Hot Reads: Back to Basics and a Simplified Season
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Back to Basics and a Simplified Season

October 18, 2019

It's a back-to-basics week for Nebraska football. 

"This week has been all about getting back to the fundamentals, making sure we're staying on blacks better, making sure we're coming off the ball better up front, making sure we're blocking better on the perimeter, tackling and blocking drills all week," Scott Frost said on his monthly coaches show. "We're kind of trying to run some of our base stuff and making sure it can be a little more reliable and we can count on it."

I don't know if that will be comforting for an uncomfortable fan base, but with the Huskers at 4-3––and not just at 4-3, but also factoring in how it got there––the special season that seemed possible in the offseason is all but off the table. The rest of 2019 is simpler because of that. We're in near Year 1 territory from here on out. Nebraska needs to be better at the end of the year than it was at the beginning of the year. That’s it.

If you're saying, "Well, that shouldn't be hard," I get it. Everything gets held up against what we thought Husker football could be in 2019 and Nebraska didn't exactly bolt from the gate.

But showing progress in Year 2 at the end of Year 2 isn't going to be easy, nor is it out of reach. At least not the way I look at it.

I write about power rankings a lot. Not because they're magical, though they do signify a pretty amazing time in college football. For most of the sport's history we argued about which teams were the best. The sport was a big ol' pie case full of regional pies and deciding the national champion was like trying to say which slice was best. How do you even compare pecan pie (SEC) to apple (Pac-12, maybe?), cherry (Big Ten) to chess (SWC, RIP)?

Televsion removed some of that regionalization, conference realignment even more. As football analytics, far behind other sports, finally got something of a foothold, however, something sort of magical has happened––we basically know how good teams are now. Maybe not so much in the offseason, that's still a tough formula to crack, but at this point in a season? We basically know.

That's not due to any one ranking that's better than all the rest, but there are now hundreds of rankings out there and they don't really vary much. It's a wisdom of crowds thing, but with an intelligent crowd of algorithms. If 60 or so systems all say State U is between the 35th- and 45th-best team in the country, it probably is. Doesn't mean the Statesmen can't play better or worse than that in any individual game, but more often than not those will be outlier performances.

Unless a team strings a few of them together.

That's how I'll be measuring Nebraska as it comes out of its bye week. It needs to show, five games from now that it’s better than what it currently is. The Huskers sit at No. 64 in the latest Massey Composite ranking (a collection of 100-plus individual rankings). They started the season at No. 47. Can Nebraska come out of the 2019 season about as good as all of these various rankings viewed it coming in?

It's going to be a tall task with just five guaranteed games remaining, but it might be the only way––barring a 4-1 finish to the season––that the 2019 season looks "as good as advertised." It may not be satisfying in the way that actual wins are, but it's something.

I spent a lot of this week thinking about the Huskers' progress or lack thereof. There have been moments this season when I wondered if 2019 Nebraska was better than 2018 Nebraska. You could just look at the records and say "yes," but at times that was the only place you could look to say that with confidence.

Out of curiosity, I threw every weekly SP+ ranking of Nebraska during the Frost era on a graph. I put FPI on there too just so there's a means for comparison, though as you'll see they mirror each other pretty well. I prefer SP+ a little more just because it's a little less reactive. Nebraska dropped 15 spots after playing poorly against South Alabama (hello, preseason rankings), rose two spots after playing mostly well against Colorado and then jumped back to its preseason ranking against Northern Illinois.

Since then, through the uglier-than-they-needed-to-be wins over Illinois and Northwestern and blowouts to Ohio State and Minnesota, Nebraska has sort of held in that 35-to-45 range. It's 44th now, still better than all but one weekly SP+ ranking from 2018.

Is that progress? Probably need to see where this chart ends up at the end of November.


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