McKewon: Numbers show where Nebraska needs to gain ground

Alabama head coach Nick Saban is dunked with Gatorade in the final seconds of the BCS National Championship game. Saban has found the formula for winning BCS championships, as he's led Alabama to the national title in three of the past four seasons.


LINCOLN — Alabama coasted to a win in the BCS national championship game. Georgia took Alabama to the wire in the SEC championship. Nebraska took Georgia to the fourth quarter in the Capital One Bowl. Three postseason games. Three results that point to the Huskers hanging in there when it comes to the sport's elite.

That's an anecdotal way of measuring how close Nebraska might be to competing for what coach Bo Pelini consistently shoots for and what the Crimson Tide now consistently win: A national title.

As we wind down our look at 2012 — and the first five years of Pelini's tenure — I'd thought I'd dig a little deeper and look at the profile of a BCS national champion since Nick Saban won his first with LSU in 2003. The comparison is built in part on CBS Sports writer Matt Hinton's analysis last week of all the BCS champions.

Within that subset of 10 champs, I'll break out Alabama's trio of titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012. And I'll also pull out of the Husker closet regular-season statistical averages from Tom Osborne's titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. The NU splits won't include the bowl games.

Instead of anecdotes or generalized chats about identity, we'll examine some key components of recent BCS champs, Alabama and Nebraska in all its glory — and compare it to the Huskers under Bo.

Total offense

Huskers under Bo: 402.4 yards per game

BCS champs 2003-2012: 443.5 (plus-41.1 yards more than NU under Pelini)

Alabama trio: 425.0 (plus-22.6)

Osborne trio: 515.0 (plus-112.6)

Analysis: Nebraska's best offenses under Bo were the 2008 and 2012 units that averaged 450 and 461 yards, respectively. Those offenses would be on par with national title caliber attacks. The total offense average of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 teams was 367 yards — well under any standard. The worst total offense in the Osborne trio — 1994 — averaged 477.8 yards. The best — 1995 — averaged 556 yards per game.

Total defense

Huskers under Bo: 329.8 yards per game

BCS champs: 270.7 (minus-59.1)

Alabama trio: 225.0 (minus-104.8)

Osborne trio: 270.0 (minus-59.8)

Analysis: Pelini's best defense in 2009 gave up 272 yards per game. That's 16 fewer yards than his 2007 defense at LSU. Osborne's best unit — the 1997 squad — gave up 257.3 yards, but look at the Tide's average under Saban. In 2011, Alabama gave up 183 yards per game. Stunning. This shows Alabama's beginning to perfect what the SEC does well on defense. It's a full 100 yards better than Pelini's five-year split. That's Bama talent — and Bama coaching.

Rushing defense

Huskers under Bo: 142.7 yards per game

BCS champs: 89.7 (minus-53.0)

Alabama trio: 75.6 (minus-67.1)

Osborne trio: 77.0 (minus-65.7)

Analysis: Obviously inflated in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, Nebraska's run defense since 2008 — heck, since well before that — is well off what title teams can do. The worst run defense of all BCS champs in the last 10 years was the 2005 Texas team that gave up 130.9 yards per game. That Longhorn team averaged 50 points and 512 yards per game.

Scoring offense

Huskers under Bo: 31.1 points per game

BCS champs: 38.1 (plus-7.0)

Alabama trio: 35.2 (plus-4.1)

Osborne trio: 45.2 (plus-14.1)

Analysis: NU's best scoring offense under Pelini — the 2008 Shawn Watson unit — scored 35.4 points per game in a wide open, Wild West Big 12. That's basically Alabama's average. NU is a touchdown behind the average BCS champion and two touchdowns behind Osborne's bunch.

Scoring defense

Huskers under Bo: 21.5 points per game

BCS champs: 14.2 (minus-7.3)

Alabama trio: 10.3 (minus-11.2)

Osborne trio: 14.0 (minus-7.5)

Analysis: Big-ticket losses in 2008 and 2012 wipe out the 2009 defense — which gave up fewer than 11 points per game and is the only bunch to match up to Alabama's trio. Note that Nebraska's scoring offense and scoring defense are roughly the same margin short of the champion metrics.

Turnover margin

Huskers under Bo: minus-4 turnovers for the year

BCS champs: plus-12.4 (plus-16.4)

Alabama trio: plus-13.6 (plus-17.6)

Osborne trio: plus-5.6 (plus-9.6)

Analysis: Nebraska has not been able to get out from its turnover issues for years. Every BCS champ since 2003 had a turnover margin of at least plus-5. The best, 2008 Florida, was at plus-22.

And those stats point to the most important one:

Average record

Huskers under Bo: 9.6 wins-4 losses

BCS champs: 13 wins-0.7 losses

Alabama trio: 13 wins-0.7 losses

Osborne trio: 12.7 wins-0 losses

That's a three-game difference, roughly. Three games that your average BCS champ wins and three games Nebraska has lost, per year, since 2008.

NU will enter its winter conditioning phase soon. Then it'll be spring camp. Then summer. Then fall. Husker coaches will prepare their tails off for each opponent. Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck — who now makes a fair market rate of $700,000 per year — believe in custom-crafting their game plans each week. Wipe the slate clean. Install a new game plan. It's ambitious and at times highly effective. Certainly opponents have to contend with the Huskers' creativity and willingness to use lots of personnel. I've reiterated for two months: Pelini and his staff don't lack for vision or ambition.

But Pelini and Beck also have to coach their respective sides of the ball to the stats above and the three games they haven't won. Because Nebraska is going win at least nine next year. I'd be comfortable predicting 10, in fact. But the numbers agree: Predicting more than that is premature until Pelini actually does it.

Perhaps offense will carry most of the day in 2013. It did for Texas in 2005 and Auburn in 2010. Can Taylor Martinez soar to the heights Vince Young and Cam Newton did? Young and Newton both started as NFL rookies. They both finished in the top two of the Heisman Trophy voting. Is Martinez that kind of game-changer in Year 4?

Or maybe the run defense gets an overhaul. Alabama's certainly made it work to the tune of three titles.

Or maybe it's turnover margin. Alabama is aces there, too. Osborne's trio didn't have to worry about it as much. The explosive offense had already lapped opponents several times before turnovers became too much of an issue.

However NU chooses to attack it, there are three more games to win if Nebraska wants to make progress toward a national title. Those three games, underwritten by a bevy of stats, are the difference between where Pelini wants to be, and where his program is. Good. Sometimes very good. Not yet great.

On to recruiting.

Contact the writer:

402-202-9766, sam.mckewon@owh.com, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

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