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.

Nebraska Football: Five Questions For Scott Frost In Spring Practice

We are well and truly into spring practice for Nebraska football ahead of the 2021 season. After a disappointing 3-5 campaign, Nebraska now enters head coach Scott Frost’s fourth season surrounded by uncertainty. With a number of high profile departures on offense and a strong corps of returning defensive starters, anyone who says they know what Nebraska will be like in 2021 is guessing.

But it is year four, and even Frost’s most ardent defenders understand that results on the field need to be seen this year. So what questions will need to be answered as the new season begins?

So, about that offense?

Look, there’s a lot about Frost’s first three years in Lincoln that have been surprising and befuddling. But by far the most surprising is how lost Nebraska’s offense looks. Frost arrived from UCF bringing an innovative spread-based option attack that looked to meld what he learned at Oregon with the principles he learned under Tom Osborne.

The results have not been what anyone expected. In total offense, Nebraska was no. 25 nationally in 2018, which gave fans hope for things to come. But in the last two years, Nebraska has been no. 55 and 65 nationally in total offense – meaning things have gotten comparatively worse in the three years since Frost arrived.

Sure, there’s plenty of explanations. Nebraska’s roster wasn’t where it needed to be, particularly in the trenches. Nebraska’s culture (I know, I’m sick to the teeth of hearing about “culture” too) wasn’t the best. Frost’s offensive system hadn’t been tested against defenses of the caliber and style of the B1G.

But it’s year four, with a four-year starter at quarterback and a well-stocked offensive line. It’s time for Frost’s offense to show proof of concept.

Blackshirt resurgence?

For as much as Nebraska’s offense has been an enigma, Nebraska’s defense has been a surprising star. After being ranked no. 94 nationally in total defense in 2018, Nebraska’s ranking improved to no. 65 in 2019 and no. 50 in 2020.

And for as much turnover as Nebraska’s offensive personnel has seen in the last couple of years, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander sees almost his entire squad return for the 2021 campaign. We’ve seen Nebraska’s offense be – put charitably – a work in progress in the last three years. Is it really possible that Nebraska’s defense can be the glue that holds things together until Frost gets the offense on track?

Can special teams not be a disaster?

What is truly maddening – well, one of the things that are truly maddening – about Frost’s time in Nebraska is how special teams have been a quiet culprit of failure. Think about, even if nothing on offense or defense was any better than it was, how many games Nebraska could have or should have won with even league average special teams play.

2019 Iowa with a kick return touchdown. 2019 Wisconsin with a kick return touchdown. 2019 without a field goal kicker. 2020 Illinois with a fake punt. And these are just the ones that come to mind the quickest. Imagine without these debacles that Nebraska could have won some of those agonizingly-close games it always seemed to be on the wrong side of. And if a couple of those games turn the other way, especially against teams like Iowa or Wisconsin, how much does that change the confidence – and, dare I say, the culture – of the team?

Can Frost reboot the roster?

Yes, a 3-5 record in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season made it hard for even the hardest of die-hard Nebraska fans to stay optimistic, particularly with head-scratching losses to Illinois and Minnesota.

But what really shook Nebraska fans to their collective core was seeing how many players – Frost recruits, not just previous staff guys – who were leaving the program. Some, like running back Dedrick Mills, were a loss but understandable. But when leaders like Luke McCaffrey and Wan’Dale Robinson left, alarm bells started to ring.

Frost has been able to restock the cupboards pretty quickly through the transfer portal, landing running back Markese Stepp from USC and wide receiver Samori Toure from Montana. If Omar Manning, last year’s shining hope as a transfer, is also able to contribute, then Nebraska’s offensive weapons will look very different than they did last year.

That might very well be a good thing given Nebraska’s anemic performance. But it is also a very strange thing given that – other than at quarterback – Nebraska’s skill positions will look almost entirely different next year.

Can Frost keep the vision alive?

One of DC’s most under-rated superheroes is Green Lantern (maybe because this movie got made). Whether it’s Hal Jordan, Jon Stewart, Guy Garder, or any other incarnation, a Green Lantern’s willpower is what he or she uses to keep the galaxy safe. It is the strength of the Lantern’s will, focused through a power ring, that makes Lanterns the scourge of despots throughout the universe.

Much like a Green Lantern, right now Frost is holding Nebraska’s program together through the force of his own will. Even though Frost is 12-20 since 2018, Frost has never waivered in promoting his vision for the program, how he sees this thing turning around and where it will be.

