After a challenging season both on and off the field, Nebraska ended its 2020 campaign with a 28-21 win over Rutgers to finish with a 3-5 record. While Nebraska certainly could have gotten into a bowl game even with its record (oh hai 3-7 mississippi state), the team voted to end the season and decline any bowl invitation. Head coach Scott Frost, after the Rutgers win, sounded like a man ready to let the 2020 season go.
Nebraska also completed its early signing period with a top-25 recruiting class, headlined by four-star tight end Thomas Fidone from Iowa (and keeping Fidone from the Hawkeyes, avoiding another Noah Fant situation). So now that an exhausting, maddening, at times cringe-inducing season is over, let’s step back and take a look where Nebraska football is right now.
A brave decision to end the season
After Nebraska’s … uneven win over Rutgers, Frost talked about how much of a toll the 2020 season had taken on both the team and the coaches, and that it would ultimately up to the players to decide if they wanted to play in a bowl.
The players decided they did not, and that ended Nebraska’s 2020 season.
Frost, of course, didn’t have to give the players that choice. And he opened himself up to the possibility of ridicule by doing so. After all, it was Frost who was a vocal as anyone before the season started wanting to play football whenever, wherever – even in Uzbekistan, if need be.
After a disappointing 3-5 season, Nebraska turning down a bowl could easily have been made to look life Frost tucking tail and shying away from further embarrassment. Frost knew that, but let his team make the decision anyway.
Recruiting still on track
It’s probably not a surprise that there is at least some buzz about Frost being on the hot seat after going 12-20 in his first three-ish years in charge. In most circumstances, there would be some truth to that.
But not here. Athletic director Bill Moos has made a long-term commitment to Frost. And although Illinois and Minnesota did shake the faith of many in the fanbase, ultimately there’s little question Frost will be in Lincoln for the long-term.
If you really want a canary in the coal mine about Frost’s tenure in Lincoln, watch Nebraska’s recruiting. Last year, a smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s recruiting ranking nationally was far out-pacing its success on the field. That over-performance was Frost’s ability to connect with recruits and get them to believe that the on-field success will be coming.
Well, the Frost Effect is still working. After the first National Signing Day, Nebraska ended up no. 25 nationally in recruiting, third in the B1G West. While that’s below both Wisconsin and Iowa this year, a top-25 class is still more than good enough for Nebraska to compete.
When Frost arrived in Lincoln, we all expected Nebraska’s offense to be fast and explosive, and its defense to struggle and be at best a complimentary piece to the offensive engine.
As we finish year three, that’s … not quite how things have worked out. Nebraska’s offense has been a mess, and there’s all kinds of different reasons as to why that is.
But Nebraska’s defense has been quietly improving. Nebraska ended 2020 no. 46 nationally in team defense, no. 66 nationally in scoring defense, and no. 52 nationally in total defense.
Sure, those numbers aren’t anything to write home about. But they show a defense that’s above-average nationally, which in Nebraska’s proof-of-concept should be more than good enough. If the offense can catch up – and that’s still very much an open question – Nebraska’s defense looks ready to do its part.
Special teams disaster
There’s lots of things that Nebraska needs to fix. But top of the list needs to be special teams, writ large. Nebraska did make a massive improvement in placekicking, going from having no functional kicker to an all-conference player in Connor Culp.
But Nebraska still cannot cover a kick return. Nebraska allowed two fake punts for first downs – in eight games – where the punter was essentially unguarded and gifted a long run. Letting that happen once is bad enough. But when it happens a second time under almost identical circumstances, it’s evidence of a systemic breakdown.
Nebraska tried to have special teams be handled by a special teams consultant this year, rather than having a coach specifically tasked with handling that role, which at least reflects an attempt to shake the system up. It hasn’t worked, clearly, but there’s little question that Nebraska needs drastic action to fix a gaping hole.
Quarterback still a question
Boy, how much fun was it to see Adrian Martinez go off against Rutgers, going 24-28 for 255 yards in the air and 157 yards on 23 carries and scoring three total touchdowns? That’s the guy we’ve been waiting for to lead Nebraska’s offense, right?
Well, that same guy – in the same game – lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions. More disturbingly, the turnovers were repeat performances of mistakes we’ve seen in the past, mistakes which have killed Nebraska in the last three years.
If there’s one weakness in Frost’s offensive concept, it’s that it needs supremely talented quarterback play. Frost’s quarterback needs to be a threat on the ground, have the ability to deliver the ball to dangerous playmakers, and stretch the field to keep defenses honest and put them in conflict. He’s got to do all that while protecting the ball and making consistent smart decisions.
Whether it’s injury or understanding, Martinez has yet to demonstrate his ability to check all those boxes – and in his defense, that’s a lot of boxes to check. Luke McCaffrey, while an exciting and dynamic athlete, has not demonstrated his ability to throw or protect the ball sufficiently for Nebraska to rely on him as a starting quarterback option.
So Nebraska comes into 2021 with questions at quarterback. It is entirely possible that, with a full offseason, that Martinez or McCaffrey could grow into the position. It’s possible that freshman Logan Smothers, after watching this season from the sideline, will be able to challenge for the position.
But we don’t know – and more importantly, Frost doesn’t know – who is going to be that guy in 2021.