Following a second 4-8 season in as many years, it’s understandable if most college football fans laugh at the idea of Nebraska being ready for a return to form. Scott Frost and crew saw some dizzying highs and abysmal lows in 2018, but they’re ready to take the next step towards renewed long-term national relevancy.
Fans are already doing their best to temper expectations. However, that’s understandably difficult for some with a sense of urgency from within the program itself to return to — at the very least — a team ranked in the Top 25 at the end of the season. The Big Red hasn’t been able to claim that since 2013 after topping the season off with a Gator Bowl victory over then-No. 23 Georgia.
Why should Nebraska fans feel free to chug Kool-aid early despite the fact it was invented within the state’s borders? Here are three reasons why:
1. UCF’s second year under Frost
Obviously, no one should expect the Huskers’ head man to cook up a second-year undefeated season in Lincoln as he did in Orlando. So far, he has successfully steered another program in the right direction, but there’s a great deal of difference between the AAC and the Big Ten. However, it’s important to note that Frost was well aware of Nebraska’s eventual growing pains from the get-go.
"[UCF] probably didn’t click until fall camp of year two," Frost said following Nebraska’s annual Red-White Spring Game last April. "I hope it happens sooner here, but that’s really when two years with [strength and conditioning coach] Zach [Duval] in the weight room kind of took hold. That’s when two years of recruiting helped supplement our team, two years of being in our culture, two years of figuring out how to play as a team and care for each other, we even had some problems that second summer and when we got those cleaned up, everybody just seemed to bond and come together.”
The Knights’ remarkable improvements from the first year under Frost to the second do suggest the Cornhuskers should see some immediate upgrades. UCF’s scoring offense exploded going from 66th in FBS (28.8 ppg) during the 2016 season to first in 2017 (48.2). The Huskers’ special teams are an area of uncertainty heading into spring. However, once assistant coach Jovan Dewitt and Frost pulled the trigger on swapping out punter Caleb Lightbourn for Issac Armstrong, the difference was night and day, and kicker Barrett Pickering came into his own down the stretch.
If Dewitt’s coaching mirrors his work in Orlando, the return game should be a notable factor for the Big Red next year. UCF went from having those units ranked in the 60s and 70s nationally during 2016 to boasting top-10 results in the same categories the very next year. Perhaps the most high-profile on-the-field change in Frost’s second year with the Knights was the dramatic uptick in turnovers forced. In 2016, UCF chalked up a plus-one ratio which tied them for 54th overall in FBS. The next year, they trailed only Wyoming at a startling plus-17.
2. Team speed
"I'm hoping the Big Ten has to modify their system to us." Frost dropped this nugget on the day he was hired and his hopes may become reality sooner than Big Ten counterparts want. While the offense does lose Devine Ozigbo and Stanley Morgan Jr. — both key contributors — it retains Adrian Martinez, Maurice Washington, JD Spielman, and will see signee Wandale Robinson enter the picture. That quartet alone has the potential to be a defensive coordinator’s nightmare. The Huskers are working to retool their offensive line following the departures of Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer. However, while the new depth chart solidifies, Big Ten defenses could very well end up shredded by legitimate threats to make big plays on every snap.
On defense, the Blackshirts struggled mightily with linebacker coverage in 2018. An early projection for 2019 might feature Tyrin Ferguson and Caleb Tannor on the outside with Will Honas starting opposite defensive leader Mohamed Barry on the inside. This lineup alone retains the physicality of what Dedrick Young and Luke Gifford brought to the table. It also adds the ability to both blitz to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s delight and effectively complement the Huskers’ secondary against the pass. As Duval grows the big men up front, Frost and Chinander can still make hay by forcing the opposition’s heads to spin.
This past season's slate did no favors for a first-year head coach forcing a program and its culture to spin 180 degrees. The 2019 slate, on the other hand, looks far more forgivable. Nebraska opens the season with an appropriate exhibition-level tilt versus South Alabama. Their second game features an excellent test as they travel to Boulder to face former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s first Colorado squad.
There’s a clear path for the Big Red to start off 4-0 if they can navigate the trip to Boulder as they return home to face Northern Illinois before tripping to Champaign to take on the Fighting Illini. The Huskers then may have the best chance to beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011 as another first-year head coach visits Lincoln with Ryan Day now leading the Buckeyes.
Nebraska gets most notable Big Ten West division foes at home including Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The news gets even better as they’ll be playing the Badgers and Hawkeyes following bye week in early November. Circle the weekend of Nov. 2 as there should be plenty of fireworks between the Huskers and Purdue as the Big Red looks to pay Jeff Brohm and his Boilermakers back for their 42-28 victory in Lincoln. As of today, a seven- or eight-win season looks far more realistic than it did when Nebraska sat at 0-6 in late October last year.
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces). To contact him with tips, story ideas or for interview purposes, click here.