Adrian Martinez and the Cornhuskers will get their shots against the Big Ten's best
In 2018, Scott Frost's first game as Nebraska football's head coach was abruptly rained out as Mother Nature denied those in attendance on Sept. 1. The Big Red faithful braved the elements to dance in the rain. It was only until lightning came dangerously close that they huddled in the Memorial Stadium concourses for shelter. Fans, press, and members of the administration all likely had a similar thought: Despite how crazy this experience was, surely we'll never see weirder.
And here we are.
Star-studded rosters across the country are losing some luster as elite players are choosing to forego the year due to health concerns and look towards a future in the NFL. Conference-only schedules are the current norm. And, to be honest, the Power 5 conferences will be the most likely ones to press on during all the chaos.
Any regular season — no matter how odd or disjointed — finds Nebraska in an oddly fortunate position, all things considered. The Cornhuskers have several issues that require fine-tuning, but the roster currently stands unaffected by opt outs. Yes, those who have NFL aspirations need to prove their chops, but it remains a small blessing for Frost.
Adrian Martinez's sophomore campaign was a textbook slump. According to quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, it may not have had to shake out that way. "Whether he had as much of a consequential attitude about things as he did his freshman year, I guess that would be up for debate." Considering the addition of offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Matt Lubick to assist Frost in guiding the Huskers' attack with a healthy injection of fresh offensive playmakers, fans have reason to get hyped along with Martinez.
Those in Lincoln also should enjoy the prospect of an offensive line that has the potential to be more in sync than ever. A major concern for Nebraska's prospects is a defensive front seven that suffers from a lack of live snaps and a proven capability to adapt. The ability is there, but it must gel and work as one to overcome the more substantial obstacles they face. Special teams remain in the spotlight with new analyst Jonathan Rutledge aiming to cure the woes that bubbled to the surface in 2019.
Even with the best-case scenarios of fan participation, every game becomes a neutral-site contest. The 2020 schedule will only underscore talent differentials. And taking not only possible injury into account but any positive COVID-19 test, Nebraska's success against its new slate of foes could change in a hurry both in constructive and negative ways.
Here's a couple of Athlon's editors and a college football contributor see this unique season playing out for the Huskers.
[Editor's note: This article was published before the Big Ten announced on Aug. 11 that it was postponing all fall sports, including football, with the intent of playing in the spring.]
Nebraska Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2020
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Cornhuskers are coming off a disappointing 5-7 mark last fall, and the switch to a conference-only slate won’t make the going any easier in 2020. In order to reach .500 or better, Nebraska needs a big year out of quarterback Adrian Martinez and improvement out of the offensive line. The Cornhuskers finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and enter 2020 with plenty of new faces set to emerge up front. The secondary should be a strength thanks to the return of Dicaprio Bootle, Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams. Starting with Rutgers and Illinois should allow coach Scott Frost’s team to find its groove before a tough stretch – Wisconsin, at Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
I am a believer in Scott Frost getting things going in the right direction in Lincoln. However, the combination of circumstances (no spring football) and schedule have done the Cornhuskers no favors. They should be able to start 2-0 even with the opener on the road but those next four games are brutal. Even if they pull off a surprise in that stretch there are few breaks on this slate. A 6-4 record may not look that impressive but any sort of finish above .500 for Frost and company this season needs to be viewed as positive progress.
Brandon Cavanaugh (@eightlaces)
Nebraska benefits from some of the Big Ten's best choosing to sit on the sideline and even more could opt out before the season begins. The absence of Micah Parsons, Rashod Bateman, and Rondale Moore absolutely play a factor.
Rutgers and Illinois don't match up well man-for-man, especially early in the season. There's no reason to think Wisconsin won't shove its division mates aside for a shot at conference supremacy for another year. Even with Iowa losing Nate Stanley, an experienced starting five up front under Kirk Ferentz's watch always causes issues. Ohio State should be able to more or less coast through their schedule with the Huskers being no exception.
Per usual, a tight back-and-forth with Northwestern wouldn't surprise. The Huskers may perform effectively versus Penn State overall. But despite the Nittany Lions breaking in a new offensive coordinator, James Franklin's recruiting gives them a certain edge.
The final two games look to be toss-ups. Moore opting out doesn't necessarily mean much in this scenario as he wasn't even needed for the Boilermakers to post a victory over Nebraska last year. While only one game (with a completely different roster), new Purdue head coach Mel Tucker has shown the ability to stuff Frost's offense. The Huskers have enough manpower to push the Boilermakers around and the Huskers tick all the boxes necessary to best the Spartans in Lincoln. But Adrian Martinez needs to lead a lights-out effort to finish his junior campaign on a high note if those contests are to end up wins.