I got myself all riled up in the comments section of this SMQ piece on Nebraska, and before I turn into AJ (not that there's anything wrong with that), I thought I'd step back and take a long, hard look at Nebraska and the North "balance of power".
SMQ's done well in proving the overall worth of recruiting rankings, and he uses those rankings as a way to substantiate Phil Steele's thoughts that NU could be a surprise 2nd-place finisher in 2008. I've taken my own looks at the accuracy of recruiting rankings and found roughly the same thing--that high rankings do increase the odds of a player's collegiate success. But there's more to it than that. Here's what I said at SMQ:
there are two parts to being talented in college...
a) being super-duper talented in high school
b) developing and improving in college
Most of Nebraska’s current defense fit (a) but have been completely and totally nonexistent in (b). So at this stage in the game, their ceiling just isn’t very high. The D-Line has some untapped potential, and the DBs might be decent to above average, but there is a dearth of, well, anything at LB, and all in all, thanks to the lack of (b), there is clearly less defensive talent at NU than at KU and MU, at the very least. Recruiting is important, but development is as or more important, and that’s really not something Callahan/Cosgrove were too keen at.
Pelini’s defense will be much more intense, and that’s a start, but I would make the case that their 2008 ceiling still isn’t very high due to lack of development. You only have "potential" for so long, I think, and then it expires. They have a pretty good schedule, a great home-field advantage, and an above-average offense led by Joe "Small Sample Size" Ganz and Marlon "As Good As My Blocking" Lucky, and they could certainly squeeze out 8-4 there this year, but I think that’s probably about it. Long-term, Pelini’s fiery style could catch on, or he could end up like Mike Stoops (so far). With their fanbase and facilities, the floor there is obviously not as low as at Arizona, but that doesn’t mean they’re destined for greatness either. Mizzou and Kansas have shifted the balance of power in the North, and there are only so many recruits in the area to snag—KSU’s dead in the water as long as MU and KU are on top, and while Nebraska can recruit more nationally, they’re still going to be at least a bit limited if MU and KU are both snatching up the locals, particularly in KC.
Now...I think I should have stopped after the Arizona line. The "balance of power" argument was a whole post/argument unto itself, and what I tacked on at the end was a bit rushed.
Here's the response of a Husker fan (after giving the "PS#'s"--Phil Steele recruiting rankings--of the Nebraska 2-deep):
Now...I'd argue that you can't really agree that development matters, then disagree about the "more talent at KU and MU" statement--coaching only counts for so much, and that NU defense was horrendous last year. They're facing a steep climb in catching up on the defensive side of the ball. But my point in doing this isn't to pick on an NU fan--all fans are homers, and so far this comment isn't too disagreeable.
You can hear it in the subtext of comments by fans of other teams in the Big 12 North (such as The Boy). It’s almost like the old George Costanza adage about "a lie is not a lie if you believe it to be true…" Over and over from these folks, I hear a chorus of "the balance of power having shifted" as though the constant repetition will aid in reinforcing this as believable in their own hearts and minds. Don’t forget where the balance of power was the year before last (and the year before that as well)...the "balance of power", or whatever you want to call it, shifted away from CU to NU to Missouri (all of whom largely benefited from favorable home schedules in their respective north-division winning seasons) in consecutive years. But now we’re expected to just swallow as gospel that it’s never gonna shift again?! Just listen to yourself…then consider: Missouri and Kansas benefited from their greatest seasons in decades (100 years for KU, more like 40-50 for Mizzou) which just happened to coincide (though it was hardly a coincidence) with the worst Nebraska team in probably at least the last 50 or so. The coaching staffs from division rivals in all directions took great advantage of this circumstance as they pounced on NU commits while the coaching staff was in flux. So, since Mizzou had a better year for a single season (anyone younger than 40 had never seen that happen until last season) and they stole Blane Gabbert and a couple of other recruits, you actually expect everyone to buy into this constant barrage of "the balance of power has shifted for good" just because it’s repeated ad nauseam?! Fortunately for all of us, the games in the coming months and years will determine whether or not that’s indeed the case. But I’m with SMQ in hedging a bit of good faith on the sleeping giant…and you’re likewise certainly within your rights to assume that the Huskers will soon attain a more Arizona-like status (however laughable it may seem to even the most casual of college football observers). But when Phil Steele and SMQ are both pointing to NU as one of the most-likely teams to turn around in a big way…I’d probably go pretty easy on any bold predictions to the contrary.
