Hot Reads: Measuring Nebraska's Progress at 3-2
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Measuring Nebraska’s Progress at 3-2

October 01, 2019

How long until Nebraska is back? That's a dangerous question––see also: “Texas is back, folks”––but pretty much the dominant question for Husker fans for the past 15 years or so. That's just how it is for blue bloods. History shows us that most traditional powers have their fallow periods but that they also almost always come back.

Because a return is more likely than a permanent fall from relevance, the question persists. Nobody's asking that about Nebraska after the Huskers were hammered at home by Ohio State––though plenty might have been saying it had the Huskers somehow won that game––but Scott Frost was asked if he thought the rebuild of Nebraska football was "on schedule" to this point.

"I don’t have a schedule," he said. "My schedule is to get better, and we are. We’re a lot better than we were Week 1, and we’re a lot better than we were last year."

That last point––Nebraska being better than a year ago––is a good one, but it can be easy to miss on the heels of a big loss.

On the most basic front, Nebraska is one win away from equaling last year's total. A lot of people, myself included, thought the Huskers would do that in the first four weeks of this season. A fourth-quarter collapse at Colorado prevented that from being the case, and that 20-minute stretch probably colors this season more than it should; 4-1 in the context of this season looks a lot different than 3-2.

That's the most basic, all-that-matters-is-the-scoreboard view of Nebraska's progress, but you don’t need to get too deep in the statistical weeds to better see the gains the Huskers have made so far.

There are plenty of good power rankings out there for college football, but if you ever want to just see for yourself how good a team is, points per play will get you pretty close. Find a team's points scored, divide by offensive plays and you've got a very simple expression of a team's ability. Do the same for defense.

Here's where Nebraska stands in points per play at the end of September this year compared to last year:

2019 .445 .397
2018 .290 .525

Nebraska has played five games this year compared to four at the same point last year. Right now, the Huskers' offense has improved by 53.4% in points per play over the first five weeks of the season last year, the defense by 32.2%. That's based on the raw totals. Take out the three non-offensive touchdowns the Huskers scored against South Alabama and Nebraska's number on offense drops to .387. That's still 33.4% better than last year at this point.

To be clear, the Huskers aren't blowing it out of the water on either front in a national context. Nebraska ranks 58th in offensive points per play and 77th defensively. But compared to last year, it's a clear sign of progress. Last year at this time, Nebraska was bad. This year, Nebraska is average.

Is that on schedule? Well, there is no schedule. Until it's undeniably clear that Nebraska is "back,” the difference between where the Huskers are and where anyone thinks they should be will be the primary friction of the Frost era. It's the primary friction of any new coaching tenure. 

The Grab Bag

  • After a mention from John Cook at Monday’s press conference, Erin Sorensen’s September feature on Nebraska volleyball’s influence is online for the first time.
  • More on the volleyball front: Nebraska opens Big Ten play 2-0 and Coach Cook goes into additional detail about some of the challenges the Huskers faced last week.
  • Jeremiah Sirles and Danny Woodhead break down the loss to Ohio State in the latest Just My Opinion.
  • The 24-hour rule is key for the Huskers this week as they prepare for Northwestern.

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