Photo Credit: Paul Bellinger

What’s a Fair Win Total for Nebraska’s New Big Ten Schedule?

September 21, 2020

I suppose there are two ways to look at Nebraska’s new, eight-game schedule.

The most popular way, at least on Twitter on Saturday morning, seemed to be that the Big Ten did Nebraska no favors with the schedule because, well, the Huskers were the primary agitator when it came to fighting the league’s initial decision to postpone. In fact, that POV was pre-approved on Wednesday. At least that’s when I first started to see “the Big Ten is totally going to screw Nebraska with the schedule” takes.

Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos was part of the scheduling subcommittee chaired by Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez.

Here’s an alternate point of view, just for the sake of offering one: There’s some incentive for the Big Ten to front-load the schedules of its best teams in hopes of increasing those teams’ odds to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee. It’s going to be a weird year for picking the Playoff with no P5 v. P5 games as a basis for comparison. So, the Big Ten would be wise to give Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin––the three highest-ranked teams in most any ranking––opportunities to impress.

Nebraska plays Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in the first four weeks, ergo Nebraska must also be good. You wouldn’t schedule those potential Playoff contenders against chumps, right? There’s no time for that. You could look at things that way.

I don’t really look at this schedule either way. It’s just the schedule. A road game at Ohio State and a home game against Penn State were on the original and revised 10-game schedules. Wisconsin flipped to a home game on Schedule 2.0, and that seemed like a perk back in August, but home-field advantage is almost certainly dulled to some degree without fans in the stands. Essentially, it’s the schedule Nebraska had minus Rutgers and an add-on game against Michigan State with the order jumbled a bit.

So let’s take a real look at this with some actual numbers as a starting point. Updated “preseason” SP+ rankings dropped on Sept. 1 this year. The very first version of those ratings dropped in February. (Remember February? We were all so innocent then.) Those had Nebraska at No. 25 with a rating of 12.5 (meaning the Huskers were rated as 12.5 points better than an average team on a neutral field). The September SP+ ranking had the Huskers at No. 32 with a 9.9 rating, which accounted for some offseason attrition, most notably the departure of leading receiver JD Spielman.

With those Sept. 1 ratings for all of the Big Ten teams and the new schedule in hand, we can come up with projected point spreads and from those spreads you can figure an implied win probability. Add all of those win probabilities up and you have a projected win total, an over/under if you will. It’s a way to set a baseline expectation and then we’ll see what happens from there.

Here’s how that shakes out with Nebraska’s new schedule. (Note: Normally I’d use a 2.5-point margin for home-field advantage, but I reduced it to one for now given the absence of fans and, well, anything we’ve come to expect in the typical run up to a season.)

DATE OPPONENT PROJ. NU LINE PROJ. NU WIN%
10/24 at Ohio State +21 .01
10/31 Wisconsin +10.5 .208
11/7 at Northwestern -6 .664
11/14 Penn State +11.5 .194
11/21 Illinois -10 .774
11/28 at Iowa +2.5 .458
12/5 at Purdue -5 .641
12/12 Minnesota +3.5 .394
WIN TOTAL 3.34

That projected win total of 3.34––it would be 3.38 with a 2.5-point home-field advantage, and either way I’d round it up to 3.5––isn’t out of proportion with previous win totals for Nebraska. Taken as a whole, not much has changed here. If you had Rutgers and Michigan State on the schedule, as the original, 10-game schedule did, it’s worth about 1.7 wins (or so) on the total, but so it goes. If a team wants to be good, it has to beat good teams.

I suspect, after the craziest of all offseason, Nebraska will embrace that challenge. If this 3.0 version of the schedule isn’t all that different in difficulty from versions 1.0 or 2.0––it’s still hard––maybe there’s something to the order?

In a regular season, as a sizable underdog, would you rather play Ohio State in Week 1, when things can be a little sloppy, or in Week 11, when things should have stabilized? The original schedule included a five-game close to the season that was absolutely brutal. Now the toughest part is the first half of the slate, which might be better given that I think Nebraska––which had players return to campus in the summer as early as anyone, didn’t have anyone opt out and hasn’t had any stoppages––probably came through this about as well as a team could have. If that advantage is indeed real, it should show up earlier rather than later.

For those reasons, I’m slightly more optimistic on Nebraska than I would’ve been if everything had been “normal.” If the real over/under was 3.5, and I suspect the sports books could go up to four, I’d take the over easily. Any of the above games that are within a touchdown, either way, in the projected spread are pretty close to tossups.

That’s half the schedule in a year when the only safe expectation is for things to be chaotic. The Huskers will get a chance to take a couple of big swings right out of the gate, but the success of this season will most likely be decided later, with the games that could go either way.

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