SPAM - NCAA Football 2021 - Week 13Preview - Week 12 Recap



I'm not going to spend much time on Iowa-Illinois. You saw the game. Or didn't. Iowa has now won three ugly games in a row. That stretch could have easily gone 0-3. But it didn't. The offense is still struggling, and is being hampered by a combination of youth, injuries, and head-scratchingly mercurial play-calling, but I'm going to save most of my analysis for our upcoming opponent, because it's a fascinating matchup, for so many reasons.


Game by Game

Opponent Margin Win%
Indiana 13.8 W (1-0)
@Iowa State -3.5 W (2-0)
Kent State 6.8 W (3-0)
Colorado State 7.6 W (4-0)
@Maryland 7.4 W (5-0)
Penn State 1.0 W (6-0)
Purdue 4.6 L (6-1)
@Wisconsin -4.5 L (6-2)
@Northwestern 7.4 W (7-2)
Minnesota 2.7 W (8-2)
Illinois 8.7 W (9-2)
@Nebraska -0.2 43.9%

Record Projection

Record Odds
9-3 53.3%
10-2 46.7%

Here we are in rather familiar territory.

The many branches of the spiderverse have been reduced to two. It's Nebraska Week and there's a lot going on. After Iowa, I watch Wisconsin and Nebraska football more than any other college team. The main reason is that my social circle includes a lot of fans of these teams, so I know more about them and find their games more interesting. They're also among the most important of Iowa's competition in the Big 10 West, so their games have extra relevance. I also don't hate Wisconsin or Nebraska (believe me, I used to). So, if you've come here for Dunking on Nebraska Analysis, you won't get it.

The bottom line is that Nebraska is better than Iowa at playing football in the Year of Our Lord 2021. I don't like it, you don't like it, but despite the difference in records, it's true. However, Iowa has been better at winning football games. Those are not the same thing. Allow me to explain.

Nebraska has found ways to lose (or been jobbed out of) every one of those losses. There is not a game on their schedule that wasn't winnnable. Even Ohio State was within reach. Iowa, by contrast, has found ways to win games that it could and perhaps should have lost (Iowa State, Penn State, and Minnesota all come to mind). Iowa's special teams and defense have spent the year covering for an offense that is generationally putrid even by Iowa's notoriously low standards.

How do you compare two teams like this? Let's start with looking at trends. Specifically, as the year goes on, and SPAM has more 2021 data to chew on, how has SPAM's projection for this game changed?

To open the season, Iowa was favored to win this weekend's matchup at Nebraska by 11 points, with a 73.9% chance of victory. Those first numbers are based on 2020. Recall that, playing at Iowa in 2020, the Cornhuskers got their first regulation lead over the Hawkeyes in years and Nebraska had the ball and a chance to win the game in regulation. I don't think Nebraska has been in that position since 2012 (somebody fact check me). Iowa had to come from behind and get a late defensive takeaway to salt the game away. Statistically, by the end of the year, that Iowa team was 11 points better than that Nebraska team. That's how SPAM began analyzing 2021.

After four weeks of play, Iowa's projected advantage in this game had shrunk to 7.9 points. Recall that Iowa in those four weeks went 4-0, while Nebraska lost to Illinois. It didn't matter. The respective on-field performance reflected that Nebraska was better than last year and Iowa was worse.

By week 8, the projection turned negative, meaning Nebraska was favored to win. The amount has varied from around -1.3 to -1.7 for most of the second half of the year. If you've been reading this column over the year, you know this, and it should come as no surprise to you that Vegas opened with Nebraska favored by 3-4 points. They see what SPAM sees: Nebraska is playing like a top 25 team and Iowa is not, in every column except the one that matters most: wins. Vegas thinks that can't possibly keep up for a 12th game.

So does SPAM. Here’s why.

First, Nebraska is averaging 28.5 points per game on offense and giving up 22.2. That's an average margin of victory of 6.3. It takes a special kind of wizardry to find a way to go 3-9 on that record. No other Big 10 team with a positive ppg differential has a losing record, whether overall or in conference.

Second, the Cornhuskers are #19 in total offense with 458.4 ypg (Iowa is #124 at 293.4 ypg). Nebraska is #56 in total defense with 366.7 ypg given up (Iowa is #13 at 314.7). But Nebraska is #64 in ppg (28.5) on offense, and #38 in ppg (22.2) on defense). Iowa, by contrast, is #90 in ppg on offense (25.5) and #9 in ppg on defense (16.9).

What does this tell us?

Well, it means Nebraska is great at moving the ball, but bad at punching it in. The Cornhuskers are #116 in red zone efficiency at 71.43% (compared to 85.71% last year). For what it's worth, Iowa is almost as bad at 75.86% (compared to 91.67% last year). What accounts for this?

For Nebraska, at least in the games I've watched, it's been poor special teams play, dumb penalties, and untimely turnovers. Iowa's red zone incompetency, by contrast, is largely a function of what I can only describe as coaching malpractice on the sideline, combined with a non-existent passing offense that becomes a real problem in the compressed space near the goal line.

