With players like dual-threat QB Adrian Martinez to build around, the future looks bright for the Huskers
Thanks to record-breaking performances by Scott Frost’s 2018 team, Nebraska fans are rightfully excited about what the future holds. Expectations are already high as evidenced by a Twitter poll presented by Omaha radio station KOZN (1620 The Zone) where 51 percent of 4,882 voters forecast a nine- or ten-win season next year. Those thoughts are tempered by others concerned with the Cornhuskers’ struggles on defense this past season, especially against the better running games they faced. Here’s what we could see Nebraska striving for — and realistically accomplishing — come next fall:
Win nine games
Ah, the magic number that Husker fans boast about in regards to Tom Osborne (and in some cases Bo Pelini.) Next year’s schedule sets up nicely for a massive rebound following this year’s 4-8 campaign. By all logic, Nebraska should start the year 4-0 with games against South Alabama, a Colorado team that has vastly underperformed as a whole over the past half-decade, Northern Illinois and Illinois. Minnesota shouldn’t pose much of a challenge, and expectations for a Clayton Thorson-less Northwestern squad that must come to Lincoln should be lowered. The Huskers also get two major showdowns at home at the end of the season in Wisconsin and Iowa.
If Nebraska’s offense is able to perform at the level it did towards the end of this season — and there’s no reason to think otherwise at this point — every game on the 2019 slate is winnable. If defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is able to address this season’s leaky run defense and opponents’ third down conversion successes, nine wins is a legitimate goal.
Win the Big Ten West
This goes hand in hand with the aforementioned objective. Nebraska faces Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue on the road with the latter being what should be considered the biggest threat, especially with Jeff Brohm sticking around in West Lafayette. More good news comes in the way of a bye week between the Huskers’ tilt with the Boilermakers and hosting Wisconsin. Next year’s division race is wide open and it wouldn’t be a shock to see as many as four teams get preseason votes to be the Big Ten West champion including the Big Red.
Beat Ohio State
Nebraska did more than make Ohio State punt for the first time in four meetings this past season. The Huskers made the Buckeyes sweat. While the Big Red came oh so close to upsetting Urban Meyer’s crew in Columbus, they ultimately fell 36-31 in a game where they simply made far too many mistakes versus a team they could ill afford to do so against.
However, one has to wonder what effect a home crowd may have had on the game. We’ll be able to test that theory in 2019. The Huskers won’t have Stanley Morgan Jr. to contribute 87 yards, but they will have plenty of time to prepare for the Buckeyes' visit. They also could enter the game with plenty of momentum, especially if they are able to accomplish that 4-0 start.
Be one of the top 40 teams in turnover margin
Nebraska had a horrific minus-seven turnover margin through the first seven games. In the five games that followed, that number improved plus-five, and the Huskers won three of those. Not only did Chinander show his defense could turn things around, there’s precedence for a big upswing in 2019.
In his first year as UCF’s defensive coordinator under Frost, the Knights ended the season ranked 54th with a plus-one margin. The following season, UCF was second in the country with an eye-popping plus-17 margin, including 12 fumbles recovered and 20 interceptions. That interception number might be a bit high for Nebraska considering the types of offenses the Huskers will face in the Big Ten. However, with a more physical defense, if the Blackshirts are able to penetrate opposing offensive lines, they could rack up fumbles considering the emphasis already placed on stripping the ball.
To be in the top 40, Nebraska likely has to maintain a plus-five overall margin or so (plus-six to be on the safe side.) Should the Huskers convert those turnovers into points, all of the goals on this list become far more attainable.
Set a future Heisman campaign for Adrian Martinez in motion
The idea of Martinez winning the Heisman Trophy isn’t just some Nebraska fan’s fever dream. College football insider Bruce Feldman has publicly touted the quarterback’s potential as has ESPN’s Matt Schick. Considering that Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has emerged as a Heisman contender this season and comparing his skill set to Martinez’s, it’s safe to say that by his junior year, the Nebraska signal-caller will be a legitimate candidate.
Adrian Martinez is such a stud. Kid is soooo impressive. Wouldn't be shocked if he won a Heisman there someday.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) November 23, 2018
Winning the Heisman Trophy these days is about two things: optics and branding. If Martinez continues to shatter records — school, conference or national — his eyes may eventually be on the bronze prize. However, if he’s on a team that wins five or six games, for example, voters are going to look elsewhere for a player who’s performing best under the biggest of spotlights.
Martinez a.k.a. 2AM (a.k.a Closing Time to some fringe Husker fans) already has a hook in that Frost sees as much potential in him as 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, who was Frost's protege during his time as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Oregon. Martinez has already set multiple school records and more will surely fall during his career, as long as he stays healthy. The Huskers’ future should trend upwards as a result and that only increases his chances of postseason recognition.
— 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.