Those comments really get me pumped for this year as it seems we really have things coming together. Oh, those are from previous years? They seem like the exact same thing i’m hearing for 2021? I’m not trying to be a dick with those tweets, but the internet is littered with them. Every year I tell myself “it’s just feels a little different.” “We have more talent they just aren’t experienced, different feel, we are bigger this year, etc.” Again for 2021, we are hearing the exact same things and i’m not sure if it’s just a copy and pasted tweet from previous seasons, or if they are genuine.
It’s actually one of the reasons I loved how brisk Frost was this week at his presser. Every year we’ve told you how great all these things you are asking us are, and every year it’s been wrong. At some point maybe we just aren’t great at evaluating our practice? I’m not saying that definitively, i’m just saying show me on the field now. I think Frost is thinking the same thing… “Nothing I say matters.” It makes it really tough to know what we can count on, and what we can’t, and to make a season prediction/preview. But why not do it anyway??? Let’s take a look at the season preview and try to decipher what’s real and what isn’t.
I’m seeing all sorts of national sports writers say that 6-6 and a bowl game is a “really good season for Nebraska” and it really pains me. This is not anywhere close to where I thought we would be in year 4 after I heard who we hired and the press conference that followed back in December of 2017. I have no idea how we went this far off the rails, but imagine if when we fired Riley, Moos said “we are going to get someone in here that will get us to a bowl in year 4.” We all would have lost our minds. But that’s the reality of where we are right now. According to the preseason FPI on ESPN, we are the favorite to win 5 games on our schedule:
That takes us to 5-7, but that includes Northwestern as a probable win. Ugh… not sure I count them as probable. However, that counts Michigan State as a probable loss. Hmmm… bowl game may mean we need to beat Sparty I would think, maybe? I mean, how many times before a season have we heard “Nebraska should be 8-1 heading to Wisconsin” or this year us coming with “should only have one loss to Oklahoma before playing (insert team)”. At what point do we need to understand games against Minnesota and Northwestern, even games against teams like Illinois and Purdue aren’t gimmies anymore. It’s kind of tough for me to chalk up wins against Illinois who beat us last year, or a Mel Tucker coached team who beat us in his first year at Colorado, or Northwestern who everyone always seems to think is beneath us but they always seem to put us in our place.
I also hear a lot about the “one score losses” and if we just win some of those everything is fine. But what if we take away our one score wins? That means we are 1-7 last year, and 3-9 in 2019. It’s not like we aren’t winning close games as well as losing some (i’m aware we have more one score losses). I’m not sure what the measure should be for good or bad here. As an example, Minnesota was a one score loss last year and they had no business being on the same field as us, they had 20+ kids out with Covid, yet we still couldn’t beat them. Are we counting Minnesota as a one score loss we should feel good about? Tough for me to get there considering we should have routed them by 21 with the situation that weekend.
Enough of that though, let’s start with a reason to be optimistic this year… the defense. We return 10 defensive starters, only losing cornerback Dicaprio Bootle. With that, everyone is a year older and has been in the system that much longer. Defensive Coordinator Erik Chinander has taken this team from 94th in scoring defense in 2018, to 61st in 2019, to 64th in 2020. While I try not to dive too deep into those, I do feel like we were a bit better in 2020 than 2019, as we didn’t get non-conference games like we did in 2019 to help our stats, but on the surface we appear to be in a much better situation defensively than last year both in terms of depth and in terms of talent. That is the only stat that matters, how much you let your opponent score, and we are getting better and better at that. We are as deep as we’ve been in a long time at DE, ILB, and DB. If we can find a backup NG and an OLB opposite Domann to step up, things could get real nasty on that defensive side of the ball.
But one thing that does scare me is the fact that defenses start faster than offenses typically, whether that’s spring ball or fall camp and even into the season. Timing is not as big of a deal to defenses, so they can usually get off and running while the offense comes around. Nebraska was holding off campus practices and had 90% of the team here all summer working out while teams like Northwestern and Iowa sent their kids home. Was how well we did defensively in 2020 a mirage because our defense was ready to roll and practicing, and other teams basically sent their kids home and had to get the offense ready in a month with no spring practice or summer? I am leaning towards no, but it is definitely something i’m going to keep an eye on. It was a factor in our success for 2020, but how much?
