Kade Warner catches football and is tackled by two Purdue defense
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Hot Reads: How the Huskers Stack Up in Returning Production

February 01, 2019

We've got the Super Bowl on Sunday. The Association of American Football (which has some Husker ties) kicks off next week. Depending upon how interested you are in the latter, we're on the brink of football hibernation.

We'll be fine. We're used to this by now, but it's often worse knowing the long wait is coming than it is when you're actually in the wait. So today we'll just pretend we're in the wait and go all in on 2019.

Bill Connelly of SB Nation released his returning production rankings for 2019. These calculations––percentage of rushing yards returning, for example––are an attempt to go beyond the age-old experience measure of returning starters. To add another level to it, the calculations are weighted based on their correlation to improvement. For offense, returning receiving and passing yards matter the most. On defense, it's tackles and passes defended from defensive backs that have the strongest correlation.

It's important to note here that returning production is just one piece of the offseason puzzle. For the S&P+ rankings it's one of three alongside calculations for recent performance and recruiting. With that disclaimer in place, here are the Big Ten teams returning the most and the least. (The chart is ordered by total production returning with the national ranks in parentheses.)

Minnesota 90% (4) 66% (61) 78% (10)
Indiana 78 (25) 77 (23) 77 (12)
Illinois 70 (45) 81 (15) 75 (16)
Wisconsin 85 (7) 60 (78) 73 (29)
Michigan St 78 (24) 53 (99) 66 (48)
Iowa 72 (39) 57 (84) 65 (49)
Ohio St 42 (117) 85 (8) 63 (62)
Michigan 76 (30) 50 (106) 63 (68)
Maryland 69 (47) 56 (92) 62 (70)
Northwestern 53 (97) 71 (42) 62 (72)
Rutgers 75 (32) 44 (116) 60 (87)
Nebraska 59 (79) 55 (94) 57 (93)
Penn St 44 (116) 68 (55) 56 (100)
Purdue 37 (124) 72 (35) 54 (103)

Some thoughts . . . 

>> At first glance, based only on production returning, things have the potential to get strange in the Big Ten. Minnesota is one of the teams with the most returning production in the country, particularly on offense. Indiana and Illinois are next among Big Ten teams. If one of those programs is going to make a move, this year might be the year.

>>I'd feel a little better about the Illini's ability to do that with 81 percent returning on defense if Illinois, y'know, had a defensive coordinator. That's just one of three staff openings Lovie Smith has at the moment. He lost his running backs coach and one of the Illini's top recruiters this week to Temple.

>>Nebraska ranks 12th in the Big Ten and 93rd overall, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise to Husker fans though it may seem at odds with the early buzz for 2019. When a team loses its top receiver, top rusher and five of the top six tacklers from the previous season it's not going to fare very well in a ranking of returning production. Should that influence the outlook for Nebraska's season?

Yeah, a little bit. You have to at least take it into account, but you shouldn't be ringing the alarm bells just yet because . . .

>>There's a vast middle when it comes to returning production. Per Connelly's analysis, teams with 80-plus percent of production returning tend to show improvement in the season ahead. Teams below 50 percent tend to regress. Most teams, including 2019 Nebraska, fall somewhere between those two thresholds. There are also always exceptions for teams at the top or bottom of the rankings, too. Last year, Michigan State (7-6) had the highest returning production in the country. Also . . .

>>Nebraska's total returning production for 2019, 57 percent, is about what UCF had back in 2017 (58 percent). That doesn't mean that what was in Orlando that year will be what is in Lincoln this year, but it's interesting. The 2017 Knights were better off than this year's Huskers on offense but worse off on defense based on returning production. The 2016 UCF team that Scott Frost led to six wins coming off an 0-12 season was loaded with returning production. The 2016 Knights ranked fourth nationally at 87 percent.

>>I don't know which team I think will win the Big Ten West Division yet, but Iowa was my early favorite. Draft declarations sort of pushed me off that pick for now, and I will say that Wisconsin's number (73 percent) probably boosts the Badgers a bit in my mind.

>>Looking back at last year's numbers for the Big Ten was a strange experience. Michigan State led the country in returning production and Michigan was 13th, but the next highest conference team ranked 43rd (Rutgers). The majority of the conference was "somewhere in the middle." In hindsight it feels like just the right conditions for something crazy to happen. Maybe something like, I don't know, Northwestern winning the West.

>>Since returning production is one-third of the preseason S&P+ rankings and the Huskers fall in the bottom third nationally, I'm pretty interested in where Nebraska will rank overall. The second component is a look back at performance over the previous five seasons, with extra weight given to "more recent" seasons. For this year, that's a look back at 2014-18. In this category last year, Nebraska ranked 51st with an average S&P+ of 3.9. Depending on how things are weighted, Nebraska should move up a few spots in “recent performance” as it's dropping a 2.1 S&P+ score from 2013 and adding a 3.4 from 2018. Even if that 3.4 receives the most weight, however, any move in this category will probably be slight.

The third component is a look at two-year recruiting class averages. Nebraska was 22nd in this category a year ago and, depending upon how things finish out with this class, should have a slightly better score in 2019. Again, a slight improvement.

While I don't know the precise formulas that make up the S&P+ rankings, my feeling is that Husker fans might be a little underwhelmed when the first set of 2019 rankings come out in the next week or so. It will be better than last year’s (60th) but it isn’t going to be top 25.

My guess is somewhere between 42 and 52.

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