Now...nevermind that I didn't say anything about the balance of power "shifting for good", and nevermind that I did the exact opposite of assuming "that the Huskers will soon attain a more Arizona-like status"...I just said it was within the realm of possibility because nobody actually knows what Pelini will be like as a head coach--he's never been a head coach before (unless you count his 2003 Alamo Bowl victory as interim...but even if you do count it, he officially has one more career win than I do).
But again...the point of this wasn't to pick on an unsuspecting NU fan--if it were, I'd get bitchy about each message in our relatively long exchange. I just wanted to set the table for the following thoughts.
It's obvious who the best two teams were in the North last year (even if NU's team had been pretty good, they'd still have gotten lit up by both MU and KU), and it's pretty obvious who the best two teams are heading into this year. NU could very easily knock off either KU or MU (or, technically, both) in 2008, as they're going to be at least somewhat improved and will continue to have the best home-field advantage in the North, but from an overall talent/development/coaching standpoint, MU and KU will start 2008 as the best two teams in the North. They have better QBs, WR/TEs, DLs, LBs, DBs, and special teams units than Nebraska, and they've got much more proven coaching staffs.
After 2008? It all goes up for grabs again.
So my questions for today are as follows:
1. How much can NU's defense improve in one year?
2. If MU and KU continue to have at least above-average programs, what is NU's new ceiling?
- One-year improvement -
I believe it was on an ESPN college football podcast a couple of days ago when somebody like Ivan Maisel casually mentioned a potential "30-40% improvement" for NU's defense in 2008. That suggests an improvement from 477 yards per game and 38 points per game to 330 yards per game and 27 points per game. Um, doubtful. I think we all assume they'll improve, but by how much?
(And yes, I've already looked at this once.)
2002 vs 2003
Bo Pelini was the NU defensive coordinator for one year, 2003. Here's how the numbers changed.
2002: 23.9 PPG, 146.6 Rushing YPG, 215.3 Passing YPG, 19.4 First Downs/G, 2.3 sacks/G, 1.5 takeaways/G, 37% 3rd-down conversion.
2003: 14.5 PPG, 119.3 Rushing YPG, 177.8 Passing YPG, 16.8 First Downs/G, 2.1 sacks/G, 3.6 takeaways/G, 34% 3rd-down conversion.
Improvement: 39% PPG, 19% Rushing YPG, 14% Passing YPG, 13% First Downs, 9% sacks, 140% takeaways, 8% 3rd downs.
An interesting mix of significant improvement (points, takeaways), solid improvement (yards, first downs), and minimal improvement (sacks, 3rd-downs). But...improvement across the board.
Now, strength of schedule does need to be taken into account here. In 2002, NU made a trip to Penn State (lost 40-7) and got lit up by the best Iowa State team in recent history (36-14). They also got pummeled on the road by KSU as well (49-13). In 2003, the non-conference slate was much more manageable--a much weaker Penn State team visited NU and lost (18-10), and the three other opponents (Utah State, Troy, and a decent Southern Miss) combined for 21 points. So they gave up less than 8 PPG in non-conference play before coming back to earth somewhat against living, breathing offenses (Missouri scored 41, Texas 31, KSU 38). They were by all means improved, but probably not to the extent that the yardage/point/turnover numbers suggested.
What about when he went to OU?
2003 vs 2004
Pelini was co-defensive coordinator at OU for one year as well, 2004. (He's hopped around!)
2003: 15.3 PPG, 113.2 Rushing YPG, 146.4 Passing YPG, 13.6 First Downs/G, 3.2 sacks/G, 2.4 takeaways/G, 28% 3rd-down conversion.
