Hot Reads: The Huskers' Statistical Edge
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: The Huskers’ Statistical Edge

October 21, 2016

Is Nebraska 6-0 because it has a sports analytics department? No, but wouldn’t it be a great story if that were the case? You could make a movie starring Brad Pitt around a story like that.

Even if we can’t directly attribute the Huskers’ undefeated start to the work of Tucker Zeleny and the analytics department he helms, it was still the news peg for ESPN’s analytics vertical to hang its recent story on Nebraska’s one-of-a-kind sports analytics department.

So what does this analytics department — which covers all sports, not just football — do? Enter ESPN’s Sharon Katz to shed a little light:

Zeleny understands that his role is not to replace coaches and scouts; rather, he can provide them data to inform their decisions.

“Maybe it’s something new or something they suspected and we can reinforce that idea.” Zeleny said.

One example of a study the analytics department recently completed is an analysis of what wins football games. Looking back at the past five seasons, they determined what makes a successful team (beyond scoring more points than its opponents) and provided the coaching staff with benchmarks relating to turnovers, penalties, third downs, yards per point differential and more.
Beyond looking at conference and national trends, the analytics team also dives deeper into scouting, situational decision-making and player exertion than ever before.

I still come away wanting to know more details about that “what wins” report, and I understand Zeleny might be reluctant to share it, but what sort of reports are produced each week? What do the coaches want? Is Mike Riley really looking at yards-per-point after a game?

And that’s not even including some of the sports science aspects of things that deal with player performance, recovery, etc. That feels like an even bigger potential edge for Nebraska.

This is all interesting stuff, I’m just still looking for a little more data, ironically, on how this thing is actually working.

‘Coach Osborne Was Always So Class’

If you’re up for a deep dive on conference realignment, Gabe DeArmond’s story for on Missouri’s move to the SEC is a good one.

There’s plenty of Nebraska in there, too, including this amusing anecdote from former Athletic Director Mike Alden on those infamous 2010 Big 12 meetings:

“This is before Nebraska had announced that they were going to leave. We were at one of these meetings and Dan Beebe was running it, there was all this tension in the room and Coach (Tom) Osborne was just so, he was always so class, I just loved being in meetings with him. He was very thoughtful. When all this was going on, there was one athletic director in particular, I can’t remember what school it was, but it’s in Austin. Anyhow, I heard a guy in that chair, he just started flipping out—flipping out is probably too strong a term, but he got pretty agitated, this person—and started dropping expletives about this and firing them kind of at us, at Mizzou, because Mizzou was rumored maybe the Big Ten is looking. And I was trying to be very professional. You know who stood up for me? For us? Tom Osborne.”

Particularly enjoyed the “I can’t remember what school it was, but it’s in Austin” part. Well played, Mike.

The Grab Bag

  • Nick Gates returned to practice, Jordan Westerkamp is still out and the rest of the notes from Thursday’s practice.
  • Purdue is dealing with its own injury woes and could be without linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and defensive tackle Jake Replogle, which would be bad news for a struggling run defense.
  • Wisconsin makes Chip Patterson’s mid-season list of underrated teams.
  • Northwestern’s offensive turnaround has it believing in a special season again.

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