Nebraska Football: 2019 Season Projection for the Cornhuskers

DSC07952

Once again, the calendar turns towards September, and another college football season is upon us. As Nebraska fans finally enter into South Alabama Week, it’s time for the annual Double Extra Point season prediction.

As always, we will use a four-part metric to look at the upcoming season, in an attempt to bring a little more objectivity to the analysis. Each game will be broken down into four different categories:

Better Win Expect to win all games
Should Win Expect to win more than half of games
Might Win Expect to win less than half of games
Won’t Win Expect to win no games

Once all the games are categorized, we’ll add up the categories and see where the model suggests Nebraska’s record will sit at the end of the season. Of course, we’ll also include a mostly-pure-guesswork Fearless Forecast of the score as well – although, fear not, the “official” DXP prediction will be from the model.

All statistics are from the season preview by Bill Connelly of SB Nation (now of ESPN, of course).

South Alabama (home, August 31)

Assuming the weather cooperates, Nebraska should have a relatively straightforward home opener. The Jaguars are coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2018, and is breaking in a new quarterback, wide receiver corps, and secondary. Memorial Stadium in year two of the Scott Frost Experience might not be the place to do that.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 55, South Alabama 17

Colorado (away, September 07)

The Colorado athletic department tried very publicly to avoid having Nebraska fans invade Folsom Field. That … didn’t work so well, as it inspired Husker Twitter to create its own hashtag and lit even more of a fire for Husker Fan to make the trip west.

Colorado beat Nebraska last year in Lincoln, and does have Laviska Shinault, probably the best wide receiver Nebraska will face this season. But the Buffaloes did go 5-7 and fire their head coach. Nebraska will be new head man Mel Tucker’s first big challenge, and Colorado won’t be catching NU playing it’s first game ever under Frost.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Colorado 24

Northern Illinois (home, September 14)

If there was a canary in the coalmine about Nebraska’s soon-to-be-disastrous 2017 season, it had to be the Huskies’ 21-17 upset of Nebraska on September 16, 2017. Two pick-six interceptions from Tanner Lee put Nebraska in a fourteen point hole that it did climb out of, only to surrender a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to stun the scarlet and cream faithful and give them a vision of things to come that season.

Northern Illinois is coming in with a new head coach, and coming off an 8-6 season in 2018. But the talent difference, combined with the 2017 experience that some on the roster were present for, should help Nebraska avoid an upset bug twice.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 20

Illinois (away, September 21)

This isn’t exactly a trap game, as it’s so early in the season and Nebraska really should still be feeling like it hasn’t earned anything yet. Plus, Illinois gave Nebraska some degree of fits last year before NU pulled away late. Lovie Smith is probably coaching for his job, and Illinois’ still have B1G caliber athletes, which will be a step up from the week before.

Combine that with a trip to notoriously sleepy Champaign and an inevitable look-ahead to next week (particularly if Nebraska is 3-0), and this game screams ugly, scrappy, survive-and-advance win.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Illinois 23

Ohio State (home, September 28)

Has Nebraska football advanced to the point where there’s no Won’t Win games on the schedule? I think Nebraska football has advanced to the point where there’s no Won’t Win games on the schedule!

After all, Ryan Day has taken up the mantle from Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback in Justin Fields that has all the talent in the world but hasn’t shown it yet on the field. Nebraska will be the biggest test for Day’s new Buckeyes. And if this is 4-0 Nebraska versus 4-0 Ohio State, Memorial Stadium will be crackling with the kind of energy it hasn’t seen since the 2014 Miami game.

Even with Nebraska’s near miss in Columbus last year, calling a win is still a tall order. But the change in how this game is viewed should be evidence enough how things have changed in Lincoln

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 28, Nebraska 24

Northwestern (home, October 05)

If Nebraska has a bogey team in the B1G, it’s the Purples. Nebraska has better talent than Northwestern, yet just about every year the Purples manage to combine their physical play and ruthless efficiency to take advantage of sloppy Nebraska and steal a win. This year, Northwestern will be starting Clemson (!) transfer Hunter Johnson at quarterback, which will give the Purples more talent under center than they’ve had – well, ever, in the Pat Fitzgerald era.

So this game is certainly no gimmie, especially coming off of the Ohio State tilt a week earlier. Still, perhaps more than any besides Ohio State, that Northwestern loss in 2018 stings, and this year’s Nebraska should be sharpened for revenge.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Northwestern 31

Minnesota (away, October 11)

Otherwise known as the B1G Pre-Season Hype Train Bowl, the divisions two national media darlings square off in Minneapolis. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects than Nebraska has less than a 50 percent chance to beat two teams on its schedule, Ohio State and … Minnesota.

That seems to be giving a lot of home field advantage to TCF Bank Stadium, which is … nice, but it’s no Death Valley. If Nebraska’s defensive line is what it appears to be this preseason, NU should be well poised to earn a second straight win over the Gophers.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17

Indiana (home, October 26)

Coming off of a bye, Nebraska gets to catch a breather before facing a Hoosier squad that went 5-7 in 2018. The talent level for Indiana is improving, and tailback Stevie Scott should be a handful for any defense.

But Indiana still looks to be a rebuilding B1G East school trying to find its footing. Coming off a bye, Nebraska should have plenty to take care of the Hoosiers at home.

Preview data from Corn Nation.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Indiana 21

Purdue (away, November 02)

Quick, name the last game that Mike Riley won!

Yep, it was that bonkers last-second 25-24 win in West Lafayette that kept the faintest spark of hope alive, before an overtime loss to Northwestern (of course) the following week snuffed it out. Of course, head coach Jeff Brohm didn’t have phenom Rondale Moore to deploy in 2017, and the Boilermakers rode Moore and Brohm’s innovative offense to wreak havoc.

