Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
As fans and writers, we tend to overthink the status of a program, its role in the college football landscape, etc.
A school like Nebraska is perfect for overthinking. A former national power that dominated in a different age but has seen its lot change dramatically since about the third year of the new century? Yeah, that’s ripe for over-discussion.
What are the Huskers capable of? How has a new conference changed their recruiting capabilities? How high is your ceiling when you’re removed from a geographical base of talent (especially in the days since Prop 48 faded away)? How has the Huskers’ reverence for the past prevented them from looking forward?
At Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, we talk about program ceilings and floors pretty often — we revel in the overthinking — and with Nebraska’s slide into irrelevance, the Huskers come up often. But while it’s so easy to overthink the minutiae, I try to keep things simple by relying on a truism: you’re only as good as the hires you make.
Anyone is capable of making a great or terrible coaching hire. And while there are still ceilings and floors to discuss — at some schools (Alabama, for example), you need only to make a good hire to be great, while at others, you have to make a great hire just to be good — if you make a strong hire, a lot of the details take care of themselves.
Now, it’s fair to wonder about Nebraska’s place in the big picture. After 28 top-10 finishes between 1963 and 2001, the Huskers have finished in the top 25 just six times in the last 16 years. The school tried to maintain a national title standard in a changing environment and sent pretty good coaches packing (Frank Solich and Bo Pelini, who were responsible for five of those six ranked finishes); they made things worse by seeking out the exact opposites of the guys they fired (Bill Callahan and Mike Riley, who combined to go 46-41 with NU’s only four losing seasons of the last 56 years) instead of simply trying to make good hires.
The result has been a two-decades-long existential crisis. Nebraska has been in the Big Ten for seven seasons and had made one conference title game (2012), losing it by 39 points. And in 2017, the Huskers had as many blowout losses (four by 21 or more points) as wins.
This whole time, they’ve still been a good hire away from getting their act together. And you could make the case that they just made a fantastic hire. Granted, it sort of fell into their lap. But hey, whatever works.
The last time Nebraska was Nebraska, Frost was its quarterback. The 43-year-old from Wood River, Neb., played for Bill Walsh at Stanford, Tom Osborne at NU, and Bill Parcells with the Jets. After his playing career ended, he coached for Chip Kelly at Oregon.
While hiring a Favorite Son as a coach can backfire, Frost has one of the better lists of influences you’ll ever find. He has only two years of head coaching experience, but those were absurdly impressive; he inherited a UCF that had gone 0-12 and improved the win total by six in his first year in seven in his second.
We don’t know about Frost’s long-term program maintenance or player development. We don’t know how he’ll handle a job with outsized expectations. We don’t know how well he’ll recruit over the long haul. We don’t know how well his “speed and more speed” tactics will fare in a conference full of big defenses.
We do know that he got an A+ on his first exam. And we know that he understood the drawbacks of the NU job. This is, on paper, the best hire Nebraska has made in a long time.
Nebraska’s offense was pretty good at just enough things to highlight all of the things it was bad at.
By the numbers, the Huskers had a pretty good line. They ranked 23rd in Adj. Line Yards and eighth in Adj. Sack Rate; they converted short yardage situations just fine (23rd in power success rate) and didn’t allow that many negative rushes (56th in stuff rate). This was a minor miracle, considering only two linemen started more than nine games and eight, including two freshmen, started at least three games. That shuffling usually portends doom, but NU’s hosses held up.
The backs they were blocking for, however, lacked in explosiveness, and the quarterbacks lacked in consistency. Despite the good line stats, NU ranked 102nd in rushing success rate and 77th in passing success rate. They were decent at staying on schedule, but disaster struck when they fell behind the chains. The result was a No. 81 ranking in Off. S&P+, the program’s worst since 1967.
Frost’s vision involves tempo, spread principles, and a quarterback who can balance a lot of responsibilities. He’s probably not going to have that last thing in 2018.
Here are NU’s options:
- Junior walk-on Andrew Bunch
- Redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia
- True freshman Adrian Martinez
Gebbia and Martinez are former four-star recruits; Gebbia proved a little further along with his arm this spring, while Martinez has dazzling legs. But either or both are going to need breaking in.
Of the eight part- or full-time starting linemen, six return, including all-conference guard Tanner Farmer and honorable-mention all-conference guard Jerald Foster, both seniors.
The QB will have a pretty awesome pair of receivers, too. It feels like Stanley Morgan Jr. has been in Lincoln for a decade or so, but he apparently still has a year remaining after catching 61 balls for 986 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2017. Sophomore JD Spielman caught 55 for 830, as well.
