Why Nebraska Should Be Favored To Win The B1G West in 2016

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Nebraska football fans have been enduring a horrible, surreal season, seeing their Cornhuskers stumble out of the gate and be sitting at 4-6 with two games remaining. For many, the shock of this season has yet to wear off, and watching loss after loss has dulled their ability to see many good things coming in the future.

Well, keep your chins up, Husker fan. There’s plenty of reason to expect Nebraska to not only rebound from this year, but to be at the top and looking for a trip to Indianapolis next season. Here’s why.

Returning Starters

Here’s a list of Nebraska’s starters that likely will not be back in 2016, either through graduation or leaving early for the NFL

Offense: Alex Lewis (LT), Ryne Reeves (C), Chongo Kondolo (RG), Andy Janovich (FB)

Defense: Maliek Collins (DT), Jack Gangwish (DE), Byerson Cockrell (S)

That means Nebraska should have at least 15 returning starters next season. Yes, Collins will be a big loss if he does leave early for the NFL. And the turnover on the offensive line is a worry, particularly with the lack of rotation we’ve seen this season.

But outside of Janovich, all of Nebraska’s offensive skill position starters will be back next year. The secondary loses only one starter, and should improve after another full season of working in defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system.

And the redshirts from 2015 should begin to pay dividends next year. The Davis brothers (Carlos and Khalil) should be ready to contribute, and have the recruiting pedigree to suggest they can provide some help with Nebraska’s struggling pass rush. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of the highest-rated recruits in last year’s class, will have another year learning the system and should be primed to shore up Nebraska’s pass defense. And the three redshirt offensive linemen, combined with the three redshirt freshmen currently on the roster, should provide some cover for the linemen Nebraska will lose after this season.

So next season Nebraska’s roster should be deeper and more balanced, as well as having more experience in Mike Riley’s system.

Coach Effect

I know Nebraska fans frustrated with losing six games before November don’t want to hear about what a good coach Riley is. And there’s plenty of room to criticize Riley’s handling of the team this year, rest assured.

But if we look at Riley’s performance over his career, those numbers suggest reasons for optimism. Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix has created a metric called “Coach Effect” which uses past performances, talent ratings, and game locations to determine how well coaches do in comparison to how an “average” coach would do.

As of 2014, the most recent data available, Riley is the no. 11 coach in the country in terms of Coach Effect, with a 1.50 score. That means, all else being equal, a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 games more per season than an “average” coach given the talent and schedule of a particular team.

Riley’s Coach Effect score will likely come down after this season, but his number should still be one of the best in the nation. That suggests Riley should have the ability, with a huge number of returning starters next season, to be successful in 2016.

Talent Level

In addition to coaching, Bartoo’s theory of college football involves the teams with the best talent winning. Like his Coach Effect, Bartoo measures a team’s talent level by aggregating recruiting service rankings. As of 2014, Nebraska’s talent rating was no. 24 nationally. That was third in the B1G, and significantly better than Nebraska’s closest B1G West rivals, Wisconsin (no. 40), Iowa (no. 42) and Northwestern (no. 52).

This year’s preliminary recruiting classes suggest Nebraska’s talent edge should continue. According to 247 Sports, Nebraska has the no. 25 class nationally in 2016 recruiting. That puts Nebraska ahead of all its B1G West rivals, like Wisconsin (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Northwestern (no. 48).

So coming into next season, the data suggests that Nebraska’s roster should be as talented – if not more so – than any B1G West team it will face in 2016.

What 2015 Really Means

Yeah, yeah, all of that happy talk is great. But Nebraska is 4-6 with two games to go in 2015. Isn’t it a pretty big leap to expect Nebraska to go from needing a four-game winning streak (including a bowl) to avoid a losing record to a division title?

Well, that would be assuming that Nebraska’s struggles this year are indicative of the program’s true position. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they are not.

I know, you’ve heard all the excuses about Nebraska’s 2015 struggles. But the fact is, five of Nebraska’s six losses were functional coin-flips. A Hail Mary against BYU, one poor decision against Miami, a missed two-point conversion against Northwestern, all the fine margins between a disappointing season and the burning tire-fire of 2015. And the one really ugly blemish on Nebraska’s record, a 10-point loss to a 1-6 Purdue, was on the road with a backup quarterback, a backup running back, and losing NU’s most dangerous offensive weapon.

