B1G 5: Train wreck or improbable turnaround, Nebraska will be riveting in 2022
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G Story
This is one wild and unpredictable now or never for Scott Frost.
He embraced this crash course, this one year to make it right or else at Nebraska, when he could’ve very easily walked away from his alma mater with a fat buyout.
Now he’s trying to accomplish what, frankly, is a longshot at best.
Odds are he won’t make it with a coaching staff rebuild of castoffs and nomads, and a roster rebuild fueled with the No.50-ranked recruiting class and transfer portal players with nothing to lose.
“Hitting refresh is big,” Frost said. “Having some new faces in the building is going to give us a spark.”
Or it will ignite a tinder house and burn it to the ground.
Make no mistake, Frost is the reason the Nebraska program sits where it is: in the Big Ten West Division cellar with back-to-back losses to bottom feeder Illinois. The thought of that alone eats away dyed in the wool Big Red.
But as much as it looked like new athletic director Trev Alberts gave Frost a fifth year to make it right, he merely traded a season of the unknown for millions in buyout relief with a restructured deal.
What’s another season of bad football when Nebraska hasn’t played a true November game of significance in almost 2 decades?
The deal, of course, left Frost in the worst possible situation: a coach on the hotseat trying to rebuild his offense with a new staff and new players who, for most part, didn’t make it where they were before.
Frankly, he has done about as well as can be expected, considering the obstacles.
He rebuilt the offensive staff with coordinator Mark Whipple, a coaching nomad with a history of developing offenses and quarterbacks long before he worked magic with Pitt’s Kenny Pickett last season.
Frost got former Nebraska players Mickey Joseph (WRs coach) and Donovan Raiola (O-Line) from jobs they either weren’t going to keep (Raiola, Chicago Bears) or weren’t retained (Joseph, LSU) – but both know the NU culture and expectations in Lincoln and how to get there.
While that may placate some of the Big Red faithful, that’s only part of the change that’s needed. The most important is at quarterback, where NU needs a career backup (Logan Smothers), or former starter (Casey Thompson, Texas) or one-time elite recruit (Chubba Purdy, Florida State) to win the starting job and play smartly.
Key phrase: play smartly.
If there’s one area that has defined Frost’s 4 years in Lincoln, it’s erratic play from quarterback Adrian Martinez. He played well and set some school records, but his 49 turnovers (30 INT, 19 fumbles) nearly always arrived at the most inopportune time.
None of the 3 candidates to replace Martinez is a lock to win the job, and they are in this spot because the Huskers missed on other transfer portal quarterbacks.
- Thompson shared time with Hudson Card at Texas, and played well enough (24 TDs, 9 INTs) for the Longhorns to win more than 5 games. He didn’t get much help from the Texas defense, which shouldn’t be a problem at Nebraska. He left Texas after the Longhorns signed Quinn Ewers, a freshman transfer from Ohio State who hasn’t played a down of college football but was the No.1 player in the 2021 recruiting class.
- Smothers played the last three quarters of the Iowa game, and the most positive result was he wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment.
- Purdy couldn’t get on the field at Florida State, which says plenty considering the options ahead of him were an injury-ravaged former star (McKenzie Milton) and a player more fitted to a run-oriented system (Jordan Travis).
If anyone other than Thompson wins the job, that’s probably not a good sign for the 2022 season.
What is a good sign: Whipple. Throughout his many stops in both college and the NFL, he has consistently produced efficient (and at times proficient) play from the most important position on the field.
But this one-shot season is a tough ask. Not only will Whipple be coaching a new quarterback to a new system in a new program, he’ll do so with a new offensive line coach, a new running backs coach, a new wide receivers coach and his two best options at wide receiver are from the transfer portal (Trey Palmer, LSU; Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda, New Mexico State).
“I have a lot of confidence the marriage of those things are going to come together well,” Frost said of the offensive coaching staff. “There are some elite coaches and really smart guys in that room.”
Since signing the restructured contract that gave him one more season to get it right in Lincoln, Frost has added transfers from LSU, Arizona State, Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
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He also added Brian Buschini, an FCS All-American at Montana. His position? Punter.
If Buschini becomes a critical factor on the team, the one-shot experiment will have failed.
And more than likely burn to the ground so the next coach can start over.
2. Stocking up in the portal
There are inherent dangers to recruiting the transfer portal, problems that go beyond production on the field.
But it’s also hard to deny that when done correctly, the portal can be a critical supplement to recruiting.
Case in point: Michigan State.
Spartans coach Mel Tucker reshaped his roster after the 2020 season with 15 additions from the transfer portal, including All-America TB Kenneth Walker III and All-Big Ten LB Quavaris Crouch.
Tucker added 5 more impact transfers for 2022, after the previous group contributed heavily to an 11-win season. He also signed a top 20 recruiting class, avoiding the one clear danger of recruiting the transfer portal too heavily: high school players avoiding your program.
