Nebraska’s offense is good. There’s a national consensus on that. The Huskers rank 13th nationally in total yards, sixth in yards per play, fifth in rushing offense, and 10th in scoring.
The question is, how much better can the offense be? To answer that, you need to look at drive stats. The latest numbers are up at FBSDriveStats.com and they paint an interesting picture of where Nebraska has succeeded and where it can improve through five games this year.
Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting ones and what they might mean going forward.
(Note: All of the numbers below are based on “Statistically Significant Drives” which takes throwaway drives — killing the clock, games against FCS opponents, drives during blowouts, etc. — and, well, throws them away. That’s why some of the numbers may be different than what you see elsewhere but it’s a much more accurate picture of how a team is performing. For a definition of what a Statistically Significant Drive (SSD) is click here.)
FIELD POSITION: Nebraska’s offense is already pretty successful, now imagine what it could do with some decent field position. The average Huskers drive this year starts at their own 27-yard line. That’s 101st nationally and worse than any team in the Big Ten not named Indiana. Nebraska has had two SSDs start in opposing territory and both came off big kickoff returns. Two.
Football coaches are fond of using a diagram of a football field with a line extending upwards from the 50-yard line. Everything on your half of the 50 is considered uphill, everything on the other side is downhill. Nebraska has been going uphill more than most other teams, which has been great for the Huskers total yardage numbers but it’s going to cost them sooner or later. The easiest way to get better here is turnovers. Safety P.J. Smith estimated that the Huskers could have had four or five against Wisconsin if they had just executed. Instead, the Huskers had one. Nebraska ranks 89th in turnover margin on the season and the Huskers have yet to start a drive in opponent’s territory thanks to a turnover. That has to change.
FUMBLES: Right now, 8.9 percent of Nebraska’s SSDs end in a fumble recovered by the opponent. That’s 104th nationally and dead last in the Big Ten. Everybody already knows Nebraska fumbles too much but quantifying it shows just how lucky the Huskers have been so far. Only 1-4 Arkansas has fumbled more times than 4-1 Nebraska. If the trend continues in conference play, where the teams are more evenly matched, it will cost the Huskers games.
But the real problem is this isn’t an anomaly. In four years under Bo Pelini, Nebraska has finished in the bottom five in total fumbles in three out of four years. The one year they didn’t (2009), Nebraska was slightly above average at 57th nationally. How do you fix a fumbling problem that dates back four and a half seasons? It’s a question without a good answer other than “don’t fumble as much” but how do you coach that? Nebraska’s been looking for an answer for a while. If you want to know how a team ends up 8-4 every year, this is how. It has to get better for the Huskers to deliver a conference championship.
YARDAGE PERCENTAGE: This is a simple concept, of the yards available to a team how many are they picking up? Nebraska has been pretty good here but if there’s one stat that could go up relatively easy, this is it.
On the season, Nebraska is picking up 54.1 percent of the yards available. That ranks 32nd nationally and third in the Big Ten but here’s where things get really interesting. What do you think of Penn State’s offense? If your answer is “not much” that’s understandable. The Nittany Lions rank 84th nationally in total offense (379.6 ypg) and ninth in the Big Ten. But nobody in the conference is more efficient than Penn State. This season they’ve picked up 57.2 percent of the available yards and a large part of the reason why is that the Nittany Lions have the fourth-best average starting field position in the country. (Bonus info: Watch out for Texas. The Longhorns are picking up 71.5 percent of their available yards, nearly 30 points better than the national average.)
This is a good illustration of how Nebraska has succeeded almost in spite of itself. The average drive for both Penn State and Nebraska is pretty similar, 39.6 yards for the Huskers and 36.3 for the Lions. Despite the 10-yard edge on average for Penn State, Nebraska is scoring on 51.1 percent of their drives compared to 36.0 percent for Penn State. No team in the Big Ten has a higher percentage of drives end in points than Nebraska, which ranks 17th nationally.
So, again, how good can the Nebraska offense be? It’s already plenty efficient, perhaps more efficient than should be expected, but if you’re a Huskers fans you should be giddy over what it could be. If Nebraska has merely average field position and fumbled as much as the average team in college football, the Huskers will legitimately have one of the best offenses in college football once you remove the garbage yards and points that cloud traditional stats.
Right now, Nebraska is scoring more than you’d expect based on the data. There’s no magic wand that will grant better field position or fewer fumbles. The Huskers have to earn that, but if they start and the offense continues at its current pace, watch out. That has the makings of a potential conference champion.