Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every Nebraska football game in 2023
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Nebraska. We’ll work through every B1G West team this week, after covering every East team last week.
Good vibes are finally back in Nebraska.
A toxic cloud had been hanging over Lincoln for the past several years as Scott Frost drove the Cornhuskers deeper and deeper into the ground. Anywhere but Nebraska, the plug would have been pulled sooner. But mitigating factors kept Frost on past his expiration date. (Which, it turns out, was upon arrival.)
Frost was one of Nebraska’s favorite sons, having quarterbacked the Huskers to their most recent national title in 1997. And Nebraska has had so many coaching decisions blow up in its face after firing Frank Solich in 2003 that there was a desperation that Frost needed to work.
It was like keeping a failed marriage together for the kids. Likely with the same results.
Three weeks into last season, Nebraska AD Trev Alberts could no longer delay the inevitable. Georgia Southern broke multiple offensive records for an opponent at Memorial Stadium, handing Nebraska a humiliating 45-42 defeat that finished Frost even though the school would have saved $7.5 million if had just waited a couple more weeks.
That was how badly Frost damaged the program. It couldn’t wait. And that is the scenario that Matt Rhule enters as Nebraska’s latest potential savior.
Rhule was available because he too was fired midseason, albeit from the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. But Rhule’s previous turnarounds at Temple and Baylor made him an ideal fit for achieving the same task at a program with far better resources. Perhaps most importantly, the latter job left Rhule in very high regard among Texas high school coaches.
Rhule has said all the right things in his first offseason in Nebraska, even going so far as to embrace chili and cinnamon rolls.
But now the work begins.
How quick is this fix?
Patience is needed here. Nebraska hasn’t reached a bowl game since 2016, and that’s not something you fix with the snap of a finger. This won’t be like Lincoln Riley’s first year at USC or Sonny Dykes’ TCU debut.
For Rhule, that’s nothing new. In fact, his first season has been rather rough everywhere he’s been.
Rhule went 2-10 in Year 1 at Temple and 1-11 in his Year 1 at Baylor. But in Year 3, both programs reached 10 wins.
The lay of the land in Lincoln is much better than it was at either of those stops. Temple is among the most difficult programs in the country to build sustainable success. And Rhule arrived at Baylor when the program was recoiling from the ouster of Art Briles amid a widespread rape cover-up scandal.
Here, Rhule merely has to make a beloved program good on the field again. By that metric, he should be able to get things rolling before his third season.
Big Red Nation isn’t the only asset Rhule has over his previous stops. The transfer portal now makes it possible to speed up the rebuilding process, and Rhule is already using it to his advantage.
Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims will take the helm as Nebraska’s starting quarterback, and he is aided by transfer receivers Marcus Washington (Texas) and Billy Kemp (Virginia). And the biggest addition of all could be former LSU and Georgia tight end Arik Gilbert, provided that the NCAA approves his waiver to play this year.
Will Nebraska’s QB stop being a walking turnover?
In the NFL, the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns have been notorious as quarterback black holes for decades — though finally fans of both teams have some reason for optimism at the position.
In the Big Ten, Iowa and Wisconsin have unflattering reputations at the position. But it’s actually Nebraska that has had the worst play at quarterback since it joined the B1G. The worst thing a quarterback can do is turn the ball over, and Cornhusker QBs have a Ph.D. in the subject.
Since 2011, Nebraska quarterbacks have combined for 221 touchdown passes and 146 interceptions. In that same span, Ohio State quarterbacks have thrown for 390 touchdowns and 85 interceptions. A Nebraska quarterback hasn’t averaged 2 touchdowns for every interception since Joe Ganz in 2008.
Can Sims finally put an end to the parade of mistakes?
His track record is not promising in that regard. Sims had 30 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in his 3 years at Georgia Tech, including 13 of each last season. Unless new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Marcus Satterfield can teach an old dog new tricks, the Huskers may be singing the same old song behind center.
3+3+5 = Defensive success?
Nebraska was absolutely dominated up front last season. The Cornhuskers finished 13th in the B1G and 108th nationally in run defense.
By that rationale, it makes plenty of sense that Rhule turned to defensive coordinator Tony White and his 3-3-5 scheme, which prioritizes speed and blitzing to compensate for a lack of size.
White’s Syracuse defense rated 36th nationally against the run, allowing 3.73 yards per carry. The Orange were 56th nationally with an average of 6.08 tackles for loss per game compared to Nebraska’s 5 TFL per game, which ranked 97th.
