Where Rhule ranks among year-one P5 coaches at the midpoint of 2023
Nebraska, idle this week, has reached the midpoint of its season. Seems like a good time for a midterm report on year-one coaches in a power conference.
Redshirt freshman running back Emmett Johnson wasn’t on Nebraska’s two deep to start the season, but he’s the Huskers’ second back now after a pair of season-ending injuries in the backfield. Johnson took his first carries of the game at Illinois last week to start the fourth quarter. Nebraska was leading 20-7 and threatening to put the game away with a drive starting at the Illini 25.
The Huskers handed to Johnson for 7 yards, then 4, then 0 and then Johnson fumbled, Nebraska’s first turnover of the game.
“You know how bad Emmett Johnson felt after he fumbled that ball and he came over to me, like looking at me,” Matt Rhule said after the game. “I was like, ‘Nobody cares, just keep playing.’”
This was a lie, of course. The coaching staff does care about ball security, Rhule admitted a second later. But the thing that makes the Nebraska football job great, but also a challenge, is that everybody cares when a redshirt freshman running back, in a bigger role than he’d thought he’d have three weeks ago, fumbles in the red zone during a two-score game.
Everybody cares. Even after they know the defense forced a three-and-out on the following drive, they still care.
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The more Rhule talks this season the more I become convinced these are the swirling waters he’s most trying to navigate in his first season. It’s why Nebraska has still felt like big-time football of late despite the lack of big-time results. With every opportunity to lose interest over the past decade or so, Nebraska fans continue to treat Nebraska football like NEBRASKA FOOTBALL.
That’s amazing. It’s also tricky when you’re trying to engineer a turnaround.
How’s Rhule doing so far? To try to put that into context, let’s turn to the SP+ ratings from Bill Connelly of ESPN and look at all of the first-year Power 5 coaches together. At the end of the day, a team’s record is its record and that’s all that matters. We’re not at the end of the day, however. It’s only around noon in this season, and SP+ offers a couple of advantages. It’s opponent-adjusted and meant to be predictive. That means for a team with a rating of 7.0, SP+ is saying that team is a touchdown better than the average team in college football. Not only does those ratings update every week, we have access to what they were in the postseason.
So, which first-year coaches have made the biggest gains so far and where does Rhule rank? Consider this something of a midterm report with the tiered list in order of preseason-to-now change in SP+ rating.
Key: Coach, School (Record) | Preseason SP+ Rating (Rank) to Current SP+ Rating (Rank), Difference
Deion Sanders, Colorado (4-2) | -9.0 (88) to -2.8 (80), 6.2
Every possible point of view on Sanders and the Colorado gambit has probably been explored at this point, but the SP+ ratings offer some useful context. The Buffs were always going to be impossible to power rank in the offseason because they chose to effectively start from scratch, but a model needs something to go on so it couldn’t wipe the slate completely clean. Colorado is clearly better than last year, and its change in SP+ rating is the biggest among P5 schools with a first-year coach. But that rating only has the Buffs 80th, which feels about right. This Colorado team’s true level is probably close to the team that needed last-second wins against Colorado State and Arizona State. CU has been outscored on the season by seven points,1 but sits at 4-2, which gives it a shot to go bowling. The Buffs should beat Stanford this week, but then they’ll likely be underdogs the rest of the way against UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona, Washington State and Utah. There will be some who snicker if, after all the attention this program has received, Colorado ends up 5-7, but that would represent big progress over 2022.
Jeff Brohm, Louisville (6-0) | 9.5 (40) to 14.3 (20), 4.8
Brohm can turn them around quickly, can’t he? He went 6-6 in the regular season his first year at Purdue, but that was double the number of wins any Boilermaker team managed in the previous four seasons. The Louisville native and alum stepped into a good situation, and brought a quarterback (Jack Plummer) he was familiar with to ease the transition. The Cardinals jumped to No. 14 this week following the win over Notre Dame, and should at least get to nine wins with games remaining against Pittsburgh, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Just how high things go in year one, however, will likely be determined by what happens against Duke, Miami and Kentucky over the back half. This hire made perfect sense when it happened, and so far it’s working perfectly. As Nebraska fans know well, that’s not a given.
Troy Taylor, Stanford (1-4) | -10.4 (92) to -9.2 (97), 1.2
Maybe put this one to the side for now. By SP+ ratings, Stanford is about a point better than it was projected in the preseason, but due to movement elsewhere its rating has dropped five spots. Taylor wasn’t able to beat his former school, FCS power Sacramento State, and the Cardinal was hammered by top-10 USC and Oregon, but a 21-20 loss to Arizona offered some proof of concept if nothing else. This week’s trip to Colorado offers a good opportunity to have “a moment” in year one. Stanford is coming off an idle week, while the banged-up Buffs are playing their seventh straight game.
Scott Satterfield, Cincinnati (2-3) | 4.9 (53) to 4.5 (46), -0.4
Things appear as expected for Satterfield so far, but it could still go either way for Cincinnati, which seems committed to playing only games that could go either way. The Bearcats only beat Pittsburgh by six (bad), and only lost by 14 to Oklahoma (good). They also dropped an eight-point game to fellow Big 12 newcomer BYU. Based on this week’s AP rankings, Cincinnati only has one ranked team, No. 23 Kansas, left on the schedule as the Bearcats get to avoid Texas. Even when we get to the end of the year, it’ll be hard to assess Cincinnati given that the Big 12 is basically a new league without the Sooners and Longhorns and the addition of four Pac-12 schools.