In many ways, Frost is willing Nebraska’s program into existence with his vision. His success at Oregon and UCF certainly help, but ultimately it’s Frost’s force of will and charisma that is keeping Nebraska afloat. It continues to work, as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed, based on how Frost continues to out-recruit his results on the field.

But now it’s year four, and willpower can only take you so far. Green Lanterns have to recharge their rings every 24 hours, and at some point Frost is going to have to recharge himself with some success on the field for his willpower-created program to avoid collapse.

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: NU ReView, Wisconsin 37, Nebraska 21

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It wasn’t as bad as we expected, was it, Husker Fan?

Wisconsin came to Lincoln and beat Nebraska 37-21, but in the loss NU showed signs of life we haven’t seen all season. Head coach Scott Frost’s offense finally showed signs of life, outgaining Wisconsin 493-482. Fourteen of Wisconsin’s points came from two broken plays, a kick return touchdown and a 55-yard reception that ended up being a clinic on how to miss tackles from the Blackshirts. Nebraska had plenty of opportunities to put points on the board, but failed to cash in.

So in reviewing the game, here’s what we saw.

The Good

Oh Hai Dedrick. In the previous four games, Nebraska running back Dedrick Mills had six carries for 18 yards, eight carries for 30 yards, nine carries for 28 yards, and ten carries for 26 yards.

Against Wisconsin – currently the no. 12 rushing defense in the nation – Mills had 17 carries for 188 yards.

With freshman phenom Wan’Dale Robinson out injured, Mills had to shoulder the lions’ share of carries, and he answered the bell remarkable, running with speed and decisiveness we haven’t seen this season. If this Mills shows up for the next two games, Nebraska’s quest for a bowl game will be boosted significantly.

Extension Suspense. Just before the game, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos announced that Frost was signed to a two-year extension, putting him under contract until 2026. To the locals, the announcement seemed a little strange, as there didn’t seem to be much question about whether Frost’s job was unsafe.

Initially, my thought was that Frost and Moos had at least a suspicion that the rest of 2019 was going to go badly, and to provide some pre-emptive support to head off a disgruntled fanbase. But after listening to other commentary, it does seem more likely that the main reasons for recruiting.

After all, both Florida State and Arkansas fired their head coaches before they finished their second seasons. Sure, Nebraska’s situation is far different from the other two programs – but that’s only if you know the history of Frost with Nebraska. The kids who are being recruited have no such knowledge, and you can bet that coaches competing against Nebraska for those kids aren’t being shy about comparing Nebraska to Florida State or Arkansas.

So Frost’s extension is an inoculation against that negative recruiting. There was little chance Frost wouldn’t be in Lincoln for many years to come. By giving him the extension, Moos is making it that much easier for Frost to be successful.

A Kicker Away. Try this thought experiment with me. Even if everything else remained the same – Jonathan Taylor going over 200 yards, Adrian Martinez’s baffling 20-yard sack and backbreaking interception, Nebraska’s secondary attempting to tackle Wisconsin receiver A.J.  by pretending they are torpedoes without arms – Nebraska was still a competent placekicker away from winning the game.

Nebraska missed a 41-yard field goal and failed on fourth down attempts from Wisconsin’s 34, 15, and 1. Field goals from those positions would have been from 52, 32, and 18 (!) yards. A kicker that could go 4-for-4 from those distances would have added an additional 12 points to Nebraska’s tally.

And don’t forget Nebraska’s disastrously short and misplaced kickoff directly after its first touchdown, which Wisconsin returned for a touchdown of its own. A better kick almost certainly takes the touchdown return off the table, and at least forces the Badgers to drive the field to score. In other words, having a competent placekicker would have taken seven points off Wisconsin’s score.

That adds up to a score of Nebraska (21 + 12 =) 33, Wisconsin (37 – 7 =) 30.

The point of this thought experiment isn’t to find excuses as much as it is to find silver linings. With Nebraska sitting at 4-6 after two straight 4-8 campaigns, it can seem like Nebraska is (in Frost’s words) “miles away” from glory (quote from Mitch Sherman of The Athletic).

That’s not the case though, at least it wasn’t against Wisconsin. Nebraska, even with all its 2019 warts, was still just a competent placekicker away from beating the Badgers.

The Bad

Negatives in Positive Territory. If you have watched Nebraska this year, you know it seems like it has been in enemy territory all the time with precious little to show for it. So I decided to lift the hood and look at what Nebraska’s done against Power-5 opponents this year.

