Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Oklahoma 23, Nebraska 16

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 …

THE GOOD

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 BAD

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.

This week, anyway.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Game-By-Game Predictions for the 2021 Season

With the season about to start, it’s time to go on the record and make our call for how Nebraska’s 2021 season will go. As always, we will use a four-tier system to organize the games and help remove at least a little of the guesswork.

BETTER WINExpected to win every time
SHOULD WINExpected to win more than half of the time
MIGHT WINExpected to win less than half of the time
WON’T WINExpected to lose every time

We will put each game into one of these four categories, and then count up how many expected wins Nebraska should have at the end. Of course, we will also include a Fearless Forecast guess at the final score, because who doesn’t want two bites at the apple when predicting the future?

(Kidding, the Fearless Forecast isn’t the official prediction)

AT ILLINOIS (August 28)

Possibly the most important opening game in Nebraska’s history as a football program. Given how precarious Scott Frost’s position has become, a loss to Illinois (who, by the way, manhandled Nebraska last year in Lincoln) could easily send the 2021 season into a death spiral. But with Illinois bringing in a new coach (even one like Bret Bielema with tons of B1G experience) and changing schemes, Nebraska should have an advantage. We’ll see if the must-win quality of this game works to sharpen Nebraska’s focus, or makes the team crack under pressure.

SHOULD WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Illinois 17

FORDHAM (September 04)

Not only are the Rams an FCS team, they aren’t even a particularly good one in that subdivision. If this game is even close coming into the fourth quarter, alarm bells should be ringing.

BETTER WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Fordham 13

BUFFALO (September 11)

This game looked a lot scarier before Lance Leipold took over at Kansas, causing a number of players to enter the transfer portal and putting the program in a rebuilding mode. Even though much of the 6-1 team from last year will be returning, the coaching change and disparity in talent make this a game that Nebraska should be able to win comfortably.

BETTER WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Buffalo 28

AT OKLAHOMA (September 18)

Sure, it was a bad look trying to back out of this game. But in all honesty, I get it. If I’m Frost, given the fragile nature of the program, I want nothing to do with a trip to likely the best team in the country. Blowout losses have ruined seasons before. This is a game that is likely to be all about moral victories.

WON’T WIN

Fearless Forecast: Oklahoma 45, Nebraska 21

AT MICHIGAN STATE (September 25)

At Colorado, Mel Tucker broke Nebraska’s heart twice with gut-wrenching (and head-scratching) wins. Now in charge at Michigan State, Tucker will have his chance to inflict more pain on Frost. Much about this contest will depend on Nebraska’s mindset coming out of Norman. Sparty’s cupboard is pretty bare, but this is a scenario ripe for a team like Oklahoma beating Nebraska twice by inflicting a hangover.

SHOULD WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 17, Michigan State 13

NORTHWESTERN (October 02)

Sam McEwon of the Omaha World-Herald had what I thought was the best insight on Northwestern. The Purples really are kind of a bellweather of the rest of the B1G West. If the rest of the conference is down a little, the Purples can win it. That’s been the case the last couple of years, and Northwestern has beaten Nebraska recently simply by playing smarter, sharper football. But if Nebraska has been able to take care of business up to this point, it should have enough momentum to win this game at home

SHOULD WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 21, Northwestern 17

MICHIGAN (October 09)

Much like Nebraska, Jim Harbaugh has significantly underachieved at Michigan. But underachieving for Michigan (other than last year) has been winning eight-to-ten games a year, not what Nebraska has produced. The Wolverines certainly aren’t the powerhouse of That Team Down South, but they are still a more talented team on both sides of the ball.

MIGHT WIN

Fearless Forecast: Michigan 28, Nebraska 20

AT MINNESOTA (October 16)

Goldie has likely the best running back in the league in Mo Ibrahim, and a quarterback in Tanner Morgan that’s been in the program for, what 24 years. It’s also attempting to revive an atrocious defense from last year. Minnesota’s win over Nebraska last year with a COVID-ravaged squad might be Frost’s most unforgivable loss in his Nebraska tenure, and going to Minneapolis to get revenge will be a challenge.

