Nebraska Football: Crisis of Faith After Another Self-Inflicted Failure for Nebraska

So … now what, Husker Fan?

Nebraska came to Evanston with an opportunity to put itself right in the mix for the B1G West title. In a pandemic-shortened season, and with division heavyweight Wisconsin in question, the door was wide open.

And, as we have seen time and time (and time, and time, and time) again, Nebraska ran face-first into that mythical door as opposed to kicking it open.

Nebraska outgained Northwestern in total yardage, 442-317. Nebraska gained more yards per play, 5.02 to 4.88. Nebraska ran far more plays than Northwestern, 88-65. Nebraska was even with Northwestern in turnovers, with two apiece.

Those are numbers that should point to a win. But those numbers cover the game as a whole. When Nebraska’s offense was called upon to produce when it mattered, it fell flat. Nebraska was 4-for-16 (!) on third-down conversions. Nebraska only scored one touchdown in six trips to the red zone – and turned the ball over twice in Northwestern’s end zone.

Indeed, the second interception – Luke McCaffrey bouncing a pass off his lineman’s helmet and having it flutter softly into the hands of an opposing defender for an interception – feels like a distillation of Nebraska football over the last five years.

And, really, that’s the ball game. If Nebraska puts the ball in the end zone, rather than turning it over, that’s a fourteen-point swing in a game Nebraska lost by eight.

So stop me if you’ve heard this one. Nebraska’s own ill-discipline and inability to perform at the crucial moment was the difference between victory and defeat.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst said this after Nebraska’s loss to Ohio State this year.

Nebraska, for the most part, held up physically against the Buckeyes, which is probably the most encouraging thing about the contest. For at least a half, Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the best team in the B1G.

Unfortunately, Nebraska in the second half looked quite a bit like the Nebraska we saw last year – sloppy, self-inflicted mistakes letting an opposing team get away. So next we we’re really going to see what this Nebraska team is going to be.

That’s what’s terrifying, isn’t it Husker Fan? Terrifying that the self-destruction in Evanston, the interception bounced off an offensive lineman’s helmet in the opponent’s end zone, is what this Nebraska team is going to be. It’s probably a little hyperbolic (not to mention pedantic) to be reminded of George Orwell’s “1984” quote about how a seeing the future is to “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”

But sometimes that’s what it feels like to be a Nebraska fan. When Scott Frost arrived in Lincoln, he was able to unite the fanbase around the hope of a dynamic offense and a tough-minded attitude. But what we have seen since his arrival in 2018 is exactly what we’d seen before – a team with flashes of potential that was utterly unable to get out of its own way.

Now, in year three, we’ve seen a re-run of the same movie that has all but foreclosed Nebraska’s chances of winning a wide-open B1G West division. And fans are running out of reasons for hope.

Winning begets winning, and losing begets losing. I do think Frost was right in that when Nebraska turns the corner, it will happen quickly. I’ve just become fairly certain that “when” in that sentence is doing a lot of work.

Frost ain’t going anywhere, and his inclusion on any hot-seat rankings is silly talk. He’s just signed a multi-year extension, he’s still recruiting at a high level, and making any judgments about a program in this pandemic-altered season is folly. If you’re looking for true danger signals about Frost’s tenure, watch to see if the recruiting rankings start to slip.

Until then, Frost is the guy, and he should be. He’s got every chance to get the gigantic ocean-liner U.S.S. Nebraska Football Program turned away from its current course into the Cove Of College Football Irrelevance.

But the Northwestern game felt like a turning point, at least for me – and it seemed like a lot of Nebraska fans as well. Everyone is, of course, still hoping Nebraska will turn that mythical corner and start to be a contender in the B1G West.

The certainty that Nebraska will turn that corner under Frost, though, feels like it died in the long Evanston grass on Saturday morning. Now we’re back to where we were in late-era Pelini and the entire Riley era – going full Missourian and waiting for Nebraska to “show me” before investing any kind of confidence in future competitiveness.

Penn State is coming to Lincoln this weekend. How are you approaching this game, Husker Fan? Excited at the chance for (at least on paper) Nebraska to finally get a marquee win? Or resigned to watching a game that you hope like heck Nebraska wins but holding your breath and waiting to see what borderline-comical way Nebraska finds to lose?

The answer says a lot about where you’re at 26 games into Frost’s tenure in charge.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Predicting the Cornhuskers’ 2020 Season

OK, so now for the third time this year, here’s our official predictions for Nebraska’s 2020 season. As always, we will be using the following technique for season predictions, breaking games down into four categories.

BETTER WINWin all games in the category
SHOULD WINWin more than half the games in the category
MIGHT WINWin less than half the games in the category
WON’T WINWin no games in the category

In addition, as always, we’ll include a Fearless Forecast of the game’s score, primarily to give us a second bite at the apple to get the season record right.

(Kidding, of course, the Fearless Forecast one doesn’t count for the Double Extra Point’s “official” prediction.)

It’s shorter this year, but with everything that’s gone into getting here, it might be sweeter.

OHIO STATE (away, Oct. 24)

In 2018, a freshman Adrian Martinez took Nebraska into the Horseshoe and nearly pulled off a remarkable upset against the juggernaut Buckeyes.

In 2019, Ohio State had a new head coach and Nebraska had the momentum of ESPN Game Day being in Lincoln for the game – and got throttled by one of the best college football teams to play in Memorial Stadium, period.

It’s a weird year, and this is the first game back after a long, long layoff. If there’s gonna be a freaky result to happen, this would be the time.

Having said that, Husker Fan, expect a bad outcome for Nebraska. Just remember that the Buckeyes aren’t the measuring stick for Nebraska’s progress – at least not yet.

WON’T WIN

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 54, Nebraska 24

WISCONSIN (home, Oct. 31)

OK, we’re cheating a little bit, as this is being written after the first half of the Wisconsin-Illinois game. Quarterback Jack Cohn will be sidelined for the Badgers for some time, but freshman phenom Graham Mertz looks every bit the part to fit in nicely – at least against Illinois’ secondary.

