Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Nebraska football in 2020
Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues in the Big Ten West with Nebraska. Coming Saturday: Northwestern and Illinois.
When Scott Frost was hired, it was a throwback to the glory days of Nebraska football, when it won national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Frost, of course, was the quarterback of that ’97 team that beat Peyton Manning and Tennessee.
Frost, though, so far has been more of a throwback to his predecessor, Mike Riley. He is 9-15 in his 2 seasons. That’s actually worse than Riley’s 3 seasons when the Huskers went 19-19.
Frost, who makes $5 million per year, got a 2-year contract extension last year that will keep him in Lincoln through the 2026 season. So he has time.
While most fans understand that a coach needs at least a few years to get his own players into prominent roles as upperclassmen, patience will start running thin if the Huskers aren’t even competitive against the Big Ten’s top teams. They lost to Ohio State by 41, Minnesota by 27 and Wisconsin by 16 last season. As you’ll see below, Nebraska will have plenty of measuring-stick games in 2020.
2019 record: 5-7 (3-6, 5th in B1G West)
Nebraska can recruit well enough to win in the B1G
There’s been plenty of talk over the years about why it’s more difficult for Nebraska to recruit now than it was in the glory days of the 1990s. I get it, the state of Nebraska has changed and there aren’t as many homegrown players to choose from, and those players may not be as loyal to Nebraska as other generations (recent Iowa TE Noah Fant, now with the Denver Broncos, for example). And since it is no longer in the Big 12, going into Texas to recruit isn’t as fruitful since those kids won’t get to play a few games per year in their home state.
Taking all of that into consideration, I’m of the opinion that although times have changed, Nebraska still can win in the Big Ten. Maybe not at the rate that it did in the past, but if PJ Fleck can build a program at Minnesota, Frost can do it in Nebraska.
The 2019 class featured 27 enrollees from 16 states. The 2020 class featured 25 players from 14 states. Nebraska is doing things like nabbing the No. 1 player in Kansas in the 2020 class, 4-star OT Turner Corcoran, and 2 of the top 3 players from the junior college ranks in WR Omar Manning and CB Nadab Joseph.
Fans love the in-state players, and that’s understandable. But the reality is that there just isn’t enough talent to go around in Nebraska. In 2018, there was 1 4-star recruit and 3 3-stars in the entire state; in 2019, there was 1 4-star and 5 3-stars; and in 2020, there was 1 4-star and 7 3-stars. That’s just not enough to build a program around. Should Nebraska go after the top players in the state? Of course, and it has gotten all of those 4-star players to stay home. But to build a team to compete in the B1G, it needs more talent.
Frost’s recruiting class ranked 4th in the B1G in 2019, 4th in 2020 and it is currently 4th in 2021. All are top-25 national classes. At some point, if Frost is the coach that many think he is, the Huskers will also be a top-25 team.
Is Adrian Martinez in danger of losing his job?
Remember last year when Adrian Martinez had the same preseason Heisman Trophy odds as Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts? That seems silly now, but with the way Martinez played as a true freshman (combined with Fields’ lack of experience at Georgia and Hurts losing his starting job at Oklahoma), it actually made a lot of sense at the time.
But as a sophomore, Martinez clearly regressed from his freshman numbers. His completion percentage dipped from 64.6 to 59.4 percent, and his TD-INT ratio went from 17-8 to 10-9.
Nebraska clearly needs better QB play to contend in the B1G West. So, is Martinez’s job in danger? Maybe.
Frost has not hid his excitement for freshman QB Luke McCaffrey, saying this week that “the offense moves exceptionally well when he’s playing quarterback. He finds a way to make a lot of plays work. he’s throwing the ball really well,” according to The Athletic. Frost even added that he would try to get McCaffrey on the field in any way possible. I’m not sure if that means he’ll be the Taysom Hill of the Big Ten, but it certainly speaks to McCaffrey’s ability.
McCaffrey, the younger brother of NFL star Christian McCaffrey, was the No. 1 recruit in the state of Colorado in the 2019 class and the No. 13 “athlete” nationally, per 247.
If Martinez struggles, McCaffrey will get a real chance to take the job, it sounds like. Martinez is by no means locked into this starting role the next 2 years.
Nebraska ruffled some B1G feathers
When you look at Nebraska’s schedule, it’s obvious that Scott Frost and Co. clearly annoyed Kevin Warren and the folks in the Big Ten office. I mean, how else could you read an 8-game schedule that begins with the league’s 3 best programs in the first 4 weeks? When all is said and done, it will probably include 5 ranked teams. It’s brutal, plain and simple. I think if Warren could’ve subbed Michigan in place of Illinois, he would have.
