Once among college football’s powerhouses, the Nebraska Cornhuskers haven’t won a conference championship since the turn of the century. With no 10-win seasons since 2012, it has been a tough rebuilding effort for second-year head coach Scott Frost to inherit, but the team is showing promise.
Given a big jump in quality, the Huskers could have an outside shot at returning to national glory.
The 2018 story: Nebraska was one of the worst teams in all of college football to begin the year, as its 0-6 start was the worst in program history. It wasn’t all down to the Huskers’ poor play, though, as they had the 26th-hardest schedule in the nation.
- Killer penalties: Nebraska played undisciplined football all year long, and finished No. 116 in the country in penalty yards per game.
- Ball security: Nebraska may have ended the season with a turnover differential of just -2, but the Huskers had six turnovers in their first two games and had many near-fumbles as well.
- Turning it around: Despite the awful start, Nebraska’s final six games offered hope. The team went 4-2, with the only defeats coming narrowly to Ohio State (36-31) and Iowa (31-28) on the road.
The strengths: Led by an explosive quarterback, Nebraska’s offense is ready to take a jump in year two of Frost’s offense. But a few key position groups are strong on defense as well.
- Quarterback: Sophomore Adrian Martinez’s natural dual-threat ability was on display throughout the 2018 season, but it was only near the end that he began to master the offense and display better reads. A total of 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns aren’t out of the question, and those numbers could vault him into Heisman contention.
- Wide receiver: Junior JD Spielman, the son of Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, is already one of the best wideouts in school history and is only getting better. He averaged 81.8 yards and almost a touchdown per game last season and lines up all over the field to confuse opposing defenses.
- Defensive line: Nebraska’s defensive line isn’t led by one star. Instead it is led by a group of experienced pass rushers ready to make an impact. Ben Stille topped the team with five sacks last year and is joined by two pairs of brothers — Khalil and Carlos Davis, both seniors, combined for four sacks last year. Oklahoma State graduate transfer Darrion Daniels will start immediately and link up with his brother Damion.
The question marks: Departures of experienced players along the offensive line and at running back will need to be addressed or the Huskers may struggle to begin the year.
- Running back: Devine Ozigbo ran for over 1,000 yards last season but is onto the NFL now. Sophomore Maurice Washington showed big-play ability, but his future is uncertain as he deals with a legal case. The assumed started would be Dedrick Mills, a junior college transfer who previously played at Georgia Tech. But clearly the Husker backfield is up for grabs right now.
- Offensive line: With three starters graduating from Nebraska’s 2018 line and uncertainty at running back, the team’s run game could be a point of concern. The Huskers are likely to start a freshman former tight end at center and a walk-on at guard, and the unit will need time to come together in an absence of veteran leadership.
The big games: The Huskers have a number of big matchups which could lead them to glory.
- Early road test: After an opening-week tuneup against South Alabama, the Huskers will hit the road to take on Colorado, which beat Nebraska in Lincoln last year. The Buffs may have a first-year head coach, but the Huskers were 0-5 on the road last season and haven’t won a road game since October 2017.
- Potential College Gameday: College Gameday hasn’t come to Lincoln since a 2007 matchup against No. 1 USC, but if the Huskers can start the year 4-0, a week five matchup against Ohio State looms.
- Divisional clashes: Nebraska has the added benefit of playing its key divisional games at home this season. Three of the favorites in the Big Ten West — Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa — all play on the road at Nebraska.
Putting it all together: Does Nebraska really have the potential for a playoff run?
- Martinez magic: In lieu of an established running game, the Huskers will need Martinez to carry the offense and put up a Heisman-caliber campaign.
- Beat the Buckeyes: It’s hard to make the playoff if you can’t beat the hardest team on your schedule, and that means Nebraska needs to emerge victorious over Ohio State. A potential Big Ten Championship Game rematch could loom even if that is the case as well.
No bad losses: Over the last 10 years, Nebraska has consistently dropped one or two games to clearly inferior opponents, and those contributed to keeping the program down. Games against the likes of Illinois, Indiana and Maryland are expected wins, but Nebraska can’t take them lightly or it could miss out on postseason glory as a result.