Hot Reads: Would 1997 Nebraska Have Been Favored Over Michigan?
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Hot Reads: Would 1997 Nebraska Have Been Favored Over Michigan?

September 19, 2018

It's 1997 week in Nebraska. We knew that was going to be the case given Scott Frost being reinserted into the story as the Huskers' head coach and his first Big Ten game coming against Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"I know the people in Michigan don't like me very much," Frost said in July at Big Ten Media Days. "I've got a lot of respect for their program. Just like Nebraska, it's one of the best programs in the country. But if I get all done coaching and decide I want to run for office, I pry can't do it in Michigan."

This week has been good about reminding us why as I keep seeing Frost's post-Orange Bowl podium speech popping up in places. You know the one.

The debate over the 1997 split national title is pretty well worn in both states at this point, but a couple of outlets have put out stories attempting to attack it from a new angle.

Bill Bender of The Sporting News talked to members of both teams and media corps around the two teams to craft a sort of choose-your-own-adventure replaying of the game. Players from both sides, of course, feel their team would've won, so I'm going to share this quote from fullback Joel Mackovicka.

"You would be hard-pressed to find any coaches or any bettors who would have listed us as an underdog if we played Michigan that year," Makovicka said. "We would have been at least a touchdown favorite. At least that much."

Put a pin in that for a second.

Chantel Jennings of The Athletic wrote a fantastic story about KFOR's actual ( but still fictional) replay of the game that never was. (Seriously. Track this story down. It's great.) Here's a quote of note from Jason Peter after the Orange Bowl.

“If we played Michigan, it’d probably be worse than what happened to Tennessee out there today,” Peter had told Jacobson after the Orange Bowl. “Brian Griese, I don’t know if he’d be able to deal with the pressure that we put on. Don’t get me wrong, Michigan’s a great team, but we’re a better team. … If anyone can tell me that Michigan looks like a better team, no, you know what I’d like to do, let’s let the people out in Vegas make a line for this game and I guarantee we’ll be favored.”

That's two Nebraska players both mentioning the spread for a game that would never be played, and that has become the thing that interests me most from this eternal debate: Would 1997 Nebraska have been favored over Michigan, and if so by how much?

I'm sure there are stories from January 1998 where a reporter called an oddsmaker and asked this very question, but I haven't had any success finding them to this point. That said, I'm relatively sure the Huskers would've been a favorite.

The Sagarin ratings from 1997 are out there, however, and those are built to provide a projected margin between any two teams. Nebraska finished the 1997 season No. 1 in those rankings with a rating of 104.99. Michigan finished fourth, behind Florida State and Florida, with a rating of 99.20. Subtract B from A, no home field adjustment because any such game would've been played on a neutral field, and Sagarin's ratings, after all of the bowl games had been played, projected Nebraska -6.79. Pretty close to Mackovicka's presumed spread.

Of course no set of power rankings, particularly one set of power rankings, does a point spread make. I look at Sagarin ratings compared to the spread every week during a football season, and you'll always see some gaps. Nebraska went off as a 13.5-point favorite against Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl, with a projected spread (based on the rankings after the Huskers had already trounced the Vols, as those are all I could find) of Nebraska by 7.5. Michigan was a 7-point favorite over Washington State in the Rose Bowl, while Sagarin said Michigan by 5.

I went ahead and calculated that difference between Sagarin and the actual spread, using Gold Sheet's logs, for all of the bowl games that year featuring at least one top-15 team. The average difference between Sagarin and the spread was 5.5 points. With the projected Nebraska-Michigan spread, that's the difference between a solid favorite (Nebraska -12.5) and a tossup (Nebraska -1.5).

But the standard deviation here is 3.5, and that might be a better gauge. That means you'd expect the Nebraska-Michigan spread to fall between Nebraska -10.5 and -3.5 two-thirds of the time. Based on other 1997 power rankings, I think that range is probably pretty accurate.

I'm with Mackovicka. Call it a touchdown and you probably would've been safe.

That said, if you want to go ahead and simulate it for yourself do it as many times as you like here. And if you've already decided how it would go, well . . .

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