Crystal Ball: Predicting every game on Nebraska’s schedule in 2021
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series concludes today with Nebraska. Let the actual football begin!
If you’d have told Nebraska fans back in late 2017 that this would seem like a do-or-die season for Scott Frost, how many would’ve believed you? Five percent? Ten percent?
Now, that number is probably much higher as Frost’s 4th season with the Huskers begins. The combination of Frost not yet having taken Nebraska to a bowl game and the sudden resignation of athletic director Bill Moos puts the onus on Frost to do what he was hired from UCF to do: Win.
Billed as the savior, Frost has been even worse than his predecessor, Mike Riley, who went 19-19 in 3 seasons. Frost is just 12-20, as this is the worst stretch of Nebraska football since the late 1950s.
Frost seemed to have been granted an unusually high amount of goodwill, given he was the QB of the school’s last national championship team in 1997. But that is fading. There is a new AD (Trev Alberts), an NCAA investigation into the program (though no one thinks anything will actually happen) and no indication that Frost is making any progress as the negative headlines mount.
Nebraska hasn’t had a 3-game winning streak under Frost. It hasn’t beaten any good teams recently, with losing streaks of at least 6 to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. And as mentioned, it hasn’t even been to a bowl game since 2016, much less finished in the AP Top 25 (which hasn’t happened since 2012). The best win under Frost is probably beating an average Michigan State team 9-6 at the end of the 2018 season. Or maybe beating Minnesota in 2018? Neither of those teams won more than 7 games.
Frost is under contract through 2026, so the bottom would really have to fall out for this to be his last season. But other programs, like Tennessee, have used an NCAA investigation to get out of a contract with a coach it had grown tired of. With an AD now on board that didn’t hire Frost (and who also played for Nebraska during the glory days), the pressure is on for him to demonstrate that he has steered this ship in the right direction and that progress is being made.
The hope, obviously, is that Frost finally has the guys there that he likes and that they are doing things (like practicing) the way he wants. There are no excuses left for a coach entering his 4th season.
More than ever, this program needs positive momentum
Frost needs to find a way to build up some goodwill once again. Maybe it’s too late for that, but he has to find a way to generate some positive momentum off the field. Winning would solve that, but he can’t have stories leaking like that Nebraska is trying to get out of a game with Oklahoma for a lesser opponent.
Nebraska’s recruiting class for 2022 currently is dead last in the Big Ten. That’s partially because it only has 9 players, but in terms of average player rating, it is 11th. The top 4 2022 high school players in Nebraska are committed to Missouri, Oklahoma, Auburn and likely Arizona State. Nebraska has recruited well under Frost, but many of those top recruits have already left the program; 18 scholarship players left from late 2019 to 2020, and 14 more left after last season.
In fairness, the pandemic has to have played a role in some of that, with Nebraska being so isolated and also the restrictions on travel.
The reports from preseason camp point to Nebraska finally being on the same page (and Frost not chastising his team for wearing hoodies or being soft). Will that hold up through the 2021 season? We shall see.
Defensively, there’s a lot to like
Most thought Frost’s teams would light up the scoreboard like he did at UCF, or at the very least, that the offense would be the strength of the team. But in 2021, Nebraska’s defense is where the team’s strength lies.
With super seniors like Ben Stille, JoJo Domann, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke back, plus Cam Taylor-Britt, there is plenty of evidence that this unit is going to be reliable. Getting those guys to return for another season is a reason for optimism, as is the improvement this group has already shown. Nebraska allowed 433 yards per game in Frost’s first season, which ranked 94th nationally. Two years later, that number was down to 386 yards per game (50th nationally).
Nebraska has 10 starters and its top 8 tacklers back (though Will Honas is likely out for the season with a knee injury). Defense no longer wins championships, but at the very least, this unit isn’t going to put Nebraska’s offense in a hole and force it to play catch-up every week.
Is this finally the year for Adrian Martinez?
There’s no getting around the fact that Martinez has regressed since a promising freshman season in which he threw 17 TDs and 8 INTs. Despite completing 71.5 percent of his passes in 2020, Martinez only threw 4 TD passes and 3 INTs. His yards per attempt was a career-low 7.0. His adjusted yards per attempt was even worse at 6.6. Martinez is very good running the ball, but the game is played through the air.
The only team that played 8 games and had fewer TD passes than the 5 Nebraska’s QBs accounted for was Army, which runs the triple option. Nebraska’s passing offense has gone down from ranking 52nd nationally in Frost’s first season, to 82nd, to 103rd.
