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A quick, historical look at Nebraska’s 2012 offense

We all know that Nebraska’s offense is good. At the moment, it’s the best in the Big Ten and 20th nationally in terms of yards per play. The real question is how good?

Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I decided to look at Nebraska’s numbers this year against those of the past 20 years. I wouldn’t call it historically good quite yet, but it’s close, and a year of experience in offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s offense has made a significant difference. With 11 games in the books, Nebraska has already rushed for more yards in 2012 (2826) than it did in 2011 (2824) and passed for more (2442 yards versus 2115) as well. On a per play basis — the easiest way to measure efficiency across different schemes and a better measure than per game averages — this Nebraska offense is the best since the national title year of 1997 and the third-best of the past 20 years.

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Here are rushing, passing, and total yards per play from the past 20 seasons of Nebraska football. I’ve also included yards per point, a measure of scoring efficiency, and yards per touchdown — simply yards per point multiplied by seven — as that’s a little easier to visualize. There’s also the run-pass splits from each year for reference (click to enlarge):

 Some quick reactions to that data:

–The 2012 team’s 6.46 yards per play currently trails only the national championship teams of 1997 (6.58) and 1995 (7.16). To give you an idea of how offensive statistics are changing in this new era, in 1995 there were two teams — Nebraska and Florida — who averaged more than 7 yards per play and they played for the national championship. (For the record, doing that as a predominantly running team is freakish.) From 1990 to 1999, there were 13 teams total in the country who averaged more than 7 yards per play. Between 2008 and 2011, 14 teams did it and, right now, four teams are doing it in 2012. If you really want to compare Nebraska’s 2012 numbers with those of the 1990s, you’d almost have to come up with an equation that allowed for inflation, but…

–In comparison to the rest of the Pelini era — a more consistent comparison — this is still the best offense of the past five years. The 2008 offense featuring Joe Ganz is close at 6.38 yards per play. That team threw the ball about 10 percent more often than this year’s team does.

–Nebraska rushing yards per play is the best since the Huskers abandoned the option, though 2010 — with a pair of NFL backs in the backfield in Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead — was close. But overall, the 5.51 yards per carry the 2012 team is averaging is on par with the good teams from the 1990s.

–Yards per point is a tricky statistic for comparing years because it can be influenced by a number of different factors — strength of schedule, defensive scores (which hasn’t been separated out above), and starting field position. With all of that in mind, it can still be an interesting way to look at scoring.

The 2012 team is scoring one point for every 12.79 yards it gains. That’s about average (ninth overall) for the past 20 years, indicating that the Huskers are scoring about as many points as they should historically. The 1995 team, which had the highest yards per point average, probably earned more points than it got which isn’t surprising given that the averaged margin of victory that year was 38.66 points. Scary to think that a team that averaged more than 52 points per game probably should have, and definitely could have, been closer to 60 per game. It should also be noted that that team played four teams ranked in the AP top 10.

–Back to this year’s squad, the yards per touchdown number is just an easier way to visualize yards per point. Nebraska is currently getting seven points for every 89.5 yards it gains. This is a post about the offense, but, just for comparison, the Huskers’ opponents are averaging 95.98 yards per touchdown.

That’s how you want that ratio to look but where you really want to be on defense is where Pelini’s 2009 squad was. That year, Nebraska’s opponents needed 182.1 yards of offense for every touchdown they scored. (That is also freakish.) The 1995 team forced its opponents to go 150.97 yards for every touchdown they got.

–Bill Callahan’s teams were, of course, the most balanced teams of the past 20 years, occupying four of the top five spots. Shawn Watson offenses take up three more of the top 10 spots, meaning seven of the 10 most well-balanced offenses come from the West Coast Offense era. Tim Beck’s offense is a nice blend of both. The 2011 squad was 68-percent run, and Nebraska has trimmed that by 5-percent this season. It’s nowhere near the “50-50″ everyone was talking about in August, but it’s better and could go down again next year with the continued development of Taylor Martnez and his receiving corps. Strangely enough, the 1995 team takes up the last spot in the “balance top 10.” That team didn’t throw a ton (just 27-percent) but that was more than any other team of the Osborne/Solich teams from 1990 through 2003.

There’s an outside chance that this 2012 team could set the school record for most total yards in a season. The 2012 Huskers are currently 1292 yards away from the 1983 team’s record of 6560. With potentially three games left to play Nebraska would, at it’s current pace, end the season with about 6700 yards.

It would look nice in the record books, but nobody’s comparing this team to the ’83 squad. That team averaged 546.67 yards per game — nearly 70 yards better than the 2012 team — and that’s not even the school record. That too belongs to the 1995 teams, which averaged 556.3 yards per game.

So how good is this year’s offense? It’s pretty good, perhaps even very good, but it has a ways to go to be considered among Nebraska’s best.