10 bold predictions for Nebraska in 2020
Finally, after everything B1G fans have gone through in this weird and ugly offseason, it’s here — real football talk.
Nebraska’s Scott Frost spoke up and defended his state, school and players before any other coach did, and in doing so he united a Huskers fanbase that now seems more tight-knit than it has ever been.
The goodwill might be short-lived, though, what with the Huskers coming off a 5-7 season in 2019 and facing a brutally daunting schedule. Can Frost and Co. turn this bizarre year into a great underdog story?
Here are 10 bold predictions for the 2020 Huskers.
1. Nebraska starts the season 0-2, but avoids 0-4
When the official schedule came out, the Huskers saw 3 of their first 4 games against teams most would predict to be the best the B1G has to offer — Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. Road games at Ohio State on Oct. 24 and Northwestern on Nov. 7. Home games against the Badgers on Oct. 31 and the Nittany Lions on Nov. 14.
It’s a brutal schedule, but the pre-coronavirus 2020 slate had those 3 teams on it and was considered one of the most challenging since the Huskers have been in the B1G. Some in the fanbase took issue with who and when Nebraska was playing. Instead of complaining, Huskers fans should be thankful that their team is playing football in the first place. Look at it as an opportunity instead of a conspiracy.
If fans take a realistic approach with the first 4 games, they should see a scenario where the Huskers start 0-4. Maybe that should have been the bold prediction instead of 0-2.
Not much needs to be said about the Ohio State game. The Buckeyes are the B1G’s perennial College Football Playoff contender and bring back their Heisman candidate quarterback, Justin Fields. The Buckeyes have a 5-game winning streak against Nebraska, and last year’s contest in Lincoln — one which College GameDay was in town for — was over at halftime. Chalk that game up as a loss.
The news about Wisconsin QB Jack Coan injuring his foot and being out indefinitely is notable. Coan threw 18 touchdown passes last year against just 5 interceptions and would have provided that veteran presence you’d want at the position. But will the absence of Coan impact the Huskers’ chances of an upset in Lincoln on Halloween? If it will, it won’t be by much.
Instead of the QB, the Badgers’ offensive line and defense usually determine if they win the game. Wisconsin has won the last 7 meetings, so until Nebraska shows it can stop the run and beat the Badgers, who will be breaking in a new QB and running back, you have to go with the the boys from Madison.
But then Nebraska travels to face Northwestern. This has been a tight series — the Wildcats always play the Huskers tough and have won 3 of the last 5 games. Northwestern will likely start Indiana transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who just beat Nebraska last season.
Before thinking about knocking off teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Huskers need to show they can consistently beat the other West Division teams on their level, and like it or not, Northwestern and Nebraska are on the same level.
This game has all the makings of another close contest. A toss-up. But it’s one I believe Nebraska will get out of with a win.
2. Brenden Jaimes will make first-team All-B1G
The Huskers offensive line returns all 5 starters from last season and the coaching staff seems comfortable enough to slide a talented redshirt freshman, Bryce Benhart, into the starting right tackle spot.
The anchor of that unit, however, is left tackle Brenden Jaimes, a 4-year starter from Austin, Texas, who came back to Lincoln for another year despite drawing NFL attention.
Jaimes was voted the team’s offensive MVP last season and drew high praise from his O-line coach, Greg Austin.
“You couldn’t have asked for better tackle play, especially in protection,” Austin told the Omaha World-Herald on March 9. “Not even close.”
Jaimes, who has started the past 33 games at either left or right tackle, made honorable mention All-B1G last season. The last Nebraska offensive lineman to earn first, second or third-team All-B1G honors was tackle Nick Gates in 2016.
3. Nebraska leads the B1G in rushing
This is certainly bold, isn’t it?
Ohio State and Wisconsin will be starting new RBs after the departures of J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor. Nebraska, however, finished third in the B1G last year in rushing yards per game with 203.2 and showed it had the ability to run on the big boys — just look at the 273-yard performance against Wisconsin.
With all 5 starters on the offensive line — plus Bryce Benhart (6-9, 330), who saw some action last season as a true freshman while still preserving his redshirt — and starting RB Dedrick Mills returning, Nebraska should improve on its 4.48-yards-per-carry average from last season.
Add in some talented players who could chip in with some carries throughout the year — think QBs Adrian Martinez, Luke McCaffrey and highly-touted, if unproven, RBs Rahmir Johnson, Marvin Scott and Sevion Morrison — and the Huskers could possess one of the B1G’s top ground games, maybe even the best.
4. Nebraska will be a bottom-5 rush defense in the B1G
Nebraska’s front seven is going to have a new look in 2020. Gone are defensive linemen Khalil Davis, Carlos Davis and Darrion Daniels, outside linebacker Alex Davis and LB Mohamed Barry, the leading tackler.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has a tough task in front of him replacing those starters, but fans can look at that two different ways:
- Option 1: The front seven last year wasn’t particularly good at stopping the run anyway as Nebraska was 11th in the B1G in rush defense, allowing 188 yards per game. So maybe it’s a good thing the Huskers have new blood out there.
