expect some serious regression here.
Finally, if there is a reason to sell Tennessee now, it’s the upcoming schedule. Tennessee has a home game against Florida, then play at Georgia and at Texas A&M, and then host Alabama in four consecutive weeks.
ESPN’s FPI gives the Vols just a 1.3 percent chance of winning out. If Tennessee struggled to beat Appalachian State and Ohio, this gauntlet may end any hope of a Tennessee title run.
|Date||Opponent||S&P+ Win Prob.||FPI Win Prob.|
|Oct. 1||at Georgia||52%||66%|
|Oct. 8||at Texas A&M||54%||35%|
Full disclosure: In late August, I wrote of TCU, “With loads of talent coming in the form of transfers, freshmen, and players returning from injury, Patterson has all the ingredients for conference title concoction.”
That statement is no less true today, but the Horned Frogs’ on-the-field performance through three games this season suggests that TCU may be the eight-win team the metrics conservatively forecast.
|Metrics' Rankings||FEI||FPI||Power Rank||S&P+||Average|
|TCU after Week 3||36||32||26||23||29.25|
Look no further than the Vegas spreads to see how disappointing TCU has been so far in 2016. TCU has failed to cover in a single game, and has underperformed the Vegas line by about 11 points per game.
The problems start on TCU’s defense, where the popular preseason narrative was that we should assume Gary Patterson will return the unit to its elite status.
Not so much.
ESPN’s FPI ranks the Horned Frogs defense a woeful 97th, while Connelly’s S&P+ has TCU 63rd. The more advanced metrics paint a bleaker picture. The Horned Frogs rank in the bottom half of the FBS in Connelly’s key factors of success rate (efficiency), IsoPPP (explosiveness), and finishing drives (points allowed per trip inside the 40-yard line). In all, they have given up 5.54 yards per play, 80th in the nation, with two of their games coming against an FCS team and Iowa State.
If there is a positive, it is that transfer quarterback Kenny Hill and this new cast on offense have played beyond expectations, averaging 6.89 yards per play, 17th in the nation. But TCU learned just this week that it will be without the services of KaVontae Turpin, an all-purpose yardage machine who leads the team in receptions (16) and receiving yards (196). According to tweets this week, Turpin is out indefinitely with a torn PCL.
The Big 12 is a long shot for the playoffs, given losses by Texas, Oklahoma, TCU, and Oklahoma State, and the conference boasts parity that may make the balance of the season difficult for TCU. This is especially true in the face of inconsistency on defense and the need to replace a key playmaker on offense.
S&P+ projects TCU to be in five more games with a win probability between 30 to 49 percent. FPI is even more pessimistic, giving TCU between 34 and 45 percent chance in those games. Only games against SMU and Kansas appear to be Horned Frog locks.
Over the years, college football fans have learned not to count out Gary Patterson. But the likelihood of TCU running the table to have a shot at the playoffs is just 0.2 percent, according to FPI. So much for the bold call on TCU.