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Why Husker Football’s Improved Play Matters

Improving on both sides of the ball is difficult to do

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

0-6 vs 4-2. A team can’t show a net improvement of 4 wins from the first half to the second half of a season without improving in nearly every aspect of the game. What Husker fans should know about the way that Nebraska improved is how unlikely it was.

Considering only scoring offense and scoring defense, a team can improve on both, one or the other, or it can get worse on both. Only about 20% of teams get better on both offense and defense but 38% get worse on both. There are a number of possible reasons for this; with the second half of the season typically being more difficult a primary reason.

From 2007 to 2018 Nebraska improved on scoring offense and scoring defense only once. That was this year. This chart shows the scoring offense and defense of each season half since 2007. The upper right quadrant (Q1) is above average for both, with the lower left (Q3) below average for both. The only second half of a season to lie in Q1 is 2018.

The direction of change from the first half to the second matters too. Improvement on both sides of the ball would be movement towards Q1. Decline on both sides would be movement towards Q3. If I color the points to indicate direction of change, it looks like the chart below. Green is towards Q1, red is movement towards Q3.

This isn’t a uniquely Nebraska pattern. The preponderance of teams show a similar pattern of slight (or significant) regression in performance on at least one, if not both, sides of the ball. Looking at the entire Big Ten for 2018, Nebraska was only one team that showed improvement from the first to the second half of the season.

The SEC shows a similar result, with only Mizzou in green for the season. Also...Alabama really skews the averages. But that’s a different article.

For a team to improve significantly on both offense and defense it has to be playing below its true abilities on both sides of the ball in the first half of the season. That’s probably kind of rare, especially since over the course of six full games a team should experience some regression to the mean of its true ability. I would expect to most teams to experience a decline on both sides of the ball because of playing 6 conf games vs 2 for the first half of the season, or improvement or decline on only one side of ball...something that could happen largely by chance. Generally, the numbers for the entirety of the FBS bear that out.

I think this bodes well for the Huskers. The changes Frost made were dramatic and that came through on the field. The Huskers got no help from the capricious gods of chance, but that alone doesn’t account for 5 losses (chance played no role in the Michigan loss). Next year I expect NU to show some regression from the first half to the second but that’s because their play in the first half should be orders of magnitude better than it was this year.

Good times are just ahead for Husker Football.