In this pandemic-shortened sort-of season, it’s tempting to think the whole thing could be a mulligan. But Nebraska went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin last year, until a kick return for a touchdown broke the dam open.

Wisconsin without Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephas is not the same offense of course. But Wisconsin has been the best team in the B1G West for some time. I’ll believe Nebraska beats Sconnie when I see it, not before.

Besides, if Nebraska wins, we’re stuck having to house this monstrosity of a trophy for a whole year.

MIGHT WIN

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 27, Nebraska 23

NORTHWESTERN (away, Nov. 7)

The Purples always give Nebraska fits. With the overgrown grass at Ryan Field to slow down Nebraska’s speed, and with Northwestern’s discipline and toughness, the Purples are laboratory-built to keep games close. Last year, Nebraska got a walk-off (and super shaky) field goal to notch a win.

Look for a better performance for Nebraska this year. This is definitely a canary-in-the-coal-mine game, meaning if Nebraska doesn’t win relatively comfortably, then it bodes ill for the rest of the season.

SHOULD WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, Northwestern 14

PENN STATE (home, Nov. 14)

The Nittany Lions come to Lincoln with a more talented roster than Nebraska. But they come without uber-talented running back Journey Brown and linebacker Micah Parsons. Omaha World-Herald reporter Sam McKewon is convinced Penn State is a winnable game for Nebraska.

Maybe. But I’ll believe it when I see it with a talent game like this.

WON’T WIN

Fearless Forecast: Penn State 35, Nebraska 21

ILLINOIS (away, Nov. 21)

Look, Illinois went to a bowl last year and Nebraska didn’t. And Illinois is now reaping the benefit of head coach Lovie Smith’s decision to go with a massive youth project a couple of years ago, and now boasts an incredibly veteran squad.

It’s just … not a terribly talented veteran squad. Now, maybe Nebraska’s gauntlet of a schedule start takes it out of the team’s psyche and NU isn’t able to answer the bell. But this game, both because of the talent difference and because of where it is on the schedule, is the only game that goes in this category.

BETTER WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Illinois 17

IOWA (away, Nov. 27)

Well, if it takes a pandemic to get Nebraska-Iowa back to Black Friday …

Yes, it’s great that Nebraska and Iowa is back on Black Friday. And yes, Husker Fan, you need to embrace the rivalry with Iowa. Believe me, they hate you regardless and have for generations, and this conference is a lot more fun if you hate them back.

In the last two years, Iowa has beaten Nebraska on last-second field goals. Iowa this year will be breaking in a new quarterback, although by this time of the season that shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Nebraska outplayed Iowa last year and gave the game away at the end.

Which, fair play to Iowa, was taken advantage of by the Hawkeyes. In 2018, Iowa outplayed Nebraska and let NU back in and nearly steal the contest. Regardless, the two teams are clearly neck-and-neck with each other.

So maybe it’s a little bit of the Gambler’s Fallacy, but Nebraska’s due.

MIGHT WIN

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 24 (with at least one blown kiss by an NU specialist to the empty stands)

PURDUE (away, Dec. 5)

Nebraska hasn’t beaten Purdue since a last-second touchdown from Tanner Lee (remember that guy?) to Stanley Morgan in 2017 – which was Mike Riley’s last win as Nebraska’s head coach. Purdue is still a well-coached team and will probably have all-everything tailback Rondale Moore at its disposal. Plus, a trip to West Lafayette is not ideal, even without fans.

It’s a dangerous game for Nebraska, but one where NU’s underlying talent advantage should help break the streak.

SHOULD WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Purdue 21

MINNESOTA (home, Dec, 12)

A young, highly-touted coach falls victim to a punishing running attack, suffering a blowout loss on the road.

Yep, that’s what happened in 2018, when P.J. Fleck rowed the boat to Lincoln and Minnesota lost to Nebraska 53-28.

Look, Minnesota’s 2019 campaign was nothing short of remarkable. But why one season vaults Goldy up to the level of Wisconsin and Iowa in the upper echelon of the B1G West still escapes me. Yes, Minnesota should be good this year. But I’m waiting to see if 2019 was the rule or the exception before I will give Minnesota the same due that Sconnie or Iowa get.

MIGHT WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, Minnesota 21

SEASON RECAP

OK, let’s take a look and see what our system tells us about how Nebraska’s season will go

CategoryNumberExpected Wins
Won’t Win20
Might Win31
Should Win22
Better Win11
 2020 Season Projection4-4

A 4-4 mark for Nebraska would reflect steady progress, particularly with noticing a win over one of Wisconsin, Iowa, or Minnesota. It’s not going to be challenging for a division title, but it should be enough proof-of-concept that Scott Frost’s scheme and vision can be successful in the B1G.

The Fearless Forecast is more optimistic, with a 5-3 mark – and, more importantly, notching wins over Iowa and Minnesota. This season would have to be viewed as nothing but a great success, getting Nebraska a good matchup in the Championship Week positional postseason game against the B1G East and a good bowl opponent.

So enjoy this strangest of seasons, Husker Fan. Any games we get in the midst of this pandemic are a blessing, so take them in that spirit.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Takeaways from Nebraska’s 2020 COVID-Influenced Schedule

On Wednesday, the B1G released its conference-only schedule. After months of finger-crossing and breath-holding, at least now we have an on-paper schedule for Nebraska football in 2020. Here’s Nebraska’s new 2020 schedule

Sept. 5at Rutgers
Sept. 12Illinois
Sept. 19Wisconsin
Sept. 26at Iowa
Oct. 3Minnesota
Oct. 10at Ohio State
Oct. 17BYE
Oct. 24at Northwestern
Oct. 31Penn State
Nov. 7BYE
Nov. 14at Purdue
Nov. 21Michigan State

Here are five quick takeaways from the schedule’s release

1) OMGOMGOMGASCHEDULE!!!!!11!!1!!

