Stop me if you’ve heard this one. On the cusp of finally delivering a signature win, Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers committed a catastrophic mistake which snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In this case, it was quarterback Adrian Martinez’ fumble late in the fourth quarter which allowed no. 9 Michigan to escape from Lincoln on Saturday, 32-29.
Once again, Nebraska sees a chance for victory come agonizingly close. The players see it too, and are just as sick of it as the fans. Here’s defensive end Ty Robinson, courtesy of 247 Sports.
We’re so close. I mean, I’m sick and tired of hearing we’re so close.
It’s hard not to think that the Nebraska program is cursed, trapped in a time loop like Loki in the TVA. Certainly the pain of all these close losses feels the same, over and over.
So why should you keep coming back? Why should you – dare we even say it out loud – be more encouraged about Nebraska now than a month ago?
A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that before this year, Nebraska was losing heartbreakers to mediocre teams and getting blown out by good ones. This year (Illinois notwithstanding), Nebraska is beating mediocre teams and losing heartbreakers to good ones.
That’s progress! Baby steps, sure. As unsatisfying as rice cakes without peanut butter, absolutely.
But it’s progress. Nebraska hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent since September of 2016 with a 35-32 win over Oregon. Since then, Nebraska is an eye-watering 0-15 against ranked opponents.
Which is terrible of course. But the margin of defeat tells a little more of the story. Here’s the list of those games.
at (11) Wisconsin
at (6) Ohio State
(9) Ohio State
at (13) Penn State
at (19) Michigan
at (16) Wisconsin
at (8) Ohio State
(5) Ohio State
at (5) Ohio State
at (3) Oklahoma
at (20) Michigan State
But take a look at the margin of victory in visual format (with the tenures of Mike Riley and Frost separated out).
Notice something at the right end of that graph? See how in 2021, the comically-bad margins of defeat evaporate? From 2016-2020, Nebraska’s average margin of defeat against ranked opponents was 25.25 (!) points.
In 2021? The average margin of defeat is 4.33 points.
Now sure, losses are losses. And 2021 is a small sample size. Ohio State is still on the schedule. And Nebraska certainly has a history of clunkers against teams it should beat.
But now for a sustained period of time, this Nebraska looks different than Nebraska of years past. And maybe that’s why you should take the rest of Robinson’s quote seriously.
But gosh darn it, we’re close. If it isn’t this game, it’s definitely going to be the next game, and we’ll move on from this and learn from our mistakes.
Never mind the fact that Robinson clearly falling prey to the gambler’s fallacy. Any human being that large who comes at you with a “gosh darn it” to the press is clearly a force to be reckoned with.
So don’t just take it on faith, Husker Fan. There’s reasons for hope. It’s no guarantee, of course. But it’s not blind faith any more, either.
Was that it? Was that what we’ve all been waiting for?
Since December of 2017, we’ve been waiting. We were promised the flashy, exciting, high-scoring offense Scott Frost ran at Central Florida. We were promised motion, formation adjustments, personnel mismatches, and lots and lots of points.
Until Saturday, we hadn’t seen anything like that. Until Saturday, Scott Frost seemed like a mirage, an illusion sold to a fanbase desperate for a return to college football relevance. Until Saturday, hope seemed in very short supply.
And then, for at least one glorious autumn evening, things seemed to snap back into place. For at least one night, Nebraska seemed like … Nebraska again. For one glorious night, a Nebraska team that seemed permanently cursed had everything bounce its way – even a punt, fer cryin’ out loud!
Memorial Stadium felt like a weight had been lifted off the roof, that this long surreal nightmare was finally over. At least for one night, Nebraska football was a joyous, raucous party. And when Thunderstruck hit after the third quarter, the venerable old cathedral vibrated with an energy it hadn’t seen in a decade.
So was that it? Was that the sound of everything finally, finally falling into place for Frost’s Nebraska squad?
We’ll see. It’s so hard to invest trust in Nebraska. M.C. Escher didn’t have as many corners as Nebraska’s seemed to have, waiting for that right one to turn coming next. We’ve been promised that we’ve seen progress, only to see this team fall flat on its face time and time and time again.
So why is this different? Why is a team that lost to Illinois (as it turns out, a baaaaaad Illinois) at the start of the season worthy of an investment of hope?
Well, if you want tangible evidence of hope, think about it this way. Nebraska’s identity (if you call it that) throughout the entirety of Mike Riley’s tenure and up to now with Frost has been to get blown out by good teams and to find bafflingly-creative ways to lose games against mediocre opponents. A smart and particularly handsome analyst wrote about how avoiding the latter was really all Frost needed to accomplish in 2021.
