One of the limitations of looking at college football analytically is the lack of sample size. Twelve regular-season games just isn’t a lot, but you would think that heading into the 12th game of the season you would know about as much as you could about how good teams are.
Friday’s Nebraska-Iowa game doesn’t totally feel that way. Through a mix of injuries, odd trajectories and the questionable status for some key players, it feels like almost anything is possible.
3-0? Maybe. A Wisbhone-era number of pass attempts? Sure, why not? A game decided by special teams? That one actually seems likely.
This is going to be a tough one to sort, but let’s dig in.
THE LINE: Given the injuries to Nebraska’s top two quarterbacks, I was a bit surprised to see a line for this game right away on Sunday, even with a short week. Iowa opened as a 3-point favorite, but that just recently dropped to Iowa -1.5, which evened out the money on this game pretty quickly. The PredictionTracker.com average so far has Iowa winning by an average of 2.4.
THE RANKINGS: Not an easy pair of teams to separate. The largest rankings gap here is Nebraska, which is 10 spots ahead of Iowa in S&P+ and at The Power Rank. The three other rankings all have the Hawkeyes ahead. Four of those five systems — S&P+ being the exception — are projecting an Iowa win.
Here are six stats to keep an eye on this Friday:
1. It Comes Down to the Run
“We all know Iowa,” Mike Riley said Monday. “This is a very solid football team, very efficient both sides of the ball. You can look at the statistics and know that it’s Iowa.”
Truer words may not have been spoken at a press conference this season. Iowa very much looks the part of a typical Iowa team and while many may not find a ton of excitement in this brand of football, it’s a proven way to win games like this. Nebraska’s run game will likely be a huge factor given the Huskers’ uncertainty at quarterback, but not as important as Nebraska’s ability to stop the run.
Iowa’s run game is efficient, ranking 23rd nationally in success rate. It is how the Hawkeyes stay on schedule, because the passing success rate is among the worst in the country. Nebraska’s top priority will have to be staying sound against a one-two punch at running back in Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. Each of them averages more than 77 yards per game.
That said, the Hawkeyes’ run game has been shut down a few times this season. Iowa’s yards per carry in its four losses is all the way down at 1.9. Nebraska will likely have to hold the Hawkeyes to around 3 yards per carry to be in great shape here — a threshold it has hit four times this season, including the past two weeks — but rushing success rate probably matters more. Keep an eye on Nathan Gerry in this game. He could play a big, big role.
Stat to Watch: Iowa’s rushing success rate (Number to hit: 38 percent)
2. All of Your Punt Jokes Probably Apply
Yeah, yeah — Iowa, punting, we get it. Ferentz ball is alive and well in 2016. But if this game is as much of a slog offensively as it has the potential to be, punting and field position become major keys.
The Hawkeyes are third in the Big Ten, averaging 6 punts per game. Nebraska is 10th at 4.6. Which team has the punting edge? It’s closer than you think. According to FEI’s punt efficiency rankings neither team has been very good but slight advantage Iowa: The Hawkeyes rank 70th nationally and Nebraska ranks 94th.
But the real key will be field position. No surprise here, but the Hawkeyes are quite good at it, ranking second in net field position based on FEI’s count with an average edge of 7.8 yards per drive (defensive field position minus offensive field position). That’s a huge advantage and Nebraska — through play calling, fourth-down decisions and, yes, special teams — will have to find a way to narrow that gap. The Husker might not have to win the field position battle straight up, but it can’t lose it by nearly 8 yards each drive either.
Stat to Watch: Net field position (Number to hit: Nebraska < -3.5)
3. What a Difference a Year Makes
A year ago, Nebraska’s defense ranked 92nd in passing IsoPPP, Bill Connelly’s explosiveness stat that is sort of too complicated to do it justice, but essentially it’s measure of when your defense gives up a play, how much damage is done? The answer to that question for Nebraska a year ago was “a lot.” But right now, the Huskers’ defense ranks first nationally in this category.
That should allow Nebraska a bit of defensive freedom on Friday. Iowa’s passing game has been a struggle of late. That Hawkeyes’ team passer rating has been on a gradual slide since the end of September and there aren’t a ton of reliable options at receiver. To give you an idea: Matt VandeBerg is still Iowa’s fourth-leading receiver and he hasn’t played since the fourth game of the season.
It looks like tight end George Kittle will play, though he might be hobbled. That’s possibly significant as the senior leads Iowa with 15.2 yards per catch. This isn’t a big-play passing offense, which fits pretty well with the Huskers’ defensive scheme. If that were to change on Friday, it would be against form both ways.
Stat to Watch: Iowa’s chunk (15+) passing plays (Number to hit: 4)
3 More to Monitor
Tackles for Loss: You may be asking yourself why we haven’t talked about Nebraska’s offense much to this point. Two reasons: One, I think if Nebraska wins it does it with defense and special teams, and, two, like everyone else I’m not totally sure what to expect. But here’s one you should be able to count on — Nebraska’s offensive line play. The Hawkeyes’ defensive line isn’t that disruptive. It ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten in tackles for loss. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s offensive line, despite its “who’s playing this week?” nature, has been pretty solid at not letting its backs be tackled in the backfield. Sacks count as tackles for loss, so quarterback factors into the discussion, but if the Huskers could keep this number around they should be in pretty good shape.
Completion Percentage: Another one that’s really hard to pin down. Who is throwing for Nebraska? Who knows? Whoever it is, Nebraska is going to need some efficiency behind center. The four teams to beat Iowa this season combined for a 59.8 completion percentage. Nebraska comes in completing 52.3 percent on the season, but was at 67.9 and 62.2 percent in its last two games. One of those was Tommy Armstrong Jr. and one was Ryker Fyfe. Zack Darlington’s turn? Just kidding. I think. Point being, whoever is throwing is going to have complete a few against a talented secondary.
Points Down Deep: Keep an eye on what happens with Iowa is in scoring territory inside the Huskers’ 40-yard line. Nebraska’s defense has a slight edge in points per trip inside the 40, but it’s not much. The difference could come down to place kicking. Iowa’s Keith Duncan is 8-of-9 on the season, including the game-winner over Michigan, but Miguel Recinos is just 1-for-3.
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.