Unfortunately for Purdue, Moore is one of only three (!) returning starters on offense. Nebraska-Purdue could be one of the most fun games to watch in the coming years, with Brohm’s offense facing off against Frost’s, but until the Boilermakers reload the talent level shouldn’t be quite even.

Data from Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. Yes, the hardcopy magazine.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 41

Wisconsin (home, November 16)

Well, here’s the acid test to see how far Nebraska has advanced in year two of Frost’s reign. Sconnie will bring in the best running back in the country in Jonathan Taylor, who pretty well single-handedly beat Nebraska in 2017 as a freshman. But Wisconsin also brings back questions at quarterback and a bruised ego from a sub-par 2018 campaign.

The Badgers have a six-game winning streak over Nebraska. If Frost really is going to return Nebraska to an era of national relevance and conference championships, that path leads through Wisconsin.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 35

Maryland (away, November 23)

A trip to the east coast, sandwiched against two physically and emotionally challenging games, going to a stadium that will likely have less than 20,000 fans, at the end of November.

Now that’s a trap game.

Maryland’s talent is better than you think, but even a year removed from the unparalleled disaster D.J. Durkin left, new head coach Mike Locksley will have a challenge on his hand rebuilding the Terrapins. And a public spat with a Michigan assistant coach probably isn’t going to help things.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Maryland 27, Nebraska 24

Iowa (home, November 29)

Wisconsin may be the bellweather game for Nebraska’s growth in the B1G West, but it’ll be the last Black Friday game (for two years, at least) that will really tell the tale of Frost’s second season in Lincoln. Iowa fans have been clamoring for this to be a rivalry (even though they’ll never admit it), and Nebraska fans are thiiiiiiiiis close to accepting the role.

Accept it, Husker Fan. Iowa will be bringing in a very Iowa team to Lincoln. The Hawkeyes may well have the best pure pass rusher Nebraska will face in A.J. Epenesa. But they will not have first round NFL draft picks Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson running down the seams. This game should come to the fourth quarter, potentially with the B1G West title on the line.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Iowa 28

Conclusion

Let’s count up our categories and see what the model predicts for Nebraska’s 2019 campaign.

Category Number Forecast Wins
Won’t Win 0 0
Might Win 4 1
Should Win 6 4
Better Win 2 2
  Total projected wins 7

So, the DXP model puts Nebraska at 7-5, which at this stage would probably feel a little disappointing for Nebraska fans. It shouldn’t be, given where the program has been and the promise being shown. And the fact that 7-5 would be seen as disappointing for fans – as well as for players and coaches – is a testament to the importance of expectations, as pointed out by a smart and particularly handsome analyst.

For those who want to feel better about the upcoming season, the Fearless Forecast has Nebraska at 9-3, and that’s with a trap-game loss to Maryland. The best thing about predictions, though, is that we’re about to get some additional data to see just how accurate (or inaccurate) our models are.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: The Double-Edged Sword of Expectations

DSC07807

It has not been easy to be a Nebraska fan in the last couple of decades. After three national titles in four years at the end of the 1990s, Nebraska’s football fortunes have fallen to the point where NU had three losing season in the last four years.

That’s been really hard on a fanbase, particularly when you add that failure on the field to the arrogance of Steve Pedersen, the immaturity of Bo Pelini, and the incompetence of Mike Riley. The football played, as well as the recruiting levels and (particularly) the development of talent has steered the program into a steady decline.

The arrival of native son Scott Frost as head coach pumped life and hope into the fanbase, but it didn’t result in immediate change on the field. Nebraska started last season at 0-6, and ended the season at 4-8.

These ongoing struggles would cast down into the hearts of any fanbase. Is the new landscape of college football really such that Nebraska’s time in the sunlight of national relevance is over? Is it time for Nebraska fans to finally give up the ghost of glories past and accept its new, lesser standing in the pantheon of college football?

Frost doesn’t think so, as he said in an interview with BTN (and quoted by Saturday Tradition):

“You know, I hear people worried about expectations for us,” said Frost. “I’m not too worried about it. I actually think it’s good for our football team. I think expectations have been way too low in Lincoln for way too long. Having expectations was just kind of life around here. I think it helps our guys. We need to be confident. We need to expect a lot out of ourselves.”

Why are expectations for a team like Nebraska so important? How can expectations of a fanbase – which, let’s be clear, has been the source of suffering throughout this new millennium – help a football program be successful?

Take a look to Nebraska’s neighbors to the east to find the answer.

https://twitter.com/TalkHuskers/status/1163821777954443264

Now, let’s be clear. Since the turn of the century, Iowa has been a better football program than Nebraska. Iowa has won more games, won more conference championships, and both gone to and won more bowl games than Nebraska. The Hawkeyes hold a four-game winning streak over their scarlet-and-cream neighbors to the west.

But there’s little question that Iowa and Nebraska simply have different perspectives of their place in the college football world. Iowa fans are comfortable with their place winning eight to nine games in a season, and enjoying the occasional run for glory when the stars align properly.

And sure, after what Nebraska fans have been through, most would move heaven and earth to get back to that level of success. But let’s be honest, that’s not the expectation level Nebraska fans have for their program in the long run. It’s not the expectation level that Frost has.

If you step back, Nebraska really has no business being amongst the giants of college football in the 21st century. Nebraska is a small, rural area with no natural recruiting bed upon which to rest. Without that, how could Nebraska hope to compete on that national stage?

