Nebraska ended the 2021 season at 3-9, and head coach Scott Frost is 15-27 in his first four seasons. So Nebraska fans could be rightly surprised when ESPN’s Football Power Index tabbed Nebraska as most likely to win the B1G West. Here’s how the projective metric sees the chances for each team to win the division.
I know, I know, another “Nebraska winning the offseason” column. And Nebraska fans certainly are wise to guard their hearts given Frost’s 5-20 (!) record in one-score games.
But hear me out. The FPI really does give some objective reasons why you should at least have some cautious optimism for 2022.
First of all, in the preseason the FPI is based largely on previous season data, including returning starters, coaching tenure, and past performance. Likely starting quarterback Casey Thompson’s experience at Texas helps Nebraska’s performance in the metric.
Second, and probably more importantly, Nebraska’s schedule is far different this year than last. In 2021, even at 3-9, the FPI had Nebraska ranked at no. 29 nationally due to how difficult its schedule was. Last year, the FPI ranked Nebraska’s schedule as the eleventh-hardest in the country, and most difficult in the B1G West.
This year, Nebraska’s schedule is no. 50 nationally. Only Illinois (no. 51), Minnesota (no. 52), and Purdue (no. 62) have easier schedules than Nebraska. Iowa (no. 16), Wisconsin (no. 20), and Northwestern (no. 27) have far more difficult schedules this year.
Of course, the FPI is just a predictive metric based on past performances. It’s no guarantee that this will be the year that Nebraska finally gets back to a bowl game and likely saves Frost’s job. And given what they’ve seen, Nebraska fans could be forgiven for concluding that the team is just plain cursed.
Nebraska doesn’t make it any easier by insisting on a week zero game in Ireland against Northwestern, a team that is almost grown in a lab to cause Frost problems. A loss to the Purples could easily wreck the team’s confidence and start a “here we go again” spiral for the 2022 season.
But if Nebraska is able to beat the Purples in Dublin (and get its first winning record since 2019), then at least the table is set for NU to finally, finally, turn that mythical corner.
One of the strangest spring practices drew to a close with the annual Spring Game on Saturday. Due to injury concerns, the format was changed to offense v. defense with a modified scoring system. Quite honestly, I hope they keep this format – being able to see a full first-team offense against a first-team defense seemed quite illustrative.
Here’s the standard caveats. This is a practice, not a game. In the first half, the teams were basically playing touch football, so even less about the running game could be taken than otherwise even from an event like this. Take it for what it’s worth.
Still, at least we have something to keep our Husker hearts warm until August. So in reviewing the Spring Game …
Casey’s Crew. Transfer portal phenom Casey Thompson didn’t get a lot of time to shine on Saturday, but he made the most of it. On the first play from scrimmage, Thompson threw wide to Nate Boerkircher who was double-covered. As God as my witness, when the ball left his hand I thought it was going to be a pick-six, that’s how conditioned I’ve gotten over the last few years watching Nebraska.
But it wasn’t. Thompson fit the ball into a snug window and completed the pass for an 11-yard gain.
Yes, one swallow does not a summer make. And Thompson basically spent the rest of the game on the sideline, signaling as clearly as possible that he’s the guy this fall. But at least from the small sample size we got on Saturday, Thompson looked like the real deal.
Tailback Talent. Most of the first half was a punt-fest, with neither offense able to generate much momentum. But Anthony Grant took a stretch play to the right, cut it back left, and outran the defense for a 60-yard touchdown. Grant’s explosive first step and lateral quickness were on full display.
Jacquez Yant looked every bit like 2018 Devine Ozigbo, a big back who looks to have developed speed and shiftiness. The touch-football rules of the first half definitely hindered Yant’s ability to shine on Saturday, as I lost count of how many gallops to the end zone he had to cut short because he was touched down coming through the hole – plays where he would have been able to lower his shoulder and be able to power through in a real game.
A number of other backs – Markese Stepp, Trevin Luben, Connor Jewett, amongst others – got carries as well and looked impressive, especially in the second half where defenders had to bring a ball carrier to the ground.
The Sea(ish) of Red. Nebraska hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016. Nebraska was 3-9 last year and hasn’t won a football game since October 02, 2021. And still – still – 54,357 people showed up at Memorial Stadium to watch a practice.
Much digital ink has been spilled (including at this very site) fretting about how continued failure in football will eventually wear a fanbase out. I still think that’s true. But once springtime arrives in Nebraska, hope still pops its green shoots out of the ground.