Take a look at Nebraska post-Illinois – which, yes, I know isn’t a thing, but go with me on a Week 0 game against a new coach. Now, Nebraska is beating (or, as of last Saturday, eviscerating) mediocre opponents and playing good opponents (nationally ranked Oklahoma and Michigan State on the road) within an inch of victory.
I know you kind of have to squint at it, but that’s progress, Husker Fan. Progress we really didn’t see except for flashes in the second half of 2018. And given the talent upgrades between now and then – and apparently finding a solution on the left side of the offensive line – this progress feels far more sustainable.
When undefeated and no. 9 Michigan comes to town this Saturday, Nebraska will get to put this new-found momentum to the test. The Wolverines have the no. 40 total offense in the country, which is (amazingly) better than Oklahoma at no. 43 but far worse than Michigan State at no. 25. Michigan’s defense is the best Nebraska will have yet faced, at no. 15 nationally in total defense.
Could we see a reversion to form with a blowout loss at home and have the ghosts of seasons past come back to haunt Memorial Stadium? Of course. No one who has watched this team – even you Husker Fan, admit it – can honestly say part of you doesn’t dread that outcome.
But this is also a monstrous opportunity for Nebraska to finally, finally turn that mythical corner. It’s also evidence that programs like Nebraska with deep and passionate fanbases really don’t die, they just lie dormant like a bear in hibernation, waiting for the spring to arrive to resume their hunt.
So maybe, just maybe, that spring will arrive for Nebraska on a warm mid-October night in Lincoln, with echoes of Thunderstruck ringing in the ears of the patient faithful. Just listen for it, Husker Fan.
Nebraska came into Norman as a 23-point underdog against the Sooners, and left with a seven-point loss and a new-found respect around the country. Penalties and an atrocious placekicking performance marred what was otherwise an impressive performance on both sides of the ball against a team that many (including me) thought would overmatch the Cornhuskers.
So, in looking back at Nebraska’s near-miss against Oklahoma …
Adrian’s In Charge. Before the season started, hopes around Nebraska’s season centered around whether quarterback Adrian Martinez could revert to his 2018 freshman form. After a disastrous first half against Illinois, it looked like those hopes would be in vain.
But since then, Martinez has been nothing short of brilliant. He’s made plays with his arm and his legs. He’s made good decisions. He’s protected the football. He’s done everything Nebraska has needed him to do for success. And absent a competent kicker (more on that later) he would have led Nebraska to its biggest win this century.
Staying On The Field. I thought this game would be a bloodbath for Nebraska in part because of the fragile mentality of the team, but mainly because I didn’t think Nebraska had the talent to compete with a team like Oklahoma. I was wrong. While the offensive line certainly struggled, Nebraska more than looked like it could compete with Oklahoma’s talent. That’s a hugely encouraging sign going forward.
Stripes! A smart and particularly handsome analyst observed this about Nebraska’s contest against Oklahoma.
Now, sure, maybe the stripes were there as an homage to the 1971 Game of the Century (which if that was the case, then varsity stripes on the shoulders plz). But the alternates last week against Buffalo also had stripes on the pants. Maybe – just maybe – Nebraska is finally realizing the grotesque mistake its stripeless yoga pants look has inflicted on the college football world.
The Dumbest Team in America. Eight penalties for 70 yards. Two unsportsmanlike penalties that helped keep Oklahoma drives alive. Former Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan called his Raiders team the “dumbest team in America” after a mistake-filled loss. And in a close-but-no-cigar match, Nebraska simply cannot afford the kind of undisciplined mistakes it made in Norman.
Kicker Conundrum. It’s really hard to blame Frost for Nebraska’s current placekicking woes. Connor Culp is the returning B1G Kicker of the Year. With all the other moving parts, it was entirely fair to think that the placekicking role was basically set.
It isn’t. Culp is 3-8 (!) on field goal attempts and 13-16 (!!) on extra points in 2021. Culp’s two missed field goals and the blocked extra point returned for a two-point conversion adds up to an eight-point swing in Oklahoma’s favor.
Oklahoma won by seven.
This sounds like a reprise from 2019, but Nebraska was a competent placekicker away from pulling off the program’s biggest win of the century in Norman.
(In an utterly bewildering statistic I had to check to believe, Nebraska’s opponents are a combined 1-7 in field goal attempts. One for seven! How is that even possible?)
The Rough Road Ahead. You guys, Michigan State is good. The Spartans looked like a pretty soft opponent at the start of the season, but new head coach Mel Tucker has Sparty off to a 3-0 start and a no. 20 ranking nationally after an impressive 38-17 win against the Hurricanes in Miami.