The two things that at least give Nebraska a plausible chance at a higher ceiling are its history and its fanbase. Nebraska’s place as a historical blue-blood of college football acts as a magnifier for its success on the field – if a blue-blood like Nebraska (or Alabama or Notre Dame) begins winning, that program’s history will increase its visibility.

The other element that provides a higher ceiling for Nebraska is its fans. The expectation of a championship-level program is what drove a powerful local son like Pedersen out of the athletic director’s position. The expectation of success is what made the dismissal of a man like Pelini – who, let’s not forget, never won less than nine games – possible.

Nebraska fans have not waivered in that expectation, to have a championship-level football program. Those expectations are energy, the same energy that drove swarms of red-clad fans to take trains west in 1940 to see their mighty men play in the Rose Bowl, and have led Nebraska fans to sell out the last 368 consecutive home games.

That energy has been the source of great pain recently, of course, as the football team has fallen woefully short of expectations. But the energy of those expectations are what drove painful change within the athletic department – change that could have been avoided had those expectations not been present.

Of course, the challenge is to balance long-term expectations of a program with short-term expectations of a season’s outcome. It is possible to hold those lofty expectations for the program as a whole and still hold measured expectations for the coming season.

(This may or may not be foreshadowing next week’s season prediction column.)

But in the main, Frost is right. Expectations for any program – but particularly for a program like Nebraska – are a critical difference between a program that has a championship-level ceiling, and one that does not.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Assessing and Power Ranking the Cornhuskers’ 2019 Alternate Uniform

screen-shot-2019-08-19-at-11.39.37-am

On Tuesday, Nebraska announced its 2019 alternate uniform. We don’t yet know when Nebraska will wear their new duds, but we know what it will be wearing to shake things up in 2019.

https://twitter.com/HuskerFBNation/status/1163467537163718656

As is our standard practice here, we will borrow the “good or stupid” metric from Paul Lukas’ UniWatch to judge Nebraska’s 2019 offering.

HELMET

ecv8rskw4aas9sl

The main design remains untouched, with only the color scheme changed – the N and the stripe are now black instead of red. In all honesty, it’ll be hard to tell the helmet from the 2013 version – and that’s a good thing, given how sharp that kit looked.

Good or stupid? Good, if not necessarily original.

JERSEY

huskersalternateblack2

OK, hear me out, because I feel like this is going to fall into the “unpopular opinion” category pretty quickly.

First of all, the jersey looks sharp. The red on the black pops, and even with all of the patches that Nebraska has to wedge on its jerseys this year due to the 150th anniversary of college football, it still looks very simple.

And the Blackshirt skull-and-crossbones logo on the sleeve does look really cool. I know, I know, it’s supposed to be an “homage” to Nebraska’s Blackshirt tradition.

But, come on. A “blackshirt” is literally a practice jersey that is a different color, and that HAS THE BLACKSHIRT LOGO ON IT. I mean, look at this. See how the Blackshirts stand out from the other players – and how part of those Blackshirt jerseys that signify entry into that honored fraternity have the logo on their sleeves?

Now, everyone, including defensive players who have not earned a Blackshirt, and even (gasp) offensive players will be wearing a Blackshirt, at least for one game. I’m all for paying honor to one of Nebraska’s coolest traditions, but it feels like this is utterly watering down the meaning of the Blackshirt. The skull-and-crossbones doesn’t stand for the Nebraska team as a whole. It stands specifically for the starters on defense, and in general for the defense as a whole.

Look, I get it. This is the ultimate old man yelling at the clouds argument. I’m just saying it’s gonna be weird for me to see a kicker (no disrespect, Barret Pickering) walking onto the field rocking a Blackshirt logo.

Good or stupid? Stupid to honor a tradition by misapplying it. Also, get off my lawn and please help me set the clock on my VCR that won’t stop blinking 12:00.

PANTS AND SOCKS

5d5b1b6805806.image

Yeah, so basically they’re the same gameday white pants, with black socks replacing the red. It’s an incredibly sharp look that helps pull the whole thing together.

Unfortunately, it also is confirmation that the gameday pants this year are going to be of the white yoga pants variety, without stripes. I know it’s supposed to harken back to Scott Frost’s era of greatness, and I’m all for the product on the field partying like it’s 1997.

But I am solidly in team #SaveTheStripes. Nebraska’s uniforms look so much better, so much more balanced, with the stripes as opposed to the solid whites. So ultimately the look is great for what it is, but disappointing that it could be so much more.

Good or stupid? Good, just disappointing.

OVERALL

5d5b1bdf9f70d.image

Alternate uniforms have two goals. One is to look cool to kids who are good at college football, to help convince them to play football for Nebraska. No question these will do the job. The other is to sell merchandise to Husker Fan. Little doubt these things will fly off the racks, including one going into the closet of a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst.

I fully realize and embrace that the universe of people that the whole Blackshirt logo misappropriation thing will bother is one, and he’s writing this piece now. So while it is my judgment, ultimately, that I get to make, at the end of the day I’m going to be rocking this thing more than once this fall. Sometimes it’s hard to realize how quickly you’re going to abandon your principles.

Good or stupid? Good, with a healthy side dish of self-loathing.

NEBRASKA ALTERNATE UNIFORM POWER RANKING

Images courtesy of the Lincoln Journal-Star

  1. 2014

2014

The infamous trash bag uniforms, which had numerals which literally couldn’t be read from the stands. The two-toned helmets were pretty cool, but overall the unis were a disaster.

  1. 2015

2015

Mystifyingly, adidas took its disastrous 2014 concept and made just a slight tweak, putting it on a black background instead of a red one, and made the uniform only marginally less horrific.

  1. 2012

2012

These original throwbacks get far more hate than they deserve, especially how well they combined with Wisconsin’s to make a truly memorable spectacle. (Although, in the interest of full disclosure, Wisconsin had the better unis that night.)