There was quite a little buzz earlier in the week that the B1G was going to opt out of the 2020 football season due to safety concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. So to see a schedule – any schedule – is a glimmer of hope that we will see Nebraska take the field in some way, shape, and form in 2020.

2) THE B1G SCHEDULING OFFICE REALLY HATES NEBRASKA

Since Nebraska’s entry into the B1G, it’s been fair to criticize the number of times Nebraska has drawn heavyweights from the other division. Sure, at some level that’s a testament to Nebraska’s television drawing power, but I think many Nebraska fans in the last few years could have done with a little less Ohio State on the schedule.

Before the pandemic, Nebraska was slated to open the season against Purdue, which would have been a nightmare of an opening game. In a season where Nebraska really needed to put a good foot forward, asking NU to open up against a healthy Rondale Moore and face its old defensive coordinator in Bob Diaco was a banana peel on steroids.

Now, Nebraska gets a trip to Piscataway to face Rutgers. Sure, on paper, Nebraska gets to open against the worst team in the B1G. But Nebraska also has to (1) travel all the way to New Jersey in the midst of a pandemic – literally the longest possible trip for a B1G conference game – and (2) has to play a team that currently is undergoing a massive coronavirus outbreak. Currently, 28 k(!) players plus staff of the Scarlet Knights are COVID-positive – and we are at the time of writing one month from playing a game.

3) MURDERERS’ ROW

Nebraska does ease into the schedule somewhat, with Rutgers (travel and COVID outbreak notwithstanding) and Illinois. But after that – parents, cover the eyes of young children.

Wisconsin. At Iowa. Minnesota. At Ohio State.

That’s … daunting. Sure, I know it’s a conference-only slate, so you’re going to get nothing but B1G teams. But, still, that’s quite a gauntlet to run.

4) THE SCHEDULE IS STILL ASPIRATIONAL

Look, it’s a great thing to see the schedule on paper (or, far more likely, on a screen, except for all you olds who still print things out). And the fact that the B1G has put a schedule out does mean that there is going to be at least an attempt to play the games.

But we’re still in the midst of a pandemic raging through the country, one that doesn’t look likely to recede any time soon. The status of the pandemic was described by epidemiologist Michael Oesterholm in Business Insider like this:

“There’s no evidence there’s going to be a decrease in cases, a trough. It’s just going to keep burning hot, kind of like a forest fire looking for human wood to burn.”

Gulp.

So just brace yourself, Husker Fan. Major League Baseball – which has more centralized power, more resources for testing, has smaller rosters, and doesn’t play a collision sport – has been struggling mightily to avoid outbreaks.

We can hope for the best, and that we get all the football the B1G just announced. But there’s a lot that could go wrong, so be prepared for the possibility that the schedule could be changed, shortened – or curtailed altogether – if its required to keep players, coaches, and staff members safe from the pandemic.

5) THIS IS A BONUS YEAR

There’s been some silly talk about Scott Frost being on the hot seat this year. Even in a normal season, Frost’s backing from the administration would keep him safe but all from the most disastrous of outcomes in 2020.

But it’s also true that Frost has gone 9-15 in his first two years in Lincoln. Recruiting is still strong, which indicates a faith in what Frost is building. But at some point it has to show on the field. Pre-pandemic, 2020 really was a critical year to show some signs that Frost’s system would work in Lincoln.

That’s all changed now. With very limited offseason practice, with the restrictions of the pandemic, and with all the chaos and uncertainty, it’s almost impossible to judge Frost’s progress based on 2020’s results.

So, Husker Fan, take what you get this year – whether it’s all ten games or some percentage – as a bonus. It’s somewhat remarkable that we could get any college football to watch, even in empty stadia. Enjoy whatever it is we get this year, and look forward to 2021 where (at least hopefully) we will get an opportunity to fairly judge where Frost’s progress is.

GBR, baby.

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: How Cornhusker Fans Should Respond After 0-6 Start

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Now what, Husker Fan?

Nebraska is now 0-6, after dropping a gut-wrenching 34-31 overtime loss to Northwestern, after having a two-score lead with two minutes left to play in the game. Even a faint flicker of hope for a bowl game was snuffed out by the loss, and the remainder of 2018 is a game-by-game prospect, with tangible achievements postponed until 2019 and beyond.

Head coach Scott Frost said he was “running out of words” to tell the team after their sixth straight loss of the season and tenth overall (according to Parker Gabirel of the Lincoln Journal-Star). Even more disturbingly, Frost said this about Nebraska’s defensive scheme at the end of the game (as reported by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald):

“One, I don’t call the defense and two, make a play,” Frost said. “One more play.”

Now, after Northwestern’s 99-yard drive in under two minutes – with no time-outs – to tie the game (a drive which bore haunting resemblance to Nebraska’s 2015 late-game collapse against Illinois), Frost’s frustration was understandable. And nothing in Frost’s quote is factually incorrect.

But some also read Frost’s quote as him trying to distance himself from the loss, to blame defensive coordinator Erik Chinander or the players for letting him down. To be clear, that is not a necessary interpretation of what Frost’s quote, and would run counter to the culture of accountability Frost has said he wants to create in Lincoln.

Having said that, it’s not the first time Nebraska fans have heard a coach say and mean something like that. And after absorbing Nebraska’s tenth (!!!) straight loss, it’s only natural for despair to kick in and color perception to see the seams unraveling on the entire Nebraska program. After a knife-to-the-soul loss like Saturday, Nebraska fans were primed and ready to descend into a very dark, very hopeless place.

And yet …

There you were, Husker Fan, applauding the team – both teams – after that loss. Sure, not all of you. But that core is still there, the ones who measure your fandom in generations, who pledge to cheer the scarlet and cream come in all kinds of weather – and mean it.

(By the way, don’t read the comments after Heady’s Twitter post. Like pretty much all internet comment threads, they’ll make you doubt your faith in humanity.)

You’re going to be tested, Husker Fan, even more than you have. Wins may be elusive this year, and perhaps even beyond. You’ll be mocked and trolled by fans of teams who hate Nebraska (looking at you, Hawkeye Fan, and a locked beer fridge is neither “Iowa nice” nor at all original).

