Four is likely the number you’re going to hear mentioned most when the preseason pundits talk about Nebraska this summer. As in four returning starters on defense, the fewest of the Bo Pelini era. The Huskers are one of just 20 teams (out of 125 in FBS this year) with four or fewer defensive starters back in 2013 according to Phil Steele.
Any preseason prediction for Nebraska likely hinges on how well the prognosticator thinks the Huskers can handle that inexperience on defense. Some, maybe even most if we’re going by the preseason picks that have come out thus far, think it will keep Nebraska from making a return trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. Others think the increased athleticism and speed Nebraska looks to have will offset the inexperience. Either way, this question is likely the key question facing Nebraska in 2013 and the answer typically comes down to “feel.” This is a tough thing to model.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
To do that, I charted all of the FBS teams with similar levels of defensive inexperience, based on returning starters, from 2008 through 2012 (five seasons). There are different ways to count returning starters — Nebraska nickel back Ciante Evans is a good example — so for the sake of uniformity I used Phil Steele’s counts from his preseason College Football Previews.
In total, 71 teams have had four or fewer defensive starters returning since 2008. How did those teams do in that season? Only about one-third of them improved statistically. There were 23 teams (32.4%) who improved their total defense (yards per game) and 21 teams (29.6%) that improved their scoring defense (points per game). Just 13 teams (18.3%) improved both their total and scoring defense. If you wanted to put odds on Nebraska doing that this season based on the recent past, you’d be at about 9-2.
We can dial it down even further from there by eliminating the teams that were less experienced than Nebraska. There were 48 teams between 2008 and 2012 who had exactly four defensive starters returning, same as the Huskers this year. Do that and the odds of improving statistically get better. Twenty of those “four starter defenses” (41.6%) improved their total defense and 19 (39.6%) improved their scoring defense. There were 12 teams (25.0%) that did both, giving Nebraska odds of 3-1 to do the same in 2013.
But defensive statistics ultimately only matter within the context of wins and losses. We can look at the correlation there too but, before we do, a note about these win/loss numbers: There are a lot of ways to win or lose a football game. Defense is only one half (or third if you’re a special teams coach) of the game. The numbers below make no effort to account for coaching changes, conference moves, injuries, terrible play calling, NCAA sanctions, schedule strength, simple bad luck, bad officiating, or any of the other numerous reasons a team’s win/loss record could improve or decline. It is simply a measure of how teams with an inexperienced defense did in that season, compared to the season before it.
In both cases, teams with four or fewer defensive starters back and teams with exactly four starters back, the result was the same: Those teams, on average, lost exactly one more game and won one fewer. The chart below breaks it down even further:
As you can see, there’s a slight difference when you remove the least experienced teams. Over the past five seasons, teams with four or fewer defensive starters returning have improved or had the same win total 45.1 percent of the time. Limit it to four starter teams and the same percentage increases by more than 10 percent to 56.3. Based on nothing more than its experience level on defense, it’s basically a coin flip as to whether or not Nebraska equals or betters its 10-4 record from 2012.
But a coin flip may not be good enough in 2013. Pressure is mounting for Bo Pelini to do more than win a division title while dropping four games along the way. A trip to the Big Ten title game seems like the minimum expectation, especially when you consider the Huskers’ relatively easy schedule this season. Winning that game is probably what needs to happen for Pelini to avoid widespread claims that his program is stuck in neutral. (Though plenty are already saying the same.) That claim is easy enough to ignore in year three. Not so much at the end of year six in today’s college football.
If we’re to agree that a conference championship is the minimum requirement for most Nebraska fans this season, it’s likely that the Huskers would need to win at least one more game in 2013. Less than 20 percent of the teams with the exact same amount of experience on defense have done that over the past five seasons, but there is one good analog for Nebraska from that span. If you’re a Huskers fan, you’re hoping the 2013 Blackshirts resemble the 2008 Texas Longhorns.
That year, Mack Brown’s 11th in Austin, the Longhorns were coming off a 10-3 season with seven starters back from a very good offense and just four starters returning from a mediocre defense that gave up more than 35 points per game in three conference losses. Phil Steele picked the Longhorns to finish third in the Big 12 South in 2008. The previous season, Texas put up numbers that were strikingly similar to Nebraska in 2012:
In 2008 the Texas defense gave up 28.3 fewer yards (a meager improvement) and 6.5 fewer points (the third-best year-to-year improvement of the past five seasons) than it did in 2007. That was more than enough when paired with the Longhorns’ already powerful offense. Texas beat three teams ranked in the top 11 and was one dropped interception, not to mention eight miserable Michael Crabtree seconds, away from going undefeated that season. The Longhorns missed out on a chance to play for the conference crown due to the Big 12′s tie-breaker rules at the time but did go on to beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
If you’re a Nebraska fan in 2013, you probably take that 12-1 season even without the conference title.
But there is one major difference between 2013 Nebraska and 2008 Texas: Mack Brown ditched his co-defensive coordinators from 2007 and hired Will Muschamp, one of the brightest young defensive minds in the game.
Nebraska won’t benefit from any of that new blood bounce in the coaching ranks, though there could be plenty of it on the field. I’m in the camp that thinks the Huskers’ defense will be better this year though the evidence to support that theory is pretty limited. Call it a hunch if you will. That wouldn’t be inaccurate. I think anyone saying the Blackshirts are better this season is playing a hunch to some degree.
Now, would I be willing to bet that hunch? Based on recent history, I’d need some pretty good odds.