The reaction to ESPN statistician Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ rankings release has been. . . well, interesting.
Nebraska, in case you may have missed it this week, was projected No. 25 in Connelly’s math-based, formula-based, years-and-years-and-years-and-years-of-college-football-data-based system. Nebraska’s offense is projected to be the tenth-best in college football.
By this same system, Nebraska ended the 2019 season No. 55 in the overall SP+ rankings with the 41st-ranked offense. When the season began, Nebraska was projected No. 39, which equated to roughly a 7-5 record. That was a far-cry from the nine- and 10-win seasons some were thinking and 15 spots or so lower than the human-based AP and Coaches polls had Nebraska.
Remember when Scott Frost said he didn’t put the Huskers on his top-25 ballot? Probably a little bit of psychological work at play there, but if you showed him Connelly’s numbers he may have agreed with those the most.
Still, Connelly’s system proved too high on the Huskers a season ago. Seven wins, as we now know, wasn’t the end product. Nebraska underachieved. That we already knew.
Now, Nebraska’s failure to live up to expectations probably makes it radioactive to pollsters who don’t want to be proven wrong again. But a math-based system that doesn’t care about your feelings? It is looking at Nebraska as objectively as possible and liking what it sees.
The SP+ system doesn’t factor in coaching changes. Matt Lubick replacing Troy Walters as the team’s wideout coach and offensive coordinator has no effect on Nebraska’s entrance into another top-25, even though most expect there to be some gain. To what degree is anyone’s guess, but the part that has been overlooked when it comes to Frost adding a buddy to his staff this offseason was that Frost removed a buddy first. That doesn’t happen unless he’s confident the results will be what he wants.
The system also isn’t influenced by the stakes of certain games. Playing your best in your biggest game doesn’t help if you stumbled in a trap game in October. You see that in LSU finishing second, behind Ohio State, in the 2019 numbers. Nebraska’s 2020 schedule is backloaded to the Nth degree. Seven games to open the year against, dare I say, beatable opponents, followed by a five-week stretch of Ohio State at The Shoe, Penn State at home, Iowa away, Wisconsin away and then Minnesota on Senior Day. Central Michigan in Game 2 will mean just as much as Minnesota in Game 12 when it comes to Nebraska’s bowl status.
What does factor into the numbers: returning production (which accounts for “more than 50% of the overall numbers”), recent recruiting (a mix of the previous two years’ cycles with older classes baked in), and recent history (it’s easier to project Wisconsin will again be good despite losing Jonathan Taylor Tailback because Wisconsin has been good for a decade, it’s not as easy to project Wake Forest will again be good; this, Connelly says, accounts for less than a tenth of the overall projections).
Returning production, when evaluating what teams will be and won’t be this early in the game, is supremely important.
Minnesota was projected ahead of Nebraska last August and Big Red heads lost their minds. Then Minnesota barely beat South Dakota State in the opener and people scoffed. Then Minnesota won its next eight games after that, punctuated by a top-10 win over Penn State, and people stopped doubting what Connelly’s system said about PJ Fleck’s group.
Minnesota entered 2019 10th overall in returning production, second amongst Power Five programs. Its returning offensive production was fourth nationally. The Gopher offense ended the 2019 season seventh in SP+.
The two biggest factors here are wideout yardage and quarterback yardage. Running back yardage and offensive line starts have the smallest correlation in the offensive calculation.
Nebraska, with everything back from its quarterbacks and nearly everything back from its wideouts, should easily find itself amongst the top 10 or so when it comes to the 2020 calculations (assuming no one major decides to transfer between now and August, which isn’t ever a safe assumption).
Recruiting has been on a tear for three cycles straight, and this class somewhat feels like the identifying brushstrokes of a painting head coach Scott Frost has been working on for two years.
Nebraska has the goods, and a system that went damn near 60% against the spread last season in every college football game likes those goods.
The consensus response to that public declaration has been a little bit of anger, a little bit of finger waving, a little bit of denouncing, and some other stuff that would probably best just be left on Twitter.
Nebraska fans have planted their feet 20 yards behind the Kool-Aid man and poured wet cement around their shoes. “Not this year.” You want more points on the scoreboard for three or four consecutive weeks before you even start to let yourself believe again. That’s perfectly understandable, reasonable, fine, whatever. Nebraska needs to prove it belongs.
Which is, in effect, the same reason recent history factors into SP+ rankings (which is most likely a contributing factor to Nebraska not being any higher than No. 25 in the initial batch of numbers).
But the beauty of predictive models is they remove emotion from the equation. And Connelly’s model is a pretty effective predictor. This isn’t a defense of his work, just a thinking-through of a take that has been formulating these last few months and will probably be expanded upon in the following months.
Why should a fanbase that has been, for lack of a more accurate phrase, tortured by broken promises for 20 years believe now will be different? Because Nebraska might be more deserving of your attention in 2020 than it has been for a while.