This week on my podcast “Split Zone Duo,” we’re coming to terms with a 2022 coaching carousel forecast that, at least in late August, looks historically quiet.
Sure, there’s Auburn, because in large part there’s always Auburn: In 2020 we saw the end of the Gus Malzahn era, followed by a fractious hiring cycle beset with booster wars and ending with a disputed hire, and almost immediately we began a hot-seat-watch for first-year head coach Bryan Harsin, who survived his own booster coup this offseason after one 6-7 season.
“Remember when they almost beat Alabama?” has been the de rigueur conversation of the offseason, especially when it looked like Harsin had extradited himself to Mexico. All of this happened and none of it surprised us. War Eagle.
So yeah, Auburn, but after that, we’re at a loss for headliner programs looking like obvious picks to fire a head coach, at least right now... except for Nebraska alumnus Scott Frost, 15-29 (and just 10-25 in Big Ten play) entering his fifth season coaching his alma mater.
This weekend Nebraska will play Northwestern in Ireland in a Week 0 Big Ten game for the second consecutive year, and they’ll be looking to avoid the kind of intense public self-soiling of their brand and Frost’s acumen that occurred in a 30-22 loss to Illinois last August. That dud kicked off a 3-9 season that likely would’ve ended Frost’s time at any number of other brand-name programs, but Nebraska held tight, for reasons we’ll address below.
Yet the Huskers have become the go-to “well actually” conversation in coach gossip circles this summer. In spite of Frost’s anemic record and bowl drought, there’s a growing amount of optimism that he won’t end up fired at the end of this season.
Now, depending on your feelings about Nebraska, that information could be merely interesting or infuriating. And inside the NU fanbase Big Red feelings are varied — simply making a bowl with six or seven wins might seem too little for fans convinced that three-win Nebraska was “closer” than we all realize last season (we’ll get to that).
So take this, sourced across the industry, as either a plan for Frost and Nebraska to survive the year intact and try to finally put the Husker house back in order or a nightmare scenario in which the latest failed experiment in Lincoln limps along for another two seasons. But hey, you’re not Auburn! You’re not Auburn? Right?
The Close-Loss Theory
Nebraska’s version of “Auburn almost won the Iron Bowl” is the “Close Losses!” railing cry. Scan through their schedule and you’ll see one possession losses in box scores vs. Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin. A standard rule for advanced stat wonks is that a team that drops a lot of close games will usually return the following season and win at least a few of those close contests.
It was certainly wonky: Here’s an analyst who ran a simulation of NU’s season 5,000 times and only returned a 3-9 record twice. And if you’re looking for a Big Ten stat for the ages, the Husker went 1-8 in the conference despite scoring AND allowing exactly 239 points.
But the “Close Losses!” rally has its detractors, too: Nebraska was a fantastic rallying team in 2021, able to close big gaps (in five of those losses they trailed by at least two possessions in the fourth quarter) when teams went up and got comfortable. And while resiliency is an admirable trait among coaches and rallying is considered to be a positive symptom of “good culture” and “buy-in,” it’s not the same as playing a team close the entire game.
Frost publicly copped to burnout serving as both head coach and offensive play-caller, so since he couldn’t fire himself, he did the next head coach-ish thing possible and fired his entire offensive staff. Mark Whipple, the author of Kenny Pickett’s success at Pitt, is now building and calling an offense with Frost’s input. Texas transfer Casey Thompson is the new starter and the Huskers have revamped the wide receiver position with transfers.
None of this is a guarantee, and it’s hard to credit Frost with any kind of foresight or self-examination when his team won one conference game last season, but it’s progress nonetheless. Whipple is certainly an acquired taste, though, and came free in large part because of his friction with Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi. If this relationship can find balance, look out. If it can’t, and you’re not a fan of Frost or NU, you won’t be able to look away.
It’s been a long time since the former Blackshirt linebacker was best known as a lampooned ESPN analyst. Now he’s running the show in Lincoln, and the timing of his arrival alone bodes well for Frost. The critical industry consensus was that it was too early after his July 2021 hiring to can his fellow Husker head coach and that Alberts would bide his time to build a consensus among boosters and fans. Optimists around the program believe Alberts wants to provide Frost with as clean a slate and fortified a program as possible to potentially turn the tide. Either way, most believe Alberts’ arrival was a momentary stay of execution. The debate is for how long.
Nebraska Can’t Afford to Auburn – or Even Florida State
Don’t let that phrase fool you; I’m not talking about buyouts. Frost took a pay cut last year and a restructured deal from Alberts that runs through 2026. The buyout if Frost is fired this season is a manageable $7.5 million. Just so we’re clear: The Huskers can rally that if need be.
What I’m talking about is perception and equity in the college coaching ranks. If Nebraska finishes somewhere in the six to eight win range and they elect to fire their native son, there’s potential for blowback in the industry. To be clear, Frost isn’t wildly popular or some kind of sentimental favorite among his peers, it’s more of a “buyer beware” scenario. Who would come in next? How long would that replacement be afforded if NU axes an alumnus who just gave them a winning season?
The reality is that the Nebraska brand can’t survive a “crazy” label the way an Auburn might. Moreover, their sustained decline from their Tom Osborne glory days keeps them in frequent company with has-beens Tennessee and Florida State. The ‘Noles are in a similar boat: If Mike Norvell doesn’t explode this year, will FSU go shopping again and risk scaring off quality HCs who see them as a damaged destination? Nebraska is in a very similar situation.
So, what do the Huskers HAVE to do for Frost to carry over into ‘23? Here’s a checklist, at the barest of minimums:
Win When They’re Supposed To
Let’s be really specific here so there’s no uncertainty: Nebraska needs to beat Northwestern, Georgia Southern, North Dakota (just a friendly reminder, that’s North Dakota, NOT North Dakota State), Rutgers, and Indiana. That’s it. No arguments. Your football players should be better than those schools’ football players at this point in any Nebraska head coach’s tenure, so for once expectation and reality are in lockstep (for once).
Just Go to a Bowl
The Huskers have one of the most passionate and dedicated fan bases in the sport – not just college football, the sport of football – and haven’t been able to throw money at plane tickets and hotels in December (or January, but, again, let’s check our expectations) since losing the Music City Bowl in 2016. What’s truly insane about this drought is that the Huskers have the NCAA record for consecutive bowl bids at 35 straight from 1969 to 2003.
So: If NU wins the five games above, they’ll need to beat either Purdue, Illinois, or Minnesota to become eligible and likely two out of three to lock in a decent-ish trip
The Huskers avoid Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State this season, which feels like kismet. Remember all those close losses to good Big Ten teams? Surely, surely, Nebraska is capable of turning one of them into a one-score win this season. Beating Michigan, Iowa, or Wisconsin late in the year for a seventh or eighth win would build more energy for the Husker brand than we’ve seen since they left the Big 12.
And look, I don’t even want to mention that significant historic non-conference rivalry at home in September. You know, the one with a first-time head coach and a bunch of offseason drama. Because winning that would… not be worth finishing that sentence, to be honest. It’s been too brutal a road for Husker fans to do anything than hope for stability first and everything else after.