Tackle Trouble. We talked earlier about the first half being a punt-fest. That was in no small part because Nebraska’s offensive tackles were routinely being eaten alive by the outside pass rush of the defense. Garrett Nelson, in particular, looked like a man amongst boys with the way he was able to terrorize the green-shirted quarterbacks.
And yes, that could have been a “Good” about the game. But coming into the Spring Game, Nebraska’s offensive line was a huge question mark. Nothing about this practice – and, again, it’s just one practice – gives any reason to doubt that conclusion.
Oh God Not Special Teams Again. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A 14-yard punt. A missed 40-yard field goal. An extra point shanked so badly it almost missed the net.
A smart and particularly handsome analyst observed that with even a league average special teams unit, Nebraska would likely have been bowl-bound in each of Scott Frost’s non-pandemic-shortened seasons. Nebraska hired a special teams coach whose only job is to make the unit better. Specialists at punter and kicker were transfer portaled in to improve the talent.
And still. And still. Yes, it’s just one practice. But Judas Priest, some of those things just should never happen, practice or not.
AND THE GREAT UNCERTAINTY
I have been uncomfortably disconnected from Nebraska football this offseason. Yes, some of that is just life interfering, but some of it really is just feeling the effects of the soul-destroying way Nebraska’s 2021 campaign unfolded.
Coming back to Memorial Stadium on Saturday – which, I can confidently say, is still my favorite place on earth – was salve to some of those old wounds. I may or may not have teared up as the band played “There Is No Place Like Nebraska” – I had sunglasses on, you can’t tell.
But then the offensive struggles of the first half made me flash back to the reflexive pessimism that had developed as a coping mechanism. The 14-yard punt and the shanked extra point gave rise to bitter black humor that has become an emotional defense strategy.
And to top it all off, it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that Frost’s tenure in Lincoln rides on this year being successful – and if it is not, then the wandering in the desert looks to continue even longer.
My wife, who came with me even being an Iowa fan, observed how much more pleasant the Spring Game crowd was because it lacked the nervous tension of a game day environment. She was right, and it really got me thinking.
It’s not nervous tension she feels, I think. It’s just fear. That’s where Nebraska’s fanbase is in 2022. It’s where it will be in September when North Dakota comes to town. And heaven help us if Nebraska drops the week zero game against Northwestern in Ireland.
It’s a strange place to be. But at least for one glorious spring afternoon, it was good to be home.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them …”
– Maya Angelou
October 9 doesn’t seem that long ago, does it Husker Fan? Boy things seemed different then. Sure, Nebraska was 3-4, but had come through a daunting stretch where it very, very nearly upset three top ten teams (Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Michigan), two on the road. More importantly, Nebraska showed it had the talent level to be on the same field with those national powerhouses, something that has been in question about the program for some time.
And, for good measure, Nebraska eviscerated a Northwestern team that has always been a challenge at home, 56-7.
Was this it? Were we finally, finally, finally on the verge of turning The Corner and being the program we all envisioned when Scott Frost was introduced as the prodigal son returning?
If the loss to Purdue really was the end of Frost’s time in Lincoln, then there is one thing that can be pointed to more than any other to explain the failure. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed, Frost’s inability to avoid bad losses has doomed seasons and – perhaps – Frost’s career at Nebraska.
You can (and, really, you should, because of those sweet sweet clicks) read the piece for the details, but here’s the takeaway. Let’s call Illinois and Purdue bad losses for this year. If Nebraska could just avoid those bad losses, here’s what Frost’s record would look like:
You’d feel better about Frost’s tenure if this was Nebraska’s record, wouldn’t you Husker Fan? Again, achieving these records isn’t asking Frost’s teams to pull up forests. It’s not asking to beat Ohio State, Michigan, and Oklahoma. It’s not even asking to beat Iowa and Wisconsin.
It’s asking to beat Illinois. Purdue. Colorado. Indiana. Troy, fer cryin’ out loud. Teams that, given Nebraska’s talent level, it should beat regularly.
Four years in, Frost has one signature win – and you kind of have to squint to see it that way – over Michigan State in 2018. Sure, they’ve been close. Sure, there’s three games left in the season and anything can happen.
But we’ve seen enough to know that here on Earth-1, Nebraska would be doing very well to end 2021 at 5-7. Far more likely that we see 4-8 or 3-9 as Nebraska’s final tally. And that would give new athletic director Trev Alberts a difficult decision at the end of the season.
Pretty grim stuff, huh, Husker Fan?
Well, we did promise you some silver linings. And here they are
To start with, let’s go back to how we all felt on October 9. Remember, this wasn’t even Nebraska pulling an upset, just keeping games close against Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Michigan. All of a sudden, Nebraska had buzz. People were talking about Nebraska being the best 3-4 team in the country – which I guess is a compliment.
