Through four weeks this season Nebraska has been the worst field position team in the Big Ten. Per the field-position numbers at BCftoys.com, which removes garbage-time drives (with a garbage-time calculation that I actually like), the Huskers rank 114th nationally in starting field position for the offense with the average drive starting 73.8 yards from goal (own 26). The defense ranks 115th with the average opponent drive starting 66.6 yards from goal (own 33).
That might not feel like a huge difference, but every yard matters when you're talking field position and expected points. Based on the numbers above, an average team is expected to score 22.1 and allow 25.8 points. The Huskers' net field position difference of -7.1 yards ranks 119th.
SB Nation uses a slightly different garbage-time definition, and has slightly different field-position ranks for Nebraska: 124th on offense, 126th on defense. You get the point. And if you watched the Huskers first three games those numbers won't surprise you, but they're still worth noting in my opinion.
Back when Tom Osborne was on the College Football Playoff selection committee, he gave an interview in which he mentioned the statistics he was paying attention to as he evaluated teams. One of the first numbers he mentioned was field position. That's because it's really one of the most comprehensive numbers you can look at to determine how a team is playing.
It's an overall health check of a team because it's hard to get a positive net field position differential –– what a team wants –– without being good across the board. What's it take to get a short field for your offense? Takeaways, a solid return game, a defense that can get stops when it has the leverage of a long field. Per BCftoys.com's calculations, the Huskers' offense has had a short field (60 yards or less) on just 11.1 percent of drives, 107th nationally.
Avoiding short fields for the defense? An offense that avoids turnovers (Nebraska's primary problem in this regard), can move the ball at least a little no matter where it's at on the field and solid punt coverage. Nebraska's defense has had a short field to work with 29.4 percent of the time, 119th nationally.
To compare that to the current gold standard (in terms of pure power) Alabama has a net field position edge of 12.4 yards per drive. An average team with that differential, based on 12 non-garbage-time drives per game, could expect a score of 26.5-20.8. Alabama's field position is giving the Tide nearly a touchdown edge per game, based on national averages, and, the Tide being really good, Alabama has turned that into a 41-point edge per game through four games. Four games against Power 5 opponents.
But if you don't feel like Alabama is a fair comparison for Nebraska at the moment, check out the actual leader in this category. Syracuse is 4-0 (3-0 for these calculations as games against FCS opponents are removed) and leads the country in net field position. The Orange has nearly the same expected-points edge Alabama does. Now, Syracuse has engineered that against a schedule that includes Western Michigan, Florida State and Connecticut. We'll see if the Orange can do anything close to that this week at Clemson, and we'll see if it's sustainable over the course of an entire season.
As for Nebraska, if you're still holding out hope for a drastic turnaround for the Huskers in 2018 it probably has to start here. Nebraska has so many things to improve upon that the easiest way to know if enough of those improvements are happening might be to simply look at how far away the goal line is on each and every drive.
The Grab Bag
- Orlando columnist Mike Bianchi misses Scott Frost. No doubt about it.
- LSU's band performed the theme from "The Office" at halftime last week and it was good.
- Clemson is going with its true freshman quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, and now might be looking at losing the new No. 2, Kelly Bryant, to transfer. (UPDATE: Bryant will transfer.)
- ICYMI: Sights and sounds from Nebrasketball practice, Greg Smith's latest recruiting notebook, Jacob Padilla spoke with WNCC's basketball coach about Nebraska's latest commit, Erin Sorensen on the long snappers and a can't-miss Lo-Down from Lauren West.
Today's Song of Today