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Hot Reads: The Best Nebraska Has Played in the Big Ten

April 13, 2020

It's probably a little bit reckless to even try to sum up the past decade of Nebraska football in short order. It has been such a strange journey since the Huskers joined the Big Ten that it's probably better suited for a book, but if you absolutely had to boil things down quickly, you could start with this:

The 10 best games Nebraska has played since 2011, based on its efficiency and explosiveness on offense and defense, came against these opponents––Florida Atlantic, Northern Illinois, Illinois (twice), Southern Miss, Fresno State (twice), Arkansas State and Northwestern (twice).

The 10 worst games Nebraska has played since 2011, based on the same criteria, came against these opponents––Ohio State (three times), Tennessee, Wisconsin (twice), Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa (twice).

The list of the best games makes some sense. Nebraska should play the best against the most overmatched teams. I suspect that if you applied this same approach to Ohio State, a couple of early-season routs of Bowling Green and Kent State would show up among the 10 most statistically dominant performances by the Buckeyes.

But so might one of Ohio State's recent decimations of the Huskers. The 2016, 2017 and 2019 Buckeye wins––combined score: 166-24––all ranked among the 10 worst Nebraska performances since 2011. And that, essentially, is the story. Nebraska's best games came almost exclusively against some of the worst opponents it played. It's worst games came against some of the best.

That's not breaking news, of course. We didn't need even a simple model to tell us that's about where Nebraska would slot in because we all watched the past nine seasons. What putting some numbers to it does do, however, is show just how stark the difference has been.

When I did individual looks at Nebraska's most dominant offensive and defensive performances of the Big Ten era, I made a point to weed out the nonconference games against G5 opponents. That's harder to do when looking at offense and defense simultaneously. You have to skip all the way to the 20th-"best" game on the list, the 2012 win over Michigan, to find a game against a fellow blue blood. That Michigan team finished 13th in the final SP+ ratings, and, if forced to chose Nebraska's best performance in the Big Ten on both sides of the ball, that's my pick. (Though it comes with a pretty big asterisk given that QB Denard Robinson was injured early in the game.)

Nebraska also beat Wisconsin in 2012, at least the first time, and that win probably makes the adjusted-for-opponent list of best performances. The Badgers, despite the 8-6 record, ranked 25th in SP+ at the end of the year. (And, in the rematch that season in the Big Ten title game, was the source of one of Nebraska's 10 worst games since 2011.) The 2012 win over Northwestern, which is in the unadjusted top 10, probably has to make the adjusted list, too. That was a 10-win Wildcat squad.

Noticing the theme yet? Without controlling for opponent, eight of the 35 most statistically dominant Nebraska performances happened in 2012. It was the Huskers' second year in the conference and, based on this combined look at efficiency and explosiveness, a level the Huskers weren't able to maintain.

Of course, things weren't perfect in 2012 either. The collapse against UCLA and blowouts at the hands of Ohio State and Wisconsin were indications of how fragile Nebraska was even at that point. But looking at every game of the Big Ten era shows that season, flawed as it was, as a pretty clear high-water mark for the current era.

The Grab Bag

  • Cam Taylor-Britt can play almost anywhere and that’s versatility Nebraska can use in 2020.
  • Rahmir Johnson figures to be an important piece for the Huskers this season. Jacob Padilla reviews the tape for a look back at his limited touches in 2019. (Premium)
  • Greg Smith looks at a recent run of commitments that didn’t go the Huskers’ way.

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Tags: Hot Reads