You have faith in Frost to succeed, and that faith is still well-founded even with how 2018 has unfolded. He’s not perfect, of course – his oddly-conservative play-calling on the drive before Northwestern’s 99-yard march and game plan as a whole against Troy being examples of mistakes. But he still gives Nebraska its best chance to take its place amongst college football’s national powers.

A chance is not a guarantee, though. While all the signs point to Frost righting the ship, there’s no promises that Frost can be successful, at least on the time frame that fans were initially expecting when he arrived in Lincoln.

So you’ve got a choice, Husker Fan. You can surrender to despair and bitterness. Or you can choose a different path. You can choose to enjoy the spectacle of the game without expecting the luxury of a victory.

This doesn’t mean you accept failure, of course. It doesn’t mean you don’t agonize at the losses and rage against the mistakes and poor decisions that snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Demanding excellence and that the program be on the path to achieve it is one of the prime distinguishers between Nebraska and other programs.

What it means is that you don’t quit showing up. You don’t quit wearing your colors – flying your Husker flag – with pride. You don’t turn on the players – a collection of college kids – ever. And you don’t turn on a coaching staff until they’ve given you no choice but to do anything else.

In other words, you don’t stop believing.

I know, I’m beating this thing into the ground. But remember when, at the start of the year, we thought the biggest question to answer was what song should replace “Sirius” for the Tunnel Walk?

In my mind, there’s no doubt as to what the theme song of this year – and of this fanbase, in general – should be.

Workin’ hard to get my fill
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin’ anything to roll the dice just one more time

Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on, and on, and on

Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to that feelin’

Don’t stop believing, Husker Fan. Now more than ever.

(And, seriously, HuskerVision bigwigs, make the Journey singalong A Thing already, wouldya?)

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Predictions for the Cornhuskers’ 2018 Season

frostAs the first game of the Scott Frost era comes close, it’s time to make things official and predict how the 2018 season will unfold for Nebraska. At the Double Extra Point, we use a particular system to try and make season predictions less of a guessing game.

The system is to break the games on the schedule into four different categories. Better Win games are ones Nebraska should be able to win all the games in the category. Should Win games are games where Nebraska should win a majority (more than half) of the games in the category. Might Win games are games where Nebraska should win less than a majority (less than half) of the games in the category. And Won’t Win games are games where Nebraska shouldn’t win any in the category.

Once the games are categorized, we can then add up the expected wins from each category and get a season win total. Of course, I’ll also make a Fearless Forecast for each game, and rest assured I will take credit for whichever prediction ends up closer to reality.

(Kidding! The “system” prediction is the official season call from the DXP!)

Akron, Sept. 1

The Zips are coming off a 7-7 record in 2017, but were ranked no. 112 nationally in S&P+, the analytical model used by Bill Connelly of SB Nation. They do return most of their defense, but are far behind Nebraska in terms of their five-year recruiting average (again from Connelly of SB Nation), meaning NU’s talent should be far superior.

After last year, nothing should be taken for granted, but Akron does provide as soft of an opening for Frost’s tenure in Lincoln as he could reasonably hope for.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Akron 17

Colorado, Sept. 9

If nothing else, the return of Colorado to Nebraska’s schedule has reignited the Nebraska-Colorado venom across social media.

One year removed from a Pac-12 title game, Colorado went 5-7 last year, and Connelly’s analytics have the Buffs doing one worse this season. Colorado does return a starting quarterback, but that’s about it offensively, with a lot of work to rebuild defensively as well.

So while Nebraska brings a number of advantages to the game, Colorado will be the first Power Five opponent Frost’s Huskers face.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Colorado 31

Troy, Sept. 15

redalert

TRAP GAME WARNING!

If there’s a game early in the season that should scare the bejeezus out of Husker Fan, this is it. A trip to Ann Arbor is the following weekend. The opponent’s name is Troy, and I don’t care how dialed in a team is, I refuse to believe it’s not a challenge to get Nebraska athletes to one hundred percent buy in to an opponent named Troy. And the game is an 11:00 a.m. kickoff, games Nebraska traditionally struggles to perform well in.

Exhibit A: September 16, 2017, 11:00 a.m.: Northern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17

Exhibit B: September 6, 2014, 11:00 a.m.: Nebraska 31, McNeese State 24

Oh, by the way, Troy beat LSU last year, 24-21, in Death Valley. So the Trojans aren’t going to have any fear coming into Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska’s a better team than Troy, and should win this game. But this is a scary scenario for Frost’s first season.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Troy 27

At Michigan, Sept. 22

Frost didn’t get any favors from the schedule makers with his first road trip. Michigan is loaded, particularly on defense. Nebraska has a true freshman quarterback making his first road trip, and two walk-ons (including one true freshman) behind him.

Yes, Michigan has been underwhelming under Jim Harbaugh. But that’s underwhelming for Michigan standards. That doesn’t mean it makes the task for Nebraska any easier in Ann Arbor.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Michigan 38, Nebraska 24

Purdue, Sept. 29

The Boilermakers are a trendy sleeper pick in the B1G West, and head coach Jeff Brohm took remarkable strides in his first season. But keep in mind, Purdue was one of Nebraska’s four wins last year, and that was in East Lafayette. The Boilermakers do return both their quarterbacks, but still have enough of a talent deficiency to make this a game Nebraska should win at home.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 53, Purdue 38

At Wisconsin, Oct. 6

If there’s an acid test for Frost’s Year One at Nebraska, it’s the trip to Camp Randall. It’s easy to look back at 2017 and remember it as a tire fire. But don’t forget that going into the fourth quarter, Nebraska was tied with Wisconsin. It wasn’t until Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst took the ball out of quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s hands and let freshman phenom tailback Jonathan Taylor run wild on then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense that the Badgers pulled away in the fourth quarter.

