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Mailbag: Taking Stock of the Hype
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Mailbag: Taking Stock of the Hype, Football Facilities and More

July 24, 2019

Nobody asked Derek a mailbag question through LinkedIn. He’s sort of disappointed. 

Anyway, it’s mailbag time again.

In 2018, Michigan's defense averaged 60 plays per game at 4.6 yards per play for 275.2 a game. Nebraska's defense played 74 plays per game at 5.8 per play for 433 per game. What is a reasonable expectation for improvement of these stats this season in order to translate to wins? (@Corn_Huskers) 

Brandon Vogel: This one’s tricky because yards don’t perfectly correlate to wins and it’s all about the interplay between offense and defense. While those Michigan numbers are impressive (and those of a team that won with defense), Ohio State went 13-1 and won the conference with a defense that averaged 70 plays per game, 5.77 yards per play and 403 yards per game. Oklahoma won the Big 12 and went to the playoff at 74 plays per game, 6.13 yards per play and 453 yards per game. Nobody wants those kind of defensive numbers, but they show you can win at a pretty high level with the kind of defensive numbers Nebraska put up last year . . . if the offense is good enough. 

I don’t think the number of plays is going to move much. If Nebraska’s offense improves in efficiency and explosiveness, that number might even go up. (The great Chip Kelly Oregon teams were often defending 76 or 77 plays a game.) Nebraska’s yards per play number was just a little above the national average last year, so getting to 5.6 (or so) would be solid progress and that would put Nebraska around 415 per game. Those numbers won’t wow anyone, but with how the Huskers are being built to win I think they’re realistic and would be good enough for Nebraska to win pretty big. Eventually. Might need to be a little better than that this year to flirt with double-digit wins, but I think they could be realistic benchmarks long term. 

Which hype train is more irrational: Justin Fields being tied for 3rd for the Heisman or Nebraska being a dark horse (14ish) for a national title? (@InDaWilderness) 

Derek Peterson: Can my answer be both? At the beginning of this offseason the bold prediction was Nebraska goes to the Big Ten Championship. Now it’s that Nebraska plays in the CFP? Coaches in the spring were quick to dismiss UCF comparisons for a reason, we gotta slow down here. Same goes for Justin Fields. Think about the fact that he’s tied with Adrian Martinez for the third-best odds at the Heisman; regardless of how you should feel about the Ohio State offense’s ceiling, that’s an insult to what Martinez accomplished in 2018. 

BV: I wouldn’t classify either as irrational, but Nebraska’s is more improbable despite that we probably know more about the Huskers than we do Fields at this point. However, Fields is a quarterback, which is basically a prerequisite for winning the Heisman over the past decade. He plays quarterback for Ohio State, a program likely to win a bunch and if it wins a bunch this year with Fields at the helm that almost automatically puts him in the discussion. As a 5-star recruit, it’s likely Fields has Heisman-type talent (though we can’t prove it right now). I would be more surprised if Nebraska was in the national-title discussion in November than I would be if Ohio State didn’t miss a beat in Year 1 under Ryan Day and Fields puts up big numbers in a system that enables him to do so. 

Mike Babcock: Without the need for explanation, Nebraska a darkhorse for the national title. 

Greg Smith: Both are irrational, but I would give the nod to Fields. Until I see him go out and consistently be successful, I will keep saying that I think people are underrating the bust potential he has. 

Jacob Padilla: I think both would be worthwhile longshot bets had I not seen the odds, but perhaps that’s what Vegas was thinking when they set these lines. They knew the Ohio State quarterback and Scott Frost’s Nebraska would both be hot tickets. I can’t say I watched Fields play one snap of football last year, but his small sample size of statistics look pretty solid for a freshman and he’s got the 5-star pedigree behind him. I’ll give a slight nod to Fields as the most irrational choice, but I don’t think either one is likely.  

Are Runzas overrated? (@InDaWilderness) 

DP: Yes. 

Erin Sorensen: I don’t think so, but I like Runzas. 

BV: Runzas are properly rated. Does their reputation get boosted a bit by deep ties to Nebraska? Sure. But this happens all the time. In fact, it’s probably the primary function of regional foods even ahead of taste or quality. To say you prefer Whataburger—or whatever—can be a genuine preference, but I’m guessing most of the time expressing this preference is mostly a way to brand yourself as from a certain place and display regional pride. Runzas are the same. It’s hard to accurately judge the things we have an emotional attachment to, so, given that I’m from Nebraska, you’ll have to take that into account with what I’m about to say: I really like Runzas. 

