The Nebraska Cornhuskers have had consecutive seasons of missing out on bowls, the first time that has happened in Lincoln since the late 1960s.
What does the program have to do to avoid its first three-year run without a bowl since 1955-61?
Well, win more games. Duh. But how do the Cornhuskers get there, and more important, can they get there from here?
One could argue that the 2018 season’s whole momentum got derailed before it even started last year when the opener against Akron was canceled because of weather. I’m not sure I buy that — nor even the concept of momentum — but if Nebraska had played that opener and won, a whole bunch of young players might at least have gained some confidence.
Instead Nebraska started 0-6 with dispiriting nonconference losses to Colorado and, especially, Troy.
In 2019 Nebraska needs to have its act together right out of the gate to establish itself before the Big Ten slate even starts.
The Cornhuskers open at home against South Alabama, which should be easy pickings. But of course most members of Big Red Nation probably said the same thing before another Sun Belt Conference team rolled into Lincoln last September, and how did that work out?
This start is doubly critical because Game 2 is at Colorado. The Buffaloes beat the Cornhuskers in Lincoln this season and will be looking to reverse a serious slide. The Buffs started this season 5-0 but lost their last seven, costing head coach Mike MacIntyre his job.
A tricky game against 2018 MAC champion Northern Illinois closes the nonconference slate. Nebraska needs to be, at worst, 2-1 at this stage before hitting the B1G portion of the schedule.
Nebraska was good at home in the second half of the 2018 season and it will need to be again because Ohio State, Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa all visit Lincoln in the fall. All but Indiana went to bowl games over the past month. The other four not only went to bowls but won them.
It might not be realistic to expect that Nebraska will beat Ohio State yet, but if Adrian Martinez continues to flourish and the rest of the team develops in Year 2 under coach Scott Frost, it’s realistic to think that Big Red might win three of the other four B1G home games.
But to really prove themselves worthy of a bowl in 2019, Nebraska will have to do something it did not manage once this season: Win on the road.
The Cornhuskers were 0-5 on their travels in 2018, the first time since 1958 that they were winless on the road. After the September game in Boulder, Nebraska will face conference tests next fall at Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Maryland.
So is it realistic to expect a bowl in 2019? Judging by the direction that the Cornhuskers were trending in the second half of the first season under Frost’s guidance, the answer is yes.
But expectation and reality are two different things. This is a Nebraska program which has not won a major bowl game in this millennium. Three victories in the Alamo Bowl, two wins in the Gator Bowl and one each in the Holiday and one each in the Holiday and Foster Farms bowls are all Big Red has in its trophy case since 2000.
So first thing’s first: Just get back to a bowl in 2019, then worry about bigger things. Yes, it’s realistic, but the Cornhuskers have some things to prove first.