If the Cornhuskers follow the same path UCF took, it could mean big things for the Big Red this fall
Just over a year ago, we examined how Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander would approach a new Blackshirts defense with a goal of efficiency. The 3-4 scheme of past years remains, but the ultimate objective isn't keeping opponents under a certain number of yards or points. Admirable goals, both, but unnecessary today. Causing the opponent to get as little out of their drives as possible is the name of the modern-day game. Simply having a "good defense" isn't what Chinander must do to complement his head coach's offense. In reality, it's never been that simple for this staff.
For the purpose of this discussion, we'll be using the work of noted college football efficiency specialist Brian Fremeau (@bcfremeau). To find out just how effective a drive is, Fremeau takes into account FBS vs. FBS results (no Bethune-Cookmans allowed), possession types and results along with garbage and non-garbage possessions. Here's a look into the nitty-gritty as far as all that goes for those interested.
Let’s drill things down to see when the true improvement came at UCF and why the trend points to a leap in what Nebraska can do as a team.
In 2016, UCF had a 5-7 record versus FBS opposition — remember, we're tossing FCS competition out the window. The most important number for Chinander is DPD (defensive points per drive). On every meaningful drive, UCF gave up 1.7 points, good for 22nd in FBS. Where the Knights saw issues was when offenses actually had a longer field to work with (80 yards or more). UCF still only relinquished 1.36 yards per drive, but that was only worth a rank of 37th overall.
Where we truly see Chinander's work pay off is when offenses have less than 80 yards to cover in order to score. Out of all FBS teams, the Knights ranked 16th giving up 1.76 PPD in that scenario.
Why did UCF lose seven games in 2016? The offense was straight up putrid once Chinander's unit gave them the opportunity to score. They ranked 113th in total offense, 104th in rushing, 89th in passing and 68th in scoring offense.
Jump ahead to the Knights' 2017 undefeated season and we see a drastic uptick in the team's overall performance. When the opposition started their drives between their own 20- and 40-yard line, they only managed 1.22 points per attempt, a mark good for 13th overall. Drives that started less than 60 yards from UCF’s end zone saw slightly more production with 2.78 points per drive which gave the Knights an FBS ranking of 29th.
The important thing to remember with these numbers is that Frost's offense made an insane jump in production in one year's time with the proper personnel and 365 days of additional wisdom. UCF put up top-four numbers when it came to taking advantage of all offensive drives except when they began shorter possessions (60 yards or less) when they generated 3.84 points per (33rd in FBS).
Another extremely important metric is turnovers. In 2016, UCF finished with a plus-one margin. Chinander's defense produced 11 fumble recoveries and 15 interceptions, but Frost's offense put the ball on the carpet 16 times and threw to the incorrect jersey nine times. For reference, Nebraska finished minus-two last season.
Switch to 2017 and UCF had an eye-popping plus-17 margin. They tied for 13th overall with 12 fumble recoveries and tied for second with 20 interceptions. Contrast that with 10 fewer fumbles lost while the offense's interception trouble remained the same. Even so, defensive miscues were more than made up for by punishing opponents when they decided to pass.
Let’s get to the big question for Cornhusker fans: can Nebraska expect a similar jump in year two under Frost thanks to Chinander?
The Blackshirts' 2018 defensive efficiency was poor, to put it mildly. They managed to rank above the 86th spot once. Nebraska was just 33rd nationally when it came to stifling teams that began possessions 60 yards away from scoring or less. Beyond that, the Huskers hung out closer to the triple-digit rankings including their 119th spot when teams scored on them after starting with longer drives. Despite the success of Adrian Martinez, Devine Ozigbo, Stanley Morgan Jr. and others, that's a good way to lose games in historic fashion as the Huskers did.
Much like the nation saw UCF struggle early in Frost's tenure on due to their defense doing all the work while the offense got its sea legs, we sit at the precipice of Nebraska flipping the script with a potent offense and a defensive unit now finding its swagger. Big Ten teams will still be able to move 79 yards for a score as AAC competition did in 2017, a metric that Chinander struggled with. However, the conference as a whole is not made for Frost's offensive speed and level of production.
With the type of efficiency that Martinez and Co. are set up to generate, they force teams like Iowa and Wisconsin to pick up the pace or lose. These are two teams known for long, soul-crushing drives and the Big Red will give some up. But if the Badgers or Hawkeyes take seven minutes to score while Nebraska can rack up, for example, 10-14 points in that same period, the best of the Big Ten won’t be able to stop eventual losses while their hands are on their hips.
There must be harmony between the Huskers' offense and defense in order to be the best. The sooner they find it, the sooner those who take the over on Las Vegas' win total for Nebraska breathe far easier. Combine history with Nebraska's roster-flipping as of late and suddenly this goes from the pipe dream it seemed upon Frost's arrival to a realistic prophecy in the near future.