2011 Season Preview: Rivalry And The Nebraska Cornhuskers

It's a new day for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. While they wait for new rivalries to develop organically, can they pull away for a division title as expected? Or are we understating the losses from last year's squad and once again assuming a bit too much of the Huskers?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Rivalry is, in the end, usually about geography and moments; the closer you are to another team, the more likely you are to develop some bitterness. But geography can be overcome by history -- USC and Notre Dame are likely rivals because, though they are two time zones apart, they have played a lot of memorable games; meanwhile, Nebraska and Iowa State really aren't, er, weren't rivals because Nebraska dominated the series (though their last two games were getting them somewhere).

This past weekend, Nebraska officially became members of the Big Ten. Geographically, they fit right in. They're as close to Iowa as Iowa State, as close to Minnesota and Wisconsin as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Now they just need the moments. They weren't rivals with Oklahoma simply because they shared the same conference; they were rivals because of Johnnie Rodgers, Keith Jackson and all the moments they shared through the years.

To be sure, Nebraska fans and their tendencies will assist in the rivalry-building process. Fans of Minnesota, Iowa and all their other division foes will quickly learn to hate the Huskers as much as Big 12 North fans did. But "rivalry" is typically a two-way street, and until the hatred goes both ways because of big games Nebraska and ___ have played, this is all one giant feeling-out process.

(That said, you have to respect Iowa fans for not wanting to wait around for the hate to build organically. Kudos.)

Nebraska in the Big Ten. It still seems odd. For a sport so grounded in history, so dependent on legacy, this truly is a historical development in college football. Only with Arkansas' switch from the SWC to the SEC did a program with a similar legacy in one conference switch to another, and after 20 years it still almost seems as if Arkansas should be paired with Texas and Texas A&M as much as LSU and Ole Miss. Though last year's conference realignment drama may have have hinted at even larger change, the shifts we did get (Nebraska to Big Ten, Colorado and Utah to Pac-12) were still rather tectonic for this sport. And the feeling-out process has only begun.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 10-4 | Adj. Record: 8-6 | Final F/+ Rk**: 20
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Western Kentucky 49-10 W 48.4 - 18.8 W
11-Sep Idaho 38-17 W 39.1 - 22.1 W
18-Sep at Washington 56-21 W 46.1 - 22.0 W
25-Sep South Dakota State
17-3 W 16.2 - 18.2 L
7-Oct at Kansas State 48-13 W 50.5 - 14.0 W
16-Oct Texas 13-20 L 13.0 - 24.1 L
23-Oct at Oklahoma State 51-41 W 37.6 - 28.4 W
30-Oct Missouri 31-17 W 50.6 - 17.3 W
6-Nov at Iowa State 31-30 W 27.2 - 32.9 L
13-Nov Kansas 20-3 W 18.8 - (-6.0) W
20-Nov at Texas A&M 6-9 L 15.5 - 15.8 L
26-Nov Colorado 45-17 W 30.4 - 21.2 W
4-Dec Oklahoma 20-23 L 16.3 - 19.5 L
30-Dec Washington 7-19 L 6.2 - 28.0 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 30.9 39 17.4 9
Adj. Points Per Game 29.7 42 19.7 10

A while back, when I wrote about the California Golden Bears and their incredibly schizophrenic defense, I used standard deviations to measure, basically, schizophrenia (or, to put it in more correct terms, bipolarity ... but schizophrenia is more fun to type). It showed that Cal was indeed the most up-and-down defense in the country in 2010. But they had nothing on the Nebraska offense.

With redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez at the helm, the Huskers showed two things in their first eight games: 1) they were capable of incredible production on the ground (just ask Kansas State and Missouri), and 2) they were capable of laying some serious eggs (South Dakota State, Texas). They were the Tracy Morgan of college football: brilliant one moment, downright offensive the next. But after the Missouri game, in which Martinez suffered a badly sprained ankle (not a good injury for a speedster), the offense completely fell apart. Without the threat of Martinez' crazy speed and unbelievable play fake (the best this side of Colin Kaepernick), the Huskers had no Plan B, and they quickly started to resemble the 2009 unit that so very much held back a transcendent defense. It was a rather epic tease for Nebraska fans starting to believe they were seeing the second coming of the '95 Huskers.

Nebraska Offense, First Five Games: 40.1 Adj. PPG
Nebraska Offense, Next Four Games: 32.1 Adj. PPG
Nebraska Offense, Last Five Games: 17.4 Adj. PPG

The 2010 offense turned out to be, basically, the 2009 offense with a speedster at quarterback. Without Martinez's wheels, the Huskers reverted to previous form, and with that in mind, it's hard to blame Bo Pelini for making some moves this offseason. Former coordinator Shawn Watson had some success in Lincoln in 2007-08, but 2009-10 were rather egregious efforts, especially considering the talent on hand (namely, Roy Helu, Jr.). So now former running backs coach Tim Beck takes a shot at running the Taylor Martinez Show. He promises a faster pace, and ... well, that's about all we know for sure. Regardless, the offense doesn't have to be good by any means; it just has to be good enough to get out of the defense's way. The defense wasn't as incredible last year as it was in 2009, and it won't be in 2011 either, but it is still excellent and probably will be as long as Bo Pelini and his brother Carl are in charge.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 47 75 37
RUSHING 42 75 29 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 63 88 52 35
Standard Downs 39 57 35 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 63 83 57 113
Redzone 34 64 20
Q1 Rk 14 1st Down Rk 28
Q2 Rk 68 2nd Down Rk 78
Q3 Rk 35 3rd Down Rk 52
Q4 Rk 90

