For many college football fans, the idea that Nebraska should have enough support to merit an appearance in any Top 25 lists for 2019, even this early in the process, is laughable at best. After all, this is a program that has gone 4-8 in each of the past two seasons. Forget being ranked, Cornhusker fans would just like to see Scott Frost lead his team to a bowl game — any bowl.
So when Athlon Sports’ Way-Too-Early Top 25 was unveiled on Wednesday with Nebraska at No. 19, it was received by Husker Nation with everything ranging from tepid optimism to head shaking to utter disbelief with some Big Red backers expressing their opinions (more specifically, their doubts) through social media.
Some of the commentary focused on the belief that Nebraska doesn’t have the size up front to compete with the likes of Wisconsin (No. 18), Iowa (No. 17) or Michigan (No. 8). Losing the prolific offensive pairing of running back Devine Ozigbo and wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr. also is a cause for alarm with Husker fans.
Why, with all of these alleged (obvious?) problems, does Nebraska have any claim to Top 25 status? Here’s why:
It’s easy to look at a 4-8 record and dismiss any optimistic claims as fever dreams. Most college football fans don’t want to drill down what happened with the 2018 Huskers and why would they? However, comparing Nebraska’s 2017 campaign to '18 is vital to understand the reason for any and all optimism. Mike Riley’s final Husker team lost six of its last seven games with the final three dropped by a combined score of 166-79. Simply put: they were ready for the season to end and it showed.
By contrast, Frost’s first season opened up with a historic 0-6 record but finished with a 4-2 uptick. A large part of that sub-optimal start was not only getting used to new schemes across the board but a new culture. An accountability list was fully utilized by the staff. No starting spots were guaranteed and if they were earned, players were challenged to keep them. Junior college transfer Greg Bell started the season as Nebraska’s No. 1 running back. He would eventually depart following the Huskers’ loss to Purdue, and then Ozigbo proceeded to take the job and well, run with it.
It was a period of separation. If you wanted to be a part of Frost’s vision for Nebraska, then, by all means, hop on board and bust your tail. If you didn’t, nobody was going to stop you from walking out the door. It’s true that Nebraska did struggle in the trenches with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, especially defensively. However, try as he might, backup quarterback Andrew Bunch wasn’t going to lead the Huskers to victory against the Wolverines while Adrian Martinez recovered from injury.
Wisconsin imposed its will as its wont to do and Iowa was simply ready to go blow-for-blow before clinching a 31-28 victory with a field goal as time expired. What made things worse for the Huskers is that the Blackshirts’ pass rush was largely ineffective in every game sans the eventual season opener versus Colorado.
Going back to 2017, Nebraska suffered four losses of 21 points or more. In 2018, there was just one, the aforementioned Michigan game. Ohio State came to Lincoln two years ago and destroyed the Huskers, never punting in a 56-14 laugher. This past season, the Buckeyes won by five points in Columbus. Forget moral victories or excuses, that Nebraska team had a legitimate chance of winning. That thought was easily dismissed well before the Huskers’ season began by nearly everyone, Husker fan or not.
Addressing the losses of Ozigbo and Morgan those are valid concerns. However, one would be remiss to not bring up the offensive wunderkind that is Martinez. JD Spielman is more than ready to pick up the mantle of the Huskers’ leading receiver. Running back Maurice Washington showed not only an exciting running style but the drive to earn every yard much like Ozigbo.
The idea that Frost, a crafty play-caller, can’t find a way to generate points with the weapons at his disposal is, in a word, absurd. Morgan may have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, but Spielman was responsible for 818 yards and eight touchdowns to the now-departed senior's seven last season. In an interesting potential parallel, Adrian Killins – a true freshman in 2016 – was UCF’s third-leading rusher not unlike Washington with Nebraska in '18. In year two, Killins led the team with 790 yards on the ground and 10 scores, besting even quarterback McKenzie Milton. Offensive adjustments are not new to Frost.
Nebraska likely heads into 2019 with the offense a step or three ahead of Erik Chinander’s defense as he'll be plugging in plenty of new faces across the board. However, this is a team that can afford to get into shootouts considering the schedule. The Huskers do travel to Boulder to face Colorado in their second game of the season. However, the Buffaloes will be breaking in a new head coach in former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa all travel to Lincoln with the latter two coming after a bye week. An early November tussle with Purdue looks to be the most difficult road test Nebraska will face. Even at this point, forever and a day away from 2019’s kickoff, a 4-0 start to the Huskers’ year isn’t far-fetched. That alone is worthy of preseason Top 25 consideration. Coming into this job, Frost made it clear that it’d take time to improve and that his UCF program didn’t truly get humming until later into his second season. The potential is there for history to repeat itself and that will be identified early on across the college football landscape as 2019 draws closer.