With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
Northwestern will host Nebraska after two tough matchups against Michigan and Michigan State. If you haven’t heard, Nebraska hired a new head coach in Scott Frost, who turned UCF all the way around in two years. It’s been a half decade of mediocrity for Nebraska, and Frost has been billed as the program’s savior. Last year’s product was pretty bad though, and Frost has his work cut out for him.
Here’s what to look for from Nebraska in 2018:
Returning production: 64 percent (59 percent on offense, 70 percent on defense)
2017 record: 4-8 (3-6 B1G)
Head coach: Scott Frost (1st season, 19-7 in two years as head coach at UCF)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2017 S&P+ Overall: 103rd
2017 S&P+ Offense: 81st
2017 S&P+ Defense: 110th
2018 S&P+ Projection: 60th
Something was off in Lincoln from the get-go, as Nebraska gave up 415 passing yards to Arkansas State in Week One, barely squeezing by the Red Wolves 43-36. When Northern Illinois came to Lincoln and turned over the Cornhuskers three times en route to a 21-17 win, it was panic time for Big Red.
Nebraska topped Big Ten doormats Rutgers and Illinois to surge to a 2-0 record in the Big Ten, but the Cornhuskers would win only one game the rest of the way. Their losses weren’t particularly close, either. The Cornhuskers got predictably stomped by Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State, but Minnesota throttled Nebraska 54-21 and Iowa put a nail in Mike Riley’s coffin with a 56-14 dismantling in Lincoln to close the season.
Riley was fired the next day, and Nebraska fans began tracking UCF coach Scott Frost, who was leading the Knights to a 13-0 record. Frost, of course, was the quarterback of the 1997 national champion Cornhuskers. On December 2, Frost accepted the Nebraska job and a new era of Cornhusker football was born.
Excitement in Lincoln is palpable, to say the least. Frost has spoke at length about reinvesting in strength training and the walk-on program — two things that made Nebraska a powerhouse program a couple of decades ago. All ten of Frost’s UCF assistants followed him to Lincoln, including offensive coordinator Troy Walters, who helmed the second-ranked offense by S&P+ at UCF last season.
After Nebraska dropped from the national radar, Frost has everyone’s attention. The next step is winning, which will be difficult in 2018 given a brutal Big Ten slate. Still, Frost worked wonders in just two years at UCF, and this team could coalesce faster than expected.
We still don’t know who the Cornhusker starting quarterback will be, and the battle for the starting spot has been the biggest non-Frost offseason storyline for Nebraska. Whoever earns the spot will be taking his first college snap when Nebraska opens their season.
True freshman Adrian Martinez wowed with his arm and legs in the spring game and could get the first shot under center. A former four-star recruit, Martinez committed and decommitted from Cal and Tennessee before pledging to play for Frost eleven days after he was named Nebraska’s next head coach.
Tristan Gebbia will get a long look at the starting job as well. The redshirt freshman is also a former four-star with a bigger arm than Martinez. Sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch will compete for the job as well.
Nebraska’s offensive line was one of the top 25 units in the country last season. Unfortunately, the rest of the offense was pretty bad. Quarterback Tanner Lee led all Power Five quarterbacks with 16 interceptions. Nebraska’s top two ball carriers, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon, averaged just over four yards per carry and had success rates of 35.7 percent and 39.8 percent respectively. Quarterback and running back play will need to improve immensely if this offense wants to get humming.
Nebraska doesn’t want for talent. Running back Tre Bryant was off to a great start to the season (299 yards on 5.86 yards per carry) before going down to an injury. Ozigbo and Wilbon return, and the Cornhuskers added Greg Bell, the top 2018 JUCO running back, and four-star freshman Maurice Washington.
Stanley Morgan Jr. is Nebraska’s star wideout. The senior amassed 986 yards and ten touchdowns on 16.2 yards per catch last year. He’s money in the red zone, a deep threat and probably one of the best receivers in the conference. Montre Hartage will have his hands full in October. A pair of speedy receivers in JD Spielman (830 yards in 2017) and Tyjon Lindsey (a former top-50 recruit) return as well. JUCO transfers Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams provide depth as well.
Led by Jack Stoll, Nebraska has plenty of depth at tight end to replace now-Minnesota Viking Tyler Hoppes.
Still, none of the talent Nebraska can boast at the skill positions matters much if Martinez, Gebbia, or Bunch is ineffective under center.
Nebraska’s defense was somehow much, much worse than its offense last year. Here are some stats, because stats are fun (yet also for losers). Nebraska was 114th in the country in points allowed, 128th in adjusted sack rate, and 130th in stuff rate. Its cornerbacks recorded zero (0) interceptions. Nebraska was bad against the pass, worse against the run, and created almost no havoc plays.
Nebraska has a new defensive coordinator in Erik Chinander but returns most of its depth from 2017. Defensive end Ben Stille (9.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks) is the top returning defender and the Cornhuskers return their top six defensive linemen and seven of their top nine linebackers.
A veteran secondary features safeties Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed as well as corners Lamar Jackson and Eric Lee (a former four-star), but the defensive secondary will need to show some more disruptive ability.
The Cornhuskers also feature an impact transfer at each level of the defense (DT Vaha Vainuku from Utah, LB Will Honas, the top JUCO LB, and S Tre Neal from UCF). A handful of four-star recruits on the defensive side of the ball provide competitive depth as well.
This defense can only go up in 2017, and that path will start with making disruptive plays on the ball.
Three players to know
QB Adrian Martinez
As mentioned above, quarterback is the key to Nebraska’s offense this year. I like Martinez to get the first shot at quarterback, as his dual-threat ability will remind Scott Frost of a certain Cornhusker QB from the late 1990s. A late-bloomer, Martinez’s recruitment really picked up following his junior year and it seems like he’s continued to improve, given his spring game performance.
RB Tre Bryant
Bryant was excellent to begin the year, putting up back-to-back 100-yard games to begin 2017. The junior is super shifty and stronger than he may appear at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds. He could be an impact player for Nebraska.
LB Will Honas
The Nebraska defense is craving playmakers, and Honas could be the cure. The Kansan headed to JC after an injury during his senior year of high school but has the talent to fit in right away at the Division One level.