Running the 3-3-5 in the B1G is a bit of a gambit, though. Rich Rodriguez attempted bringing it to Michigan, and that’s a sentence that needs no further explanation.
TCU provides an example of the 3-3-5 at its best — and that defense still allowed 528 yards to Michigan in the CFP semifinal. Its saving grace is the chaos it can cause. The Horned Frogs had 3 takeaways in that game, and finished 10th nationally with 16 interceptions.
Nebraska has ranked 90th or worse in turnover margin each of the last 3 seasons, and the new scheme could help reverse that trend.
Week 1: at Minnesota (L)
In some ways, opening on the road is a benefit for a new coach. The focus is solely on the game, not the surrounding hoopla. The Gophers, though, won’t be friendly hosts. Minnesota will win the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy for the 5th straight year.
Week 2: at Colorado (W)
It’s the home debut for Coach Prime at Colorado, but Coach Rhule will get the headlines after earning his first career win with the Huskers.
Week 3: Northern Illinois (W)
Finally, Rhule makes his Memorial Stadium debut. But beware the Huskies, who have a history of taking down Big Ten opponents — including Nebraska in 2017. More than 70 points will be on the board as Nebraska ekes out a shootout.
Week 4: Louisiana Tech (W)
Expect Nebraska fans to give a warm welcome to Decoldest Crawford, who transferred to his home state Bulldogs in the offseason. Thanks to the test from NIU, this high-scoring game will be slightly more comfortable for the Cornhuskers.
Week 5: Michigan (L)
The worst possible matchup with Nebraska in its current condition. The Wolverines are imposing along both lines, and that’s the area where Rhule has the most work to do. Michigan wins going away.
Week 6: at Illinois (L)
Different opponent, same story. The Illini will be among the B1G’s better defensive and offensive fronts this year. The bye week will be needed after these back-to-back bruisers.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: Northwestern (W)
It can take literally hundreds of years for anyone to let go of a humiliating defeat in Ireland. Revenge is on Nebraska’s mind after last year’s embarrassing loss to the Cats in Dublin. After taking their lumps in 2 straight games, the Huskers will provide them.
Week 9: Purdue (W)
The Boilers were fortunate to get past the Huskers last year, and that was at Ross-Ade with a talented cast. The best of that talent is in the NFL now, and this game is in Nebraska. It’s win No. 5 for the Cornhuskers, who need just 1 more.
Week 10: at Michigan State (L)
That win won’t come in East Lansing. Michigan State, also scrapping its way toward 6 wins, is playing in its home finale at Spartan Stadium. Sparty gets the edge on Senior Day.
Week 11: Maryland (L)
Maryland’s not an ideal matchup for a defense that still springs some leaks. This road win will be one of Taulia Tagovailoa’s signature moments.
Week 12: at Wisconsin (L)
Another brutal matchup. It won’t be 70-31 bad or 59-24 bad, but it won’t be good.
Week 13: Iowa (W)
Facing the prospect of another year without a bowl game, Nebraska responds. Rhule closes out Memorial Stadium’s 100th year with his first signature win over a better opponent. The Huskers are bowling, and Year 1 goes in the books as a success.
2023 Projection: 6-6 (3-6), 5th in B1G West
Maybe the last half-decade was a necessary reset of expectations for Nebraska. Things aren’t just going to be the way they were in the ’90s because you think that’s the way they should be. Getting there will be a grueling task.
Instead of patching the cracks in the foundation with caulk, it was time to go all-in and rebuild the foundation entirely. The pivot to Rhule and his lack of prior ties to the program achieves that.
But his obvious reverence for what made Nebraska great should make it a comforting transition. If the Huskers break their bowl drought this year, it’ll be because their offense is driven by a strong ground game.
Sims’ mobility will prove his greatest asset. Combined with a backfield headed by Gabe Ervin and Anthony Grant, running the ball should be Nebraska’s biggest strength this season.
Combine that with some wins — and maybe some chili and cinnamon rolls — and you’ve found your way into Nebraskan hearts.
There won’t be any miracles in Year 1. This team still has plenty of question marks — especially regarding defensive scheme and personnel.
But Rhule will lay a solid foundation for what’s to come. And unlike his previous jobs, the Crystal Ball foresees that foundation coming with a bowl berth in Rhule’s first season.