As college football moves toward the portion of the calendar when there’s little else to do but talk about next year, at least one sub-.500 team from 2018 is going to get significant hype.
In one set of odds put out in January, only 11 teams got a better shot to win the national championship than Nebraska, which just went 4-8.
I was partially joking when I put Nebraska 25th in this way-too-early top 25. But only partially, because the Huskers will probably get preseason AP Poll votes. It’s conceivable they get enough to be ranked by the time fall camp finishes up, or after one or two wins.
1. It’s Scott Frost’s second year. The last time Frost had a second year, it ended with his school claiming a national championship.
That will not happen after 2019. Before you keep scrolling down, bear in mind that we’ll be talking about Nebraska’s potential to make a big jump, not to win the whole damn thing. But everyone remembers Frost’s last second year at a school, and that plays into the mood.
Frost is in a different position now than he was after UCF jumped from 0-12 to 6-7 in 2016, his first season in Orlando. His first UCF team’s strength was defense (No. 30 in S&P+), while the Knights’ offense was bad (117th). The script’s changed in Lincoln, where Frost’s first team was solid on offense (45th in S&P+) and notably but not hugely worse on D (65th).
Nebraska will have things to get over. Five of the top six tacklers in the 2018 defense were seniors. The top running back and receiver were, too. But the 2017 UCF team Frost took on a magic carpet ride was 84th in Returning Production.
2. Nebraska was better than its record in 2018. That started to show in the second half of the year.
Frost wasn’t supposed to have a great team. After taking over a program that declined under Mike Riley, S&P+ projected a 5-7 record.
After September, things seemed way worse than that. The run defense gave up home runs with practically a Barry Bonds frequency. The offense “couldn’t line up and run our most basic play 2 or 3 yards,” as Frost put it after the most brutal of all the losses, to Michigan.
Then things got a lot better. After an 0-6 start that included three close losses, the Huskers started playing better and getting better luck, and they closed on a 4-2 run. Advanced stats always liked them more than their actual record did, and they finished with 6.7 second-order wins — basically, what their underlying numbers say they should’ve had.
3. Frost could get a big sophomore leap at quarterback, again.
Before McKenzie Milton was McKenzie Milton, he was a freshman QB on Frost’s decent 2016 team. He took a lot of sacks, wasn’t that explosive through the air, and did some of his best work as a runner. Does that sound like a recent Nebraska freshman QB you know?
Adrian Martinez was better than Milton was as a true freshman. He ran for 6.7 yards per carry, not counting sacks (Milton: 4.9) and got 6.7 yards per passing attempt, counting sacks (Milton: 4.9 again). It wasn’t until UCF’s whole offense sharpened in 2017 that Milton became the most efficient non-Baker Mayfield QB in the country. In addition to running for 7 yards per carry, Milton finished right behind the Heisman winner in the big passing rate stats.
Despite getting hit a bunch and injured early in 2018, Martinez didn’t have a sustained performance dip all year. Aside from getting destroyed along with the rest of his team against elite defenses from the state of Michigan, the four-star was solid all season.
4. Given the experience and incoming talent around Martinez — and Frost’s track record — the whole offense has a chance to be really good.
This offense was above the 70th percentile by S&P+ in all but three games: a loss to Troy without Martinez and the games against the Wolverines and Spartans. Now:
- Excellent RB Devine Ozigbo is gone. But rising sophomore Maurice Washington played well behind him, and the No. 1 all-purpose back in the 2019 class, four-star Wandale Robinson, is on the way. Martinez takes a good bit of the running load anyway.
- Excellent WR Stanley Morgan Jr. is gone. But previous No. 2 JD Spielman was arguably better anyway, and good receivers can emerge quickly in an offense that’s solid elsewhere. One candidate is four-star rising redshirt sophomore Jaevon McQuitty, who missed 2017 with an injury and didn’t get into the pass-catching rotation in 2018.
The line had three sophomores starting, and the Huskers have accumulated some talent at that position, including four-star converted tight end Cameron Jurgens.
You could see at points in 2018 how Frost’s smart game-calling and Martinez’s talents could make Nebraska unfair. One of the Huskers’ triple-option looks had Martinez reading an outside linebacker or nickel, keeping the ball if he blitzed, and then reading a safety to decide whether to throw a swing to an uncovered receiver or take off running himself:
There, Ohio State was screwed as soon as Martinez saw the nickel blitzing.
Martinez is athletic enough to make huge plays happen even when defenses play Nebraska’s options well and appear to have him cornered. Like here, against Minnesota:
Martinez took a play from this ...
... to a 53-yard run. He threw a TD to Spielman a few plays later, on a slant between two DBs.
One thing to watch is if Nebraska gets its 6’4, 260-pound junior tight end, Jack Stoll, more involved in the passing game. At UCF, Frost had a tight end of nearly identical size, Jordan Akins, who made a big leap in his second year in Frost’s system after being in the second tier of the Knights’ receiving targets in Frost’s first year.
That’s where Stoll was as a sophomore, but he showed some exciting flashes as a receiver. Like Frost did with Akins at UCF, he sometimes flexed the massive Stoll away from the line, where he was athletic enough to run to holes in zones and create matchup issues:
Akins became a key player on UCF’s unbeaten team and is now in the NFL. With Nebraska needing emergent receivers now, Stoll seems like a good candidate.
5. The defense has a lot to figure out. But it helps confidence that the Big Ten West is home to a bunch of bad offenses.
Wisconsin and Purdue had top-20 offenses by S&P+ last year. Nobody else in the division was higher than Iowa’s 65th in Offensive S&P+ in 2018. If there’s a side of the ball Nebraska can most afford to figure out on the fly, it’s defense.
There’s some good news, though. Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry, far and away the top tackler on the 2018 team, is back for his senior year. Four-star outside backer Caleb Tannor could slide into a starting role as a sophomore. The incoming class has a handful of defensive blue-chips who could help in some capacity, too.
Having firm answers would be better than having a bunch of possible help. But if you want to think this defense will play better, you can make a decent argument.
6. The schedule, both in division and out, appears easier.
In odd-numbered years, Nebraska’s games against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern are all at home. The Big Ten road games are against Purdue, Minnesota, Maryland, and Illinois. All of those away games are manageable, and NU should be favored in at least two. Wisconsin’s slide in 2018 means everyone in the division is vulnerable.
Non-conference should have two easy to easy-ish games, against NIU and South Alabama, despite the Huskies winning in Lincoln via pick-sixes in 2017. The other game’s against Colorado, which beat Nebraska in 2018 but will be starting out under a new coach.
Ohio State visits Lincoln at the end of September. That’s the one game on the schedule the Huskers should absolutely lose. But on the other hand, Ohio State gives up eleventy billion points in one Big Ten West road game per year, so maybe there’s an opening.