It's that special time of year when we all opine about how well teams will perform once toe eventually meets leather later this month. Considering Scott Frost took UCF from a middling season to an undefeated one in two years prompts us all to wonder if something similar is in store for Nebraska.
A recent survey of Athlon Sports editors and yours truly made it clear we expect a major rebound by the Huskers. But if you don't care what pundits think and are a Nebraska fan, have no fear. I've corralled two former Blackshirt cornerbacks to get their takes.
Ralph Brown (1996-99) and Bryan Wilson (2006-07) were both kind enough to give some of their time as we gathered what they think about the program as it is today. Both felt the momentum the Huskers had built with their 4-2 finish in 2018 was huge for Frost's second year. Brown also pointed out their close losses should only fuel them further.
"You come off that and you don't go to a bowl game. Now there's hunger, there's anger, there's a lot of frustration and you carry that over into this season. They've got a chip on their shoulder." Wilson's idea of momentum came from familiarity with who the team is working with. There's been no turnover, changes in scheme or different messages. As a result, major development can occur.
We took a moment to use a more unique metric. If the season opener versus South Alabama was canceled as it was last year and the Huskers traveled to Colorado for their first game, would they win?
Wilson saw this as a likely proposition considering the Huskers were still in the game until the very end against the Buffaloes last year. Things didn't play out in their favor and Laviska Shenault impressed, including snagging the game-winning touchdown pass. Despite Boulder being a difficult place to play due to the altitude, he felt it would still be a winnable game one for the Big Red.
Brown agreed, saying this is a different team from the one that started 2018. He also recalls a similar situation during his college years.
"You can't replace what an athlete or team feels when they feel they should've beaten an opponent the first time. That happened to us in 1999 against Texas. We felt like we should've beat them the first time then we played them again in the Big 12 Championship Game and whipped them."
They echoed each other more when discussing what Nebraska's offense might look like in year two of the Frost era. Naturally, Adrian Martinez, Maurice Washington, and Wan'Dale Robinson were early mentions, but the condition of the Big Red's linemen also impressed Wilson.
"I think the offensive line will be a lot better being with Greg [Austin] for another year. From seeing pictures, they're looking bigger and thicker, but you don't see bellies hanging out. Just well put together bodies."
As former defenders at the college level, they see countering a more experienced attack by Frost as a tall task. Both men clarified it should be successful because there's so much to handle from all over the field.
"As a coach, you have to pick certain parts of it and practice that. There are so many looks and so many 'what ifs' that if you try to teach players all those scenarios, they'll go out on Saturday and won't be able to play as a defense."
Looking at continuity again, it's something that's been foreign to Nebraska's defense with coordinators coming and going not to mention a revolving door of defensive back coaches. Brown and Wilson both underscored how important it is to have the same message coming from defensive coordinator Erik Chinander down to individual position groups. With that being consistent, both felt the level of the Blackshirts' play should trend in a positive direction.
Neither had any spot they saw as a specific weakness on defense. However, both had the same advice for what the Huskers must do to be successful on defense: keep rushing yardage to a minimum and reinforce the line.
"They have to make sure they stop the run. The defensive line is great, the secondary should be much better with Lamar Jackson being confident, Dicaprio Bootle is a scrappy player. That back end's going to be really good this year," Brown said.
Wilson has noticed college teams rise and fall because of the quality of all linemen, something he feels Nebraska has been lacking for a while. In his view, when the Huskers can pull in elite linemen, good things should manifest.
Then came to the moment of truth: 2019 predictions. First, is Nebraska going to win the Big Ten West?
Not only was Brown confident in his answer, but he continued to tout just how much the bad taste in the Huskers' mouths from last season should propel them to a far better season. "Yes, they do. Nebraska has something Wisconsin and Iowa don't have in that huge chip on their shoulder."
He would extol the virtues of Nebraska's coaching staff. Brown noted given time, the Huskers should find themselves in their former position of representing the division often and eventually taking home a conference championship trophy.
Wilson was more subdued. According to him, all roads lead through Wisconsin when it comes to winning Nebraska's division. While the Big Red appears to have better than a 50 percent chance to take the division in Wilson's eyes, it'll come down to besting the Badgers at their own physical game.
Finally, we discussed the Huskers' 2019 record. Wilson noted he's seen several nine-win predictions and was taken aback considering a jump of five games from one season to the next seems almost excessive. However, he noted it's doable and the window for success sits at around nine to 11 wins overall. He eventually was happy to settle on a prediction of eight or nine wins following a bowl victory.
Brown remains cautiously optimistic with an eight-win prediction but is quick to say the sky can be the limit for the 2019 Huskers. As the season continues, he expects the team to only improve under Frost.
"I think they have the ability to win the [Big Ten] championship. They could shock the world and be on the cusp of making it to the College Football Playoff if they reach that high level of play on both offense and defense."