MIGHT WIN

Fearless Forecast: Minnesota 27, Nebraska 24

PURDUE (October 30)

At one point, Jeff Brohm versus Scott Frost looked like it was going to be one of the most fun battles of two sharp-witted offensive coaches. The tide has turned for both Brohm and Frost, and although Purdue has one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in wide receiver David Bell, its overall talent level makes it harder for the Boilermakers to dig out of a hole.

SHOULD WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Purdue 24

OHIO STATE (November 06)

Listen, the Buckeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback, and the game is in Lincoln. So if there’s ever a chance Nebraska would be able to …

Yeah, I’m not buying it either. Nebraska has been competitive with Ohio State in the past, taking the Buckeyes to the wire in Columbus when Adrian Martinez was a freshman and hanging around for a half last year. Like with Oklahoma, hope for the best as a Nebraska fan, but be satisfied with moral victories.

WON’T WIN

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 49, Nebraska 17

AT WISCONSIN (November 20)

Since Nebraska’s entry into the B1G, Sconnie has loomed as a specter over the program. The Badgers are what Nebraska thought it would be coming into the conference, and now is what Nebraska is aspiring to become. The last few games against Wisconsin have been closer than the score would indicate, but turning the tide in Madison this year seems a bridge too far.

MIGHT WIN

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17

IOWA (November 26)

Hey, remember this guy?

Yep, the last game played in Memorial Stadium with fans present was Keith Duncan blowing kisses as Iowa walked Nebraska off for its fifth (now sixth) straight Heroes Game win. Husker Fan, if you don’t have that image burned into your soul – if you still think this isn’t a rivalry between Nebraska and Iowa – there’s something wrong with you.

The last three Heroes Games have been razor-thin, with Nebraska at least even with if not outplaying Iowa, but making enough mistakes for a gritty and smart football team to get the best of them.

I am fully aware that this is falling victim to the Gambler’s Fallacy, but Nebraska’s due for one of these to break its way.

SHOULD WIN

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 24

SUMMARY

OK, so let’s tally up how many games we put into each of the four categories:

BETTER WIN2
SHOULD WIN5
MIGHT WIN3
WON’T WIN2

That means Nebraska is expected to win all the Better Win games (2), more than half of the Should Win games (3), less than half of the Might Win games (1), and none of the Won’t Win games. That puts Nebraska at 6-6, which is probably the bare minimum Frost needs to keep the hounds at bay and work with a much more manageable 2022 schedule.

The Fearless Forecast is a little more optimistic, putting Nebraska at 7-5. Given the amount of change in Nebraska’s roster, particularly at the skill positions on offense, forecasting this year’s season is even more challenging than usual.

Now all we need is a football season to prove how right – or wrong – this forecast really is.

GBR, baby.

Why Nebraska Fans Should Not Give Up on Dreams of Glory

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I know it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted anything. And yes, I am aware that there is a football season ongoing for Nebraska.

Some of it has been personal challenges, which you aren’t interested in reading about. But, honestly, most of it has been Minnesota. Watching Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota really shook what I thought about this program.

The Ohio State loss wasn’t fun to watch, but given where the Buckeyes are it was at least understandable. Heck, I even wrote about how to respond as a Nebraska fan.

Nebraska bounced back from the Ohio State loss with a gritty (some might say ugly) win over Northwestern at home, and it looked like maybe things had changed.

And then Nebraska went to Minneapolis, and got steamrollered by the Golden Gophers. Nebraska lost 34-7, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as that score indicated. While head coach Scott Frost would later say that much of Minnesota’s ability to move the ball came from poor run fits rather than being beaten physically, it was inarguable that Minnesota was the better team.

