After the Leap
What does history tell us to expect from Texas A&M in the year after The Leap?
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This most certainly does not qualify as breaking news, but it bears repeating: what Texas A&M did was downright extraordinary.
It’s not just that they exceeded pretty much everyone’s expectations in their first year as a member of the SEC. It’s not just that their redshirt freshman quarterback came out of nowhere to become the first freshman winner of the Heisman Trophy. It’s not just that they vaulted from “program with questions abound” to “the program in Texas” in the span of, oh, three months.
It goes much deeper than that. The 2012 Aggies were history-makers, and it goes far beyond Johnny Manziel.
In 2012, Texas A&M became just the 21st team since 1980 to finish in the top 5 of the Associated Press rankings after beginning the season unranked.
Think about the leap a team must make to go from unranked in the preseason to the top 5 at the end of it. That’s some serious expectation-beating. For the sake of clarity, we'll refer to this -- starting unranked and finishing in the Top 5 -- as The Leap.
To put that in perspective: last year alone, seven teams that began the season ranked in the AP’s preseason Top 25 finished unranked. Getting into the AP Top 25 is tough enough; staying – and finishing – there is extremely difficult.
Of course, that’s just another way of saying what we already knew: Texas A&M’s 2012 season was one for the ages.
As we begin to turn our attention to the 2013 season, the expectations for Texas A&M are going to be sky-high, and rightfully so: they’re the hot team in college football, and they’re bringing back the most dynamic player in the nation (who, by the way, also won the Heisman Trophy).
I mentioned earlier that A&M is in rarefied air after their ascent in the rankings, but they’re not alone. That means that we have some data that can perhaps shine a light on what we can expect in the year after a college football team makes The Leap like the Aggies did.
Below, I’ve listed the 20 teams since 1980 to make The Leap, as well as what they did the year after. Let’s take a look at the data.
|Year||School||Finish||Record||Next Year Pre Rank||Next Year Post Rank||Next Year Record||Win ∆|
Some observations from this chart:
-Give the Associated Press pollsters this: they do not tend to make the same mistake twice. The year after making The Leap, 19 of the 20 teams began the year ranked in the Top 25 (and the one that wasn’t – 1988 Syracuse – burned them again!), and 11 of the 20 began the year ranked in the preseason Top 10.
-On the other hand, it looks like that may represent a market overcorrection. In the year after The Leap, 13 of the 20 teams finished the year ranked lower than where they started in the year, including five that finished unranked altogether.
-The win totals aren’t encouraging, either. Teams won, on average, 2.1 fewer games in the year after The Leap than the year of The Leap. And only two – 1986 Michigan and 1981 SMU – managed to improve upon their Leap year record. Basically: it’s very, very hard to live up to heightened expectations.
-Texas A&M does have one very big factor working in their favor: Johnny Football himself, Johnny Manziel. The Heisman Trophy winner returns to College Station, and that will make A&M the first team ever to go from unranked to the Top 5 and bring back the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. That’s not just rarefied air; it’s unheard of.
However, if we are going to give some sort of comparison for A&M’s situation, there are three teams who returned a quarterback who finished in the top 4 of the Heisman voting during The Leap. They are: 2010 Stanford (Andrew Luck finished 2nd in the Heisman voting in 2010, returned in 2011), 2007 Missouri (Chase Daniel finished 4th in the Heisman voting in 2007, returned in 2008) and 1984 BYU (Robbie Bosco finished 3rd in the Heisman voting in 1984, returned in 1985).
Those three teams began the season ranked 7th, 6th and 10th, respectively, to begin the next season. They finished 7th, 19th and 16th, respectively, and saw their win total decrease by an average of 1.3 wins.
-The more I think about it, if I were to draw a comparison to Texas A&M’s situation in 2012 and 2013, it would be to Missouri’s situation in 2007 and 2008.
(Let me couch this heavily: this is by no means a perfect comparison – for one thing, I think A&M faced a tougher schedule in 2012 than Missouri did in 2007, and Johnny Manziel is pretty clearly better than Chase Daniel – but it’s the best one I can come up with).
Think about it: both teams entered the season unranked and largely off-the-radar. Both zoomed to tremendous seasons and had a legitimate claim to a BCS bowl, though neither went to one. Both sent their undersized Texas-bred quarterback with a knack for improvisation to New York (though only one of them came home with the hardware). Both decimated highly regarded foes in the Cotton Bowl, only fueling the preseason fire. Both returned that quarterback for another year, and began the season in the Top 10 (if A&M’s not ranked in the Top 10 to begin 2013, I’ll eat my shoe).
The next year: Missouri began the year ranked No. 6, started off 5-0, lost back-to-back weeks to then-No. 17 Oklahoma State and No. 1 Texas, rattled off four straight wins over lackluster competition, dropped a heartbreaker on a neutral site to rival Kansas, got drubbed in the Big 12 Championship Game by No. 4 Oklahoma, and squeaked by No. 22 Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl. Final record: 10-4.
-What does 2013 hold for Texas A&M? It’s hard to tell. Expectations will be sky-high for the Aggies, and there is a history of relative regression for teams a year after they make The Leap. But if the 2012 Texas A&M team taught us anything, it’s that you doubt Johnny Manziel and the Aggies at your own peril.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.