Hot Reads: What Will it Take for the Huskers to be Better Than 6-6?
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: What Will it Take for the Huskers to be Better Than 6-6?

June 25, 2018

For the sake of argument let's assume the preseason consensus on Nebraska is about right. Most places that project win totals have the Huskers at around six wins in 2018, and that's a pretty easy number on which to land. If you have just a general sense of how good teams were a year ago, you can look at Nebraska's schedule and see six games (all at home) in which the Huskers might be favored and six others (five road games plus Michigan State in Lincoln) where it looks like the Huskers will be an underdog. Boom, 6-6. 

While it's impossible to predict the context that will actually shape the narrative of a season, 6-6 looks pretty tidy from a zoomed-out view, too. That would represent progress –– the thing Nebraska fans want the most in 2018 –– and, against this schedule, would mean the Huskers likely made strides offensively and defensively. It would be the same record Scott Frost had in Year 1 at UCF, which would become annoying over the 2019 offseason –– look, a pattern! –– but annoying because it would probably be enough for bullish Nebraska predictions heading into next season. In short, there ain't nothing wrong with 6-6 in 2018.

That's the major theme of Bill Connelly's Husker preview, which was published last Friday. "Be happy with a bowl bid, in other words," Connelly writes. "S&P+ — which isn’t designed to take coaching changes into account — projects Nebraska 60th, with 5-7 as the most likely record."

Connelly's previews are my favorite. They're deep and detailed and geeky, all things I love. That line above jumped out to me for its note about not taking a coaching change into account. The Huskers that Connelly's numbers project to win 5.7 games are simply coached by Coach X. It's a hard thing to quantify. ESPN's FPI tries to do it by projecting a regression to the mean for teams with new coaches. That makes some sense, but it's still not taking an individual coach's ability into account, this is just New Coach X. And FPI lands at 5.5 wins for Nebraska, too.

I don't have any better ideas at the moment for precisely calculating the wins-and-losses difference any individual coach might make, so let's get back to 6-6(ish). What would it take for Nebraska to be better than that in 2018?

I see two ways the Huskers could outperform their .500 season projection. Option A: The defensive improvement is greater than anyone expects. Connelly's numbers have the Huskers going from 110th to 70th nationally in Defensive S&P+. I liked his breakdown of the defensive rebuild (rebound?) facing Nebraska:

. . . The former Blackshirts were quite possibly the least disruptive defense in FBS, ranking 130th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 128th in Adj. Sack Rate, and 129th in overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays). They were 128th in rushing success rate and 122nd in passing success rate. They were decent in big-play prevention, but they relied on you to make mistakes.
Erik Chinander’s UCF was the polar opposite. While the Knights ranked just 74th in Def. S&P+, their strength was forcing the issue. With their offense dominating, they were able to take risks in the name of forcing three-and-outs or turnovers. The big plays they gave up were huge, but they made plays, too.

That's pretty much it in a nutshell, the hoped-for change coming to the Blackshirts in 2018. A jump of 40 spots in the rankings isn't insignificant. But I think there's an argument to be made that last year's defense was torn down to the foundation to such a degree that maybe 110th isn't the starting point. It is when you're trying to quantify what it might be, but is it practically?

I don't know, but I lean towards perhaps not. The Huskers have good experience returning. There's a lack of proven and dynamic playmakers, yes, but the Huskers' staff has sort of hedged its bets on that front with an influx of new talent. Either the returning players will improve or they'll be replaced. You can already see where that good sort of depth-chart pressure is going to come from on the defensive side. While the stat sheet might not show proven ballhawks, backfield-disruptors or fumble-forcers, Nebraska's coaches have taken steps to ensure they can engineer some for 2018. It seems possible to me that the Huskers' defensive struggles in 2017 could be disguising to some degree the actual talent available to Frost and company in Year 1.

And even if that doesn't end up being the case, there's also this to consider: The 2015 UCF defense Erik Chinander inherited ranked 112th in defensive S&P+. At the end of the 2016 season the Knights' defense ranked 30th. That doesn't mean Nebraska's going to do the same in 2018 and it's not a slight at any sort of ranking system. Any such model that correctly projected that kind of jump probably wouldn't be very accurate overall.

But it is possible, if not likely, and that underscores the point: If 6-6 is a reasonable record for Nebraska in 2018, outperforming that requires something unreasonable, an improvement you wouldn't feel safe predicting.

Defense could be that for Nebraska this season. In fact, maybe it's the "best" bet for an out-of-nowhere improvement from bad to good (and not just bad to average).

The other component that I think could really raise the Huskers' ceiling in 2018? I'll write about that one later this week.

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