Hot Reads: Texas to the Playoff
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Hot Reads: The 2009 Season Was the Virginia Tech Game on Repeat

February 15, 2019

"If you’re a casual college football fan and you remember two things about the 2009 season, they’re probably a) this was the year that Alabama became All The Way Back, and b) Ndamukong Suh devoured souls."

Oh, yes, it's time for a deep stats dive into the 2009 football season via Football Study Hall. Around here I refer to that year as "The Season Nebraska Was Good Enough to Win a National Title . . . on One Side of the Ball." Despite the Huskers' one-handedness, this is still the best Nebraska team of the post-Crouch era (though the 2012 team was close, based on S&P+).

My primary interest in these retrospective looks at past seasons is in getting advanced box scores for select games. The reason I want those is to get to gawk at the postgame win expectancies, a calculation that estimates how often a given team would win given the two teams' stats in a game.

We get four of those here for the 2009 season. Let's look at those four games quickly.

Virginia Tech 16 Nebraska 15 – NU Win Expectancy: 39%

Heartbreak in Blacksburg. Safety Matt O'Hanlon was viewed as the goat here thanks to the long completion that set up the Hokies' game-winning touchdown, but the real issue for the Huskers was generating six scoring opportunities (first down inside the opponents' 40) and coming away with just five field goals. That would be a common problem in 2009. That, plus some bad turnovers luck for Nebraska (minus an estimated 10 points) are why Virginia Tech wins this game 60 percent of the time. The rest of the key stats were pretty much a wash. Nebraska would essentially play this game over and over again in 2009.

Nebraska 27 Missouri 12 – NU Win Expectancy: 95%

Nebraska was leaning on Mizzou most of the game, but still trailed 12-0 going into the fourth quarter. Then the Huskers got a long Niles Paul touchdown, two turnovers (setting up two more TDs) and a game-salting drive to score on all four possessions. This game looks almost like the inverse of the loss at Virginia Tech––Nebraska maximized its scoring opportunities and won the turnover battle––if not for the Huskers' added edge in explosive plays.

Nebraska 10 Oklahoma 3 – NU Win Expectancy: 61%

Oh, hey, another game crazily similar to Virginia Tech. This time the Huskers flipped the postgame win expectancy and was the team at 61 percent. Yet again Nebraska had a huge edge in scoring opportunities (8-4), was pretty inept at turning those opportunities into points but Oklahoma was worse thanks to five turnovers. Nebraska's success rate in this game was 19 percent. Let me say that again. Nebraska's success rate in this game was 19 percent. If the Huskers had been able to play all-time defense this season and received points for stops and punts under some sort of spring game scoring format they probably would've gone undefeated.

Texas 13 Nebraska 12 – NU Win Expectancy: 36%

Well, here it is. The one. The closest Nebraska has come to snapping its conference-title drought. It is pretty much like the other three games on this list. Because of Suh's individual brilliance and the fact that Nebraska looked like it had it won, we remember Nebraska's performance as better than it was. Turnovers were even. So were scoring opportunities. Explosive plays were virtually non-existent both ways. While neither team was above-average in efficiency, Texas was less inefficient. (Always a good thing to write about a football game.) The Huskers' success rate in this game was 20 percent, including 5 percent on passing downs. It was ugly, but at this point in the season you knew it had to be for Nebraska to have a shot. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it's sort of fun to consider the following hypothetical: Given the strength of the defense, what if Nebraska had just gone to Taylor Martinez as a true freshman? It would've required a shift by Shawn Watson to more spread principles a year earlier than he actually made the switch, but that switch was largely motivated by Martinez's home-run ability anyway. You could argue that with this defense, Martinez's speed and ability to make jaw-dropping runs may have been the missing ingredient for the Huskers as a whole.

The counterargument there is that the propensity for ill-advised throws and fumbles that were a part of the Martinez experience for his entire career would've been even worse as a true freshman. With a defense this good a long field was essentially a death sentence for opposing offenses. Nebraska was about dead average in avoiding turnovers and, given that the offense wasn't offering much, rode its defense to a 10-4 record.

Would the positives Martinez theoretically could've offered as a first-year quarterback have outweighed the negatives? We'll never know, but having seen the way things actually played out I sure am interested in that alternate reality just to see what would've happened.

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