2004: 16.3 PPG, 94.6 Rushing YPG, 204.4 Passing YPG, 15.6 First Downs/G, 3.0 sacks/G, 1.7 takeaways/G, 36% 3rd-down conversion.
Improvement: -7% PPG, 34% Rushing, -40% Passing, -15% First Downs, -6% Sacks, -29% takeaways, -29% 3rd downs.
It's pretty clear why Pelini moved on after one year--he wasn't a good fit with the staff/personnel in Norman, and his reputation had taken a hit. Granted, the defense took a hit in the 55-19 Orange Bowl game, but the overall SOS was similar, and the numbers got slightly worse.
So he moved on to another high-end defensive coordinator gig, this time at LSU.
2004 vs 2005
2004: 17.1 PPG, 99.8 Rushing YPG, 157.2 Passing YPG, 13.2 First Downs/G, 3.1 sacks/G, 1.9 takeaways/G, 32% 3rd-down conversion
2005: 14.2 PPG, 91.5 Rushing YPG, 175.3 Passing YPG, 14.9 First Downs/G, 2.0 sacks/G, 1.1 takeaways/G, 28% 3rd-down conversion
Improvement: 17% PPG, 8% Rushing, -12% Passing, -13% First Downs, -35% sacks, -42% takeaways, 13% 3rd downs.
Improvement in three categories, regression in two, and severe regression in two.
So beyond 2003 Nebraska, his other teams haven't seen immediate across-the-board improvement. Then again, 2004 OU and 2005 LSU were in better shape defensively than 2003 NU, and there was obviously more room for improvement there.
Let's summarize this by doing the following: let's average together the NU/OU/LSU experiences (you could say that OU was an unsuccessful outlier, but NU's numbers were even crazier), and apply it to NU's 2007 numbers. Lots of assumptions and leaps there, but let's see what we get. And I'm even going to double the weight of the NU experience, just to be nice:
Average First-Year Improvement (NU twice, OU, LSU): 22% PPG, 20% rushing, -6% passing, -1% first downs, -6% sacks, 50% takeaways, 0% 3rd downs.
What this would do to NU's numbers in 2008: 29.6 PPG, 186 rushing YPG, 259 passing YPG (445 total YPG overall, an improvement of 31 YPG), 25 first downs/G, 1 sack/G, 1.4 takeaways/G, 50% 3rd downs.
Honestly, they'll probably improve more than that. I don't see any way they don't get much, much better at sacks, takeaways and 3rd downs, mostly because all three numbers were so amazingly horrible in 2007. (If not for trips to Norman and Lubbock, I'd say they'd improve significantly on passing yardage too, but that will be difficult since they play all four of the league's top QBs.) But like I said in my BTBS preview, even if they improve by 7-10 points per game...and even if they improve by a TD on offense, six of their seven losses came by 14 points or more. A turnaround of three games to 8-4 is certainly possible, but probably not more than that. But hey...a 3-game improvement is pretty good, right?
So let's say Mizzou wins 10-11 games, Kansas 8-10, and Nebraska 6-8. Where does the "balance of power" stand for 2009 and beyond?
- Balance of Power / Nebraska's New Ceiling -
Let's revisit one part of the comment above:
Over and over from these folks, I hear a chorus of "the balance of power having shifted" as though the constant repetition will aid in reinforcing this as believable in their own hearts and minds. Don’t forget where the balance of power was the year before last (and the year before that as well)...the "balance of power", or whatever you want to call it, shifted away from CU to NU to Missouri (all of whom largely benefited from favorable home schedules in their respective north-division winning seasons) in consecutive years. But now we’re expected to just swallow as gospel that it’s never gonna shift again?!
Now...leave aside the "never gonna shift again" part. I never said anything resembling that. And leave aside the suggestion that Mizzou somehow won in '07 because of their "home schedule" (beating CU by 45 and KSU by 21 didn't count for anything, I guess). Let's focus on the "shift".