The point is, though, that Nebraska is still one of the blue-bloods in college football. It still has a name, an image, an aura, that resonates. And the minute that Nebraska shows even flickers of life – like we saw on October 9 – then it will be able to reclaim some of that national prominence that has been lost over these years of wandering through the desert.
So don’t despair, Husker Fan. Nebraska football isn’t going to turn into a ghost town like some doom-sayers had surmised (looking at you Dirk Chatelain) anytime soon.
Additionally, we now have objective evidence that Frost has been successful at rebuilding the talent level at Nebraska to where it can compete with top-10 teams. For quite a while – really, through the end of the Pelini era, the entirety of the Riley era, and the start of Frost’s tenure – Nebraska could not stay on the field with teams like that.
Now, it can. So if Alberts does make a change, the new guy will be handed the keys to a talented roster. He’ll be well-paid, likely top-20 nationally at worst. He’ll inherit a fanbase with expectations lowered to subterranean levels, to where even modest success (coupled with running a clean and respectable program) will make him a star.
If Frost is relieved of his duties, it’ll be a sad day, and worth mourning the failure of a native son unable to find the success we all thought was inevitable. But the sun will rise the next morning, Husker Fan, and the Nebraska job will be one of the best in the country to attract a talented replacement.
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.
In a sneaky-huge challenge for Scott Frost, Nebraska comfortably beat Buffalo at home, 28-3. While the score stubbornly stayed close until a Luke Reimer interception set up Nebraska for an insurance touchdown, NU avoided the catastrophic errors that had plagued it for years and never gave the Bulls the momentum and opportunity to stage an upset.
So for Nebraska’s win over Buffalo …
Adrian’s Back? One of the enduring mysteries of Nebraska in the Frost era has been the inconsistency – which might be a more polite way to say regression – of quarterback Adrian Martinez. His inaccuracy and critical turnover against Illinois was a huge factor in Nebraska’s upset loss to open the season.
Martinez shone against Fordham last week but, let’s be honest, it was Fordham. Buffalo has been the best of Nebraska’s first three opponents, so the question was how Martinez would fare.
He answered the bell. His long run after surviving a jailbreak pass rush was the spark that seemed to start Nebraska’s offense. He began to make plays, including an improvised forward flip. After having watched Martinez throughout his career, that flip prompted this response from a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst.
That catastrophe, of course, never came. Martinez continued to make plays and, far more importantly, make good decisions and protect the football. Even though Nebraska didn’t really pull away from Buffalo until late, Martinez’ smart play never created a scenario where Buffalo could feel life coming back into the game.
Resiliency. Nebraska had two touchdowns taken off the board on … questionable refereeing decisions. Nebraska’s all-conference placekicker went 0-3 on field goals, meaning Nebraska came away with no points on three scoring opportunities.
As fragile as Nebraska’s confidence has been, little things like that have been enough to start the team spiraling and unable to respond to challenges. But at least for this week, Nebraska was able to weather the storm and keep fighting, ultimately getting a comfortable win.
Stripes. Sure, they were hard to see on the super-sharp alternate uniforms. But the stripes on the pants were back. It’s a welcome sight, and at least a glimmer of hope that the powers that be will finally see the light and end the unfortunate era of yoga pants for the scarlet and cream.
The Question of the Year. What’s happened to Nebraska’s offensive line? The Pipeline was supposed to be a source of strength, but over the first quarter of the season it has been anything but. Against inferior talent, Nebraska has been unable to generate any consistent rushing attack between the tackles. Martinez played brilliantly but was running for his life almost immediately upon getting the snap.
The defenses Nebraska will face the rest of this year are significantly better, on the whole, from what its seen so far. If the offensive line can’t find its feet – and quickly – any chance of a resurgence for Nebraska this year is unlikely.
The Other Question of the Year. How is it possible that Nebraska’s special teams can continue to be this comically bad? Yes, Nebraska’s kickoff coverage is worlds better than it was last year. But that’s really it. Other than one punt, Daniel Cerni has been underwhelming in terms of both punting distance and accuracy. Placekicker Connor Culp, as discussed earlier, has been nothing short of a disaster. And Cam Taylor-Britt has fumbled at least one punt return in each of Nebraska’s first three games. Yes, it’s not entirely fair to charge this week’s fumble on Taylor-Britt, but the fact that Nebraska’s punt return unit is good for at least one fumble per game is unacceptable.
Much like with the offensive line, being this bad on special teams is enough on its own to kill any chance of Nebraska turning a corner in 2021.
