B1G Monday Morning: Can Scott Frost turn it around at Nebraska? History says yes
The Scott Frost era hit a new low on Saturday afternoon, as Nebraska lost to a third-string quarterback of a Purdue team essentially playing for pride and nothing more. That made one team with some pride, as Nebraska essentially is devoid of that quality.
Maya Angelou’s famous saying goes, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Nebraska keeps showing us who it is — from a sluggish start against South Alabama, to blowout losses to Ohio State and Minnesota, to losses to perennial Big Ten bottom feeders Indiana and Purdue. These are not your grandfather’s Nebraska Cornhuskers who won national titles under Bob Devaney. They aren’t your father’s Nebraska Cornhuskers who won national titles under Tom Osborne, either.
Nebraska has made it overwhelmingly clear that in 2019, it is much closer to the bottom of the Big Ten than the top. At 4-5 with games still to come against No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 18 Iowa, it’s likely that Nebraska misses a bowl game. Considering preseason expectations, that would be a massive disappointment and unimaginable three months ago.
Frost is now 8-13 at Nebraska, which has notoriously high standards because of its proud history. Frank Solich went 10-3 in 2003 and got fired. Frost took over for Mike Riley, who went 19-19 and got a $6.2 million buyout.
Of the 12 second-year coaches at FBS schools, Frost has the ninth-best record at 8-13. On Sunday, Florida State fired Willie Taggart, who was 9-12.
Power 5 coaching hires in 2018:
Dan Mullen: 17-5
Mario Cristobal: 15-7
Jimbo Fisher: 15-7
Herm Edwards: 12-9
Joe Moorhead: 12-10
Willie Taggart: 9-12
Jeremy Pruitt: 9-12
Kevin Sumlin: 9-12
Scott Frost: 8-13
Chip Kelly: 7-14
Jonathan Smith: 6-14
Chad Morris: 4-17
— Matt Hayes (@MattHayesCFB) November 4, 2019
It’s understandable for the most passionate of fans to write off Frost or at the very least to be pessimistic about the future of the program. The team has regressed, the quarterback has regressed and the entire program is in chaos. There are so many red flags (none with an “N” on them, either).
Trying to be a bit more level-headed, I wanted to find out how many Big Ten coaches miss a bowl game in their first two seasons and go on to successful tenures? If you struggle out of the gate, is that who you are? Or can you change? I discovered that history gives us plenty of examples of coaches who have underwhelmed in the first two years of their tenures but have rebounded to have some level of success. The third year is often where we see a breakthrough. The bad news for Nebraska is that looks tough to forecast right now.
Anyways, there have been 51 head coaches hired by current Big Ten teams in the last 25 years. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s excuse Ryan Day and Frost because they haven’t completed two full seasons yet, plus Maryland’s Matt Canada, Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys and Illinois’ Bill Cubit since they were interim head coaches for one season. Of the remaining 46 coaches, 22 have not went to a bowl game in either their first or second season — the exact situation Frost may find himself in. Yet 10 of those coaches went to a bowl game in their third season.
Two of the Big Ten’s most successful coaches followed this exact path. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz each failed to make a bowl game in their first two seasons. Ferentz went 4-19 in his first two seasons at Iowa before taking a step forward in his third season with seven wins. Then from 2002-04, Ferentz led the Hawkeyes to a 31-7 record — the program’s best three-year stretch ever. Fitzgerald went 10-14 in his first two seasons with the Wildcats before breaking through for nine wins in his third season in 2008 — the program’s best since 1996. Now with Ferentz in Year No. 21 and Fitzgerald in Year No. 14, those first two seasons simply don’t matter.
Of course, there are differences in those two situations and what Frost has at Nebraska, which is one of the most passionate fan bases in the country. When you don’t perform relative to expectations, the fans aren’t quite as patient as they would be at Iowa in 1999 or Northwestern in 2006. And as there is more and more money at stake, athletic directors and boosters just aren’t as patient. Just ask Taggart, who was fired on Sunday by Florida State after just 21 games as a head coach. When you don’t deliver at a storied program, time isn’t on your side.
When it is, though, it’s possible to build. Greg Schiano had four straight losing seasons at Rutgers, but then he had five straight seasons with at least seven wins, including 11 in Year No. 6. Considering Nebraska’s history, though, Frost doesn’t have that kind of time.
