With Huskers Heading Back to Minnesota
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Hot Reads: Taking Another Look at Nebraska’s 2017 Offense

February 20, 2018

Have you figured out what to expect from Nebraska's offense in 2018 yet? I certainly haven't. Year 2 for Scott Frost and crew at Central Florida resulted in such gaudy numbers that it's tempting to shift the scale of what's possible, but you also have to factor in from where the Huskers are starting.

And that might not be quite as low as you remember from the end of 2017. What I remember from last season's offense is the total lack of run game, the interceptions and a points-per-game average that ranked 84th nationally. Not a lot of excitement there. To break it down to the most basic stat that's still somewhat useful, the Huskers ranked 67th in yards per play (5.59), just below average.

But as with everything in college football, it's a good idea to adjust for strength of schedule. Do that and the Huskers get a small but not insignificant bump to nearly 6 yards per play (5.92). That ranks 46th nationally and puts some distance between the Huskers and Purdue for fourth in the Big Ten. The three teams ahead of Nebraska – Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin – were all pretty good (and, not coincidentally, paired those offenses with top-20 defenses). But just looking at offense, this is a notch ahead of where I would have guessed Nebraska's offense finished.

Making this all more interesting, and perhaps problematic for any 2017-to-2018 translations, is that the Huskers had an above-average adjusted offense with the almost total lack of a rushing threat (102nd nationally in adjusted YPP). The Huskers' passing game (7.61 adjusted YPP), and, really, the number of pass attempts, propped up the overall average. UCF ranked second nationally in this category at 10.25 adjusted YPP.

What can this tell us about 2018? It's complicated. I would say that the Huskers' relatively high passing number speaks well to the returning receivers. Nebraska has two top-line guys in Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman back, should be able to replace lost production from De'Mornay Pierson-El and the tight end spot and will probably get more from pass-catching production out of the backfield.

The Huskers won't have Tanner Lee making those throws – Nebraska's adjusted numbers boost Lee's up-and-down season a bit in my eyes as well – so quarterback still remains the biggest question mark for the offense as a whole this season. But as we think about that question this offseason, it's probably worth giving a boost to the offense as a whole based on 2017. 

The Huskers were better at putting up yards than points, but that should be fixable. The reality is that whatever Nebraska did last year it did against a schedule that included eight top-40 defenses (in adjusted YPP) and 10 of the 12 opponents last year finished with defenses ranked in the top half of the country. The worst defenses Nebraska faced last year – aside from the one it saw in practice each day – were Illinois and Rutgers. The Illinois game in particular was sort of the season in a nutshell for the Huskers' offense. Nebraska didn't run the ball particularly well but put up good overall yards-per-play numbers, and still only scored 28 points.

Maybe that's going to be my lasting image of last year's offense – it was a group that needed a lot of yards to come up with relatively few points. The Huskers needed 14.95 yards per point last season, which ranked 89th nationally (UCF was No. 1 at 11.00), and each play was worth 0.374 points (86th nationally, and UCF was again No. 1 at 0.679). While those numbers are far from ideal, it's a better than the opposite position of an offense that put up a strange number of points but couldn't consistently move the ball.

We'll see to what degree anything from 2017 translates to this new season, but Scott Frost has said he didn't think Nebraska had 4-8 talent. (Mentality and motivation might be another story.) The offensive numbers from last season, when adjusted for the schedule, are at least a slight indication of that.

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