Depending on whom you ask, the expectations surrounding Nebraska football in head coach Scott Frost’s first season range from realistic to overly optimistic. However, there’s no reason that the Cornhuskers shouldn’t aspire to win big, so why not pursue a goal they haven’t accomplished since 2013 — finish the season as a Top 25 team?
Doing so won’t be an easy task largely due to the much-talked-about schedule that the Big Red faces. However, with the amount of buy-in among players and large culture shift already seen in Lincoln, a remote chance does exist that should Frost prove he’s worth his weight in gold early on, Nebraska could find itself in a place it hasn’t been in five seasons.
Here’s how the Huskers get there:
1. Win nine games
This benchmark was (and in some cases still is) a war cry of those who believe that Bo Pelini either shouldn’t have been fired or at least not as early as he was. Pelini always won nine games every year much like Tom Osborne did, though the latter’s achievement was somewhat more impressive considering he did so for 25 years and beat far more challenging teams.
Pelini and Osborne aside, we need to look at the current era and what nine wins would mean for this particular squad. Everything prior to the installation of the College Football Playoff is moot and since that point, only two eight-win teams have been ranked at the end of the year. Auburn finished the season 22nd in both 2014 and '16. Every other team has had at least nine wins in their back pocket.
It should be noted that in 2014, Auburn defeated two top-20 teams in their first five games which led to the Tigers being ranked as high as second nationally before suffering their losses, all but one of which came to teams ranked 16th or better at the time.
The 2016 season was similar despite losses to No. 2 Clemson and No. 17 Texas A&M in Auburn's first three games. The Tigers rebounded for a six-game win streak that included wins over LSU (No. 17 at the time) and Arkansas (No. 18), respectively. Again, all but one of their losses was to a highly ranked team with three being in the top seven, including the then-No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in the country.
An argument could be made that if Nebraska’s going to take a comparable route, the Huskers must not only win their Big Ten opener at Michigan, but also upend Wisconsin in Madison. If that happens, they should be viewed as major upsets considering both teams are generally included in the conversation regarding College Football Playoff contenders. South Point Sportsbook lists the Badgers at 30-1 odds to win it all and the Wolverines at 25-1.
If Nebraska can’t climb the rankings early so it can afford to absorb some losses later in the year, the Huskers must secure wins versus Akron, Colorado, Troy, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois while looking to rack up two possible upsets with Iowa and Michigan State likely providing the least resistance.
2. Finish with a top-50 scoring offense
A number of factors are being reviewed when it comes to how a college football team not only wins a national championship, but puts itself in position to win one by getting into the four-team playoff in the first place. However, when it comes down to brass tacks, if you can score, you’ve got a shot. For the purpose of finishing in the AP Top 25, Nebraska doesn’t even have to get to that level.
Consider that over the first four years of the College Football Playoff only seven teams that rounded out the final rankings (Nos. 21-25) also finished among the top 25 scoring offenses in the nation. Additionally, these 20 total teams (five for each season) have combined for an average of 32.9 points per game. That averages out to roughly 39th nationally over that four-year span.
While UCF was getting its sea legs in Frost’s new system during the 2016 campaign, the Knights averaged 28.8 points per contest, good for 66th nationally. It also surpassed the offensive production from four teams that finished in the top 15 that season — Wisconsin, Stanford, LSU and Florida.
UCF had an amazing 2017 season, leading the nation with 48.2 points per game, but that’s obviously not realistic for Nebraska football to accomplish in Frost's debut. If the Huskers can hit that sweet spot of 50th or above when it comes to lighting up the scoreboard, it only helps their case for a spot in the final polls.
3. Make opposing punters work
During the College Football Playoff era, being ranked at the end of the year and stalling your opponents’ drives more often than not have gone hand in hand.
Nearly two thirds (65) of the 100 teams that made up the final Top 25 in each of the past four seasons ranked among the top 50 in the nation in third down defense. UCF took a huge jump between their winless 2015 campaign and Frost’s first year in '16 going from 47 percent (better than only five FBS teams) to 29 percent (sixth overall).
The Big Red has about nowhere to go but up under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. In 2017, Nebraska allowed their opponents to convert third downs 43 percent of the time, and fared even worse (53) over its final three games (Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa). That effort caused the Huskers to rank 99th in FBS (out of 129 teams).
Meanwhile, the Knights dipped to 85th in the nation (41 percent) during their undefeated season. It should be pointed out that this is an area that was impacted by their high-scoring offense, as opponents received more possessions due to UCF's quick-strike ability.
If Chinander’s defensive scheme kicks in anywhere near as quickly as it did during his first year at UCF, Nebraska should safely secure a spot as one of the 50 best teams when it comes to third down stops.
4. Solidify the kicking game
While Nebraska should be expected to put up quite a few points this season, a few more drives will stall than in the future thanks to 2018 being this team’s first crack at working within Frost’s new offensive scheme. With that said, whoever wins the starting kicker’s role must have a notable season.
Ranked as the seventh-best kicker in the nation by 247Sports in the Class of 2018, Barret Pickering looks like the man to beat at this point which was expected upon his offer by Mike Riley and subsequent retention by Frost.
Pickering’s performance in Nebraska’s spring game wasn’t fantastic as he missed his lone field goal attempt (a 27-yarder that went wide right). However, just as important, he did convert all of his PATs. That’s one of those areas of emphasis we too often forget about until that point isn’t on the scoreboard.
Punter Caleb Lightbourn only continues to improve and should be able to get the Huskers out of many a jam. Last season, he averaged 42.1 yards per punt with a long of 69, pinning 21 kicks inside the 20-yard line.
5. Scott Frost must be a national coach of the year finalist
Should the 2018 Nebraska football team accomplish everything already laid out, this should be a mere formality. If the Huskers rebound from a 4-8 dumpster fire to a respectable nine-win team looking at one of the Big Ten’s more coveted bowl berths, Frost not only silences any critics, he justifies his salary and his legacy as a breather of life into dead programs continues.
Frost was a finalist for national coach of the year honors last year for his work with UCF and was joined by the familiar faces of Nick Saban, Mark Dantonio, and Gus Malzahn, among others. However, this year he’d be combining some aspects of the recent success stories of the likes of Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and UAB’s Bill Clark as coaches who provided far more success than was expected. Don't forget that Dantonio built his case by taking a Michigan State team that tumbled all the way to 3-9 in 2016 and completely turning things around (10-3, ranked 15th in final AP poll).
There you have it. All Nebraska has to do is the college football equivalent of ride a motorcycle across a football field’s worth of shark-filled waters through flaming hoops while dodging salt-tipped arrows and D batteries all the while to finish in the Top 25 for the first time in half a decade.
Piece of cake.