If you greeted Nebraska's place in a few early, analytics-based top 25s with something short of enthusiasm, it might no longer be a point of contention. With the potential departure of senior wide receiver JD Spielman, the Huskers would take a pretty big hit in one of the key categories for those preseason projections.
Both SP+ and FPI factor in returning production in some way. For Bill Connelly, the creator of SP+, a calculation of yards returning (or tackles, etc. on defense) carries more weight in determining the initial rankings for a season than four-year recruiting average or recent performance. It matters. Even without using any numbers, this is how most of us talk about football in the offseason. You look at a team, consider how good it was, look up if it’s losing a lot or a little from the previous season and start from there.
With Spielman in the fold, Nebraska is poised to return almost everything on offense, the potential for which Scott Frost started mentioning last summer. It is, indeed, an exciting proposition. The Huskers, per the weighted method of SP+, returned 92% of its production on offense, the second-most nationally.
"Over the past six seasons, offenses with returning production above 60% average an improvement of about two points per game, while those below regress by about three," Connelly wrote. "And the extremes are pretty stark: Only one of the 18 teams that have returned at least 90% of their offensive production saw its offensive SP+ rating fall, while nine improved by at least seven adjusted points per game."
Spielman, obviously, represents a huge chunk of Nebraska's returning receiving yards, which in SP+ carries the same weight as a returning quarterback's passing yards and matters more than starters on the offensive line or rushing yards returning. His 898 yards in 2019 represented 35.2% of Nebraska's total, and 45.4% of what the Huskers expected to return in 2020.
When I calculated unweighted percentages for yards returning, I had Nebraska at 88% returning production overall (a little short of the 92% of SP+) which was second only to Northwestern in the Big Ten West. Without Spielman, the Huskers would fall to 76% and third in the division.
If that doesn't sound that bad, it's almost as tough a hit as Nebraska could take. Adrian Martinez is the only player on offense whose departure would have a bigger impact on the numbers than losing Spielman.
But with that in mind, it's important to note that Nebraska's offense would still be on the good side of things when it comes to what it returns. At 76% returning production unweighted––and I'm guessing it might fall from 92% to around 79% using the SP+ method––the Huskers would still be in relatively good shape. You would still project such an offense to produce improved numbers over the previous season most of the time.
It is, however, less of a sure thing. For a team with 90% returning production, something would have to go majorly wrong for it not to show improvement over the previous season, and half the teams in that position show a pretty big jump. Now, in the on-paper accounting of the offseason, Nebraska would fall back to the pack a bit. It already was going to hope a true or redshirt freshman or two was going to make an impact at wide receiver. Without Spielman, it becomes almost essential.
Based on the initial win totals I estimated using the preseason SP+ ratings and a proportional drop in overall SP+ rating based on the dip in returning production (and this is very much back-of-the-envelope math here based on a handful of informed assumptions), the impact of potentially not having Spielman decreases the Huskers’ projected win total from 7.25 to 6.79, almost a half-win difference. That’s only about 4% of a 12-game schedule and may not matter that much to, say, Alabama, but for a program trying to become at least bowl eligible for the first time since 2016 a half-win is big.
Spielman was about as sure a bet as you'll find in college football. He had 800-plus receiving yards in all three seasons as a Husker; 49 or more receptions all three years, too. He played in 33 of the past 36 Nebraska games. He was a fixture.
Nothing's certain in the offseason, but Nebraska's season ahead would become a little more uncertain without him.