Tale of the Tape Part 3 - How They Did It

Comparing Mike Leach and Tommy Tuberville - The Final Chapter

In Tale of the Tape: Part 1 we established that the opponents faced by Leach's Texas Tech teams and Tuberville's Auburn and Mississippi teams were largely similar.

In Tale of the Tape: Part 2 we established that the two coaches performed remarkably similarly.  Tuberville won two outright SEC Big West division titles and an SEC conference crown, but Leach's Texas Tech teams faced more difficult competition on a consistent basis in the Big 12 South - the most difficult division in college football. 

In this final installment of Tale of the Tape, we now take a look at how the coaches were able to accomplish their respective achievements.

We know that Leach's teams won with offense.  We know that Tuberville's teams won with defense. 

By reviewing the respective performance of their teams, we are able to draw contrasts, admire their strengths and identify weaknesses.

Comparing the Offense

When we compare Texas Tech's offensive production during Leach's tenure and Auburn's offensive production under Tuberville, predictably the comparisons are not close.

The comparison, however, provides numbers which better support those who are wary about Tuberville's ability to maintain Texas Tech's level of offensive success under Leach.

Chart 1. Total Offense Ranking (1999-2009). Source: ncaa.org

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Based on the graph above, a safe conclusion would be that Leach's success was a function of Texas Tech's offensive dominance over the past decade.

Leach's offenses finished in the top 6 over a span of 8 consecutive years (2002-2009) during which time it achieved an average ranking of 4.4. In 2003 Texas Tech had the number one offense in the country.

Tuberville, in contrast, ended his career at Auburn in a similar fashion that he began - with the 100th ranked offense in 1999 and the 104th ranked offense in 2009.  The best season for Auburn's offense occurred during its 2004 undefeated season when Tuberville's offense achieved the 25th highest ranking.  The offense declined dramatically thereafter finishing each season ranked 76, 97 and 104 during Tuberville's final three seasons.  Auburn achieved an average Total Offense ranking of 69 over the duration of Tuberville's tenure at Auburn, and ranked 70th or worse in 6 out of 10 seasons.

Based on Tuberville's track record at Auburn, it is probably reasonable that some are skeptical about Tuberville's ability to sustain Leach's past success.  Without going further, it is fair to say that Tuberville and new offensive coordinator Neal Brown have big shoes to fill.

Some have argued that the responsibility for the offense will fall ultimately fall on Brown and not on Tommy Tuberville - but Tuberville of all people, based on his own experience during his final year at Auburn, would probably disagree.  If Brown and the Tech offense falters, all eyes will be on Tuberville as he learned first-hand when then offensive coordinator Tony Franklin could not deliver at Auburn after just 7 games.

(For the record, based on what I've read, Franklin's and Tuberville's efforts to radically change the Auburn offense ultimately failed for a number of reasons including: lack of support from the administration, inappropriate personnel, and incumbent assistant coaches who did not fully back Franklin.  Furthermore, if we look at Leach's own record, it took him three seasons to fully transform Tech's offense.  Besides, it is not like Franklin took over an offensive juggernaut and ran it into the ground.  Auburn's offense finished 97th in the preceding year.  The relative drop off was not that significant.)

Comparing the Defense

When we compare Auburn's defensive production during Tuberville's tenure and Texas Tech's defensive production under Leach, predictably the comparisons are not close. The comparison,  however, provides numbers for those who are excited about Tuberville's ability to improve on Tech's mediocre defensive performances under Leach.

Chart 2.  Total Defense Ranking (1999-2009). Source: ncaa.org

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Based on this chart,  a safe conclusion would be that Tuberville's success was a function of Auburn's defensive dominance over the past decade.

Tuberville's defenses finished in the top 10 three times during Tuberville's 10 year career (2003, 2004, 2007).   In 2003 and 2004, Auburn finished as the fifth ranked team in the country in Total Defense.

