Nebraska and the New Kickoff Rule
While it won't be official for at least another week and perhaps not at all, you might be wondering what the new kickoff rule (moving the kickoff five yards closer to the opposing team) might mean for the Huskers. Kicks taken at the goal line or inside the five-yard line might have become kneel-downs. If we use the 2011 season as an example, here's how things might have changed.
The Huskers opened the game with the ball on their own 7-yard line after a poor kickoff return effort. The Huskers went 3-and-out. The only other kickoff by Chattanooga was a failed surprise onsides kick that set up a Husker field goal. Chattanooga returned a ball to the 35, that may have been a touchback in the first quarter but failed to score. Chattanooga fumbled on one return, leaving them to start on their own 3-yard line. That likely wouldn't have happened under the new rule. An interception soon afterward set up an easy Husker score. Nebraska's final kickoff went to the 28-yard line but might have otherwise been a touchback. In this game, you'd probably say the old rule helped more than it hurt, but not by a huge margin.
This is a game that we remember for Abdullah's returns. His opening return was taken at the 13-yard line, so another 5 yards would still mean a return. Fresno State's 33-yard return after the score was tied 7-7 helped set up a touchdown drive. That may well have been a touchback. Abdullah returned a ball to the 29 that may have been a touchback on a drive that yielded no points and turned over on downs at midfield. After the score was tied 14-14, a 28-yard return from the goal line that may have been a touchback began a Fresno State field goal drive. Abdullah returned a ball to the 27 that otherwise could have been a touchback on a drive that ended without points. Trailing by six, Abdullah returned a ball 38 yards from Nebraska's one-yard line. The ensuing drive resulted in an NU touchdown. Fresno State answered with a return to the 23 that may have started at the 20. No points were scored. After the next NU touchdown, FSU began a touchdown drive after their own 22-yard return to the 24 might otherwise set them up at the 20. Abdullah answered with a touchdown return on a kickoff that might have otherwise been a touchback. FSU began a field goal drive from their 27 that might have had to start at their 20. When Nebraska expanded their lead with another touchdown, a bobbled return left FSU to begin at their own 17. Some might call the old rule the difference between winning and losing this game, though the Huskers did win by 13 and FSU may have been helped on some of its scoring drives by returns. Still, pretty clearly the old rule seemed to help.
With Nebraska trailing 14-10, Ameer Abdullah returned a kick 66-yards to set up a Husker touchdown. That return may have been a touchback with the new rule. The ensuing Washington field goal drive may have been set up by a 32-yard Husky return to the 33 that might otherwise have started at the 20. It was a 40-yard field goal by U-Dub. Jamal Turner returned the ball to the 22 that may have gone to the 20 with the new rule. The Huskers took a 27-17 lead and then kicked the ball to the 1-yard line. The Huskies seemed incapable of picking it up and Mathew May fell on it. This set up a one-yard touchdown that gave the Huskers a 17-point lead. The next kick to the one, was returned just 17 yards to the Husky 18. A field goal gave Nebraska a 20-point lead and was followed by a 30-yard return by Washington from the goal line that might otherwise have been a touchback. Once NU made it 44-17, the Huskies managed a 64-yard return from their 2-yard line to set up a touchdown. That return may not have happened under the old rule. If not for the botched return, you might have called this an edge to Washington under the old rule, but all in all the old rule helped the Huskers.
With all of the touchbacks in this game, the new rule would appear to have produced identical results to the old one, save for one extra yard on a Wyoming return late in the game.
The Badgers opened the game with a 22-yard return from their goal line. Otherwise, they may have began at the 20. After the Huskers led 7-0 a holding penalty by the Badgers on a return made them start at their own 9-yard line. Wisconsin still put together a touchdown drive though. A 20-yard return from the 3-yard line after Nebraska took a 14-7 lead might have pushed Wisconsin back 3-yards on their touchdown drive, but they made it look so easy, it hardly would seem to have mattered. Trailing by six, Nebraska returned a ball to the 24 that may have been a kneel-down to the 20. NU opened the second half with a 38-yard return that might only have been a touchback. The quick interception that followed set up a Wisconsin touchdown. A similar Abdullah return late set up NU's squandered scoring chance as time expired. All-in-all the old rule seemed to help Nebraska more than it hurt, but it's hard to see that it really impacted the game.
In the second quarter, Abdullah returned a ball to the 23 that might have been a touchback. OSU started a drive at their 29 that might have otherwise started at the 20. A bad decision on a return by Abdullah and an illegal block to open the third quarter left the Huskers pinned at their own five-yard line when they might have otherwise began at the 20. A three-and-out and a short punt set up the Buckeye's next touchdown drive. Abdullah's next return went to the 30 when it might have began at the 20. When the Huskers had closed to 27-20, OSU returned a ball to the 31 that might otherwise have started at the 20. The Buckeyes might have gotten an extra yard on their return after Nebraska tied the game at 27 and an extra 3 yards when Nebraska took a 34-27 lead. This is the first game where the new rule would have been more attractive than the old one, though in the end it didn't really matter.