Take a look, if you dare, at the rest of Nebraska’s schedule. Michigan State is now ranked. Michigan will be ranked. Ohio State will be ranked. Wisconsin will be ranked. Iowa will be ranked. Shoot, Minnesota will probably be ranked.
That will make at least six, likely seven of Nebraska’s opponents in 2021 being ranked. It is likely that at least three (Oklahoma, Ohio State, Iowa) and maybe more (Michigan, Wisconsin) will be ranked in the top 10.
That’s quite a gauntlet. Frost’s results for this season have to be graded on a curve accordingly.
AND THE MORAL VICTORY
I’ll admit it, I thought this game would be a slaughter for Nebraska. So much so that this is how I spent my Saturday afternoon.
You may commence your mocking of me in the comments below (although I did tie for third in the tournament!)
Nebraska’s players are certainly saying the right things after the close loss, about how being close isn’t good enough and that they want to win. And having an unfinished business mindset will be the best possible way to prepare for a smart and tough Michigan State team on the road.
But the fans? Heck, moral victories are for fans. After the Illinois debacle, a good chunk of the Nebraska fanbase was ready to fold the tent on the Frost era and start looking ahead to another rebuild. Nebraska’s spirited performance against Oklahoma offered the briefest of glimpse at the tantalizing possibility that Nebraska could be … good again?
FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt, who called the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, had this to say about where the Nebraska program is after seeing the contest.
Between a really solid performance against Buffalo and last week’s effort against Oklahoma, there’s reason to be hopeful from the Nebraska fanbase. At the very least, the Frost-on-the-hot-seat talk should die down some.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front. Yes, Nebraska should probably be worrying less about cool alternate threads and more about putting a less-atrocious product on the field. But these things have been ready to go for a while, so I doubt that the Illinois loss can really be hung too much on uniform focus.
Plus, come on now, we could use something positive and fun to focus on, right? More importantly, the uniforms will pay homage to first responders on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Like always, we’re going to judge this year’s entry using the standards from Paul Lukas’ groundbreaking Uni Watch website – good or stupid?
Basically the same cream shell, same scarlet skinny stripe, but it’s the old-school interlocking block-NU rather than the sans serif N. Nebraska seems to be giving more space to that old-school logo, so this helmet could very well make its way into a regular rotation. Super sharp, and an easy “good.”
The white at home will be a little jarring, but the typeface on the numerals looks amazing. It should be plenty legible and distinctive (in other words, no trash bags). There is an incredibly subtle camouflage pattern throughout the uniform – which, not gonna lie, I didn’t notice until someone else pointed it out. Camo unis are almost always stupid, but because it’s so subtle it actually works as the homage it is intended to be. This one “good” but nearly veering into the other category.
There’s a camo pattern there too but OMG OMG OMG STRIPES GAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!
Long-time readers will know that this site is firmly Team #SaveTheStripes, and is now holding out the slimmest of hopes that this alternate will be a tentative step towards sartorial sanity and a return to the striped pants. It’s not just “good” it’s fricking awesome!
NEBRASKA ALTERNATE UNIFORM POWER RANKING
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.
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.
These original (well, except for 2009) 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.)
The first road alternates Nebraska has worn ended up making good use of the trash-bag silver, working them into an ice concept that ended up very sharp.
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).
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.
Yes, Nebraska has never actually worn this outfit, but it doesn’t make it any less sharp (especially with the scary Hallowe’en motif for which I am a total sucker). Once you’ve swallowed the concept that the Blackshirts logo is for the whole team – which took some work – then it’s hard not to love this set.
I really do love a monochrome uniform set as an alternate (or unless you’re the Seahawks). And mainly because you can’t really see the camo unless you look hard, this set is incredibly clean. The old-school NU logo on the helmet is a nice change of pace without the helmet looking dramatically different, and the typeface on the numerals is unique and sharp.
And then there’s the stripes. Those blessed, amazing, gorgeous stripes matching the shoulder sleeves and making the uniform connect rather than wearing yoga pants. Hopefully a bellweather of things to come.
OK, I admit it, these things have grown on me to the point where they surpassed the 2013 set, something I didn’t think would happen. Now, if Nebraska goes the full Darth Vader and rolls out with these shirt and the 2020 black pants …
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!
Because of the three-year hiatus, these gorgeous threads frequently get left out of the alternate uniform consideration. That’s a shame, because these throwbacks, 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 (as long as they put the stripes back on the pants, natch).
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results
Rita Mae Brown, “Sudden Death” (and not Albert Einstein)
’But I don’t want to go among mad people’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
Lewis Carrol, “Alice in Wonderland”
You felt it, didn’t you Husker Fan? That familiar tingle of excitement, of connection, as Nebraska’s 2021 season started up. You opened your heart, you let yourself believe again, you got on the roller-coaster and started the ride.