After Leach's first season in 2000, his defensive units suffered a sharp decline falling from the 24th best unit in the country to number 50 in 2001, 85 in 2002 and finally to a dismal 106 in 2003.  After the Tech defense's 2003 performance, Texas Tech's defense did actually improve to become the 30th ranked squad by 2005.  However, in the four subsequent years, Texas Tech's defensive performance averaged a paltry 57.8 ranking which was nearly equivalent to Leach's defense's 57.2 average ranking during the duration of his tenure.

Recruiting and Talent

I will start by saying that I acknowledge that there is broad disagreement about the use of recruiting ratings to assess the overall talent of teams.  The ratings can be subjective and do not sufficiently translate a player's high school performance to the same player's performance at the college level.  Afterall, based on scout.com's recruiting rankings, Michael Crabtree was recruited as a 2-star prospect while Adam James was recruited as a 3-star prospect (nothing like a little red meat to get the conversation going!). 

Be that as it may, we have to start with something, so I hope the recruiting service detractors will continue to read this section.  There are also an ample of number of studies which show a strong correlation between high recruiting ratings and team success. 

One question that is frequently discussed on DTN and elsewhere is whether Tuberville can succeed at Texas Tech given the school's talent level relative to what he was accustomed to while at Auburn.   Let's see if we can answer that question here.

In the chart below, we begin by comparing the average talent level between Auburn and Texas Tech.  The average talent level represents the average star-rating for each school in a particular year based on total number of 5-star recruits, 4-star recruits, etc.  This measure provides us with an understanding of the caliber of athletes recruited by both schools.

Chart 3. Talent Level for Auburn and Texas Tech (2002-2008). Source: rivals.com

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On average, Auburn has been able to build recruiting classes with an average star rating of 3.17 over the 7 years measured here (2002-2008), while Texas Tech has been able to build recruiting classes with an average star rating of 2.71 over the same period.  The relative ratings gap shows that the caliber of athletes recruited by Texas Tech was 17% lower than the caliber of athletes recruited by Auburn during a significant portion of the two coaches' respective tenures.

The trajectory of Leach's recruiting classes was steadily improving during his tenure.  Based on the figures calculated here, Leach improved his talent levels by 25% from his earlier classes to his most recent classes. 

There are a few limitations to this assessment. The data does not include recruiting performance prior to 2002, so we are unable to measure 7 of Tuberville's 14 recruiting classes when he was head coach.  We have more data by which to measure Leach's recruiting performance as we are able to measure 8 out of Leach's 10 recruiting classes as head coach.   Still, the limited data provides us with a good understanding of the talent gap between the two schools.

Next, we look at the relative talent gaps between Texas Tech and other Big 12 programs,   and between Auburn and other SEC programs .  This measure helps us determine the relative talent level within a conference.  It also provides us an insight into the question of how a coach performs with a certain level of talent, and more specifically how Leach and Tuberville performed given the talent disparities within their conferences.

The chart below ranks the average talent of the top 8 schools in the Big 12 based on the star rankings provided by rivals.com.

Chart 4.  Big 12 Average Star Rating (2002-2008). Source:  rivals.com      

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As the numbers show, from 2002-2008 Texas and Oklahoma were able to recruit higher caliber talent than the rest of the Big 12 by a significant margin.  Texas Tech's recruiting classes, based on this measure, ranks 8th in the Big 12. 

The difference between the recruiting scores for Texas' recruits and Texas Tech's recruits is 35%.  That figure effectively represents the talent gap between the Texas Tech and its most talented conference rival, Texas.

Now let's assess how much impact a coach can have as a result of (or in spite of) the talent level of his team by comparing recruiting rankings to actual performance. 

In the table  below, we see that of all the schools represented, Texas Tech was the only program to materially demonstrate a high winning percentage that was not correlated to the school's talent level. 

Table 1.  Big 12 Winning Percentage Rank and Recruiting Rank

   Recruiting Talent Rank  
  Winning Percentage Rank 
     Differential     
Texas 1 1 0
Oklahoma 2 2 0
Texas Tech 8 3 +5
Nebraska 3 4 -1
Missouri 7 5 +2
Oklahoma State 5 6 -1
Texas A&M
4 7 -3
Colorado 6 8 -2

As the chart shows, and most of us already know, Texas Tech under Leach, despite having the 8th best talent in the Big 12, on average achieved the third highest winning percentage in the Big 12. 

