Nebraska ended the 2021 season at 3-9, and head coach Scott Frost is 15-27 in his first four seasons. So Nebraska fans could be rightly surprised when ESPN’s Football Power Index tabbed Nebraska as most likely to win the B1G West. Here’s how the projective metric sees the chances for each team to win the division.
I know, I know, another “Nebraska winning the offseason” column. And Nebraska fans certainly are wise to guard their hearts given Frost’s 5-20 (!) record in one-score games.
But hear me out. The FPI really does give some objective reasons why you should at least have some cautious optimism for 2022.
First of all, in the preseason the FPI is based largely on previous season data, including returning starters, coaching tenure, and past performance. Likely starting quarterback Casey Thompson’s experience at Texas helps Nebraska’s performance in the metric.
Second, and probably more importantly, Nebraska’s schedule is far different this year than last. In 2021, even at 3-9, the FPI had Nebraska ranked at no. 29 nationally due to how difficult its schedule was. Last year, the FPI ranked Nebraska’s schedule as the eleventh-hardest in the country, and most difficult in the B1G West.
This year, Nebraska’s schedule is no. 50 nationally. Only Illinois (no. 51), Minnesota (no. 52), and Purdue (no. 62) have easier schedules than Nebraska. Iowa (no. 16), Wisconsin (no. 20), and Northwestern (no. 27) have far more difficult schedules this year.
Of course, the FPI is just a predictive metric based on past performances. It’s no guarantee that this will be the year that Nebraska finally gets back to a bowl game and likely saves Frost’s job. And given what they’ve seen, Nebraska fans could be forgiven for concluding that the team is just plain cursed.
Nebraska doesn’t make it any easier by insisting on a week zero game in Ireland against Northwestern, a team that is almost grown in a lab to cause Frost problems. A loss to the Purples could easily wreck the team’s confidence and start a “here we go again” spiral for the 2022 season.
But if Nebraska is able to beat the Purples in Dublin (and get its first winning record since 2019), then at least the table is set for NU to finally, finally, turn that mythical corner.
One of the strangest spring practices drew to a close with the annual Spring Game on Saturday. Due to injury concerns, the format was changed to offense v. defense with a modified scoring system. Quite honestly, I hope they keep this format – being able to see a full first-team offense against a first-team defense seemed quite illustrative.
Here’s the standard caveats. This is a practice, not a game. In the first half, the teams were basically playing touch football, so even less about the running game could be taken than otherwise even from an event like this. Take it for what it’s worth.
Still, at least we have something to keep our Husker hearts warm until August. So in reviewing the Spring Game …
Casey’s Crew. Transfer portal phenom Casey Thompson didn’t get a lot of time to shine on Saturday, but he made the most of it. On the first play from scrimmage, Thompson threw wide to Nate Boerkircher who was double-covered. As God as my witness, when the ball left his hand I thought it was going to be a pick-six, that’s how conditioned I’ve gotten over the last few years watching Nebraska.
But it wasn’t. Thompson fit the ball into a snug window and completed the pass for an 11-yard gain.
Yes, one swallow does not a summer make. And Thompson basically spent the rest of the game on the sideline, signaling as clearly as possible that he’s the guy this fall. But at least from the small sample size we got on Saturday, Thompson looked like the real deal.
Tailback Talent. Most of the first half was a punt-fest, with neither offense able to generate much momentum. But Anthony Grant took a stretch play to the right, cut it back left, and outran the defense for a 60-yard touchdown. Grant’s explosive first step and lateral quickness were on full display.
Jacquez Yant looked every bit like 2018 Devine Ozigbo, a big back who looks to have developed speed and shiftiness. The touch-football rules of the first half definitely hindered Yant’s ability to shine on Saturday, as I lost count of how many gallops to the end zone he had to cut short because he was touched down coming through the hole – plays where he would have been able to lower his shoulder and be able to power through in a real game.
A number of other backs – Markese Stepp, Trevin Luben, Connor Jewett, amongst others – got carries as well and looked impressive, especially in the second half where defenders had to bring a ball carrier to the ground.
The Sea(ish) of Red. Nebraska hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016. Nebraska was 3-9 last year and hasn’t won a football game since October 02, 2021. And still – still – 54,357 people showed up at Memorial Stadium to watch a practice.
Much digital ink has been spilled (including at this very site) fretting about how continued failure in football will eventually wear a fanbase out. I still think that’s true. But once springtime arrives in Nebraska, hope still pops its green shoots out of the ground.
Tackle Trouble. We talked earlier about the first half being a punt-fest. That was in no small part because Nebraska’s offensive tackles were routinely being eaten alive by the outside pass rush of the defense. Garrett Nelson, in particular, looked like a man amongst boys with the way he was able to terrorize the green-shirted quarterbacks.
And yes, that could have been a “Good” about the game. But coming into the Spring Game, Nebraska’s offensive line was a huge question mark. Nothing about this practice – and, again, it’s just one practice – gives any reason to doubt that conclusion.
Oh God Not Special Teams Again. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A 14-yard punt. A missed 40-yard field goal. An extra point shanked so badly it almost missed the net.
A smart and particularly handsome analyst observed that with even a league average special teams unit, Nebraska would likely have been bowl-bound in each of Scott Frost’s non-pandemic-shortened seasons. Nebraska hired a special teams coach whose only job is to make the unit better. Specialists at punter and kicker were transfer portaled in to improve the talent.
And still. And still. Yes, it’s just one practice. But Judas Priest, some of those things just should never happen, practice or not.
AND THE GREAT UNCERTAINTY
I have been uncomfortably disconnected from Nebraska football this offseason. Yes, some of that is just life interfering, but some of it really is just feeling the effects of the soul-destroying way Nebraska’s 2021 campaign unfolded.
Coming back to Memorial Stadium on Saturday – which, I can confidently say, is still my favorite place on earth – was salve to some of those old wounds. I may or may not have teared up as the band played “There Is No Place Like Nebraska” – I had sunglasses on, you can’t tell.
But then the offensive struggles of the first half made me flash back to the reflexive pessimism that had developed as a coping mechanism. The 14-yard punt and the shanked extra point gave rise to bitter black humor that has become an emotional defense strategy.
And to top it all off, it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that Frost’s tenure in Lincoln rides on this year being successful – and if it is not, then the wandering in the desert looks to continue even longer.
My wife, who came with me even being an Iowa fan, observed how much more pleasant the Spring Game crowd was because it lacked the nervous tension of a game day environment. She was right, and it really got me thinking.
It’s not nervous tension she feels, I think. It’s just fear. That’s where Nebraska’s fanbase is in 2022. It’s where it will be in September when North Dakota comes to town. And heaven help us if Nebraska drops the week zero game against Northwestern in Ireland.
It’s a strange place to be. But at least for one glorious spring afternoon, it was good to be home.