Nebraska fans are smart.
That’s not just some lazy narrative that’s been recycled over the course of time. After spending 2.5 years surrounded by nothing but Husker fans, I can confirm that with exception of the select few who call into “Big Red Reaction” (some call it “Big Red Overreaction”) and pretend that there’s another Tom Osborne lurking in the weeds, it’s a smart group of people.
Scott Frost, I believe is the one who will return them to national relevance.
I was one of the many who believed he deserved to be the hire at the end of the 2014 season instead of Mike Riley (I wasn’t necessarily sold on Riley having the ceiling that Nebraska fans were hoping for, but I was sold on the belief that he’d be much better suited to handle the peaks and valleys of the Nebraska microscope than his predecessor Bo Pelini). And that’s not based on what he did as a player or where his roots are, but rather what Frost has already proven as a head coach (I also lived in Orlando for the duration of the Frost era at UCF).
Why am I bringing up those two points? Well, because both of those things can be true while another thought keeps coming back to me ahead of the 2019 season.
It was 28 months ago that Riley was leading a top-10 team in the middle of his second season on the job. Nebraska was 7-0 and ranked in the top 10, which hadn’t happened since 2001.
I’m not saying that’ll happen again because Ohio State will come to Lincoln at the end of September. There’s even a decent chance that Nebraska will be 4-0 having already matched last year’s win total. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Huskers got into the 15-20 range nationally and suddenly, the trendy upset pick was Nebraska to have a “we’re back” moment against Ohio State on a national stage.
Aaaaaaand that’s when we’re gonna need to pump the breaks a bit.
I’m not necessarily basing that on past instances of Nebraska puking on its shoes when it’s on the cusp of relevancy (remember Nebraska’s B1G debut at Wisconsin?). To me, 2016 is the season that needs to be remembered as we talk about Frost in Year 2.
You see, there were a lot of skeptics when Nebraska got off to that 7-0 start. Why? Even though the Huskers were picked by many as the “on-the-rise” team nationally a year after a 5-win regular season in which 4 games were lost in the final 10 seconds, the tape said otherwise.
The tape said Nebraska was winning relatively close games against mediocre teams. And well, so did the final records. The first 5 Power 5 teams that Nebraska beat during that 6-0 start finished with an average of 4.6 wins, and none of them won more than 6 regular season games. Those games were all decided by 2 scores or fewer. And in Nebraska’s 3 most important games (at Ohio State, at Wisconsin and at Iowa), the Huskers lost by an average of 32 points.
After that 7-0 start, the Riley era ended with a 6-12 thud. That top-10 ranking was a distant memory less than a year later.
(Part of the reason I think Riley was even able to get to that point was because the program Pelini left behind wasn’t a complete dumpster fire. I’m not quite sure Frost will reach those levels in his second season because I don’t think Riley left behind a roster that was as good as the one Pelini left behind. Make sense?)
Here’s my concern. The hype for Frost compared to the hype for Riley is night and day (that’s even with the excitement over the “Calabraska” movement). That means if Nebraska does somehow get off to a 6-1 or 7-1 start, that ball is going to roll down the hill even faster.
I’m not saying Husker fans shouldn’t feel good about that. I’m saying the win total doesn’t always tell the story. Like, if the Huskers are really on the rise, they’ll impose their will against inferior teams. They’ll actually come up with the key defensive stop they need late. They won’t get laughed off the field against top-25 teams.
To Nebraska’s credit, the Iowa and Ohio State losses probably played as big a part as any in fueling the buzz heading into the offseason. Both of those games were away from home against top-25 teams and Nebraska was a score away from pulling off the upset.
I’ll put more weight into those games and the Wisconsin matchup — all of which are at home this year — than I will just the win-loss record. At this stage of this rebuild, I’d argue it’s not worth getting caught up in whether it’s 6 wins or 9 wins this year (at least getting to 6 wins is huge though).
What did 9 wins do for Riley in 2016? Paint a false image of a program on the rise. That team still had issues in the trenches — that explained why it couldn’t dominate a team and win by 30 points — and the depth wasn’t at a place where it could survive some late injuries.
It’ll be easier to fall into the “program on the rise” trap with Frost because of the sky-high expectations he came back to Lincoln with. Maybe Nebraska will take that next step in Year 2 and do something it hasn’t done since beating Playoff-bound Michigan State in 2015. That is, beat a team who finished ranked in the AP Poll. In the Playoff era, the Huskers are 1-17 in such matchups.
Shoot, you know what would be worth getting excited about? Beating Iowa for the first time since the Pelini era.
It’s strange because we’re talking about a team that’s coming off a pair of bowl-less finishes who ranks No. 93 in percentage of returning production, yet many believe the Huskers will start in the top 25. I’m not there yet. Nebraska fans shouldn’t be there yet, either, though I understand why the angst is at levels where it’s never been.
My advice for Husker fans? Balance some of that Frost optimism with some Riley skepticism. Remember that not all 7-0 or 7-1 starts are created equal, no matter how much you like the head coach.
Look beyond the record. Look beyond the September ranking. Look beyond the flashbacks to the glory days. Instead, dig deeper and look at reality.
Surely Nebraska fans are smart enough to do that.