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The 3 best teams in college football since 2015: Alabama, Clemson, and underdog Tom Herman teams

It’s not just a story line. Tom Herman teams really have been amazing as underdogs. Here’s how.

It’s probably going to be mentioned at least once or twice on ABC’s broadcast of Saturday’s Red River Rivalry battle: Tom Herman teams are spectacular as underdogs. And unlike a lot narratives, this one could not possibly be more true so far.

After about two and a half seasons at Houston and Texas, Saturday’s game against Oklahoma will be the seventh time a Herman team has taken the field as an underdog. But the first six games were pretty definitive.

  • Herman teams as underdogs: +22.8 points per game compared to the spread, 6-0 against the spread, 5-1 overall
  • Herman teams as favorites: +0.4 points per game compared to the spread, 11-12-2 against the spread, 20-5 overall

This, of course, is a continuation of the reputation he was developing before he became a head coach. When he was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State, the Buckeyes went 6-0 straight up in rare underdog opportunities. Hell, even when he was at Iowa State, as Paul Rhoads’ OC, the Cyclones pulled upsets seven times in three years (albeit in far more than seven opportunities), including wins over Big 12 North champ Nebraska and otherwise BCS-bound Oklahoma State.

Granted, it’s a small-sample phenomenon. But it doesn’t appear Herman wastes an opportunity to play the disrespect card. He gets his guys ready.

So how do these Herman-as-underdog games tend to play out?

What’s the secret recipe to a Herman upset?

1. Render the opponent one-dimensional, then pin your ears back

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Houston vs Florida State
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

In Herman’s six upsets, opposing running backs are averaging a paltry 3.4 yards per carry. In 2016’s upset of Oklahoma, Sooner backs gained 71 yards in 13 carries, a decent 5.5 per carry; the other five games: 3.1.

You may be tempted to dismiss this as an indictment of the competition. Don’t. USC’s Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr combined to gain 75 yards in 27 carries in September’s near-upset in Los Angeles. FSU’s great Dalvin Cook gained 33 yards in 18 carries in the 2015 Peach Bowl. And an incredible 2015 Navy rushing attack ground to a halt.

Herman teams put the onus on the quarterback to make all of the plays, then pin their ears back. They sack the QB once per every nine attempts (10.7 percent); they sacked Louisville’s Lamar Jackson 11 times in 54 attempts last year, but they also brought OU’s Baker Mayfield down five times last year and even managed to bring down Navy’s Keenan Reynolds three times in 19 attempts.

Second- and third-and-long are a defense’s best friends. Herman teams leverage opponents into awkward downs and distances, then destroy even the most mobile of QBs.

2. Return scores: the ultimate equalizer

Against Louisville in 2015, UH’s Brandon Wilson returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score. In 2016’s season opener against OU, Wilson returned a missed Sooner field goal 100 yards for another score. Last month against USC, UT’s DeShon Elliott took an interception back 38 yards for six points.

A good way to cut into a favorite’s advantage is to average 3.5 points per game in return scores alone.

3. Hog the ball

In these six games, Herman teams snap the ball 12.7 more times than their opponents. In only the last two of these six games — 2016 Houston-Louisville (minus-4) and 2017 Texas-USC (minus-13) — did opponents have more plays. In each of the other four games, the Fightin’ Hermans snapped the ball at least 20 more times than their opponent.

This is a product of a few different things.

  1. Opponents are going three-and-out a lot. See the “stuff the run, then hit the QB” phenomenon above.
  2. Move efficiently. Herman teams had more first downs than their opponent in four of six games and had an equal number in a fifth.
  3. See below:

4. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers

The USC-Texas game was quite the outlier in this series of games. Herman’s Longhorns had fewer plays and fewer yards and lost the turnover battle by four. It was a miracle they were able to force overtime, really.

In the other five games, however, Herman teams are plus-12 in turnover margin.

Part of this is luck of bounce, of course. Overall, Herman teams have recovered 11 of 17 fumbles in these games, at least a couple more than you would expect. But their ability to avoid awkward downs and distances while constantly forcing opponents into them just means they are creating far more turnover-friendly circumstances.

It also means they don’t have to worry too much about per-play yardage: opponents are outgaining them by 0.7 yards per play, in part because of the occasional big play. That should matter. In the circumstances Herman underdogs create, however, it doesn’t.

5. Finish

In these six games, Herman teams are averaging 4.7 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) — not amazing, but decent.

Herman opponents are averaging 4.0 points per scoring opportunity — bad.

Let’s put that into context. That basically means that to get to 28 points (roughly the national average for scoring from year to year), Herman teams need to create six scoring opportunities for themselves. Opponents have to create seven. Add that to the turnover situation and the Herman propensity for return scores, and you’ve got a severely uphill battle.

NCAA Football: Texas at Southern California
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Is any of this statistically significant? Of course not. Is it maintainable? You wouldn’t think so.

Hell, his lone Texas game as an underdog barely followed the established script at all. And besides, you don’t really expect Texas to frequently be an underdog anyway.

Still, Herman’s underdog moments have been a master class in game management, in playing within yourself and making your supposedly superior opponent play left-handed. The mentality behind Herman’s underdog teams has been steady and confident, and the results have been strangely consistent. Considering OU-Texas is maybe the most unpredictable, underdog-friendly rivalry in college football, there’s a good chance we see another master class on Saturday.

Oklahoma opened as a 9.5-point favorite. That’s down to 7.5 so far.

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