Nebraska is optimistic that it has equipped Martinez with better (and bigger) weapons that will spark the downfield passing attack. Montana transfer Samori Toure is a 6-foot-3 slot receiver who was an FCS All-American. The 6-2 Zavier Betts and 6-4 Omar Manning are also bigger targets with a ton of talent. Starting tight end Austin Allen is 6-8.
Coaches are raving about Martinez, but I’ll wait to see the progress on the field before actually dubbing this a competent passing attack. Figuring that out can unlock this offense and this team.
Week 0: at Illinois (W)
I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve gone back and forth on this game. I’ve toyed with the idea of picking Illinois for a few reasons. For one, last year was a beatdown. Two, the game is in Champaign. And three, Illinois has a ton of positive momentum, while Nebraska is just the opposite (from getting out of playing Oklahoma, the AD suddenly resigning and the NCAA investigation).
But ultimately, Nebraska is my pick because I think it is the most desperate team. It has to win this game or you can make the case that all of the Huskers’ goals will be unattainable. As you’ll see below, it’s a very tough schedule, especially the final 3 games. Nebraska NEEDS this game, and I think it’ll have the focus necessary to get that done.
Week 1: vs. Fordham (W)
Nebraska shouldn’t have trouble with FCS foe Fordham, which had a 3-game season in the spring. It’s good timing after what should be a tough, emotional opener.
Week 2: vs. Buffalo (W)
Am I predicting Scott Frost’s first 3-game winning streak at Nebraska? Yes, yes I am. Buffalo was left scrambling after Lance Leipold took the Kansas job, and as a result, a mass exodus followed. This should be an easy one.
Week 3: at Oklahoma (L)
It wasn’t enough that Oklahoma would’ve been jacked up for this game in a fun renewal of an old rivalry and that the Sooners are going to be really, really good. But the added wrinkle is that Nebraska tried to take this game off the schedule, supposedly in favor of getting an extra home game. It was a bad, bad look for the Huskers. I have a feeling by the time this one is over, Nebraska will wish it could’ve gotten out of this game. Spencer Rattler and the Sooners are a serious national title contender.
Week 4: at Michigan State (W)
This is a very favorable early-season schedule for Nebraska, as Michigan State is projected to be one of the worst B1G teams. A 4-1 start is in reach.
Week 5: vs. Northwestern (W)
Northwestern looks like it will take a step back this season, which means this is a must-win for the Huskers. The last 4 meetings have all been 1-possession games, with 2 going to overtime.
Week 6: vs. Michigan (L)
After all of the good vibes and media think pieces about Frost finally figuring it out after a 5-1 start, we’ll look a little silly when Michigan comes to Memorial Stadium and wins.
Week 7: at Minnesota (L)
The Huskers have gotten it handed to them by the Golden Gophers the last 2 years, and I’m inclined to think that will continue. What has changed between these 2 teams? Minnesota has 20 starters back.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. Purdue (W)
Bowl eligibility at last! For the first time in the Frost era, Nebraska is going bowling. The Huskers need to be at 5 wins going into this game because the closing stretch (Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa) is brutal.
Week 10: vs. Ohio State (L)
In the last 6 meetings, all won by Ohio State, there’s been 1 game closer than 25 points. One! I can’t imagine this one will be closer than that.
Week 11: Bye
Week 12: at Wisconsin (L)
The Badgers were supposed to be challenged in the West by the Huskers, but it’s been anything but that. Wisconsin has won 7 straight against Nebraska, and it’s hard to imagine a script in which it isn’t 8 in a row. The Badgers will likely be playing with a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game on the line, meaning they will be ready to go at home.
Week 13: vs. Iowa (L)
Iowa has won 6 straight in this series, though the games have been close. The problem for Nebraska is that it keeps trying to troll Iowa online, but that’s really hard to do when you can’t beat them.
2021 projection: 6-6, 4th in B1G West
Did you sense a theme with those last 3 games? Nebraska doesn’t beat good teams. That’s probably the most discouraging part of this recent stretch if your a Huskers fan. Nebraska has not beaten a team with more than 7 wins, and if my Crystal Ball predictions come true, it still won’t have beaten such a team.
But the bigger picture is that Nebraska will finally be in a bowl game, and Frost can breathe just a little easier. Yeah, it’s a sad day in Lincoln when a 6-6 season is billed as a successful one, but it’s reality. Going 6-6 would be a step in the right direction, even if former athletic director Bill Moos wanted 8 wins. And really, that should be the goal for Nebraska: Beat the teams it should beat and surprise 1 or 2 others.
Does a 6-6 season like this still leave Frost on the hot season in 2022? Absolutely, as he should be. But it does allow him to make it to 2022.