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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Huskers' O-Line Could Be Key to Biggest Gains in 2018

July 13, 2018
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Back in February I put together my own radar charts comparing UCF and Nebraska. I mean that literally. No chart maker here, just a compass, ruler and some markers.

http://instagr.am/p/BfltgacgJUG

Why do it that way? I don't know. My wife claims I like to make #sportsdrawings, and I guess that's probably accurate. Mapping everything out by hand makes me spend more time with the information. Maybe the absorption rate is better, but I was thinking about those charts four months later.

I don't expect Nebraska's offense to come close to producing what UCF's offense did in 2018, but which areas are the most "ripe" for improvement? Looking back at that chart, and having thought about both teams for four more months, I see three that could mean good things for the Cornhuskers in 2018. (Most of the numbers I charted were from cfbanalytics.com, though a few came from footballoutsiders.com.)

We'll take an offense-only focus this time around.

FIELD POSITION: The difference between where Nebraska's offense started its average drive and UCF's offense did was a little less than 7 yards. And that's a gulf, a chasm in college football, the difference between ranking fourth in the country (63.8 yards from goal) and 104th (70.6). The difference between where the Knights started and the Huskers started is only about 0.2 expected points per drive, but estimating 13.5 drives per game for a team that becomes nearly a field goal difference in expected points over the course of the game. For an average team. (UCF wasn't average last year. Neither was Nebraska.)

Field-position stats are interesting because while you can tally them for offense or defense only, it's really an overall efficiency metric that really values special teams, too. It's hard to have great field-position numbers on any given side of the ball if all three phases aren't operating at a high level. It's not a coincidence, for example, that UCF also ranked eighth nationally in defensive field position and Nebraska ranked 78th. I expect Nebraska to be a much more efficient team overall in 2018, so this is one category where I think the Huskers could make a significant jump right away. It won't get the attention of other more interesting numbers, but I think it will be a big part of any on-field gains made this season.

SACK (ALLOWED) RATE: Nebraska ranked 52nd nationally in total sacks allowed with Tanner Lee at quarterback a year ago, but when you look at that total as a function of pass attempts the Huskers climb to 37th. Not bad for a pure drop-back passing game. (Remember when that was a key offseason question in 2017?) UCF with the more-mobile McKenzie Milton in a quicker-hitting passing game not surprisingly ranked ninth nationally in sack rate.

This is another one where I think Nebraska has a chance to be pretty good right away. The Huskers' sack numbers from last year indicate that the returning offensive linemen fared reasonably well as pass blockers (while trailing much of the time, while opposing defenses knew Nebraska had to pass). Now add in a quarterback with better mobility and a bunch of quick-read pass plays and you have the makings of a signal-caller (whoever that ends up being) who stays pretty clean in 2018. That's the opposite of what Erik Chinander tries to create on the defensive side.

STUFF RATE: This one's from Football Outsiders and is simply the percentage of running back carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. It's a rare stat where UCF's offense wasn't very good in either year, ranking 127th nationally in 2016 (26.7% of RB carries stopped at or behind the line) and only improving to 90th (20.9%) in 2017. Nebraska's woebegone 2017 run game –– which, as 1620 radio host Gary Sharp pointed out to me yesterday rushed for fewer yards as a team (1,290) in 12 games than Dahrran Diedrick did on his own (1,294) in 11 games in 2001 –– fared better in stuff rate (19%), ranking 56th nationally.

We've heard a few of the offensive assistants say that this offensive line is in better shape than what they inherited in Orlando. This number, plus the decent sack rate in 2017, put some stats behind that. The Huskers' above-average stuff rate combined with being below average in just about every other rushing category (i.e. the opposite of UCF) indicates Nebraska didn't have the home-run hitters at running back the Knights did. I don't know if Greg Bell fixes that all on his own, but maybe he doesn't have to. If he can give Nebraska a few more home runs out of the backfield and you combine that with fewer negative runs thanks to a slightly better o-line, what does this offense look like in Year 1? It might look a little different that what we associate with UCF and feel a little more Oregon-like, which was more capable of punishing teams between the tackles (sixth in stuff rate in 2014, 17th in 2015).

I didn't set out to make this point, but it's probably not a coincidence that two of the three categories primarily involve the offensive line. It's one of the areas where I think Nebraska has an actual advantage over what UCF had.

We'll take the same look at the defense next week.

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