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What winning looks like at Nebraska

At a place like Nebraska, you’re expected to win. That’s the baseline. And at a place like Nebraska you can probably win about 70-percent of your games simply by being Nebraska. When you factor in the seven or eight home games every year, the significant advantage in money over most schools, the significant advantage in resources over the bottom half of your conference, and simple name recognition, that’s where you start. Not incidentally, that’s the school’s all-time winning percentage — .705 to be exact — right now.

Bo Pelini’s been one percent better than that through five years. (Ed. As a commenter noted below, I am referring to one percentage point here. Sorry for the lack of clarity.) His winning percentage is .716. It doesn’t feel like it right now, but a 70-31 loss and 0-3 record in conference title games will do that.

That’s really the measure of success at Nebraska. What a coach is really expected to do at Nebraska is win titles and to do that, you need to win big games. With so many calls for change floating around — the staff, the scheme, the coach himself — now seemed like a good time to try to isolate how well not just Pelini was doing in that regard, but the past Nebraska coaches as well.

To do that, we’re going to look at games against ranked opponents. Point spread data would probably be the best method, but I don’t have point spread data dating back to 1936. I do, however, have data for every game Nebraska’s ever played against an opponent ranked in the Associated Press poll.

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The AP poll began in 1936, providing a convenient cutoff point for “modern college football.” Through 1961, the writers ranked 20 teams. From 1962 to 1967, only 10, then back to 20 from 1968 to 1988. Since 1989, the AP poll has included the now customary top 25. This will come into play later.

In the AP poll era (1936 to present), Nebraska’s overall winning percentage is .688 (593-265-13). It started with 26 years of below average football (.433) before Bob Devaney arrived. Over the next 37 years (.834), nobody was better. The last 15 (.685) have been about average.

After going through and collecting all the data for Nebraska’s games against ranked opponents, this will give you an idea of how that happens. Since 1936, the Huskers are 101-116-3 (.466) all-time against ranked opponents. That means Nebraska had a .763 winning percentage against unranked opponents.

This shouldn’t be surprising. There are classes in college football and Nebraska, for most of its history, has been a member of the ruling class. I suspect the numbers would be similar at other schools in the country as well. The Nebraska’s, Michigan’s, Texas’s, Notre Dame’s, and Alabama’s of the world get fat feasting on the teams who either don’t have or aren’t willing to devote the same amount of resources to win football games.

Below is a chart (click to enlarge) that includes the record of the past five Nebraska coaches, and all of the AP era coaches prior to that grouped together, in games against both ranked and non-ranked opponents. You also have the average opponent rank, Nebraska’s average rank*, and the average margin in games against ranked opponents.

* If Nebraska wasn’t also ranked for at least 70-percent of its games against ranked teams, I threw out NU’s average rank as it was too skewed to be instructive. The average opponent rank, since we’re looking only at games that include ranked teams, is true.


What does that show us? Overall, it shows that the margin between being a great coach and a good coach who can’t win the big game is relatively small (about 20-percent). Of the four coaches on that list — Pelini, Solich, Osborne and Devaney — to win 70-percent of their games, all had winning percentages of between .420 and .620 against ranked teams. Basically, when the teams are close to evenly matched, the difference between success and failure is winning the majority of those games even if it’s only a slight majority.

Let’s look at some individual notes by coach.

DEVANEY — His numbers are slightly skewed due to the fact that the AP only ranked 10 teams for six of his 11 years as coach. If he had gotten credit for wins over teams ranked 11-20, his winning percentage likely would have been higher. Based on Tom Osborne’s overall numbers, I’m guessing maybe 5- to 7-percent.

OSBORNE — Speaking of which, if you limit Osborne’s numbers to just games against top 10 teams, he went 26-32 in those games (.448). More on that later. (UPDATE: In response to a comment below, Osborne was 44-36-1 (.550) prior to 1994. After that, he went 16-1 against the top 25.)

SOLICH — The interesting thing with Solich is that he had a losing record overall against ranked teams, but a positive margin on the scoreboard. Basically, his wins over ranked opponents were all front-loaded. He had a 48-point win over No. 9 Washington in 1998, a 37-point win over No. 21 Texas A&M and a 26-point win over No. 5 Kansas State in 1999, and a 49-point win over No. 18 Northwestern in 2000. Wins like those built up enough points that big losses to Colorado, Miami, Kansas State, and Texas in his last three years didn’t change the overall margin. They did get him fired, however.

Solich did win .444 percent of his games against top 10 opponents, which is second on the list only to Osborne.

CALLAHAN — He went 0-10 against teams ranked from 1-19 and 3-0 against teams from 20-25. All three of those wins came while Nebraska was unranked. Enough said.

PELINI – The real question that’s on everyone’s minds at the moments is which of the previous four Nebraska coaches does Pelini most closely resemble? The answer is Solich. Pelini’s current winning percentage (.716 overall) is about four percentage points worse than Solich’s, but Pelini didn’t have the benefit of starting with a national title caliber team. In six seasons, Solich played for (and won) one conference title. In five seasons, Pelini’s played for three (losing all three). So, if you were one of the people who thought, either at the time or in retrospect, that Solich shouldn’t have been fired, you can probably feel the same about Bo Pelini based on the numbers. But, as we also learned from Solich’s example, big embarrassing losses don’t sit well.

We’ve heard a lot in the aftermath of the Wisconsin loss about how Pelini isn’t a “big game” coach. It’s important, however, to know exactly what we mean when we say that. Bo Pelini has won a lower percentage of his games against ranked opponents than Devaney, Osborne, or Solich did. That’s true, but it’s not significantly less.

Over the past 50 years, Nebraska is the winningest program in college football. Yet, only one of the coaches during that span — Tom Osborne — won more than half his games against opponents ranked in the AP poll. None of those five coaches won more than half of their games against top 10 teams. At the winningest program in college football.

This illustrates the point of staying in the hunt. That’s really the job of a coach at a place like Nebraska. Stay in the hunt, hang around, and, when you catch a few breaks and maybe have a team with just slightly better talent than you’re used to having, you occasionally break through.

It’s tough to think about that following a 70-31 loss, and I’m making no effort to spin it that way. There are hundreds of small issues — talent, staff moves, good luck, bad luck, etc. — that those numbers represent, but it is what 50-plus years of data shows.