Nebraska's defense has underachieved significantly this season. With a couple of stars returning from injury, will the Huskers be able to pick up the pace in their Big Ten debut? Or will the alleged Blackshirts get pushed up and down the field by Wisconsin's burly front five?
This week's F/+ picks at Football Study Hall feature some interesting but (seemingly) sensible choices: Texas A&M over Arkansas by 3.6? Okay, that's possible. Alabama over Florida by 11.5? Most Florida fans would acknowledge that as a possibility. Ohio State over Michigan State by 3.2? The numbers agree with Vegas on that one. Wisconsin by 4.2? Okay, sure.
Wait, what's that? The pick is actually Wisconsin by 24.2? No. 7 is supposed to completely demolish No. 8? How is this possible? Easy: only one of the teams playing at Camp Randall on Saturday night has performed anywhere close to a Top 10 level.
Heading into the 2011 season, Nebraska ranked 10th in the AP poll despite finishing last season ranked 20th and losing some key offensive cogs. Many acknowledged some serious question marks on the offensive side of the ball. Could a more up-tempo version of the Huskers rebound from last year's late-season funk? Could Taylor Martinez improve in the passing game despite the loss of a couple of his favorite weapons? But despite the questions, it was generally accepted that the Nebraska defense would be more than good enough to make up the difference.
One month into the 2011 season, all of the offensive questions are still relevant -- the Huskers are every bit as run-heavy, fumble-prone, and pass-averse as they were last year; but Nebraska, incredibly, ranks just 41st in the current F/+ rankings, and the almost as much blame lies with their efforts on the defensive side of the ball. Nebraska has still been relatively solid against the pass and on passing downs, but the alleged Blackshirts are simply getting blown off of the ball near the line of scrimmage.
At Football Outsiders, we attempt to gauge the effectiveness of line play in the run game with a figure called Adj. Line Yards. (You can read more about it here.) The measure attempts to divvy out credit in the run game to both the runner and the line, and, consequently, it can also divvy out blame to defensive lines. On offense, Wisconsin currently ranks 14th in the country in Adj. Line Yards (they are fifth in terms of raw line yardage, but the opponent adjustment hurts them since they have played nothing but the sweetest and tastiest of cupcakes thus far); on defense, Nebraska ranks an absurd 102nd in Adj. Line Yards allowed. Not second: 102nd. Teams currently ranked ahead of them: Wyoming (99th), Akron (96th), Tulsa (88th) and Louisiana-Lafayette (86th).
It is still early in the season, of course, and opponent-adjusted numbers are still very volatile, but the raw numbers have certainly backed up the assertion that Nebraska's run defense is exponentially more questionable than any of us expected. Fresno State's Robbie Rouse rushed for 169 yards in 36 carries as the Huskers struggled to finish off the Bulldogs. The next week, as Fresno State was trying to lose to North Dakota, Nebraska was allowing 130 rushing yards (on just 22 carries) to Washington's Chris Polk. In both contests, the Nebraska run game was good enough to fend off any serious upset threats. But Fresno State ranks 88th in Off. Rushing S&P+ right now, and Washington ranks 67th. Wisconsin? 26th.
The most worrisome part of the Nebraska defense thus far isn't even that they are giving up some big plays -- it's that they aren't making many. As mentioned in this week's Numerical, the Huskers have made just four tackles for loss in three games versus FBS competition. As a reference point, Wisconsin has 17 in their three FBS games.
To be sure, the Nebraska defense that hits the field tonight will be its healthiest yet. Jared Crick returns after a one-game absence, while corner Alfonzo Dennard has shaken off some rust from an early-season leg injury and should give Wisconsin's Nick Toon all he can handle. The Nebraska pass defense should be just fine, and Husker linebackers are certainly fast enough to corral Russell Wilson if or when he escapes the pocket and looks to improvise on passing downs. But defending the pass against the Badgers doesn't really matter if you are allowing six yards per carry on first down, and Nebraska has more to prove on defense tonight than at just about anytime in the Bo Pelini era.
It is probably a fool's errand to jump to too many conclusions one month into the season, just as it is somewhat foolish to use opponent-adjusted numbers to back up claims when, quite simply, nobody has faced too many opponents. The fact that Nebraska hasn't yet played like a Top 10 (or Top 25, for that matter) team yet, doesn't mean the Huskers won't when the season starts in earnest tonight. And the fact that Wisconsin has been merciless and efficient against a string of teams that isn't exactly a murderers' row (UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota) doesn't mean the Badgers will perform beautifully when they actually meet some resistance. That said, all we know with certainty after four games is that Wisconsin has reinforced preseason projections and played at an even higher level than expected. Nebraska, meanwhile, has underachieved significantly, and wasn't even projected to perform at an elite level to begin with.
The Huskers have dealt with injuries to some key defensive players, but they have underachieved significantly enough that I cannot just write it off as a problem with one or two players. Things change, but if each team plays at its September level now that October has begun, Nebraska doesn't stand a chance.