Picked up a new national college football preview over the weekend. This one’s a new entry in the market from McIllece Sports, which has been publishing projections since 2010 but has ramped up to a 1,000-page pdf this year. If numbers are your thing there are plenty here, including individual player ratings.
The ranking system at McIllece Sports is based on how many points an offense is projected to score and how many a defense is projected to allow standardized to an average opponent on a neutral field. The difference between those two numbers is the power ranking, and I’m not going reveal any of the details regarding Nebraska other than the 2018 projection has the Huskers’ scoring offense ranked 30th in the country, the scoring defense 100th.
That would represent a decent jump for an offense that ranked 84th in scoring offense a year ago (Frost Effect + Nebraska’s two best players are on offense), and a small jump for a defense that ranked 116th in 2017. That jumped out to me as I wrote earlier this summer that one of the ways Nebraska outperforms its modest projections for 2018 is with a big jump on defense. McIllece Sports isn’t projecting that. Few are as it doesn’t look likely on paper, and I agree.
But how could it happen? Last week I identified three key numbers that would help the offense improve beyond reasonable expectations. Today we’ll tackle the defense. (Same as last week, the majority of these numbers came from cfbanalytics.com or footballoutsiders.com.)
Opponent Completion Percentage: This number should go down for the Huskers in 2018, and that’s probably going to come with an increase in explosive touchdowns (those of 20-plus yards) but that’s just fine. One of the things Nebraska’s defense was legitimately good at was limiting those big-play touchdowns; 29.3 percent of the touchdowns allowed a year ago covered 20-plus yards, which ranked 29th nationally. Didn’t much matter because teams were able to move the ball on a play-by-play basis against the Blackshirts thus limiting the need and opportunity for 40-yard scoring strikes. UCF’s defense ranked 82nd in this category. Nearly 40 percent (39.5) of the touchdowns allowed by the Knights came from outside the red zone.
To put it another way: The dam would crack against UCF at times last year but remain standing. Nebraska’s dam was just methodically dismantled.
Now back to completion percentage. Nebraska and UCF gave up similar yards per pass attempt and explosive-pass numbers in 2017, but there was a huge difference in completion percentage –– 64.5 (115th) for Nebraska, 55.0 (28th) for UCF. If the yards-per-attempt and explosive-play numbers were about the same, that’s showing you the actual value of incompletions. Nebraska didn’t have nearly enough of them in 2017, and in 2018 it’ll be a good health check on how the Huskers are taking to Erik Chinanders aggressive, risk-taking approach.
TakeOpps: Short for Takeaway Opportunities, this is a number I’ve been tinkering with since March and plan to follow closely in 2018 as I think it’s another vital progress report for the Blackshirts. Here’s the basic idea (forced fumbles + passes defended) behind it:
The theory here is pretty simple: Any team over the long haul will get half its fumbles and intercept about 20 percent of its passes defended over the long run, so the way to boost takeaway numbers is to try to create those opportunities.
UCF was very good at creating those opportunities. The Knights created 7.7 TakeOpps per game in 2016 and 6.5 in 2017 and ranked in the top 20 in total takeaways both seasons. Nebraska created a nearly-average 5.0 TakeOpps per game in 2016, but dropped to 3.5 (129th) in 2017.
For this brand of defense to work, the Takeaway Opportunities need to be frequent. The Huskers would need to jump to better than 6 TakeOpps per game to most likely rank in the top 30 nationally and about 5.7 to hit the top 40. Anything above average would be a great result for Nebraska this season, however. Combine that with a little turnovers luck and then the Huskers might really have something.
First-Down Defense: It can sometimes be a little fruitless to divvy up numbers by down, but first down is a bit of an exception in my mind. It’s really tough to be good on defense if that defense isn’t good on first down and Nebraska wasn’t last season. The Huskers gave up an average of 6.65 yards per play on first down. Add in that Nebraska wasn’t good at creating negative plays (turnovers and TFLs) and it was virtually impossible for the Huskers to end drives when the opposing offense was in second-and-four on average.
UCF was only slightly better than average here last season (5.46 YPP, 46th), but that’s really the key takeaway here. A defense can be middle-of-the-road in yardage stats, even on first down, if it’s forcing negative plays and ending drives. It doesn’t hurt when your offense averages almost 50 points a game either.
The latter is unlikely for Nebraska this season, but the former is going to be vital. That’s why all three of these categories –– while not likely the first things you’ll look at (or calculate) when pulling up the box score –– are effectively different ways to measure how well the Huskers are doing the one thing Chinander feels they have to do –– get after the ball, swing your sword, take your shot, however you want to put it.
I think Nebraska’s defenders will take to that mentality quickly, but execution always remains another matter entirely.
The Grab Bag
- Iowa appears to have a punt robot.
- Here are ESPN’s preseason SEC power rankings ahead of conference media days.
- A ranking of all the various college football rankings.
- ICYMI: Tristan Gebbia is ready to take a leadership role on the field and off for Nebraska, plus Erin Sorensen offers some observations from yesterday’s Nebraska Football Road Race.
Today’s Song of Today
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.