- Option 2: Fans have an idea of what the rotation will look like, but DE Ben Stille, LBs Collin Miller, Will Honas and OLB JoJo Domann might be the only ones in the front seven who can be confidently penciled in as starters. There are simply too many questions along the front seven — especially at OLB — for me to think there’s going to be much improvement on stopping the run.
Which option would you pick? If it were me, I’d pick the latter.
5. Adrian Martinez has a bounce-back season
Make no mistake about it: Martinez suffered the dreaded sophomore slump in 2019.
The regression surely didn’t all fall on his shoulders. He played hurt, had to worry about where the snap was going to land from a 1st-year center and was throwing to small-in-stature receivers who weren’t getting open down the field.
Whatever the issues were, I believe Martinez is poised for a big 2020 season. He’s fully healthy, center Cam Jurgens showed improvement and now has a season under his belt, and there may be bigger targets to throw to in juco transfer Omar Manning (6-4, 225), Zavier Betts (6-2, 200), South Dakota transfer Levi Falck (6-2, 205) and Chris Hickman (6-6, 215).
Combine the bigger bodies in the wideout room with the starting offensive line and RB returning, and Martinez should have the added benefit of a solid and consistent run game — a QB’s best friend.
New offensive coordinator Matt Lubick recently said Martinez is Nebraska’s starter, but that McCaffrey has taken reps with the No. 1 offense and the two are in a “friendly competition.”
I fully expect Martinez to win the job — the coaches like to say there’s a competition, but I find that to simply be coach-speak — and perform better than last season, in which he threw 10 touchdowns and rushed for 7 but threw 9 interceptions.
6. The tight ends won’t get the production fans are hoping for
It seems like the “utilizing the tight end position more” storyline happens every year leading up to the season. But until we see it, I have a hard time believing it’s going to happen.
On paper, Nebraska has one of the best and intriguing tight end rooms in the B1G. That group is led by veterans Jack Stoll, Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. But that trio combined for just 33 catches, 326 yards and 1 touchdown last year. The year before, the production totaled 27 catches, 366 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The targets just aren’t there. Will they be this season?
The addition of talented Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek — and the recruiting win of consensus 4-star TE Thomas Fidone — excited the fanbase. Hopefully we can see what Stoll, Vokolek and, in the future, Fidone, can really do when they have the ball thrown to them.
7. Wan’Dale Robinson picks up where JD Spielman left off
Last year as a true freshman, Robinson excited fans by showing his versatility and toughness. He caught 40 passes for 453 yards and 2 touchdowns while rushing for 375 yards and 3 scores.
Now that Spielman transferred to TCU, the opportunity is there for Robinson to slide into the slot and be Nebraska’s top receiver. Spielman caught 49 passes for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns last season. Robinson can get near 700 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns this year.
Now that he can focus on being a receiver, Robinson won’t take the hits from B1G front sevens that he did while running the ball last year. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get any carries in the run game, because of course he should — he’s too talented not to.
The addition of the big-bodied Manning should help Robinson, too. If Manning is healthy and the real deal coming out of Kilgore College in Texas, it will help open the middle of the field for Spielman to work.
Those are big ifs, but Robinson becoming Nebraska’s version of Rondale Moore isn’t.
8. Nebraska will average over 35 points per game
The ingredients for this happening are there.
Along with the entire offensive line, Nebraska’s top 2 QBs are returning in Martinez and McCaffrey. So is Mills, one of the B1G’s best RBs, and Robinson, one of the B1G’s most electric athletes with the ball in his hands.
We’ll see if the additions of Manning and Vokolek pan out — and if the TEs get more targets — but the pieces are in place for Frost and Lubick to find the end zone more than last year, when the Huskers were 7th in the B1G in scoring at 28 points per game.
9. Cam Taylor-Britt leads the defense in interceptions
With the recent news that potential starting cornerback and replacement for Lamar Jackson, Braxton Clark, is out for the season with a shoulder injury, Taylor-Britt becomes an integral part to a Huskers secondary that was 7th in the B1G in pass defense last year, allowing 200.8 yards per game.
Depending on how quickly a few players adjust to B1G football and find their way to the field — think Quinton Newsome, Ronald Delancy III and ultra-intriguing junior college pickup Nadab Joseph — Taylor-Britt, a freak athlete at 6 feet, 215 pounds, will be even more important.
I don’t think it matters where Taylor-Britt lines up — he could be used on the outside or in the slot so he’s closer to the line of scrimmage and therefore could help out in run support — because he’s proven to have a knack for finding the ball and led the defense in forced fumbles last year with 4.
Taylor-Britt had 3 picks last year, which tied for the team lead with Jackson, who’s now with the New York Jets. Expect him to be the leader in that department again this season.
10. Collin Miller will be the leading tackler
Along with being a senior leader, Miller, one of Nebraska’s inside LBs, will lead the defense in tackles this season.
As a junior Miller had 67 stops, which tied for 4th on the team with safety Marquel Dismuke. It’s safe to say that Nebraska’s LB play needs to be better than last season, but Miller is a year older and experienced now which should help.
Along with safety Deontai Williams, who is coming off a season-ending injury in the first quarter of the first game last year, Miller will be the heart of the defense.