  1. 2016

2016

The only road alternates Nebraska has (yet) worn ended up making good use of the trash-bag silver, working them into an ice concept that ended up very sharp.

  1. 2017

2017

The concept was brilliant, to pay homage to the 1997 team by replicating the mesh uniforms. And while it came out great, it was also hard to tell the unis apart from normal ones on the field during the game. (In full disclosure, this picture is also my avatar on an unsettling number of websites).

  1. 2019

huskersalternateblack2

Even with some of the questions I have, there’s no doubt that adidas’ 2019 version of Nebraska’s alternate uniform is one of the cleanest and sharpest that’s rolled out. 

  1. 2013

2103

Even early in the process, adidas got this one right. The basic black uniforms, the different-but-legible stencil numerals, and the overall simplicity gives this one a place of honor in the Nebraska alternate uniform pantheon. The unique stenciled numerals and (of course) the stripes on the pants give 2013 the nod over 2019.

  1. 2018

2018 main

Anything that involves old-school numerals, a shout-out to the Stadium Clock, and the full In the Deed The Glory inscription is going to be hard to beat. If it wasn’t for the silly helmet, this one would be the one to beat. Also, adidas, why could I not buy an “18” jersey with the cool 8 numeral, instead of getting stuck just buying a “1.” Just take my money already!

  1. 2009

hm

For whatever reason, I didn’t include this in the formal list of alternate uniforms in the last power ranking, maybe because there was a three-year hiatus between these and the 2012 set. But these beauts, with the curly-Q numerals and numbers on the helmets, have yet to be surpassed. Quite honestly, Nebraska could go to these uniforms as their regular ones tomorrow and I’d be quite happy.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Could Fail to Live Up to the Hype in 2019

DSC08127

For the first time in forever (it seems), Nebraska is the toast of the national college football media preseason. No less a luminary than Phil Steele picked Nebraska as his no. 1 most improved team for 2019. Nebraska has been in the conversation as a dark-horse national title contender. Nebraska just missed being in the coaches’ preseason top 25 poll.

That’s a lot of positive vibes for a team that went a combined 8-16 in the last two years and hasn’t been to the postseason since getting clobbered by Tennessee in the 2016 (!) Music City Bowl. Of course, there’s plenty of reason for such optimism, between head coach Scott Frost’s experience turning UCF around and having legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Martinez back at quarterback for his sophomore season.

But Husker Fan having all the feels in August doesn’t guarantee the long-awaited turnaround for Nebraska football is at hand. Even with all the reasons for optimism, there are ways that Nebraska’s 2019 season could fall apart. If it happens, these could be the culprit.

Center

One of the biggest questions about Nebraska’s roster in 2019, and certainly the biggest question on the offensive side of the ball, is who will play center. Cameron Jurgens, a redshirt freshman tight end converted to the position, seemed to have the pole position for the starting role given how highly Frost has praised him – comparing Jurgens’ potential to none other than Dave Rimington.

That’s about as high of praise as you can give for a center wearing the scarlet and cream, so clearly Frost likes what he sees in Jurgens’ potential. But injuries have sidelined Jurgens from participating in fall camp, and it is unclear if he would be ready to start the season.

That means Nebraska’s best case scenario is to play a redshirt freshman who has never played the center position before, coming in with little-to-no time in fall camp to get ready and to gel with the rest of the offensive line.

If Jurgens isn’t ready, or doesn’t get the nod, then Nebraska will likely turn to redshirt freshman Will Farniok or walkon freshman A.J. Forbes. Neither Farniok nor Forbes has played snaps at center, either, so no matter what Nebraska will be starting a freshman without experience at the most important position on the offensive line.

In Frost’s offense, with its focus on timing and precision, a clean center-quarterback exchange is crucial. The center is also usually responsible for making line calls to ensure coordination between the entire offensive line in their blocking scheme. That’s a big responsibility for a young player, whoever might step up and take on that role.

And a struggle for Nebraska at center could short-circuit much of the offensive progress made in year one of Frost’s arrival in Lincoln, which could result in a disappointing 2019 campaign.

Inside Linebacker

There is, rightly, significant concern about Nebraska’s depth at outside linebacker. Alex Davis, a talented senior who has yet to produce, and JoJo Doman, who has just returned to fall camp after injury, are the most reliable options Nebraska looks to be fielding at a position of need.

But inside linebacker might be even more concerning with regards to depth. Mohammed Barry is the anchor of the linebacker corps (and, indeed, the entire defense), and Collin Miller is hoped to build on a solid end to the 2018 season.

After that? Nebraska is hoping JUCO transfer Will Honas can return from injuries that robbed him of the majority of last year’s campaign, but we don’t know yet if he’s able to return to form. Freshman phenom Nick Henrich’s injury will certainly keep him out of the lineup for the start of the season, and at this point anything Nebraska gets from him in 2019 has to be viewed as a bonus.

Behind those four (and, really, those three), it’s a grab bag. Can Garrett Snodgrass make a leap and gain playing time? How about Jackson Hannah? Garrett Hustedt? Nebraska has a wealth of freshmen in the room, but there’s no clarity who – if any – would be able to successfully fill that role in the middle of the defense against B1G competition to give the starting three a break – or to replace them in case of injury.

Unlearning the Past

This point has less to do with one specific position group and more to do with the team as a whole. Nebraska is coming off two straight seasons of going 4-8. Nebraska has had one winning season in the last four. Nebraska has losing streaks to conference foes like Northwestern (two straight), Iowa (four straight), Ohio State (four straight) and Wisconsin (six straight). Nebraska hasn’t been in a conference title game since 2012, and that one didn’t really go well for the boys in scarlet and cream.

