Last week, the college football season unofficially started with B1G Media Days in Chicago. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez was one of Nebraska’s three player representatives, and got a lot of attention from the local and national media.
Martinez is mature, almost preternaturally so, in his interactions with the media, and it was remarkable to see him hold court. But one thing he said stuck with me as having the potential to be the most significant insight about Nebraska in 2019, in response to a question about NU’s rematch with Colorado (as reported by Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity).
“First things first, we definitely have to focus on South Alabama. They’re going to be a tough team and that’s going to be a big one for us.”
Now, on the one hand, the “one game at a time” mantra is a classic example of Crash Davis’ advice to learn your clichés as an athlete. But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. Over the last decade, one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges has been avoiding the head-scratching poor performances against sub-par opposition. Take a look (if you dare) at the times Nebraska has stubbed its collective toe in unexpected ways:
|Sept. 15, 2018||Troy||L 19-24|
|Sept. 17, 2017||Northern Illinois||L 17-21|
|Oct. 03, 2015||at Illinois||L 13-14|
|Sept. 06, 2014||McNeese State||W 31-24|
|Nov. 22, 2014||Minnesota||L 24-28|
|Oct. 26, 2013||at Minnesota||L 23-34|
|Nov. 05, 2011||at Northwestern||L 25-28|
|Oct. 24, 2009||Iowa State||L 7-9|
|Sept. 22, 2007||Ball State||W 41-40|
I included Ball State to show that the history of underperforming goes all the way back to the Callahan era, with Nebraska needing a miracle defensive play to avoid an upset to Ball State at home. And for the Pelini era, the McNeese State win is also included because Nebraska absolutely should have lost at home to an FCS team absent a miraculous game-saving touchdown from Ameer Abdullah.
For over a decade now, Nebraska has baked underperformances and losses to inferior teams into its football culture. Head coach Scott Frost couldn’t magically change that with his arrival, as last year’s loss to Troy (!) proves.
This year, expectations for Nebraska are sky-high, especially coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons. While the schedule does set up favorably, to meet those expectations Nebraska will have to break losing streaks against teams like Ohio State (four straight), Wisconsin (six straight), Iowa (four straight), and Northwestern (two straight) to reach those lofty goals.
Just as important, though, to Nebraska finally turning that proverbial corner is to avoid embarrassing itself. Beating a team like Ohio State or Wisconsin loses a lot of juice if Nebraska doesn’t take care of business against a team like South Alabama or Northern Illinois – and NU’s history over the last decade or so suggests NU is vulnerable to such a sub-par performance.
So it’s a very good sign that Martinez is talking about South Alabama instead of taking the bait and looking ahead to Nebraska’s rematch in Boulder. Rebuilding a winning culture (or, dare I say, a winning tradition) includes taking care of business against the minnows as much as it means winning the marquee games.