Hot Reads: Sleeping Giant Status
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Hot Reads: Sleeping Giant Status

March 15, 2019

Long-time college football writers Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman––two of the best in the business and currently writing for The Athletic––host a weekly podcast called The Audbile. On this week's show, the hosts got a question from a Tennessee fan (and I'm summarizing it here): Why does Nebraska's status as a "sleeping giant" seem to be more widely accepted than Tennessee's?

The standard-type of discussion follows.

"I think they're fairly similar," Feldman says to begin his opening argument, eventually making the case that neither Tennessee nor Nebraska are giant giants. Consistent top-25 finishes, not national titles, is the marker mentioned for the Vols and Huskers. The real sleeping giants, in Feldman's eyes, are USC and Texas.

Mandel makes the case that Nebraska has seen more change––moving away from Osborne and the option, moving to the Big Ten––since its 1990s heyday than Tennessee has, and mentions that the more favorable perception of the Huskers might be a product of Scott Frost buzz. Remove that, Mandel and Feldman agree, and the discussion of Tennessee and Nebraska's ceilings is different.

It's a worthwhile back-and-forth that lasts for about seven minutes if you're interested. Does it deliver an answer? There are no definitive answers in these discussions, so I wasn't expecting one even though an answer jumped immediately to mind for me. Accepting the premise as true––Nebraska has favored sleeping-giant status over Tennessee––why is that the case?

For me there is an easy answer to this one.

It's because Nebraska football has been perceived as better than Tennessee for 60 years.

Anytime I see a program-power question like this, I like to look at as many data points over as long a stretch as possible. I like the AP poll specifically because that a) gives you multiple data points a season for b) every season going back to 1936. Is any individual ranking for any individual team a perfect representation of a team or program's actual value at that moment?

Nope. But this is college football, where the perception of being good is more valuable than actually being good most of the time. And this is a question about perception anyway. In that sense, polls are the perfect way to approach an answer.

Using's data, Nebraska has appeared in at least one AP poll in 60 of the 83 seasons with an AP poll. Tennessee has done the same in 61 seasons. Edge Volunteers in that category, but Nebraska was ranked more often and more highly.

Nebraska 60 728 6.2 14.0
Tennessee 61 582 8.4 16.8

Aside from being ranked 146 times fewer than Nebraska––that's 146 weeks when a general college football fan could've opened the paper and seen Nebraska but not Tennessee––the Volunteers also have a recency problem. UT and NU were ranked 22 and 20 times respectively in the 1930s. Then the dark times descended for Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s. Entering the 1960s, Tennessee had appeared in 177 polls, Nebraska 93.

And from there, as you can guess based on the current margin, it's a trouncing. I'm not saying that every college football fan factors in 80 years of poll data when considering the merits of any two programs or even should. But I am saying that it would've been very hard for anyone born in the mid-1950s and onward to have developed the view that Tennessee was a better program than Nebraska based on how those teams were judged in relation to their peers on a weekly basis.

That––more than the merits of Frost v. Pruitt, Knoxville v. Lincoln, this facility v. that facility, conference strength, recruiting territory or anything else––is why Nebraska gets the nod.

Bell Finds a New Home

Former Nebraska running back Greg Bell will be running the ball for San Diego State this season. He’ll be doing it as a walk-on––the Aztecs don’t have a scholarship available according to the report––and will need an eligibility waiver to play right away.

The reason for the waiver request offers a little additional insight into Bell’s departure from the team last year.

He told ESPN at the time that he “earned the starting job and feel I have continued to work the same way but feel I am not being used to my fullest potential.”
Bell says now that he was distracted by health issues with a family member.
“Being away so far, I wasn’t able to help,” Bell said. “It was stressing me out, trying to play football there and worrying about what was going on here. Now, I’ll actually be home where I can have an impact. …

Bell should get plenty of opportunity at San Diego State. The Aztecs had a top-10 rushing offense in 2016 and 2017 before falling off a bit last season.

The Grab Bag

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