Context Is Everything
Matt Rhule, Nebraska (3-3) | 3.7 (59) to 1.4 (63), -2.3
Based only on the unit of measure I have chosen to highlight, Nebraska is two points worse than the SP+ soup imagined in the preseason. The Huskers are 3-3, which is what they’ve been after six games the past two seasons. If someone believes Nebraska has shown no measurable progress so far under Rhule, it’s not hard to find a number that supports that idea. I don’t believe that, and I probably put more trust in numbers than the average person. If you’re looking for a number that points to progress, points per play might be the one. Through six games, the Huskers’ points per play differential (offense minus defense) is -.002. A negative number is not good, of course. It means every play Nebraska runs is worth slightly less than every play its opponents run. But, the Huskers’ current number, -.002, is at least 84% better than the differential of four of the previous five full seasons.2 Maybe that will change dramatically over the remaining six conference games, and I could see it going either way. Right now, I think the differential is an honest reflection of where the Huskers are at after six games—average. Is that obvious progress? Not the kind that everyone can see like at Louisville or Colorado right now. Nor is it a clear reason for concern. It might come down to feel at this very moment, which was the very thing I was trying to reduce by citing the change in a fairly comprehensive, opponent-adjusted rating. Sometimes you don’t find exactly what you think you’ll find.
Luke Fickell, Wisconsin (4-1) | 16.1 (19) to 13.2 (23), -2.9
The Badgers aren’t exactly off and running after five games, but they have an enviable lead on the division as the only undefeated team in the woebegone West.3 Nothing Wisconsin has shown under Fickell has been all that concerning or exciting. A 24-13 win over Rutgers? Fine. A 31-22 loss at Washington State? Fair enough, the Cougs are pretty good this season. If this all so far feels like stuff Paul Chryst could’ve done, I don’t disagree. But Fickell’s doing it while engineering a pretty big change on offense. The Badgers’ culture didn’t need fixed, it need to be maintained, which is its own sort of challenge. Wisconsin only has one currently ranked team, No. 3 Ohio State in Madison, left on the schedule, so it’s possible this in-transition team has a very Wisconsin-like season of 9-3 or better with a trip to Indianapolis in December.
Ryan Walters, Purdue (2-4) | 4.0 (58) to -1.1 (73), -5.1
After pasting Illinois, there was a week where it was reasonable to think Purdue had turned a corner after just five games under Walters. Then the Boilermakers lost 20-14 at Iowa to a team that completed 6-of-21 passes. The last time the Hawkeyes completed just six passes, two weeks ago (on 16 attempts), it lost 31-0 to Penn State. Purdue ain’t Penn State. There’s not a lot to go on right now with Walters’ first season. None of the losses (Fresno State, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Iowa) raise any big red flags, but the wins (Virginia Tech, Illinois) aren’t wowing anyone either. Purdue has the misfortune of facing Ohio State and Michigan over the final six games, so this seems headed for an offseason of “well, what did we learn?” There might not be a clear answer.
Hugh Freeze, Auburn (3-2) | 12.8 (26) to 7.6 (35), -5.2
We know Freeze will recruit, and, because this is Auburn, that will mean top-10 or (on the low end) top-15 classes every year. He doesn’t have that level of talent right now as the Tigers are probably as low on the talent scale right now as they’ve been in some time, and it’s still not all that low. Freeze’s first team has gotten 5.2 points worse through six games, but it still rates as the 35th-best team in the country per SP+. If Auburn had pulled off its legitimate upset bid of Georgia two weeks ago, we’d be having a different conversation, but the current conversation is good enough. The Tigers have a chance to have a positive season, they’re ranked 15th in the national recruiting rankings and everything seems on track.
Kenny Dillingham, Arizona State (1-5) | -1.0 (69) to -6.7 (89), -5.7
Dillingham was perhaps dealt the worst hand of anyone on this list, and he might have one of the more advantageous positions for the trouble. Arizona State self imposed a bowl ban before the season to try to appease the NCAA posse chasing down numerous recruiting violations from the Herm Edwards era. That told everyone off the top that it wasn’t about this season, but the future, in Tempe. On top of that, the Sun Devils have had an absurd number of injuries. It’s not fun if you’re an Arizona State fan—and it will get worse with five ranked teams still on the schedule—but it will allow Dillingham to pursue whatever progress he can from this season in peace, totally free of expectations or real concern. Next season will be treated as his real year one.
Nebraska has been outscored by 12 through six games.
Nebraska’s PPP differential in 2021 was .035, the year in which the Huskers were the “best nine-loss team in the country.” That season will never make sense. In hindsight, it was the actual end of the Scott Frost era. Even when Nebraska was “winning” it found ways to lose games. It wasn’t a sign that the Huskers were this close, which is definitely how I took it and wrote about it at the time, but proof that it was never going to get there. Again, in hindsight.
I think that’s my official title for this division, in its last year, from here on out in 2023.