Rich Rodriguez may no longer be coaching in the Big Ten, but the spirit of the Rich Rod offense could linger in the conference, 750 miles west of Ann Arbor. Nebraska actually ran more than the Wolverines in 2010, particularly on passing downs, and their run-first identity was actually stronger overall; one has to figure this has a little something to do with the fact that Denard Robinson was at least a marginally better passer than Taylor Martinez last year (63% completion rate versus 59%, 8.8 yards per pass versus 8.3), and Robinson had Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway to haul in passes.

Martinez had a 'here one moment, gone the next' weapon in Niles Paul (516 yards, 13.2 per catch, 63% catch rate, and the incredible ability to explode in one game and disappear the next) and a decent possession man in Brandon Kinnie (494 yards, 11.2 per catch, 60% catch rate). You could do worse than Paul and Kinnie, but the coaches clearly didn't trust those two to make up for whatever Martinez was lacking. That, and they didn't trust Martinez to actually get rid of the ball quickly enough. He may be fast, but he sure did take a lot of sacks, and judging by how well the Nebraska line did in run blocking, the sacks were probably as much Martinez's fault as the line's.

Nebraska's offense was typically stellar as long as they stayed in standard downs, especially before Martinez got hurt.. Martinez, Helu (1,245 yards, 6.6 per carry, +11.2 Adj. POE, 11 TD) and Rex Burkhead (951 yards, 5.5 per carry, -3.3 Adj. POE, 7 TD) were capable of big plays, and Nebraska was at times able to work quick passing into the equation as well. Just ask Oklahoma State, who got completely torched by standard downs passes while selling out against the run. And ask those who got burned deep by tight end Kyler Reed (395 yards, 18.0 per catch, 60% catch, rate, 8 TD). But they basically just admitted defeat on passing downs, either running Martinez or trying low percentage passes downfield. There was no Plan B when Plan A went awry, and it will be interesting to see if this improves with Beck calling the shots.

Actually, It will be interesting to see what Plan A is with Beck, since Helu and Paul -- the two best homerun threats not named Taylor Martinez -- are gone, as are three linemen who combined for six years of starting experience. Burkhead and Kinnie were efficiency-over-explosiveness options, with Burkhead often serving as point man in the Wildcat formation after Martinez got hurt. Can Nebraska grind it out in a more physical conference, with less depth at running back and a less experienced offensive line?

Other tidbits:

  • If there is a big-play threat other than Martinez in the skill position ranks, it will probably be a newcomer. Freshman receiver Jamal Turner was devastating, if a bit over-exuberant, in the spring, and he could play an interesting role. Youngsters like Kenny Bell (redshirt freshman), Quincy Enunwa (sophomore) and Stanley Jean-Baptiste (sophomore) could evolve into regulars as well. Opportunity exists if one steps forward, anyway. Hell, it exists if no one steps forward. Martinez is going to need more weapons than just Kinnie and Reed.
  • On the line, two second-year starters return (left tackle Jeremiah Sirles, center Mike Caputo), and right tackle Marcel Jones, a 6-foot-7 senior with starting experience, rejoins the rotation after missing most of 2010 with a back injury. (The real question with Jones: does he still have this handsome coif?) The issue, of course, is simple: after these three, only four linemen have any playing experience whatsoever. If Jones goes down again, or perhaps fellow tackle Jeremiah Hardrick fails to quite live up to his four-star recruiting hype in his final season, there is almost no option other than a newcomer. Maybe that works out fine, but typically there are some growing pains along the way.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 11 10 14
RUSHING 25 34 29 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 4 2 9 74
Standard Downs 27 23 30 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 9 4 12 18
Redzone 30 52 25
Q1 Rk 7 1st Down Rk 34
Q2 Rk 37 2nd Down Rk 28
Q3 Rk 27 3rd Down Rk 5
Q4 Rk 16

After a nearly transcendent defensive line drove the bus for an unbelievable Nebraska defense in 2009, Ndamukong Suh departed, and the secondary had to pick up the slack in 2010. For the most part, they did just that. The Huskers had potentially the deepest secondary in college football last fall, and their passing downs defense was outstanding. The young(ish) front seven, however, occasionally got pushed around.

In 2011, the strengths potentially shift once again. The front seven loses only end Pierre Allen (11.0 TFL/sacks) and "PESO" back (an OLB-safety hybrid) Eric Hagg (44.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 4 PBU); the secondary, meanwhile, must replace four of its top nine contributors, including all-world cornerback Prince Amukamara (47.5 tackles, 13 PBU), one of the best cover corners I've ever seen in person. The Huskers' defensive personality was defined by Amukamara, Hagg, free safety DeJon Gomes (75.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF, 7 PBU) and linebacker Lavonte David (118.0 tackles, 15.0 TFL/sacks, 10 PBU), but only David returns this year.