Where Was This In Champaign? Since beating Nebraska, Illinois has lost by 7 to the UTSA Roadrunners and by 28 (!) to Virginia. Nebraska’s performance against Buffalo – which, again, would likely be favored over Illinois on neutral ground – was its most complete since a 54-7 win over Maryland in 2019.
Had Nebraska put this performance on in Champaign against the Illini, it’s hard not to see that NU would be 3-0 and with a far different vibe preparing for a trip to Norman.
AND THE PROOF OF CONCEPT
Oh, that’s what it’s like when Nebraska doesn’t beat Nebraska. Even with the struggles running the ball between the tackles (even against a six-man box), Martinez’s ability to go over the top and attack the edges with a nifty option package let Nebraska’s offense thrive.
And Nebraska’s defense finally looked on point for four quarters. Against a sturdy rushing attack and quick-pass offense, the Blackshirts stood tall and kept Buffalo from ever really threatening to get back into the contest.
Nebraska beat the best team its faced by 25, and absent to questionable-to-ridiculous official calls would have won by 40. Sure, Oklahoma’s next, and Nebraska looks dramatically overmatched. But after Oklahoma is a well-coached Michigan State squad and a struggling Northwestern team at home. Should Nebraska survive its trip to Norman, physically and emotionally, then there are two winnable games on the schedule.
A 4-2 record after the first half of the season is certainly on the cards, which seemed a million miles away after the loss in Champaign.
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 …
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.
Expected to win every time
Expected to win more than half of the time
Expected to win less than half of the time
Expected 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 24
OK, so let’s tally up how many games we put into each of the four categories:
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.
Following Nebraska football has never been relaxing. This summer started two of Nebraska’s best offensive players leaving the program, and ended with a new athletic director and an NCAA investigation.
This has made Nebraska in general and Frost in particular the source of yet another round of bad publicity nationally, which is never helpful for a struggling program. And given the struggles Nebraska has gone through in the last few years, it seems like there’s a million problems to fix.
But really, there’s just one. Fix this, and everything else pretty much falls into place.
What’s this silver bullet, you ask? Well (assuming you didn’t read the headline and spoil it), just stop putting up bad losses.
In this context, I’m defining a bad loss as a team that Nebraska – even as currently constituted – should be beating more often than not. Take a walk with me over the last three years at the bad losses Nebraska has piled up – if you dare
Colorado 33, Nebraska 28. The Buffaloes were coming off a dreadful season, and Nebraska gave new head coach Mel Tucker a gift.
Troy 24, Nebraska 19. I don’t care that Adrian Martinez was hurt. I don’t care that Troy is one of the better G5 programs, especially in 2018. Losing to a Sun Belt team at home is always a bad loss.
Purdue 42, Nebraska 28. A team that needed every win to reach a bowl game coming into Lincoln and winning by double digits still is a head-scratcher.
Colorado 34, Nebraska 31. Boy did this game have every chance to be the iconic moment of Frost’s tenure to date, with Nebraska fans painting Folsom Field red. But Nebraska’s chronic inability to close a game out soured the day, and in some ways the season.
Indiana 38, Nebraska 31. Yes, I know the whole Indiana program will be offended to be included in this list. And to be honest, 2021 Indiana wouldn’t count as a bad loss. But 2019 Indiana – especially at home – most certainly did.
Purdue 31, Nebraska 27. Nebraska caught a huge break in playing Purdue without phenom Rondale Moore – and lost anyway.
Illinois 43, Nebraska 21. Possibly the ugliest loss in the Frost era – and that includes a loss to Troy. Nebraska was bullied and intimidated by an Illini squad that fired its coach at season’s end.
Minnesota 24, Nebraska 17. A comically-undermanned Minnesota team (thanks to COVID) rolled into Lincoln and ended up beating a Nebraska squad that had clearly had enough football for the year. If the Illinois loss was Frost’s ugliest, this was his most unforgivable.
That’s … a big list. But let’s just imagine what Nebraska’s program would look like if everything stayed the same – blowout losses, frustration against Iowa and Wisconsin notwithstanding.
That would mean, of course, that Nebraska would have been to a bowl for three straight years too. How much better would you feel about the status of the program if this was Frost’s resume instead of what it currently is?
So really, that’s the hill Nebraska needs to climb right now. Not beating the Buckeyes in Columbus. Not even (shudder) beating Iowa. Just stop losing to Sun Belt teams and teams about to fire coaches and teams that can barely field a full roster.
If Frost can accomplish that – and the fact that it’s a question is quite the indictment of the program – then Nebraska’s program should be on far better footing moving forward.