Rhule vs Fickell I: The Battle On Paper

After almost 11 weeks, Nebraska finally announced it had its next guy – Matt Rhule. Many in the national media considered it a good hire, but it also polarized the fan base, many of whom wanted the biggest splash possible in Urban Meyer. But news of the Husker’s hire was overshadowed just 24 hours later when rumors of Wisconsin hiring Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell. A few hours later that hire was confirmed. Every season these coaches will be compared to each other. Both coaches will be expected to compete for Big Ten titles and trips to the expanded playoffs. Let’s look at how these two coaches compare on paper before their first bout on the field in November.

At the most basic level, the records favor Luke Fickell over Matt Rhule. Fickell inherited a 4-8 program when he arrived at Cincinnati in 2017. But the Bearcats were a program that had won 9+ games seven of the ten years prior and was, in general, a program in pretty good shape. The Temple Owls was a program that had won 9+ games only four times in the program’s history. Due to horrific off-the-field incidents at Baylor, the Bears were in a state of disarray when Rhule showed up. In three stops, both coaches have left programs in significantly better positions than when they found them.

In both of his stops, Rhule’s team hit rock bottom before strong recoveries. Excluding his first seasons at Temple and Baylor, his winning percentage is 65.7%, good for 40th in the country since 2013. Fickell won 82.8% after year 1 which is 8th in the nation. One of the criteria Athletic Director Trev Alberts said that they looked at was the coach’s record in one-score games after Scott Frost made history in his ability to lose close games. Looking again at post-year 1, Fickell beats Matt Rhule in this category winning 14 of 20 one-score games. Matt Rhule was 12-11 record in one-score games after year one.

Of course, looking at the overall record doesn’t tell the entire story of a coach. All opponents are created differently. Borrowing some ideas for college basketball, I like to group opponents by their end-of-season SP+ rankings to compare the quality of wins. Luke Fickell dominated opponents that finished outside of the top 25 in SP+. Matt Rhule struggled at Temple but improved at Baylor against this segment of teams.

Record breakdown of Matt Rhule vs Luke Fickell based on opponent end of season ranking in SP+

One of the biggest knocks on Rhule has been his record against ranked teams winning only two such games. Looking at final standings instead, Rhule is 2-11 against teams in the top 25 of SP+ (2-8 at Baylor). Despite still struggling against top opponents, Rhule’s teams show good improvement after the ‘Year 0’ teardown, especially at Baylor. Chris Peterson at Washington, Josh Heupel at UCF, and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan had the most similar records against each tier of opponent as Rhule at Baylor.

Another metric Nebraska considered when making the hire was the explosive run rate. At Temple, Rhule ran the ball 49.1% of the time and averaged 18.1 rushes before an explosive rush (using the gameonpaper.com definition of an explosive run where EPA > 1.8). After arriving in Waco, Rhule ran the ball less often, 45.8% of the time, but the Bears were more explosive than the Owls averaging 13.1 rushes between an explosive run. Under Scott Frost, the Huskers averaged 12.1 plays in between explosive runs. Luke Fickell split the difference between the former and current Nebraska head coaches averaging 12.7 runs before an explosive play.

Passing vs rushing explosive play rate since 2014 featuring Matt Rhule and Luke Fickell's teams vs the Nebraska Cornhuskers since 2014
Passing vs rushing explosive play rate since 2014

Every Nebraska fan reading this would agree that Nebraska is a bad spot. The Huskers gave an eight-year contract to a coach who’s gone to two bad spots and that coach has succeeded in both. Nebraska has some of the best resources, facilities, and fan commitment of any school in the country. However, I don’t expect a first year turn around like what happened at USC or Washington this past season. I think Rhule’s career arc will look like that of Jim Harbaugh’s at Michigan. The Wolverines seemed close to parting with Harbaugh after his 6th season, but their patience was rewarded with trips to the playoff in years 7 and 8. If the Nebraska fan base and administration can show similar patience, I think the Huskers could have a similar payout by the end of the initial contract.

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