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Handicapping the 2018 Huskers Based on Recruiting Rankings

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Includes lots of pictures for our Iowa fan readers

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-TBD Coach of the Year Reception Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The national sports media has settled on a consensus narrative about the 2018 Nebraska Cornhuskers. It is that Scott Frost will lead Nebraska to a return to national relevance but it won’t happen in 2018.

ESPN.com says “A 6-6 record and return to the postseason might be a more realistic expectation for Frost in Year 1.”

Sports Illustrated rates Frost’s hiring as the best in the country this year, but hesitates to mention much about next year, hedging its bet with “Frost, with far fewer resources, took UCF from 0–12 the year before his arrival to 6–7 to 12–0, and if that timeline is any indication, Nebraska should be competing for its division within a year or two.”

Sports on Earth’s (whoever they are) power ranking has Nebraska at 56 of 130, which is pretty much the same as 6-6.

Athlon Sports has Nebraska at 5th in the Big Ten West, which is probably 5-7 or 6-6. They are optimistic as well, saying “Looking ahead into the future, Nebraska is clearly on an upward trend with the Frost at the controls for 2019 and beyond.”

So, to recap:

  1. Nebraska hit a home run by bringing favorite son and hottest young coach in the country home.
  2. Nebraska’s recruiting has been bad and needs to be completely rebuilt.
  3. Because of #2, Husker fans should consider 6-6 and a crummy bowl invite a successful season.

It’s hard to argue with that. Nebraska has looked completely outclassed on the field for years. But I think that narrative misses the mark on one very significant point: While Nebraska hasn’t recruited at a national championship level for a decade or more, it has recruited at a level more than sufficient to regularly win 9-10 games per year, provided it performed as well as the average FBS teams performs with the same general talent level.

When Frost was first hired I was one who thought 6-6 was a reasonable expectation. But when I began digging into NU’s recruiting and comparing it to recruiting across the rest of the Power 5 conferences two things jumped out at me that have caused me to rethink how low we’ve set that bar:

  1. Other teams recruiting at similar levels as NU for the last decade have typically won more games than NU.
  2. In trying to understand #1, it became obvious that Nebraska’s problems weren’t in recruiting, but in coaching and in the things that coaches are responsible for, such as conditioning and player development.

I’m only going to focus on the first point in this article, and leave the differences in coaching to this statement: Pelini’s teams performed roughly what would be expected for the recruiting levels NU had; Riley grossly underperformed what could reasonably be expected of the talent NU has/had; and Scott Frost is an objectively better coach than either of them.

To do this analysis I used the 4-year moving average of a team’s 24/7 Sports recruiting rank. 2008’s average ranking is the average of 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. 2015’s average rank is the average of 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. I could have weighted the junior and senior classes more heavily, but without any hard data of how to establish those weights I punted on that decision completely.

For some of the work I binned the average recruiting rankings into 8 bins. Those bins were 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, 31-40, 41-50, 51-60, 61-70, and 71+. I stopped binning after 71 because it appears that the recruiting rankings at that point seem kind of arbitrary and the correlation between ranking and win percentage degrades significantly.

NU’s 4-year average recruiting ranking looks like this:

If Frost and Co finish the season strong, NU will likely have a 4-year average for 2018 of about 25.5.

Looking at only Power-5 conferences, what does a 4-year recruiting average mean? For NU, it has meant progressively poorer performances on the field, culminating in this year’s 4-8 catastrophe of a campaign. But over the last decade, it has generally been correlated to much more successful seasons across the FBS.

This chart shows the win percentages for Power 5 teams over the last decade. Again, NU is in the middle of the 21-30 4-year average recruiting rank bin.

The average Power-5 team in the 21-30 bin won 60%. NU’s win percentage looks like this:

It’s not unreasonable to look at the last three years under Riley and come to the conclusion that something other than team talent is impacting the number of wins, as the 4-year recruiting average has remained basically constant for the entire decade.

Let’s look at the same info UCF.

The win percentage chart considers only G-5 teams.

The teams that Frost had to work with were both in the 61-70 bin. The significant drop from 70.8 to 64.8 testifies to the excellent recruiting class that Frost and Co put together in 2017.

A average team in 61-70 4-year recruiting rank bin should win about 55% of its games. Frost won 46% in his first year as HC (50% in the regular season) at UCF and 100% of them last year.

What’s it all mean?

Nebraska was bad last year, but not 0-12 bad like the UCF squad that Frost inherited. It’s not a stretch, however, to say that both teams woefully underperformed. Frost brought UCF back to where it should be based on the talent he had to work with and then coached that same talent group to exceed all reasonable expectations in 2017.

If Frost is able to do that at NU, he should be able to get this team back to 8 wins (based on 60% win expectation for the 21-30 bin) in 2018.

I calculated the win expectation of one recruiting bin vs another, and separated it out by home and away games. Using that, the probability of win for NU’s 2018 season looks something like this:

NU’s 2018 schedule is daunting. It plays two teams in the top recruiting tier on the road. Wisconsin ALWAYS overperforms it’s expectations. So, by this measure NU should win 7-8 next year.

Nebraska is probably not going to win its division next year. But it is completely reasonable to think it will be #2 in the West, particularly if it wins what looks to be a toss up at Iowa.

6-6 is too pessimistic and fails to account for the solid level of talent at NU already and Frost’s proven ability to get teams to perform at, and then well-above expectations.

If I had to hazard a prediction for the Huskers’ next two years, I’d say NU wins 7 next year and 10-11 in 2019.

As a parting shot, I’d like to leave you with this to think about.

Here’s a chart showing the Final AP rank and a team’s 4-year recruiting average. Every team to the right of the black line had a 4-year recruiting average >26 and still finished the season ranked in the AP Top-25. Finishing the season ranked with a recruiting average in the mid-20s is not uncommon. Frost and Nebraska just might do it next year.

If you want to play around with the interactive version of that chart, it’s here.

GBR