In 2017, an ugly loss to Minnesota in Minneapolis was the final nail in the coffin of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach. With Riley’s firing after the 2017 season and Frost’s arrival, combined with the optimism that surrounded the beginning of this season, the one sure thing seemed to be that the 2017 debacle in Minneapolis couldn’t be repeated.

Well, the debacle was repeated in 2019, and the faith of many Nebraska fans (including myself) was shaken to the core. It wasn’t until Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald wrote this column that I really felt I had some perspective on where Nebraska is as a program.

Chatelain’s basic point is that Nebraska has been down for so long, stuck in this mire for so long, that the expectation of Nebraska as a national powerhouse is no longer reasonable. Here’s kind of the point of the column boiled down.

Nebraska football is the 60-year-old golfer who insists on playing the tees he played at 30. He can’t believe it when his drive doesn’t carry the bunker. Nebraska football is the guy at open gym calling for alley-oops on the fast break. And when the lob comes? It sails over his fingertips out of bounds.

How foolish would it be if Illinois or Purdue stood up in August and proclaimed their Big Ten championship plans? Yet we hear it from Nebraska every year and barely think twice. We encourage it. We see “College GameDay” roll into town and get intoxicated by ’90s flashbacks and then the game starts and, whoa, what happened here?

For years, I’ve told myself it was only a matter of time before Nebraska stumbled onto prosperity again. Even Kansas and Baylor and Northwestern and Minnesota have breakout seasons. Now I’m not so sure.

I share that uncertainty. I’ve written about how there are no guarantees of success, even if Frost is “the guy” for Nebraska. I’ve thought about how familiar Frost’s responses are when Nebraska loses. And, most uncomfortably, when I hear people say with certainty that Frost is “the guy” I’ve had to push away the thought asking myself “do you think that just because it’s what you want to believe?”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Chatelain. It takes guts to write a column like this, just like it took guts to face down an irate Bo Pelini in his prime. Chatelain is the prime target of the ultras in Nebraska’s fanbase who can’t abide by anyone not serving up the Kool-Aid of inevitable success right around the corner.

Having said that, I’m not sure I’m willing to reach the same conclusion that Chatelain appears to draw at the end of the piece.

Nebraska football, for better or worse, is a rotten institution. Hollow at the core. The status quo isn’t nine wins and a Top 25 ranking. We’re living the new status quo. And the sooner we all recognize that Nebraska isn’t supposed to beat Indiana, the sooner it might.

First of all, I’m not sure what circumstance would constitute Nebraska football being a rotten institution as “for better.” And while he’s right that the status quo is no longer the nine-win plateau of the Pelini era, the conclusion he seems to draw is that Nebraska won’t pull out of the quagmire in which it is stuck until the expectations of success go away. If Nebraska fans would just be cool with mediocre football, then they could enjoy a once-in-a-blue-moon success story more. And, more importantly, if those expectations go away, then the pressures go away and (insert magic wand waiving here) the wins will return.

Not only is that nonsense, it’s dangerous thinking for the ongoing project of Nebraska football.

For the most part, the teams that are perennial powerhouses have some built-in advantages. Teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU, and Clemson are all nestled in recruiting hotbeds, making the acquisition of five-star talent much simpler. Oregon is a little bit of an outlier, but the Nike money flowing into Eugene helps compensate for that difficulty.

Nebraska … is not in a recruiting hotbed. There are only a couple of things that differentiate Nebraska from Baylor, Northwestern, Minnesota, and the other programs that Chatelain cites as having “breakout seasons.”

First, Nebraska’s tradition of success will always give it more benefit of the doubt if there’s even a possibility that the team could be competitive. Having College GameDay show up on campus for a team that went 4-8 the last two seasons and hadn’t beaten anyone better than Northern Illinois is evidence to that proposition.

The second is related to the first. While Nebraska fans are quick to strain their shoulders patting themselves on the back, it’s also inarguable that the dedication Nebraska fans to their team regardless of circumstance (some might even say in all kinds of weather) is unique in college football.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed this out after Nebraska’s gut-punch loss to Colorado in Boulder.