Talent-wise, the teams are relatively equivalent, with Nebraska having a slight advantage in the five-year  recruiting average. But Wisconsin has a significant advantage in terms of scheme and culture. If the Frost Effect is going to push Nebraska to a conference competitor in 2018, this would be the game we would find out.

But that’s likely a bridge to far to ask Frost to bring his charges this season.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 24

At Northwestern, Oct. 13

The Battle for NU is a strange beast. Each team has an amazing record at their opponent’s field. Since joining the B1G, Nebraska is 3-0 in Evanston, and 1-3 in Lincoln. And the one Nebraska win was courtesy of the Kellogg-to-Westerkamp Hail Mary, otherwise Northwestern would be 4-0 in Memorial Stadium.

This year’s contest is in Evanston, so weirdly that’s good news for Nebraska. What’s better news for Nebraska is that Justin Jackson is now playing for the Los Angeles Chargers, and Clayton Thorson is still … Clayton Thorson. This sets up to be the best shot for Frost’s first road win as head Husker.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 40, Northwestern 21

Minnesota, Oct. 20

It was the Minnesota game when you knew it was over. In the three games prior to Nebraska, Goldie scored a total of 47 points.

Minnesota hung 54 against Nebraska on that cold November afternoon in Minneapolis.

Does that mean Minnesota should be a favorite to beat Nebraska this year? No. The talent differential between the two teams is still stark.

And Minnesota’s 54 points wasn’t a reflection of the talent level and fundamentals of the two squads. It was the result of a coaching failure by then-head man Mike Riley in his staff that broke the 2017 Nebraska squad. It’s unfair to say the team quit. But it’s very fair to say that the team was given more than it could bear, and against Minnesota the result of that failure became apparent.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 47, Minnesota 17

At Ohio State, Nov. 3

I don’t know who at the B1G scheduling office has it in for Nebraska, but fer cryin’ out loud there’s been a lot of Buckeyes on the slate recently.

  1. 2017. 2018. 2019. 2020. 2021. 2024.

At this point it kinda feels like Ohio State is getting a trial run in the B1G West. Sure, Ohio State has been embroiled in scandal lately. But because head coach Urban Meyer only got a three-game suspension for his mishandling assistant coach Zach Smith’s history of domestic violence (and that’s describing it mildly, although the story is still unfolding), it is unlikely that Ohio State will be anything less than the machine it has been under Meyer by the time Nebraska rolls into Columbus.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 49, Nebraska 21 (but Nebraska makes Brutus punt for the first time since 2012!)

Illinois, Nov. 10

It looked good on paper, didn’t it? Former NFL head coach – former Super Bowl head coach with the Bears – Lovie Smith comes to college to coach the team from whom the Bears copied their team colors.

Unfortunately for the Illini, it really hasn’t worked out. Illinois is 5-19 since Smith arrived in Champaign, and 2-16 against the B1G. Former Nebraska quarterback AJ Bush was named Illinois’ starter for the 2018 campaign. But Illinois’ recruiting under Smith gives little comfort to Illini faithful.

Yes, Illinois was one of Riley’s ugly losses in 2015. And as we’ve seen before <cough Northern Illinois cough> nothing should be taken for granted. But this should be Nebraska’s second-softest game on the 2018 slate.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 55, Illinois 28

Michigan State, Nov. 17

Sparty and Nebraska are right next to each other in terms of five-year recruiting averages, meaning the talent level on the field should be very even. And Michigan State did what Nebraska faithful are hoping from Frost’s crew, jumping from a dreadful 3-9 in 2016 to 10-3 in 2017.

With the game being in Lincoln, many are marking this game as Frost’s best chance to get a quality win. It’s fair analysis, Sparty under head coach Mike D’Antonio looks to be a tall order for Nebraska at the back end of a grueling schedule.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Michigan State 31, Nebraska 28

At Iowa, Nov. 23

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, this thing is now a rivalry. Losing two straight to the Hawkeyes by a combined score of 96-24 will do that.

The five-year recruiting averages would suggest that Nebraska’s on-field talent is better than Iowa’s. Results on the field would suggest that Iowa has a significant leg up on Nebraska.

Nebraska fans are certainly hoping that Frost will be able to restore what they perceive to be order in the universe by regularly beating Iowa. Maybe that will happen, as coaching and scheme in Lincoln come to equal the recruiting rankings.

But for the last game of a grinding season, in Iowa City, it will be tough sledding for Nebraska to break the trend of the Heroes Game over the last few years.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Iowa 28, Nebraska 24

Conclusion

So let’s see what the system suggests Nebraska’s win total should be for 2018

Category Number Expected Wins
Better Win 2 2
Should Win 5 3
Might Win 3 1
Won’t Win 2 0
  Total Expected Wins 6

So the system pegs Nebraska at 6-6 for 2018, whereas the Fearless Forecasts have NU going (checks notes) 7-5 on the campaign. That’s right in line with what the investors in Las Vegas, with Nebraska’s win total (according to oddsshark.com) at 6.5 for 2018.

However, both Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald and Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star have called an 8-4 campaign for Frost’s inaugural season. Sure, this dope said that there’s reason to believe in an 8-4 season.

But there’s also a real risk that if expectations run too high in 2018 and Nebraska fails to deliver – and don’t kid yourself, the path to 5-7 or worse for this season with a first-year head coach and a threadbare quarterback depth chart is there for all to see – then there is a real risk that the giddy optimism of this season could turn into the cynical backbiting that has plagued Nebraska’s fanbase since the firing of Frank Solich.

And, as that smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, a poisoned fanbase is the biggest risk to Frost’s ability to succeed in Lincoln. So enjoy your football, Husker Fan, Lord knows the wait has been long this year. But please please please please please, don’t let your excitement run away with you this year.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: Why an Eight-Win Season in 2018 Isn’t Out of the Question for the Cornhuskers

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Long-time columnist Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star tried – unsuccessfully – to talk himself out of predicting an eight-win season for Nebraska in 2018.