“Decisions are made very quickly because it’s almost like a game of musical chairs with (transfers),” Tucker said. “There are only so many places the top guys want to go. They’re looking for a certain fit, and when the music stops, they want to make sure they have a chair to sit in.”
Tucker landed his most recent projected starter last weekend, adding former Georgia CB Ameer Speed. Tucker recruited Speed, a part-time starter in 2021, when he was DC for the Bulldogs in 2017.
Speed joins 2022 projected transfer starters RB Jalen Berger (Wisconsin), DE Khris Bogle (Florida), and LBs Aaron Brule (Mississippi State) and Jacoby Windmon (UNLV).
“You’re talking about four really good players there,” one NFL scout told me this week. “Brule could’ve been a second- or third-day pick had he come out (after the 2020 season), and he slipped a bit this season. Windmon is a guy you never hear about, but is crazy athletic, and Bogle might have the best potential of the group. A long, strong, athletic guy off the edge.”
3. The gift that keeps giving
For a program that grinds and wins in relative obscurity, Iowa continues to make noise off the field when you least expect it.
The latest move: The university extended the contract of coach Kirk Ferentz, and will pay him $7 million a year until the year 2029.
That’s $56 million over 8 seasons for a 66-year-old coach who has never won an outright conference championship, and last shared a Big Ten title in 2004.
The $7 million per season isn’t the issue; Iowa can pay its coach whatever it feels is the market rate. Frankly, it’s not much beyond the market rate.
The problem is the buyout.
If Ferentz is fired without cause, the university owes him $6 million for every year remaining on the contract. The guaranteed retirement package – what else can you call it? — is unimaginable on many levels.
What incentive is there for Ferentz to not only win at a high level, but make critical – at times, tough and emotional – decisions in the best interest of the program?
If his son Brian’s archaic offense continues to struggle – it has been a disaster the last 2 seasons – will Ferentz fire him if told to do so by his superior? What incentive is there for Ferentz, knowing he has a $6 million-a-year insurance policy in his pocket?
What’s the incentive to recruit at a high level, to increase talent and not only win the Big Ten West Division – but not lose by 39 points in the conference championship game?
Over the last 5 seasons, Iowa’s average recruiting ranking is 33rd, according to the 247Sports composite. So Ferentz, on average, is marginally outperforming his recruiting rankings.
For that, he gets a retirement package of $6 million a year for every season remaining on his contract if fired without cause.
The university would be better off paying Ferentz $2 million a year over 10 years as a goodbye retirement gift and spending $80 million over 10 years (guaranteed) to hire alum Mark Stoops away from Kentucky.
It’d get a much better return on the investment.
4. Powered Up
This week’s first Power Poll for the 2022 season, and one big thing: one player who makes a difference this fall.
1. Michigan: JJ McCarthy. Too talented and too dynamic within the offense to keep on the bench.
2. Ohio State: CJ Hicks. Buckeyes haven’t had a freshman LB like Hicks since Raekwon McMillan.
3. Michigan State: DE Khris Bogle. Misused by former Florida staff. Will be powerful edge rusher.
4. Penn State: WR Keandre Lambert-Smith. He’ll fix the drops issue and develop into a star No.1 receiver.
5. Wisconsin: OT Tanor Bortolini. Freshman played 3 positions in 2021 (LG, RG, RT), and will be a stalwart at RT in 2022.
6. Minnesota: QB Tanner Morgan. He regressed in 2020-21; he’ll revert to his 2019 season with the return of OC Kirk Ciarrocca.
7. Purdue: WR Tyrone Tracy. Transfer from Iowa will go from Spencer Petras to Aidan O’Connell. Watch him flourish.
8. Iowa: RB Gavin Williams. Showed in the Citrus Bowl that he can push the pile and run with dynamic ability. Iowa offense must run the ball better.
9. Nebraska: QB Casey Thompson. Huskers better hope he makes an impact, or 2022 will get ugly.
10. Maryland: WR Jermaine Copeland. The Florida transfer has deep speed and is physical. A perfect fit for QB Taulia Tagovailoa.
11. Indiana: QB Connor Bazelak. If he stays healthy, the Missouri transfer will drastically improve the IU passing game.
12. Rutgers: LB Moses Walker. A true Mike linebacker, and an enforcer coach Greg Schiano has been looking for since returning to Rutgers.
13. Illinois: DL TeRah Edwards. Illini are desperate for a disrupter on the D-line. Edwards was one of the few bright spots at Northwestern in 2021.
14. Northwestern: WR Reggie Fleurima. NU needs offense, and needs speed and athleticism on the outside.
5. The Weekly Five
The top 5 coordinator hires this offseason.
1. Jim Knowles, defensive coordinator, Ohio State (Oklahoma State DC).
2. Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, Penn State (Miami HC).
3. Kirk Ciarrocca, offensive coordinator, Minnesota (WVU analyst).
4. Mark Whipple, offensive coordinator, Nebraska (Pitt OC).
5. Joe Harasymiak, defensive coordinator, Rutgers (Minnesota co-DC).