College football’s offseason can officially begin now that the new SP+ ratings from ESPN’s Bill Connelly are out.
I’m joking, sort of, but these early rankings and others like them (FPI, for example) to allow you to not just get a numerical look at projected team strength for the season ahead, but also start eyeballing schedules and weighing win totals.
We’ll start with the ratings and rankings themselves. Nebraska checked in at 34th with an SP+ rating of 11.7, meaning the Huskers (per this model) are projected to be 11.7 points better than the average college football team. If that’s surprising given that NU was 3-9 last year, it’s not far off where Nebraska finished the 2021 season in SP+. The Huskers ended the season ranked 37th with a 10.3 rating because they were about the strangest three-win team the sport has seen.
If you just wanted to chart the Scott Frost era based on preseason SP+, it provides an interesting picture. The Huskers started at 2.0 (6oth) in 2018, 6.6 (45th) in 2019, 12.5 (25th) in 2020 and 14.0 (30th) to start last season. Solid upward trajectory there, despite the lack of on-field results. (These are the rankings for you if you really want to believe Frost’s consistent “we’re getting better” mantra.) The relative dip in the rankings to start 2022 might be due to Nebraska ranking 104th in returning production for SP+ purposes. (That’s an entirely separate discussion we can have sometime soon.)
While the Huskers’ preseason ratings show a bit of growth, the issue is that minus Frost’s first season Nebraska’s end-of-season rating has been lower than the preseason number each year: 3.4 (56th) in 2018, 2.6 (55th) in 2019, 7.9 (34th) in 2020 and 10.3 (37th) last season. That’s not a bad trajectory either, but here in February it would be fair to say something like, “Great, Nebraska’s projected as two scores better than the average team, but when will the Huskers be better than projected?”
I don’t know. The Huskers’ preseason rating puts them just outside the top quartile of college football teams, but it’s only good for ninth in the Big Ten to start 2022. If that sounds daunting, it’s always worth noting how closely grouped teams may or may not be. Penn State is the fourth-highest rated Big Ten team at 15.9 (16th). SP+ views the Nittany Lions as about four points better than the Huskers right now. On a neutral field, that would be the line per SP+, Penn State -4, and four-point favorites win about 62% of the time in college football, close to tossup range.
Which brings us to the real value these early power ratings often provide: By using the ratings and adjusting for home field (2.5 points for the home team) you can ballpark what the spread would be if the teams played right now. With projected lines you can figure implied win probabilities. You can then sum win probabilities to determine a projected season win total.
Here’s how Nebraska’s 2022 schedule looks when run through that process:
|DATE||OPPONENT||LOCATION||PRESEASON SP+ (Rank)||PROJ. NU LINE||PROJ. NU WIN%|
|Sat, Aug 27||Northwestern||Dublin, Ireland (Aviva Stadium)||-4.2 (89)||-16||.886|
|Sat, Sep 3||North Dakota||Lincoln, Neb.||NA||-18*||.999*|
|Sat, Sep 10||Georgia Southern||Lincoln, Neb.||-8.8 (105)||-22.5||.999|
|Sat, Sep 17||Oklahoma||Lincoln, Neb.||19.2 (7)||+5||.359|
|Sat, Oct 1||Indiana||Lincoln, Neb.||-0.5 (78)||-14.5||.868|
|Fri, Oct 7||Rutgers||Piscataway, N.J.||-0.3 (77)||-9.5||.755|
|Sat, Oct 15||Purdue||West Lafayette, Ind.||12.8 (27)||+3.5||.394|
|Sat, Oct 29||Illinois||Lincoln, Neb.||-2.2 (83)||-16.5||.891|
|Sat, Nov 5||Minnesota||Lincoln, Neb.||14.6 (19)||+0.5||.500|
|Sat, Nov 12||Michigan||Ann Arbor, Mich||21.5 (4)||+12.5||.174|
|Sat, Nov 19||Wisconsin||Lincoln, Neb.||17.7 (10)||+3.5||.394|
|Fri, Nov 25||Iowa||Iowa City, IA||13.1 (26)||+4||.381|
>>I feel relatively certain that Nebraska will not be a 16-point favorite over Northwestern to open the season. In season, SP+ typically does a good job of projecting the Vegas line, but there are a lot of complicating factors beyond this being a season opener. It’s in Ireland, for one, and that’s not a routine road trip. Because of that, luck might play a larger role in this football game than it already does in all others. The Gatorade for both teams will be replaced with Guinness, and even though that’s for strength you wonder how these athletes will adjust. OK, that might not be true, but you get the point. Playing American football in a foreign land has the potential to be strange, and I’d expect the line to be a little more cautious than the pure power rankings might project. Northwestern is, however, rated as the worst Big Ten team in SP+.
>>On that note, while the Huskers have eight Big Ten teams ahead of them in the SP+ rankings, the schedule includes games against the four lowest-rated teams in the league: Rutgers, Indiana, Illinois and the aforementioned Wildcats. Those four represent a pretty steep drop off from the rest of the league in this model. Maryland (10.0, 41st) is right behind Nebraska in SP+, but by the time you get to the next conference team, Rutgers (-0.3, 77th), you’re into the negative numbers. I don’t like to get too deep into perceived schedule strength this time of year, but if those four teams end up playing close to their projected ratings, Nebraska would very much take it.
>>The Rutgers game has been moved to Friday night, and if everyone doesn’t join me in unofficially dubbing that game “Friday Knight Lights,” I will be sad.
>>I have an asterisk next to North Dakota above because we don’t have an SP+ rating for the Fighting Hawks. Using the Sagarin ratings, which rate all FBS and FCS teams in one group, Nebraska would’ve been about an 18-point home favorite over North Dakota at the end of last year. I think the best fit for most P5 teams against an FCS opponent, unless we’re talking one of the top five or six teams, is to assume a 99% win probability. Just noting here that it is an assumption and the projected line is using end-of-year data. That said, Nebraska will probably be about a 20-point favorite over North Dakota.
>>That Purdue game moving from Lincoln to West Lafayette took the Huskers from being a slight favorite (-1.5) to an underdog (+3.5) against the Boilermakers. Getting Wisconsin at home took that game from Badgers -8.5 to Badgers -3.5. Again, the lines will be different once those games are actually played, but if your friend wanted a Nebraska-Wisconsin line from you today, this is how I’d go about determining how many points you’d need to give or get.
>>Let’s break this schedule out into broad categories: solid favorite (anything with an implied win probability of 70% or more), tossup (31% to 69%) and solid underdog (30% or less). The Huskers have six games, five games and one game in those categories respectively. The road game at Michigan is the only one in the solid underdog category, which makes sense.
>>Add all these implied win probabilities up and you get a projected win total of 7.6. Feels a bit high to me. I would expect the Huskers actual season win total to open at 6 or 6.5, but the way SP+ is built has often meant that it’s a bit higher on Nebraska than the prevailing public sentiment would suggest.
The Huskers haven’t been in a spot—at least not since 2016—where something like SP+ could really underrate them compared to real-world perception. Maybe this is the year.
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.