Hot Reads: Nebraska's Biggest Success in 2018 Was Its Success Rate
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Nebraska’s Biggest Success in 2018 Was Its Success Rate

November 28, 2018

Revisiting old game columns is always an adventure. Often a painful one, at least for me. You try to have something interesting and substantive to say in the hours after the game you just watched all while knowing it's just 1-of-12 (at least) data points in the season. It's like reviewing a book after each chapter. Those chapter reviews would tell an interested reader something about the book as a whole, but it wouldn't convey the same points reviewing the book as a whole would.

At least that's what postgame column writing feels like to me. Sometimes you hit on something the context yet to come supports and sometimes you hit on something the context yet to come will make look really silly.

My column after the Colorado game probably fell somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. It was about Nebraska's efficiency, as measured by success rate, and how that was a sign of not just good things to come but also the Huskers’ being ahead of schedule with the rebuild.

Football is mostly a game about putting subtle pressure on the opponent. There are many ways to do this, but the surest way, the most consistent and replicable way, is through efficiency. On offense that means staying on schedule and on defense that means keeping teams off schedule.
Everything is easier when a team can do that one thing. Field position, turnovers, big plays, luck, all those things matter, too, but those things tend to be volatile game to game. What makes good teams good and bad teams bad is how much pressure they can put on an opponent, and how consistently, through down-to-down execution.

Was that game a sign of good things to come and being ahead of schedule? Yes and no.

No in terms of record and getting a jump start on rebuilding Husker football, I guess. If you had told me before the season that Nebraska would finish 4-8 I would've responded with "What went wrong?"

But I don't feel like something went wrong and the Huskers' offensive success rate throughout the season, at least on offense, is still the biggest reason. Per SBNation's tally, Nebraska finished the regular season ranked 19th nationally with an offensive success rate of 47.7 percent. The defensive success rate (43.5 percent) ranked 91st.

Here's how those numbers compare to the previous three seasons (national rank in parentheses):

SEASON OFF SUCCESS RATE DEF SUCCESS RATE
2018 47.7% (19) 43.5 (91)
2017 39.2% (100) 49.9% (129)
2016 42.8% (56) 40.8% (48)
2015 42.6% (56) 38.0% (32)

That's a massive jump for an offense starting a true freshman quarterback. The defense obviously still has room for improvement, but if you're looking for legitimate signs of improvement on that side the Huskers did jump 38 spots in the rankings. This year's defense was better at keeping teams off schedule than its predecessor and if it had just been a little better on third down it would've really had something.

Nebraska's goal this offseason will be to grow that gap between offensive and defensive success rate. The offense can get a few percentage points better, which should help the defense bring its number down even more. The 2017 UCF team had a nearly 12 percentage-point difference between its offensive rate (49.0) and defensive rate (37.2). This year's Alabama team has an absurd 27.2 percentage-point difference. The Tide is No. 1 in both offensive and defensive success rate this season. For a non-scoring stat (i.e. one that doesn't involve actual points) success rate differential would probably serve as a pretty powerful power rating on its own.

Here's what that looks like for the top six teams in this week's College Football Playoff rankings:

  • Alabama – 27.2
  • Clemson – 19.7
  • Notre Dame – 6.5
  • Georgia – 11.4
  • Oklahoma – 10.5
  • Ohio State – 12.0
  • Michigan – 13.8
  • UCF – 8.2

Hit double digits in this category and a team should be pretty darn good. Nebraska didn't quite get halfway to that double-digit mark –– 2018 success rate differential: 4.2 –– but it did make a good deal of progress in Year 1. More than a 4-8 record would suggest.

The Huskers won the success-rate battle in 8-of-12 games this season, and that's after winning that specific battle once in 2017.

OPPONENT OFF SR DEF SR
Colorado 52% 35%
Troy 39% 31%
Michigan 9% 50%
Purdue 47% 44%
Wisconsin 44% 51%
Northwestern 49% 41%
Minnesota 63% 43%
Bethune-Cookman 66% 42%
Ohio State 55% 53%
Illinois 49% 56%
Michigan St 30% 27%
Iowa 48% 55%

Winning the success-rate battle in a game is usually a strong indicator of which team won the game. That it wasn't necessarily for Nebraska in 2018 is one of those things you can't really account for at the start of a season, but some of the Huskers' strange losses this season should serve to underscore just how much the other details matter, too. (The coaches are constantly emphasizing that every detail matters, so that message should find an even more receptive audience this winter and spring.)

And if 2018's success rates were just a starting point for Nebraska –– which is what I would wager at this point –– a lot of the hardest work is already done.

The Grab Bag

  • Barring something at Ohio State, the biggest winter Big Ten storyline might be what happens at Purdue with Jeff Brohm. According to this report, some Louisville recruits are hearing that Brohm’s the guy for the Cardinals.
  • An attempt to defend North Carolina’s hire of Mack Brown.
  • Good read from Erin Sorensen on Devine Ozigbo and the example he set for current and future Huskers.
  • Mohamed Barry and Dicaprio Bootle earned third-team All-Big Ten honors
  • Is Wandale (Robinson) Watch back on?

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