In other words, it’s been a long time – since the current players on Nebraska’s roster were in middle school, at best – since NU has tasted success in football. Of course, everyone is excited and optimistic about the future. All the players love the chemistry of the team and say they are in the best shape of their lives.

That may all be true, but we heard it all before the 2018 campaign, and the 2017 campaign, and the 2015 campaign too. Until Nebraska proves something on the field, it hasn’t accomplished a darn thing.

And that’s the danger, if Nebraska happens to hit a bump in the road this season. Say things go wrong and Nebraska gets knocked off by Colorado in Boulder. Say Ohio State finds its mojo and does to Nebraska in Lincoln what it did to Michigan last year. Say Nebraska has an unfathomable clunker and loses on the road to Illinois or at home to Indiana.

In other words, what happens if the reality of Nebraska’s 2019 campaign doesn’t quite match up with the lofty expectations? Is there a risk that the sounds of Nebraska’s football failures in this last decade start to echo in the players’ minds? Could the prospect of a promising season slipping away start to make the jerseys weigh a little heavier on the backs of the players, prompting a downward spiral?

This isn’t to say that this doomsday scenario will happen. Indeed, given the combination of Frost’s accumulated talent and track record of success, this scenario is pretty unlikely.

But it’s not impossible. And it’s one that Nebraska fans will have to be cognizant of when (not if) NU hits a couple of bumps in the road this season. A serving of patience from a fanbase that is understandably desperate for national relevance will go a long way to help avoid a challenge turn into a disaster.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: The Most Important Quote from Adrian Martinez at B1G Media Days

DSC07627

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:

Date Opponent Score
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.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Players Who Need to Emerge for the Cornhuskers

DSC07674

As the calendar has turned to July, excitement about the 2019 Nebraska football season is turning to a fever pitch. Multiple national outlets are predicting Nebraska to win the B1G West and be a dark-horse College Football Playoff contender, even coming off consecutive 4-8 seasons.

There’s plenty of reasons for that optimism, of course. Head coach Scott Frost has a proven track record of success, including his remarkable turnaround of UCF. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez put on an amazing show last season – the second coming of Russell Wilson, at times – and should do nothing but improve in 2019. Nebraska’s schedule is far less daunting on paper than last year’s, with no Michigan and games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa at home. And if you look at the analytics, Nebraska’s expected wins from 2018 shows the team wasn’t nearly as bad as the final record suggests.

But the 2019 Nebraska squad is young, with significant holes to fill from a team that has been 8-16 in the last two years. So if Nebraska is going to match those lofty expectations, these players must be able to be effective.

Cameron Jurgens

Jurgens arrived in Lincoln as a highly-touted tight end prospect. But an ankle injury and a crowded tight end room gave Frost an opportunity to propose a position change for Jurgens. And not a small one either – from tight end to center. Jurgens took to the position change well, according to Brent Wagner of the Lincoln Journal-Star.

“I mean, shoot, you get to line up and hit someone every play, what’s wrong with that?” Jurgens said. “I love it. I get to be physical every play.”

It’s a great attitude. But it doesn’t change the fact that if Jurgens starts at center in 2019 – and it’s likely that he will – it will be his first time taking a snap in anger at the position. Given how crucial the center position is, and what a big ask it would be for Jurgens to go from tight end to starting B1G center in less than a year – Nebraska will need Jurgens to be a quick study.

Dedrick Mills

Devine Ozigbo’s breakout senior season last year was a delightful surprise, and helped salvage the position after transfer running back Greg Bell failed to deliver and ultimately transferred out of the program. But Ozigbo is with the Saints now, and the fate of Maurice Washington is very much up in the air.

Nebraska does have some talented freshmen coming to campus. But the bulk of the responsibility for success at the running back position will come from Mills, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Georgia Tech.

Mills arrives with power-five running back experience, and looks well suited to hit the ground (pardon the pun) running on day one. But we haven’t seen him in a Nebraska uniform yet, certainly not against B1G defenses. How Mills answers that call will go a long way towards how well Nebraska will be able to meet the lofty expectations it carries this summer.

Wan’Dale Robinson

Of course, Robinson almost didn’t end up in Lincoln. Originally Robinson committed to Kentucky, but with the persistence of the Nebraska coaching staff Robinson changed his mind and became one of the standouts of Frost’s first recruiting class.

While Nebraska does have a crowded receivers room, no one quite has the combination of speed and elusiveness that Robinson brings. A perfect fit for Frost’s Duck-R running back/wide receiver hybrid, Robinson has the potential to bring an entirely new dynamic to Nebraska’s offense. And with a shaky receiver corps after J.D. Spielman, if Nebraska’s offense is going to shine it’s going to need some extra dynamism in 2019.

Deontai Williams

It’s not like Williams didn’t see the field in 2018 as a sophomore. He played in 12 games, and at times flashed the kind of athleticism that could make him a special talent at safety. But he struggled to maintain playing time, particularly behind seniors Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed, and Tre Neal.

Well, that’s not going to be a problem this year. Williams has the athleticism and talent to be an impact player on defense, particularly at safety. But Nebraska needs Williams to be far more consistent if he’s going to take on a starter’s role.

Darrion Daniels

It’s a little strange to say that a player is going to be critical on the defensive line, given that it is likely Nebraska’s strongest and deepest position group. But this is also the group that struggled mightily against the run, and was likely Nebraska’s biggest Achilles’ heel against power-running B1G teams like Wisconsin and Iowa.

