The January 2022 issue of Hail Varsity is off to the printer and will be arriving in mailboxes soon. To preview the issue, here’s a look at our main feature this month. Make sure you don’t miss an issue by subscribing today.
A scoring system for football games is something I’ve always wanted. Y’know, aside from the scoring system that’s already there and determines the game. If you’re only interested in wins and losses––and that is sort of the reason for letting 22 young men smash into one another for a few hours at any level––there’s no need for anything else. But that also strips an often glorious, occasionally maddening game down to a binary––yes or no, 1 or 0––and that leaves a lot of good stuff on the cutting room floor.
Scoring each game on its own merit–-was this enjoyable? was it interesting?––gives us more to enjoy (or not enjoy). That’s the premise. Here’s how I set it up in this month’s feature:
Football is more often compared to war than art. That’s probably because it has more in common with the former than the latter. Football is a game of coordinated strategy and planning. The objective is to infiltrate and occupy enemy territory. The participants wear armor. There are drums. You start to think about it and it’s harder to avoid the comparison than it is to make it.
But I’ve often wondered what would happen if we viewed football games as individual works of art, if we reviewed them the way a critic reviews a play or a film or an album.
I’ll go on wondering that because that’s not what we’re doing here. Not quite. Reviews work better contemporaneously.
Instead, I borrowed a specific reviewing convention, a scoring system, from a specific reviewer, Pitchfork.
If you’re of a certain age, mostly around mine, and like music, you’ve encountered a Pitchfork review. They’re notoriously high-minded and more than a little snobbish, as evidenced by their now famous 10.0 scale. No four-star system here. If you care—really care the way Pitchfork writers do—you need those decimals. Otherwise, how would you know that Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” (9.3) was slightly better than “Amnesiac” (9.0)?
— Brandon Vogel (@brandonlvogel) January 17, 2022
None of that is that important beyond letting you know that when I wanted some sort of database measuring the quality of every Nebraska game I’ve covered, the 10.0 scale came from somewhere. I started on this beat in 2011, a convenient point as it marks the beginning of the Big Ten era.
What follows is a subjective rating of every game Nebraska has played over that stretch. I only had one rule: A win isn’t a requirement for a high score, a loss doesn’t necessitate a low score. These ratings are more about the quality of the game itself. Was it entertaining, challenging or just strange? Did the game reveal something? Did it have something to say? In certain cases, did it simply look cool?
In short, I treated these games like albums, not because they needed to be but because I’ve always wanted to. Now I can tell you exactly how good I found Nebraska’s win over Fordham to be (5.2).
You can find all of the ratings for every Nebraska game since 2011 in the January 2022 issue. Even though the rankings are subjective, once you have these games quantified––even if I’m an idiot when it came to scoring, which is quite possible––you can do some fun stuff.
I didn’t set out to do anything beyond what is described above, but it turns out that I am perhaps a slightly stingy reviewer. The average rating for a Nebraska game since 2011 came out to be 4.92. I suppose the kind interpretation would be that this era of Husker football hasn’t exactly been covered in glory. Nebraska is 71-64 since 2011 (.526, 63rd nationally), so maybe the average score should be slightly below average. At least that’s how I’m justifying it to myself.
Anyway, the standard deviation of this set was 1.85, meaning if this was a normal distribution two-thirds of the games would rate between 3.07 and 6.77. I ended up with 84 of 129 games (65%) in that range, so we do have something close to a classic bell curve. This probably makes no one excited beyond me, but I was delighted.
This might be of more general interest: The next review of my abilities as a reviewer was to look at the average score by season. Would it be way out of line with how those seasons felt. Here are the averages by year.
I can live with that. The top end of this 129-game list was heavy on games from the Bo Pelini era for obvious reasons––those are the best years of the Big Ten era to date, particularly 2011 and 2012. Just one year from the Mike Riley era (that somewhat strange run to 9-4 in 2016) rated higher than the lowest of Pelini’s four seasons in the conference. No year from the Scott Frost era, while I scored it better than Riley era overall, tops his predecessor’s 2016 season. Should the Frost era have the edge at this point? Debatable, but when seemingly every game Nebraska plays is a one-score game (loss?) it does make for a lot of intrigue.
The next check on the rationality of these rankings was to look at the average scores by opponent. We all know about the history of Nebraska-Northwestern since 2011. That should rate pretty high, right? Indeed it did, though not the highest among all Big Ten opponents.
The sample size is slightly smaller with Michigan State, but the Huskers and Spartans have had some great battles. The Huskers and Hawkeyes? Not so much if you’re a Nebraska fan. Overall, while the sample size is again smaller, the Huskers have played more enjoyable games against teams from the East (5.5) than the West (4.6), which is sort of the story of Nebraska football right now. Historically, the Huskers run with the likes of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Of late, however, they’re barely being allowed to sit at the Purdue-Illinois table.
So it goes. Get the full ratings in the January issue then let the disagreements begin.
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.