It started … ok, at least. Yeah, Nebraska couldn’t run the ball between the tackles, which was troubling. Yeah, it looked like Adrian Martinez didn’t realize he was allowed to step into a throw. But the Blackshirts looked like the Blackshirts and maybe, just maybe …
When was it for you? For me, it was when Cam Taylor-Britt – one of the team’s unquestioned leaders – inexplicably fielded a punt running backwards at the one, let his momentum take him into the end zone, then tried to throw the ball out of bounds. That mystifying, skull-numbing, soul-crushing moment which you could never predict and was so utterly predictable for this Nebraska team, finally generated this response from a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst.
We’ve been trying to fight against this conclusion, haven’t we Husker Fan? We’ve been hoping against hope that despite what our lying eyes have shown us, that this year, this game, this play, will be different. We’ve been wanting to ignore the weed of stagnation that’s taken root, choking out the sunlight of progress.
So here we are. And after Illinois 2021, I would wager that most of you are where I am right now.
But … where is that place we are? A loss of faith in the current regime, sure. A protective distance emotionally from the team, of course.
Striking your colors, abandoning Nebraska football – abandoning the heritage and tradition handed down to us from generations past? Nah, Husker Fan, you’re made of sturdier stuff than that.
Uncomfortably, after last year’s Illinois loss the program seemed to be at an existential crisis, and a smart and particularly handsome analyst gave you Ten Commandments about how to wander through what appeared to be the impending desert. Go read that again, everything in there you’re gonna need in the next few months – and likely years.
But there’s still 11 games left to play, and a squad of kids that still need your support.
I know you say you don’t want to. Heck, I don’t want to. After all the pain of the last decade seemed to be balled up and concentrated into a three-hour gut-punch on Saturday, I get the instinct that you don’t ever want to let that team hurt you again.
But, like King George sang to the colonists in “Hamilton” …
(Yeah, I know, King George in that show is a metaphor for an abusive relationship and the colonists did not, in fact, come back. But come on, where else are you gonna get that GIF in a piece about Nebraska football? This is the content you come here for, admit it.)
And that’s ok. Remember, even after last year’s Illinois debacle, Nebraska just about went to Iowa City and got the Heroes Trophy back.
Nebraska fans don’t expect championships, regardless of what silliness Paul Finebaum and Colin Cowherd might like to spout. They don’t even expect conference titles on the regular.
They just want Nebraska football to be fun. Nebraska football is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be a source of excitement, of escape, of being that incredibly important irrelevant thing you spend your summers anticipating, your autumn days obsessing over, and your Saturdays being all-consumed by.
Nebraska football isn’t fun, and it hasn’t been for some time. It’s heavy, like an obligation, like a curse laid upon a fanbase by an angry ghost.
And I promise you, Husker Fan, there’s still fun to be had in Nebraska football. Read up on the Commandments, take a deep breath, check your expectations, and don’t check out. I know you’re mad (or as Dave Feit masterfully observed in Sports Illustrated, just disappointed) at him right now, but listen to what Martinez is asking of you (from his post-game Illinois quotes)
Look we are here to play some football. We are here to enjoy it. We are here to have fun. And our guys are going to do that. And we are getting better and we are giving it everything we have. There is a lot of investment on this end. We are going to get things right so stick with us. We are going to play our tails off every week and I sincerely hope you enjoy watching that.
Adrian Martinez, Illinois post-game quotes 08/30/21
I’m … not as convinced as 2AM that this team will, in fact, get things right. But I owe it to him, to this team, and to myself to give him the shot.
One thing I’m definitely not going to do is go all Spectre of Death like the Omaha World-Herald’sDirk Chatelain did. It’s a long piece, but here’s the conclusion of his column.
But what does this program look like in 10 years? Main Street after the factory left town? Dry-land corn during a summer drought? Wyoming?
I don’t know. You don’t know. For years, I’ve told myself that it’s coming back when the circumstances get right again. When the right people fill the big chairs. Frost was supposed to make it right.
“I believe in my heart this team can still have a special season,” Frost said Saturday.
There was a time when those words would’ve read like Gospel truth. Now they just sound like desperation.
Dirk Chatelain, Omaha World-Herald
Chatelain is a great writer – you can read that just in those paragraphs. And I was one who defended Chatelain to the hilt when he was former head coach Bo Pelini’s favorite cartoon villain.
But this column is just maudlin nonsense. It’s raw, undiluted despair spilled out in newsprint and pixels behind a paywall. It’s also exactly how I felt most of Saturday evening.
After just a bit of reflection, though, it’s not true. At least it’s not the only truth.
