Hot Reads: The 2006 Loss to Texas Revisited
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: The 2006 Loss to Texas Revisited

January 30, 2019

The offseason is good for things like this. If you're not going to make minute tweaks to your power-ranking system and retroactively apply them to previous seasons in the dead of winter, when are you?

Bill Connelly is doing that with his S&P+ rating system over at Football Study Hall, starting with the 2005 season. (If you're interested in the details of those changes they are explained at the top of each post.) This is a way to bring all of those previous rankings up to code (so to speak) with how they were calculated in 2018, and it's a two-pronged approach.

In addition to getting a new set of rankings to look at, there are also advanced box scores for key games in each season. Let's start with the latter.

The 2005 Nebraska team (8-4, 24th in the final AP and Coaches polls) didn't have a game make the cut, but the 2006 team did. You probably remember that game by Terrence Nunn's fumble.

That's unfair for Nunn (he played well otherwise), but a fair way to remember that game because the advanced box score shows how Husker turnovers defined the game long before the last one was gouged into Nebraska fans' memories. Fifth-ranked Texas intercepted one of the three passes it got a hand on (passes defended), a 33-percent rate against an expectation of about 20. The Longhorns also recovered both of 17th-ranked Nebraska's fumbles that day for three takeaways.

The Huskers were not so lucky. Nebraska broke up six passes but came away with zero interceptions (1.2 expected). Texas fumbled five times and Nebraska recovered one (2.5 expected). The actual turnover margin was Huskers -2, but the expected margin had Nebraska at plus-2.13. That difference, per Connelly's calculation, was worth about 21 points (based on national averages) in Texas's favor; in a game that finished 22-20.

There's more. No doubt aided by those Nebraska turnovers, Texas had a big starting-field-position edge beginning the average drive at its own 39-yard line. That resulted in eight scoring opportunities, but the Longhorns only scored two touchdowns and three field goals. The Huskers, starting from their 26-yard line on average, only had three scoring opportunities but scored touchdowns on all three. On a down-by-down basis, Nebraska had a slight edge in success rate and explosiveness, too. The Huskers’ postgame win probability was 86 percent.

Armed with all of that info, you sort of have to consider how things change if the Huskers  win that game. They're 7-1 then with a top-five win and have just knocked off the "defending" champs (I know they're not technically defending their title, but you know what I mean). Bill Callahan has a marquee win. Nebraska probably vaults into the top 10. Maybe it changes everything.

Maybe it changes nothing. Nebraska, back in the real world, did lose at Oklahoma State the following week. It was the Huskers lone loss to a team outside of the top-10 that season. (NU was a 5.5-point road favorite.) For a 9-5 team, 2006 Nebraska did look like it was on the cusp of something, and that no doubt informed what came the following season when Nebraska failed to maintain that upward trajectory. But even that year, for all of the change it wrought, was maybe a little better than it seemed at the time.

At least based on the rankings. Nebraska's 2005, 2006 and 2007 rankings didn't change with the new S&P+ formula, but what strikes me now after looking at them again is how OK those rankings were. In those three seasons Nebraska ranked 34th, 25th, and 41st respectively. That's not bad for a team that was 8-4 in its best season (based on winning percentage) during that stretch. You could say in all three years that the Huskers were probably a little better than their record showed, which is nice in retrospect but a problem in real time.

And with the benefit of hindsight you might argue that the Bo Pelini era ended up with the opposite problem. Those teams, taken as a whole, might've had a slightly better record than their overall quality, as determined by S&P+ at least, suggested. It's very slight, and that sort of randomness is baked into the game itself.

But, during the final three years of the Callahan era––the only three years for which there are modern S&P+ rankings––the Huskers had an average end-of-season ranking of 33.3 while going 22-16 (.579). That's not a huge difference from the average ranking during the Pelini years, which was 27.1, but it felt huge in terms of actual wins and losses (66-28, .702).

Only the latter matter, of course. This isn't a case for the Callahan era. Just interesting. Something to think about here as the thermometer fights to hit a positive number.

For me, it's the warmest way to spend some cold days.

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