Former blue-chipper Tyjon Lindsey did next to nothing as a freshman (12 catches for 76 yards, seven carries for four) but has time, and NU will also boast a pair of JUCO transfers in Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams.
Perhaps Frost and Walters go with Gebbia, as a way of maximizing the potential of the passing game. Or perhaps they decide that the run game needs as much help as possible and lean on Martinez.
The run game might be fine if Tre Bryant is healthy. Bryant rushed 51 times for 299 yards (5.9 per carry) in the first two games of 2017, and NU scored 35-plus in both games, but a knee injury sidelined him through spring ball. His success rate (49 percent) dwarved that of replacements Devine Ozigbo (36 percent) and Mikale Wilbon (40 percent), and he was easily more explosive than Ozigbo, too.
Wilbon had a couple of better games late in the year (last two games: 17 carries, 92 yards, two touchdowns), but when healthy, Bryant was easily the best option. If he finds his form, then the young QB will have a nice supporting cast. If not, then most of the good moments will come via the pass.
Defense did every bit as much as offense to define Osborne’s late run of dominance and the early part of the Solich era. But after ranking eighth or better in Def. S&P+ six times between 1993-2003, NU has spent most of the last 14 seasons mediocre at best. They were awesome early in Pelini’s tenure (first in 2009, 18th in 2010, 19th in 2011) but averaged a No. 50 ranking in Pelini’s final three seasons and fell to 110th last year.
One hundred and tenth! Nebraska! The former Blackshirts were quite possibly the least disruptive defense in FBS, ranking 130th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 128th in Adj. Sack Rate, and 129th in overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays). They were 128th in rushing success rate and 122nd in passing success rate. They were decent in big-play prevention, but they relied on you to make mistakes.
Erik Chinander’s UCF was the polar opposite. While the Knights ranked just 74th in Def. S&P+, their strength was forcing the issue. With their offense dominating, they were able to take risks in the name of forcing three-and-outs or turnovers. The big plays they gave up were huge, but they made plays, too.
But UCF linebackers Shaquem Griffin, Pat Jasinski, and Titus Davis won’t be wearing Nebraska jerseys. It might take Chinander a while to figure out what he’s got, and with an offense likely to be far more inconsistent than UCF’s 2017 attack, he might not feel comfortable with the same level of risk anyway.
He’ll at least have an experienced cast. NU returns every lineman, five of seven primary linebackers, and six of eight defensive backs.
Granted, the four primary departures include two players (linebacker Chris Weber and safety Josh Kalu) who accounted for a quarter of NU’s havoc plays. Other than end Ben Stille (9.5 TFLs), it’s hard to figure out where any sort of disruptive plays are going to come from. Maybe linebacker Luke Gifford (four TFLs and two passes defensed in seven games)?
The secondary is particularly bereft. Those primary six returnees combined for 3.5 TFLs and nine passes defensed. UCF’s Kyle Gibson had two and eight by himself.
So yeah, there’s plenty of playing time available for any newcomer ready to make an impact. Each level of the NU defense has at least one transfer and one four-star freshman. You figure quite a few will see the field.
Nebraska was decent and forgettable, ranking 47th in Special Teams S&P+ and between 38th and 79th in each of the five efficiency categories.
Drew Brown was responsible for the two best rankings (38th in field goal efficiency, 56th in kickoff efficiency), and he’s gone. But punter Caleb Lightbourn’s decent, and Spielman showed nice explosiveness in the kick return game.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|3-Nov||at Ohio State||1||-27.5||6%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||60|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||50 / 70|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||3.9 (51)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||22 / 25|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-7 / -6.7|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||-0.1|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||64% (59%, 70%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||3.9 (0.1)|
Nebraska fans make up a pretty good chunk of our PAPN listenership, so we’ve gotten quite a few versions of “How long until Nebraska starts playing for conference titles again?” this offseason. It’s obviously hard to say. Wisconsin is fortifying, and other West programs like Purdue and Minnesota are finding far more reason for hope than they had.
It’s going to take Frost a little while to figure out what he’s got. And in 2018, he might not have that much. The offense could be solid if one of the two freshman QBs can hold his own, but the defense is starting from scratch.
Be happy with a bowl bid, in other words. S&P+ — which isn’t designed to take coaching changes into account — projects Nebraska 60th, with 5-7 as the most likely record. The Huskers have a good chance of starting 3-0 with home games against Akron, Colorado, and Troy, but four of their last eight games are against teams projected 12th or better, and they’ve got trips to Northwestern and Iowa.
Frost is awesome, and there’s a chance he’ll prove my Nebraska theory — that this can still be a top-15 program with a good hire — right. But this has the makings of a Year Zero season.