Third, Nebraska is snakebit. There are a number of reasons why, some of which are self-inflicted and I'll save that for a future post, but it's becoming difficult to deny that Nebraska has been on the wrong end of bafflingly, obviously terrible, game-deciding officiating decisions with unusual frequency. For every 50/50 call that goes their way, there are 5 that don't. It's gotten so bad that Nebraska fans believe the Big 10 is officiating them differently. Frankly, I'm not sure they're wrong. I'm not saying there's some smoke-filled room where the officials gather to scheme against Nebraska, but the statistical outliers for officiating Nebraska games are awfully close to the edge of Occam's razor.

Where does this leave us on Black Friday? How does the team that plays better and loses more stack up to the team that plays worse but wins more? The answer is that it's a toss-up, as you might expect. SPAM has Nebraska favored by a tiny margin, and projects a final score of Nebraska 24, Iowa 23, with the home field advantage in Lincoln being the deciding factor.

Now, here's my personal prediction. I'm going to sound like a broken record here because I say this every year and it keeps not happening, but this is the year Nebraska wins this game. The trend is there. Nebraska has been getting closer and closer and closer to winning this game every year. THIS IS FINALLY THE YEAR IT HAPPENS, and I think Nebraska wins it by two possessions.

Here's why.

Exhibit A. Iowa is Overrated. This is the worst Iowa team since Scott Frost arrived. By far.

Exhibit B. Nebraska is Underrated. This is the best Nebraska team since Scott Frost arrived.

Exhibit C. Probabilities. The statistical probability of Nebraska losing yet another close game with Iowa somehow managing to squeak out another win is vanishingly small. Nebraska is playing like a 9-2 team, and Iowa is playing like a 6-5 team.

Exhibit D. Fading. Iowa's record has been constructed on a foundation of excellent defense and special teams. However, with these two legs of the stool bearing all of the weight, stress lines are forming. Nebraska is going to field arguably the most athletically talented team Iowa has played this year. Iowa's defense is banged up and worn down. We're seeing poor tackling. Too many long 3rd downs converted. Blown coverages. Bad missed tackles. No pressure on the quarterback, even while blitzing. Even Iowa's special teams are starting to buckle. These growing concerns have been covered up by the relatively low quality of Iowa's competition, which has also been making big mistakes (like dropping easy picks and first down passes). If Nebraska can play a clean game, those flaws will be magnified. On offense, Nebraska solved Iowa's inside zone last year, and the outside zone isn’t worth a damn. Iowa will need to do something other than IZ/OZ to move the ball or it'll be a long afternoon.

Exhibit E. I don't see what Iowa is playing for. A B1G Championship game? Minnesota isn't going to beat Wisconsin (although SPAM somehow has the Gophers a slight favorite), and while I'd rather win the West than not, of course, Iowa has no chance against Ohio State. Not this year. So this is a game for the Citris Bowl or the Outback Bowl. Do you care? Do they? I know they're athletes and they want to win but they're also human.

Exhibit F. Salvation. This is Nebraska's last game. On Saturday, they turn in the pads and clean out their lockers. Iowa has had their number now for six straight games. This is a win their fanbase badly wants and badly needs, probably more so than any other this year, outside of maybe Oklahoma. This has been a god-awful season of frustration and futility for Nebraska. The possibility of ending this season with a win over a much-hated Iowa team (which would also be Nebraska's first win over a ranked Iowa team in program history), to have an entire offseason to dish back the last 6 years of bullshit you guys have been shoveling at them, to go into the offseason with a win (Nebraska has won its last game of the year just 3 times since joining the Big 10), that would do much to salve the wounds of Cornhusker nation. They have played Iowa very tough since Frost got there, the same way Northwestern does. He knows that this game is a priority. Iowa is going to get the best shot Nebraska has fired in the Scott Frost era because, if it doesn't land, it might be the last shot they take at Iowa during the Scott Frost era.

The English major in me cannot help but find narrative. I don't see Iowa's story emerging, but I see Nebraska's. The good team that just can't win goes up against the bad team that just can't lose, and digs down deep to deliver a haymaker that salvages a cathartic measure of pride from what has otherwise been an infuriating season of sports.

Nebraska 31, Iowa 20.

Division Championship Odds

Big 10 West

Team Champ. Odds
Wisconsin 45.98%
Weird Multiway Tie 29.25%
Iowa 24.79%

You know the math. Iowa has to win and Wisconsin has to lose.

Big 10 East

Team Champ. Odds
Ohio State 60.49%
Michigan 39.52%

For just the second time that I can recall since the B1G went to divisions, The Game is a play-in for the Big 10 Championship game. I don't see Michigan standing a chance, but assuming they hold serve, the Rose Bowl should be the worse place they end up. That's not a bad consolation prize.


Last week, SPAM projected:
  • Michigan over Maryland (by 10.9) (HIT)
  • Wisconsin over Nebraska (by 6.1) (HIT)
  • PSU over Rutgers (by 7.5) (HIT)
  • Ohio State over MSU (by 10.5) (HIT)
  • Iowa over Illinois (by 8.4) (HIT)
  • Minnesota over Indiana (by 7.9) (HIT)
SPAM was flawless for the second week in a row. Love it!

This week's projections:

  • PSU over MSU by 0.3
  • Rutgers over MD by 4.6
  • Purdue over IN by 10.2
  • IL over NW by 4.5
  • MN over Wisconsin by 0.2 (you read that correctly)
  • Nebraska over IA by 0.2
  • Ohio State over MI by 3.3

Unless otherwise expressly indicated by BHGP editors, this FanPost is strictly the viewpoint of the author and is not endorsed by BHGP in any way.