In the last few years of the Big 8, NU and CU more or less had a deathgrip on the conference. With the Big 12's development, KSU took CU's place as NU's main threat, then CU fought its way back into the picture for a couple years. Between 2004 and 2006, however, there was no balance of power in the North. Colorado won the division twice despite horrific yardage differentials, and Nebraska put together a nice burst in 2006 (their only season of + yardage since 2003). Meanwhile, Missouri was improving (and, depending on your perception, underachieving) each year.
Let's look at it this way.
Season Yardage Differential By Year
Obviously there's a huge "Strength of Schedule" caveat with these numbers, but trends are trends.
And speaking of trends...if you like numbers better in graph form, here's one:
For those who have been paying attention, the trend of MU and KU moving up has been happening for the last three years. KU's improved in fits and starts, while Mizzou has improved steadily just about every year since 2002. It didn't just happen out of the blue.
You like smaller sample sizes? Let's look at conference wins.
Conference Wins by Year
After 2006, the 3-year average for every North team was between 4.3 (Nebraska) and 2.7 (KU, KSU). There was no balance of power because...there was no power. Meanwhile, MU and KU are the only two teams whose moving averages have never gone down. Granted, you could say they initially went up because they were so terrible in the early '00s, but the improvement has continued since then.
Granted, this is a pretty busy graph, but...
Is conference point differential your thing?
Average Point Differential, Conference Games only
The shift has been happening for a while. The question is, will it be sustained?
Here's an observation: in the last 8 years, more than one team out of the Kansas City Axis (MU, NU, KU, KSU) has finished with a winning conference record three times--KSU and NU in 2000, KSU and NU in 2003, MU and KU in 2007. Looking at it another way...in the last 11 years, all four teams have made bowls only once; three of four have made it 4 times; two of four 5 times.
It appears there's only enough room for 1-2 really good teams in this group, and I think there's a pretty easy reason for that--there's only so much talent in the KC area. Now, all four of these teams also recruit Texas/Oklahoma (NU has gotten plenty of talent from the west coast as well), but still...the main recruiting ground for all four of these teams is the Kansas/Missouri/Nebraska/Iowa(somewhat) corridor. When NU was dominating the rest of the country, they were doing so with quite a few KC and MO athletes (along with studs from Iowa and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma). MU and KU did the same in 2007 with KC/MO/KS athletes.
So if there is only room for 1-2 really good teams, the question now becomes...who are those teams going to be? A lot rides on 2008, but even more rides on 2009.
2008: Preseason top 10 team. Proven at almost every position.
2009: Will be replacing a ridiculous amount of starters/all-conference players. From a 'recruiting rankings' standpoint, this will be the most 'talented' Missouri squad ever, but it's quite possible there will be at least 30 true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores on the 2-deep to start 2009. That's insane. Let's put it this way--if Mizzou wins the North in '08, and then wins the North again in '09, forget about it. The division is theirs for the next 5-10 years. But that's probably not going to happen.
Recruiting: Had their first Rivals Top 25 class in 2008 (and managed to reach #1 in the country last year without a Top 25 class, ahem). Have started the 2009 class well with 1 4-star commit and 9 3-star commits.
2008: Preseason top 15 team. They're a bit less proven than Missouri because they have to replace an All-American OT (and very much struggled to do so in the spring), and their schedule gets infinitely more difficult in 2008, but their defense should be tough as nails, and their QB is clearly no worse than the #4 QB in the most loaded conference in the country.
2009: Two of the three QBs ahead of Reesing in the conference rankings (mine, anyway) will be graduating, but Reesing will have one more year. KU will lose a lot of its 2008 talent overall, though, including all three stud LBs--Joe Mortensen, Mike Rivera, James Holt--and WR Dexton Fields. The defense will take a step back, while the offense may take a step forward.
Recruiting: Last year's class was only #40 according to Rivals (though, again, they reached #2 in the country without any highly-ranked classes), but they've gotten a quick start on 2009 with 1 4-star commit and 11 3-star commits.
2008: Banking on a head coach with an undefeated career record...1-0. He may be the real deal, and he may not, but either way I've already defined their ceiling as somewhere around 8-4.
