Ohio State’s quest for another CFB Playoff trip starts this week, as Nebraska visits Columbus for the much-anticipated opening Saturday in the 2020 Big Ten season. Nothing about the 2020 college football slate is ordinary. The Big Ten was the first Power 5 conference to postpone its fall schedule, only to reverse that decision in September thanks to a robust daily testing strategy and a schedule that features no off dates over eight weeks for eight games. The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers were both vocal about their desire to play a fall schedule now and not wait until December or January to begin. So while the revamped schedule was built from the original one, it’s appropriate these two teams are set to meet in the opener.
Ohio State fell just short of a trip to the national championship game last season. But coach Ryan Day’s team has reloaded for another run at it in 2020. Quarterback Justin Fields and a deep, talented group of receivers lead the way for a high-powered offense, and the line got a boost when All-American guard Wyatt Davis opted back into the season. Ohio State has a few question marks on defense, but this team is likely to be favored (potentially by double-digits) in all eight of its games this fall.
Nebraska enters 2020 looking to rebound after a disappointing 5-7 mark last fall. The Cornhuskers had high hopes last year and were projected by some to contend for the division title. However, coach Scott Frost’s team stumbled to a five-win season and enter the abbreviated 2020 slate looking for improvement on both sides of the ball. Nebraska has arguably the toughest schedule in the Big Ten this fall. In addition to the usual matchups against Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Illinois from the West Division, Frost’s squad catches Ohio State and Penn State – arguably the Big Ten’s top teams for 2020 – in crossover play.
Ohio State holds a 7-1 series edge over Nebraska. The Buckeyes have won five in a row over the Cornhuskers, including a 48-7 matchup in Lincoln last year.
Nebraska at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -26
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Getting the offense back on track is a priority for Nebraska in 2020. In Frost’s debut in 2018, the Cornhuskers averaged 30 points a game and 6.3 yards per play. But last season, those numbers dipped to 5.76 yards a snap and 28 points a contest. A combination of factors – including turnovers, injuries and inconsistent play early – all contributed to the regression or lack of expected improvement. Frost made a couple of coaching changes on offense to help jumpstart this attack, including hiring Matt Lubick to hold the offensive coordinator title and tutor the receivers. Line coach Greg Austin was promoted to run game coordinator as well.
While last year’s performance didn’t meet expectations, a quick return to form by quarterback Adrian Martinez would help this offense take its production up a notch. As a true freshman in 2018, Martinez threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns to eight picks and added 629 yards on the ground. Last fall, while battling injuries, Martinez threw for 1,956 yards over 10 games and tossed nine picks to 10 scores. His completion percentage dropped from 65 percent in 2018 to 59 in ’19. A return to full health and performance would be a huge boost to this offense. And if Martinez struggles, Luke McCaffrey – a redshirt freshman who appeared in four games last year – would be next in line.
Martinez’s supporting cast was also a factor in last year’s offensive output. How much can these pieces improve in 2020? Nebraska’s offensive line gave up 28 sacks in 2019 but played better later in the season and returns five starters. This group is expected to take a step forward. Running back Dedrick Mills averaged 5.2 yards per rush, totaling 745 yards and 10 touchdowns over 143 carries. Mills and a couple of backs should keep the ground game performing at a high level, but there are major concerns at receiver. Wan’Dale Robinson (40 catches) is a dynamic playmaker and tight end Jack Stoll chipped in 25 catches last fall. Outside of those two, the Cornhuskers need big contributions from Kade Warner (eight grabs), Levi Falck, Alante Brown, and touted junior college recruit Omar Manning. The Cornhuskers are headed in the right direction up front, at running back and a healthy Martinez at quarterback. But without more playmakers on the outside, the offense could sputter.
Ohio State’s defense lost a chunk of talent from last year’s group that limited teams to 13.7 points a contest. But as usual, there’s no shortage of talent in Columbus. While depth at defensive tackle and a shuffled secondary are concners, the development of Zach Harrison will keep the pass rush performing at a high level, and the linebackers are set with three senior starters. The Buckeyes may have a few ups and downs as the new starters get acclimated, but Nebraska’s offense is going to have its hands full at every level. Can Martinez’s ability to move around create a few big plays for this offense? Or will the lack of proven playmakers on the outside keep the Cornhuskers in too many third-and-long (without the ability to convert) situations?
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Ohio State’s offense doesn’t have a weakness going into the 2020 season. The Buckeyes led the Big Ten and ranked third nationally by averaging 46.9 points a game last fall. This unit paced the conference in yards per play (6.94) and plays of 30 yards or more (42). And in last year’s matchup versus Nebraska, Day’s offense torched the Cornhuskers for 580 yards and scored on eight of their first nine drives.
It’s no secret where the success for Ohio State’s offense starts: quarterback Justin Fields. The Georgia transfer thrived under Day’s watch last season and begins the 2020 season near the top of the list of favorites to claim the Heisman Trophy after tossing 41 touchdowns and adding 10 more on the ground in 2019. Nebraska’s defense struggled to contain Fields in last year’s game (284 total yards and four touchdowns) and Saturday will be another tough assignment. The junior can hurt teams with his ability to make plays on the ground or simply use his mobility to escape the rush and connect with a big pass downfield. Fields completed 67.2 percent of his throws last season and returns one of the nation’s top receiving corps. Chris Olave (12 TD catches last year), Garrett Wilson, and freshmen Jaxson Smith-Njiba, Julian Fleming, Gee Scott and Mookie Cooper provide a talented array of weapons. While stopping Ohio State’s passing game is a tough assignment, the strength of Nebraska’s defense should rest with its secondary. This unit finished fifth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense last fall.
Up front, Ohio State’s line – led by the aforementioned Davis – will be matched against a Nebraska front that features a handful of new starters and ranked 11th in the Big Ten against the run last fall. With J.K. Dobbins moving to the NFL, Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon and Master Teague are set to handle the bulk of the carries for the Buckeyes. In last year’s game, the Cornhuskers gave up 368 yards on the ground to Ohio State. With the advantage up front and the Sermon-Teague combination, Nebraska’s new faces in the defensive front will be tested and under pressure to perform right away.
Ohio State won convincingly in last year’s matchup and it’s hard to see that changing this fall. The Buckeyes have defeated the Cornhuskers by 40 or more points in three out of the last four meetings between these two programs. As evidenced by the point spread, Nebraska is a heavy underdog on Saturday. While this isn’t necessarily the best game to judge how far the Cornhuskers have developed since last fall, it’s a good opportunity for Frost to see where his team is going into key games against the Big Ten West Division. For Nebraska to have any chance at the win, the defense has to find ways to slow down Fields and the high-powered offense. Whether that’s field goals instead of touchdowns or forcing turnovers, the Cornhuskers need to create some stops early to stay within striking distance. Martinez is under the spotlight after an uneven sophomore campaign and a rebuilt Ohio State defense is a tough place to start 2020. There’s too much uncertainty on both sides of the ball to expect Nebraska to keep this one close on the scoreboard. Look for the Buckeyes to start their 2020 season off with a big victory.
Prediction: Ohio State 45, Nebraska 17
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