Numbers Game: Bad Company

“We need to clean ourselves up,” coach Bo Pelini said on Tuesday. “We talked at length about it and you take the approach as a coach (that) it is what it is. You have to get it fixed.”

What “it” is, in this case, is a battered and bruised defense that is currently allowing 463.8 yards per game and ranks 108th nationally in total defense. If you follow Nebraska football, you’re all too aware of that at this point. With no game this week, all of the numbers are getting rolled out and discussed.

But here’s one number that really hasn’t been discussed — What does “fixed” look like? What’s possible for a defense in Nebraska’s current state and, perhaps more importantly, what’s reasonable?

Let’s look at that.

Over the past five seasons (2008-12) there have been 59 teams that were giving up 463.8 yards or more at the end of September. Let’s call them “The Bottom 20” because that’s the range (104-124) of their national ranks in total defense.

That’s a relatively low number of teams because, frankly, it’s hard to allow that many yards. Even harder if you’re an AQ school from one of the six BCS conferences. Those schools, even at the bottom of the power conferences, have big scheduling advantages that make it hard to really get gashed repeatedly in the first four or five weeks of the season. Thus it’s not surprising that, of those 59 “Bottom 20” teams, there are only 15 BCS conference schools the past five years that have been in a similar spot as Nebraska is in now. To narrow it down even further, just three of those 15 teams started the season ranked in the AP poll as the Huskers did this year.

It’s an unsavory crew for sure and best avoided. But what happens to those teams that have a bad defense at the end of September? A couple of things:

1) They get slightly better, statistically speaking.

Of the 59 teams in this position, 44 improved their national rank (average: +7.98), 49 improved their yards per play allowed (average: +0.29)  and 56 improved their yards per game allowed (average: +36.98) by the end of the season. But improvement is a relative term. There’s little room for these teams to go down, but plenty of room to go up. That’s the inherent bias here and it’s the key because…

2) While bad defenses may get “better” statistically, they don’t become “good.”

Last year Memphis was 0-4 at the end of September and ranked 112th nationally giving up 487.5 yards per game. The Tigers ended the season with the 51st ranked defense (383.6 YPG) but still finished 4-8. That’s the biggest rankings and YPG jump of the last five seasons. Among the AQ schools in this group, 2012 Arkansas is the biggest gainer. Last year the Razorbacks were No. 10 in the AP poll to start the season but ended September 1-3 largely because they gave up 510.2 YPG (120th nationally). By the end of the season, Arkansas had improved its YPG by 100.3 yards — the biggest improvement among the 15 BCS conference teams in this group — and went from 120th nationally in total defense to 74th. The Razorbacks also finished with a 4-8 record.

3) Wins become hard to come by.

We’ll focus on the 15 BCS conference schools in Nebraska’s position the past five years as that’s the best analogue for the Huskers and how their schedule sets up. The cumulative record for those 15 AQ schools who were terrible defensively in August and September was 56-127 (.306). There were four schools from that group that finished with a winning record. All four were 3-1 or better at the end of September and none had fewer than five losses at the end of the season. The list: 2011 Auburn (8-5), 2012 Miami (7-5), 2012 West Virginia (7-6), and 2012 Baylor (8-5). Two of those teams — Baylor and West Virginia — had top-10 offenses. I honestly can’t figure out how Auburn and Miami did it. It’s a mystery.

That’s where Nebraska is at four games into the 2013 season. It isn’t a pretty picture, but — to borrow a term — it is what it is.

The Huskers do have a few things working in their favor. The three FBS teams Nebraska has already faced currently have an average total offense rank of 66th. The eight teams left on Nebraska’s schedule are slightly worse (average rank: 69.75). It’s a small difference, but you can likely expect the average rank of the Big Ten teams to be even lower by the end of the season.

The Huskers can also look to last year for a model. In 2012, Nebraska gave up 340.8 yards per game in August/September but that number fell to 329 in October and 282.3 in November. It’s true that the Big Ten is a good conference to be in if you need to improve your defense, but even that might be looking a little too hard for a silver lining.

The expectation coming into the 2013 season was for Nebraska to get back to the conference title game and finally move past the four-loss plateau. Based on the last five years of data on teams in this position, achieving that is going to be very, very hard. No major football team has done better than 8-5 in the last five years.

Doesn’t mean it can’t happen but if it does everyone needs to recognize that for what it is — a major reversal of trend.


Three numbers to ponder while wondering what to do with yourself this Saturday…

–In 72 career games under Bo Pelini, the Huskers have fumbled the ball 175 times. Nebraska currently ranks 120th nationally with 11 total fumbles in 2013.

–Nebraska currently has one interception for every 15 pass attempts it has faced this season. That ranks fourth nationally.

–The Huskers defense has given up more plays of 10-plus yards (79) than any team in the country other than New Mexico State (87).