“Experimenting time is over. We’ve had four weeks with the new guys and I told them after the game, ‘look, the new guy thing, that’s over.’ Whatever we do, we’re gonna go do with the best 11 that we got.”
That was defensive coordinator John Papuchis moments after Nebraska had given up 465 yards and 6.94 yards per play to South Dakota State two weeks ago. If you’re a Nebraska fan, it’s what you wanted to hear. Yes, the Huskers are really young on defense — perhaps more so than anyone even expected prior to the season — but with a season hanging in the balance, all that matters going forward are results.
Good. Responsibility box checked. But what about those results?
Odds are Nebraska’s inexperience will be easier to agree to ignore — at least for the coaches — than it is to overcome based on past performances across college football. I was asked on the Hail Varsity Radio show last week whether or not we should’ve seen the Huskers’ struggles coming and I didn’t provide a very good answer, which is disappointing because a) I’ve asked myself that question a lot over the first four weeks of the season, and b) I looked at this very question all the way back in June.
The numbers then all indicated that any defense returning four starters or fewer wasn’t likely to be better in the upcoming season. My research showed that, based on stats across college football from 2008 to 2012, Nebraska had about a 3-2 shot at improving either its yards or points allowed per game and a 3-1 shot at improving both.
How have those numbers held up over the first month of the 2013 season? Remarkably well. There were 20 FBS teams that entered this year with four or fewer returning starters on defense according to Phil Steele (the same method for determining returning starters in the previous story). Of that group, there are just four teams (20.0%) that are allowing fewer yards and points per game than they were at this point last season with an experienced defense. That’s the equivalent of 4-1 odds, so just slightly worse given the small sample size early this season.
Ohio State and Florida are both giving up fewer yards this year and the exact same amount of points, which I’ll consider an improvement given the precedent for teams with their level of experience. Louisiana Tech is better in both categories thanks largely to facing 10 fewer plays per game now that Sonny Dykes and his high-flying offense are out in Berkeley now. Kansas simply appears to be better in year two under defensive coordinator Dave Campo.
Of the 16 remaining teams, 11 of them are worse in both yards and points per game, including Nebraska. Here’s how it looks graphically for the 11 BCS conference schools with four or fewer returning starters.
I gave Nebraska about a 50-50 shot of improving its record based solely on its level of experience defensively coming into the season. After four games this season, I think most Husker fans would be ecstatic if it still seemed like a 1-1 proposition. The Huskers have the schedule, and one more perfectly timed bye week, to possibly do it. That’s this team’s saving grace because the early numbers from 2013 indicate it’s still not the most likely outcome.
The Nebraska coaches aren’t playing the youth card any more, and that’s commendable, but it doesn’t remove that card from the deck.
A few other facts and figures I’m thinking about this week…
–Illinois’ high-flying offense cuts both ways. The Illini are averaging 128.7 more yards per game than they were at this point last year, but the defense is allowing 95.8 more yards per game thanks to the extra burden of facing nearly 10 more plays per game in August and September than they were a year ago. Somehow, and none of the traditional factors offered much of a solution, Illinois is giving up three fewer points per game.
–Speaking of the Illini defense: Illinois is one of the worst teams nationally at preventing points in the red zone. The Illini are giving up red zone points at an 87.5 percent clip (90th nationally) but have been decent at limiting the damage down near the goal line. Illinois is currently giving up a touchdown 56.25 percent of the time (45th nationally). That’s 10 percentage points better than last season.
–I went to the Ole Miss-Alabama last week and heard a stat that was somewhat shocking: The Rebels have beaten the Tide just nine times in a series that dates back to 1894. Even when you consider the respective places of these two schools in the college football pecking order, that’s some domination.