Everything feels new and improved with Nebraska football. That was true the day Scott Frost was hired, but it’s even more true now that the perennials––the guys are in better shape, the nearly forgotten lineman seems to be getting it, the sense of urgency is renewed––are beginning to bloom again.
One thing that hasn’t changed: How the cold, unfeeling numbers view Nebraska. They're here again like a heavy April snow.
One year ago, I wrote about the Huskers and ESPN’s Football Power Index-based projection of 5.5 wins in 2017. When Nebraska couldn’t even hit that number, which everyone, me included, felt was low, it forced a thread-the-needle, no-Plan-B coaching change that’s still something to marvel at.
Yet here in 2018, 365 days later, it’s 5.5 wins again. If you really want to get into it you can dive into the FPI methodology here, but what you need to know is that preseason rankings are a blend of four-year weighted performance in all three phases, returning experience (with a quarterback bonus), recruiting rankings and “coaching tenure.”
"Coaching tenure is primarily a way to capture the addition of a new head coach. With all else equal, a team’s predictive offensive, defensive and special teams ratings will regress slightly to the mean with the addition of a new coach."
The only thing that has meaningfully changed from 4-8 Nebraska a year ago is, of course, the coaching component. It's a big one. The biggest in my view, but it's a statistical problem. How do you account for a new coach? FPI does it by making teams more average. Based on last year's FPI team efficiencies (where 50 is the rough average on a 100-point scale), that would mean the Huskers' offense (50.8 at the end of last season) stays mostly the same, the defense (30.6) gets a little better and special teams (62.3) get a little worse. That is just a slice of the FPI preseason pie, and we don't know the exact numbers yet, but it's what the Huskers are getting credit for in the "coaching" category, it's primary selling point for 2018.
And almost no one in Nebraska is going to agree with that. It should feel familiar based on the FPI fury last spring, and that's OK.
This is actually a good thing for the Huskers in Frost's first year on a couple of fronts. If you don't dismiss fancy figurin' out of hand simply because it's fancy, this is a good reminder of what the "known" variables say about this football program at this specific moment. It's average. Been average for basically the entire look-back period ESPN uses in these calculations, and that should matter.
It can be a baseline, practically if not emotionally, and that will allow the context of the season––the actual games and stuff––to tell the story and shape perception, which is how it always works anyway. Practically, the consensus opinion on the Huskers right now is that 2018 is all about progress. Emotionally, uh, we'll see if folks can maintain that pragmatism. It's unnatural in an endeavor governed primarily by visceral reaction, which I believe is the working definition of "football fandom." Give people a couple of those beautiful blooms of hope early, and they'll start to expect more quickly even if they said they wouldn't. Nothing wrong with that, just how it is.
And it's here where it's worth really looking at that number, 5.5 When that was Nebraska's number in 2017 the Huskers' FPI was 3.4, meaning the model viewed Nebraska as 3.4 points better than the average team. By season's end the FPI was down to -2.1, nearly a touchdown worse. The 2018 team starts out with an FPI of 3.9––already better, thanks coaching and your attendant regression to the mean!––which against the 28th-toughest schedule (last year's was 53rd) pencils out to 5.5 again.
The 5.5 number is the one that will get all the attention, if someone asks Frost about it I'm certain he'll give a blockbuster quote, but it's really the points that will tell you how Nebraska's doing. In 2016, UCF went from a -8.2 FPI (and 4.4 expected wins) at the start of the season to -0.3 at year's end.
I feel great about the Huskers' chances to be better in both numbers at the end of the year. I felt OK about that last year. I remember writing at the time that 7.5 felt like a more realistic over-under and eventually I decided to go over, by a half game, on my own overly ambitious over-under. I was wrong, but here I am ready to do it again. Nebraska will outperform its 5.5 FPI-projected wins.
I guess under poker law, that might make me the de facto sucker at the table, but that's the great thing about the commentary game. You never run out of chips.
The Grab Bag
- If you're not thrilled with Nebraska's outlook via FPI, it would be worse. The Huskers could still be a Big 12 team.
- If you can cut through the excuses, I think Johnny Manziel is actually saying something interesting as it pertains to spread offenses at the college level.
- Good writeup here on what, in my very biased opinion, is one of most revelatory ideas from John Cook's Dream Like a Champion.
- ICYMI: We got some great questions in the mailbag this week, and published a couple of player updates (Will Honas, Greg Bell) as well as an interview with Kearney 2020 prospect Miko Maessner.
Today's Song of Today
(which was also last year's song of last year's today, and thus is now the official song of FPI win projections)