Lessons in Progress and Trust from the Two Times Saban Faced NU
Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Hot Reads: How 2018 Clemson Compares to Nebraska’s National Champs

January 10, 2019

It didn't take Dabo Swinney long to make the "best ever" claim after his Clemson Tigers mauled Alabama on Monday.

"Our guys had the eye of the tiger, and then for our seniors to be able to go out 15-0 and truly be the best ever; there was a lot of talk about best ever all year long. We were never in that conversation," Swinney said at his postgame press conference. "But tonight, there's no doubt."

This being college football all doubt is never removed, but particularly when it comes to the discussion of BEST EVER. Every team that's even realistically in the discussion has a strong voting bloc –– i.e. their fan base –– that will argue the point with anyone anywhere. Add in the difficulty of comparing eras and it's a debate that will never be settled.

That said, Clemson has a pretty strong case. That the Tigers became the first team to go 15-0 since 1897 –– and more relevant for most people, the first undefeated Playoff champion –– is probably the strongest case. (That alone was enough for Swinney.) Having a potentially historic defensive line talent-wise helps. Doing it all with a true freshman quarterback adds a little bit (at least in my mind). Doing it all in a down year for the ACC –– No. 15 Syracuse was the only other conference team in the final AP poll –– doesn't.

But I'm not that interested in trying to settle anything that will never be settled. I was, however, interested in how Clemson stacked up against Nebraska's five national-championship teams, just for context, in one very basic measure: points per play. I like that number for a few reasons. 

Instead of trying to judge off the final scores of 12, 13, 14 or 15 games, we're looking at 800, 900 or 1,000 plays. You're getting a better sense of how dominant a team was most of the time. It's also important to me that any sort of number seeking to explain power or dominance includes points. If you want to understand how good a team's rush defense is, go ahead and get granular. Big picture? Points need to be included somehow, and this is a super simple way to do it.

This year's Clemson team averaged .617 points per offensive play, and allowed .193 points per defense play. That means for the average Clemson touchdown the offense had to run just over four plays, while the Tigers' opponents needed to run just over 36. For every play in a Clemson game this season the Tigers were building an edge of .424 points on average.

That's, uhhhh, really good. Here's how it compares to Nebraska's title teams. (Note: No attempt has been made to adjust for strength of schedule.)

1970 Nebraska (11-0-1)

Offensive Points Per Play: .443
Defensive Points Per Play: .228
PPP Difference: .215

Bob Devaney's first championship squad had the lowest offensive output of any of the Huskers' title winners and the second-lowest defensive number. There's also the tie with then-No. 3 USC in Week 2. The UPI poll had Nebraska No. 3 at the end of the regular season behind No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Ohio State, thus giving the Longhorns an NCAA-recognized title claim in 1970.

1971 Nebraska (13-0)

Offense: .486
Defense: .123
PPP Difference: .363

And here we have a team that regularly finishes in the top five, and occasionally at the top, of more rigorous attempts to answer the best-ever question. None of Nebraska's other title teams comes that close to what the 1971 Blackshirts were able to do. Giving up an average of eight points per game, including the bowl game in that number, is getting it done. In its first three games of the season –– against Oregon, Minnesota and Texas A&M –– this offense scored 103 points. The defense would give up 104 all season.

1994 Nebraska (13-0)

Offense: .498
Defense: .196
PPP Difference: .302

After years of knocking on the door, Tom Osborne's Nebraska finally broke through and won the whole thing. Based on PPP, the '94 squad was better than Devaney's first title team. It also took down five top-25 teams, including No. 2 Colorado and No. 3 Miami.

1995 Nebraska (12-0)

Offense: .680
Defense: .222
PPP Difference: .458

Welp, that sort of sets the scale for this whole discussion. If you had to round to the nearest tenth of a point, '95 Nebraska was gaining a half-point edge on every play that season. The offense scored 191 combined points in wins over Oklahoma State, Michigan State and Arizona State to open the season, exceeding the total the defense would allow (174) for the season. If you have to nominate just one Nebraska candidate for the best-ever pageant, this is the team I (and many others) pick, though the 1971 teams has an argument.

1997 Nebraska (13-0)

Offense: .597
Defense: 277
PPP Difference: .320

This one looked better than I expected based on what I remembered. Blame the Missouri game and the split national title, I guess, for clouding the view of just what this team was doing the majority of the time. Its PPP difference ranks third among Nebraska national-title teams and the two above it are among the greatest ever in the sport. In case you're curious –– don't know why you would be, but just in case –– 1997 Michigan had a PPP difference of .207. The Wolverines defense was stout (.160), but the offense was pedestrian at best (.367).

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