Nebraska was an underdog three times during the 2016 regular season. It lost all three games. It wasn’t even in the game after halftime in two of them.
So here at the end of the regular season, no shot at a division title still remaining, what do you make of that? Nebraska won nine games it was expected to, though the Huskers being a favorite over Oregon in September doesn’t accurately portray the feeling going into that game. Nebraska lost three games it was expected to, though losing 40-10 to Iowa doesn’t accurately portray the feeling going into that one either.
Was it progress? That’s really the only question that matters in year two of a coaching tenure and it’s a tough question to answer for Nebraska right now.
“We better talk about that later,” Mike Riley said after the game. “It’s hard to assess the whole picture after that performance.”
It is hard, but that won’t keep that very topic from being the hot water-cooler talk of the holiday season in Husker nation. It is also hard to believe that one game can change the entire context of the season, but Iowa’s dominance certainly forced the issue.
Nebraska didn’t do anything it needed to in this game. The offense, with Tommy Armstrong Jr. at less than 100 percent, averaged just 3.2 yards per play. Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe, also hobbled to the point where he got one drive and attempted two passes, combined to complete less than 40 percent of their passes. The Huskers’ last four drives of the game, starting with 5:38 left in the third quarter, netted a total of -1 yard.
The Nebraska defense gave up 208 yards on three plays, including touchdowns of 75 and 77 yards, to Iowa in the first half. Those were the Hawkeyes’ longest rushing and passing plays of the season. Special teams wasn’t any better. The Huskers average drive started 16 yards farther from goal than Iowa’s. Nebraska didn’t have a single drive start inside its own 30-yard line.
“There wasn’t any phase of the game that looked very good today,” Riley said.
Even if you are cautious not to overreact to the result of one game, that should be enough to throw at least some of that caution to the wind.
If you told most Husker fans Nebraska would be 9-3 this year back in August, I don’t know many that wouldn’t have taken that deal. But the context of August isn’t the context of late November. It’s always changing, as it should. After Nebraska played well in a loss to Wisconsin, I thought maybe the program was showing signs of progress. After the brutal loss at Ohio State, I thought it was proof Nebraska had a long way still to go.
After this latest loss, it feels like the Huskers are simply back to even.
Here’s the context that rings truest to me after two seasons of the Riley era. In 2015, Nebraska outscored its opponents 390-333 in the regular season, a difference of 57 points. In 2016, Nebraska outscored its opponents 321-273 in the regular season, a difference of 48 points.
In terms of appearances and perception, 9-3 is obviously better than 5-7. But when it comes time to determine just how good this year’s Husker team was, there’s not a lot of objective data to separate it from last year.
One thing will be different, however. The off-season love.
Last year Nebraska was the 6-7 team that outscored its opponents and wasn’t as bad as the average observer thought it was. This year’s Nebraska team, when the off-season officially rolls around, will be the nine or 10 win team that almost nobody thought was as good as its record. Some people don’t like “stat guys”, but stat guys, something of which I am often accused of being, are going to be pretty cautious when it comes time to assess Nebraska. Most talking heads, factoring in a major switch at quarterback and the loss of Nebraska’s leading rusher plus some key cogs on defense, won’t be talking big about the Big Red next spring and summer either.
That’s not a slight, just where things stand here at the end of 2016. In two years under Riley, Nebraska has scored 748 points and given up 635 over 25 games. If you put any stock at all in Pythagorean wins, those point totals would tell you that Nebraska should have won 14.9 of its 25 games so far with this staff.
It has won 15.
That is still a small sample size and still better than being below the expected total, but if you are trying to figure out what Nebraska is after a humbling loss at Iowa, that’s sort of where things stand. Over the last two seasons, taken as a whole, Nebraska has won as many games as it should have.
It still means something that at a place like Nebraska that number is always going to hover around eight or nine wins before a game is even played, but it also feels a lot like the rest of Husker football in the 21st century.
Nebraska still starts out at a higher level than a lot of programs, based on what it earned in the past, but Husker fans will once again have to wait for any sure signs that the program is pointed towards anything better than the team that wins as often as it should going forward.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.