Minnesota’s Glen Mason won just eight games in his first two seasons, but he wound up lasting 10 years at Minnesota. In 1999, his third season, Mason led the Golden Gophers to an 8-4 record, starting an eight-year run in which Minnesota made a bowl game seven times, including a 10-win season in 2003.
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The latest example of a third-year breakthrough is Tom Allen, who has Indiana at 7-2 and primed for its best season since 1994. The Hoosiers did not make a bowl game in either of Allen’s first two seasons, but they are already bowl eligible in his third season and could play their way into a New Year’s Day bowl.
Here’s a brief rundown of the rest of the Big Ten’s coaches who have failed to make a bowl in their first two years and how their tenure played out:
- Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez (2008-10) went 8-16 in his first two seasons before going 7-6 in Year No. 3, including a loss in the Gator Bowl. He was fired after that season and is the most cautionary tale for Frost because of the similar expectations and resources at Michigan and Nebraska. Neither was good initially, and Rodriguez (with a .405 winning percentage, better than Frost currently has) never did figure it out in time.
- Indiana’s Cam Cameron (1997-2001), Gerry DiNardo (2002-04) and Terry Hoepner (2005-06) failed to finish .500 and make a bowl game. Kevin Wilson (2011-16), though, had four straight losing seasons, made a bowl game in his fifth and was on his way to one in his sixth season too before he was relieved of his duties for things that had nothing to do with his win-loss record.
- Maryland’s Ron Vanderlinden (1997-2000) went 5-17 in his first two seasons and lasted only two years after that, failing to make a bowl game. Randy Edsall (2011-15) was 6-18 in his first two seasons before making bowl games in Year No. 3 and No. 4. He lasted until midway through his fifth season.
- Rutgers stuck with Schiano, and that paid off in an incredible run of success (relative to that program, of course). Chris Ash, though, never recovered from going 6-18 in his first two seasons. He won just one game in Year No. 3 and was fired after four games in 2019. Terry Shea (1996-2000) went 2-20 in his first two seasons and peaked in his third year, winning five games.
- Ron Turner (1997-2004) went 3-19 in two disastrous seasons to open his tenure at Illinois. In Year No. 3, though, he won eight games and helped Illinois finish the season ranked for the first time in nearly a decade. He also had a 10-win season in 2001. Ron Zook (2005-11) won two games in each of his first two seasons before exploding for a nine-win campaign in his third. Tim Beckman won six games total in his first two seasons before winning six in his third and final season with Illinois. And now Lovie Smith, who went 9-27 in his first three seasons, has the Fighting Illini at 5-4 and on the cusp of bowl eligibility after beating previously unbeaten Wisconsin.
- Purdue’s Danny Hope (2009-12) was 9-15 after two seasons, but he helped the Boilermakers to bowl appearances in 2011 and 2012. The Darrell Hazell era, however, did not see that same improvement. Purdue won four games in his first two seasons, then just five in his next two (the latter of which he didn’t finish).
So why does this all matter? It shows that just because this is who you are in your second season, it doesn’t mean that’s who you’ll be in your third season. Or your fourth. In today’s world where we rush to label everything that doesn’t immediately work as a bust, let this serve as a reminder that sometimes, it just takes a little longer. This may be overly optimistic, but Frost is recruiting well (he had the No. 18 recruiting class nationally in 2019, good for fourth in the Big Ten) and has a history of winning dating to his time as head coach at UCF and coordinator at Oregon. There is a new practice facility in the works, and Frost should be able to continue luring top talent to Lincoln. The Big Ten coaches who made big leaps in Year No. 3 or No. 4 were at much-less heralded programs, and they figured it out. Frost can, too.
That said, Frost has to show that he’s building something and moving forward. Nebraska made him one of the highest-paid coaches in the Big Ten and in the country for a reason, and he has not lived up to expectations — not even close. The fact that Frost played quarterback and can’t seem to get his quarterback to play at the level required to win is alarming. The Boilermakers are the No. 13 pass defense in the Big Ten, and this could’ve been a get-right game for Adrian Martinez (who was mentioned in the same breath as Justin Fields in the preseason), and instead, the Cornhuskers looked disorganized.
Purdue had no business winning on Saturday, especially against a Nebraska team that is simply more talented. The product on the field just isn’t good enough, and Frost won’t last long if he can’t rectify that.
Frost may turn out to be a bust, but he just as easily could figure this thing out and in 10 years, we’ll look back on this as the low point. Frost and Nebraska are the punchline now, and with good reason — but a turnaround may be just around the corner. We simply don’t know yet, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.