Could Nebraska be the college football equivalent of a ghost town in 2031? Sure. The zombie apocalypse could also finally happen making all of this discussion relatively moot.
But all of Nebraska’s inherent advantages – specifically its history, its home in the B1G, its pound-for-pound unrivaled fanbase which leads to eyeballs on televisions – still remain.
That smart and particularly handsome analyst we keep talking about told you back in 2018 how Scott Frost could fail at Nebraska. And that same analyst told you this about where Nebraska would be if that failure should come to pass.
Nebraska football as a program is bigger than one coach – yes, even Frost. Maybe he’s not the right guy for the job. Maybe it’s the next guy that comes in that gets Nebraska back to the promised land.
Nebraska has played college football since 1890. Memorial Stadium was built in 1923. Nebraska fans have been, well, Nebraska fans, swarming to follow the scarlet and cream to its first Rose Bowl in 1941.
Nebraska football will be there after Frost is gone – whether he’s fired after abject failure or after winning national championships. That’s why being a Nebraska fan is so powerful – because it connects you to that history, that tradition, that rhythm of life that was there before you were here and will be there once you’re gone.
Patrick Runge, The Double Extra Point
Keep the faith, Husker Fan. Find the joy in the little things as we prepare ourselves for another trek through the desert. Just know that you’re not going to be wandering alone. Because, y’know, in all kinds of weather …
Wednesday, the NCAA adopted new rules that will have a significant impact on college football rosters. Under the new rules, players can participate in up to four games in a season and still be eligible to redshirt for that season.
Under the previous rules, participating in even one snap during a season would burn a player’s redshirt for the year unless that player received a medical exemption from the NCAA. Now, a player can participate in up to four games – a quarter of the regular season – and still be able to redshirt and not lose a year of eligibility.
This rule change, which takes effect this coming season, will have a significant effect on how all college football teams manage their rosters. What will those effects be, and how specifically will they affect Nebraska?
DEPTH OPTIONS FOR INJURIES
More than likely, the biggest change this rule will create is the ability for schools to expand the pool of players they can use to cover injuries. Take a look at Nebraska’s roster distribution and you can see an alarming depth situation at a number of key positions.
With the new rule, Nebraska will now be able to press true freshmen in a crisis situation without having to burn their redshirts for one play. So if Nebraska finds itself due to injury or suspension down to a choice between a true freshman scholarship player or a walk-on without the requisite talent to hold up, Nebraska will now not have to factor in the loss of a redshirt season to let that freshman play for a game or four.
This could become even more important on the offensive and defensive lines, when freshmen are given an extra couple of months in the strength and conditioning program to build up size and strength to stand up against B1G competition. Particularly at offensive line, even being able to increase the number of players that can be included in a rotation will help preserve the starters’ ability to last throughout a season.
IN-GAME OPPORTUNITIES FOR PROMISING FRESHMEN
The other significant change that the new redshirt rule will provide is the ability for teams to give immediate in-game opportunities for incoming freshman that could compete for playing time.
As an example, take a look at Jaylin Bradley’s 2017 campaign for Nebraska as a true freshman.
Under the old system, once Bradley entered the game against Northern Illinois – even though he didn’t touch the ball – his redshirt year was gone. Whether or not the juice was worth the squeeze with regards to the decision to burn his redshirt season is certainly up for debate. But there’s no question that as a result of the old rule, his sporadic use was a sunk cost.
Under the new rule, Bradley’s entry into the game against Northern Illinois and Rutgers would have still left the coaching staff with the ability to find spots for him to potentially contribute (such as Purdue and Iowa) while protecting his redshirt eligibility.
An even clearer example of how the new rule and avoiding the sunk cost of a burned redshirt could benefit both players and teams is wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey. Here’s Lindsey’s 2017 total offensive output.
Lindsey was one of Nebraska’s most exciting recruits in the 2017 class, and it made perfect sense to get him onto the field and see if his electric skills could make a difference. Unfortunately for Lindsey, it didn’t really work out for him to contribute last year – although, in Lindsey’s defense, not a lot went well for Nebraska last year.
But again, under the old system, once he set foot on the field for one snap against Arkansas State, his redshirt season was gone. Even though the Lindsey experiment was clearly failing, there was no point in not playing him, as the redshirt season was a sunk cost.
Under the new rule, Lindsey would have had four games to demonstrate his ability to contribute on the field. If it wasn’t happening – and boy, was it not happening for Lindsey – then the coaches could have benched Lindsey after those four games and saved a full year of his eligibility.
Under the old rule, redshirting freshmen pretty much knew they were in for a season of observation. Sure, there’s still plenty of motivation for them to be putting work in for seasons to come. But it’s human nature to have a little extra motivation if you know a payoff for your hard work can come sooner rather than later.
