Friday Forecast: Can Nebraska Get the Offense Back on Track vs. Purdue?
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Hot Reads: So Are the Huskers Actually Better Than a Year Ago?

October 05, 2018

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 2Part 3, Part 4)

At the end of the week, draw your own conclusions and then get ready for the new pieces of evidence to emerge against Wisconsin.

And now we’ve come to the end. We’ve looked at the Huskers’ turnovers luck, a better ground game, a defense capable of producing some pressure and the struggles with field position.

Is Nebraska better than it was a year ago?

The power ratings say no. Right now, though five weeks of the season, Nebraska ranks 71st in S&P+, 82nd in FEI and 83rd in Sagarin (the three ratings I look at most frequently). Last year the Huskers were 50th, 55th and 45th respectively in those rankings headed into the Wisconsin game. That 2017 team, 3-2 at that point, also started more highly ranked than this 2018 team did, didn’t have a game canceled and, most importantly, had a few wins (even if they were unimpressive wins over Arkansas State, Rutgers and Illinois).

Ranking 2018 Preseason 2018 Week 5 2017 Preseason 2017 Week 5
S&P+ 61 71 35 50
FPI 51 82 49 55
Sagarin 41 83 36 45

If you wanted to just end the debate there, I wouldn’t stop you. Those power rankings are usually pretty accurate. Accurate enough that they measure up well against the Vegas lines most years. At this time a year ago the Huskers had a better ranking than they do now, no questions asked.

But the real fall was still coming for that 2017 team, which of course influenced where the 2018 team started in those same rankings this August and thus where it is now. For me the question of “Is Nebraska Better?” is really one of trajectory.

And, right now, I’d give the edge to the 2018 team in that regard. Some of that is because of the things I mentioned earlier this week. Some of it is simply being at the start of a coaching tenure rather than seeming to near the end of one. Some of it is probably the benefit of hindsight, too, which we don’t have with this current squad.

While no one who follows the Huskers was thrilled with an ugly 3-2 start to the 2017 season, for a half against Wisconsin it looked Nebraska could still turn its season around. In the second half, one of the wagon wheels started to wobble and eventually fell off. Ohio State came in the following week and ripped another wheel off in, oh, about two drives. Minnesota was probably the team that knocked the remaining two off the Husker wagon with a 54-21 win, and that left Nebraska just sitting there in the mud as Penn State and Iowa ran victory laps around what was left of Husker football waving their hats and firing their guns into the air.

I don’t think we’ll reach that point with Nebraska in 2018. Michigan was much like that, but Frost called it “rock bottom” and I buy that. The Huskers didn’t play cleanly but they did play better against Purdue. They can play better still against Wisconsin and still not win, but that’s what this 2018 season became about. The 0-4 start, while unsatisfying at best but probably closer to maddening for many in red, was at least freeing.

“You can't measure your success based on that,” Frost said of the Huskers’ record on the Big Ten teleconference this week. “Being great is being better than you were yesterday. That's greatness to me, being better than your former self. We certainly need to be better than we've been and I think we have improved in a lot of ways. There's some things holding us back from it even more, but I just want to see the team keep improving every time we go out.”

I, too, feel like the Huskers have improved. That’s my feeling, and numbers support it in some cases and don’t in others. It has already been a number-heavy week in Hot Reads, but I want to leave you with one more.

I love win shares. Most games in most sports are decided on a handful of plays so the simple on-off proposition of winning or losing often feels like a cruel way to determine how a team is actually performing.

That’s why I enjoy Bill Connelly’s postgame win expectancies, which determine what percentage of the time a team would win with its stats from any given game. Against Colorado the Huskers’ win expectancy was 94 percent. In the record books after that game Nebraska is 0-1, but I actually think it’s more accurate to look at Nebraska’s record after that game as 0.94-0.06.

Take that same approach based on Connelly’s calculations for all four games and the Huskers are 1.9-2.1 right now. The Michigan game was the only one in which Nebraska did nothing well enough to win. The other three, with some different breaks and better execution (the Huskers are far from blameless here) could have gone differently.

They didn’t and it has led to some hand-wringing, but at 1.9 expected wins after four games the 2018 Huskers, at 0-4, are already 46.3 percent of the way to the 4.1 expected wins last year’s team earned. This year's team has 66 percent of the season still to play.

And that, regardless of actual record, is where I think the Huskers are actually at after four games. They’re better.

By a little bit.

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