Big numbers from quarterback Adrian Martinez would go a long ways towards helping the Huskers break through this fall
Athlon Sports recently released its projected Top 25 for the 2020 college football season. It's probably not a shock Nebraska isn't part of it. Considering the Huskers' schedule, they'll easily finish the year ranked should they complete the checklist below. But that's something the Big Red hasn't been able to boast since 2013.
1. Adrian Martinez becomes the Big Ten West's best quarterback (and top three in conference)
While an offense's overall success isn't necessarily tied to a quarterback's performance, Nebraska can’t make that claim with Scott Frost's current system.
Martinez's biggest competition to be considered the Big Ten West's best signal-caller comes in the form of Minnesota's Tanner Morgan with arguments to be made for Purdue's Jack Plummer and Northwestern's Peyton Ramsey.
Morgan was instrumental in leading P.J. Fleck's Golden Gophers to an 11-2 record, including a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. He threw for 3,253 yards while completing 66 percent of his passes and had an astounding 30-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, he was assisted by 1,000-yard rusher Rodney Smith, along with Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks, who combined for another 1,000-plus on the ground.
In 2020, Minnesota loses both Smith and Brooks. As a result, the Huskers and Golden Gophers have the same number of proven running backs with the Big Red boasting Dedrick Mills. However, Minnesota retains two other major contributors to the offense in Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell, who tallied a combined 1,537 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.
Nebraska's wideout corps is far less robust, which we'll address in a moment.
For the Huskers to be ranked at the end of '19, Martinez not only has to return to his true freshman form, but he must also elevate to a new level. That would mean at least throwing for 2,700 yards at a 65 percent completion rate and seeing significant improvement over 2018's 17:8 touchdown-to-interception rate.
It also means he quite likely has to be the team's second-most productive rushing threat as he has the past two seasons. If he does this, he easily leads a ranked Nebraska team and garners at least third-team All-Big Ten honors.
2. Bryce Benhart plays the lion's share of snaps at right tackle
This goes hand in hand with Martinez playing as well as he ever has. Nebraska has the opportunity to feature perhaps its best offensive line since Frost's arrival. The Huskers can now start two natural tackles and guards and complete the unit with an efficient center.
It's vital for Matt Farniok to remain a part of the interior, though. With Benhart now ready to take over Farniok's old gig, his upside appears to dwarf that of anyone who might challenge him a starting opportunity. Obviously, Frost would love to be able to rotate in some other names for experience's sake, but this job needs to unquestionably be Benhart's.
If Farniok is forced back outside, expect the same problems that have plagued Greg Austin's first two Nebraska units to continue.
3. At least two newcomers are among the top four wide receivers
With JD Spielman's future up in the air, Frost has only one known dynamic pass catcher: Wan'Dale Robinson. In the event Spielman doesn't return to Lincoln, Kade Warner holds the title of the second-most prolific receiver after placing eighth on the stat sheet in 2019.
This puts the spotlight squarely on junior college transfer Omar Manning and true freshmen Zavier Betts, Alante Brown, and Marcus Fleming. The situation then demands at least two of them have a breakout season to propel the Huskers back into the season's final rankings.
Let's quantify "breakout." The last time Nebraska prominently featured a true freshman wide receiver was in 2014 when De'Mornay Pierson-El chalked up 321 yards and four touchdowns. That year, quarterback Tommy Armstrong completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,695 yards while throwing 22 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.
If Spielman returns, there's no reason to think he won't eclipse the 800-yard mark for a fourth time in his career, if not break 1,000. Robinson could easily match his 453 yards from '19. Pierson-El was a senior when three wideouts last headlined Nebraska's receiving numbers (2017) by snagging 45 catches for 623 yards and five scores.
It's a safe bet that Manning starts. Seeing him top 500 yards in addition to Spielman and Robinson’s expected output would result in more touchdowns for fans to enjoy.
Should Spielman not return to Lincoln, a split similar — but still superior — to that '17 season would be more likely. The No. 1 receiver might boast somewhere between 900-1,000 yards, No. 2 tops 800, and a third checks in around 600-700. If a second true freshman can contribute even 250-300 yards, the year will be a success. In this scenario, we can truly appreciate how crucial ticking the first two boxes on this list is.
4. An inside linebacker takes home at least second-team All-Big Ten honors
The last time Nebraska both finished the season ranked and featured a linebacker who was at least second-team All-Big Ten was 2012. Coaches selected Will Compton for his year-long efforts.
While again leading the Blackshirts in terms of tackles, Mohamed Barry took a step back in terms of effectiveness last season. He played with passion and a relentless motor, not unlike 2018, but found himself over-pursuing and struggled in pass coverage. While Barry regressed some, we did see the emergence of Collin Miller as his complement.
With Barry graduated, one of three things must happen for a Blackshirt to match Compton’s honors. Miller reaches his full potential and dominates thanks to a revitalized defensive front, incoming junior college transfer Eteva Mauga-Clements has an immediate significant impact, or Will Honas meets the expectations surrounding his play when he joined the program.
Regardless of which makes his presence known, it's vital that they not only provide an enforcer in stopping the opposition’s run game but effectively take passing threats out of the equation. Anything less results in a heavily overstressed defense.
5. Whoever starts at kicker can't miss a game
After last year's special teams circus, Frost has taken steps to ensure Nebraska won't be without an experienced kicker for at least the upcoming season. Regardless of who lines up for extra points and field goals versus Purdue, he needs to be "The Man" all season long.
Over the past 10 years, Nebraska teams that finished in the Top 25 had kickers that appeared in every game, even if they may have needed someone to take over for a moment.
After seeing six members of the roster take a crack at splitting the uprights in '19, having the same specialist trot out onto the field time and time again could add an additional couple of wins to the Huskers' final record.