Hot Reads: The Wrong Kind of Record
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: The Wrong Kind of Record, But Maybe the Right Time?

October 19, 2018

We already knew that Nebraska football's 2018 season motto, "Day By Day," had effectively been replaced. It is now unofficially, "Better Than The Record Suggests." That is now 2018 Nebraska football.

P.J. Fleck said it (not verbatim) on Monday. Husker opponents have mentioned it. Derek Peterson mentioned Nebraska being closer to 3-3 in his column this week. I wrote about it from Pythagorean wins point of view.

It's apparent to everyone that Nebraska should not be winless. That we already knew. What I didn't know is that the disparity between the Huskers' win total and its expected win total in one measure is on pace to be record setting.

That nugget came from listening to Podcast Ain't Played Nobody, hosted by Steven Godfrey and Bill Connelly. If you love every square inch of college football, it's the podcast for you.

Tuesday's show included a brief discussion of Nebraska (starts around the 18-minute mark), which was prompted by that USA Today article about Scott Frost's buyout. The conversation then turned to Connelly noting the record Nebraska is currently pursuing (against its own will):

By the way, they are trying to set a record. Right now the whole second-order win total thing, the quick summary of that being I come up with a postgame win expectancy number after each game where all the key predictive stats that typically produce wins and losses go into a blender and they say 'you would've won this game X percent of the time.' The worst season in terms of the second-order win total . . . the biggest difference ever between what you should've gotten and what you did get was SMU in 2007. They had a second-order win total of 4.7 and they went 1-11.
Only four teams in the 13 seasons between 2004 and 2017 were over three wins off. One of them was the 4-8 Notre Dame team of 2016 that turned around and was awesome again in 2017. One of them was the 2013 TCU team that went 4-8 but was really kind of 7-5-ish and then damn near made the playoff in 2014. It's basically a sign that you have a terrible coach who is about to go away, which doesn't appear to be the case here, or it's a sign that you're about to be more than fine. Right now Nebraska, halfway through the season, is 2.8 second-order wins behind where they should be. So they only need to gain about one more win there to have basically the record in that regard. What that means is S&P is looking at Nebraska  as if they're basically a 3-3 team.

That 2007 SMU team, if you're curious, lost three games in overtime (one of them a triple-OT game) and another by a single point. Head coach Phil Bennett was fired at the end of October. June Jones took the job and following season SMU rebounded to go 8-4.

Just kidding. The Mustangs went 1-11 again in 2008. A coaching change is a great way to give up all of those "on paper" gains of a star-crossed season. But outside of that specific scenario –– which doesn't apply to Nebraska anyway –– these kind of seasons are typically worth something on the other end (i.e. next year).

That's nice, but still maddening for fans here in this year. So here's a quick thought experiment: Nebraska has half of its 2018 season left. Your goal, experiment subject, is for the Huskers to have the best chance to have the most success in 2019. That's the only concern. I presume it would make almost everyone happy to watch a Husker win for the first time in nearly a year, but happiness is only a secondary concern. The primary objective is creating the best scenario for 2019 success.

That being the case, would you rather:

(A) Have Nebraska close strong, say 4-2 or even 5-1. Two of those wins would likely come over an FCS team and Illinois, but to get to even four wins over the final six Nebraska would have to beat a pretty solid team somewhere along the line. The Huskers' luck flips a little bit and this close to the season eats up all the "not as bad as it looks" credit from the first six games. The Huskers' second-order win differential goes from near-historic to normal and the college football world in general takes notice. You read things like "The Huskers had a rough start to the Frost era, but finished by winning five of six and appear poised for a breakout 2019" in the offseason. Hope always springs eternal in the offseason, but 4-2 or 5-1 would be the source of hope anyone could point to. Nebraska goes from "Better Than Its Record Suggests" to "What Its Record Suggests" and that's 4-8 or 5-7.

(B) Nebraska's 2018 season continues on much the same trajectory it's on. The Huskers win a couple of games –– 0-12 isn't in the cards here –– but the second half of the season feels mostly like the first with close losses marked by some bad turnovers luck, untimely penalties, etc., etc. The 2018 season is a "forest fire," it requires everyone to "rejoice in suffering," it's the backbreaking work of making sure your houses isn't built on a "bad foundation" (all terms Frost has already used to describe this season). The college football world in general looks at that season and says, "It's going to be a long road back," even if most still believe Nebraska will get there one day. The Huskers are not a trendy "trending up" team headed into 2019. They remain "Better Than Their Record Suggests."

Is one of those scenarios better than the other for 2019 success?

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