A poor return by Minnesota to open the game left them with the ball at the 11-yard line that might otherwise have began at the 20. Coupled with a poor punt, it helped set up Nebraska's opening field goal. Once NU led 10-0, the Golden Gophers began a drive at their 25, that may have been a touchback. Leading 17-0, Minnesota might have started at the 27 instead of the 20 after the kickoff. The Golden Gopher return that came after a field goal made it 20-0 was marred by holding leaving them to begin at their 17 instead of the 20. Minnesota started a drive from their 34 that might have began at the 20 after NU took a 41-7 lead. NU's final drive began at the 25, but might have been a touchback instead. The Golden Gophers' early blunder makes this one look like an advantage for the Huskers under the old rule.
The Spartans began the game at their 17, but could have started at the 20 with the new rule. Abdullah took one to the 28, that could have been a kneel down to the 20 on a drive that stalled to end the first half. Once the Huskers made it 24-3, MSU got a return to the 27 that might have gone to the 20. Just statistics here. No meaningful impact for either team.
Nebraska got to the 21-yard line on a Kenny Bell return that could have been a touchback. A 41-yard return by the Wildcats on their touchdown drive to open the second half might have been a touchback. Bell returned a ball to the 26 that might have been a kneel-down. If you attribute the Northwestern touchdown to that Wildcat return, then the old rule might have cost the Huskers a needed win in the game.
The Nittany Lions began a drive at the 28 that might have been a touchback after NU took a 3-0 lead. Once the Huskers led 10-0, Penn State returned one to the 19 that could have gone to the 20. Kenny Bell got the 23 to open the second half, he might otherwise have kneeled to the 20. Likewise, when the Huskers led 17-0, PSU got to the 18 when they might have gotten to the 20. Just statistics here again. The rule didn't seem to matter.
The Wolverines opened the game with a 32-yard return that could have been a touchback. Nebraska trailed by seven to open the second half when Kenny Bell returned a ball 33 yards before fumbling. That set up a short Michigan touchdown drive. A touchback would have erased that mistake. The Huskers got an extra six yards from Tim Marlowe after that score that might have only been a touchback. When the Huskers closed to 31-17, a holding penalty on a Michigan return started the Wolverines at their 14-yard line. Michigan still put together a touchdown drive. Marlowe's return of the ensuing kick resulted in a lost fumble at the 22. A kneel down in the end zone would have erased that error as well. Nebraska got a 30-yard return from Abdullah trailing 45-17. That might have been a touchback. Clearly, this is a game where the new rule would have benefited the Huskers enormously though it's rather questionable whether it could have saved the day.
The Hawkeyes got a 23-yard return to open the game that might have moved 3 yards back. It appears that that is the totality of the impact of the old rule versus the new one on that game.
Assuming Nebraska still ends up facing this team, Nebraska gave up a 45-yard return from the goal line leading 6-2 that set up a South Carolina touchdown. The Gamecocks got an extra eight yards over a touchback after the Huskers made it 13-9. Similiarly, the Huskers got an extra seven yards to open the third quarter.
Depending on what you believe, the new rule would have helped, would have hurt, or would have been a wash. Did the Huskers need the old rule to beat Fresno State and Washington? No one can know. Likewise, would the new rule have made the difference against Northwestern, South Carolina, or Michigan. Possibly. What's clear is that it will be different. Maybe not different-better or different-worse, but clearly different. Teams will have poorer field position, generally. They also might be spared some painful errors like turnovers or illegal blocks on the return. Having an outstanding kick returner won't be the advantage it once was. The rule could improve your team's depth, if you avoid kickoff related injuries due to touchbacks.
Even if the rule might have prevented the loss to Northwestern, it's not clear that anything else would be much different. Michigan would probably still have beaten the Huskers and thus would have still gotten the edge for a BCS bowl. The Spartans would still have played for the Big Ten championship. The Capital One bowl would probably still have been the postseason destination. Erase a Gamecock touchdown early and the Huskers still may lose.
I wouldn't change my expectations for this team based on the rule. If I thought the Huskers would finish 9-4 at the Outback Bowl next year with the old rule, I'd say the same thing with the new one. But I would see it as a reason to expect more out of Ameer Abdullah at running back, since he'll likely return fewer kicks. Add in his offseason to prepare and we might forget about his kick returns altogether.