Published Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:50 am
FOOTBALL
McKewon: No longer do polls cut Huskers slack
Nebraska at Minnesota
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
TV: ESPN
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

LINCOLN — Blame baseball. Blame Billy Beane.

Nebraska football's reputation in 2013 remains unformed in part because of an Oakland A's general manager, who started looking at how to build very good baseball teams on the cheap.

Beane's “Moneyball” approach rewrote the reputation manual. Players were stripped of their “intangible” reputations and rebuilt on a complex, at times flawed series of data aspiring to calculate the true value of a performance.

I'd argue the science has hurt the romance of the sport. But it has quantified the talents of players in a way that, long term, blazes a path to better baseball.

As college football voters put together their Top 25 Saturday night and Sunday morning, I thought of “Moneyball,” its adherence to empirical, proven data over a nebulous idea of reputation.

Twenty years ago, an NU team that had been slapped around by UCLA and beaten five teams with a combined record of 12-22 likely would still reside in the top 20. The Huskers had a label of being a top-20 team back then and it stuck, so the ranking stuck, often irrespective of what Nebraska had actually achieved. I think of 1990, when NU's best win, for the entire year, was a 13-0 victory against 6-4-1 Baylor playing a cornerback at quarterback.

In 2013, with more voters — especially Associated Press voters — drawing up their charts by performance instead of perception, you find a team like NU at No. 25 in this week's AP poll. Missouri, by virtue of its work in the SEC, is at No. 5. On a neutral field tomorrow, I'd take the Huskers, starting quarterback, backup quarterback, whatever. I've seen what Bo Pelini does to the Tigers.

And yet I have Mizzou at No. 4 and NU unranked on my ballot because the résumé — not the reputation — commands it. The Big Ten has done a favor for the Huskers' young defense in terms of creating a schedule it can manage, but the league has done Nebraska no favors in terms of creating, at least in the first half of the year, a game of some prestige.

NU's one shot at a notable win, vs. UCLA, crumbled in an avalanche of 38 straight Bruin points, and that avalanche still defines Nebraska in late October. The Huskers' best win is Illinois, which just got thumped at home by Wisconsin and hasn't won a Big Ten game in two years. The second-best win is Wyoming, which lost by 30 at home to Colorado State on Saturday.

Watching a slate full of games Saturday, I discovered Nebraska is surrounded by a sea of teams playing bigger games on bigger stages. In seven games this year, Ole Miss has played Alabama, Auburn and Texas and played at home vs. LSU and Texas A&M. It's 2-3 in those games, yes, but take those five games and compare them with Nebraska's one game. BYU has played at Utah and Houston and beaten Texas and Georgia Tech at home. None of that is too sexy, but what's Illinois, Purdue, Southern Miss, Wyoming and South Dakota State?

This schedule, thus, is a kind of gift and a kind of burden. Nebraska has perhaps its easiest road to nine wins since, oh, 1990 or 2003. Minnesota, Saturday's opponent, is 5-2 after a three-point win against Northwestern, which was missing its two best offensive players. The Gophers have no idea who their best quarterback is after alternating between two all season. Their coach has taken a leave of absence. They are 113th in total offense despite facing the 86th-, 106th- and 125th-rated total defenses in their nonconference schedule.

I'm not trying to knock what Minnesota's doing — the Gophers should make a bowl — or chalk up the Huskers for an easy win. But it would explain why Nebraska has the 11 a.m. slot for the third game in a row. (Even if the game is, for once, on ESPN.)

This is a month of grunt work for the Huskers, of beating the teams you should and biding time until the big games, which even then, aren't The Big Game — that's Michigan-Ohio State — or the Big Ten championship, which Nebraska has to make.

It used to be worth more in the rankings, carrying pails of water, scrubbing the kitchen floor. But parity came to party. Reputations are built through results, not romance. The Huskers have to win often, win big, and help redeem the Big Ten, because league membership points aren't going for much on the ratings market.

On with the Rewind.

Midseason I see you

» Running back Ameer Abdullah: Bye weeks have undoubtedly helped keep him fresh for the stretch run. His health is as important as his production, since backups Imani Cross and Terrell Newby are more complementary pieces than Swiss Army knives.

» Wide receiver Kenny Bell: Bubble and tunnel screens coming his way in the second half of the season.

» Safety Corey Cooper: Outside shot at 100 tackles. Not that Nebraska coaches would like that. Cooper's been steady and consistent.

» Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa: The economics major's effort and playmaking skills have trickled down to the rest of the unit.

» Defensive end Randy Gregory: Feels like a '90s defender. Honest, fast, instinctive, smart. The smarts factor of the '90s guys has been underrated.

» Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Aside from the interceptions and big plays, Stanley's just an easygoing guy on and off the field. He never seems to get too shaken.

