Lovie Smith Shakes Hand of Nebraska Football Coach Scott Frost
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Hot Reads: Little Separation Between Huskers and Illini After 3 Games

September 17, 2019

Generally speaking, Nebraska and Illinois don't traffic in the same football circles. The two programs play yearly now as conference and division mates, but that's about the only time they come up in the same conversation.

Nebraska is perusing its 900th all-time win when it visits Champaign-Urbana this Saturday. Illinois is pursuing win No. 608. Nebraska has been ranked in 63.2% of all of the Associated Press polls since 1936. Illinois has appeared in 15.7% of those polls.

That's the difference the general college football fan processes internally when they see either name pop up on the score ticker. There's still a big difference between how surprised someone would be to see Nebraska lose to Eastern Michigan at home and how surprised they'd be to see Illinois do the same, which it did last week.

But here in 2019, three games in, Nebraska and Illinois are pretty similar. Both programs are 2-1, with the one loss feeling like a missed opportunity for each. Nebraska outplayed Colorado for nearly three quarters, but blew a 17-0 lead and lost. The Illini's home loss last week to EMU was a little more even––yards per play was virtually same on either side––but Illinois had one more turnover and lost on a field goal at the gun.

There's a little six-number grid I like to put together for each Nebraska game. It looks at three efficiency numbers (success rate) and three explosiveness numbers (explosive plays percentage). Those two things in combination determine the majority of football success. It's a broad view––we're not talking about rush offense or pass defense with these––but usually a telling one. I'm also throwing leverage rate in here––a measure of how often a unit is in standard downs as standard downs have a higher expectation for success––as something of a baseline.

Here's the comparison of the Nebraska and Illinois on offense.

Success Rate 45.8 43.8 45.8
>Std. Down SR 51.9 49.9 50.3
>Pass Down SR 33.8 32.1 37.0
Explosive Plays Pct. 16.9 15.5 15.9
>Expl. Run Pct. 13.3 14.8 16.7
>Expl. Pass Pct. 21.6 16.4 15.3
Leverage Rate 66.2 65.6 66.2

And here it is on defense.

Success Rate 36.7 43.8 39.1
>Std. Down SR 38.9 49.9 43.4
>Pass Down SR 33.7 32.1 31.5
Explosive Plays Pct. 12.7 15.5 15.6
>Expl. Run Pct. 9.7 14.8 11.8
>Expl. Pass Pct. 15.0 16.4 18.9
Leverage Rate 58.6 65.6 63.8

Not a lot to separate the two. Nebraska's defense has been a little more efficient on standard downs (when the offense should have an advantage), Illinois' defense has been a little more efficient on passing downs (when it should have an advantage). Give the edge to Nebraska there for succeeding in the more difficult scenario.

There's not a huge gap in explosiveness either. The Huskers' offense is doing most of its damage there via the pass, the Illini are above-average via the run. That's down a bit from a great year last season for Illinois, but the Illini also didn't have Reggie Corbin in the first two games. In the third they did, and Corbin went for 144 yards on 18 carries. Match that up with the defense those units will face and its another slight edge for Nebraska. Illinois is a little below-average when it comes to preventing big passing plays while Nebraska is, so far, significantly above average at preventing big runs.

There is one noticeable difference here, however. Per the FPI rankings, Illinois (83rd) has faced the 128th- (Akron), 127th- (Connecticut) and 91st-ranked (Eastern Michigan) teams so far for a "strength of record" ranking of 93rd. Nebraska (34th) played South Alabama (123), Colorado (62nd) and Northern Illinois (100th) for a strength of record ranking of 72nd. It's not what you'd call a difficult road so far for the Huskers, but definitely more difficult than what the Illini faced on their way to the same 2-1 record.

We'll look a little more closely at some of those numbers above as the week goes on.

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