There are two ways to go about being mediocre in college football. Strictly definitionally, a team can settle in somewhere directly between schools like Stanford and those like Eastern Michigan—finishing around .500 every season. But the more sneaky and much more frustrating sort of mediocre is the one that Nebraska embodies, wherein a team manages to employ all the advantages of being in a power conference in the service of being exactly just good enough to be almost good.
Former Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson fired Frank Solich after a 9-3 season. When Solich's replacement, Bill Callahan, was unable to turn things around, he too got canned and Pederson lost his job. Ever since, many Husker fans have second-guessed Solich's firing, and there's uneasiness that firing Bo Pelini for his teams' pedestrian on-field product would be unproductive and lead to the same shit all over again. Pelini has won at least nine games each of his seven seasons. But he's never won a conference championship, and after a loss on Saturday his team currently sits third in a shitty conference's shitty division. For teams in positions similar to Nebraska's, mediocrity presents nuanced challenges that neither the best nor the worst programs have to deal with.
Measuring Average Teams
To gauge which teams are the most average, we used Ed Feng's The Power Rank, which tracks expected point differentials against an average opponent. It factors in margin of victory, strength of schedule, statistics adjusted by opponent, and home field advantage. We took five- and ten-year averages of scores on the index to see which teams were most mediocre. We then stratified this by whether teams belong to a Big Five conference or not.
Overall, teams that had scores closest to 0 were the most average. Below is a table showing which teams have been the most average in college football the past five and ten seasons. Teams are ordered by how close they fall to the baseline average score.
|10 Year||Score||Range||5 Year||Score||Range|
|Wake Forest||-0.04||21.04||Iowa State||0.04||7.97|
|Baylor||0.60||38.39||San Diego State||-1.07||18.88|
|Northern Illinois||-0.61||24.34||North Carolina State||1.07||15.64|
When measured this way you get a mixture of below-average power conference teams and above-average non-power conference teams. Iowa State and Wake Forest have been pretty shitty in their leagues. While Houston and Fresno State have put together some solid seasons in their conferences.
You also get a mixture of teams that were consistently average and teams that look average by combining really good and really bad seasons. Although Baylor won the Big 12 last season, they look average over a ten-year duration because the Bears had the worst football program in the Big 12 before Art Briles turned things around with players like Robert Griffin and Terrance Williams. Baylor's high range captures this volatility. While Kentucky's low range shows the Wildcats have stayed consistently mediocre.
Average Power Conference Teams
But the big money is really in the power conferences and those schools evaluate themselves relative to other big programs. Kentucky appears on the chart above, but no SEC fan would view the Wildcats as "average." So we examined how Big Five schools compare to each other.
For Big Five schools, the five-year average score was 6.265 and the ten-year average was 6.225. Big Five teams were considered average by how close they scored to those figures.
What those figures show is that on average, teams from the power conferences are about a touchdown better than your average team. If you break this out further, non-Big Five teams have a five-year average of -6.277 and ten-year average of -5.744. Which means power conference schools are not quite two touchdowns better than non-power conference schools on average.
Below is a table of the most average power conference teams.
|10 Year||Score||Range||5 Year||Score||Range|
In the past ten seasons, Nebraska has lost at least four games each year, placing the Huskers among the most average teams in college football. But Nebraska isn't unique in its fall given this list is littered with fallen Midwest powers. Which reflects population shifts that have favored the South and West, making recruiting more difficult for teams in the middle of the country. And SEC schools have paid their coaches more than other schools while also raising more money from athletic donations, which has helped the conference extend its dominance even further.
Trends that have recently favored Southern schools don't appear to be slowing down. While this list is just a snapshot of what's happened in recent seasons, demographics and economics suggest that former-Midwest powerhouses like Nebraska will continue gravitating toward mediocrity.
Top image: Eric Francis / Getty Images Sport