We know what Minnesota and Nebraska football, in their current iterations, don’t have in common.
P.J. Fleck has ended every press conference I’ve ever seen him give with an up-tempo “rowtheboatskiumahgogophers,” said just like that, all one string. He is, as you know, a fan of mantras.
Western Michigan’s 13-1 season in 2016 made Fleck and his boat-based philosophy college-football famous. It got him to Minnesota in 2017, but Western Michigan owned the rights to “Row the Boat.” Fleck agreed to donate $100,000 to his former employer to get those rights back.
Is it important to him? Six-figures important.
Does it work? He’s the only guy to win more than nine games in a season in the 111-year history of Western Michigan football and he was the first Minnesota coach to hit double-digit wins in a season in 115 years when the Gophers went 11-2 in 2019.
Put it this way—Fleck’s approach doesn’t not work. Fleck is 26-19 (.577) over four seasons with the Gophers, a slight uptick from what the more archetypal football men, Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys (40-37, combined .519), were able to do with the same program.
What’s this have to do with Nebraska? Nothing, until Scott Frost was asked, indirectly, about motivational sayings at Big Ten Media Days, and maybe it doesn’t matter after either, but this is what he said:
“I’m not into sloganeering. If the players need me to motivate them all the time or come up with a unique slogan to get them to play harder, I probably don’t have the right players. I played for a coach at Nebraska in Coach Osborne that he didn’t need all the sayings and slogans, he just taught us the right way to do things and we went to work. That’s what we need in our program.”
Fair enough. That’s what Minnesota and Nebraska football don’t have in common right now.
But as I’ve thought about Nebraska football all summer—what it needs to do, how it can do it—I’ve thought often of 2019 Minnesota. In one specific way, that Gopher team shows what is at least possible in 2021.
“Comparisons steal your joy,” Fleck said this week. It was part of a larger quote, a good one, but more on that later. For now, a comparison of Nebraska and Minnesota.
The Huskers’ problem, as they enter 2021, is that they don’t score enough points. Go confidently into any and all offseason discussions now that this stunning piece of football insight has been shared. It’s the widest angle lens through which to view Nebraska’s 12-20 record after three seasons under Frost. The beautiful-but-maddening thing about football is that points are all that matter, but getting them often requires doing, say, 16 out of 17 things right all while never knowing if the one you missed this time is the one to ruin the whole campaign. It is a puzzle that, at this juncture for the offense, is still spread all over the Huskers’ kitchen table.
Will they piece it together in 2021? Do they know that a piece fell off the table and under the rug? Do they know that a piece didn’t fall off the table and under the rug?
We can’t answer those questions in the offseason. We can’t even know if there are answers, which is why I’ve spent most of the lead up to this season thinking about what’s possible. Is the kind of jump on offense that is, in my mind, essential to progress for Nebraska, even possible?
Let’s look at 2019 Minnesota and its breakout on offense that season.
There are a number of ways to potentially look at that, but we’re going to think about it in terms of value at the drive level. Using this 13-year data set from BCftoys.com we can determine the expected value of every drive (XPD) based solely on starting field position. We can also look at the actual points scored on every drive. The difference between those two numbers—let’s label it points above expectation, or PAX––tells you how much an offense is or isn’t adding to what a completely average team would be expected to get.
For example, 2019 Ohio State had an average expected drive value of 2.34 points (the best starting field position in the Big Ten that year) and added, on average, 1.64 to those drives (+70%) based on actual points scored. Rutgers had the worst starting field position in the league for an average expected drive value of 2.03 and lost -0.9 of that starting value per drive (-44%).
In 2018, Minnesota’s offense was basically as good as its field position and the Gophers, who ended Fleck’s second season 7-6, had the fourth-best starting field position in the league. That offense, however, was basically flat, averaging -0.08 points per drive (-4%).
A year later, Minnesota had the second-best offense in the Big Ten based on value added to drives. The Gophers’ starting field position fell to 10th in the conference, but it didn’t matter because Minnesota was adding 1.02 points per drive (+48%). Only Ohio State was better.
That jump, from decreasing a drive’s value by 4% one season to increasing it by 48% the next, is the biggest one-year gain in the Big Ten since 2018. The Gophers went from 28.9 points per game to 34.1 and went 11-2.
It’s the kind of jump Nebraska needs if this offense is going to start looking like the Frost offense everyone expected after going undefeated at Central Florida in 2017.
Why hasn’t the Huskers’ offense looked like that yet? There’s no single answer there either, but you could start with perhaps the biggest one—the Big Ten itself.
