Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Football

The Big Ten Is for Closers Only

May 31, 2020
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The 2020 Hail Varsity Football Yearbook hits mailboxes and newsstands very soon. In anticipation, we’re sharing stories that complement what’s in the latest issue and offer a preview of what you’ll find there. Today we’re exploring a question prompted by a story on Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten.

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There are two quotes from the forthcoming 2020 Hail Varsity Yearbook that I haven’t been able to shake since first reading them a month ago. They are from Derek Peterson’s story on Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten.

In terms of money and security, I don’t think there’s much argument among Husker fans about this being the right decision. The story explores those topics, but it also hits on the football-specific implications of the conference change.

The first quote is from Rick Kaczenski. He joined the Nebraska program as defensive line coach in 2012 after spending the previous seven seasons at Iowa. A Pennsylvania native, Kaczenski played at Notre Dame so the specific (and occasionally stereotypical) brand of blue-collar Midwestern football was something he knew quite well. Here’s his explanation on why Nebraska couldn’t quite get a steady foothold in the early years of the Big Ten.

“I don’t think we had the depth,” Kaczenski said. “[That’s] what you didn’t have by the time you got to the Iowa game in Week 11, Week 12, when it’s like two heavyweight boxers leaning on each other in the 11th round.”

Former Nebraska and current North Carolina State offensive coordinator Tim Beck offered the other quote I haven’t stopped thinking about.

“I think there was a depth shortage early on with big, physical guys because that league is just so grueling. It’s a lineman league,” Beck said. “To be honest with you, I think when we were really close to getting over that hump was 2014 . . . I think 2014 was really where we started to get to that cycle where we felt we were going to have enough depth to continue to compete in the Big Ten.”

We all know what happened in 2014; Bo Pelini and his staff were fired. Since then, the Huskers are 7-12 over five season in November games. Before that, Nebraska went 11-6 in November over the first four seasons in the Big Ten.

This story isn’t a referendum on the decision to fire Pelini. That ground has been well covered. Rather, it’s an exploration of what’s implied by those two quotes. When trying to understand Nebraska’s struggle since joining the Big Ten, we’ve turned over the recruiting rocks, the style of offense and defense rocks, the special teams rocks. Those all play a role, but what about the grind of playing in the Big Ten? Is this a league in which a team simply has to survive or, perhaps, be deep enough to win in November when your first-string tackle is playing at 80%, you’ve moved a defensive end inside and you’re down to a third-string safety in games that could decide the division?

Thanks to the conference’s smash-mouth reputation, most people believe this to be notionally true, but is it numerically true?

***

The general trajectory of a season looks like a checkmark flipped horizontally; the long end is on the left. Between 2013 and 2019, the average home FBS team was favored by 13.2 points in August and September, the time when Power 5 schools are typically free to buy wins against overmatched opponents. In October, as conference play really begins, the average home team is favored by 3.8 points. Then, in November, the average line creeps back up to 4.6 points. The point spread offers a general look at the difficulty of a season across college football and the basic path here is easiest, toughest, tough.

But those trajectories change, at least in one case, when looking at this conference by conference. The Big Ten is the only Power 5 conference over the last seven seasons where the average home spread has gotten smaller, not larger, in November than it was in October. For all five conferences the October line is nearly 10 points lower than it was in August and September. Big Ten games in November are expected to be closer, by nearly a point, than games in the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC. With an average line favoring the home team by 2.8 points—and figuring at least a 2.5-point home field advantage—you’re talking about a virtual coin flip for any Big Ten game in November on average. No other P5 conference has an average home line below 3.6.

 

Drill down to a team level, specifically the teams Nebraska has to beat annually in the West Division, and things get even more interesting. The chart below compares the average point spread by month to the average margin in all games, home and away, from 2013 to 2019. For example, Nebraska was an 11.4-point favorite on average in games in August and September and won by an average of 9.2 points, meaning the Huskers underperformed the spread by -2.2 (the number you see on the chart).

This is, of course, different than winning or losing, the only thing that matters in a real-world sense. But here we’re trying to get at the question of if Big Ten teams are tougher to beat late in the season. The point spread, a real-time evaluation of team strength, offers a way to do that. If Iowa was a 3-point favorite over Minnesota in Iowa City last year, and it was, and it won by four, which it did, the Hawkeyes outperformed the spread by one point. Do that calculation for 5,685 games across college football since 2013, and the average home teams was favored to win by 7.8 and the average win was by 7.7. The point spreads are offering a real, real-time evaluation of team strength.

