Let's see what Scott Frost and Nebraska are made of
The last two weeks had to have felt like an eternity for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After getting blown out by a Minnesota team that it was predicted to finish well ahead of in the preseason, Nebraska finally returns to Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
And we get to see what Scott Frost is made of.
In Year No. 2 of the Frost era, Nebraska is facing a must-win against… Indiana? Say what, now?
Yes, the Cornhuskers are in dire straights after being ranked No. 24 in the preseason (their first time being ranked since 2016). Lose to Indiana, and there’s almost no margin for error in reaching bowl eligibility, with Wisconsin and Iowa still on the schedule. Nebraska is favored by two points, as of Friday morning, but does anyone in Lincoln feel confident? I don’t know that anyone outside the team has a firm grip on who is going to start at quarterback, much less lead the Cornhuskers to a win.
No one could have envisioned this when Frost took over before the 2018 season, but 19 games into Frost’s tenure, here we are. Indiana (5-2) and Minnesota (7-0) are the programs that appear to have taken the next step in the Big Ten; Nebraska, meanwhile, is fortunate to be 4-3. When your best win is beating up on a 2-5 MAC squad, you know it’s been a tough season.
Here’s what Nebraska can take solace in: Maybe the bye week gave the Cornhuskers some time to regroup and figure out how to play the way many expected when they were preseason West Division favorites.
We’ve seen what a bye week can do for a team. Look at Minnesota, which beat three non-Power Five programs by a total of 13 points in the first three weeks of the season. After its bye week, the Golden Gophers have racked up four blowout wins (the Purdue game finished at 38-31, but Minnesota led by 21 midway through the fourth quarter). P.J. Fleck and his staff were able to dissect where the team needed to improve, and they clearly acted on it. There’s just something about resetting and getting healthy that can provide a spark. Lord knows that Nebraska needed it after that 34-7 loss at Minnesota on Oct. 12.
How did Frost self-scout this group that is just 88th in points per game and 74th in total offense? It’s hard to fathom that a Frost-coached team could score a total of 27 points in its last three games, even if Adrian Martinez has been in and out of the lineup. But it’s not as if Martinez has lit it up this season. Remember two years ago? UCF led the nation with 48.2 points per game under Frost’s guidance.
I keep thinking about what Frost said in the preseason: “We’re better. We’re better than we were a year ago, and the rest of it we’re going to have to earn.”
But does Nebraska really look better? Sure, Nebraska is one win away from eclipsing its win totals from 2017 and 2018, and it will almost surely do that (if not, yikes). But the reason so many in the media felt good about the Cornhuskers this season was the manner they finished last season. There was so much progress in those final six games that the logical next step was contending, if not winning, the Big Ten West Division.
And yet, that hasn’t been the case at all. The wins have been nail-biters (by four points against Illinois and by three points against Northwestern, two of the four worst teams in the conference). The losses have been ugly (by 41 points against Ohio State and by 27 against Minnesota).
The vibe has always been off about this team. For one, Frost called out Martinez after a sluggish opener, saying he wasn’t practicing well. That’s a giant red flag. And then, this whole Maurice Washington situation has been handled very poorly. After Frost said he wasn’t going to tolerate any misbehavior from recruits regarding women, he allowed the running back to play while he was facing felony child pornography charges. He has played in all seven games this season, but now appears to unofficially be off the team. That has to have been a distraction, and Frost would be wise to not allow Washington back until that case is resolved.
While injuries have really hurt Nebraska this season (Martinez and backup quarterback Noah Vedral are both questionable for Saturday, meaning freshman Luke McCaffrey may start), it’s not as if every other team isn’t affected too. Look at Indiana. The Hoosiers have a different quarterback outlook each week as starter Michael Penix Jr. has been unable to stay healthy. And yet, Indiana keeps winning.
The optics of losing to Indiana – a program that hasn’t won eight games in a season since 1993 – would be terrible. The Hoosiers have been itching to make the leap out of the bottom third of the league for years. Since 2016, Indiana is 9-3 against Rutgers, Illinois, Maryland and Purdue. In that span, Indiana has lost 18 straight games to the rest of the league, with its last win against that group coming Oct. 1, 2016, when it beat Michigan State. Everyone in the top half of the league beats Indiana, and a Nebraska loss would be telling about the current direction of the program.
The bottom line is that this is on Frost to figure it out. According to USA Today’s recently-released salary database, Frost is the 14th highest-paid coach in the country (and fifth in the Big Ten) with an annual salary of $5 million. Guess who is the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten? Indiana’s Tom Allen.
The comparisons between what Frost did in Year No. 2 at UCF (when it went undefeated) and what Frost would do at Nebraska in Year No. 2 weren’t fair, but there is something to it. He has shown the ability to help a team grow.
Coming off a bye, let’s put that to the test. It’s time to see what Frost and Nebraska are made of.