Hot Reads: The Profile of a Division Champ?
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: The Profile of a Division Champ?

June 06, 2019

Athlon put its "complete" Big Ten preview online this week. If you've already picked up the magazine––and it is my favorite of the national previews, for what it's worth––the picks and predictions won't be a surprise, but there's a lot of additional context online.

Michigan is Athlon's pick to win the East, Nebraska is the pick in the hard-to-handicap West. The primary reason for taking the Huskers over Wisconsin and Iowa is schedule. Wisconsin draws three of the best from the East (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State), Iowa gets two (Michigan, Penn State). Both the Badgers and Hawkeyes have to play in Lincoln this year, too.

From Athlon:

With the schedule factor working against Iowa and Wisconsin, Nebraska has a favorable path to the West Division title. The Cornhuskers catch the Hawkeyes, Badgers and Ohio State in Lincoln and won’t have to play Michigan or Michigan State. Coach Scott Frost’s team showed marked improvement over the second half of last season and should carry that momentum into 2019. Quarterback Adrian Martinez is already among the Big Ten’s best and some improvement is expected on a defense that gave up 31.3 points a game last fall.

Fair enough. This seems to be how a lot of predictors are landing on the Huskers to win the West in 2019. But as I continued to scroll through the preview something caught my eye––Athlon's unit (i.e. position group) rankings.

There weren't a lot of Nebraska logos on that chart, which only showed the top six in the conference. Just three of the Huskers' position groups ranked in the top-half of the conference––quarterback (3rd), offensive line (6th) and defensive backs (6th).

Huh, I thought to myself, that seems like a pretty middle-of-the-road profile for a predicted division champ. Not that these unit rankings are everything, of course, but my curiosity spiked so I grabbed whatever Athlons I had on my shelf (the last four years, as it happens) and started tallying.

The sum of Nebraska's position rankings in 2019 was 51, an average ranking of 7.3 (I know, you're not supposed to do that but this is just a "let's see what we can see" check, nothing else). Four of the Huskers' positions ranked in the bottom half of the conference.

OK, with that in place what have the other predicted division champs of the Power 5 conferences looked like over the past four years? “Not like this” is the general answer. There were only three teams that were somewhat close since 2016. Athlon picks Virginia to win a ho-hum Coastal division this year. The Cavaliers had a ranking sum of 43, an average of 6.1.

You have to go back to 2016 to find the two others. North Carolina was picked to win the Coastal that year with a sum of 40 and an average of 5.7. The Tarheels finished 8-5. Iowa was picked to win the West that year with a sum of 42 and average of 6.0. The Hawkeyes finished 8-5.

Nebraska is only predicted division champ in that group of 50 teams since 2016 (including 2019) to have an average position ranking in the bottom half of the conference. If only three of its position groups are above average in the conference, how is Nebraska predicted to win the division?

It's sort of an interesting question about the assumptions we have to make when making offseason predictions. Beyond just schedule strength, which involves a lot of assumptions, I think there are at least three key factors.

1) Quarterback: If you have to pick a spot to have your highest ranking, quarterback might be it. I'd also hear arguments for either line, but Adrian Martinez is a good reason for optimism and, as a quarterback, everyone knows it.

2) Past Precedent: Scott Frost's previous Year 2 looms large in all of these predictions. That's my read, anyway. His 2017 UCF team had an average position ranking of 6.0 in Athlon that year and was projected to go 7-5 and finish second in the AAC East. The Knights had just two groups (OL, DB), however, that ranked in the bottom half of the conference. Turned out the UCF's quarterback unit, ranked sixth at the start of the year, was actually the best in the conference. Assuming something similar for Nebraska in 2019 because of what happened in Orlando requires a big logical jump, but if you can combine this second factor with the first one it has been pretty powerful in the past.

3)The Nebraska's of the World Always Get the Benefit of the Doubt: It would be interesting to try and look at if perennial powers, particularly those that have fallen on hard times, are consistently overrated when they're within striking defense of making a triumphant return. Even without that analysis, I'm comfortable theorizing that it happens. Athlon has picked Texas to play for the Big 12 title in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Miami was picked in 2017 and 2018 despite having fairly average position rankings as a whole. My guess is that if you could identify borderline cases where a blue blood is a potential favorite, not the clear favorite, that the blue blood would be the pick at a percentage that outpaces its actual chances of winning the division or conference.

It just makes for a more engaging narrative. Picking Wisconsin in the West again, probably what I would do this year, isn't very fun. It doesn't pique the interest of Badger fans or any others fan bases in the Big Ten. Nebraska, however? As we're already seeing, that excites some Husker fans and prompts plenty of others to offer their reasons this is the worst pick they've ever seen.

There's probably some of that going on with Nebraska this offseason, too.

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