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Hot Reads: The Big Ten's Tax on Offense
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: The Big Ten’s Tax on Offense

February 25, 2019

There are good reasons to expect Nebraska's offense to improve in 2019, perhaps significantly. You can read all about that here.

In that story I also mentioned a few reasons that presumed improvement might be dulled somewhat, including the Big Ten's classic reputation as a defense-first conference.

The larger factor, however, is the Big Ten. There’s only one Big Ten team on that most-improved list, the Moorhead-plus-McSorley Penn State team of 2016, for a reason. It’s hard to put up points in this conference. That Penn State team improved by .202 points-per-play, best in the conference since 2014, but it still “only” averaged .565 (37.6 per game). Something above .600 is theoretically possible for a Nebraska offense in its biggest growth stage, but it has been pretty uncommon in this conference. Ohio State in 2013 (.635) and 2014 (.611) is the only Big Ten team to do it over the last five years.

It's more than just a reputation, at least of late. Over the last four seasons, the average points-per-play for a Big Ten offense was below the national average. Consider it the tax on points if you want to play in the Conference of the Big Shoulders.

Over the last five years, that "tax rate" has been about 2.5 percent. Over the last four, it's 4 percent. (More on that in a second.)

Things could be worse. The tax on defense in the Big 12 since 2014 has been 7.8 percent. Defenses in that league, as a whole, gave up 7.8 percent more points-per-play than the national average. The Big Ten isn't quite that extreme and there is some recent evidence that the current trend towards slightly lower point totals can be cyclical.

For example, the offense tax on the Big Ten over a five-year window is 2.5 percent while it's 4 percent with a four-year look back because 2014 was a season in which the Big Ten was above the national average. That year the average FBS team put up .409 points-per-play and the average Big Ten team managed .423 (+3.4%). The season before was similar (+2.9%).

I suspect that if you did a really long look back at the Big Ten, most years would trend towards defense but that slight offensive bubble is interesting. Let's look at 2014 quickly. What was happening in the Big Ten?

Ohio State rallied from an early loss to win the national title and put up a ton of points along the way. Wisconsin was in Year 2 of incorporating some spread elements under Gary Andersen. There would only be two years to that era, but the Badgers averaged nearly 35 points a game both seasons and hasn’t hit that number since. Nebraska, with senior running back Ameer Abdullah and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. in Year 2, averaged 37.8 points per game, a number it has failed to hit since. The biggest difference, however, was Michigan State. The Spartans, who had won a bunch of games to that point while struggling to score 30 a game, jumped up to 43 points per game behind quarterback Connor Cook and a fleet of impressive pass-catchers, and has been under 30 points a game again the last four years.

Overall, I would say the Big Ten's defensive reputation is earned, but the 2013–14 era of increased offense is particularly interesting when you look at the makeup of the conference now.

Last year was the first season since at least 2009––and I would guess maybe ever––that six conference teams averaged at least 30 points a game. The top teams in the East––Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State––were in that group, but the real growth opportunity for offense lies in the West. Nebraska, Minnesota and Purdue all recently hired coaches with backgrounds on offense. Iowa averaged more points per game last year (31.2) than it had at any point over the previous nine seasons. Wisconsin and Minnesota missed the threshold by 0.3 and 1.1 points per game respectively. If I were offered two stock options, offense or defense, in the West Division right now, I'd be buying offense.

Is that enough to drive another swell of offense in the conference as a whole? That probably depends on a) Ohio State remaining what it has been from a points-scoring perspective, and b) Penn State not falling off post-Moorhead/McSorley. I don't know if I'm ready to presume either of those things happen yet, and I would be a little surprised if 2019 was a particularly offense-heavy year in the Big Ten.

But I wouldn't be surprised if a year in the near future is. A tax cut may be coming.

The Grab Bag

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