So Nebraska needs much better play, particularly in run defense, from its defensive line. But even more so, a graduate transfer like Daniels can bring leadership, attitude, and a level of toughness and experience that might help Nebraska’s defensive line find its potential and be a leader amongst position groups in 2019.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from the Arrival of Dedrick Mills

DSC00069

On Tuesday, Nebraska’s 2019 football season got a huge boost with the news that junior college transfer running back Dedrick Mills had cleared his last hurdles to join the program. According to Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Mills improved his grade point average enough at Garden City Community College in Kansas to join the program on Wednesday.

The grade challenge brings to a conclusion a wild ride for Mills’ recruitment to Nebraska, including not being able to sign on signing day because he was dealing with a warrant for his arrest. Much like Maurice Washington last year, it was not at all clear that the talented running back would be available for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But like with Washington, patience and perseverance from head coach Scott Frost and his crew have paid dividends.

So what does Mills’ official addition to the program mean for Nebraska in 2019?

A replacement for Ozigbo’s production

Even though at this time last year Devine Ozigbo was an afterthought on the depth chart, by season’s end it was clear how integral he was to the offense. Ozigbo was the team’s leading rusher with 1082 yards on 155 carries. The closest production from a running back was Washington, with 455 yards on 77 carries.

More importantly, none of the backs on the roster bring the experience and the skill set that Mills does. Like Ozigbo, Mills has the size (five-foot-eleven, 215 pounds) to handle running between the tackles as well as running outside. The rest of the backs currently on the roster, like Washington and Miles Jones, really project more as outside-the-tackles pass-catchers rather than between-the-tackles thumpers. The backs with more size, such as Jaylin Bradley and Wyatt Mazour, have not showed an ability to perform at the level Nebraska will need to compete for championships.

So Mills gives Nebraska a different kind of weapon than it would have had otherwise at running back, in addition to the experience he brings.

Insurance for freshman performance

Nebraska has two freshman running backs in its 2019 class, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins. Both are highly regarded prospects, and running back is a position where players can make an immediate impact if they have the talent.

But there’s a huge difference between freshmen having an opportunity to contribute and a team counting on freshmen to contribute. Johnson certainly could be the kind of back that Nebraska could lean on to perform. Thompkins has the potential to be a combination power/speed back, but he is coming off an ACL injury and it is not at all clear that he’ll be fully ready by the start of the season.

With Mills’ arrival, the coaching staff now has the luxury of allowing Johnson and Thompkins to develop, rather than needing at least one of them to break out immediately.

Less reliance on Washington’s availability

Washington is the defendant in a disturbing criminal case out of California. The case is still pending, and of course Nebraska’s coaching staff is hoping to get at least some clarity about how the case will play out before the start of the 2019 season.

But because of the case, Washington missed a good deal of spring practice, and at this point there is still a significant question about how much of a role he will be able to play. Towards the end of the year, Washington was beginning to flash as one of Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapons, and it is tantalizing to think about what he could do on the field this season.

With Mills addition to the depth chart, the potential loss of Washington becomes less catastrophic for Nebraska. If Washington’s playing status is cleared before the season, then Nebraska’s arsenal of offensive weapons becomes that much more impressive. But if Washington is limited – or unavailable – for Nebraska in 2019, Mills’ addition means Nebraska still has a dependable option at running back.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Lack of Development Fuels Nebraska’s NFL Draft Streak Being Snapped

download

This year, Nebraska broke a 56-year streak of having at least one player selected in the NFL draft. After suffering through two consecutive 4-8 seasons, and having the memory of seeing streak after streak fall in the early 2000s, Nebraska fans had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu at the end of the last round of this year’s draft, seeing players from such football powerhouses such as Valdosta State, Idaho, and Morgan State get selected over any Cornhuskers.

What made it worse for Nebraska is that two Omaha kids who didn’t end up as Huskers – North Dakota State’s Easton Stick went in the fifth round to the San Diego Los Angeles Chargers and Iowa’s Noah Fant went with the twentieth pick in the first round to the Denver Broncos.

After Iowa had four draft picks this year – including two tight ends in the first round – if there was evern any question about whether Iowa-Nebraska is a rivalry, you can put that to bed.

(Also, for no really good reason other than to pour fuel on the fire, here’s a great article by Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity explaining how Iowa could have two first-round tight ends and still end a season no. 92 nationally in yards per play and no. 79 in pass yards per play).

Still, the fact remains that recently Iowa has done a much better job of getting Hawkeyes into the NFL than Nebraska, even though Nebraska is recruiting better talent. Take a look at the comparison of the last six years’ worth of recruiting rankings (from 247 Sports) and NFL draft picks (the rounds of each pick are in parenthesees.

Year NU Recruiting NU Draft Picks UI Recruiting UI Draft Picks
2019 18 0 40 4 (1, 1, 4, 4)
2018 23 1 (6) 39 3 (2, 2, 4)
2017 23 1 (5) 41 4 (3, 4, 5, 5)
2016 26 4 (3, 3, 4, 6) 47 1 (7)
2015 30 3 (2, 2, 5) 59 3 (1, 3, 4)
2014 35 3 (2, 3, 6) 58 4 (3, 3, 4, 4)

Please, don’t start with the whole thing about how recruiting rankings don’t matter. You’re wrong. So if Nebraska has been an average of 21.5 recruiting ranking spots better than Iowa over the last six years, why are so many more Hawkeyes hearing their names being called by Roger Goodell (or an orangutan) at the NFL Draft?

Three words. Development, development, development.

Iowa has a formula of drafting kids that fit their scheme and their culture, developing and improving them, and sending them to the NFL. It’s been amazingly effective in helping Iowa overachieve what their recruiting rankings say it should achieve. Wisconsin follows the same model.

