Pro Football Focus Leaves Texas A&M Football Out of Preseason Top 25; Overrates Rival
It's a well-worn idiom, and one that Texas A&M football fans should well know by now, that the way-too-early top 25 rankings—even the actual preseason AP Top 25—are in one sense meaningless. That said, though, the early polls, including the initial preseason poll, can overly prejudice the public's perception of a given team. Only two teams that started the season outside the top 25 have ended up in the College Football Playoff (2021 Michigan and 2022 TCU), and most that finished in the top 4 started in the top 10.
Of course, that stat will become less germane as we move to a 12-team playoff format. But the fact remains that there is bias intermixed with the predictive accuracy of the poll: teams are less likely to drop far after a loss if they are ranked highly in the preseason due at least in part to those priors that led to them being ranked highly in the first place.
All this to say, Pro Football Focus, among others, have released their way too early top 25 for next year, and it has some issues. I'm choosing PFF somewhat at random, as most of my comments could apply to lots of these different polls, as they suffer from the same issues.
I get not ranking the Aggies in the preseason. I'm not complaining about that. I personally am high on their potential, but after a 12-13 record over the past two years, I get why they may not be ranked.
What I don't get is having the Longhorns in the top 3 teams. Partially, yes, due to my Official Hater Status, but also on an objective level. Texas should maybe be in the 15-20 range, if you're being generous. It's the same logic that led PFF to put Washington down at 15th: the Horns are losing way too much to project that they'll be able to repeat what they did this year as far as win total.
The Longhorns are losing all five of their top receivers (82% of receiving yardage on the year; this is one of the biggest weights for Bill Connelly's returning production metric), as well as the lion's share of their rushing yards (51% of rushing yardage on the year). Six of their top ten tacklers are outbound, as well as four of their top seven players in TFLs.
The biggest factor that most mention is that Quinn Ewers is expected to return. But Quinn just simply isn't a huge reason that the Longhorns win, most of the time. You don't have to look very hard to find a cavalcade of complaints from Horn fans about Ewers's mystifying inability to read coverages or complete simple throws.
He is extremely physically gifted, and Sark schemes up wide-open shots for him all the time, giving him some of the easiest reads and throws of any major college football quarterback, but his ability to execute on those reads and throws is far too inconsistent. Is it really Ewers that made Worthy, Whittington, Sanders, et. al. look good, or was it the reverse? Wasn't that supposed to be one of the top pass-catching units in the nation?
The fact is that the two best units from the 2023 Longhorns—their receivers (including Sanders) and their interior defensive line are all gone after this year. At least thus far, there's not been too much coming in to replace those guys via the portal. I don't think Johntay Cook is about to replicate even what Worthy was to this team, much less the entire receiving corps, nor do I think that Vernon Broughton (misused as he has been) will step right in and measure up to what Murphy and Sweat put together.
Even if next year's Texas team is no worse than this year's, that win total from 2023 deserves scrutiny. 12-2 looks great, but that includes dogfights against lowly Iowa State, Wyoming with a backup QB, Houston, Kansas State, and TCU. Moving to the SEC and playing Michigan in the non-conference is a different beast. You can't have those down weeks and expect to emerge unscathed.
The 2023 Longhorns were not a top 4 team by any metric. FPI has them 7th, as does FEI. SP+ has them 6th. Parker Fleming's CFB Graphs has them 12th. You can't take away their accomplishments from this past year, but you can say that those accomplishments outstripped the team's quality. With the biggest reasons behind those accomplishments—the production on the team as well as the conference in which they competed—all being gone next season, it just doesn't make sense to rank them this highly.
For a final word on the Maroon and White, I'll say this: I understand that the nation has yet to fully become aware of Conner Weigman's potential. Even some Texas A&M football fans haven't yet fully grasped just how good this guy can be. But two of his three full games from this past season ranked in the top 50 single-game performances per QBR (which is opponent-adjusted) of the 2023 season. Ewers, in contrast, had only one out of his 12-game schedule.
The opening game against Notre Dame—which, if this ranking and others like it serve as a reliable guide, will be against a top-15 foe—will provide an opportunity for those people to be awoken to Weigman's potential. I feel confident that he will take advantage.