A few explanations and caveats.

There is a mismatch between the years in which the recruiting assessment is taken (2002-2008) and the years in which winning percentage is measured (2000-2009).  

In addition to the mismatched dates, the full benefits of a recruiting class generally are not realized until 3 years after a particular class is recruited (accounting for a red shirt year, freshman and sophomore years).  So in Leach's case, for example, some members the class he inherited in 2000 were recruited as far back as 1995 under Spike Dykes.  Likewise the class he recruited in 2007 on a whole had a limited impact on his 2008 and 2009 teams.

The assumption we are making is that, overall, there is little difference in the caliber of talent across all years.  If we had a magic formula which interpreted talent levels of years prior to 2002, my guess is that the talent level of Dykes' recruits was probably closer to the talent levels of Leach's earlier recruiting classes.  Nevertheless, due to imperfect information, in making this type of analysis some degree of assumption is required. Provided I haven't strayed too far off the reservation, I hope you will agree that there is merit to this approach. 

As Leach and coaches like Gary Patterson at TCU have demonstrated, one way to negate the talent gap is to out -innovate one's opponents.  The other way is to rely less on coaching brilliance, and instead concentrate on improving a program's talent level. Leach has steadily improved Texas Tech's talent by a factor of 25% ( based on the 2.42 recruiting average of his 2002 class and his 3.00 recruiting average of his 2008 class). 

It is certainly possible that Tuberville could take the recruiting class to an entirely new level, but it is not as easy as it sounds.  

When we look at Tuberville's 2011 commitments to date, based on the first 8 commitments, he has received commitments from one 4-star player, four 3-star players, and three non-rated players (source: scout.com) .  If we ignore the non-rated players, then optimistically we are able to calculate that Tuberville has already increased the recruiting levels to a 3.20 level.  If we choose to be conservative and rate the non-rated players as 1-star players, the recruiting level drops to 2.375.   If we take the average of these two scores, then Texas Tech's recruiting class stands at 2.79, not far removed from Tech's 2.75 recruiting level during Leach's tenure. 

These similarities suggest - although it is still early and the sample size is admittedly small -  that there are inherent challenges to recruiting at Texas Tech which  Tuberville, similar to Leach,  will also struggle to overcome.

For Tuberville to reach a 3.17 level talent which he enjoyed at Auburn, he would need to sustain somewhere near a recruiting ratio of four 3-star players and one 4-star player for the remainder of this year's recruiting class.   To sustain that increased talent level, Tech would effectively have to annually out-recruit both Texas A&M and Nebraska.

Tommy Tuberville (Recruiting and Performance)

Let's now conduct the same exercise to see how Tuberville performed with the talent he was able to attract to Auburn.

As before, the chart below ranks the average talent of the schools based on the star rankings provided by rivals.com.

Chart 5.  SEC Recruiting Star Ranking (2002-2008). Source: rivals.com

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The chart shows 10 out of 12 SEC teams (Kentucky ad Vanderbilt are not shown).  As we can see Auburn, under Tuberville, was able to recruit on average the 6th most talented athletes in the SEC.  The talent gap between Florida, the SEC's most talented team, and Auburn was 12.7%.   The talent gap among the SEC's top 6 teams is also relatively narrow.  The SEC team with a similar talent disparity to Texas Tech and Texas in the Big 12 is Mississippi State which suffers a talent gap of 33.5% between itself and Florida.

As before we assess the impact that coaches are able to demonstrate because of (or in spite) the talent levels of their teams.

Table 2.  SEC Winning Percentage Ranking and Recruiting Ranking

   Recruiting Talent Rank  
  Winning Percentage Rank 
     Differential     
Georgia 2 1 +1
Florida 1 2 -1
LSU 3 3 0
Auburn 6 4 +2
Tennessee 4 5 -1
Alabama 5 6 -1
Arkansas
9 7 +2
Mississippi 8 8 0
South Carolina
7 9 -2
Mississippi State
10 11* -1

 

As the table shows, Auburn under Tuberville, in spite of having the 6th best level of talent from 1999-2008, finished ranked 4th overall in terms of winning percentage.

