Hot Reads: Efficiency Plays Anywhere
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Efficiency Plays Anywhere, But It’s Vital in the Big Ten

May 30, 2018

Perhaps you remember the 2017 American Athletic Conference championship game. (At that point in the courtship of Scott Frost, it was Nebraska's de facto 2017 national championship game.) If you remember it as being insane, that's accurate. Points were expected from two of the top scoring offenses in the country, but a 62-55 double-OT thriller? It was insane even by AAC standards, and the AAC was the most explosive conference in the country last year.

UCF had 16 explosive plays (10-plus yard runs, 15-plus yard passes) at the end of regulation, five runs and 11 passes. Memphis also hit for 16 explosive plays, eight on the ground and eight through the air. That's an extreme example of basketball-on-grass football, but it came from the conference you most would have expected it to come from in 2017. (Yes, even slightly more so than the Big 12.)

And this is why the fit of Frost's offense in the Big Ten will remain a topic of discussion until we actually get to see it in games this fall. The Big Ten is typically at the other end of the spectrum as the conference with the fewest explosive plays.

Here's what that looks like based on explosive-plays percentage and explosive plays per game:

AAC 16.3 11.9 16.3 11.8
ACC 14.7 10.7 14.0 9.7
Big Ten 14.1 9.7 13.1 8.8
Big 12 16.1 11.6 15.4 11.0
CUSA 15.0 10.3 15.1 10.5
MAC 14.2 9.9 14.8 10.4
MW 15.1 10.4 14.9 10.4
Pac-12 15.8 11.2 14.8 10.5
SEC 15.8 10.6 14.2 9.6
Sun Belt 14.7 10.3 15.4 10.7

It's wise to be careful with conference stereotypes, but they do seem to have their own personalities if you will. The AAC and Big 12, as you probably would've guessed, were the two with the most explosive plays in 2017. If you want to look at games in those conferences as wild 3-point shootouts we've become used to on the basketball court, I won't stop you.

While the Big Ten has evolved to incorporate a range of offensive styles, defensively it's still closer to Bad Boy-era Pistons than any other conference. The Big Ten was the only conference last year in which the average defense allowed fewer than nine (8.8) explosive plays a game. If that doesn't seem like a huge difference, just three plays?, from the 11.8 AAC defenses allowed on average, look at what it does to the points. That difference is the difference of about a touchdown per game.

In 2017, the average AAC defense gave up 30.7 points per game. The average Big Ten defense gave up 23.3. That, more than offensive styles, is what perpetuates the Big Ten's reputation as a rough-and-tumble conference, and it will likely have an impact on what the Huskers' offense looks like, particularly in 2018.

Nebraska's offense should be drastically improved this season. It's just a better scheme with a better play-caller. But even at UCF it was a process. Based on the efficiency and explosiveness measures at Football Study Hall, the Knights' offense had its moments in 2016, you could see what was coming, but it wasn't there yet. UCF ranked 114th in explosiveness and 124th in efficiency.

Then, in 2017, the Knights take a massively mind-blowing jump to fifth in explosiveness and fourth in efficiency.

Are such heights even possible when playing nine games against Big Ten defenses? Efficiency plays anywhere and it's even more important in the Conference of Broad Shoulders. The league's two best offenses, Ohio State and Penn State, ranked third and eighth in the country in efficiency last year.

Their explosiveness ranks, 32nd and 19th respectively, were good, too, but probably showed a little bit of the Big Ten's influence. That said, 2016 Penn State, which featured a first-year offensive coordinator (Joe Moorhead), a first-year starter at quarterback (Trace McSorley) two future NFL receivers (DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin) and a once-in-a-decade running back (Saquon Barkley). That group ranked second nationally in explosiveness that season.

So can Nebraska's new offense be as explosive as it was at UCF (or before that Oregon)? It probably can, but it'll be harder to do it in this conference than anywhere else.

And that dynamic is going to be fascinating to watch.

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