Here’s how Big Ten West teams performed against those expectations over the past seven years.

 

(If this just looks like a a tangle of lines, hover over the team at the bottom you want to focus on and the line will be highlighted. Or, toggle teams on/off by click their name in the legend.)

The baseline here is the Big Ten line in blue, which, because we’re looking at margin compared to the point spread, is no longer a horizontally flipped checkmark but a vertically flipped and flattened one. Anything above zero is exceeding the expectation set by the line, anything below zero isn’t. That line says that, across the conference, teams outperformed the spread in the first two months of the season and underperformed it in November, which matches up with what our point-spread-only line indicated, that the line got tighter in the last month of the regular season.

Now look at the teams Nebraska has to catch in the West if it’s to get to a point where anyone mutually agrees that the Huskers are “back.”  Wisconsin (25-4 in November since 2013) outperforms the spread across the board, but takes a bigger-than-expected dip in October only to rebound in November. Iowa (19-10 in November since 2013) outperforms the spread across the board and is basically flat from September to October before exceeding expectations by 5.6 points on average in November, best not just in the West but in all of the Big Ten.

Those are the two winningest teams in the division since 2013, so what about something closer to the middle? Northwestern (18-12 in November since 2013) has an upward trajectory. The Wildcats get better, relative to the spread, as the season goes on and has gone undefeated in November twice in the last four seasons. Minnesota (12-16 in November since 2013) is another team that consistently plays better than the spread would suggest. It also has a consistent upward trajectory, which, as the actual record suggests, can be different than winning. But the line says the Gophers are playing better in November than in September. Even Illinois (8-21 in November since 2013) has had a November bounce back over the last seven seasons.

MORE: 2020 Yearbook Preview on The Varsity Club Podcast

The two division teams that haven’t? Purdue and Nebraska. The Boilermakers were 0-17 in November under Darrell Hazell from 2013 to 2016, but are 7-5 since under Jeff Brohm. That might help explain why nobody disputes that Brohm, with a 17-21 record after three years at Purdue, is doing a good job. The Boilermakers actually feel like a Big Ten team in November now, even if the sample shows they’ve underperformed overall in the month.

Nebraska is the only West Division team to have underperformed the spread on average at all three stops, which might say something about the lines and betting markets, but also certainly says something about Nebraska. The Huskers have played their worst football relative to expectations in November.

“You were just trying to make it to the [last] game,” Beck told Peterson for the 2020 Hail Varsity Yearbook. The Huskers are still in that spot five years later.

***

What about Beck’s other statement, that Nebraska was close to slaying this particular Big Ten beast right before the plug was pulled and things started over under a new coach and staff? That one is more difficult to tackle because we don’t know what things would’ve looked like under Pelini.

But we do know what it looked like prior to that and that supports a not-enough-depth perspective. Or, at least, a feeling out process that was ongoing for what it took to succeed in the Big Ten. This chart includes the same margin-minus-spread approach as above, but is separated by Pelini’s firing at the end of 2014.

 

Nebraska in the Big Ten under Pelini was 1.7 points better than the spread in August and September, 2.5 points better in October and then nosedived to 6.8 points worse in November. The Huskers were, on average, favored to win by 5.7 points in November between 2011 and 2014 and lost by 1.1. That might be the best supporting evidence yet for a lack-of-depth point of view.

But things haven’t gotten better since then. The 2015–19 Huskers underperformed expectations all season long on average, and, while not as steep as before, still had a sharp downturn in November.

Nebraska is fighting battles on multiple fronts with its war on its own past and historical standard in a new league. Though the Big Ten, a decade on, isn’t so new anymore. Maybe a decade of experience only underscores that depth, which should allow for a stronger finish, is one of the key battles.

A previous coaching staff recognized that, but ran out of time to fix it. Frost and staff recognized it right away, too, but the results over two seasons indicate things are very much still in progress.

Maybe that starts to change in 2020, but it was a real thing in the nine Big Ten seasons prior to that. The Huskers have had a weak finishing kick in a division of closers. Until that changes, it’s hard to see much changing.

 
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