Last week, two different analytics-based top 25 rankings for 2020 came out, and Nebraska made the cut in both. ESPN’s Bill Connelly has his SP+ ranking put Nebraska at no. 25, and ESPN’s Football Power Index listed Nebraska at no. 22.
Nebraska fans, to their undying credit, freaked out – by being upset that NU doesn’t deserve the hype. Last year, Nebraska was the darling of the college football world, picked in everyone’s top 25, even made a sleeper playoff team. That reality came crashing down pretty quickly, and a smart and particularly handsome analyst talked about the poison of Kool-Aid on a fanbase.
Well, good job, Husker Fan, y’all were listening. Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald pointed out that the response to Nebraska’s top 25 rankings from fans has been to be upset that NU is getting pre-season hype.
In general, that’s the right result. Coming off three losing seasons and with a brutal 2020 schedule, it’s going to be critical for Nebraska fans’ collective sanity to keep expectations reasonable. A 7-5 season for this team, with this schedule, should be viewed as a success – regardless how foreign that sounds to Nebraska fans.
Having said that, though, these two particular top 25 rankings shouldn’t freak Nebraska fans out. Both SP+ and the FPI are data-driven, as opposed to subjective opinions about what’s going to happen. And one of the biggest components in both metrics is returning offensive production, which Nebraska has in spades this season.
Nebraska’s got a returning two-year starter at quarterback (ok, fine all you Luke McCaffrey stans, most likely). Nebraska’s starting running back, two top wide receivers, and top tight end will be coming back. Most of Nebraska’s offensive line returns. And Nebraska’s head coach returns for his third season in charge.
Those returning starters are a significant part of the formula both SP+ and the FPI use in the preseason to rank teams. And the advantage of data-driven rankings is that they take subjectivity out of the analysis. Given Nebraska’s faceplant last season, it’s only natural to resist ranking NU highly the following season. It’s certainly natural (although, in all candor, a bit unexpected) for Nebraska fans to resist the “woo we’ll be awesome this year” impulse.
But analytics don’t care about any of that. The numbers say what they say, and the algorithms that spit out those numbers are tuned year in and year out to find which data points are most correlative to future results. It worked that way last year, when the analytic rankings were predicting Nebraska to win five to six games, regardless of their pre-season hype.
Of course, there’s no guarantees. Like Connelly says, analytics are the start of a conversation, not the end of one. And just from a survival skill perspective, it’s understandable – even healthy – for Nebraska fans to be skeptical of anything that looks like unearned glory.
So don’t freak out, Husker Fan. There’s good reason to think Nebraska’s offense in particular might very well be significantly better than last year. If you can find a way to acknowledge that possibility without going right to “Adrian Martinez gonna win the Heisman yo,” then the 2020 season might not quite be the chewing-broken-glass ordeal the last few years have been for the scarlet and cream faithful.