Hot Reads: The Battle Nebraska Has to Win on Black Friday
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: The Best Predictive Ranking for the Huskers Yet?

August 21, 2019

You thought the time for preseason rankings was done with the release of the preseason Associated Press poll on Monday?

Not quite.

Because there is football on Saturday, this week also brought the release of the preseason Sagarin ratings. I don't really favor one of the many predictive power ratings over another, but I do like two specific things about Sagarin: 1) It's old compared to most computer ratings and you can access these ratings dating back to 1998 with ease, and 2) It ranks FCS teams right alongside the FBS teams.

This is how I know that entering Week 0 there are 37 FCS teams ranked ahead of South Alabama (164th), Nebraska's opening-game opponent. The Jaguars fall right between Southeast Missouri State and Idaho.

But the real news here is that the Huskers are 21st in the initial Sagarin ratings. That's better than FPI (31st) and S&P+ (45th), the two other predictive rankings I look at most often. This might be one of the most bullish computer projections for Nebraska yet. Here's a way to see the difference.

Back in February, I used the first FPI and S&P+ ratings to project the spread for each of Nebraska's games using a generic home-field advantage of 2.5 points for all teams. That's what these ratings are built to do, and Sagarin is the same. You take Team A's rating, subtract Team B's and you have a projected margin for any game on a neutral field. Sagarin uses 2.25 points for home-field advantage. Even with a slightly smaller home-field bonus, the Huskers still come out ahead here thanks to the higher ranking.

Here is what Sagarin projects for each Nebraska game based on the Week 0 ratings (margins rounded to the nearest half point):

South Alabama -36 164
at Colorado -10.5 74
Northern Illinois -18.5 85
at Illinois -17.5 99
Ohio State +10 4
Northwestern -6.5 39
at Minnesota -5.5 53
Indiana -10.5 59
at Purdue -5.5 54
Wisconsin -1 17
at Maryland -8 66
Iowa -0.5 15

There are a few intriguing things happening there:

>>South Alabama is rated as the fourth-worst FBS team. The Sagarin margin here lines up pretty well with the current spread for that game.

>>Sagarin also isn't very optimistic about Colorado or Illinois at this point. Both of those ratings surprise me a little. Colorado has a lot of talent at quarterback and receiver as well as a star linebacker. Illinois, in my opinion, is almost certainly going to be better than it was a year ago and it made some nice gains in 2018. That may not be reflected in the Illini's record at the end of the year, but I do think they'll be at tougher out than they were last season for most teams.

>>For those that parse through these type of predictive ratings the game that has seemed to trip Husker fans up the most is Minnesota. A lot of ratings have Nebraska as an underdog at Minneapolis and we received multiple questions about that in the Mailbag over the summer. Sagarin has the Huskers as a 5.5-point favorite. That's the same margin Nebraska has against Purdue at West Lafayette. The Boilermakers are ranked one spot behind the Gophers.

>>Wisconsin (17th) and Iowa (15th) are both rated ahead of Nebraska, but home-field advantage makes the Huskers a tiny favorite by Sagarin in both games. We'll see what those lines end up being at game time, but there's a reason here in August that people look at Nebraska's schedule and think it has a shot to win the division. It's because of games like this. This goes without saying, but the numbers do a nice job of underscoring it: Getting these games at home is potentially huge.

>>Sagarin has seven Big Ten teams ranked 21st or better. That's nice for conference strength before any games have been played, but will that hold true once those games start and, if it does, will the Big Ten get credit for it? This is always an issue when you have a cluster of teams around 15th to 20th.

The Grab Bag

  • Lauren West’s weekly column, The Lo-Down, is back for another season. She kicks things off with a look at why international trips matter for Nebraska.
  • Garrett Nelson isn’t your typical freshman in a few different ways and he’s probably going to play right away. (Premium)
  • After a series of ups-and-downs and new position coaches, safety Eric Lee Jr. has a new position himself and one more year to make an impact. (Premium)
  • Greg Smith looks at the progress freshman tight end Chris Hickman is making since missing spring practice with an injury.

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