How Good Can Nebraska's Offense Be in 2019?
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

How Good Can Nebraska’s Offense Be in 2019?

February 24, 2019

So you really want your favorite college football team to take a big jump forward on offense. Everybody would want that, right? Particularly in this era of point-filled football?

Good, glad we agree. Now, how do you do it?

There were three primary ways to do this over the past five years of college football. 

Path No. 1: Make a big upgrade at quarterback. Of the 15 biggest year-to-year improvements in points-per-play between 2014 and 2018, three have happened this way. Arizona with Khalil Tate at quarterback in 2017 was .227 points-per-play better than it was the previous season, 2017 Ohio with quarterback Nathan Rourke improved by .214 and 2016 Wyoming jumped .210 in Josh Allen’s first year taking snaps. Based on an average of 70 plays per game—which was the average for an FBS offense in 2018—going plus .200 in points-per-play is a difference of 14 points a game.

Path No. 2: A slightly better way to do it—hire some new coaches. Five of the top-15 offensive improvements over the past five seasons accompanied a coaching change, which includes coordinator switches without a head-coaching change. That group has Willie Taggart’s move to the “Gulf Coast Offense” at South Florida in 2015 (he was 6-18 at USF going into that season), Joe Moorhead joining Penn State in 2016 (also the start of the Trace McSorley era, so maybe split credit?) and Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie taking the reins of the TCU offense in 2014.

Path No. 3: The most common path of the most-improved, maybe the best way to do it, is to hire some new coaches and give them a year. Seven of the top-15 and all of the top-five points-per-play improvements of the last five seasons have come in Year 2 under new coaches (either head coach, offensive coordinator or both). Here you’ll find Year 2 of the P.J. Fleck era at Western Michigan, Kirby Smart’s second year at Georgia and UCF’s second year with Scott Frost and Troy Walters.

Could Nebraska be on this list at the end of the 2019 season? They’re on Path No. 3 and that’s not a bad start.

Here’s the list of the top 15 offensive improvements from 2014 to 2018. I’ll be surprised if you’re surprised by the team at the top.

(Also, you’ll need this key: – Year 1 of new HC and/or OC | – Year 2 of new HC and/or OC | – Year 1 with new QB | – Year 2 with new QB)

UCF, 17 .295 1 (77) +
La. Tech, 14 .278 10 (113) +
Southern Miss, 15 .275 10 (117) +
W. Michigan, 14 .253 16 (116) +
Utah State, 18 .228 3 (50) +
Arizona, 17 .227 4 (88)
Ga. Southern, 18 .223 15 (116) +
TCU, 14 .216 7 (84) +
SMU, 15 .215 77 (126) +
Ohio, 17 .214 6 (85)
USF, 15 .211 27 (112) +
Wyoming, 16 .210 25 (113)
California, 14 .207 30 (114) +
Penn State, 16 .202 10 (90) +
Georgia, 17 .197 12 (95) +

Yes, 2017 Central Florida made the biggest points-per-play improvement of the past five years. The Knights went from 123rd (.214) in 2015 pre-Frost and Co. to a little bit better in 2016 (.384, 76th) to best in the country (.679) in 2017. Based on this, Husker opponents should prepare to batten down the hatches, right?

Well, not solely based on this, but probably. Before we get there, however, it’s important to note that by focusing on positive offensive improvements this method does sort of self-select programs that have made (good) coaching changes. An accomplished offense doesn’t make a change unless it has to. Oklahoma, for example, wasn’t bad offensively in 2014. The Sooners ranked 18th in points-per-play that year, up from the year before, and still fired co-coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell when the Sooners went 8-5. Lincoln Riley stepped in, first as offensive coordinator then as head coach, and the Sooners’ offense has improved each year he has been there.

But none of those changes made the list above because Oklahoma was already a top-20 offense when Riley got there. Over the four years Riley has been in Norman, however, Oklahoma’s offense has improved by a total of .228 points-per-play and minted two Heisman quarterbacks. That’s the net effect of the Riley hire.

That’s worth noting about this method of measurement, but none of it applies to Nebraska right now. The Huskers have room to make a big improvement. By making a good hire that produced some gains right away, it’s reasonable to expect Nebraska to score more points, more efficiently, in Year 2.

The question is how many.

In 2018, Nebraska ran 868 plays that produced 360 points. That average (.415, 63rd) was about average. The change from 2017 (.041) was the 47th-best last season. It was a decent first step.

But Year 2 should be when this offense takes off. Should, not could. Based on the list above, a struggling offense needs an agent of change, and it’s even better if that agent has a year of experience in his new gig.

Nebraska has two such agents.

If you paid close attention to the emoji key above you may have noticed that, while I left it out of the preamble, I did note improving offenses that also had a second-year starting quarterback. That alone wasn’t enough to land any team on the most-improved list over the last five years––the way it was with some Year 1 QBs––but it has worked well when you pair it with some new coaches. It was residual Path No. 1 mixed with Path No. 3 and might be the express lane to higher point totals.

Four of the top-five most-improved offenses above paired a second-year head coach and/or offensive coordinator with a second-year quarterback. Year 2 quarterbacks showed up on the list eight times, Year 1 quarterbacks seven. For teams that find a good, multi-year starter, the offense is going to improve the most early in his career at which point it should have improved enough that continued gains are effectively capped by the ceiling of what’s physically possible on a football field. 

Nebraska, of course, can add the Adrian Martinez multiplier to its Year 2 coaches so what does that look like from a points-on-the-board point of view? If the Huskers were to improve by .200 points-per-play over 2018, about two touchdowns per game on average, that would likely result in a top-five scoring offense. It would be between 42 to 44 points per game depending upon how many plays Nebraska averaged, up from 30 last season, and it’s not unreasonable based on the good-as-you-can-get-it combination of Year 2 factors.

But there are some complications here.

Nebraska must replace its top receiver and rusher from 2017. That matters. Martinez and wide receiver JD Spielman are two great players that play great together, but the Huskers will need other reliable options in the passing game. I would say the same about the run game. The talent level in Nebraska’s running back room is high and the experience is relatively low, but there has to be a consistent run threat because, well, that’s important to football in general but good running backs also maximize the effectiveness of Martinez as a runner. If Nebraska fans are talking about the lack of a second or third option in the passing game or needing a home-run-hitting running back in October, 40-ish points a game probably isn’t happening.

The larger factor, however, is the Big Ten. There’s only one Big Ten team on that most-improved list, the Moorhead-plus-McSorley Penn State team of 2016, for a reason. It’s hard to put up points in this conference. That Penn State team improved by .202 points-per-play, best in the conference since 2014, but it still “only” averaged .565 (37.6 per game). Something above .600 is theoretically possible for a Nebraska offense in its biggest growth stage, but it has been pretty uncommon in this conference. Ohio State in 2013 (.635) and 2014 (.611) is the only Big Ten team to do it over the last five years.

That might limit the best-possible improvement Nebraska can make even though the Huskers appear to have the best-possible culmination of factors. That would still leave plenty of room for Nebraska’s offense to make some significant gains, however. At .555 points-per-play the Huskers are likely averaging 40 points a game. That would take a good improvement, with a great recipe for such an improvement, in a tough conference for offense.

It seems possible, but maybe on the optimistic side. Something around .540, which would likely result in 38 points per game, is an easier bet to make.

This much is certain, though: If Nebraska doesn’t improve its point total in 2019 something went horribly wrong. There’s too much working in the Huskers favor right now even if there are a few challenges, too.

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