Luckily, a) David is really, really good, and b) the line returns almost intact. Tackle Jared Crick (53.0 tackles, 17.0 TFL/sacks) tried his best to live up to the unfair expectations heaped upon him (The Sporting News named him the best player in college football heading into last season, when he wasn't even the best defensive tackle on his own team the year before), but he didn't get quite as much help up front as he probably expected. The Nebraska line was aggressive (40+ TFL/sacks) but vulnerable, and they didn't get nearly enough production or steadiness out of the players lined up next to Crick. Tackles like Husker legacy Baker Steinkuhler (30.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) and Terrence Moore (10.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) and ends like Cameron Meredith (49.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) and Eric Martin (18.5 tackles) are athletic and have proven capable of making plays down field; they'll need to make more plays upfield to make up for at least a slight regression in the secondary.

Other tidbits:

  • Moving away from the spread-happy Big 12, it will be interesting to watch how the Pelinis adapt their base defense. Last year, their base was almost a 4-2-5, with the PESO position occupying the field more often than a third linebacker. This year, we will probably see more of the straight 4-3 the Pelinis planned all along. Only ... I'm pretty sure Nebraska's fifth defensive back (safety P.J. Smith, maybe?) is probably better than their third linebacker (Sean Fisher?). Do they sacrifice size for effectiveness? And exactly how important are size and physicality in the Big Ten these days? Obviously Wisconsin still tries to grind opponents into dust with the ground game, and Michigan State would be more than happy to run until you make them pass, but that doesn't exactly go for everybody in the conference. The B1G is more physical than a lot of conferences, but it's not exactly 1979 there anymore. A Nebraska defense playing the 4-2-5 hybrid they perfected the last couple of years would still be one of the best (if not the best) defenses in the conference.
  • While the secondary will likely take a step backwards this year, there is still quite a bit to like. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is getting Amukamara-type buzz and should do a fine job on opponents' No. 1's. The question will be whether sophomore Ciante Evans is ready to raise his game at the other starting spot after serving as a true freshman understudy. There is experience at safety, where Austin Cassidy (36.0 tackles, 1 INT), Courtney Osborne (31.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT) and P.J. Smith (27.5 tackles, 3 INT) roam, but none of the three have shown quite the level of playmaking that Gomes showed, and the depth with last year's corners has been thinned out quite a bit.

Nebraska's 2010 Season Set to Music

"Angry Chair," by Alice in Chains
"Angry People," by Barenaked Ladies
"Born Killer," by Scarface
"Bulls on Parade," by Rage Against the Machine
"How I Could Just Kill a Man," by Cypress Hill
"Kill You," by Enimem
"Killing Floor," by Howlin' Wolf
"License to Kill," by Bob Dylan
"Prophets of Rage," by Public Enemy
"Tears of Rage," by The Band

Seriously, guys, control your emotions a bit better, please. Or at least stop pointing and yelling at officials like either they, or you, are six years old. It's entertaining for a while, but then it just becomes embarrassing.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 30
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 18
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -1 / -3.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (5, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -4.8

The conventional wisdom surrounding this year's Big Ten race is that Wisconsin is the favorite in the East Leaders, Nebraska in the West Legends. And to be sure, that is a possible outcome. But the projections in the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 paint a different picture. As with last year, we're not giving Nebraska benefit of the doubt (and last year, it turned out our Nebraska projections -- ten wins and a ranking in the 20s -- were much closer to reality than the preseason polls). Thanks in part to a brutal conference slate, our projections say they could very well be in a dogfight with Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State (though I won't spoil the order, all four are predicted to finish either 5-3 or 4-4 in conference this fall).

This may seem counter-intuitive (But ... Nebraska! Defense! Taylor Martinez!), but it's not hard to see what the numbers see here. Their long-term performance rankings are only solid and far from great. Their YPP margin suggests they got a bit lucky last year in terms of both points-to-yards efficiency and fumbles luck. They finished horribly (though obviously this had a bit to do with injuries). They return Martinez but lose three line starters and their two biggest non-Martinez big-play threats. They have to replace a ton of talent in the secondary and must rely on a defensive line that got pushed around more than expected (and they're now in a conference where you can get pushed around quite a bit).

Bo Pelini has obviously restored quite a bit of Nebraska's shine, but they still have yet to finish higher than 16th in the year-end F/+ rankings, and there's no guarantee this will be the year either. Maybe Tim Beck and a completely healthy Martinez cure the at-times ailing offense, maybe Jamal Turner turns out to be an incredible big-play threat, maybe the rest of the defensive line helps Jared Crick out a bit more, and maybe Alfonzo Dennard is Prince Amukamara 2.0. But give me four "maybes," and I can turn Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State into great teams too. As we wait to see the new rivalries into which Nebraska gets fully immersed, we should also probably wait and see if all the pieces finally come together at an elite level for the Pelinis instead of simply assuming they will.

 

 

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* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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