That’s not to absolve Riley and his staff of responsibility for those losses, of course. But over the course of this year, as the losses have piled up, a malaise has set in on the fanbase. People assumed the worst, that Nebraska’s struggles over this season have become the new normal, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

The underlying fundamentals of the program, though, suggest that 2015 is an anomaly. Nebraska was a nine-win program last year, will be in the second year of a coaching change next year, has a historically over-performing coach, and has equal or better talent than every other team in the division.

That’s not the recipe for a rebuilding year (never mind what a certain athletic director, for reasons known only to him, said earlier). That’s a recipe for a team to bounce back to at least where it was before. And with a coach who has a better track record of performance (Bo Pelini’s coach effect as of 2014 was -0.33, in comparison), it’s not unreasonable to think Nebraska could be primed to break through its glass ceiling in 2016.

Is it a guarantee? Of course not. But Nebraska fans enduring the 2015 season should take heart. As crazy as it might sound now, there is no reason not to expect – to demand, actually – that Nebraska challenge for a divisional title in 2016.

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3 thoughts on “Why Nebraska Should Be Favored To Win The B1G West in 2016

  1. BULL. I read that article too and still don’t believe it. You can’t tell me that the guy that is on the sidelines for Nebraska is the 11th best coach in the land. I don’t care what a bunch of figures that got all data’ed up say, this guy is clearly in WAY over his head and the whole staff pretty much is too. There is a reason they were all long time coaches at a place the level of Oregon State. It seems that the cream always does rise to the top, and there has been plenty of time for that to happen in most of these guys cases, and frankly, it hasn’t for a good reason. These guys are simply out of their league. All of them. They have no idea how to coach at this level…it shows in lots of little ways. Not even sure what Riley does during a game come to think about it…he sure isn’t coaching. Hardly ever says a word. They’ll all be gone in 2-3 years and we’ll be even further away by then and it’ll be even harder to come back. And what will it do to recruiting…I shudder to think what this is doing to recruiting. I’ll be VERY surprised if next year is anything better than this. Then what? We buy him out? We’re then paying off 2 old coaches and then MAYBE someone around here learns how to hire…to get cream of the crop coaching talent to come to a place like Nebraska will take a BIG chunk of money. Get ready to pay it. What we should have done BEFORE we hired Pelini…is go out and get the absolute very best money can buy! Start with Saben and work down.

    • Well, we’re clearly not going to know now. I understand being upset with how this season has gone, believe me. My point was that everything about this season, as well as the data from previous seasons, suggests that this year is much more likely to be an anomaly than a harbinger of things to come.

      Oh, and Nebraska is on track for a top-25 recruiting class, which happened only three times in Pelini’s seven years. Recruiting-wise, Nebraska should be just fine.

  2. If you see a guy throw a ball 50 times, and the 51st time he just drops it at his feet, do you assume he forgot how to throw (or that he never knew how)? The same principle applies with Riley. The man is crazy respected in coaching circles, and that goes beyond just the stat you refer to. I believe it was before the 2014 season ESPN conducted a poll of Power 5 coaches to determine who they thought was the most underrated, and Riley came in second to Mark Dantonio. And when he was hired here, several coaches and recruiting advisers from the Pac 12 came forward and said we did them a huge favor and made their job a lot easier. Given the mountain of evidence, and the fact that while at Oregon State Riley received offers from the NFL (which he took) as well as USC and, I believe, Alabama (which he passed up), assuming he can’t coach because of one bad year is silly.

    That said, it’s also no guarantee that he’ll be successful here. It may not be easier to overachieve when the expectations for you are low, but at least it’s more likely. Taking a team with 3-9 or 4-8 talent and going 5-7 or 6-6 with it would get you that 1.5 coach effect stat, and that’s all well and good. But it’s also a very different skill set than the one required to take 9-3 or 10-2 talent and go 11-1 or 12-0 with it.

    Since we can’t impact the team’s success, it should at least be fun to just strap in and watch what happens. As rough as this year’s been, most of the game’s have been exciting, and you’d really have to go far to find a group of kids who would fight this hard. These kids had every reason to give up on this season, and instead they pulled together and have given themselves a shot to completely flip the narrative on this year. If they can knock off Iowa and win their bowl, we might be talking about that Michigan State game as the start of something special for a long time to come.

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