1. Nebraska was close to so much more than 5-7
The statistical concept of second-order wins involves taking the stats from a game and deriving that you would have won that game X percent of the time, based on the game's stats.
Then, it's adding up those second-order win expectations over the course of the season.
If you had an 80 percent chance of winning a game but didn't, for example, you end up with 0.8 second-order wins and zero actual ones.
Based on the stats from each game, Nebraska had a 51 percent chance of beating Wisconsin but didn't. The Huskers had a 32 percent chance of beating Illinois, a 27 percent chance of beating Northwestern, a 23 percent chance of beating BYU, and a 15 percent chance of beating Iowa.
Add those second-order wins up, and Nebraska could have expected to win about 1.5 of those games. The Huskers went 0-5. Toss in an unlikely comeback against Miami, which resulted in an overtime loss, and you've got six what-if losses and quite a difference between 6.1 second-order wins and five actual wins.
Only nine teams had a larger differential between win expectation and reality.
So from a pure quality perspective, you could say that of the batch of 5-7 teams, Nebraska was as deserving of a bowl bid as any. The Huskers were competitive, at least. They rank 43rd overall in S&P+, ahead of Northwestern, Houston, and eight-win teams like Texas A&M and, yes, Miami.
So perhaps the Foster Farms Bowl becomes an opportunity, a chance for Nebraska to prove things weren't as dire as they felt.
The bowl offers a redemption opportunity for Tommy Armstrong Jr., too. Nebraska's quarterback was exciting on paper, a mobile signal caller who doesn't take sacks and can get the ball downfield on the run. He averaged 5.7 yards per non-sack carry, and four of his top five targets averaged at least 13.5 yards per catch.
But Armstrong has never gotten a feel for the passes he shouldn't make. The junior threw three interceptions in the loss to Miami, then nine interceptions in three November games. Against Iowa, he was 25-for-45 for 296 yards, zero touchdowns, and four picks. And Nebraska still only lost by eight.
Aside from a near-perfect performance against Minnesota (18-for-26, 261 yards, three TDs, no INTs), you didn't get Good Tommy without Bad Tommy. Some of the former with minimal latter would give Nebraska an excellent chance to finish 6-7.
2. A what-if season at UCLA, too
The numbers loved UCLA heading into 2015. Projections tend to favor depth over star power, and thanks to a few years of excellent recruiting, it appeared the Bruins had plenty. But the injury bug was cruel, taking away most of the Bruins' defensive star power.
Star end Eddie Vanderdoes was lost to injury at the start of the season, and all-world linebacker Myles Jack played in just three games. Cornerback Fabian Moreau, a returning starter, lasted just three. Defensive back and play-maker Ishmael Adams missed three games, and linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea missed four. The churn on the depth chart was constant, and the Bruins fell from 25th to 46th in Def. S&P+.
The regression put extra pressure on an offense led by a freshman quarterback. Josh Rosen, running back Paul Perkins, and company usually answered the call, ranking 23rd in Off. S&P+, but there were some predictable slip-ups. UCLA lost by a combined 36 points to Arizona State and Stanford in October, blew opportunities in a tight loss to Washington State, and faded in the second half against USC. An 8-4 campaign was probably not what UCLA had in mind this year -- among other things, it prevented a third consecutive 10-win season -- but the failure was understandable.
There's still a streak of nine-win seasons on the table. UCLA has gone at least 9-4 in each of Jim Mora's first three seasons. For a program that we so frequently assume should be a steady winner, that would be a solid accomplishment.
Also a solid accomplishment: throwing for over 3,500 yards as a true freshman. Rosen is 150 yards away, and with UCLA's pass-first approach, he should hit that mark. This will be his last opportunity to throw to Jordan Payton (75 catches, 1,069 yards, 9.2 yards per target); Payton and secondary targets Thomas Duarte, Darren Andrews, and Devin Fuller could have nice games against a Nebraska secondary that is depleted by the dismissal of starting corner Jonathan Rose.
3. Key Stat: Passing downs success
Spread: UCLA -7
S&P+ Projection: UCLA 33.5, Nebraska 27.9
Team Sites: Bruins Nation, Corn Nation
|Category||UCLA offense||Nebraska defense||Nebraska offense||UCLA defense|
|Standard Downs S&P+ (Rk)||100.0 (73)||100.3 (62)||112.1 (29)||106.5 (43)|
|Passing Downs S&P+ (Rk)||122.2 (20)||99.5 (72)||117.1 (34)||130.7 (9)|
At 22nd in overall S&P+, UCLA has been the better overall team.
But breaking things down by standard downs and passing downs tells us where the Bruins' advantages lie. Nebraska holds a slight advantage on standard downs when both the Huskers and Bruins have the ball. But the NU defense has been mediocre on passing downs (thanks in part to a non-existent pass rush), and UCLA's defense is one of the best in the country once you've been leveraged into second- or third-and-long.
UCLA's pass rush isn't impressive, but a team effort in the back eight has done the job for the Bruins. Linebacker Jayon Brown has broken up six passes, and DBs Jaleel Wadood, Randall Goforth, and Marcus Rios have combined for four picks and 16 break-ups. On third-and-7 or greater, opponents are completing 56 percent of their passes at just 9 yards per completion, with two touchdowns to six interceptions.
If this game comes down to Rosen and Armstrong trying to make plays on passing downs, the junior will likely make more mistakes than the freshman.