Even more than other programs, Husker Fan, you are the beating heart of why Nebraska is considered a blue-blood of college football. From a distance, there’s no reason the Nebraska program should be considered alongside the royalty of college football.

Except for you. You’re the ones who painted Folsom Field red, and in doing so you were the spiritual heirs of all those red-clad faithful that boarded the trains and descended on the Rose Bowl in 1941. You’re the ones who have sold out Memorial Stadium since 1962. You’re the ones, ultimately, who provide the platform from which Nebraska has the potential to launch itself back into the college football stratosphere.

You know the tune. You’ve sung the words – probably about a half-count off the beat, because that’s how we Nebraskans roll.

We’ll all stick together, in all kinds of weather, for dear old Nebraska U

The problem with Chatelain’s conclusion – it’s the expectations that are sabotaging Nebraska – is the corollary of the above thesis. It’s because Nebraska fans care so damn much, and won’t accept anything less than excellence, that Nebraska can differentiate itself from the Baylors and Northwesterns and Minnesotas and other programs that can’t trip over five-star defensive ends on the way to Zaxby’s for lunch.

If that goes away, then the beating heart of what makes it true that There Is No Place Like Nebraska goes away, and Nebraska really does become another Iowa or Indiana or Minnesota.

Sure, that’s arrogant to say, especially for a program that’s been looking up at Iowa for a while and just got beat by both Indiana and Minnesota. But it’s still true. Nebraska’s ceiling – whether it gets there or not – is higher than those programs, and it’s higher in large part because of the rabid fan base that propels it there.

And while we’re at questioning Chatelain’s conclusion, there’s one predicate to his argument that deserve some scrutiny as well. Chatelain said that there is no other program that has gone through a drought like Nebraska. Let’s consider that, taking a look at the records of six programs:

  # of years W L T Pct.
Program 1 17 133 87 0 .605
Program 2 12 92 67 0 .579
Program 3 22 157 98 7 .607
Program 4 12 77 58 3 .564
Program 5 22 144 99 1 .591
Program 6 17 141 77 0 .647

Programs 1-5 look fairly similar, don’t they? Each one had over a decade of mediocrity on the football field. Care to know who these programs are?

Program 1 Nebraska (2002-2018)
Program 2 Alabama (1995-2007)
Program 3 USC (1980-2001)
Program 4 Oklahoma (1988-1999)
Program 5 Clemson (1991-2010)

What’s the point of this? College football programs, particularly ones rich in tradition, can survive long droughts of success. Nebraska football as a program is far more resilient than we are giving it credit for. Yes, this long run has been painful and difficult. But we shouldn’t fall victim to recency bias (even if the “recency” in this case spans several presidential administrations).

All the pieces are still in place for Nebraska to return to national prominence in college football. Once Frost – or the next guy, if Frost doesn’t succeed – starts seeing success on the field, the underlying pieces are in place to vault Nebraska back to that national spotlight its fans so desperately crave.

But wait, you say. Who is this Program 6 you included in your list? Well, that would be Iowa, from 2002 to 2018, the same sample size as Nebraska. Why include the Hawkeyes in this analysis?

Mainly for a sense of perspective. The period from 2002-2018 is generally looked at from an Iowa perspective as one of the golden eras in Hawkeye football, while the same period has been viewed as a desert for Nebraska. And yet the difference between the two is a total of eight wins – which works out to a difference of 0.471 wins per season over that time period.

You could make an argument that the Iowa perspective is healthier. But it is also an acknowledgment that their current run is a ceiling of success, and that the fans should be grateful for the wins they have, understanding their place in the college football universe. Nebraska fans are not willing to concede that point – and are willing to endure the heartaches of that frustration in exchange for the potential of greater glory.

Which side of that bargain would you take, Husker Fan? I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

GBR, baby.