A look around the Big Ten.
Let’s see just how much respect the Big Ten gets
The first College Football Playoff Rankings come out on Tuesday, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how the committee views the Big Ten, which has three of the remaining seven unbeaten FBS squads. If the AP poll is any indication, it will be a distant second fiddle to the SEC.
LSU and Alabama are both ahead of No. 3 Ohio State, which leads the country in point differential at 40.4. Will the committee agree with that? In this case of LSU, probably, because the Tigers won at Texas (though that win gets less impressive each week) and at home against Florida and Auburn. But Alabama’s lone win of notoriety was winning at Texas A&M by 19 – a team that will in all likelihood finish 7-5. Ohio State, meanwhile, beat the current No. 17 team in the country (Cincinnati) by 42, it beat the current No. 16 team in the country (Wisconsin) by 31 and it beat a 7-2 Indiana squad on the road by 41. Alabama is ranked ahead of Ohio State right now because of its reputation and the conference’s reputation.
Two-loss squads like No. 10 Florida and No. 12 Auburn are ranked ahead of unbeaten No. 13 Minnesota. I’m not even saying I don’t agree with it because Florida and Auburn have better wins, but what if all three of those teams win out? Would Minnesota still be behind them? The SEC’s two-loss teams are also ranked ahead of the Big Ten’s two-loss team, Michigan – which has two wins over teams currently ranked 18th or better, plus a seven-point loss at current No. 5 Penn State. Florida’s only good win is over Auburn (which also has just one win over a current Top 25 team).
Espn predictor graphic says Minnesota has a 78% chance to make the playoff if they end up undefeated. WHAT?! 78- that’s it?! If they are undefeated that means they beat Top5 PSU and Top5 OSU and be B10 champs- all in the final month. What the what?!?! pic.twitter.com/0pXhfiw8Hs
— Mike Hall (@BTNMikeHall) November 2, 2019
Pay attention to Penn State’s placement, too. The No. 5 Nittany Lions may be undefeated, but they are scarcely mentioned as a potential CFP team in the way that the loser of Alabama and LSU is. A one-loss Penn State team could potentially have three Top 20 wins (Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota). A one-loss Alabama team could just have three-loss Auburn as a quality win.
It’s all going to work itself out and ideally, settle itself on the field. But it will be fascinating to watch it all unfold and fun to debate.
Indiana, Illinois keep rolling; Northwestern keeps floundering
This was such a lean week in the Big Ten that Indiana’s game against Northwestern was the most intriguing on paper (until Nebraska lost to a third-string QB). It’s two programs going in opposite directions. IU has scored less than 31 points just once in nine games; Northwestern has scored more than 15 points just once in eight games.
It was interesting that Allen went right back to Michael Penix Jr. after Peyton Ramsey led the Hoosiers to wins at Maryland and Nebraska while Penix was hurt. Penix is the guy, though, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt the team’s chemistry. Stevie Scott III also reminded us how big of a weapon he can be, rushing 26 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
It’s full steam ahead for the Hoosiers, who had just one seven-win season in their last 25 years. IU needs just one more win to equal the 1993 squad that went 8-4 and two more wins to equal the 1967 team that went 9-2. At this rate, let’s just hope IU can hold onto Tom Allen.
These are strange times in the Big Ten, huh?
Look at Illinois, which won its third straight Big Ten game and is suddenly on the cusp of bowl eligibility at 5-4. It’s the program’s first three-game conference winning streak since 2007. At 3-3, Lovie Smith has the Fighting Illini at .500 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2010.
Smith was a very good coach with the Chicago Bears, and his hallmark was always takeaways. This Illinois team has adopted that identity as it has forced 22 turnovers, including 15 fumble recoveries. Both of those are the best in the country. In the 38-10 win over Rutgers, Illinois had two defensive touchdowns.
Meanwhile at Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald is all but assured to finish with his worst season since he took over in 2006. The Wildcats went 4-8 that season. Northwestern could conceivably beat Purdue, UMass and Illinois to get to four wins, but this may wind up as Northwestern’s worst since going 2-9 in 1993.
Strange times, indeed.
After a strange week with six Big Ten teams on bye (including five ranked teams), Week 11 will be fascinating. Minnesota (8-0) gets its first real test of the season with fellow unbeaten Penn State (8-0) coming to town. Wisconsin (6-2) hosts Iowa (6-2) in a matchup of West Division heavyweights. And the game that could really let us know how odd this season has been: Illinois at Michigan State.