2009: Will have to replace the two guys on whom they'll be leaning most in 2008, Marlon Lucky and Joe Ganz. But chances are, whichever WRs emerge as targets, they'll return for '09, as most are underclassmen. But they'll have a completely inexperienced signal caller and mostly-inexperienced RB. Defensively, it's hard to get a read here because...well...we don't know who's going to be making the plays for them in 2008, much less 2009. They could potentially have a good secondary, led by Ricky Thenarse and Larry Asante, but we'll have to wait and see.
Recruiting: As great as NU's recruiting has supposedly been over the years, their 2008 class, upon which they'll be leaning heavily, was actually ranked lower than MU's. And so far their 2009 class is fine--1 4-star commit, 7 3-star commits--but it appears they've at least temporarily lost their recruiting edge over MU and KU. Pelini will be able to make up for it if he and his staff can actually develop players, but...again, we don't know yet if Pelini will be a good head coach or a bad one.
2008: Signed 19 JUCOs in a last-ditch effort to a) save Ron Prince's job and b) catch up to MU/KU in a hurry. It could work, but...well, they have even more unknowns than NU. This could be Josh Freeman's last year behind center, and he's got no proven targets at WR. RB Leon Patton could be good, but he has to recover from an extremely mediocre sophomore campaign. Defensively...who the hell knows? Again, 19 JUCOs!! If only 3-4 are strong players, Prince is done. If 10-12 of them are, KSU could win the North in 2009.
2009: One thing's for certain--they'll have like 45 seniors getting flowers for their parents on Senior Day. Beyond that? Well...if 2008's uncertain, then 2009's really really uncertain.
Recruiting: If the JUCOs don't work out, there's little hope in Manhattan. As stated (a couple times) above, the 2008 class will have no long-term depth, as only a handful of high schoolers signed. The 2009 class so far has been pretty iffy--two 3-star kids and that's about it. While there's always a chance that Prince pulls a rabbit out of his hat with this JUCOs, it's a big gamble, and it's clear that if only 1-2 of these four teams can be good at any given time, KSU's the least likely of the bunch to make the cut.
(One more note about those 2009 classes. So far Missouri has 9 commits from kids in the above-defined "KC corridor", while KU has 5, KSU 2 and NU 1. Don't know if that means anything, but I thought I'd point it out.)
As I said above, when Nebraska was winning national titles in the mid-'90s, they were doing it with the best recruits from Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and everywhere in that general radius. They were also getting studs from California and elsewhere, but it's safe to say they wouldn't have won as much without the Mike Ruckers and Grant Wistroms of the world. Those recruits are now just as likely to go to Missouri (or Kansas) as Nebraska. Even if Bo Pelini is the next Bob Stoops (I personally doubt it, but I guess I've been wrong before), he's got a steeper hill to climb than Stoops did. The North was ruling the Big 12 when Stoops took over (yes, Texas upset Nebraska in '96 and ATM upset KSU in '98, but...they were upsets--the North had the better teams overall). Mack Brown was getting established in Austin, but it hadn't happened yet. Stoops was able to take a 5-6 team and turn it into a 7-5 team in '99 (with help from magic JUCO QB Josh Heupel), then turn that team into a national champion in '00 (with help from a sold soul or two...seriously, no starters were lost to injury all year? When does that happen?). This obviously established his tenure, and the recruits came rolling in after that.
IF Pelini is the next Bob Stoops, and IF somebody's around to fill the Heupel role (coach on the field), and IF he can find a couple difference-makers on both sides of the ball, and IF the injury bug disappears from Lincoln for a while, then NU could be back on the national map within a year or two. But the margin for error in getting those "difference-makers" is a lot tighter because recruits in the midwest are chooseing KU and MU as much as NU, it seems. Anything's possible, but with the rise and recruiting success of MU and KU (not to mention possibly CU), Nebraska's not again going to be the only show in the North any time soon. The gap was closed a few years ago, and after the jumble of crap that was the North from 2004 to 2006, Missouri and Kansas have taken the first steps in asserting themselves. It's NU's turn to respond, and there are no guarantees.