I looked at how many drives both Nebraska and its opponents have had with possessions starting inside the 50, starting inside the opponents’ 25, and what their average points per drive (PPD) resulted from those possessions. Here’s what I found

  Inside 50, NU Inside 50, opp Inside 25, NU Inside 25, opp PPD 50+, NU PPD 50+, opp PPD 25+, NU PPD 25+, opp
Col 5 9 2 5 2 3.8 5 5.4
Ill 8 6 8 4 5.25 5.17 5.25 7
NW 5 7 4 3 2.6 1.43 3.25 3.34
Minn 6 7 1 5 1.17 5 7 7
Ind 9 9 7 7 2.67 4.23 3.43 5.43
Wis 7 7 3 5 2 3.29 0 5.46
Total 40 45 25 29 2.75 3.8 3.84 5.55

What do these numbers tell us? Well, here’s what I took from it.

  • Nebraska has gotten into plus territory and inside its opponents 25 just about as often as its opponents, meaning NU’s offense has been getting into scoring position.
  • In games Nebraska has won (Illinois, Northwestern), Nebraska did better inside the 50 than its opponents.
  • Since Illinois, Nebraska has been bad, but not terrible, from inside the 25. But it has been absolutely horrendous from 50 to 25.
  • Northwestern’s offense was really bad, you guys.

So yeah, you weren’t imagining things. The numbers back up what your perception likely was – that Nebraska’s struggles can really be focused on the area from the 50 to the opponent’s 25 yard line.

And The Weight of Moral Victories

Nebraska lost to Wisconsin at home. Nebraska was a 13.5 point underdog at home to Wisconsin and failed to cover. Nebraska gave up 200 yards rushing – again – to Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.

And yet the mood walking out of Memorial Stadium was – optimism?

Part of that comes from an offense that finally returned to life. Nebraska outgained Wisconsin even as it lost by 16 points – and that’s hard to do, y’all. But Frost’s calling card has always been his offensive prowess. So the offensive doldrums Nebraska endured for the last three games really did seem like an existential challenge for Frost’s success at Nebraska.

Seeing Nebraska succeed offensively, even in a loss, helped fuel the fire of hope. And even though defensive coordinator Erik Chinander took more than his share of barbs, the fact that Wisconsin’s offense (absent a few chunk plays) had to work its way down the field on the Blackshirts was a pleasant surprise.

Some of this might be the poverty of low expectations. Some of it might just be a fanbase wandering through the desert of mediocrity and desperately clinging to any drop of hope. But whatever it is, in this Upside-Down world that is Nebraska football now, Husker Fan is feeling better about things after a 16-point home loss to a conference rival.

At the very least, though, Wisconsin is stuck having to house the hideously ugly Freedom Trophy for another year. Take that, Badgers.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: 2019 Season Projection for the Cornhuskers

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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: 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: Making Sense of Riley’s Status as Husker Head Coach

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Where do we go from here now that all other children are growing-up?

And how do we spend our lives if there’s no-one to give us a hand?

– Games People Play, The Alan Parsons Project

It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it? Nebraska came into 2017 as a huge unknown, and has to this point been a borderline-disaster. Ugly defensive performances early against Arkansas State and Oregon, pick-six interception after pick-six interception, Nebraska’s worst loss in over a decade, and capitulation against the measuring sticks of the conference have hit Nebraska fans like a train wreck.

Nebraska’s seen the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst and the hiring of replacement Bill Moos from Washington State. And, most importantly, it’s seen head coach Mike Riley’s job seriously called into question seven games into the third year of his tenure.

So what do we make of all this?

Ohio State was never going to define Riley’s tenure

Yeah, last week wasn’t pretty. Sure, Nebraska’s 56-14 loss to Ohio State in Memorial Stadium was better than last year’s 62-3 debacle. But if anything, the 56-14 score was flattering … to Nebraska. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst put it on Twitter:

So if you’re judging Nebraska against Ohio State, then clearly last week wasn’t good enough. But, realistically, Nebraska was never expected to compete against the Buckeyes. If Moos has not made his mind up about Riley yet (a position which is clearly not universally shared), then Ohio State wasn’t going to be the measuring stick against which Riley’s performance would be judged.

Nebraska’s next five games are at Purdue, home to Northwestern, at Minnesota, at Penn State, and home to Iowa. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages, Nebraska has better talent than every school on that list not named Penn State. So if you are judging Riley’s future based on the remainder of 2017, then winning four of the next five would seem to be the fairest test.

If Riley is still coaching for his job, Nebraska’s performance against Ohio State shouldn’t be what decides his fate. Instead, it should be how Nebraska performs against the winnable games left on its 2017 schedule.

