When Nebraska starts a season 4-0, it’s a safe bet the Huskers will make it to 5-0, and history shows NU makes it even deeper with an unblemished record after finishing the first month undefeated.
We analyzed every season since Bob Devaney took over the program in 1962. The Huskers have won each of their first four games 26 times during that 54-season span (this season marks the 27th). In those 26 seasons, NU also won its fifth game 23 times — 88.5 percent — and all three losses came against ranked teams. That means the Huskers are rarely ever upset in game No. 5 after a 4-0 start, which bodes well for this weekend with NU facing unranked Illinois.
We broke down those 26 seasons even further, dividing them into three categories: the Devaney era, the Tom Osborne era and the post-Osborne era.
Devaney had five 4-0 starts during his time in Lincoln, 45.5 percent of his seasons. Osborne did it 12 times (48 percent). The highest percentage of 4-0 starts has actually come since Osborne retired, with it happening in 9 of the 18.
But most of those came under Frank Solich. He started 4-0 five times, 83.3 percent of his seasons, and it’s been rarer since he was fired. There were four 4-0 starts from 2004-15, only 33 percent.
But, regardless of the coach, a 4-0 start typically signals more good things to come.
The Huskers have won 11 conference championships and four national championships in seasons they started 4-0. (NU started 3-0-1 in the 1970 national title season with a tie against No. 3 USC in the second game). The Huskers also have an average final ranking of 9.3 in 4-0 seasons and have only finished those years unranked once (2014) since the AP Poll expanded past 10 teams in 1967.
Nebraska almost always gets to at least nine wins after starting 4-0. Only once, in 2005, did the Huskers finish such a season with eight. The most frequent win total is 10, which has happened in 9 of the 26 seasons, and eight times the Huskers finished with 11 wins or more.
So when does history suggest that first loss might come?
It typically happens against a ranked team. Of those 26 4-0 seasons, 17 times (77.3 percent) a team in the Top 25 handed NU its first loss. In regards to the 2016 season, No. 8 Wisconsin (Oct. 29) and No. 2 Ohio State (Nov. 5) are the only teams currently ranked on Nebraska’s remaining schedule.
The Huskers also tend to prolong their streak a few more weeks after winning the first four. In 15 of the 26 seasons, NU reached 8-0 or better. Half the time, they make it to 9-0. The Huskers would have to get past both the Badgers and Buckeyes to go 9-0 this year.
And for Mike Riley, this start is even more special. Only once at Oregon State (2012) did his team start a season 4-0. Even the San Diego Chargers never started 4-0 while Riley was the head coach there.
He’s also done something at Nebraska that hasn’t happened often. This year’s team is only the third since 1967 to win its first four games after opening the season unranked. Solich did it in 2003 and Bill Callahan in 2005. Both of those teams were in the Top 25 by year’s end.
Riley and the 2016 Huskers will hope for an even better season than those 2003 and 2005 squads, though, and the numbers suggest they should earn several more wins in the coming weeks.
Illinois at #15 Nebraska
When: 2:30 p.m Saturday (Pregame begins at 9:30 a.m.)
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM