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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Estimating Some Early Point Spreads for Nebraska in 2020

February 17, 2020
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One of the slick things about a nice set of power ratings is not the ranking itself, but what you can project from them. Namely, any result between two teams in the rankings. Sagarin works like that, FPI works like that and the recently-released SP+ works that way.

When those rankings came out last week––and included Nebraska at No. 25––I shared my thoughts on why the Huskers were that high and what to do with rankings such as these. Today, we're simply going to do the math those rankings allow us to do and see what kind of lines SP+ projects for Nebraska's 2020 games and what sort of win probabilities that implies.

The method here is simple: Subtract one power ranking (say, Purdue's) from another (Nebraska's) and give the home team a 2.5-point boost. That provides a projected point spread and from that you can find the implied win probability. Sum those win probabilities and you have a projected win total.

Note: There's no FCS SP+ ratings at this point, so for Nebraska's game against South Dakota State, I took an educated guess and made an estimate. Last year, the Jacks were a 14.5-point road underdog at Minnesota in the season-opener (and nearly won). That was a starting point. We also know that FBS teams have won 92.3% of the time against FCS teams since 2007. South Dakota State is better than your average FCS team, so it should probably get a slightly better probability than 92.3%. A 15-point line, close to last year’s Minnesota number, equates to an 87.4% win probability. That seems like a fair enough starting point for Huskers-Jacks, so Nebraska -15 it is. Just know, it's an estimate. All the other lines below are based on SP+ calculations.

Also, everything below is "if the two teams played today." By the time they actually do play, the lines will shift because we'll have much more information about all the teams. Point is, this isn't an attempt to project what the line will be, just what it would be right now. Given that SP+ does about as well against the spread as a ranking system can do without becoming the spread, I feel like these are realistic starting points.

OPPONENT EST. LINE EST. WIN PROB.
Purdue -11 .799
Central Michigan -19 .973
South Dakota State -15 .874
Cincinnati -5.5 .651
at Northwestern -6 .664
Illinois -14.5 .868
at Rutgers -18.5 .962
at Ohio State +19.5 .016
Penn State +9 .250
at Iowa +1 .488
at Wisconsin +11.5 .194
Minnesota -1 .512
TOTAL   7.25

Some thoughts . . .

>>Well, at least it's a clean break. Talking about late October here. By the SP+ preseason ratings, Nebraska is a favorite in its first seven games, and a decent favorite (never less than 5 points). That culminates with the Oct. 24 trip to Rutgers where the Huskers project as an 18.5-point favorite on the road. Then Nebraska goes to Columbus to face Ohio State and, right now, SP+ shows the Buckeyes as nearly a 20-point favorite. Nebraska's a dog in its next three games (Penn State, at Iowa, at Wisconsin), too, before finishing the season with a tossup against Minnesota in Lincoln.

>>Minnesota has a better SP+ rating than Nebraska does, but it's close enough that when you add in the home field advantage of 2.5 points, it makes the Huskers a tiny favorite in that game. Home field advantage does the same for Iowa two weeks before when it hosts Nebraska––the Huskers have a slightly better rating right now, Iowa has the game on its turf. 

The general breakdown of this 2020 schedule all offseason long will be about the difference in difficulty from the front half (seven games, actually) of the schedule to the back half (five games, actually). If things actually play out that way and the team strengths projected above are close to reality come November, the Iowa and Minnesota games become big opportunities during that brutal stretch to close the year.

>>I say brutal because I don't really see Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin dropping off drastically, but I'll look more closely at the rest of the Big Ten on Tuesday.

>>What's the game on the schedule that could drastically flip from the estimated spread we have now? Last year, that game was Indiana. In the offseason you would've made the Huskers about a 6-point favorite. When the Hoosiers actually came to Lincoln, Nebraska went off as a 2.5-point favorite.

I could see the Northwestern game taking a similar swing. Right now, doing the SP+ math puts Nebraska at -6 in Evanston. But, Northwestern has the most returning production in the country and that's a powerful factor in its favor. The Wildcats open with Michigan State, a winnable game that could be vital for washing away last year's disappointment right out of the gate, then faces Tulane and Central Michigan, two good G5 teams in 2019.

Neither is likely to be as good in 2020, but those would still be solid wins early in the year. (It would give Nebraska and Northwestern a common opponent, Central Michigan, ahead of their game as well.) Northwestern's probably not beating Penn State on the road, but if the Wildcats are 3-1 or even a strong 2-2 they aren't going to be 6-point dogs at home when Nebraska comes to down. Unless Nebraska absolutely rolls to 4-0.

>>There was a ton of conversation around these SP+ rankings when they were released last week, and probably more resistance than acceptance of Nebraska's No. 25 ranking. Some of that is the residual effect of a disappointing of 2019 and some of it seemed to be a natural aversion to modeling and metric-based projections. If that's not your thing, so be it, but I think the estimated win total these rankings produce can help shed some light on this conflict.

SP+ isn't trying to predict which teams will be in the top 25 at the end of the year. It doesn't care about the polls or win totals or any of that. Washington, at 8-5, wasn't in the final AP poll for 2019 but it was 16th in the final SP+ rankings because the Huskies played well, lost close and did a lot of the things good football teams do. It didn't result in as many wins as you would typically project, or UW fans would've liked, but SP+ isn't going to punish a team for that the way opinion polls naturally do. It is interested in how good a team really is, not how good you can show it is via record.

Nebraska being in the initial top 25, could be like that by the time we get to the end of the year. Against a tough schedule that features the three best teams in the Big Ten, Nebraska's estimated win total is only 7.25 wins. Get a little fortunate and maybe that's 8-4. The Huskers would likely be in the human polls against that schedule at 8-4.

Land right on the number, 7-5, and Nebraska might not be in end-of-the-regular-season polls, but you'd probably have a strong argument that the Huskers were one of the 25 best teams in the country. There was some shock value that came with seeing Nebraska, off yet another losing season, in a preseason top 25 again, but in reality that projection was relatively subdued. 

I'll look at the rest of the estimated win totals for the Big Ten tomorrow.

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