Well, with the new rule there’s another carrot that coaches can use to help drive freshman performance. If a player knows that he could get into four games during the season and not burn a redshirt year, there’s little doubt that will provide a little extra motivational push to perform and earn that playing time.
SPECIFIC ADVANTAGES FOR NEBRASKA
Every school is going to reap the benefits of this new rule, of course. But a program like Nebraska seems poised to take particular advantage of the change.
For schools at the top end, the rule change is going to have limited effect. Part of what makes schools like Alabama and Ohio State such perennial powers is that their rosters are loaded up with blue-chip athletes both young and old. As a result, those schools are far less likely to reach a depth crisis where they would be forced to consider burning a redshirt year to fill a gaping hole in the depth chart due to injury or suspension.
As a result, this de facto expansion of a team’s eligible roster – somewhat akin to Major League Baseball’s expanded rosters in September – should act as somewhat of a leveling device between programs. Because programs such as Nebraska, a tier (or two or three) below teams like Alabama and Ohio State, are more likely to need and use freshmen to fill in depth gaps, the rule change is likely to benefit those lower-tier schools more. That will help close the gap between the Alabamas of the world and those chasing them.
Additionally, because those top-flight schools have stacked rosters already, it would be more difficult for top-tier freshmen to crack the starting lineup. Because those freshmen can see the field earlier without burning a redshirt, the “chasing” programs now have an additional card to play in recruiting battles for highly-regarded prospects – come to a school like Nebraska, and it’s more likely you’ll see the field right away.
The NCAA is quite rightly criticized for any number of things it has done poorly (GIVE US BACK OUR NCAA FOOTBALL VIDEO GAME!!!!) over the years. But this rule change is great. It’s good for the players. It’s good for the schools. And in helping to level the playing field, it’s good for the sport in general.
A certain smart and particularly handsome analyst had a great idea. Do a preview of Nebraska’s depth charts before spring practice started, as a great way to lead into a discussion about how the roster could be composed. The depth chart projection, then, would be a convenient vehicle to analyze where the roster might be weak, or how changes on both sides of the ball could alter how players get used.
Then head coach Mike Riley, in his opening press conference of spring practice, had to go and mess everything up by announcing the entire defensive depth chart. You can see it here, thanks to Hail Varsity.
Now, in fairness, this isn’t exactly a depth chart in the sense of knowing who are the starters and who will be backups. But it does group the defensive roster into positions for new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.
So now that the cat’s out of the bag, and our plans for the next couple of articles at the DXP are ruined, let’s at least take a look at Riley’s version of the Sorting Hat and see what stands out.
Field-side inside linebacker could be a problem
For the most part, Nebraska looks to have decent depth at most positions. But at field-side ILB, the roster looks a little thin. Dedrick Young should have the inside track to start, given the amount of time he played last year (even though his performance fell off towards the end of the season). But after Young, it’s two untested players. Mohammed Barry saw some work on special teams last year but precious little on defense, and redshirt freshman Greg Simmons is an unknown quantity.
Should something happen to Young – either through injury or poor play – then the field-side ILB spot for Nebraska becomes one of the biggest question marks on the defensive unit next season.
Whither the 2015 class?
Of Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class, two of the top four recruits were defensive backs. Eric Lee was the highest rated recruit of that class (according to 247 Sports) at cornerback, and Avery Anderson was the fourth-highest rated player who moved between cornerback and safety.
So it’s a little jarring to see the pre-spring depth chart to list neither Lee nor Anderson. There’s spots on the depth chart for untested kids like JoJo Doman, Dicaprio Bootle, Tony Butler, and Marquel Dismuke. But no mention of the stars from Nebraska’s 2015 class.
That could mean the two of them are destined to be considered busts. Or, it could mean that Nebraska has an untapped vein of talent waiting in the wings of the secondary.
The names are going to take getting used to
Two inside linebackers? A “strong-side” and “field-side” outside linebacker? Defensive “ends” that have functionally the same role as defensive tackles Nebraska fans have grown up watching?
Yes, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 will be a big adjustment for Nebraska’s players and coaches, both in terms of players on the field and recruiting for the future. But it’s also going to be a big adjustment for fans watching Nebraska’s defense starting in 2017. The new names – and new roles – for the front seven of the Blackshirts will take some practice.
Nebraska football fans have been watching the 2015 class take shape as National Signing Day on February 4 approaches. Currently, the class sits at 14, and is ranked no. 36 nationally and no. 5 in the Big Ten by 247 Sports. New Nebraska head coach Mike Riley will be working hard to make up those numbers before National Signing Day.