Let’s return to 2019, the last “normal” season we had. The average Pac-12 offense that year increased the expected value of its drives by 17%. The SEC, in the year LSU went wild, was at 11% and the average Big 12 offense increased its drive value by 13%. The average Big Ten offense was at 3%, only beating out the ACC (2%).
But 2019, spurred somewhat by fast rises at Minnesota and Indiana, was an offensive year in the league, relatively speaking. The season before, offenses added 1% to their drives and, in 2020, they lost 0.5% on average. Over the past three years combined, the average value-add in the Big Ten is 1%. It is effectively an offense-neutral conference as a whole.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the Huskers’ 2021 defense. It’s made a little bit of progress over each of the past three seasons, and it has a ton of returning production, usually a good indicator of continued progress. That’s good, but nobody’s realistically expecting Nebraska to start winning Big Ten games the way Iowa or Northwestern do. The Blackshirts could give up one fewer touchdown per game in 2021 and, if the offense doesn’t improve from 23 points per game it would leave Nebraska as a team that gives up about as many points as it scores, which is where this program has more or less been the past three seasons.
Being better than that largely falls on the offense, and it has to make that jump in what may be the toughest conference in which to do it. The challenge is significant, but so is the reward. Every Big Ten team to average 31 points or more per game since 2018 has had a winning percentage of .692 or greater. That’s 9-4 over 13 games.
Minnesota in 2019 went from a team losing value on its drives on average to a team adding major value. How deep is the hole from which Nebraska’s offense must climb? Pretty similar, actually.
The 2018 Husker offense was adding 11% to its drives. Frost said this week Nebraska was picked first in the division in 2019 “for no good reason,” but that performance on offense, the promise paired with his reputation, was one of the main reasons. It didn’t come to pass. Nebraska lost 6% of its drive value in 2019 while replacing two starters on the offensive line, its leading receiver and its top running back. In 2020, the offense lost 8% of its drive value on average, though I’d consider that essentially the same as the year before when you factor in it was a conference-only schedule.
Nebraska’s offense could make a pretty significant jump in 2021. It has, at least, happened before—in this league, in the past few seasons.
Those Gophers improved almost across the board offensively in 2019, but I think there were two key numbers that best explain how they made the leap. The easiest way, always, is an uptick in explosive plays. Minnesota went from hitting an explosive play (rushes of 10-plus yards, passes of 15-plus) on 14.7% of plays (76th) in 2018, to 17.5% (20th) in 2019. Most of that came in the passing game where the Gophers were the fifth-most explosive offense in 2019. (Two future first-rounders at wide receiver helps.)
All of those explosive plays put Minnesota in scoring range often and it didn’t waste those opportunities. The Gophers went from average there in 2018, scoring 3.64 points on drives that crossed the opponent 40 to rank 66th, to excellent in 2019, averaging 4.20 points to rank 17th.
Minnesota had some things working in its favor in 2019 that Nebraska doesn’t in 2021. For one, the Gophers had the fourth-most returning production (90%) entering the year, a number that didn’t just tell you that improvement was possible but probable. That included wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, the aforementioned first-rounders who had combined for 1,800 yards the year before. It included running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who had rushed for 1,100 yards as a freshman. Surrounded by that type of talent, sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan had one of the best seasons in the league (one he didn’t replicate in 2020).
Nebraska doesn’t have any of that, minus an experienced starter at quarterback, entering this season. Its returning offensive production, 56%, ranks 96th nationally. That’s what happens when a team loses its leading receiver and running back. A 2019-like leap for the Huskers isn’t probable, but that wasn’t the point.
The point of looking at 2019 Minnesota was to see a real example of it happening, though Fleck would tell you not to do that.
“Comparisons steal your joy,” he said. “This is not going to be like another team. It’s not going to be like a Western Michigan team, like a Minnesota team, like this other team. It’s their team. They get to create whatever they want.”
So does Nebraska, though its offense needs to show progress with the pressure turned up in an unfriendly league for scoring explosions. Despite the low returning production, the Huskers were still ranked 30th in the initial SP+ rankings for 2021, one spot ahead of Minnesota.
The 2019 Gophers opened the year 30th in those same rankings and finished 13th.
“We were picked sixth in the West when we tied for first in the West in 2019,” Fleck said. “That’s why they call it the wild, wild west. You just never know.”
I don’t know if Nebraska is going to take a leap in 2021, just that it has happened before. I’m not even confident a step in the right direction is a given.
You just never know. In this case, that’s a good thing for the Huskers.