Nebraska is worse now than when Riley arrived

Boy, that’s a rough subhead to write. But it’s hard to argue. Nebraska likely wasn’t as bad as its 6-7 mark in 2015, after being the victim of a number of ridiculous bad-luck losses. But it also likely wasn’t as good as last year’s 9-4 mark, benefitting from a number of fortunate victories.

This year? Nebraska’s earned every bit of its 3-4 mark. It was a last-minute drive by Arkansas State away from sitting at 2-5 with losses to a Sun Belt and a MAC school.

Riley’s defenders would point out, fairly, that Nebraska is installing an entirely new defense and functionally a new offense given the change at quarterback. Nebraska’s struggles this season were in some way inevitable as a result.

That’s a big ask, wanting functionally a “reset” year-zero year at a program like Nebraska. This is Riley’s third year in Lincoln, and it’s fair for him to expect a little more time to get his players and install his system.

But in his tenure, Nebraska has three indefensible losses (2015 Illinois, 2015 Purdue, and 2017 Northern Illinois). And Nebraska now has the kind of blowout losses (2016 Ohio State, 2016 Tennessee, 2017 Wisconsin, 2017 Ohio State) that helped show Bo Pelini the door even with winning nine games consistently.

The stage is set for a coaching change

Moos’ arrival in October wasn’t good news for Riley. I don’t believe it’s a guarantee that Riley will be fired, which puts me at odds with many of the reporters covering Nebraska on a local and national level.

But if Riley is going to be fired, having a new athletic director in place makes that process work a lot better. If Moos decides that Riley has to go – whether that was on the plane ride to Lincoln, or at some point during the remainder of the season – then a sitting AD can start right away on the job search process. And if this year’s off-season coaching carousel might be competitive, having someone get a jump start on the process could be critical.

But there’s history that might suggest Riley could stay

The consensus seems to be that Riley is a dead coach walking. I know it feels that way after Wisconsin and Ohio State. And if Nebraska drops a game to Purdue or Minnesota, then it’s going to be a hard conclusion to avoid.

But remember how you felt after Northern Illinois. It seemed like there was no way Riley could continue. But two wins (over two pretty atrocious football teams) got Nebraska fans excited enough to generate an electric atmosphere in Lincoln when the Badgers came to town.

What do you think a three-game winning streak would do for the mood of the fanbase? How much better would things look after three straight wins?

Don’t forget, too, that Moos gave Mike Leach a fourth year at Washington State after winning three, six, and three games in his first three years. The scenarios are different, of course, but Moos at least has some history of taking his time when appropriate.

So what’s next?

I have no idea. I really like Riley as a person. I can see what he’s trying to do on offense. And I really like the direction Nebraska recruiting is heading.

But I don’t like the direction Nebraska’s product on the field has been heading. I don’t like some of the personnel decisions and game-management that have led Nebraska to its current overall record. And I really don’t like the sense of resignation seeping into the fan base. For the Ohio State game, secondary market tickets were available for less than $20. That’s an unsustainable level of faith in the program by its fans. It’s hard to imagine going into an offseason with this level of defeatism permeating the fanbase. That, by itself, would be a convincing argument for a coaching change.

Then there’s the native son, Scott Frost, waiting in the wings. Frost seems to be the next big thing in coaching, and it’s hard to imagine him saying no if Nebraska came calling. Frost would likely be able to unify a fan base that’s been fractured since the firing of Frank Solich in 2003 (although, don’t forget, Frost was booed by Nebraska fans after spurning NU to attend Stanford as a freshman).

And while you don’t want to make a decision from fear, can you imagine what Nebraska fans would be like if Moos stuck with Riley and Frost went to Tennessee? There would be an element of the fan base that would never stop comparing the two – and woe to Moos and Nebraska if Frost took off with the Volunteers.

Ultimately, I think it’s very unlikely that Riley is back for 2018, primarily because I don’t see this group of Cornhuskers being able to win all four games likely needed to save his job. So I am resigned to a coaching change, taking a hit on the recruiting class (which is far less important in the long run than it will seem at the time), and an off-season of uncertainty for Nebraska.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Oregon 42, Nebraska 35

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A tight, seven-point loss to Oregon on the road, that’s the type of game everyone expected, right?

Not so much. Nebraska was humiliated in the first half, falling behind 42-14 and looking to all the world like it was on its way to another nationally-televised embarrassment. But Nebraska found something in the locker room, shutting the Ducks out in the second half and nearly pulling off a miraculous comeback.

