I do not think Nebraska is going to go 7-5 in 2019. Let’s just get that out there now. If you tweet at me to mention that it’s ludicrous to think Nebraska could have such a record in Year 2 under Scott Frost, I will know that you didn’t read the first line of the story and I’m going to send you a screenshot of this paragraph. I don’t think 7-5 is the most likely outcome.
But I didn’t think Nebraska would go 4-8 last season either. If the oddsmakers are right—and they have set the Huskers’ 2019 win total at 8.5—7-5 is far from out of the question. That would be 1.5 games below projection. My esteemed colleague Derek Peterson has investigated what it will take for Nebraska to get to 10-2, 1.5 wins above projection.
This is the other side of that equation. The world needs defense attorneys, too.
While I don’t think Nebraska is going 7-5, here’s how it could happen.
The Run Game Regresses
Nebraska’s best foot forward in 2018 was its run game. The Huskers averaged 6.2 yards per carry, removing sacks, which ranked 12th nationally. Devine Ozigbo went from a people’s-choice grinder of a back to a 1,000-yard goer with 12 runs of 20-plus yards. (He had six such runs over the previous three seasons combined.) That’s what this offense can do to opposing defenses, even in Year 1 of a rebuild.
In Year 2, the expectations are higher. Yes, Ozigbo’s gone, the charges facing Maurice Washington seem nowhere close to being resolved (though a team decision might be close) and the top three scholarship players behind Washington all just joined the program this summer. There’s plenty of uncertainty there, but if you believe Nebraska is going to improve on the 456 yards of total offense per game it averaged a year ago—and I would believe that––it almost has to include equal or better rushing production than the already-high level the Huskers reached in 2018.
If that doesn’t happen, Nebraska’s ceiling in 2019 is lowered. Perhaps significantly. Last year the Huskers averaged 8.4 yards per carry in four wins and 5.3 in eight losses (sacks, again, removed as is right and just). This offense can do a lot of things, but it’s still built around an eviscerating run game. Run a play, run a play, run a play, and then, while the defenders’ heads are still spinning, bust a 60-yard run and leave their guts spilled all over the field with one big cut. At its best this is the modern equivalent of the great option teams grinding opponent down to the point where a fullback trap might go for 40 yards. Here, it’s a series of tiny cuts before the fatal slash.
Ohio State and Iowa kept the Huskers’ ground attack corralled––Michigan State did too, as it does, though the weather deserves at least a little credit in that game—and were the only two teams to beat Nebraska over the final six games of the year. The Ohio State and Iowa games weren’t blowouts, however. Maybe Nebraska could still win a bunch with Adrian Martinez throwing the ball all over the yard. He’s good enough individually, but an average run game is not this offense operating at peak efficiency and I’d expect that to be reflected in the record.
No Turnover Turnaround
Over the last 10 years, Nebraska is -38 in turnovers. That’s -38 against an expected margin, based on average fumble recovery and interception rates, of -21.8. The Huskers’ theoretical total was bad and the real total was worse. Let’s compare that to the top of the scale, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. The Tide were +92 against an expectation of +88.9, the Tigers +24 against an expectation of +23.1 and the Buckeyes +81 against an expectation of +54.7.
This probably isn’t the place for a detailed discussion of how a team like Nebraska goes about engineering a turnover edge, but those numbers alone should be enough to get the point across—it has to change if the Huskers are to get to where they hope to go.
There were some encouraging signs last year. Nebraska was -2 in 2018 and that was with some bad interceptions luck both ways. Opponents intercepted 28.2% of the Nebraska passes they got a hand on while the Huskers’ defense grabbed just 15.9% of those same opportunities. The average here is about 20% and there are reasons to think both numbers could be closer to the mean this time around (including simple regression to the mean). That alone might be enough to provide a small but positive margin at the end of the year.
There’s also this in the good-news column: From Week 6 on last season, the Huskers created 16 takeaway opportunities (forced fumbles plus passes defended) a total that tied for third nationally over the second half of the season. This defense is built to take the ball away and it was at least putting itself in position to do that, it just needs a little bit better execution.
Of course, turnovers can be strange things. It can be fair to expect fumbles to even out over a longer span and pass breakups to turn into interceptions, but you can never really know it’s going to happen until it does.
And if it doesn’t, well, nine- or 10-win potential can come back down to seven or so wins with just a handful of bad breaks.
It’s Hard to be Good, but Being Good is Making Things Easy
The 37-yard line, 63 yards from the end zone. That’s the spot, the place where, according to the numbers at bcftoys.com, things change. Working from an offense’s own goal line, the 37 is the first spot where a drive becomes more likely to end in a score (38.5%) than in a punt (38.1%).
Nebraska didn’t have those opportunities a lot in 2018. The Huskers’ field position, both ways, ranked in the bottom third nationally. Nebraska’s offense was capable of moving the ball on just about any team by the end of the year, but it too often had too far to go. In the rare instances when the Huskers did start a drive at their own 37-yard line or better they scored 56.5% of the time and punted just 21.7%, both much better than the national average. Earning merely average field position might be enough to push Nebraska over 8.5 wins. It’s one of the most visible ways good teams make this game easier, and it requires efficiency in all three phases.
The other key shortcut available for the Huskers here? Play from ahead. Most of my summer was spent looking at all the stats I’m used to looking at, but through the filter of game state. What’s the score? How much time is left? Who has the ball and where?
Simply having a lead is pretty powerful, particularly when you’ve got two evenly matched teams. Teams that trail turn it over more often. Their efficiency drops to third down-like levels as defenses exploit the increased pass attempts they know are coming.
Nebraska was too often that team in 2018. The Huskers had a lead on just 30.8% of offensive snaps last year (91st) and 40.3% of defensive snaps (81st). If you happen to be a wizard and have the power to change any number for the Huskers this season make it this one. Give Nebraska the lead. Good teams go out and get it, and then things like improved turnovers and field position flow from there.
If Nebraska makes a big jump here, 10 wins is certainly on the table. If it makes a more modest jump, or barely any jump at all, so is a seven-win regular season.
For Nebraska to get back to being good, it has to get good at making things easy on itself.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.