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Indicators - Making Sense of Where Nebraska is Headed

Cutting through the sunshine and hate, seeing past Tapegate, to try to put the Huskers present and future in some context.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The bye-week is upon us. The non-conference portion of the schedule is past, and Nebraska will open Big Ten play next Saturday when Leaders/East Division foe Illinois comes to Lincoln. Many Husker fans expected the team to be 4-0 and riding a wave of momentum that would bring them to Ann Arbor undefeated for a winner-take-all showdown with the Wolverines.

That hasn't happened. Anticipated upgrades in the defense have yet to be seen. And if anything, the defense is arguably playing worse than it was at this time last year. The offense, while good, has not lived up to preseason expectations. Even I'm guilty of buying into the offense hype. Remember the short-lived comparison pieces about the anticipated 2013 Scoring Explosion?

So, what does one make of the team's future? Coach Pelini has promised upgrades and improvements over the bye-week. Will it happen? Last season, after an embarrassing loss to Ohio State in Columbus, Pelini mentioned (not promised) winning out after that game. The consensus at the time was 'not a chance'. But Nebraska did win out and went to the Big Ten Championship Game. Can it happen again?

Or was that six game win out an illusion, masking systemic problems in the program that are manifesting themselves this season? It took 4th quarter comebacks and heroics to beat Northwestern and Michigan State. The Michigan win was aided by an injury to Denard Robinson. And then there was the Big Ten Championship Game...

So, again, whither Nebraska 2013?

The statistical indicators are mixed. Some indicate Nebraska is headed toward an 8-9 win season. Others indicate that it is on the path towards 6-7 wins. We'll start with the good news.

The Good News - Indicators pointing to an 8 or 9 win season

1. Nebraska's schedule - According to James Howell's 2013 Power Rankings, the teams remaining on Nebraska's schedule have an average power ranking of 43.3. Michigan has shown itself to be capable of Husker-like self-assassination. Michigan State remains in search of an offense. Illinois and Purdue are just plain bad. Nebraska has the tools win out here. But, it has the potential to lose six of the next eight as well.

Rank Team SOS PF PA Wins Losses
12 Michigan 0.609 38 21 4 0
21 Northwestern 0.599 41.25 23.75 4 0
25 Penn State 0.571 33.25 14.5 3 1
28 Nebraska 0.538 43.25 27 3 1
29 Michigan State 0.485 28.75 13.25 3 1
52 Iowa 0.623 35.25 17 3 1
54 Minnesota 0.523 41.75 20 4 0
77 Illinois 0.603 37 28.33 2 1
92 Purdue 0.704 15.25 32 1 3

2. Offensive and Defensive Drive-Point Efficiency (DPE) Ratings

I've been charting how efficiently teams turn opportunities into points and keep their opponents from doing the same. Basically, it compares how many points a drive starting at a given point should be worth and compares it to the actual number of points scored. A team with a DPE of >0 or a defensive DPE of <0 is more efficient than the historical average based on the opportunities presented in the game.

After Week 4 Nebraska has an Off DPE of .825, meaning it is scoring, on average, .825 pts more per drive than would be expected. Nebraska's Def DPE is .225, meaning it is allowing opponents to score, on average, .225 pts more per drive than would be expected.

No surprises there. The defense is worse than average. The Huskers' Def DPE ranks #87 in the nation after Week 4. It is #72 in scoring defense and #108 in total defense. The large discrepancy between the Def DPE and the total defense ranking means that while Nebraska is allowing a lot of yards, it is making its opponents work for those points, rather than giving them easy scoring opportunities.

When I look for teams that finished the season with similar DPEs, (+/- .1 exp pt per drive), I found 9 teams with very similar stats. 8 finished with at least a .500 record. The remaining teams had season win/loss records very similar to what Nebraska has produced since 2008 (3x .714 and 2x .692).

To me, this is an indication that Nebraska is performing efficiently enough to win 8 or 9 games this season.

If you're interested in reading more about DPE and how it correlates to season win/loss percentages, check out my article at Football Study Hall.

Team Year W/L Pct OffEff DefEff
Georgia Tech 2009 0.786 0.772 0.165
Northern Illinois 2011 0.786 0.777 0.344
Tulsa 2010 0.769 0.760 0.319
Tulsa 2007 0.714 0.896 0.201
Navy 2010 0.692 0.779 0.275
Louisiana-Lafayette 2012 0.692 0.728 0.314
North Carolina 2012 0.667 0.727 0.173
Georgia Tech 2012 0.500 0.813 0.337
Houston 2010 0.417 0.872 0.345

The Bad News - Indicators pointing to a season win total of 7 or fewer wins

Unfortunately, there is more bad news to deal with than good news. The preponderance of statistical indicators are negative for the 2013 Huskers.

