The hype train is going to take off from Lincoln in 2019. The only question is how fast it’ll go.
That’s not something you’d usually say about a 3-win team. Nebraska, however, is not your typical 3-win team. A program with its dream coach and quarterback of the future seems to be heading in the right direction having won 3 out of its last 4 games with the lone loss coming in a 1-score game at Ohio State.
The Huskers are trying to do something that few programs are able to do. That is, miss out on a bowl game and head into the offseason feeling like the sky is the limit.
A lot of that will be determined by the last 2 games against Michigan State and at Iowa. Win those and forget about it. You won’t be able to go to a bar between Scottsbluff and Lincoln without hearing the words “division title” as an expectation for 2019.
It’s setting up to be the perfect storm for that. After all, Northwestern — the team that Nebraska had a 2-possession fourth-quarter lead against — is heading to Indianapolis after winning the B1G West in the same week it clinched bowl eligibility. What’s to say Nebraska can’t pull off a similar run in Year 2 of the Scott Frost era?
These last 2 games will shed a whole lot of light on how realistic that is.
Let’s get back to the factors outside of Nebraska’s control because those seem significant, at least when it comes to breaking down expectations.
As wild as the B1G West has been, it’s been so wild because it lacks a dominant team. Wisconsin was supposed to be that dominant team. That didn’t happen. While injuries have derailed the Badgers’ once-promising 2018 outlook, they’ve at least shown that their floor is lower than we thought coming into this year.
And look around the division. Purdue is a mystery right now with Jeff Brohm’s expected courting from Louisville (Husker fans know all about an up-and-coming coach going back to his alma mater). Northwestern will replace a 4-year starting quarterback in Clayton Thorson and Iowa will return a lot of talent, but a team riding a 3-game conference losing streak doesn’t scream “West front-runner.”
So yeah, you can bet that if Nebraska at least splits these final 2 games, the division title talk will be in full effect.
To be fair, it’s rare to have an offseason in Lincoln when that isn’t at the forefront. There might not be a fanbase who relishes in the preseason record predicting more than Nebraska fans. That’s just the way it is there. The hype train picks up more steam than most places because without another FBS football program or major professional sport in the state, what else is there to break down? Add in the Frost factor and yeah, of course expectations will be high.
Part of that is because Frost’s vision has been playing out the last month. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Huskers were the Midwest version of UCF because of these final scores in their last 6 B1G games:
That’s an average of 73 combined points per game. What did UCF average last year during Frost’s unbeaten season in Orlando? A shockingly similar 73.5 combined points per game.
Obviously only two of those were Nebraska wins. But since the Michigan game, Nebraska is averaging 37 points per game against B1G foes. Adrian Martinez looks like the real deal, and the defense has played better collectively in the last month.
That’s basically the UCF model. The defense is going to allow a ton of yards — and madden the Husker traditionalists — but maybe it’ll just make a couple key stops or force a late turnover or two to seal it. It’s part-UCF and part-Nebraska looking more like a Big 12 team than it ever did when it was in the Big 12.
That’ll be tested these next couple weeks. Nebraska seems to have found its groove running the ball with Martinez and Devine Ozigbo, but they’ll face a Michigan State run defense that ranks No. 1 in FBS and an Iowa unit that’s sixth nationally against the run. Both MSU and Iowa have top-20 scoring defenses, which makes them the perfect end-of-season tests for Nebraska’s high-powered offense.
Ace them and we’ll be spiking Frost’s Year 2 outlook in a hurry.
Let’s not forget that while a significant year-to-year win jump is challenging, it’s been done plenty of times in the B1G West in recent memory. Iowa improved by 5 wins in 2015, as did Northwestern. Shoot, even Mike Riley led Nebraska to a 3-win improvement in 2016 before the wheels fell off.
What’s to say Frost can’t make that big year-to-year jump?
Don’t forget that the Huskers are 0-4 in 1-score games this year, which in itself suggests some improvement is in store. If Nebraska pulls off a split and is competitive in both games, you’ll get plenty of Husker hopefuls citing “in the second half of the season, they could play with anyone.”
Quite frankly, they aren’t wrong. If the Huskers continue to light up scoreboards and trend upward, there should be excitement about the future. “Trending upward” is a foreign concept for Nebraska in recent memory. The Huskers went 3-3, 2-4 and 1-4 in games after Oct. 24 in the Riley era. It’s been 5 years since they had a winning record after that point of the season.
Maybe this year changes that. Perhaps the stench of a historically awful start is replaced by the fresh smell of a new season.
The 2019 hype train is already off and running.
There won’t be any slowing it down with a couple of victories to close 2018.