Nebraska Is in a Preseason Top 25 Again and That's OK
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Is in a Preseason Top 25 Again and That’s OK

February 13, 2020

Nebraska football is in a preseason top 25 again. The Huskers debuted at No. 25 in the first 2020 SP+ rankings from Bill Connelly of ESPN.

Now, before you scream "NEVER AGAIN!", grab the pitchforks and light the torches, it's important to note the difference here between the opinion polls and metric-based power rankings. Both can be "wrong," of course, but one of those groups was more wrong than the other about last year's Huskers.

In the two traditional opinion polls, the AP and Coaches, the Huskers opened the 2019 season at 25th and (the equivalent of) 26th respectively. That was in line with most of the preseason magazines and it all seemed to be based on a fairly conventional profile of second year under a new coach, returning quarterback, favorable schedule. Times were good, spirits were high and corn prices were going to rise.

The numbers-based power rankings were bullish but a little more cautious. Jeff Sagarin's power rankings––going strong for three decades now––had the Huskers at No. 21 and I wrote about that last year specifically because it was so much higher than similar power rankings had Nebraska. FPI started the Huskers at No. 35 this time last year and was projecting around seven wins. McIllece Sports was at No. 33 and a 7-5 record. SP+, last February, opened with Nebraska at No. 45 and you could infer from those initial rankings a win total of 6.5.

Nebraska's 2019 season was a disappointment, and that's true if you're using the opinion polls as the baseline or the stat-based power rankings. The Huskers should've been better than 5-7 and could've been bowl eligible if it had simply split its one-score games instead of going 2-4. That's not the debate here.

The question here, at least based on the early responses I saw to this initial SP+ ranking, seems to be, "can I buy into anything about the Huskers this year after getting burned (or something) last year?" 

My answer to that is believe what you want, but have a real reason for discarding whatever you discard. "It was wrong last year," is not a real reason. At least not when you're thinking probabilistically, a type of reasoning that is built in to most power rankings. 

SP+ doesn't have an opinion on Nebraska or any team. It may get tweaked from time to time to improve its predictive value, but for the most part it's the same year to year––a combination of returning production, recent recruiting and recent results.

Last year those inputs put Nebraska at No. 45 in February. This year it's No. 25, primarily because Nebraska returns a ton on offense. The recruiting results are mostly the same as is the recent performance. But with 92% of production returning on offense, SP+ projects the Huskers to have the 10th-best offense in the country. Pair that with a middle-of-the-road defense––Nebraska is projected 55th there––and you have a team on the outskirts of the top 25, probably with a seven- or eight-win season. It's not as drastic as "Nebraska's in the top 25 again!" makes it sound.

Here's how the Big Ten as a whole shakes out in the initial SP+ rankings (national rank in parentheses). The format here is pretty simple. The offensive number is the points a team would be projected to score against an average defense, and the defensive number is the projected points allowed against an average offense. Subtract the latter from the former and you have an overall rating read as “Team X is Y points better than the average team.

TEAM OVERALL OFFENSE DEFENSE
Ohio State 29.7 (2) 44.2 (3) 14.5 (5)
Penn State 23.8 (5) 39.0 (11) 15.3 (11)
Wisconsin 21.6 (9) 36.0 (17) 14.3 (4)
Michigan 16.1 (16) 32.4 (31) 16.4 (14)
Minnesota 13.9 (20) 40.8 (6) 26.9 (58)
Nebraska 12.5 (25) 39.2 (10) 26.7 (55)
Indiana 11.6 (27) 34.4 (22) 22.7 (39)
Iowa 11.0 (29) 27.7 (65) 16.6 (16)
Michigan State 4.6 (45) 22.1 (106) 17.4 (21)
Purdue 4.2 (46) 32.8 (29) 28.5 (70)
Northwestern 3.8 (50) 20.6 (110) 16.8 (17)
Illinois 0.5 (61) 26.3 (81) 25.8 (51)
Maryland -1.4 (66) 28.4 (59) 29.9 (78)
Rutgers -8.4 (102) 19.7 (113) 28.1 (68)

There's a lot to take from those rankings alone––and we will get into it, eventually––but one of the first takeaways here is that the Big Ten is projected to be pretty strong in 2020. Eight teams rank in the top 30 here.

Nebraska is one of those teams and that's OK. What happened last year was last year. It informs what's to come and is included in any ranking such as this.

Last year's disappointment, however, is not included. I'm not surprised some Huskers fans approach 2020 with a "believe it when I see it" point of view. If that's part of the coping process, by all means, cope.

But the lack of that point of view in SP+, and other rankings like it, is its key strength. It will be right about some teams and it will be wrong about some teams, but the track record shows it'll be pretty close on most teams.

The 2019 Huskers started at No. 45 in SP+ and finished at No. 55. That's a small difference. Maybe just the difference of having a healthy kicker or winning one more evenly-contested game that ended in a loss. If either or both of those occur, Nebraska's preseason SP+ ranking might have been almost spot on.

If it is this year, that would be a very good thing––maybe a necessary thing––for Nebraska.

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