When we compare talent level and performance, we should certainly gain some comfort that Tuberville was able to demonstrate an ability to win a higher percentage of games with relatively less talent than his SEC rivals.

Leach's performance, however, is literally off the charts.  Despite having talent that is rated to be 35% less than Big 12 leader Texas, Texas Tech consistently finished 3rd in the Big 12 in terms of overall winning percentage.  Mississippi State, a team with a similar talent level as Texas Tech, and similar talent disparity between itself and the top teams in the SEC won just 38% of its games and finished with the 11th best record in the SEC during the time period.

Talent Gap

One of the most important questions about Tuberville is whether or not he can sustain Leach's success while at Texas Tech.  The talent level of Texas Tech is considerably lower than the talent level at Auburn.  The talent disparity between Texas Tech and Texas is far greater than the talent gap Tuberville was accustomed to between Auburn and the SEC's best teams.  In this discussion we take a closer look at the disparities.

Between 2002 to 2008, Texas Tech attracted 198 players while Auburn attracted 193 players.

In the chart below, we compare the talent levels of the two schools' offense and defense recruits.

Chart 6.  Average Recruiting Rankings Offense and Defense (2002-2008). Source:  rivals.com

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As we can see from the above chart, the talent differential between the respective offense and defense recruits was roughly similar. 

A common perception is that Tuberville is inheriting a Texas Tech offense that is considerably more talented than that to which he was accustomed at Auburn.  As the chart demonstrates, this belief is not accurate. 

Over the last decade, Auburn's offensive players have been more talented than Texas Tech's players, but were utilized in a less productive conventional offense. 

Chart 7.  Offensive Recruiting Distribution (2002-2008). Source: rivals.com

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One way to view this chart is to look at the 3-star offensive players recruited by both Auburn and Texas Tech.  As you can see, the number of 3-star offensive players recruited by Texas Tech and Auburn is virtually identical.  What differentiates Auburn's talent level is that in addition to Auburn's 3-star players, it recruited three times as many 4-star players as Texas Tech.

From 2002-2008, 85% Texas Tech's offense recruits were comprised of 2-star and 3-star players. Four-star and five-star players represented 12% of all offensive recruits.  Texas Tech recruited one five-star offensive recruit during Leach's tenure.

Over the same time frame, 56% of Auburn's offense recruits were comprised of  2-star and 3-star players.  Four-star and five-star players represented 38% of all offensive recruits.   Auburn recruited two 5-star offensive recruits during Tuberville's tenure.

Defensive Recruiting

As we would expect, Auburn's defensive talent under Tuberville, also exceeded that which Leach was able to recruit at Texas Tech.

Chart 8.  Defensive Recruiting Distribution (2002-2008). Source:  rivals.com

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From 2002-2008, 89% of Texas Tech's defensive recruits were comprised of 2-star and 3-star players.  Four-star players represented 11% of all defensive recruits.  Texas Tech did not recruit a single 5-star defensive player in Leach's tenure. 

Over the same time frame, 70% of Auburn's defensive recruits were comprised of 2-star and 3-star players.  Four-star and five-star players represented 28% of all defensive recruits.   Auburn recruited three 5-star defensive players during Tuberville's tenure.

While Leach was able to maximize the offensive talent at Texas Tech by employing the spread offense, he was less successful at maximizing his defensive talent in a similar manner. 

Texas Tech's relatively less talented defense does not mean it is doomed to mediocrity.  TCU, which admittedly plays a much weaker schedule than Texas Tech, has developed into a defensive powerhouse, despite attracting a defensive recruiting class (2002-2008) with an average overall rating of 2.34.  So it is certainly possibly that a better coached defensive unit can be successful in spite of its lower talent levels.  Tuberville and Willis have ample credentials in this department.  Despite the adjustments to a 3-4 scheme, we should expect that our defense will be much improved over previous seasons.