MB: Derek, being from Oklahoma, doesn’t have an appreciation for the finer things. Runzas aren’t over-rated, though my wife is disappointed with no more Italian Runzas. I’m disappointed that Runza no longer has “Miller & Paine” cinnamon rolls. Not sure if someone lost the recipe or what. I could use the Venson Hamilton response after The Sporting News picked him as the most overrated player in the conference. “I didn’t know I was rated.” 

GS: Yes. The fries are delicious though. 

JP: I like the restaurant, but I’ve never had the sandwich. Not a cabbage guy. But other people like them, so I’ll go with properly rated. 

DP: It’s interesting that the two out-of-state imports on the staff don’t like Runza.

BV: Did you even read my answer, Derek?

How much does the defense have to improve to win the west? How many wins do you think it will take to win the west? (@cuzcastderrick) 

BV: I don’t think a huge jump is needed on defense. Nebraska was about average last year in points per play—the baseline measure I like the most—at 0.419. Problem was the offense was also average at 0.415, but I don’t expect that to remain the case moving forward. I think if the defense could get under 0.4 Nebraska would be in business. Because that’s not a very intuitive number on its own, think anything under about 29 points per game. As for the number of wins to win the West, seven or more has been the precedent, but this feels like a year when 6-3 might do it. That said, I feel safer at 7-2. It looks like a log jam, and probably will be, but I’m guessing one team elevates itself (maybe with a little luck) to end up with a fairly conventional division record for the champ. 

MB: More than a modest jump, I think, and 7-2 in the conference. 

DP: Nebraska’s run defense last season, looking at the advanced metrics, was terrible. The pass defense was average-to-good. If they can be an average run-stopping unit in the Big Ten without any regression in the back end, I think that’s good enough. And I think that’s more than doable. I kind of side with Brandon that 6-3 might be able to get it done, but that would be contingent on who those three losses are to. If you want to feel like you control your own destiny, you’d probably need to be at 7-2 with a minimum 2-1 record against Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. 

What do the writers at Hail Varsity think about all the hype that’s surrounding the team right now, and what do they actually predict the record to be, realistically? (@DustinSprunk) 

BV: The hype is fine. Good in some ways. If a program doesn’t have at least a little buzz going into a Year 2 something is probably wrong, so as a health check of the program you could read it as a passing grade. I think eight wins is perfectly reasonable, mostly because I don’t view last year’s team as a 4-8 squad. That’s what the record was but in terms of actual ability they were closer to 6-6 for me. To get to eight would be two wins better in my mind, not four, so eight doesn’t seem like a stretch. In fact, it wouldn’t take much to push me to nine and that may be where I end up. 

MB: I’m sticking with eight wins, regular season, and though the talent might’ve been there, last season’s team was 4-8, bottom line—as I’ve said before, the most respected 4-8 team in the country. I don’t recall another team that earned as much respect by losing eight of 12. This is always the time of year for hype, and hype is magnified by social media. As I’ve also said, it’s difficult for those on the Nebraska beat to have a lot of perspective on other teams for obvious reasons. Numbers provide some insight, but there’s a limit to that. 

GS: In general, I’m fine with the hype. Mostly because that is just outside noise. I think the coaching staff and the team leaders can keep everyone in check, reminding them that they have produced 8 wins in the last two seasons combined. That should keep a chip on everyone’s shoulder until they go out and win some ball games. I think this is an 8-win team in 2019 with the potential to do a bit more if things break the right way. 

JP: I think it’s a result of how bunched up the West division appears to be. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked to see anyone (Illinois excluded) come out on top in the division. Nebraska had some positive momentum going for it at the end of last year, they’ve got a very well-respected coach, they’ve got an exciting quarterback and they’ve got a manageable schedule. The Huskers are as good of a bet as anyone, I suppose. I’m still sticking with 8-4 in the regular season until they prove they’re better than that to me, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they put it all together and head to Indianapolis. 

DP: I think the buzz around the team was fine towards the midway point of the offseason but the CFP hum is too much. I don’t know how that impacts perception/expectation within the walls of Memorial Stadium — though, as Frost said in Chicago, it’s good for this program to have lofty expectations — but it just feels a little overblown right now. Like people are tripping over themselves to jump on the bandwagon. I said 9-3 a week or two ago, which is a step up from my 8-4 prediction in the spring, and I’ll stay there. That would be a 6-3 record in the conference. I know my record predicition on the surface runs a little countrer to my take on the hype, but that’ll be a hard-earned 9-3 record and it’s still not close to being enough to get into CFP conversations.

