Scott Frost said on Thursday that he's not really a stats guy –– note: I don't totally buy that –– so maybe he hasn't totally noticed that Nebraska's numbers are starting to look pretty good. The yardage numbers always looked good, at least on offense, but the points are starting to get closer to those of a decent team.
At the end of September, the Huskers ranked 116th in scoring offense at 21.3 points per game and 119th on defense at 38.8. Over the past month Nebraska improved by about a touchdown both ways jumping to 63rd in scoring offense (29.8) and 100th in scoring defense (33.4). The latter, of course, won't have anyone thinking of the great Husker defenses of the past, but given how Nebraska started the season it will be hard for that number to look great in 2018. It can only look better than it did for now.
Add in some additional context of how the Huskers' lost games, and Nebraska was up to 56th in this week's S&P+ rankings (https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/ncaa). To do the somewhat unfair but eye-catching thing –– hey, it's Friday, let's cut loose –– Nick Saban's first team at Alabama (7-6 before vacating some wins) ranked 57th in S&P+ at the end of the 2007 season. Kirby Smart's first Georgia team (8-5) ranked 68th at the end of the 2016 season. If you just ended the season now with Nebraska at 2-6, it wouldn't be a bad one for generating offseason buzz.
Nobody will take buzz over actual wins, but point is for a Year 1 I think we're starting to see proof of the gains everyone assumed would come.
And here's the thing that still confounds me about that: Nebraska's best foot forward right now is clearly the offense. Most of the numbers there look great, and they look despite Nebraska having some of the worst starting field position in the country. That's unusual.
Per bcftoys.com's (http://www.bcftoys.com/2018-sfp/)field-position stats the Huskers' offense ranks 125th in the country with the average drive starting 75 yards from goal (i.e. NU's 25-yard line). That may not sound that bad, but it's somewhat uncommon for a team to finish a year having to go that far for a touchdown on average. In some seasons there are no teams that hit 75. There are five teams this season, including Nebraska, within a half-yard of that mark (74.5 to 75.5) and there were just 11 teams in the same spot over the five seasons prior to this one (2013-17).
That far from goal is not a place good teams live. That group of 16 teams includes just three Power 5 teams (Nebraska 18, Arkansas 18, Cal 13). Georgia State is in there four times. Maybe that's the best way to view it. An average starting field position of 75 yards from goal is Georgia State territory. A team like Nebraska doesn't want to be there. It's hard to be good there.
And I'm not saying Nebraska is yet, but it should add a little boost to the numbers the Huskers' offense has put up. Nebraska ranks 79th at 2.03 points per drive, and I'm guessing that number will be higher by the end of the season. Ten of the 16 teams with similar starting field position to the Huskers averaged less than 2 points per drive. The best of the worst field-position teams here was 2015 Cincinnati, which averaged 2.43 points per drive while starting out 74.5 yards from goal on average. The Huskers could hit by season's end.
The yardage stats don't need any help. Bad offensive field position can be both a reflection of and a limiter on the offense. In Nebraska's case, we know the Huskers' long fields really aren't the result of an offense that can't move the ball, but they are upping the degree of difficulty for that offense. Right now Nebraska ranks 20th nationally at 6.5 yards per play. The only team to have been better than that with similar field position since 2013 was, again, Cincinnati.
I was thinking about those numbers a lot as I arrived in Columbus. Nebraska's poor offensive field position is paired with Ohio State's good defensive field position. The Buckeyes rank seventh nationally, asking opposing offenses to go 74.9 yards on average. If both units play exactly to form, the field-position stats should be almost exactly average. And that would be plenty entertaining.
But the thing I'm wondering the most about the Huskers in November is if the offense looks this good with bad field position, what kind of point totals is it capable of with merely average (or even good) field position? Saturday would be a great day to find out for the Huskers.
The Grab Bag
- Nebraska basketball took care of Wayne State in its exhibition game last night. Photo gallery by John Peterson.
- Mike Babcock looks back at Nebraska-Ohio State, 1955.
- Greg Smith offers some analysis of the Huskers missing out on Wandale Robinson.
- There's a learning curve to trash talk.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.