For as good as our defense was, there were some stats that struck me as surprising for the 2020 season. Nebraska was 123rd in the country in turnover margin, and while i’d put most of that on the offense (109th in turnovers lost), we only ranked 104th in turnovers gained. For a team that emphasizes turnovers every day in practice, we absolutely have to get better at that. Compare that to 2019 where our turnover margin had us ranked 64th in the country, and our defense was 26th in takeaways per game. I’m not sure I knew we were that bad there comparatively season over season. For some reason, we dropped off a cliff in 2020, but a big part of that is probably due to losing 2 draft picks along the lines with the Davis twins and losing some ability to get pressure on the quarterback. And when you look at us losing 30 spots in the national rankings for “Sacks per Game”, that needs to be a massive point of emphasis, and we need one if not two guys to step up to get up field and help create some pressure and frantic throws or fumbles. Otherwise, we are probably stuck with another average to below average season. Takeaways have to get better.
So that takes us to our offense, the unit that if anyone tells you what is going to happen they are liars. No one knows. Like I did with the tweets before, i’ll put another one on here from someone that does a really good job creating conversations about our football team, but it confuses me to no end because if this is true… isn’t our offense in trouble then?
Nebraska had 106 starts returning along the OL in 2020, that is top 20 in the entire country. For 2021, Nebraska is returning 35 starts along the OL. If you want, compare that to Illinois who bring 123 starts back to their offensive line, and you see just how young we are there. Further, our only two draft picks were along the OL, meaning we lost talented guys there (watching Farniok at center for the Cowboys on Hard Knocks and playing well is tough to see, happy for him, but as a fan tough). It reminds me a bit of 2020 with the DL after we graduated the Davis twins and they were drafted. Are we going to say “we now look the part” even though our sack production goes down? I still like where we are, I just think we are extremely young, and that could be an issue. And it’s extremely difficult for me to sit here and say first year starters like Corcoran, Sichterman, and second year starters Piper and Benhart are better for us than senior guys like Tanner Farmer or Jerald Foster. They will be, but we are previewing 2021.
But let’s go out even further… you will have a brand new starter at every single WR spot as well as a brand new starter at RB. Are we even going to see Omar Manning this year who our guys have been practicing with all offseason? While those positions are the easiest in college football to play early because the strength element isn’t as paramount as say along the lines or linebacker… there is still a learning curve and the need to mesh with your team.
But the glue to hold this all together is Adrian Martinez. He basically needs to make everything right for Nebraska this year. There is no way we can go anywhere if he is his 2019/2020 self. We need Freshman All-American Martinez back. I understand some people are off his wagon, but I also completely understand Frost sticking with him. It’s tough when you see how good someone is, or is capable of being, to just pull the plug. Further, who are you putting in for him? While I love Masker, he’s just a different dynamic than Martinez. And Smothers/Haarberg aren’t ready, they are both freshmen. #2 has a lot of responsibility this year. This is the thinnest we’ve been at the quarterback spot since 2018, and #2 has gone down with an injury every year he’s been here (I suppose in 2020 not really an injury but didn’t start a couple games). We don’t have a Vedral as a backup sitting around if something happens, so that’s also something that could severely effect our 2021 season.
But just like I did with defense, there’s a stat that concerns me with offense. We have gone from 54th in 2018 in scoring offense, to 64th in 2019, and even reaching the double digits in 2020 at 101st. How in the heck does that happen in year 3 with a head coach that is thought of as an offensive guru? Probably doesn’t help when you lose your best WR each season. And it also doesn’t help when we have so many people transferring to mesh. With that said, our staff has done a really good job in the transfer portal getting big name guys in to help us like Stepp, Martin, Toure, and Falck. Even a guy like Vokolek will be leaned on heavily this year when healthy.
GAME BY GAME
(W) Illinois – According to PFI, this is our fourth easiest win on our schedule out the gates. If you can’t come motivated to win this, start looking for new coaching candidates. We won’t lose this game.
(W) Fordham – I don’t really know what you want me to say.
(W) Buffalo – We are pretty lucky they lost their coach and a bunch of guys to transfer. But I will still chalk this up as a win.
(L) Oklahoma – Our first loss of the season. We just aren’t quite ready yet and the Sooners are loaded.
(L) Michigan State – This is a tough one for me. But I think after our first adversity of the season in Norman, we struggle again with a Mel Tucker coached team.
(W) Northwestern – Conversely, I think we get right against the Wildcats at home in 2021. They lost their DC and we just have to figure out a way to win this year if we want to get to a bowl game.
(L) Michigan – I mean, I get it, they aren’t quite Michigan of old. But we aren’t exactly Nebraska of old. Maybe our last meeting is still in my mind.
(W) @ Minnesota – I think we get the monkey off our back against the Gophers this year, that was embarrassing last year. But PJ Fleck hates Nebraska, so he will have his team ready to go.