While the ranking is alarmingly low, the small number of commits (no school ahead of Nebraska has fewer than 16) should help boost the number by the end of the process. But what shouldn’t be lost in the worry about the overall ranking is the quality of prospects already in the class. Here are three that haven’t received the attention they deserve.
It might not be entirely fair to list Neal here, as there has been much real and virtual ink spilled about Neal’s flirting with other programs (such as this article from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald discussing Michigan’s overtures to Neal).
But it’s big news for a reason. Check out this Scholarship Distribution Chart done by the Omaha World-Herald, a phenomenal resource you should have bookmarked. After 2015, Nebraska will only have three (!) scholarship defensive ends. Other than Neal, Nebraska only has one other defensive end commit in Carlos Davis (three-star, 89 composite), so a second defensive end commit is a must-have for NU to fill out its class.
The down-to-the-wire chasing of recruits happens every year, but given Nebraska’s lack of depth at the position and how slim the pickings are if Neal de-commits, it’s almost hard to over-state the importance of Neil for this class.
Why is the second-highest rated prospect in Nebraska’s 2015 class consider underrated? Well, it’s not because we don’t know about his skills and how he projects at the next level.
What’s underrated about Barrett, at least to this point, is when he was signed. Barrett wasn’t a Bo Pelini recruit that Riley has held onto. Barrett signed for Riley, not for Pelini, a sign that the man from Corvalis, Oregon, is able to convince top-flight talent to come to Lincoln.
Whether a flow of four-stars to Lincoln under Riley will continue is a question that will be answered in part this February, and in more detail with next year’s class. But the fact that Riley was able to land one so quickly after taking charge bodes well for his future.
Stanley Morgan (Wide Receiver, 6-foot-0, 185 pounds, three-star, 87 composite)
Nebraska’s senior-laden defensive end class has been well documents, but less attention has been paid to thirty percent of NU’s scholarship wide receivers being seniors in 2015. After this year, though, Nebraska will be down to seven scholarship wide receivers, two of them (Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly) having a history of injuries.
Which makes having just one wide receiver in the 2015 class (at least to this point) a bit of a gamble. Morgan looks to be a good addition to Nebraska’s wide receiving corps, with the potential to fight for playing time right away. But given Nebraska’s impending lack of depth at wide receiver, coupled with a likely shift to more of a passing attack under Riley, Morgan’s addition to the class becomes incredibly important.
Nebraska football fans looking forward to the 2015 season will have one question on their minds over almost all others: who will be the starting quarterback?
There are five candidates on the roster as we speak. Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent, having started 21 games over the last two years. Waiting in the wings are Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, who saw limited playing time in 2014, and Zack Darlington and A.J. Bush, who redshirted last year.
Of course, it’s a big guessing game at this point as to who will win the job, as we don’t know what type of offense new head coach Mike Riley will be playing. We also don’t know how each of the quarterback prospects will perform this spring or this fall.
But based on what we know now, we can at least make some educated guesses as to where the quarterbacks currently on the roster stand.
As the incumbent starter, Armstrong has to open as the favorite to win the job in 2015. And there’s a lot of reasons to like Armstrong. He’s 16-5 as a starter. He’s led Nebraska on gutty comeback performances, either in victory (Iowa) or close defeat (Michigan State, USC). He’s a leader on the field who commands respect from his team-mates.
But there are also reasons to question whether Armstrong will be the guy who gets the nod next year. He has a 52.9 percent career completion rate, which is simply not good enough to win a conference title. As thrilling as the comeback against USC in the Holiday Bowl was, don’t forget that the Trojans also dropped a host of interceptions that would have put the game truly out of reach at halftime.
That’s not to say Armstrong can’t get better, particularly with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator who are both skilled in working with quarterbacks. Given his experience, Armstrong is still the clear favorite to win the job next year.
But given the new staff coming in and looking at things with fresh eyes and installing a new offensive system, it’s a lot closer than it would be otherwise.
Chance of being the 2015 starter: 50 percent.
If there’s anyone that has benefited from the transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley, it’s Stanton. Until the very end of last year, Stanton was unable to even win the backup job, ceding that role to walk-on Ryker Fyfe. But the Elite-11 prospect has the kind of underlying skills that made Riley want him very badly at Oregon State, meaning Riley arrived in Lincoln aware of his skills.
If Stanton couldn’t see the field last year because he struggled picking up Tim Beck’s system, then a change in offensive coordinators gives him a fresh start. And given his unquestioned physical talents, that might be enough to create some real drama this spring.