The Good

Halftime Adjustments. Let’s just take a look at Nebraska’s defensive performances, broken down by halves.

  First Half Second Half
Total Yards 698 365
Passing Yards Allowed 558 222
Yards/Play Allowed 7.51 5.00
Points Allowed 68 10

Those numbers kinda speak for themselves. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might very well be making the greatest halftime adjustments in the history of organized football. It’s a problem, though, that he has to be (more on that later).

ONIONS! On the first drive of the second half, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-ten at the Oregon 40. Head coach Mike Riley went for it and Nebraska converted, leading to a touchdown and breathing a little life into the scarlet and cream.

On Nebraska’s next possession, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-five at the Oregon 39. Once again, Riley went for it and Nebraska converted. While that drive didn’t lead to points, it set a tone that allowed Nebraska to stay in the game and almost complete a miracle comeback.

Fine Margins. This one’s in the Good section more for Husker Fan looking for reasons to feel better about Nebraska’s loss. Quarterback Tanner Lee’s first interception was a fortunate bounce off a defender’s hand. Oregon’s third touchdown only happened when the ball went off one receivers hand and fluttered into the hands of another. At the end of the first half, another fourth down conversion – which could have kept Nebraska’s drive alive and avoid some of the points Oregon put up at the end of the half – was thwarted thanks to a false start by De’Mornay Pierson-El.

Yes, Oregon badly outplayed Nebraska in the first half, and earned every bit of its 42-14 lead. But, as we saw with how close Nebraska came to a comeback, those fine margins can make the difference between winning and losing.

The Bad

Needing Halftime Adjustments. Judas Priest, Nebraska’s first two first halves of the 2017 campaign have been ugly to watch. They’ve resulted in a down-to-the-wire win over a Sun Belt team and digging a hole too deep to dig out of against Oregon.

I can’t pretend to explain this Jeckyll-and-Hyde performance from the Blackshirts – and I’m not entirely convinced Diaco can as well. I suppose the silver lining is that the second half performances show Nebraska’s defensive potential. But I’m not sure how many first-half embarrassments Husker Fan can tolerate.

The Kid from Tulane. Talk of Tanner Lee’s departure to the NFL after his junior campaign have, shall we say, cooled after the Oregon game. Lee was 19-for-41 through the air for 252 yards, three touchdowns, but four interceptions. Now, two of those interceptions weren’t Lee’s fault, one being a pinball deflection and one from a blind-side hit that resulted in the ball fluttering into a defender’s hand.

But even with that bad luck, Lee struggled against the Ducks. He missed a number of makeable throws, particularly in the first half when Nebraska really needed its offense to keep up. There’s plenty of things to learn for Lee going forward, but this game won’t be one that goes in his scrapbook.

Big Red Cross. What might be the biggest concern coming out of Eugene are injuries to I-back Tre Bryant and safety Joshua Kalu. Bryant has been a revelation in the first two games of the season. I could give you some stats, but this tweet says it all.

Bryant has been struggling with his knee throughout camp, and an injury to that knee causing him to miss the rest of the game is a huge worry for Nebraska. Although Mikale Wilbon got the touchdown that brought Nebraska to within seven, there’s little doubt that NU’s offense wasn’t the same without Bryant.

But what could be a more impactful injury might well be to Joshua Kalu. A hamstring injury in the second quarter took Kalu out for the rest of the game. With Nebraska’s secondary already thin after injuries to Chris Jones and JoJo Doman, the Blackshirts can ill afford to lose Kalu for any length of time.

And the Goals Still Intact

Admit it, Husker Fan. You feel fairly OK after that game. At halftime, you had visions of Texas Tech running through your mind and were worried that this season was about to slip away.

That’s fair. The fact that there’s relief about Nebraska being respectable on a national stage is a barometer of the state of Nebraska’s program. Whether that’s acceptable in the long run is a fair question.

But it’s where Nebraska is now. And (cue the cliché) it still leaves the primary goals for the season open.

Nebraska’s next three games are against Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Illinois. Presuming Nebraska holds serve, NU will be 4-1 on October 07 to welcome Wisconsin.

And that’s where the rubber will really hit the road. Diaco’s defensive charges will have five games under their belt to (hopefully) learn how to play in the first half, and the opportunity will be there for Nebraska to get a win over Wisconsin and set itself up for conference play.

Yes, that loss was disappointing – and extraordinarily weird. But there were enough green shoots there to keep hope alive when the Badgers come calling.

GBR, baby.

(image courtesy of letterboxd.com)