10 most critical questions Nebraska must answer in 2022
After 4 lackluster and unfruitful seasons at Nebraska, the table is set for a pivotal Year 5 for Scott Frost. And — surprisingly for a team that went 3-9 in 2021 — there appears to be a sense of optimism that things can turn around.
A (mostly) brand new offensive staff and some key new and returning players are fueling that positive vibe.
Still, nothing is certain until results are proven on the field, a fact Frost is all too aware of at this point. With that in mind, here are 10 of the biggest questions facing the Huskers ahead of this season.
1. Can Nebraska reach a bowl?
This feels like it has been the biggest question facing the Huskers every year during Scott Frost’s time in Lincoln, right? After all, Frost was not brought on to produce strings of respectable losses. He was brought on to return the program to relevance and to compete for B1G titles, the likes of which haven’t been accomplished since Bo Pelini was around.
The good news is every game should feel winnable in 2022 after the Huskers were able to keep every game they played close during 2021. More good news for Nebraska is a favorable schedule, with the first 3 conference games against opponents with losing records last season –Northwestern, Indiana and Rutgers. The Huskers will also face North Dakota, Georgia Southern and Oklahoma before an Oct. 15 road trip to Purdue.
If they handles their business across those first 6 games and come away with at least 4 wins, the Huskers should be sitting pretty. If more issues pop up and close losses ensue, Nebraska — and Frost’s time as its head coach — will be in a precarious position.
2. Will the new-look offense gel quickly?
By far the biggest story of Nebraska’s offseason was the move to swap out the majority of the offensive staff. OC Mark Whipple, RBs coach Bryan Applewhite, WRs coach and passing game coordinator Mickey Joseph and OL coach Donovan Raiola were all brought on to fix an offense that averaged 27.9 points per game last season.
On paper, the new staff is an upgrade. But games are not won on paper, and replacing so many pieces in one offseason is risky.
Yes, Nebraska’s offense should be improved. Still, how quickly the offense hits its ceiling and finds cohesion remains to be seen.
3. Will the line be better in pass protection?
One of the biggest issues holding back the offense in 2021 was a line that was abysmal in pass protection. The line rated a 29.2 pass-blocking grade. That mark ranked 126th out of 130 teams at the FBS level.
The issues were not just limited to pressures and sacks given up. Nebraska’s line also struggled with penalties, with a number of them proving to be drive-killers.
Donovan Raiola was brought on to coach up the unit, but he will have to get a number of new faces ready. The interior of the line was the bright spot for Nebraska, but all 3 starters are gone. Matt Sichterman and Cam Jurgens are off to the NFL, while returning left guard Nouredin Nouili is suspended for the entirety of the 2022 season.
4. Is Casey Thompson a true upgrade over Adrian Martinez?
For many Nebraska fans, the fact that Adrian Martinez was leaving and Casey Thompson was transferring in from Texas was welcomed news. On the one hand, that is understandable after Martinez’s struggles and turnovers, particularly late in games.
And yet, it is still a fair question to ask if Thompson will fare better with the Huskers than Martinez did. There is no questioning Thompson was more efficient at Texas than Martinez at Nebraska (24 TDs and 9 interceptions vs. 14 TDs and 10 interceptions), but that does not quite tell the full story.
Remember that Martinez was playing behind the worst line in the B1G and one of the worst in the country. Also, consider that Thompson was playing with an offense that averaged right at 200 yards on the ground and over 5 yards per carry.
Thompson looked good under center for the Longhorns last season. Now Thompson has to prove he can play just as well with arguably less talent around him.
5. Can the Huskers pull off one big upset?
Close but no cigar will only get you so far in college football. Unfortunately, that’s the world Frost has lived in when it comes to playing ranked opponents.
Frost is 0-14 against teams ranked in the top 25 while at Nebraska, including an 0-6 mark in 2021. Adding insult to injury, 2 of those games were lost by a field goal and 3 more were lost by a touchdown.
Even if Nebraska wins all the games it should in 2022, pulling off an upset might be a needed to boost Frost’s prospects of returning for another run at things in 2023. And with the final 3 games of the season coming at Michigan, vs. Wisconsin and at Iowa, the Huskers will have chances to make a bang with an upset late in the season.
6. Will Nebraska finally slow down Wisconsin’s run game?
Games of 228, 204, 221, and 249 yards. Those are the rushing performances that Wisconsin stars Braelon Allen and Jonathan Taylor have posted in the last 4 meetings between the Badgers and Huskers. Unsurprisingly, Nebraska is 0-4 in those games. It has lost 8 straight to Wisconsin.
Even more insult to injury is that the Huskers had a great shot to knock off Wisconsin in 2021 despite Allen’s numbers. That is until he broke free for a 53-yard go-ahead touchdown with less than 4 minutes remaining in the game.
No matter how you look at the schedule, the Wisconsin matchup remains a key game for Nebraska. Unfortunately, it’s fair to wonder if the Huskers are cursed to surrender another 200-yard outing to a Wisconsin running back this season.
7. Can the Huskers stop their slide vs. Iowa?
“The one that got away” was a recurring theme for the Huskers in 2021, but the game against Iowa was especially brutal. After racing out to a 21-6 lead, the Huskers watched as the Hawkeyes scored 22 unanswered points — including 19 in the fourth quarter.
Frost has never beaten Iowa in the rivalry series, and Nebraska has lost 7 straight to the Hawkeyes. Not only is it a tough game to continually lose, but it is also the traditional last game of the season, which leaves a bitter taste to linger into the offseason.
The good news is Frost has never lost to Iowa by more than a touchdown, so it is — in theory — a very winnable game. Now, it’s time to prove Frost can come out on top in a matchup against Kirk Ferentz.
8. Will Frost figure out the (PJ) Fleck code?
PJ Fleck is arguably everyone’s favorite coach to hate around the B1G. Unfortunately for Nebraska, Fleck has terrorized the Huskers for 3 seasons running and issued an infamous “culture over skill” rant after last year’s win.
Regardless of feelings for Fleck, the rivalry of Fleck vs. Frost is a good one within the B1G West. It’s also another one where Frost sits on the wrong side of the ledger.
After a 53-28 win during his first season in Lincoln, Frost has lost 3 straight in the series. Fleck has also been to 3 bowl games since 2018 and is 3-0 in them.
After the way things went down last season, Minnesota’s trip to Lincoln on Nov. 5 feels particularly noteworthy. At this point, a win over Fleck and the Golden Gophers might be one of the most satisfying of all for Frost and the Nebraska faithful.
9. Will special teams be a weapon, or at least an asset?
Special teams was an eyesore for the Huskers in 2021. On second thought, that’s putting things too lightly.
With so many close losses last season, every little detail mattered. And the special teams units had a number of crucial blunders.
This offseason, Nebraska elevated Bill Busch to full-time special teams coordinator to help improve the unit. The Huskers also dipped into the transfer portal to add kicker Timmy Bleekrode and punter Brian Buschini.
Nebraska has the weapons to flip things around and turn special teams into an asset. But until the Huskers prove they are not a liability, fans will be a bit wary of special teams.
10. Who leads the way in the RB room?
Nebraska should have a stable of capable running backs. However, finding a true go-to threat could help take the offense a step further.
Rahmir Johnson, Jaquez Yant and Markese Stepp are all back. Johnson was the leader of that group last season with 495 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Yant averaged over 6 yards per carry.
Gabe Ervin Jr. should also be back after an injury last season and star JUCO back Anthony Grant has joined Nebraska via the transfer portal. Even if the offensive staff gets creative with the use of Johnson as a receiver (16 catches for 197 yards last season), that’s a lot of players to spread carries among.