Hot Reads: Better Than 6-6
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Hot Reads: Better Than 6-6, The Sequel

June 27, 2018

If you're a regular reader of Hot Reads, you may recall Monday's cliffhanger. I was writing about what it would take for Nebraska to be better than the consensus preseason projection of 6-6 in 2018. This was the idea in a nutshell:

If 6-6 is a reasonable record for Nebraska in 2018, outperforming that requires something unreasonable, an improvement you wouldn't feel safe predicting.

The unreasonable-to-expect improvement I mentioned in the first piece was a defensive improvement from 100-whatever Nebraska was last year –– and the Huskers were ranked 100-something in almost every category –– to not just average, but, say, top 30 or 40. That kind of jump doesn't happen often, but it does happen occasionally and nobody ever sees it coming in the offseason.

Go ahead and try it yourself. Call in to a local radio show or simply get the attention of your Husker-fan friends and calmly state that Nebraska is going to be a top 30 defense this season. See what the reaction is. The evidence, so to speak, isn't on your side. You're going to have a tough case to make. It's not impossible, just improbable. But I do think that's the No. 1 way Nebraska goes from improved in 2018 (the presumption) to just plain good.

The other way Nebraska outperforms its preseason projection? The Huskers get better quarterback play than anyone expects. Talking about top-20-type of quarterback play.

You can perhaps predict that Nebraska's quarterback play will be better in 2018, but objectively good on a national scale? It's tougher to do that while looking at the Huskers' depth chart full of quarterbacks who have yet to take a snap in an FBS football game. One of those guys is going to be one of the 20 best QBs in the country this year?

Another tough case to make. But not impossible.

ESPN created its Total QBR metric early this decade, then went back and tallied it up for all quarterbacks since 2004. It's "all-time best seasons" list is only from 2004 on –– shame we don't know what Tommie Frazier's QBR was –– but it's still interesting to look at it.

You probably remember Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate's super sophomore season in 2017. Inserted as the starter in Game 5 last year, he became appointment viewing and his 92.0 QBR in 2017 is the fourth-best season "ever" (i.e. since 2004). Johnny Manziel's 2012 season (91.3) ranks seventh, Jameis Winston's 2013 season (90.2) ranks 10th, Cam Newton's 2010 season (90.0) ranks 11th and Pat White's 2005 season (87.5) ranks 19th. Overall, five of the top-20 QBR seasons since 2004 came from freshmen or first-year starters (in the case of Tate, one who didn't even win the job coming out of fall camp).

Now, those are extreme outliers. Three of those guys won the Heisman in the year listed. They include some of the best out-of-nowhere seasons in history, and of course if Nebraska gets one of those it'll be better than 6-6. But the threshold isn't that high for the Huskers to raise their ceiling via QB play in 2018. Top-20 quarterback play (via QBR) would probably do it, and that's a level Nebraska hasn't hit in the QBR era.

QBR is a 100-point scale with 50 being average. Nebraska's best mark over the past decade is Taylor Martinez's 74.8 in 2012 (second in the Big Ten, 22nd nationally). Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s 72.8 in 2015 (fifth, 26th) is second. The Huskers' average QBR over the past 10 seasons is 63.7, above average but not by a lot.

Is something more than that in store in 2018? I don't know, but I do think if you had to pick an offense and a position coach to get top-20 QB play in any given year with any given guy you would have a tough time not selecting the duo of Scott Frost and Mario Verduzco.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, running a version of this offense under the direct supervision of Frost, is responsible for three of the top 25 QBR seasons since 2004. McKenzie Milton's 2017 season ranked 50th "all-time." ESPN doesn't calculate QBR for FCS quarterbacks, but you can look at passer rating, where four of Verduzco's 14 starters at Northern Iowa ranked in the top five nationally and another five ranked in the top 25. The level of quarterback play that I think could raise Nebraska's ceiling right away is the level these guys tend to produce.

And that's still not a guarantee it'll happen. "These guys' development will be no more or less remarkable than [Milton's]," Verduzco told me in April, speaking about his group of Nebraska quarterbacks. (You can read more about that in the 2018 Hail Varsity Yearbook. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.)

I see no reason to doubt that statement, but there's no timetable attached to it. Milton, holder of the 50th-best QBR season since 2004, ranked 115th nationally his first year at 34.9. It was a two-year process. Nobody would've reasonably predicted Milton's sophomore jump going into 2017.

And nobody should reasonably expect Nebraska to get top-20 quarterback play in year one. But what if it does?

Then you're looking at a season that's probably better than 6-6. That avenue, quarterback play, still feels a little less likely to me than a giant defensive improvement, but I can't entirely rule it out either.

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