Let us return to returning production. A couple of weeks ago, in response to a question, I took a very preliminary and very basic look at returning yards, tackles, tackles for loss and passes defended in the Big Ten West. I did my best to account for all of the draft and transfer declarations to that point, but I didn't do anything to specifically account for the offensive line (beyond their inherent presence in the numbers).
I also didn't weight those returning production numbers based on their past correlation to actual improvement year to year (i.e. their importance). That's Bill Connelly's thing, and he published his preliminary returning production numbers, weighted and with offensive line starts tallied, at ESPN on Friday.
Those two additions were pretty good for Nebraska. The Huskers' overall returning production (76%) ranks 17th nationally. Nebraska is one of six Big Ten teams to rank in the top 20 nationally in overall returning production and one of four from the West.
Of course, offense is really boosting Nebraska's number here. The Huskers return 92% on that side of the ball, second nationally and trailing only California (93%). Defense isn't as rosy a picture. Nebraska returns 59% there, which ranked 82nd nationally.
Here's why those numbers matter, via Connelly (emphasis mine):
Over the past six seasons, offenses with returning production above 60% average an improvement of about two points per game, while those below regress by about three. And the extremes are pretty stark: Only one of the 18 teams that have returned at least 90% of their offensive production saw its offensive SP+ rating fall, while nine improved by at least seven adjusted points per game.
Meanwhile, of the 37 offenses that returned 35% of their production or less, only five improved, while 19 regressed by at least seven adjusted points per game.
It's the same story on defense: Teams returning at least 85% of defensive production improve by an average of five adjusted points per game, while teams returning 40% or less regress by five adjusted points per game. If you're on one end of the spectrum or the other, your fate is pretty settled.
Last year's Huskers, while offseason darlings, were middle-of-the-road across the board when it came to returning production. The Huskers' slash line (overall/offense/defense) was 57% (93rd)/59% (79th)/55% (94th). Nebraska wasn't on the extreme ends of the spectrum either way, but it was trending towards the lower end.
On offense in 2020, the Huskers have more returning than just about any team. (And that's without Maurice Washington.) Per the Connelly quote above, half of the teams with Nebraska's returning production improved by a touchdown per game or more. If the Huskers were to do something similar they'd be scoring about 35 points per game.
Would that be enough to offset any regression on the defensive side? Last year Nebraska had 55% returning production on defense and its Defensive SP+ rating dropped by 0.5. The Huskers are slightly better off this year, but not by much. That underscores what I think is the general setup for the 2020 season as a whole.
The Huskers are going to have make some serious strides on offense. The conditions for that sort of progression don't get much better than what Nebraska has in 2020. Let's say, for the sake of argument, the Huskers do get to about 35 points a game. If the defense slipped a bit to 30 points per game, you're looking at a 5-point differential per game. Teams in the fives last year were Missouri (6-6), Oklahoma State (8-5), Army (5-8), Miami (6-7), Western Kentucky (9-4) and Virginia (9-5).
Should the defense stay at about 28 points per game, the Huskers would be looking at a 7-point differential. Teams in that band last year: Texas A&M, Indiana, Wyoming, Texas (all 8-5), Western Michigan and Ohio (both 7-6).
Even at a touchdown differential per game, it's kind of a volatile range. Get some bounces, things go your way and you're looking at eight or so wins. Don't get those bounces, or pair all of this with below-average special teams, and you're closer to .500. If that ends up being about where Nebraska’s at in 2020, there could be a lot riding on those random bounces.
Get to 8-4 and everything is fine. Only get to 6-6, however, and through public pressure alone the Huskers are probably looking at some staff changes on defense. That could happen with a perfectly normal (and slight) regression on defense, which wouldn't be a shock given what Nebraska has to replace on that side.
That's not particularly fair, but it's also not really how anyone looks at these things. If Nebraska's 6-6 or 7-5 in 2020, in part because the defense slipped a tiny bit while trying to replace three top defensive linemen, its leading tackler and an all-conference cornerback, don't expect anyone to mention that such regression wasn't entirely unexpected. College football has never worked that way.
All of which is to say, the offense really needs to make a jump this season. The perceived health of the program as a whole might depend on it.
The Grab Bag
- Derek Peterson on the difficult thing about this Nebraska basketball season.
- Make some time for this story from Jacob Padilla as he takes a close look at the redshirts who will be pivotal to the future of Nebraska basketball. (Premium)
- Nebraska’s women’s team fought to dig out of a 25-point hole against Indiana, but came up just short.
- Greg Smith looks at some potential sleepers from the 2020 recruiting class.
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.