1. The HuskerMath Season Expected Win Model - Football Study Hall is also home to my model predictions. The latest model run, done with updated SOS and on-field data through Week 4, indicates the Huskers were probably overvalued at the beginning of the season and have trended downward in expected wins each week. The Huskers, along with Kentucky and Western Michigan, are the only teams in the FBS who have had end-of-season expected win totals decrease every week.

The current week's model run has the Huskers at an expected win total of 6.88 wins. That is 8th in the conference and .36 expected wins behind Minnesota.

Team Conference Week 1 Total Pred Week 2 Total Pred Week 3 Total Pred Week 4 Total Pred Week 5 Total Pred Current Week % Change
Michigan Big Ten 7.20 7.09 8.13 7.77 8.77 13%
Ohio State Big Ten 7.90 8.05 8.32 9.33 8.73 -6%
Northwestern Big Ten 7.80 7.55 8.30 8.41 8.41 0%
Michigan State Big Ten 7.41 8.47 8.08 8.05 7.76 -4%
Wisconsin Big Ten 8.03 8.36 7.80 7.42 7.75 4%
Penn State Big Ten 7.79 6.99 8.01 7.38 7.73 5%
Minnesota Big Ten 5.53 6.50 6.70 6.70 7.26 8%
Nebraska Big Ten 7.62 7.44 7.38 6.95 6.88 -1%
Iowa Big Ten 5.88 5.33 5.47 6.16 6.53 6%
Illinois Big Ten 4.41 5.19 5.35 5.07 5.16 2%
Indiana Big Ten 5.81 6.74 4.89 5.84 4.86 -17%
Purdue Big Ten 5.17 4.75 5.36 5.03 4.74 -6%

For the record, the model has correctly predicted 77% of games this year, so there's that.

2. Non-conference total defense of 464 yards per game - Brandon Vogel at Hail Varsity put together some great work this week about the company that Nebraska is keeping by allowing 464 yards per game.

Brandon writes:

Over the past five seasons (2008-12) there have been 59 teams that were giving up 463.8 yards or more at the end of September. Let’s call them "The Bottom 20″ because that’s the range (104-124) of their national ranks in total defense.

and summarizes:

We’ll focus on the 15 BCS conference schools in Nebraska’s position the past five years as that’s the best analogue for the Huskers and how their schedule sets up. The cumulative record for those 15 AQ schools who were terrible defensively in August and September was 56-127 (.306). There were four schools from that group that finished with a winning record. All four were 3-1 or better at the end of September and none had fewer than five losses at the end of the season. The list: 2011 Auburn (8-5), 2012 Miami (7-5), 2012 West Virginia (7-6), and 2012 Baylor (8-5). Two of those teams — Baylor and West Virginia — had top-10 offenses. I honestly can’t figure out how Auburn and Miami did it. It’s a mystery.

That's right. If Nebraska finishes the season with the magic number of 9 wins, it will be the only team since 2007 to give up an average of 468 yards per game or more and win more than 8 games. 26% won 7 or 8 games.

Based on historical precedent, the odds are good that Nebraska will win fewer than 7 games.

3. Giving up big chunks of yardage - After Week 4 Nebraska is #124 out of 125 in number of opponent plays from scrimmage of 10 yards or more. It's #116 for 20+and 30+ yard plays.

Looking at the teams who ranked 100 or higher in total number of opponent 10+ yard plays from scrimmage from 2010-2012, the average season W/L record is .474 for all teams. For BCS AQ conferences, it's .511. The median W/L record for both groups is .538.

If we look at the same group of bottom feeders and consider only August and September games, the picture is even bleaker. The average W/L record for all is .431 and the median is .437. For BCS AQ teams, the average is .503 and the median is .500.

Final Assessment

It is my opinion that when Nebraska won out last year it did so because it benefited from some very good luck. My modeling from last year indicated that Nebraska had aregular season expected win total of 7 games, instead of 9. Comparing season records to expected totals, Nebraska was the #1 most overachieving team in the FBS.

Luck/fate/chance being what it is, it's highly unlikely that Nebraska will see another run of good fortune like it saw in 2012. Without that, it's my assessment that Nebraska is headed towards a 7 win season this year.

Coach Pelini survived TapeGate, but if the season goes the way the indicators are pointing, he may get fired the old fashioned way.