It’s finally here. The Scott Frost era will begin in earnest Saturday as he leads his first Nebraska football team out of the tunnel onto the Memorial Stadium turf to take on Terry Bowden’s Akron Zips.
The last time these teams met was in 1997, when Nebraska decimated the Zips 59-14 on the way to claiming the final No. 1 ranking in the USA Today Coaches Poll. No one’s expecting Frost to work enough magic to take Nebraska to the College Football Playoff, but laying the foundation for the future is an excellent start.
Bowden is in his seventh season with Akron having accumulated 171 wins during his career, the most of any MAC coach. In 2017, the Zips claimed the MAC East division, eventually falling to Toledo in the conference title game. They would go on to face Florida Atlantic in the Boca Raton Bowl, which resulted in a 50-3 loss.
Frost begins his third season as a head coach after turning around a UCF program that went from winless to undefeated in two seasons. Following a 4-8 record in the final year of Mike Riley’s tenure at Nebraska, Frost looks to turn around the Big Red’s fortunes and return them to the national spotlight garnered by college football’s elite.
Akron at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Nebraska -24
Three Things to Watch
1. Adrian Martinez vs. the Akron secondary
If Akron is going to make this game interesting, part of the Zips’ strategy must be taking advantage of a secondary that returns all of last year’s starters. Cornerbacks Darian Dailey and Kyron Brown will get a workout opposite Nebraska’s wide receivers, as will 2017 second-team All-MAC selection Alvin Davis at free safety.
For the Zips’ defensive backs to slow the pace of the Husker offense, these three and rover Shawn Featherstone must bait the first ever true freshman quarterback to start a Nebraska opener into making some greenhorn mistakes.
That’s easier said than done considering they’ll be going against a deep group of skill position players, led by Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman. A potentially vanilla game plan might also force Akron to take risks with the secondary that they normally wouldn’t giving Martinez the ability to shred the Zips defense over the top.
2. Nebraska’s offensive line vs. Akron’s defensive front seven
Unfortunately, the Huskers’ depth up front on offense is extremely thin, and that will play a factor all season long. They’ll get a solid test in a unit that features a defensive line comprised entirely of upperclassmen along with a linebacking corps that offers some stiff competition.
Up front, preseason All-MAC pick Jamal Davis II will challenge Nebraska’s offensive tackles from the defensive end position. At linebacker, the Huskers must contend with two notable playmakers in first-team All-MAC senior linebackers Ulysees Gilbert III and Brian Bell.
The biggest advantage Nebraska’s big men has is an offseason spent working at an incredibly fast pace that few offenses demand.
3. Yards allowed vs. points allowed
Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s high risk-high reward defense does lend itself to getting scorched a time or two while trying to cause havoc and force turnovers. With that in mind, it would come as no surprise if Akron quarterback Kato Nelson manages to have a respectable day on the stat sheet.
Growing pains should be expected. It’s a new system and the first game of the season. That being said, all signs point to Husker fans having plenty to cheer about when the defense (not the Blackshirts yet, right?) is on the field. Ask yourself this, Big Red Backer: “Do I really care if Akron totals 450 total yards if Nebraska wins easily?”
Points win games, not yards. This will likely be a very familiar phrase in 2018.
There’s no reason for Nebraska to do much beyond keep offensive play-calling simple. Keep in mind that Colorado visits next week, so there’s no reason for Frost to tip his hand. It’d also be a surprise to see Martinez on many designed quarterback runs. However, if lanes open up on passing plays — and I expect that to be the case at least once or twice — he likely takes advantage of his speed.
Akron’s best shot offensively is to challenge Nebraska’s cornerbacks. Lamar Jackson still needs to prove himself as a physical player in a live game situation, and Dicaprio Bootle, while a talented sophomore, may make mistakes early. However, the Zips need to pay attention to the presence of Nebraska’s safeties. This is perhaps the deepest defensive unit and an extremely talented one.
With Nebraska simply having better talent and Lincoln providing the most intimidating environment Akron will see this season, their hopes to win are slim. At best, they cover the spread.
Prediction: Nebraska 41, Akron 17
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces), and keep up with the Quick N Dirty podcasts on his Patreon page.