There’s plenty of reasons to be doubtful of Nebraska getting to eight wins next year. Primarily, NU is coming off a 4-8 season last year, and going from four wins to eight would be a massive jump. Nebraska has an entirely new coaching staff, and will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive structure. Nebraska’s starting quarterback will almost assuredly be either redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia or true freshman Adrian Martinez, neither of which have played a down of college football.

Sipple listed a number of reasons, including the departure of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the depth of the running backs, the strength of the wide receivers, and the track record of new head coach Scott Frost as causes for his optimism. All of those are well founded.

But Sipple didn’t mention another reason why Husker Fan might allow a little irrational exuberance to creep into the imagination as the new season dawns. Here are the five-year recruiting averages for all of Nebraska’s 2018 opponents, as compiled by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly.

Akron 124
Colorado 57
Troy 102
Michigan 22
Purdue 69
Wisconsin 35
Northwestern 53
Minnesota 48
Ohio State 2
Illinois 59
Michigan State 23
Iowa 46

Nebraska’s five-year recruiting average is no. 25. That means only three teams on NU’s 2018 schedule (Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State) have better overall talent than Nebraska.

Now, I can hear all kinds of objections being raised to this analysis. First of all, I know a bunch of you are going to be telling me that recruiting ratings are just guessing games, and that the stars don’t matter.

Well, you’re wrong. Sure, for individual players, a five-star rating isn’t a guarantee of stellar performance. But the five-year averages are looking at recruiting in the aggregate, and the numbers are pretty hard to ignore. According to Stuart Mandel,

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

There’s no perfect gauge, of course, for determining a team’s talent level. But given how predictive recruiting averages are to a team’s performance, those averages are as close as we can get to quantifying talent levels.

In other words …

Now, the other argument I can hear is probably much stronger. Sure, talent level matters, but it ain’t everything. Wisconsin is ten spots below Nebraska in the five-year recruiting average, and is 6-1 against NU since Nebraska joined the B1G. Iowa is 21 spots below Nebraska, and has beaten NU in three straight games by an aggregate score of 124-44. Northwestern (no. 53) beat Nebraska last year. Heck, even Minnesota (no. 48) hung 54 on Nebraska last year.

So obviously, just because Nebraska has better on-paper talent than teams on its schedule is no guarantee of victory. Coaching, home field, system familiarity and fit, injuries, and any other number of variables go into that equation as well.

But looking at the recruiting averages gives you at least some gauge of how the teams stack up on paper. And because Nebraska stacks up well against a number of its opponents from a recruiting average standpoint, analysts like Sipple can at least make an argument how a new coaching staff and new structures can help erase the deficits in other areas and make games against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa winnable.

Now, is an eight-win season for Nebraska likely? I tend to think not, and that six wins should be the target for Frost’s first season.

But the recruiting averages (and the points Sipple makes) at least makes the case for an eight-win 2018 a colorable one.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Northwestern 31, Nebraska 24

stranger-things-my-theory-on-how-the-upside-down-works

Northwestern and Nebraska in Memorial Stadium is always going to be an exciting affair. The Purples have made it two wins in a row in Lincoln, coming back from a 24-17 deficit to win 31-24 in overtime. Northwestern has now won three straight overtime games, and Nebraska has now lost three straight home games.

Head coach Mike Riley’s squad drops to 4-5 overall and 3-3 in B1G play. The loss darkens the clouds swirling over Riley’s tenure in Lincoln with challenging games remaining.

The Good

JDang Impressive. Whatever other offensive woes Nebraska has suffered this year, there’s no question that redshirt freshman wide receiver JD Spielman has been a revelation. Not only was he Nebraska’s leading receiver with 48 yards on three catches, but he also had two carried for 45 yards, including a 40-yard run that was (brace yourself) Nebraska’s longest carry of the season.

It’s been a rough year, in many ways a lost year for Nebraska. But they’ve definitely found a weapon for the future in Spielman.

The Third Quarter. Once Marcus Newby picked off an overthrown Clayton Thorson pass and returned it for a touchdown, it felt like momentum had shifted for Nebraska. Then, Nebraska went on an 18-play (!), seventy-nine yard drive eating up nine minutes and twenty-four seconds (!!). That’s the kind of drive that can steal the will to win from another team.

But then, Nebraska only got three points from the drive. Insert your own metaphor here.

Nothing. There is no third thing.

The Bad

The Other Tanner. The lack of a running game for Nebraska was covered up by an heroic performance from quarterback Tanner Lee against Purdue. And with his performances in the last few games, it looked like he had settled in and figured out how to do better protecting the ball.

Whoops.

Lee had three interceptions against Northwestern, and had an easy pick-six dropped as well. The third interception was due in large part to the pressure he faced, but the others were a familiar story – poor reads and poor decisions into coverage.

Lee was 21-for-38, a 55 percent completion percentage. Especially without a running game (more on that in a bit), that’s simply not good enough for Nebraska to win.

Running In Place. Give Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf credit, they kept at the running game as long as possible. But Nebraska ended the game with 31 carries for 112 yards, an average of 3.6 yards per carry. And that’s including Spielman’s 40-yard jet sweep.

Devine Ozigbo got all but one of the running back carries, toting the ball 23 times for 80 yards. Yes, that’s 3.1 yards per carry. There’s plenty of room to criticize Lee for his interceptions and completion percentage. But it’s also not entirely fair to pin all the blame on Lee when he has been asked to pull the entire offense himself.

Against Purdue, he could pull of those heroics. Against Northwestern, he wasn’t. In both cases, a competent running game would have made a significant difference.

The Better Team Won. Sure, getting a game to overtime means that either team has a puncher’s chance to win the game. But Northwestern outgained Nebraska by over 100 yards, 475 to 337. The Purples had five more first downs than Nebraska, was far more balanced on offense, won the turnover battle, and had fewer penalty yards than Nebraska.

It’s a bitter enough pill to swallow that Nebraska has now lost three straight home games. It’s bad enough to lose to Northwestern. But to know that, at Memorial Stadium, Northwestern was the better team and should have beaten Nebraska, should tell you everything you need to know.