If you were a student athlete, what amenities would you want in your locker room, training room, etc? (@JJStark8) 

DP: I don’t think I would want a bed. Those places usually smell, no? But I would want something that looks a lot like the Gators’ new locker room. I don’t think there’s a ton of time being spent in those spaces so putting screens and iPads and all the fancy tech in the room is sort of being extra for the sake of being extra. I want a lockable bin on the floor for my cleats that keeps them fresh and clean and cold. I want a stand to put the helmet on that keeps the inside fresh and clean and cold. I want a spot to sit on that won’t murder my back and I want a small screen to look at that shows me my schedule for the day that’s programmed by someone who isn’t me. 

LSU released their fancy new locker room facility. Should Nebraska redo the entire facility with new everything or stick with what we have now and add on or modify? (@Go_Big_Red) 

ES: In a perfect world, Nebraska would renovate the whole thing. However, that may or may not be in the plans right now (which entirely depends on who you ask between Scott Frost and Bill Moos). If it’s too much to gut and redo the whole thing (which is honestly probably too much with the season just ahead, so it’d have to be next spring/summer to make it work), I think just new lockers would go a long way as a start. The lockers could be swapped out for something more modern, with technology built in (nice tablets or something along those lines) and it would transform the space. It doesn’t fix the lack of space, which will ultimately have to be addressed, but it could at least look cooler in the interim. So long story short, I think the entire facility will eventually need to be redone but that’ll probably be awhile so why not just fix what you can? 

GS: I feel strongly that Nebraska needs new everything. That doesn’t mean that their facilities currently aren’t nice because they are. I still hear regularly from recruits that the Huskers facilities are awesome. However, I do hear from kids that have visited other places that say Nebraska’s set up could be updated. Logistics will probably keep them from just building everything new but an upgraded locker room like Erin described is needed. An even bigger need for me, is a new weight room. Nebraska’s identity is so closely tied to the Husker Power concept and that Duval and Ellis are at the forefront of everything in the S&C world yet their facilities don’t currently convey that.  

DP: Nebraska needs new everything. I’m with Greg on the weight room. Nebraska should have the best weight room and training/recovery rooms in the country. The strength and conditioning program was the crown jewel of the dominant Devaney and Osborne teams, and if we expect that to be the case again under Frost, the strength and conditioning facilities need to be completely overhauled. They shouldn’t need to split the team into four lifting groups. Iowa shouldn’t have a bigger weight room, and it shouldn’t be by the margin it is. Greg has written a ton about Duval’s presentation to recruits on campus being a highlight of visits, imagine the added effect of going through a strength and conditioning presentation with Duval and then walking into a 25-30,000 square foot weight room with all the bells and whistles? That would be substance and flash, which seems right up this regime’s alley.  

For no reason whatsoever the world has reverted back to all analog. Which B1G coach and/or program does this have the most positive and negative impact? (@Corn_Huskers) 

ES: Positive for Pat Fitzgerald, the hater of phones. Who knew your cell phone was keeping you from attending games? As for negative, I’d say Nebraska. The Huskers use social to reach recruits who may not be familiar with the program or can’t get to campus as easily. Losing that connection would be a big deal. 

BV: Penn State. I mean, there’s a reason their uniforms look the way they do. An analog mindset is something of a point of pride for the Nittany Lions. I don’t have a problem with that. While no place is truly analog in this era, State College is the most analog place I’ve been in the Big Ten. That’s not a knock. When I went there for the first time and saw how purely functional most things were, I thought to myself, “Oh, yeah, this is perfect for Penn State.” 

Who are the five best (impactful?) huskers entering into the season? (@InDaWilderness) 

MB: I’ll say the obvious and let others provide insight and surprises, impactful: Adrian Martinez, JD Spielman, Mo Barry, Darrion Daniels and Lamar Jackson—plus the offensive line as a unit. 

