NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Illinois at Nebraska

Having Success

Ask me to boil Nebraska’s time at Big Ten media days down to one word, and I’d use “efficiency.” There are at least two big reasons why this is potentially problematic:

1. Every coach, whether he says it or not, is after “efficiency.” Most of them do say it in one way or another, but even if its never spoken it’s still sought after almost inherently. For all of the grand depictions of football as high-speed chess, the clever gambits and well-disguised attacks are fun and nice, but only if they result in you beating your opponent on more of the 140 or so total plays in a given game. That’s basically football efficiency. Win on a play-by-play basis more often.

2. Every coach and player in the country is saying they’re going to do things better at this time of the year. It’s a hopeful time.

So what to make of Nebraska’s use of the term the past two days? In reference to point No. 1, I’ve never heard the word used as frequently by Bo Pelini and his players as I did over the past two days. Grant Muessel did a nice job of showing what that looks like from a player’s perspective in this story. In short, I’m buying the angle that Nebraska is putting a new, or maybe just renewed, focus on efficiency.

As for point No. 2, the proof is in the pudding. We’ll know if Nebraska efficiently tried to become more efficient in January. But it would be nice to at least get a sense earlier than that so let’s set a benchmark.

Let’s talk success rate.

Success rate is Football Outsider’s measure of efficiency and it’s something we were planning to use in our game coverage this year. I was planning on writing about it in the coming weeks anyway, but with Nebraska driving the point home this week, now seems like the time.

Like the turnover conversation last week,  success rate is one of the “Five Factors” Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall has been writing about at length this offseason. The stat itself isn’t too different from the on-schedule goals most teams have, but, while that might vary slightly from team to team, success rate is standard and turns every play into an on/off proposition — a play either succeeds or it doesn’t. Here are the benchmarks: 50 percent of the yards needed on first down, 70 percent on second down, 100 percent on third and fourth downs. So, if it’s first-and-10 and Nebraska gets five yards, the play’s a success. If not, it’s not. You can quibble with the definition if you want, but that matters less than the fact that it’s standardized.

And it works pretty well, too. According to Connelly’s research, the team with the better success rate in a game wins 83 percent of the time. During the spring, I went back through and charted every Nebraska play from 2013 using this method, not counting plays at the end of blowouts or when a team clearly wasn’t trying to move the ball (end of a half, etc.). Because that last one is pretty subjective, my numbers differ a little bit from Football Outsiders’, but here’s Nebraska’s success rate game-by-game in 2013, along with that of its opponent. (Hover over the bar graphs to see the actual percentage.)

Some thoughts on the data:

–Nebraska went 9-4 last year in success rate and 9-4 on the field, but with a couple of diversions. The Huskers lost the efficiency battle to Penn State 43.42 percent to 34.21 but won the game, largely because Nebraska was better on special teams. Against Michigan State, the Huskers won success rate 45.10 percent to 36.25 but lost 41-28. Everyone knows why.

–That Michigan State game is fascinating. Teams that had a success rate margin between 5 and 10 percentage points in games in 2013 — the Huskers had a nearly nine-point margin — won more than 76 percent of the time according to Connelly. Against the best defense it faced, perhaps the best in the country, Nebraska’s offense was as efficient as it was for the season as a whole. When you consider that as well as the strength of the opponent, there’s little doubt in my mind that it was the Huskers’ best game in 2013. If not for the turnovers.

–Based on success rate alone — and removing South Dakota State from the equation under the FCS Exemption –Nebraska’s most efficient games offensively were against Wyoming (55.17 percent), Illinois (53.06), Northwestern (45.56) and Michigan State (45.10).

–I didn’t include this data above, but you can also measure success rate on standard downs (first down, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less) and passing downs (everything else). It’s an important distinction. Nebraska’s season-long success rate on standard downs was 50.36 percent and 34.31 percent on passing downs. Both numbers were slightly above the national average. Defensively, the Huskers were great in passing situations (27.17 percent) but a little sub-par on standard downs (51.44 percent).

–Overall, Nebraska finished the season with a 45.01 percent success rate on offense, about two percentage points above the national average. By way of comparison, Florida State had a success rate on offense of 54.5 percent in 2013 according to Football Outsiders. The Big Ten’s best last season was Ohio State at 53.8 percent.

So if you’re talking about Nebraska’s pursuit of increased offensive efficiency in 2014, 45 percent is a good place to start. There were just eight teams in 2013 — Texas A&M, Florida State, Ohio State, Oregon, Alabama, Louisville, Ball State, and Navy — to have an offensive success rate better than 50 percent. That might be a stretch for Nebraska in 2014, but even getting to 48 percent would be meaningful and seems within reach. (That would mean maybe 25 more successful plays in 2014 than last season.) Nineteen teams hit that mark in 2013 and, without even factoring defense into the equation, sixteen of them won at least nine games and 10 of them, all from power conferences except for Fresno State, won at least 11.

Is it the answer to the question of “how does Nebraska get past the 9/10 win plateau?” Probably not on its own but the beauty of success rate is that it encompasses a lot of different aspects of the game. That’s why we’ll be tracking it all season long.