And the Blessing of Clarity

New athletic director Bill Moos said it is his policy not to make any coaching decisions during the season. There’s no reason to think he will do anything different with regards to Riley.

But there can be little doubt now that the Riley era will be over at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign. Nebraska’s remaining games are at Minnesota, at Penn State, and home to Iowa – the same Iowa team that just hung 55 on Ohio State. If Nebraska wins out, it will end the season at 7-5. Nebraska needs two wins to become bowl eligible, which will require a win over either Penn State or Iowa.

So if the writing is on the wall for Riley now – assuming that outcome was ever in doubt – then Moos now will be able to make plans for 2018. If hometown hero Scott Frost is Moos’ target, he’ll likely have competition Florida, Tennessee, and any other big name schools that will be making a coaching change.

More importantly, Nebraska’s loss to Northwestern should make it clear to the Nebraska fan base that a change will be made after this season. This feels more than a little bit like 2007, when it became pretty clear after the dismissal of athletic director Steve Pederson that head coach Bill Callahan wouldn’t be back. Like that 2007 season, Nebraska fans are in for a surreal three games watching a coaching staff finish out a string.

Riley is a consummate professional, so there should be no question about getting effort from him and his coaching staff. But now Nebraska fans, in a sense, can be released from the tension of this season’s games. Win or lose isn’t likely to make a difference in the outcome of the season, so fans can be somewhat detached from the results and wait for the season to conclude.

It’s a strange, sad place to be for an honorable man like Riley. It’s a truly unfortunate place for the players to be, coming in with such high expectations and being asked to put forward the effort and sacrifice that football demands each week. And it’s a bizarre, surreal place for a fanbase as passionate as Nebraska to be as the final quarter of the 2017 season is upon us.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Prediction for the Cornhuskers’ 2017 Season

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There’s nothing quite like leaving things late, but a season prediction on the morning of Nebraska’s first game still counts as getting your shot called. First, a caveat. With a new quarterback, a functionally new offense, an entirely new defensive scheme, and a new special teams coach, there’s only one honest answer about what to expect for this season.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Unfortunately, that’s not enough content for a site like this. So let’s go through the exercise and look through Nebraska’s 2017 schedule game by game. In an effort to make this more than just guesswork, for a season prediction I break the games down into four categories:

Better Win: Given the disparity in talent, Nebraska should be expected to win all of the games in this category.

Should Win: Nebraska should be a favorite in this game, but the opponent is strong enough to win even without a total NU meltdown. Nebraska should win a majority of these games.

Might Win: Nebraska should be an underdog in this game, but close enough in talent to win without needing a miraculous performance. Nebraska should win a minority of these games.

Won’t Win: Nebraska is outclassed from a talent standpoint and would need the stars to align for a victory. Nebraska should not expect to win any of these games.

By breaking the games down into these categories, the idea is to take the guesswork out of predicting a final record. Of course, I’ll also give a Fearless Forecast guess of the result, meaning I get two bites at the apple in terms of a final record prognostication.

Arkansas State (Sep. 2)

The Red Wolves come into Lincoln with some talent, including a likely NFL draft pick on the defensive line in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Nebraska’s depth should ultimately win out, but with all of the new schemes NU is breaking in don’t be surprised to see this contest tight in the fourth quarter.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Arkansas State 17

at Oregon (Sep. 9)

The Ducks have a new coach in Willie Taggart, so Oregon will be in a full-on year-one scenario when Nebraska comes to Eugene. But Oregon should have at least equal, if not greater talent than Nebraska on the field. And while Nebraska did knock the Ducks off in Lincoln last year, the metrics (as well as Oregon’s bizarre aversion to extra points) suggest NU was pretty fortunate to get that win. A Nebraska win would be quite a springboard for 2017, but it looks an uphill climb.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Oregon 27, Nebraska 20

Northern Illinois (Sep. 16)

Another Group of Five school that has some degree of talent, but not to the level of Nebraska. With two games in the books, Nebraska’s transition should be a little more solid and ready to handle what the Huskies have to offer.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 10

Rutgers (Sep. 23)

Although the Scarlet Knights gave Washington a scare for a half, eventually the Huskies were able to pull away in Piscataway. Second year head coach Chris Ash is laying the foundation for Rutgers to climb out of the B1G cellar, but there’s still a ways to go.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Rutgers 13

at Illinois (Sep. 29)

This has trap game written all over it. Nebraska goes to Champaign on a Friday night, to what is likely a half-empty stadium, playing a struggling Illini squad ahead of a brutal two-game stretch. Riley’s last trip to Illinois ended poorly, and last year Nebraska seemed to put an end to its head-scratching losses. But if there were ever a time for a shocker, this is it.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Illinois 9

Wisconsin (Oct. 7)

Here’s where the rubber hits the road for Nebraska. While Wisconsin has had Nebraska’s number since NU joined the B1G, keep in mind that the last two games between these squads have been coin-flips. With the game in Lincoln, and the transition well underway, look for Nebraska to finally get over a Wisconsin-sized hump.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Wisconsin 21

Ohio State (Oct. 14)

If Wisconsin is a measuring stick for where Nebraska stands in the B1G West, the Buckeyes will give Nebraska a good look at where it stacks up against the elite. Ohio State, along with Alabama, might be the most talented team in the country. A combination of the game being in Lincoln and a functioning offense should make things closer than last year (an admittedly low bar), but Nebraska is still quite a ways from competing head to head with Ohio State.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 41, Nebraska 21

at Purdue (Oct. 28)

Nebraska returns to the house of horrors that inflicted the program’s worst loss since Iowa State in 2009. But a week’s rest after Wisconsin and Ohio State should help Nebraska focus and get its season back on track.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 13

Northwestern (Nov. 4)

The Purples have a history of hanging tough in Memorial Stadium, pulling off an upset two years ago and losing only on a Hail Mary two years before that. Nebraska should be on more stable footing this time around, though, and allow the talent differential between the to squads to show through.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 37, Northwestern 17

at Minnesota (Nov. 11)

