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How Embarrassing Have the Huskers' Losses Been, Really? A Look at the Stats

An examination of the number of embarrassing losses for each team since 2009, based on the spread. The Huskers don't come out too well.

Bo Pelini surveys the carnage during the Huskers' 63-36 loss to Ohio State in October, one of a couple of embarrassing losses for the Huskers this year.
Bo Pelini surveys the carnage during the Huskers' 63-36 loss to Ohio State in October, one of a couple of embarrassing losses for the Huskers this year.

It seems to me that in the ongoing argument over Bo Pelini's merits, the Pelini backers like to point to Pelini's strong overall record, while the Pelini skeptics like to point to just how bad his losses have been. In other words, the pro-Pelini people are looking at whether the Huskers have won or lost, and the anti-Pelini crowd is looking at how the Huskers have won or lost.

I want to focus on that how question.

Let's be honest: The Huskers' few losses over the past few years have been bad. They haven't just lost; they've been embarrassed. But that got me wondering -- does everybody just get embarrassed once or twice a season nowadays, or is this something that the Huskers are particularly bad at?

So being a good social science grad student, I thought I'd try to test this question somewhat empirically. But you can't just use margin of victory to measure embarrassing losses -- it's much more embarrassing to lose to Minnesota by two touchdowns, for example, than to lose to Alabama by two touchdowns. Fundamentally, getting embarrassed is all relative to expectations, when the team falls so far short of them that it really grabs even the casual observer's attention.

Well, the best measure we have of expectations for any given game is the spread -- the number of points by which one team is expected (well, not totally - we'll get to this in a bit) to beat the other. So I looked at spreads over the past several years as a way to determine embarrassing losses. I decided to classify those "embarrassing losses" as any loss in which a team finished at least two touchdowns worse than the spread. This covers both the close losses to a team your team has no business losing to (think Iowa State 2009) and the blowout losses to the teams your team was supposed to play a lot closer (think this year's Ohio State game).

I used the lines from The Gold Sheet, since they were the easiest historical lines to access online, and because their database only goes back to 2009, that's how far back these numbers go, too.

A few caveats before I show you what I found (skip this if you just want to get to the numbers:

-- It's important to note that the spread is not meant specifically to estimate or predict the amount by which one team will beat the other; the purpose is instead for bookies to get as much as money coming in as possible, in equal amounts on both sides. In other words, it's basically meant to pinpoint the exact median of the expectations of the gambling public (which is different than the general public -- there are various teams that get a lot more gambling money than others, which skews their lines a few points). This means lines aren't some sort of exact, rational prediction, but it does make them a decent measurement of public opinion about the outcome of a game.

-- Spreads are created each week for that week's games, and shifting expectations can make really embarrassing big-picture losses look not as embarrassing against the spread. For example, Iowa didn't actually do that terribly against the spread this year, because each week, the spread kept getting bigger and bigger for them, as the public realized how horrible they were and wouldn't bet on them to play anyone close. But you can be sure that each of those losses was an embarrassment for Iowa, even though they won't show up as one in this list. So this system may be underestimating the embarrassment factor for really, really bad teams whom the gambling public has given up on (think Washington State and Colorado).

-- Adding to that issue with the really, really bad teams is that the margin of victory gets less reliable as an indicator of how well teams played as it gets bigger. In other words, when there were big spreads in play, whether a team got an "embarrassing loss" or not would often hinge on whether they got beat by, say, 28 or 35 points. Those final margins are often determined by backups (see the Minnesota game this year), so this method is more reliable for big upsets than for games that were expected to be big losses and end up being even bigger losses.

-- I didn't measure games against FCS teams, since most of those lines weren't listed. This counts every game vs. FBS teams, though.

-- Again, please understand that this isn't a measurement of how good or bad each team has played, but how well they've done relative to the public's expectations each week. That's what this is trying to measure. That's all this is trying to measure.

So here's the Big Ten's totals of "Embarrassing Losses" (losses 14 or more points worse than the spread) and the reverse, "Impressive Wins" (wins 14 or more points better than the spread) since 2009. Then, I list the difference between the two, which I called "Style Points."

Big Ten Embarrassing Losses and Impressive Wins Since 2009

Embarrassing Losses Impressive Wins Style Points
Illinois 12 5 -7
Indiana 8 3 -5
Iowa 5 6 1
Michigan 5 7 2
Michigan State 6 5 -1
Minnesota 6 5 -1
Nebraska 10 6 -4
Northwestern 1 3 2
Ohio State 3 7 4
Penn State 5 6 1
Purdue 11 5 -6
Wisconsin 0 14 14

As you can see, Nebraska doesn't fare too well against the rest of the Big Ten in terms of disappointing its fans on the field. It's third-worst in the conference in Embarrassing Losses, hanging out with the likes of Illinois and Purdue. And when you just consider the time Nebraska's actually been in the conference (since 2011), it's tied with Purdue for second-worst, behind only Illinois.