» Offensive line coach John Garrison: His ability to squeeze a sudden improvement out of Mike Moudy looks awfully important now, doesn't it?

» Quarterback Taylor Martinez: Perhaps the injury is, in a sense, freeing. No more stats left for Martinez to chase, no more milestones to blast past. It's down to winning, and that alone.

» Quarterback Tommy Armstrong: Flashes of great stuff during his three-game stint. If Martinez is back, do the Husker coaches give him any snaps? If Martinez falters, is Armstrong the guy?

» Defensive end Avery Moss: His game is just as likable as Gregory's if he keeps pushing the pocket.

» Linebacker David Santos: Hasn't played great in every game, but his response to a demotion — which was to reclaim his starting job at middle linebacker — has been important for the development of Nebraska's defense. Josh Banderas is a future All-Big Ten guy, but great freshman middle linebackers are rarer than great freshman quarterbacks.

» Kicker Pat Smith: Somewhere, in some fourth quarter, a kick of his will really matter.

Three concerns

» A pared-down offense against better defenses: Can Nebraska's attack be seamless and relentless enough for a smaller package of plays to work? Only if Tim Beck sticks to his guns with those plays, runs the offense with some pace and doesn't waver.

» No breaks from here: NU's young team has been protected by the schedule and two bye weeks. Coaches could teach without the immediate pressure of preparing for an opponent at the end of the week. That cushion of time is now gone.

» Recruiting: The Huskers picked up a needed commit last week from nickel back prospect Joshua Kalu, whose 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame recalls Ciante Evans. But it's getting to crunch time for Nebraska to find recruits at defensive tackle, defensive end, cornerback, offensive tackle and wide receiver. Look for the junior colleges to be an option at every position except, perhaps, offensive tackle, where Nebraska feels good about potentially landing four-star prospect Brian Wallace out of St. Louis and three-star prospect Nick Gates out of Las Vegas. Both have offers from Alabama, though, and Gates has one to Oregon.

It may be hard to tell by Big Ten games this year, but league recruiting is improving. It'll take consistent top-25 classes — and the occasional top-15 class — for Nebraska to consistently contend for league titles.

Five stats

» 10th: Nebraska's national ranking in scoring offense with 42.7 points per game. Its total offense ranking is 21st at 490 yards per game. Saturday, the Huskers face what will be statistically the second-best defense that they've played this year in Minnesota, which ranked 45th in total defense and 42nd in scoring defense.

» 16: Opponent trips to Nebraska's red zone, which is tied for ninth-fewest in the nation. Once there, opponents have scored on 14 of the 16 drives, but nine of those 14 scores have been touchdowns.

» 28.95 percent: Opponents' third-down conversion rate against Nebraska, good for seventh in the nation. If the Huskers can stop the run on first and second down, they have a pass defense system that consistently defends the third-down line to gain.

» 14: Plays of 30 yards or longer that Nebraska's defense has given up thus far in six games. Last year, in 14 games, the Huskers gave up 29 plays of 30 yards or longer. In 2010, NU gave up 15 such plays all season.

» 9.08: Yards per carry for Abdullah in the third quarter this season. I've always thought that many players come out of halftime more tired than they head in, because the adrenaline level is down and it takes mental energy during halftime to focus on corrections. Guys like Abdullah — top 1 percent of fitness, hypercompetitive — should feast in the third quarter.

Facebook feedback

On my World-Herald Facebook page, I ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here. This week, fans commented on the Huskers at midseason.

» “It is too soon to have a firm grip on what Nebraska is right now. Their defense looks improved, and the overall schedule is not that strong, but said schedule is definitely backloaded. We will see where Nebraska is late in the season.” — Talmadge East

» “Times are weird and uncomfortable in Huskerland right now. Nebraska blew its only chance for legitimacy in the first half of the season against UCLA. Credit them for taking care of business since then, but they're still fighting an uphill battle against irrelevance.” — Alex Lowe

» “Seems to be lacking energy from top to bottom. FSU, Clemson and others show emotion during the game. Coaches and administration seem to lack energy as well. They need to reinvent the 'Nebraska football' brand and get it back in the national eye by getting some sort of marketing game plan together.” — Brian Jackson

Opponent watch

So Jerry Kill is on a leave of absence as the coach of Minnesota football as he looks for medical relief from epileptic seizures, but he and his wife drove to the Gophers' game at Northwestern — a 20-17 win. Kill stood in the coaches' box and talked to the team at halftime.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kill will watch Saturday's game with Nebraska from the coaching box while defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys again coaches the team on the field.

Minnesota will also decide its starting quarterback between Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson on Tuesday. Neither has been particularly good this year. Leidner started Saturday and was replaced by Nelson, who had begun the season as the starter.

Forecast

Fall weather and lots of Husker fans at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Great stadium that sells beer. Great downtown. Nebraska has the better team. Sounds like the usual road trip in red.

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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