(W) Purdue – I’m hoping Frost finally has Brohm and Purdue figured out. I like our chances at home this year. We beat them last year but just like when we played the Gophers last year, they had all sorts of guys sitting out and were a shell of what they really are.
(L) Ohio State – Like Oklahoma, just not quite ready yet.
(L) @ Wisconsin – I just still don’t see us ready to compete here. They were beating us with “lesser recruits” and for the first time since Rivals was around they signed a better recruiting class than us.
(L) Iowa – I’m worried Iowa is going to be really good this year, and they absolutely hate us.
So there you have it, Vegas has the season win total at 6, and i’m predicting 6-6. In my opinion we have a really tough schedule and just a ton of unknowns such as a young line and all new skill position players that typically indicate some growing pains. You could probably flip flop my predictions for the Northwestern, Michigan State, and Minnesota games around as midseason a lot can change. But we need to be 2-1 at minimum against those guys which if history tells us anything, it’s a tall task, but one I think we are ready for.
But my 6-6 guess is more so because as a fan base I think that is what will keep us divided, no shot we are that lucky to make things easy on us. Nebraska football and its fans have been divided over the last decade, and that will keep things going in that regard. 6-6 will be touted as progress by many and reaching a bowl game. While others tell you that reaching a bowl game in year 4 should never be an accomplishment celebrated. It will keep the same arguments going for another 12 months, and we aren’t lucky enough to get those to stop. Then the bowl game will either take us to 7-6 or 6-7, furthering the argument.
But look at how we get to 6 wins. While i’m a complete moron for saying “we are starting 3-0”, you have to start 3-0 beating Illinois, Fordham, and Buffalo if you want any shot to get to .500. Now is where it gets tricky as you’re of course losing to Oklahoma, but Sparty, Wildcats, and the Gophers i’m really intrigued with. I just think depending on the situation can dictate a lot there. Like for example what if Martinez is out for one of the games i’m predicting us to win?
If you had a gun to my head where I can’t pick 6-6 as that’s a push, i’d go 7-5. I just think 5-7 is a really awful season when you break it down game by game and look at where we thought we’d be year 4. That means 5 straight seasons without a bowl, the only wins against a division opponent are Illinois and Purdue, and you continue to lose to Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Northwestern. That would be really bad. I don’t think we are really bad.
Nebraska has to be a top 50 team nationally in scoring offense. You just have to. When your head coach is thought of like he is with play calling, you can’t be 101st in scoring offense. But will our defense be better than in the 60s for scoring defense? That’s the one i’m really curious on. I do think our ceiling for that is in the 50s IF we are running the same offensive philosophy. With that said, what happens if we truly have gone bigger and going to be more north/south…. maybe we will try and chew up some clock? That could get our defense into the 40s or even 30s of scoring defense. I think they are that good.
What really worries me about my prediction for this season, is in 2019 we were supposed to be outstanding, and just weren’t. In 2020, we were one of only a handful of teams that kept their kids on campus, here, and working out. We had massive advantages compared to teams like Northwestern or Iowa who were saying things like this:
If ever we were to have an advantage, it was 2020. Remember, we are in trouble for doing workouts off campus in an NCAA investigation. Literally teams like Northwestern, Iowa, Minnesota who were sending kids home to work out at Anytime Fitness centers in a strip mall, they beat us. We we went 3-6. It’s just really tough for me to blindly think the ship is righted and everything is fine. Because if our S/C didn’t give us an advantage then, why will it give us one now? It’s why I really roll my eyes when I hear things like how elite we are in S/C and how much of an edge it gives us. Really? So if we were working with our staff all offseason in 2020, and 90% of the teams we played weren’t, you’re then telling me it’s the on the field coaches that are the problem. I’m not there, and don’t buy that.
But I do think overall as a team we are better, and that’s why i’m landing on the 6-6/7-5 train. We need to clean up turnovers, force more of them, limit penalties, be better on special teams, score more points, give up less points, etc. That’s a ton of things to clean up, but If we even do 2 or 3 of those things, we can get to where we want to be, in a bowl game.
IS SCOTT FROST ON THE HOT SEAT
I think it’s mild, not hot. Let’s be real… your athletic director was fired and you have one winning season out of five tries, and zero while at Nebraska. Anyone else would be gone right now. But with him having ties to the 90s we are really eating up some of the reasons/excuses it’s happening. Are some of them real? Sure. Are some of them made up? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, I think it would have to be catastrophic for Scott to be let go. 4-8 is catastrophic. I actually think he can keep his job at 5-7.
What gets worrisome is if we don’t get to a bowl this year, even though we get an easier schedule in 2022, you lose a ton on your defense and possibly your four year starter at QB. Gotta produce in 2021. And I think we will.