Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost has experienced an amazing amount of stress in the past year. He was the hottest college football coaching hire on the planet, a brand-new dad and a recruiter racking up frequent flier miles during a transition class. Depending on who you talk to, he’s the savior of the Big Red’s football program as we all know it, but it’s time to take a step back.
Frost deserves some time to decompress as do the forecasts about his first year... for now. There’ll be time for the boldest of predictions and bowl projections (if Nebraska does actually make one) later. Today, we do something almost unheard of in the offseason: we deal in reality. It’s not the worst and it’s not the best. Here’s what the college football world should easily expect from the Cornhuskers in 2018.
1. Six wins and a bowl game
Depending on momentum, injuries and potential upsets, Nebraska has a good shot at hitting the over on a 5.5 win total touted by several betting outlets. Akron, Colorado, Illinois, Troy, Minnesota and Purdue look to be the contests that the Huskers can feel most comfortable about on the surface.
Where a 6-6 Nebraska team might end up in the postseason is anyone’s guess, but the Huskers have the added benefit of 2018 being Frost’s first year, a storyline in and of itself. That alone gives them brownie points over Jeff Brohm keeping Purdue on track for another season, for example.
2. A 1,000-yard receiver
Nebraska fans have been teased with the potential of having a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time in program history recently. Jordan Westerkamp did his best and Stanley Morgan Jr. (above, right) came 14 yards short last year. However, it’s time to not only make history but set the bar higher for the next guy and Morgan is the player to do it.
Last season, Tre'Quan Smith (now a member of the New Orleans Saints after being taken in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft) brought in 59 catches for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns for UCF as a junior. Smith Swap him with Morgan and you’d have a similar stat line.
Morgan’s experience should easily help him cross the 1,000-yard threshold as not only was he an NFL-caliber receiver last year, he also has gotten better and will be looked to as the crown jewel of Nebraska’s passing game much like Smith was.
3. Making extending drives the standard
Over the course of college football history, Nebraska has been known for moving the chains and wearing down the opposition. Not only must that return, Frost has shown that his system emphasizes it.
Last season, UCF tied for 15th nationally with a 45 percent third down conversion rate. Nebraska hasn’t put up numbers that good since 2008 when the Huskers tied for 14th nationally at 48 percent. While fourth down wasn’t always the charm for the Knights – their 50 percent rate was good for a tie at 69th in the nation – they did improve by seven percent compared to the previous season, a success rate that had them languishing near the bottom (102nd) among their FBS peers.
Considering Nebraska only converted on third down 38 percent of the time last year, improvement isn’t a suggestion. It’s a demand.
4. Upping the turnover margin
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander had a tall task in helping players that were on a team that went winless in 2015 believe that they had every reason to walk with swagger. As a result, the Knights had an amazing two-year turnaround that saw a minus-20 turnover margin in 2015 transform into plus-17 last season.
Nebraska may have won four games in 2017, but a cloud of apathy that hung over the program dimmed any glow seen in victories. The Huskers finished with a minus-seven turnover differential, which placed them 106th nationally. The defense only recovered three fumbles in 17 opportunities and recorded just nine interceptions in 12 games.
Fortunately, there’s an infusion of talent to challenge at every position in the secondary, so it’s time to shape up or ride the pine if current players can’t make big things happen.
When it comes to the defensive front seven, players are transitioning from a read-and-react style to an outwardly aggressive take-what-you-want effort. Expect not only more disruption from edge rushers like Freedom Akinmoladun and former linebacker Ben Stille, but Ole Miss transfer Breon Dixon and the rest of the Husker linebackers as well.
5. Competing for a spot on every snap
It’s hard on a fan base to watch its team flat out quit and that’s most definitely what occurred as the 2017 season petered out. Nebraska gave up 50-plus points in each of its last three contests including 56 to Penn State and Iowa.
Let’s face it, the Huskers are going to go up against some really good teams in 2018, but that’s no excuse to lie down and die. In fact, that’s a great way to get benched under Frost, perhaps for good. He takes a number of cues from his mentor and former coach, Tom Osborne. One of the values that Osborne always preached was taking pride in your effort on the football field.
Don’t think that Frost won’t be looking for hands on hips or if offensive linemen are allowing defensive ends to smack their quarterback with the efficiency of a revolving door. The Huskers will likely take a few ugly shots to the jaw this season, but as long as those playing do so with an attitude that any snap could result in a momentum shift for their team, Frost and the fans should be pleased overall.