As the season creeps closer, you hear more conversations about season expectations. If you take a poll of Nebraska fans about expectations for the 2008 Husker squad, you’ll likely hear the answer -- “eight wins.” You may even hear some call for a return to the Top 25. It’s easy to look at the schedule, consider home games and opponents and try to pick 8 victories. I do it all the time. But, the real bellwether for winning football is defense. To return to respectable form there, Nebraska needs massive improvement.
Defense Wins Championships
Things become cliché when they are said too often. Things are often said because they are facts, even truisms. And the great football cliché is that defense wins championships. You can’t win anything if you don’t defend well. Now there are many folks who like to dig in and look at all kinds of defensive statistics. Some are important (turnovers). Others are not so much. Personally, I gravitate toward one above all else – scoring defense. The winner of the game is determined by the scoreboard. So, when all else fails just look there for the stat that matters. Now, here comes the ugly part.
Last year, Nebraska gave up … wait for it…38 points per game. 38! Every time I think of that number, I am afraid my head is going to explode. Sure, the mean average isn’t the best measure because the real blood lettings (41, 65, 76 points!) can exasperate things. But, just consider that only Florida International, Toledo, SMU, Rice and North Texas were worse than NU in terms of scoring defense. That’s it, five teams. That’s the list.
So, it’s pretty clear that giving up that many points isn’t going to get it done. So, what is? Consider the correlation between the scoring defense stats and the final AP top 25 for 2007. Of the 28 teams that surrendered 21 or fewer points per game last year, more than half (15) finished ranked in the final top 25, with many of the rest of that group at least receiving votes in the poll. Ten of the 15 teams with best scoring defenses finished ranked in the top 25. And, of the 25 teams ranked in the final AP poll, only three gave up an average of more than 24 points per game –Texas (24.6), Texas Tech (25.8), and Tennessee (28.1).
One quick side note if I may...Reviewing the defense stats sort or drove home for me how high-octane Big 12 offenses have become. Consider how highly rated Texas Tech, Texas, and Missouri all were at the end of last season despite none of them being in the top 40 in scoring defense. They all relied on offense. But – counterpoint – Big 12 Champion Oklahoma only gave up 18 per game last year. And, Kansas finished 12-1 backed by a unit that only gave up 16 points on average. Okay, end of aside…
So, what really are the expectations for the Huskers and for Coach Pelini in 2008? If fans expect the Huskers to win 8, 9, or 10 games then they’ll need to be in at least the top 50 in scoring defense, and that means giving up 14 fewer points per game, to 24 per contest. To finish ranked in the top 25, they may need to improve by about 17 points per game, or an average of 21. At this point I would almost settle for a number under 30 or for Nebraska just to appear on the first page of printed results.
It makes me wonder if we have started to believe that Pelini is some kind of miracle worker. Giving up two or even three scores less per game with essentially the same personnel that ranked with the defensive dregs in 2007 is a tall order. If they pull that off, Pelini and staff would be considered a masterful hire at NU, almost regardless of record. Or it might just be another indictment of the previous regime. Though, as mentioned earlier, three of NU’s Big 12 brethren achieved national rankings in 2007 while giving up nearly four touchdowns per game.
So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about team expectation with somebody, try dropping in “giving up 14 to 17 fewer points per game should do it.” If they react to you with a blank stare, then you can say 8 wins.