JP: Mike hit on this question pretty well. Adrian Martinez and JD Spielman are the obvious picks on offense. It’s hard to single out anyone else on that side of the ball, however. The running back and wide receiver positions are still a question mark, I expect a good year out of Jack Stoll but he’s still a tight end and it’s hard to single out any one player on the offensive line in terms of impact. Defensively, Mo Barry is the no-brainer. Darrion Daniels is a good pick if he can stay healthy and live up to the hype. I have a hard time picking either corner over the other, but if Lamar Jackson ends up being the fifth guy here then that’s a very, very good thing for Nebraska. Other possibilities would be Dicaprio Bootle, Deontai Williams, JoJo Domann and whichever of Ben Stille, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis emerges. I’m going to go a different route here, however, and pick Barret Pickering, because kickers are people too. 

DP: Adrian Martinez, JD Spielman, Mohamed Barry and Darrion Daniels, same as Mike, but my fifth guy is junior safety Deontai Williams. Williams, I think, is going to have the breakout year this year that Barry had last year. 

Eight-minute abs or seven? Six wins or more? Five players who earn All-American honors? Four recruiting predictions? Three sacks per game on average doable? Two basketball upsets? One favorite piece of Husker memorabilia? Can football start already! (@ChuckandM) 

MB: Football never stopped, did it? 

DP: My ab workout is 20 minutes. More than six wins. Fewer than five on the All-American team. Turner Corcoran turns into a 5-star and Blaise Gunnerson gets really, really close; Nebraska finishes with another top-25 class; Nebraska goes back-to-back years with an Oklahoma commit; that’s three, not four, but maybe Greg can give a fourth. Nebraska was sixth in the conference last season at two sacks a game and only one team in the Big Ten hit three, so probably not yet. Sure I’ll give Hoiberg two upsets in his first year; Nebraska probably won’t be favored a ton but I’ll say he gets two big ones in conference play. And I have a book Tom Osborne wrote, but that’s about the only Husker “memorabilia” I have. 

We all know who is the man at tight end, it’s Stoll. What’s your Prediction about tight end No. 2: Kurt Rafdal or Austin Allen? (@CedestasCedric) 

MB: Yes. I think Beckton will get all three into the mix. 

GS: Allen followed by LeGrone.  

JP: I’m biased, but I’ve been on the Austin Allen hype train since he got to campus. He’s a better blocker than Rafdal from what I’ve seen and I think he’s got more potential to unlock as a receiver than we’ve seen to this point.  

DP: Katerian LeGrone will make four. All four will see enough time on the field to make an impact. 

The longevity of success with volleyball program under Pettit and Cook, to me, mirror that of the football program under Devany and Osborne. With John Cook inching ever closer to *gasp* retirement, what things do you see in place that will ensure we don't experience a decade or two of mediocrity in VB as we have in FB? What things are missing? List of possible successors? Busboom-Kelly, Tamas, C Johnson-Lynch? (@jlsd1003) 

BV: College volleyball might be even more hierarchical than college football. The top programs tend to remain the top programs. That’s good news for Nebraska, but a coaching change is always the thing that creates a little chaos. Pettit hand-picked Cook to succeed him, to the point that Cook left a head coaching job to be an assistant for a year. (Still crazy to me.) I don’t know if Cook will go to those lengths, but I’m sure he’ll be involved in finding the next person to lead the program when that time comes. That’s not a guarantee of continued success, but it’s still an advantage in my mind, probably the key advantage in place. I wouldn’t say anything’s missing at this point. Nebraska volleyball has as many tools for success as any program in the country (facilities, strength and conditioning, life skills, fan support, etc.). The unknown is the coach and there’s often not a way to totally remove that uncertainty. I would expect the next coach to be familiar with program and likely someone who had been in the program. Tamas and Busboom Kelly would both be great options in my mind and both are kind of on the path for a Nebraska-type job. They’ve been assistants in the program (Busboom Kelly was obviously also a player) and have gone on to succeed as head coaches elsewhere. When the Nebraska job does open up, I’m guessing both will get a look. 

MB: What Brandon said. 

GS: I agree with Brandon. 

JP: I also agree with what Brandon said. I think an underrated part of what Cook has accomplished in Lincoln is the coaching tree he’s continued to grow. He seemingly has to replace assistants every year or every other year because they’ve impressed enough to earn a quality job elsewhere. He’s terrific at building up young coaches and teaching them what it takes to succeed, and Busboom-Kelly and Tamas are proof of that as they both hit the ground running at their new schools. Those were the first two names that popped into my head. Nebraska will have everything it needs to succeed after Cook calls it a career; the question is whether or not the new coach can keep up the level of recruiting and maximize that talent like Cook has. 

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