Chance of being the 2015 starter: 25 percent
Fyfe looked to be playing the role of Joe Ganz from a few years earlier, being the plucky kid who worked hard in the shadow of much higher-regarded quarterback prospects until he got his chance to shine. When Armstrong was injured against Michigan State, it was Fyfe who got the nod and led Nebraska to a score to keep the game competitive.
But with a new staff and a new system coming in, Fyfe will be starting from scratch, much like all of the other quarterback prospects. That means the same hurdles he needed to clear last year will be facing him again. That’s not to say he can’t be successful. It’s just a lot more difficult for him.
Chance of being the 2015 starter: 5 percent
Darlington has been lost in the shuffle a bit, in part because of his redshirt and in part because his concussion history had many wondering if he would be able to play quarterback at all for Nebraska. But he’s still here, with the same three-star dual-threat quarterback pedigree (according to 247 Sports) that made him a target for schools like Ohio State, Arizona, and Mississippi State.
He’s also a coach’s son, which would tend to suggest he might have a leg up in terms of picking up a new system and understanding the game as a whole. Maybe he’s not as flashy as some of the other signal-callers on Nebraska’s roster, but Darlington might be a bit of a sleeper.
Chance of being the 2015 starter: 10 percent
If Darlington is the sleeper pick, Bush is the trendy redshirt to back for next season. During bowl preparation, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “intriguing” and praised his athleticism and work ethic in preparation for the Holiday Bowl (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).
Hearing the praise about Bush’s work ethic certainly would have to bode well for his chances to make a splash with Nebraska’s new coaches. Combine that with his physical skills, and he should have a fighting chance to make an impression.
Nebraska football fans are now officially settled in for a long offseason, and the first step of any offseason is to define some goals. Sure, winning a national title in 2015 would be awesome, but Nebraska’s odds of doing so are pretty remote.
So what are some realistic goals new head coach Mike Riley can accomplish before the 2015 season starts? Here are three baseline goals that will go a long way towards building a foundation for Riley in Lincoln.
In the brief few weeks since Riley arrived in Lincoln, his job got a lot more complicated. Ohio State won the national championship, demonstrating (if you didn’t realize it already) that the Buckeyes have a talent pool that can compete with anyone in the country. Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, who has won big every place he has gone and looks to take the Wolverines’ top-ten recruiting classes and have them competing with That School Down South in a hurry. Add into the mix Penn State, with a top-flight recruiter in James Franklin, being freed from the Sandusky-era sanctions and a Michigan State squad that has lived in the top ten for the last few years, and you can see the B1G isn’t quite the cakewalk it seemed to be.
That said, Riley landed four-star offensive guard Jalin Barrett this week, the highest-ranked recruit of the 2015 class. Nebraska’s class, according to 247 Sports, sits at no. 27 nationally and no. 3 in the B1G. With a small class and a short recruiting period, a gaudy recruiting ranking for Nebraska is unlikely.
But if Nebraska could at least crack the top 25 with its 2015 class, it would be a promising sign going forward.
Get To Know the Roster
Yes, that goal sounds quite banal and obvious. But it’s also one of the biggest and most important things Riley and his staff will be doing this offseason. Riley was known as running a pro-style offense at Oregon State, and many were fearful upon hearing of his hire that he would attempt to take Nebraska’s squar-peg roster of zone read players and force it into the round hole of a pro-style offense.
New offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seemed to quell those fears (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald).
“We haven’t necessarily been a huge zone-read team (at Oregon State), more because we haven’t had necessarily the right person to do that,” Langsdorf said. “I think here, it looks like there’s a little bit more possibility of that. So we’ll definitely look at that and consider more with who we have.”
It’s fair to assume that Nebraska’s defense will have the same adjustment, even with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s preference for quarters coverage. Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity has an excellent summary of the similarities and differences between what look to be Banker’s philosophies and what Bo Pelini did on defense.
But that means Riley and his staff will have to very quickly get a handle on the strengths and weaknesses of Nebraska’s current roster, so it can start making offensive and defensive plans accordingly.
Choose a Quarterback
Goal number three comes right on the heels of goal number two, of course. One of the biggest decisions that Riley and his staff will be making this offseason is about the nature of Nebraska’s offense. And what that offense will look like should inform the skill-set of the quarterback that wins the starting job.
But it might not be that simple. With a new staff arriving, the door will be more open than ever for a new person to win the starting quarterback job. As the coaches look at all five quarterbacks on the roster (Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fife, Johnny Stanton, Zack Darlington, and AJ Bush), they will be able to assess each of their skills and sculpt an offensive philosophy around the one that they believe gives Nebraska the best chance to succeed in 2015.
So deciding on a starting quarterback not only will be a roster decision, but will also likely be an indicator of what Nebraska’s offensive identity will be next season.