Before we kick off the 2019 Nebraska football season in earnest this week, there’s something you need to see.
Before even digesting what the chart measures, just know that the gold dot is Central Florida after Scott Frost’s second season in Orlando. The black dot is Nebraska after Mike Riley’s first two seasons in Lincoln. The red dot is Nebraska after one year with Frost. Each of the green dots is another school that has made a coaching change since 2014.
When talking about the Huskers’ Year 2 ahead it’s almost impossible to avoid at least thinking about UCF’s two years with this same staff. That’s fine. It’s just important to know that the gold dot is all the way up there by itself. It’s 36% better than the next closest team.
What this chart is measuring is the total improvement (or decline) over the first two years after a coaching change using points per play. Say that Coach John Sample inherited a State U team after the 2016 season that had generated 0.4 points per play on offense and allowed 0.5 on defense for a differential of -0.1. This team likely won about four games, hence the need for a new coach.
In 2017, Sample’s State U Statesmen flipped that equation, scoring 0.5 points per play and allowing 0.4 for a Year 1 improvement of 0.2 (0.1 minus -0.1). The Statesmen probably won seven or eight games and Sample was maybe a finalist for Coach of the Year. In Year 2 the offense averaged 0.6 points per play, allowed 0.3 and won the conference at 11-2. Sample was Coach of the Year this time and deserved it. He’d just improved the Statesmen by an impressive 0.5 points per play over two years.
That’s basically what Frost and staff did at UCF. But better.
Because points per play isn’t the easiest number to visualize number, look at it this way. The 0-12 UCF team Frost inherited was 23.8 points per game worse than its opponents. Two years later the Knights were 22.9 points better.
I don’t think this is bursting anyone’s bubble but just in case, that’s not happening at Nebraska. It might not happen anywhere again. From a points per play perspective, it’s virtually impossible.
To match UCF’s total improvement over two years this year’s Huskers would have to be about 0.5 points per play better than their opponents. Only one team has hit that threshold in a season since 2013. The 2013 Florida State team, playing one of the easiest P5 schedules in the country according to Sagarin, won the national title while outscoring teams 52-12 on average. Clemson’s and Alabama’s differentials last year were a little over 0.4 and those are the second- and third-best numbers behind Florida State over the past six seasons. Nebraska in 1995 hit 0.458.
The good news for Nebraska, however, is twofold. One, the hole the Huskers had to climb out of post-Riley wasn’t as deep as the one in Orlando and that effectively limits how big Nebraska’s two-year improvement can be in terms of points. Two, making back-to-back improvements isn’t that common but I would say it’s likely for the 2019 Huskers. The defense is experienced at key spots, the quarterback is excellent and the schedule appears forgiving on the road and challenging at home, just the way you want it. When we get to the end of the 2019 season I’m betting we’ll look at the points per play numbers and see that Nebraska improved for a second straight season.
That second point might seem somewhat counterintuitive. Isn’t the hope with a coaching change to see some immediate gains, even if they’re small, and then some big gains by Year 2?
Well, yes, that’s always the hope but reality doesn’t always follow such a simple trajectory. Go back to the chart above and look at the trend line. Everything in the top right quadrant includes teams that improved their scoring differential in back-to-back seasons. That’s 21 teams out of 78 (26.9%). Back-to-back improvement is more common than improving in Year 1 and then regressing in Year 2 (16.7% of teams, bottom-right)––a group that includes Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic and Purdue last year (though to a very small degree)––or getting worse both years (19.2%, bottom-left).
The most common trajectory, however, is a step back in Year 1 followed by a jump in Year 2 (37.2%, upper-left). In that quadrant you’ll find Kirby Smart’s Georgia and James Franklin’s Penn State among the notables.
So what are we to make of Nebraska already having a positive number under its belt? I’d consider it a very good sign. Despite the same 4-8 record, Nebraska improved its points per play differential by 0.151 from 2017 to 2018. That’s the sixth-best Year 1 improvement at a P5 school since 2014 and, barring some key injuries, it’s hard to see the Huskers going backwards in 2019.
If they don’t, the Huskers get to live in the good neighborhood, Upper Right Gardens. The list of 21 coaches in the upper-right quadrant includes some of the best young coaches in the game (Neal Brown, Matt Campbell, Justin Fuente, Lincoln Riley, Justin Wilcox), Jim Harbaugh, a few G5 guys who started strong but have struggled to maintain that out-of-the-gates momentum (Tony Sanchez, Philip Montgomery) and a couple of redemption songs (Butch Davis, Jeff Tedford). All but one of the coaches in this group either still has his job or took a better one. Major Applewhite is the exception. His two Houston teams improved a little bit by points per play in back-to-back seasons, but then Applewhite’s Cougars gave up 70 points to Army in a bowl game (and Dana Holgorsen wanted to come) so Applewhite was out. He has since taken a residency at Nick Saban’s Home for Wayward Coaches.
It’s a short time span, sure, but if Nebraska does indeed improve in Year 2 Frost will be the first coach to have his name in there twice. It won’t look like what happened at UCF. Not to that degree, anyway, but it doesn’t have to for 2019 to be a success for Nebraska.
“Those two teams have nothing to do with one another,” Frost said at Big Ten Media Days, “and I'm never going to make any comparisons.”
From a numbers perspective, there really isn’t a comparison to make, such was this staff’s stunning success with the Knights. Nobody is expecting Nebraska to simply copy-paste what happened at UCF, but when all you have to go on is past performance it’s hard to think about the season ahead without remembering how it happened in Orlando, even if you want to resist the temptation.
But the time for that sort of stuff is almost over. Another month now and there will be results rather than projections and models. We’ll soon find out just how far the Huskers have come and how far they might go in 2019.
Frost did say he knows his team is better than it was a year ago.
Even if this how everyone thinks these things should always go, better would be a pretty big deal.
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.