Numbers Game: Huskers Lost Ground in 2013

For most of Bo Pelini’s tenure at Nebraska, turnovers have been a hot topic of conversation. They’re random but Nebraska has done its best to challenge that notion in recent years, consistently, and oftentimes decisively, ending up on the short end in the turnover battle.

But today we’re going to talk about what should be the primary concern for Nebraska headed into 2014 — field position. That’s related to turnovers but also encompasses special teams play, the other popular topic from 2013 and we’re talking about it now because of this fact: 2013 was Nebraska’s worst year yet under Pelini from a field position standpoint. Worse even than the 2007 season where the Huskers went 5-7.

We know this because of the amazing work done by FBSDrivestats.com. All of the numbers there are based on statistically significant drivers, a better system than traditional averages because it eliminates the garbage stats compiled during blowouts or other drives where a team’s primary goal might not be moving the football/scoring or preventing that. You can get the definition of a statistically significant drive here, but just know that when I’m referring to a drive from here on out it is a statistically significant drive.

In 2013, Nebraska’s average offensive drive started 72.6 yards away from the end zone (i.e. about at the Huskers’ 29-yard line). That ranked 11th in the Big Ten and 108th nationally. The Huskers’ average offensive drive ended 42.5 yards away from the end zone (i.e. the opponents’ 42-yard line), also ranking 11th in the Big Ten and 96th nationally.

This, of course, has ramifications on the defense. Nebraska’s average defensive drive started with the opponent 66.8 yards away from goal, ranking 116th nationally and, again, 11th in the Big Ten. But the Blackshirts were better at making up ground than the offense was last year. The average ending field position for a defensive drive was the 39.3 yards from goal, not great but a significant improvement to sixth in the Big Ten and 49th nationally.

In the chart below, I’ve laid out the average drive for Big Ten teams last year (offense and defense) with their average starting and ending points. They are sorted, from top to bottom, by best field position. Picture the chart as a football field with the offense going left to right. (Note: Ignore the white boxes as that was a formatting quirk necessitated by the program. But, if you wanted to know exactly where Michigan’s average offensive drive started you could hover over their ‘Avg. SFP’ graph and subtract that number from 100. No addition/subtraction needed for Avg. EFP.)

Now, you may look at those charts and think, “what’s the big difference, every team looks pretty tightly grouped.” That’s true to a degree. The difference between the best offensive starting field position in the league and the worst is about 6 yards. But FBSDrivestats.com has some interesting findings on that too. Based on nearly 90,000 drives between 2007 and 2012, they’ve determined that every 1-yard advantage in starting field position is worth about 0.06 points per drive for the offense.

So let’s apply that to Nebraska last year. The Huskers had a net disadvantage in starting field position of 5.8 yards per drive, meaning Nebraska’s offense started nearly 6 yards further away from the end zone than its opponents’ offenses. That means the Huskers’ opponents were expected to score nearly .33 more points per drive. In 2013, Nebraska had 136 offensive drives while its opponents had 140. For clarity’s sake, let’s say it was even at 138 drives each. Taken over an entire season that means Nebraska’s opponents were expected to score 45.54 more points than the Huskers based on field position alone.

The Huskers’ opponents didn’t do that, of course. Nebraska held a 415 to 323 scoring edge this season, which should illustrate a familiar point for Husker fans: Whether we’re talking about turnovers or special teams gaffes or where those two issues converge, along with some strategy, to represent field position, Nebraska tends to succeed almost in spite of itself. But we also know that Nebraska’s current level of success (nine- to 10-win seasons) isn’t meeting expectations for some Husker fans, which prompts the question: What if Nebraska could play football straight up? A hypothetical game where every drive starts 75-yards away from the end zone?

That sort of football game doesn’t exist of course, but that doesn’t mean a team can’t try to create it. (Insert your own Kirk Ferentz/Jim Tressel joke here if you’ve got one.) To win more games than it has over the past six years, I don’t think Nebraska needs to drastically win the turnover, field position or penalty battles; though doing all of those things would work pretty well. Given the way the Huskers have won while hurting themselves pretty significantly in some areas, I’m starting to think they don’t need to tip the scales so much as simply balance them in 2014.

Of course, that’s easier said than done but it also might represent a philosophical change as much as anything. (I know everyone has a lot of them, so insert your second Ferentz/Tressel joke here.)

Just something to consider as we talk story lines for the 2014 season.