In case you're wondering, the Huskers' Embarrassing Losses since 2009 have been Texas Tech 2009 (-31.5 against the spread), Iowa State 2009 (-22), Texas 2010 (-16.5), Washington (Holiday Bowl) 2010 (-25), Wisconsin 2011 (-21), Northwestern 2011 (-21.5), Michigan 2011 (-24), South Carolina (Capital One Bowl) 2011/12 (-14), Ohio State 2012 (-22.5), and Wisconsin (B1G Championship) 2012 (-42).

The Huskers' Impressive Wins since 2009 have been Florida Atlantic 2009 (+21.5 against the spread), Louisiana-Lafayette 2009 (+24.5), Arizona (Holiday Bowl) 2009 (+30.5), Washington 2010 (+32), Kansas State 2010 (+24.5), and Michigan State 2011 (+17).

How does that compare with the rest of the BCS? Well, here are the top 10 of the BCS conference teams (plus BYU and Notre Dame) in Embarrassing Losses since 2009:

Most Embarrassing Losses Since 2009 (Among BCS Conference Teams)

Rank Team Embarrassing Losses Style Points
1 Wake Forest 13 -11
California 13 -4
3 Kansas 12 -10
Illinois 12 -7
UCLA 12 -4
6 Purdue 11 -6
Ole Miss 11 -6
Virginia 11 -4
Texas Tech 11 -3
Iowa State 11 -1

The Huskers are just off that list, tied for 11th with 10, along with Auburn, Baylor, Colorado, Miami, and South Florida. I also divided out the worst of the embarrassing losses -- finishing at least 21 points worse than the spread, plus any loss to at least a 14-point underdog -- and Nebraska was tied with Illinois and Kansas for second-worst in the BCS conferences, with 8 in the past 4 years. (California was first.)

Here are the teams with the fewest Embarrassing Losses:

Fewest Embarrassing Losses Since 2009 (Among BCS Conference Teams)

Rank Team Embarrassing Losses Style Points
1 Wisconsin 0 14
2 Alabama 1 11

LSU 1 10
Northwestern 1 2
5 Stanford 2 17
6 Ohio State 3 4
7 Notre Dame 4 7
Oregon 4 7

South Carolina 4 7
TCU 4 7
Mississippi State 4 6
Oregon State 4 5
North Carolina State 4 4

Now a look at the teams that are most often beating expectations:

Most Impressive Wins Since 2009 (Among BCS Conference Teams)

Rank Team Impressive Wins Style Points
1 Stanford 19 17
2 Texas A&M 16 9
3 Wisconsin 14 14
Oklahoma State 14 9
Oklahoma 14 6
6 Temple 13 4
7 Alabama 12 11
8 LSU 11 7
Notre Dame 11 7

South Carolina 11 7
TCU 11 7
Kansas State 11 6
Florida 11 3
Texas 11 3
Miami 11 1

And the teams that are worst at beating expectations:

Fewest Impressive Wins Since 2009 (Among BCS Conference Teams)

Rank Team Impressive Wins Style Points
1 Wake Forest 2 -12

Kansas 2 -10
3 Northwestern 3 2
Indiana 3 -5
5 Boston College 4 -4

Washington State 4 -4
7 Illinois 5 -7

Ole Miss 5 -6
Purdue 5 -6

Colorado 5 -5
Tennessee 5 -4
West Virginia 5 -4
Clemson 5 -3
Duke 5 -2
Connecticut 5 -1
Kentucky 5 -1
Maryland 5 -1
Michigan State 5 -1
Minnesota 5 -1

Nebraska is just outside this list, too, with 6 Impressive Wins.

So what do we take from this? Well, to answer the initial question that prompted this article, it appears that yes, the embarrassing games that happen to the Huskers do happen to everybody, but no, they don't seem to happen to most teams as often as they do to Nebraska. In terms of the number of times they fall completely short of pregame expectations, the Huskers are in the company of some pretty awful programs.

That doesn't mean the Huskers have been on the level of those programs, but it does confirm what we had kind of figured from watching the Huskers every week: Pelini's Nebraska teams have coughed up a lot of hairballs.

Any other questions about the numbers? Feel free to ask in the comments.