Breaking Down Nebraska's Defense Ahead of Spring Football
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: How Much Better Did the Huskers Get in 2018?

February 21, 2019

There's a consensus, well-established at this point, on Nebraska's 2018 football season. The Huskers improved. Record was the same, but the improvement was clear enough for Nebraska to show up on a bunch of way-too-early top 25s.

How much better did the Huskers get? That wasn't a question I set out trying to answer, but in the process of putting together numbers for something else I realized I had all of the ingredients to try and quantify something like that. Might as well do it, right?

Here's the setup: We're looking at points-per-play here. It's a measure I like because it gives you a sense, on average, of how successful or unsuccessful a unit was on each play. In 2018, the average offensive play run by an FBS team was worth .421 points and the average defensive play was worth .394 points (for the opposing offense, obviously). You can chalk up the difference to games against FCS opponents. If this were a closed system the average would be the same.

With those two numbers, offensive and defensive points per play, you can subtract defense from offense and determine the edge a team was generating on every play. Clemson was No. 1 last season at .425, Alabama No. 2 at .402. Look at the change in that number year over year and you've got a sense of how a team improved (or didn't).

Now that all of the boring-but-necessary stuff is out of the way, we'll just get to results of that quick model. Drumroll, please . . .

Nebraska's total improvement (.151) ranked 20th nationally.

Here's the top-10, plus Nebraska at the end.

TEAM PPP IMPROVEMENT
Georgia Southern .411
Cincinnati .322
Florida .320
Ball State .288
Utah State .284
Syracuse .267
Kansas .250
Virginia .209
Florida International .193
Clemson .189
Nebraska .151

You've got some of the expected teams there, teams that, via record, it was clear a jump had happened. You've also got some teams you might not expect to see.

Kansas? The Jayhawks took a big jump on defense, but still went 3-9. That said, when Les Miles potentially gets credit for a bit of a turnaround in 2019 remember that KU made a pretty big jump the year before he arrived. Miles' situation in Lawrence might already be slightly better than most would think.

Ball State? The Cardinals had a lot of room for improvement after a 2-10 season. BSU doubled its win total and few (if any) outside of Muncie, Indiana, probably noticed. But that's one of the advantages of this approach: You can see the Cardinals made some pretty good gains.

I wasn’t expecting to see Clemson here, just because it’s hard to go from very good to even better. For an established program with no major coaching changes, that's really impressive. Teams like that are capped a bit in terms of how much they can improve and the teams that make a big jump usually have some sort of easily identifiable catalyst for the change. In Clemson's case, you could (and probably should) consider quarterback Trevor Lawrence that catalyst. (A once-in-a-lifetime collection of d-line talent doesn't hurt either.)

I'll go into some of these things in depth with Nebraska for stories coming this weekend, but for now if you wanted to know just how much better the Huskers got last year here's an answer.

Two more interesting notes:

One, Nebraska's total improvement from 2017 to 2018 (.151) was less than the Huskers' total decline (-.165) on defense alone from 2016 to 2017. (The 2017 offense had the same points-per-play as the 2016 unit did.)

Two, from 2015 to 2017 the Huskers' cumulative decline was the sixth-worst over that span and the second-worst among Power 5 schools. Baylor was the only P5 team that was worse.

The Grab Bag

  • Jacob Padilla tries to make sense of what we saw from Nebraska basketball at Penn State.
  • Good read from Mike Babcock on former Nebraska defensive tackle Bill Bryant.
  • Omaha Burke wide receiver Xavier Watts continues to rack up offers.
  • Mail time!

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