Nebraska has struggled mightily in development. Bo Pelini had his share of NFL success, but that tailed off towards the end of his tenure. And even for a dope who wrote a near-tear-stained goodbye to Mike Riley, it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s recent NFL drought (no first-rounder since 2011, no second-day draftee since 2015, only two total in three years) as an indictment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln.

Nebraska’s NFL pipeline was already slowed to a trickle almost immediately after Riley arrived. And when Scott Frost and his coaching staff took over, they had difficulty hiding their shock and contempt at the state of Nebraska’s physical and mental conditioning.

So, Husker Fan, you can look at this two ways. First, it should be a cold splash of reality as to the state of the program. As fans, we convince ourselves that glory is always just around the corner, just about to fall into our grasp.

Having Nebraska’s NFL streak snapped should be a stark reminder that while NU may have the recruited talent to compete and in at least in the B1G West, the shocking lack of talent development means Nebraska still has a big hole out of which to climb.

The silver lining? Nebraska’s current coaching staff understand the importance of development, and has a track record of taking far less heralded talent and sending them to the NFL. That’s the hook you hang your hope on for 2019 and beyond.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Spring Game

MVIMG_20190413_130052

On Saturday, Nebraska had its final practice of the spring, and over 85,000 people happened to show up and watch. The Spring Game, won by the Red squad 24-13, gave Nebraska fans a booster shot of football to get them through the long hot summer before South Alabama Week arrives.

Sure, it looked like a game and it sounded like a game. But remember, it’s just practice, and just one practice at that. So the standard caveat of “don’t read too much into this” applies. Having said that, though, it’s all we’ve got to work with, so let’s take a look position-by-position and see what we’ve learned about Nebraska’s upcoming campaign.

Quarterback

Weirdly, it’s easy to forget about Adrian Martinez. Closing Time is not only consistently remarkable, but he is so mature and undramatic that he’s easy to think of as a known quantity. And in a time where Nebraska has so many other questions to answer, fans can be forgiven for filing the signal-caller away and thinking “we’re good, Adrian’s here.”

That’s not wrong, of course. But it makes it easy to forget just how good 2AM is. Check out his touchdown throw here (starting at 0:51) and you’ll see what I mean. Martinez rolls to his left, uses his acceleration to evade a defender, then on the run against his body delivers a perfect 21-yard strike to a well-covered Jaron Woodyard.

It was a remarkable feat, but it feels like the play was somewhat lost in the shuffle only because we seem inured to Martinez’s consistent displays of awesome. (And that’s not even taking into account Woodyard’s amazing hoodie he wore under his pads!) We shouldn’t. Martinez is the most talented offensive player that’s worn scarlet-and-cream since Ameer Abdullah, and that’s just seeing him as a freshman. I maintain that he’s the second coming of Russell Wilson, and Nebraska fans should not take that for granted.

Behind Martinez, Noah Vedral looked smooth and confident, much different than the tentative and rusty version of himself we saw against Bethune-Cookman last year. Clearly, not being bounced between Nebraska and UCF and being able to settle into his role has made a difference. Andrew Bunch also looked solid and smooth, clearly benefitting from a year in the program.

Running Back

Keep in mind that there are four players (incoming freshmen Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson, transfer Dedrick Mills, and sophomore Maurice Washington) that didn’t play in the Spring Game this year. So the guys we saw on Saturday have a steep hill to climb just to make the two-deep.

Having said that, Jaylin Bradley looked good, with great lateral movement and decisiveness. Brody Belt and Wyatt Mazour were both very effective in the roles they were given. And Miles Jones got a good look on the White squad, although he still looks more effective as a pass-catcher rather than a running back.

Wide Receiver

Much like with running back, it’s hard to judge what we saw with the absence of incoming freshman Wan’Dale Robinson and junior JD Spielman. A number of players had opportunities to make a splash, and really didn’t. Woodyard looked good with his touchdown grab (and his hoodie!) but also missed a reception on the sideline. Andre Hunt seemed to get more into the game in the second half, and certainly has the frame to be the X receiver Nebraska is looking for. Jaime Nance had a few opportunities to show off his speed but was largely contained. And Kade Warner got loose again for a big play early in the game – do not be surprised if Warner ends up as a starter once we get to South Alabama week.

Tight End

A sneaky strength of the team. Projected starter Jack Stoll was unable to participate, so we got to see a lot of Austin Allen, Kurt Rafdal, and Katerian LeGrone. All three – although more Allen and LeGrone in this game – demonstrated the type of mismatches that these massive pass-catchers can present to a defense. Having an offensive difference-maker at tight end has been a unicorn Nebraska has hunted for many years – but 2019 might be the year it bears fruit.

Offensive Line

It looks like the tackles for Nebraska’s offensive line are pretty well set, with Brendon Jaimes and Matt Farniok installed on the ends. It’s in the middle that the questions arise. Walkons Boe Wilson and Trent Hixson look to be in pole position at guard, while the center position looks up in the air with competition between converted tight end Cameron Juergens, walkon AJ Forbes, and redshirt freshman Will Farniok in the mix.

“In the air” might be a poor choice of words for the center competition, as a number of the shotgun snaps were errant enough that the quarterbacks had to show off their athletic ability to keep the ball off the ground and avoid a disaster. Center in specific, and offensive line in general, is the biggest question about Nebraska going into 2019.

Defensive Line

The strength of the 2019 squad, at least at this point. Nebraska’s defensive line – particularly at nose tackle – finally look the part of a Big Ten defensive line. The Daniels brothers (Darrion and Damion) and the Davis brothers (Khalil and Carlos) look ready to be far more stout against the run and generate an interior pass rush. Add in Ben Stille, and newly-added junior college transfer Jahkeem Green, and the defensive line could go from a disappointment in 2018 to a strength in 2019.