The corollary to the above argument is that the defensive schemes the coaches had previously implemented were possible due to the outstanding talent they had been advantaged to work with in their previous programs.  Texas Tech's defense has less depth, and less individual talent than those programs.

Is it possible that Ruffin McNeil, Texas Tech's former defensive coordinator,  implemented a strategy designed to hide the talent limitations of the team while he was coach? 

I don't know the answer to this question, and believe it will be one of the more intriguing subplots to watch over the coming year. 

I am inclined to believe that better coaching should improve the defensive unit's performance. What will be interesting to see over the coming months, and indeed next season, is whether or not the defensive schemes which Tuberville and defensive coordinator Willis are hoping to implement can be effective with the current talent levels of the team. 

Conclusions

Mike Leach and Tommy Tuberville have virtually identical records.  During their respective tenures at Texas Tech and Auburn, both have established themselves as elite coaches.

In Tale of the Tape Part 1 of this discussion, we established that contrary to popular belief, Texas Tech and Auburn played very similar schedules during the two coaches' tenures. 

Neither Tech nor Auburn have actually played a ranked non-conference opponent since 2003 (Auburn played #25 West Virginia in 2009 and Texas Tech was due to play #6 ranked TCU in 2010 before a schedule change led to Texas Tech having to schedule Weber State instead).

Once you establish that the degree of competition is essentially the same, one is challenged to argue that the records by the two coaches were achieved against different levels of competition.

In Tale of Tape Part 2 of this discussion, we established that Tuberville's performance against ranked opponents and his ability to capture two outright SEC West division championships and an SEC championship gives him an advantage in the great Leach versus Tuberville debate.  Tuberville while at Auburn also had a higher degree of success against Top 10 opponents than Leach did at Texas Tech, but had no success whatsoever while at Mississippi.

Part 2 also argued that winning the Big 12 South required a degree of difficulty significantly greater than in the SEC West or any of the eight other divisions in FBS football.   No other division has required the equivalent effort of beating two top ten teams (Texas and Oklahoma) on an annual basis, nor has included two different National Champions. As noted in the article, had Texas Tech played in the Big 12 North division, where three unranked teams captured the division crown over the past decade, one could easily imagine Texas Tech winning multiple division titles. 

Here's the other little secret about the Big 12 North.  In the regular season (2000-2009), Big 12 North champions are 1-9 versus either Texas (0-6) or Oklahoma (1-3).  In the Big 12 Championship games, the Big 12 North champions are 2-8 versus Big 12 South champions, Texas (1-2) and Oklahoma (1-6). 

Chancellor Hance's comments about Leach's inability to beat Texas more frequently and former Board of Regents Chairman's Sowell's comparison of Leach's performance to that of other Big 12 North coaches are ill informed at best, disingenuous at worst, and either way reek of mental incontinence.

Finally as discussed here, we look at how the coaches achieved their success. Leach won with offense.  Tuberville won with defense.

However, what differentiates the coaches in this final argument is Leach's ability to vastly outperform, not just Tuberville, but virtually every other coach in the country while utilizing lesser overall talent.

In putting this research together nothing brought home the extraordinariness of Leach's success more than comparing Tech's success with Mississippi State's lack thereof.  Both teams have similar levels of talent.  Both teams have similar talent gaps to the top schools in their divisions.  On both of these measurements, Mississippi State's anaemic 38% winning percentage is about what one would expect given its talent level and the talent differential between the top teams in its division.  

Tuberville's challenge will be to replicate his Mike Leach's success at Texas Tech using a group of players with less talent than that to which he has been accustomed throughout his career, and which is significantly less talented than his key competition.  

In the end analysis, I am hard pressed to make a judgement as to which coach is actually better than the other.  Leach and Tuberville are both great coaches, and neither could be more different than the other in terms of philosophy and style. 

Whether or not Tuberville can be a great coach for Texas Tech is another question entirely, and one which we will all begin to better understand over the coming year.

Changes:  April 9, 2010: Added note about Big 12 North Champions' performance againt UT and OU in conclusion.  Grammar edits. April 11:  More grammar edits, ugh.

 

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