This particularly stings given that Nebraska’s pre-pandemic schedule looked conducive to a hot start and building some momentum heading into the toughest games. Nebraska could’ve very well been 7-0 with wins over Purdue, Central Michigan, South Dakota State, Cincinnati, Northwestern, Illinois and Rutgers before a stretch of Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota to close the season. But as you’ll see below, the schedule essentially flipped, with all of Nebraska’s easier games removed from the schedule.
So, let’s get into it, shall we?
Week 1: at Ohio State (L)
When Ohio State visited Lincoln last season, the buildup was incredible. College GameDay came, with celebrity guest pickers Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade. Nebraska announced that a new indoor facility was in the works. And the Huskers went out and promptly were humiliated 48-7. The hype will be massive this year as well, even without fans, as it’s the opening game between the 2 programs that publicly lobbied more than any others for this season to occur. It’s at noon on FOX, right after Big Noon Kickoff. And the result will be similar too, unfortunately for Nebraska.
Week 2: vs. Wisconsin (L)
This is a bad matchup for a Nebraska team that has finished in the bottom 4 of the B1G in rushing defense in 3 straight seasons against a Wisconsin squad that has finished in the top 2 of the B1G in rushing offense in 3 straight seasons. Obviously, the Badgers don’t have Jonathan Taylor anymore, but that massive offensive line will open up holes no matter who is in the backfield. Nebraska’s biggest hope is that promising QB Graham Mertz takes a few games to settle in.
Week 3: at Northwestern (W)
This one won’t be easy either. The Wildcats are only 2 years removed from winning the West and, given Pat Fitzgerald’s track record, they should be much improved in 2020. Peyton Ramsey will solve some of the issues from Northwestern’s down 2019. That said, I think Nebraska will be a desperate team at this point after 2 opening losses.
Week 4: vs. Penn State (L)
This is going to be a tough week for the Huskers. Nebraska is accumulating talent, but is still way behind Penn State in that regard. The Nittany Lions are the clear-cut No. 2 team in the conference and closer to upsetting Ohio State than being upset by Nebraska.
Week 5: vs. Illinois (W)
This is a game Nebraska has to have given how tough the schedule is. Against Illinois last year, Nebraska racked up 674 yards and still only won by 4. A win is a win, but Nebraska needs a more convincing performance as it continues to try to change the perception of the program.
Week 6: at Iowa (L)
Anything can happen in a rivalry game, as we saw last year when a Nebraska team that didn’t make a bowl game almost beat an Iowa squad that went 10-3 and obliterated USC in the Holiday Bowl. I am fairly certain that Nebraska remembers Iowa kicker Keith Duncan blowing a kiss to the Huskers sideline, and that makes this matchup even juicier. Unfortunately for Nebraska, I think Iowa wins a close one again.
Week 7: at Purdue (W)
Nebraska let one get away at Purdue last season and should come in fired up to avenge that loss. I’m sure Frost is concerned about what Jeff Brohm will cook up for this one, but Nebraska should have a good enough offense to match the Boilermakers.
Week 8: vs. Minnesota (W)
This is arguably my biggest upset of the Big Ten season, and I don’t necessarily have a great reason for it either. Minnesota whooped Nebraska 34-7 last season, though Martinez didn’t play. I think Nebraska is going to pull off an upset of one of these ranked teams, and this seems like the most obvious candidate. Nebraska is 4th in the B1G in 247Sports Team Talent Composite, while Minnesota is 13th. Big difference. If Nebraska is still standing after this incredibly difficult schedule — and that’s a big if — I think it will be invigorated and end this 2020 season with a bang.
2020 projection: 4-4 (4th in B1G West)
Anything better than 4-4 against this schedule would be a minor miracle. Even 4-4 seems very optimistic. But my inkling is that Nebraska didn’t make all this noise during the Big Ten postponement to come out here and lay down. The football team means so much to this state, so yeah, I’m betting on Nebraska wanting it more than some of these other Big Ten teams. I’m betting on the Huskers to not pack it in after a brutal first 4 weeks of the season. I’m betting on Frost finally striking the right tone with this group after he has just seemed out of sync in his first 2 years. I’m betting on the talent finally taking over. I’m betting on this being a season that sets the tone again at Nebraska.