Hot Reads: The Impact of Nebraska's Special Teams Struggles in 2019
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: The Impact of Nebraska’s Special Teams Struggles in 2019

January 17, 2020

The numbers have been crunched and the final scores are in.

ESPN released the final SP+ and FPI rankings for the 2019 season this week. I last took a look at those numbers at the end of the regular season, compared them to Nebraska's year-end numbers from 2018, then wrote the following:

The other data point of note here is where Nebraska finished in these rankings last season. In the view of these rankings, were the Huskers better than they were a year ago?

In two of three, Nebraska was . . . but barely. Sagarin had Nebraska at 73.01 (54th) at the end of 2018 and it's 73.19 (49th) now. FPI would make 2019 Nebraska (50th) about a 1.5-point favorite over 2018 Nebraska (55th) on a neutral field (which I guess would just be Memorial Stadium?). SP+ would have last year's team (55th) as a less than a 0.5-point favorite over this year's group (52nd).

Yes, per SP+, 2019 Nebraska was a tiny bit worse than 2018 Nebraska at this point last year. That leaves Nebraska's two-year trajectory under Scott Frost looking like this: In Year 1, the Huskers were +2.9 points in SP+ over what the current coaching staff inherited. In Year 2, Nebraska was -2.5 from its Year 1 rating for a total change of +0.4 from 2017.

Nebraska, obviously, hasn't played a game since that post but as SP+ and FPI are opponent adjusted, other teams playing their bowl games can impact the Huskers' rating a tiny bit. In SP+ Nebraska's rating dropped 0.3 points, from 2.9 to 2.6. For FPI the rating increased by 0.1, from 4.4 to 4.5. Both ratings are in the "team is X points better than the average team" format.

I want to look at the SP+ number a little more closely, and we can break it out by all three phases of the game. The formula for the overall SP+ rating is offensive SP+ minus defensive SP+ plus special teams SP+ (which can be a negative number).

OFFENSE: 32.2 (41st nationally)

Nebraska's offense scored two fewer points per game in 2019 than it did in 2018. The run game had fewer big plays. The passing game had more, but less consistency. That was all against a more favorable schedule in 2019. But, in the cold, calculating view of SP+, there wasn't much difference between the two offenses. Nebraska had a 32.7 rating at the end of 2018. Despite the 0.5-point decrease, the Huskers' offense was one spot higher in the national rankings (42nd in 2018). Six of one, half-dozen of the other. At the end of 2018, people felt great about the Huskers' offense. Not so much at the end of 2019, but this number, at least, highlights that most of the angst is for the expected improvement that didn't come, rather than much actual regression. (That's in the broadest sense, of course. Get into the details and you can find progression and regression aplenty.)

DEFENSE: 27.4 (63rd)

If you like symmetry, this one's for you: Per SP+, Nebraska's defensive rating also dropped by 0.5 points. The 2018 Huskers had a 26.9 rating (55th). To put that in slightly more concrete terms, that rating came from a defense that allowed 31.3 points per game against a pretty tough schedule. This year's defense allowed 27.8 against a slightly less difficult schedule. Same as offense, we're talking about a unit that was practically the same as the previous season. If that's the case, how did the Huskers' overall rating from 2018 get cut in half a year later? Well…

SPECIAL TEAMS: -2.2 (124th)

You already knew this rating had to be bad, but it's a way to look at the actual impact of the special teams struggle this season. If football involved only offense and defense in 2019, Nebraska was 4.8 points better than the average team. Then you have to lop off 2.2 points for special teams and that's a pretty big number for this category. If the Huskers had average special teams––a 0.0 rating, like Florida Atlantic (64th in special teams), Louisiana Tech (65th) and Arkansas (66th) all had––Nebraska goes from 55th overall to 47th. And that's about as big of a rankings jump as you can engineer on paper here.  Take Nebraska from sixth-worst in the country to average and Nebraska goes to 47th in the overall rating, but go from sixth-worst to sixth-best and Nebraska only goes up four more spots to 43rd.

Point is, special teams was by far the biggest area of regression in Scott Frost's second year at Nebraska, at least through the lens of SP+. When yesterday's announcement that Mike Dawson is returning to Nebraska came and it didn't include any mention of special teams duties, I raised my eyebrows. (Dawson was Boston College's special teams coordinator for three seasons.) Subsequent reports indicated the Huskers were working on a different solution for that phase.

That's probably the right decision. With a 2.6 SP+ rating at the end of Year 2, Nebraska is back to where it finished 2017. That team had a 2.5 rating by season's end, which was also Mike Riley's end in Lincoln.

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