The truth is that you can count the will-imposers, the absolute jackhammers, on one weathered hand. Ohio State and Michigan State certainly. Michigan, most weeks. With Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State, it depends on the mood or the moment.
But for most of the rest of the Big Ten, the gaps are wide enough to drive a gnat through. More often than not, a myriad of fine lines separate the bowlers from the bowl-nots, a tightrope walked in cleats. Take Minnesota. Since 2013, the Golden Gophers have played in 11 contests decided by five points or fewer, winning seven.
“You’re going have to win by a field goal, moreso than anything, because of the parity (in the league),” former Gophers coach coach Jerry Kill told Landof10.com. “You better have a kicking game — and if you don’t, you’re going to be in trouble.”
If defense wins championships, then special teams units win contract extensions. Iowa dropped three of five games decided by five points or fewer in 2014 during a seven-win campaign. Last autumn, they flipped the script, taking took three of four en route to a West division title.
Northwestern won all three tilts decided by five or fewer (10-3), Wisconsin (10-3) took two of three and Nebraska (6-7) dropped a soul-crushing five of six.
In the land of small margins, little things add up. The Huskers return Sam Foltz, the reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year, and placekicker Drew Brown (14-for-21 on field goals), which should portend to lower blood pressures in Lincoln.
The Wildcats retained kicker Jack Mitchell, whose resume includes game-winners against Notre Dame (’14) and Penn State (’15) and punter Hunter Niswander (38.0 yards per punt). The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, have to replace both kicker Marshall Koehn (16-of-20, including a 57-yard game-winner against Pitt) and punter Dillon Kidd (40.2 average).
FootballOutsiders.com tracks a number of cheeky metrics for FBS schools, including rankings for something they call Special Teams Efficiency, or STE. The site describes it as “the per possession scoring value generated by a team’s field goal, punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return units based on the national average frequency of each event.”
We’ll zip past the rest of the nitty-gritty; in layman’s terms, the higher the STE number, the better, while negative STE means pretty much what it says on the box.
And here’s the fun part: Kill’s assertion isn’t just coach-speak. It’s absolutely quantifiable. In the Nebraska era of Big Ten football — that is, to say, 2011 onward — 15 different squads have finished among the top 30 in a given year’s STE rankings. Their average loss count: 4.3.
Now in the same context, only tracking the bottom 30 in special-teams efficiency over the past five seasons, a group of nine Big Ten campaigns fell into that particular picnic basket. Their average loss count: 6.2.
So special teams could basically account for a swing of two losses and change, or the difference between bowling in Florida or Detroit. Or between Detroit and not bowling at all.
“If they have to go 80 yards to score, your percentages are different,” Kill continued. “If you’re on the 50-yard-line all the time, you’re going to score more. That’s a fact.”
And here’s another: The three Big Ten West division squads that recorded top 30 STE ranks since 2014 averaged 5.3 losses. The three that landed in the bottom 30 averaged 7.6 defeats — a difference of nearly two-and-a-half games in a given season.
“The two most successful years we had (in Minneapolis), we had a damn good punter and kicker,” Kill said. “And that’s the difference.”
To wit, his Gophers posted 8-5 marks over back-to-back campaigns in 2013 and ’14, the apex of Kill’s four-plus seasons at the helm. Their STE national rank those years: No. 13 and No. 28, respectively. In 2015, the Gophers slipped to 61st and wound up 6-7. In 2012, they ranked 88th in STE, part of another 6-7 finish.
Fast forward to this summer, in which a punter has to be found to succeed free spirit and self-proclaimed “Holder of the Year” Peter Mortell. No mean feat, although it doesn’t look as if the Ski-U-Mah cadre is necessarily sweating bullets in the meantime:
Haters are gonna say it’s fake. pic.twitter.com/8mwBlODJsQ
— Gopher Specialists (@MinnSpecialists) June 15, 2016
Clearly, the Gophers special-teamers don’t take themselves too seriously, which is fine. Refreshing, even. But in a division this compact, sardines to the last, we’d be 15-karat fools to do the same.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler