Is Nebraska football better than it was a year ago? Simple question and, for some, a pretty simple answer based on the Huskers' 0-4 record to start the Scott Frost era.
But football isn't simple. Take a 6-yard run on first down, for example. If you want to know more about that run than "it gained 6 yards," you are presented with countless questions. What role did the running back play? The offensive line? What about the play call? The defensive play call? Should we consider years of recruiting and available talent for each team? A straight handoff from quarterback to running back, resulting in 6 yards, contains almost endless variables.
So answering "are the Huskers' better than last year?" right now is anything but simple. It might not even be the right question, but it's one we're seeing more and more as Nebraska's current losing streak has reached eight games (dating back to 2017). That's why this week in Hot Reads I'll be looking at a different piece of evidence each day. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
At the end of the week, draw your own conclusions and then get ready for the new pieces of evidence to emerge against Wisconsin.
Field position is a good overall health check for a football team most of the time. Check out the top 15 teams in net field position here. You've got Alabama (of course), Michigan, LSU, Florida and Auburn, traditional bullies. Duke and Stanford are there because, well, they're good and play smart football. 2018 upstarts like Syracuse and Kentucky are there. Good G5 teams like Fresno State, North Texas and Buffalo are there. That top 15 only includes two teams with a losing record: Old Dominion and Northwestern.
Take particular note of the latter because the Huskers head to Evanston next week and the field-position stats suggest the Wildcats are probably better than their 1-3 record suggests.
Nebraska, however, has the field position stats to match its 0-4 record. The Huskers, per BCftoys.com's calculation (which removes some garbage-time drives) rank 124th in offensive field position 112th in defensive field position and 121st in net field position (the difference between the two).
Why? Combine a lack of takeaways with too many giveaways and a lackluster return game and you've got slight problems on all three fronts. As we explored earlier in the week, the Huskers have been a little unfortunate on the turnovers front. The biggest step towards turning those numbers around may simply be playing with the lead.
The punt return struggles are harder to address. Penalties have harmed the Huskers here, but the six punts that have been returned have netted . . . 1 yard. Nebraska made a change there last week, inserting JD Spielman for Tyjon Lindsey and Lindsey opted to leave the program this week. But the problems seem larger than just the return man.
Kickoff returns? As expected, that part of the game is virtually a non-factor with the new rules in college football. There are 24 teams right now averaging more than 25 yards per return, and for those that can't do that it makes sense to simply take the touchback here, which was of course the point. Nebraska's averaging 18.3 and ranks 95th.
Add all of that up and the Huskers' offense, on average, has started its drives from its own 25-yard line. It's sort of remarkable that it's landed on the exact spot teams get the ball after a touchback. It's almost like every Husker drive has started following a touchdown and touchback, which isn't actually the case, only effectively. And only five teams in college football have had longer fields this season. Even more surprising: The Huskers have had just five (of 53) drives start fewer than 60 yards from the end zone. That's not exactly making things easy on your true freshman quarterback (nor his walk-on backup for that matter).
Defensively, thanks in large part to nine giveaways from the offense, Nebraska has only had 67.2 yards of field to work with on average. Eleven of the Blackshirts' 54 drives this season have had to cover 60 yards or less. Nebraska has actually been slightly better than its opponents on these short-field drives. Just five of the 11 drives have resulted in points (45.5%) while the Huskers' offense, presented with 60 yards or less, has gotten points on three-of-five (60%), but this is a category where frequency very much matters.
You already knew Nebraska was losing this battle, but if you're looking for one number that sums up all of the Huskers' various struggles early this season –– penalties, turnovers, third-and-long defense –– you could do worse than the 7.7-yard difference between where the offense is getting the ball and where the defense comes on the field. That difference alone makes the projected score of every Nebraska game this season 30-26 in favor of the opponent without factoring in anything else.
Are the Huskers better than they were a year ago? Not in this category, but that should also frame some of the improvements Nebraska has made in a different light. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez joining the chorus of praise for Adrian Martinez? Martinez is doing that with some of the worst starting field position in the country. Same goes for gains in the run game. And the same thing applies to the defense. It's showing signs of increased havoc while dealing with some of the worst field position in the country, too.
Nebraska's not quite ready to be good yet. You can tell because good teams tend to engineer a field-position advantage. It will happen eventually and when it does the gains the Huskers are actually making now will all of the sudden feel like actual strengths.
The Grab Bag
- Ahem. UConn head coach Randy Edsall gets a $2,000 bonus every time his team scores first.
- USA Today released its updated football coaches' salary database.
- Nebraska volleyball dropped a set to Iowa for the first time since 1987, but still came away with a 3-1 win. (Story, Photo Gallery)
- Nebraska basketball landed a commitment from Creighton Prep's Akol Arop on Wednesday night.
Today's Song of Today