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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Big 12 coaches are college football’s best

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Analytics show depth of quality coaching in Big 12 relative to other power conferences.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Big 12 teams don’t recruit particularly well.

Oh, sure, the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns usually keep pace with the national elites. Nevertheless, it has become a well-worn talking point on national signing day. After the Red River rivals, the drop-off in recruiting rankings is severe.

For 2020, UT and OU come in seventh and ninth in the nation, respectively, when you average out recruiting class rankings for the last five years using the 247Sports Team Composite scores. The third-best Big 12 team, TCU, ranks 27th overall. There are a staggering 10 teams from the SEC ahead of the Horned Frogs, along with five teams from the Pac-12, four from the ACC and four from the Big Ten.

And just wait until the NFL weighs in on the quality of Big 12 talent this April in the draft. Historically, even when you account for the fact that the other leagues have more teams, the Big 12 still doesn’t fare so well.

On the other hand, Big 12 teams often punch above their weight. Take a look, for instance, at how their SP+ efficiency rankings for 2019 shook out relative to their 247 roster rankings.

There are some notable underperforming teams in there – looking at you, Longhorns. For the most part, however, teams either played up to the potential of their talent or well above it. (Bear in mind that four programs had brand new coaching staffs in place last season, including two underperformers, KU and WVU.)

How did that compare with the Mecca of college football last season?

Lots of underachieving once you get past the big dogs.

You could argue that the trend towards doing more with less speaks to the quality of coaching in the Big 12. In fact, a comparison using advanced statistics suggests the collection of coaches in the Big 12 coaches stand out relative to the other Power 5 conferences.

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To get a better sense of how the coaches in the Power 5 conferences stack up against each other, I compiled the coaching grades of college football analytics consultant Adam McClintock. McClintock uses a proprietary statistical model that attempts to evaluate how coaches perform on a level playing field. Specifically, McClintock’s grades assess a coaches’ levels of effectiveness given the talent on their roster relative to the talent of the opposition. When teams frequently win games they shouldn’t or consistently win all the games that they should based on the talent discrepancy, their coaches’ grades rise. Losing games that their teams should win lowers coaches’ grades.

Here’s how the conferences compare against one another. Note that for coaches with three or fewer years of experience, McClintock’s rankings aren’t as stable. Those are denoted as “preliminary” in the tables below.

ACC

Median: B-/C+
Median w/o Preliminary: B-
Average: C+
Average w/o Preliminary: C+
Range: A to F-
Range w/o Preliminary: A to D-

Not a good start at Miami for Diaz. Conversely, the Cardinals apparently got a good one.

McClintock is also bullish on the situation at FSU, where the Seminoles are going from a D- coach in Willie Taggart to A- coach Mike Norvell from Memphis.

Big 12

Median: B+
Median w/o Preliminary: B+
Average: B+
Average w/o Preliminary: B+
Range: A+ to B
Range w/o Preliminary: A+ to B

You couldn’t find a dud head coach in the Big 12 last year. Kansas may suck, for example, but that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks are going to shrivel up and die with Les Miles on the sidelines.

Big Ten

Median: B/B-
Median w/o Preliminary: B-
Average: C+
Average w/o Preliminary: C+
Range: A+ to F-
Range w/o Preliminary: B+ to F-

Lots of meh. Sparty fans may not be happy when they see their new coach’s grade below.

Pac-12

Median: B-/C+
Median w/o Preliminary: B+
Average: B-
Average w/o Preliminary: B
Range: A- to D+
Range w/o Preliminary: A- to C+

This is actually a solid crop of coaches, relatively speaking. Wazzu’s new coach, Nick Rolovich graded out as a B+ at Hawaii. The transition from Chris Petersen to Jimmy Lake adds plenty of uncertainty at UW, given Petersen’s track record.

SEC

Median: C-/D+
Median w/o Preliminary: C-
Average: C-
Average w/o Preliminary: C-
Range: A to F-
Range w/o Preliminary: A to F-

Running the gamut here, but lots of bad. The Tennessee situation situation has to be concerning.

Early signs from the schools that made changes seem positive. Mississippi St. hired a B+ coach in Mike Leach. Mizzou landed a coach with a preliminary A+ grade in Eli Drinkwitz. Lane Kiffin is a C+, which is presumably preferable to the F- predecessor at Ole Miss. Sam Pittman at Arkansas is an unknown.

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The bottom line is that despite its challenges when it comes to geography and resources, the Big 12 looks like the preeminent league for coaching in college football. Anecdotally, the conference’s influence on how the game is played seems clear, but analytics also appear to support the idea that the strategy and tactics deployed in the Big 12 are second to none.

Perhaps Kansas State will fall off after a strong first season for Chris Klieman (Unlikely.) Baylor may not sustain Matt Rhule’s success under new coach Dave Aranda. Nevertheless, winning in the Big 12 still requires matching wits with the highest caliber of tacticians on a weekly basis.