P.J. Fleck was quite a hire for Minnesota, but will be a huge culture shift from the program Jerry Kill built in his years up north. The Gophers look to be dangerous in the next few seasons, but it’s a big ask for them to be ready in year one to compete.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 21, Minnesota 13

at Penn State (Nov. 18)

Ooh, I so want to be bold on this game. Penn State looked like world-beaters at the end of last season, with a legitimate argument to get into the College Football Playoff. But at the start of last year, the Nittany Lions were decidedly average, and much of their late-season success was down to YOLO balls from quarterback Trace McSorley. Still, the Lions have elite talent (including Saquon Barkley, the best tailback in the B1G), and the game is in Happy Valley. At best, Nebraska would have to be well ahead of schedule to pull off this upset.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Penn State 45, Nebraska 31

Iowa (Nov. 24)

It was last year’s 40-10 (!) loss to Iowa that likely ended Mark Banker’s tenure as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, so this year’s Heroes Game will be a good marker to see how far the Blackshirts have come. If Nebraska is able to present more of an offensive threat than a hobbled Tommy Armstrong did last year, look for Nebraska to get back on track in this rivalry.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 17

Season Summary

Under the category system, Nebraska has five Better Win games (meaning five wins), three Should Win games (meaning two wins), two Might Win games (meaning one win) and two Won’t Win games (meaning no wins). That comes out to a 9-3 campaign for Nebraska.

Looking at the Fearless Forecasts, Nebraska also comes out with a 9-3 season, losing to Oregon, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 7-2 B1G record might be enough for Nebraska to earn a trip to Indianapolis, unless Wisconsin can win out the rest of its conference slate.

Nebraska Football: Four Equations To Explain Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season and Beyond

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“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

– Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who

Nebraska ended the 2016 season with a very familiar 9-4 record after a 38-24 drubbing in the Music City Bowl by Tennessee. After getting teased by an overtime loss in Camp Randall against Wisconsin, Nebraska fell apart and lost ugly against the best remaining teams on its schedule.

So how should Nebraska fans feel about where NU is in year two of Mike Riley’s tenure in Lincoln? Here’s four equations (because, let’s face it, what describes football better than a mathematical formula) that help inform how to think about where Nebraska is now, and where it will be going forward.

9-4 > 6-7

Yeah, the end of the 2016 wasn’t really fun, was it, Husker Fan? After a narrow loss to Wisconsin, many pundits (including this dope) thought Nebraska was ready for prime time against Ohio State.

Whoops. The Buckeyes’ 62-3 humiliation of Nebraska started NU down a slippery slope from which it could never really recover, and ugly losses to Iowa (still think it’s not a rivalry, Husker Fan?) and Tennessee made the fanbase truly question the direction of the program.

That’s probably a good thing in terms of demonstrating a fanbase unwilling to accept poor results. But everyone upset about 9-4 should really remember where NU was a year ago, at 3-6 after losing to Purdue and in danger of a truly ugly campaign.

So there’s plenty to be upset, or at least disappointed, about for Nebraska in 2016. But it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that a return to the four-loss valley is still a significant improvement from last year.

Four losses = four losses

At the start of the 2016 campaign, I was still wrestling with a question raised by @CountIstvan, who criticized the Riley hire by expressing frustration that a four-loss season in year three – basically getting Nebraska back to the Bo Pelini level – would be viewed as acceptable. As a result, he argued, firing Pelini and hiring a guy who needed three years to get to Pelini’s level of production was a waste of time.

I argued then, as I do now, that a combination of an improved culture and better recruiting means Nebraska could be seen as moving forward even if the results in wins and losses didn’t show up yet.

But no one who follows Nebraska can honestly say that the fallout from 2016 doesn’t feel a whole lot like the fallout from 2013, or 2012, or pretty much every Pelini season. Following a Nebraska team that wins the games it probably should, but gets embarrassed on a national stage.

To be fair, the response of the Nebraska faithful has made it pretty clear that where NU is right now isn’t acceptable. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst has said just as much (in an interview with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star) in terms of both winning percentage and talent level – that where Nebraska is right now isn’t good enough.

50.3 < 62.5

It’s simplistic and reductive to say that there is one thing that is the reason why Nebraska struggled in 2016. If you were looking for one candidate, you very well could argue an inability to be competitive on the offensive line.

But after watching the 2016 season unfold, I’m convinced a big part of the story can be told in the completion percentage number. Nebraska’s season completion percentage in 2016 was 50.3 percent. In comparison, the completion percentage of B1G West champion Wisconsin was 62.5 percent.

I think it’s a fair comparison. Wisconsin was far from a prolific passing offense. But completing passes at that rate allows an offense to be efficient and stay on the field, giving its team a chance to succeed.

Nebraska’s completion percentage in 2016 was simply not good enough for NU to be competitive. Starting next year, it is a virtual certainty that the percentage number will increase significantly. It doesn’t guarantee success, of course. But at least it should give Nebraska a fighting chance.

33 > 44

(Yes, I know that thirty-three is actually less than forty-four. Just go with me for a minute.)

So if we put Wisconsin as Nebraska’s target for winning the B1G West, then it’s not at all unreasonable to look at where the two schools are at in recruiting. Even after a disastrous Army All-American weekend that saw Nebraska net zero commits, NU still sits at no. 33 nationally (according to 247 Sports). Wisconsin, by comparison, sits at no. 44.

Now, to be clear, no. 33 isn’t good enough. Nebraska has 5-7 slots available, and has to close the deal on some of the highly-touted recruits it is targeting if it wants to get back to national prominence. But the first step in that road to recovery is to win the B1G West, and that means out-recruiting (and ultimately outplaying) your divisional rivals.

Wisconsin is the king of the hill at this point. Iowa is coming off a 12-0 season last year. Northwestern will always over-achieve so long as Pat Fitzgerald is coaching in Evanston. Purdue and Minnesota just hired exciting and innovative coaches. So it’s important that Nebraska is able to put enough talent on the field to win – as Eichorst said when firing Pelini – the “games that matter.”