Linebacker

At inside linebacker, Mohammed Barry may well be the best player on the defensive squad. The depth behind him, though, is what is of concern. Collin Miller looked the part next to him, with Nebraska needing to count on a return to health from Will Honas and a contribution from true freshman Jackson Hannah for 2019.

At outside linebacker, JoJo Domann looks to be settled in to his role, and with some additional depth at safety it may be that he can settle there. Alex Davis looked the role as a pass rusher and athletic coverage weapon – but he did at last year’s Spring Game, so a word of caution still needs to be heard. Quayshon Alexander and Breon Dixon also showed flashes, which may help provide depth.

Secondary

Nebraska’s starting cornerbacks, Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle, are pretty well set. Cam Taylor will likely be the third cornerback up next season, with incoming freshmen like Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer likely to get their first look at corner.

At safety, Deontai Williams looked to be the best athlete of the crew last season, and if he’s learned the defense then he could be the breakout Blackshirt of 2019. Marquel Dismuke looked comfortable at the other safety position, with Cam’ron Jones and C.J. Smith pushing for playing time.

Specialists

No one really stood out punting, meaning that Isaac Armstrong likely will be keeping his role at starter. Caleb Lightbourn announced that he was transferring, which will leave Armstrong a clear field at the position.

As for placekicker, well … *whispers* Barret Pickering hasn’t missed a kick since October 13, 2018, at Northwestern. It seemed like Nebraska fans kind of set their impressions of Pickering based on his early season struggles last year – and, in fairness, Pickering’s missed kicks (a field goal and an extra point) likely cost Nebraska a win in Evanston. But he also was a crucial part of Nebraska’s all-grit win over Michigan State, kicking three field goals in the snow. A smart and particularly handsome analyst referred to Nebraska as Kicker U, and just maybe Pickering can be next in that legacy.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What to Watch For at the Spring Game

DSC00808

On Saturday, Nebraska will conclude Spring Practice with the annual Red-White Spring Game. Of course, it’s not exactly a game, more the final practice of the season with 90,000 fans watching. So everything about the Spring Game should be taken with that particular grain of salt in mind.

Of course, the most important thing to watch for on Saturday is simply this – we get to see Nebraska football again. We haven’t seen Nebraska football since Black Friday in Iowa City, so getting this fix will help tide us all over until it’s South Alabama week.

But there are a few things to keep an eye on as you watch head coach Scott Frost run his second Spring Game at Nebraska.

Standout Freshmen

One of the most exciting parts about the Spring Game is the chance to see the early-enrollee freshman on the field and get a glimpse of the future. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, of course, is the crowning jewel of these freshmen, although injuries may limit what he’s able to accomplish on Saturday. Receiver Jaime Nance and tight end Chris Hickman could also provide a view of what’s to come for Nebraska as additional offensive weapons. And Nebraska fans could be very excited to see a glimpse of quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and if nothing else have some faith that Nebraska’s offense won’t fall off a cliff if something happens to Adrian Martinez.

A Number One in the Making?

Junior wide receiver JD Spielman is the only real certainty coming back at wide receiver for Nebraska. After that, there’s a whole bunch of questions. And Spielman, while a dangerous receiver, doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to be a true number one receiver, with the body size and type to absorb that level of completions

So who on the spring roster could make a move for that position? According to the Lincoln Journal-Star, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said that Andre Hunt has been continuing to improve. Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams never really grabbed their opportunity last year. Jaevon McQuitty should have his first real opportunity this year after injury.  Kade Warner got plenty of playing time last year, but would need to show he’s got the skill set to step up into that expanded role.

Running Back Opportunity

One of Nebraska’s biggest question marks next year will be at running back. Maurice Washington is clearly the best returning back, but the uncertainty regarding his legal situation in California leaves his ability to contribute next season in doubt. In the fall, Nebraska should have transfer Dedrick Mills and freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins to compete for playing time.

That means this spring will be critical for sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley, along with redshirt freshman Brody Belt and senior Wyatt Mazour, to make their mark. Keep your eye on these players to see if they will be able to stake a claim for a spot on the depth chart once the running back room fills up this fall.

Offensive Line Composition

It might not be easy to get a handle on what the starting offensive lineup is looking to be, in part because the depth chart is still in flux, according to Hail Varsity. Competition for center should be one of the most fascinating, to see if Cameron Jurgens can complete his transition from tight end (!) to center. Walkons Hunter Miller and Trent Hixson look like they have real shots to earn playing time. Brendan Jaimes should be locked in at tackle, but it will be interesting to see if Matt Farniok can stick at the other tackle spot, or ultimately move inside once freshman phenom Bryce Benhart arrives this fall.

Second Season Chances

Either through injury or getting buried on the depth chart, there’s a number of players who didn’t meet their potential in their first year in Lincoln last year. 2019 provides a fresh start and, for many of them, a second chance to make their mark on the program.

Redshirt freshman Miles Jones, with his combination of speed and elusiveness, looked tailor made to play in Frost’s offense, but injuries derailed his 2018 campaign. Same for junior middle linebacker Will Honas, who was thought to be one of the keys to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s transition last season, but was sidelined by injury. When sophomore outside linebacker Breon Dixon transferred to Nebraska from Ole Miss, it was hard not to be excited about a player with SEC speed being added to the depth chart. Dixon was never able to find much in the way of playing time last year, though, and 2019 should give him a chance to be the answer to Nebraska’s pass rush problems.

Keep your eye on these three and whether they are able to lay a claim to playing time this fall.

GBR, baby.