For the first time since 2014, Nebraska football will begin its season ranked as one of America’s top 25 teams according to the Associated Press preseason poll, coming in at 24th. The voting was done by a group of 61 sports media professionals, and the results were released on Monday, Aug. 19.
The last time Nebraska began the season ranked in the AP Poll was 2014, the final year of Bo Pelini’s tenure as head coach of the Huskers. To finish the 2013 season, Nebraska had defeated Georgia in the Gator Bowl. Returning players like quarterback Tommy Armstrong, running back Ameer Abdullah and safety Nathan Gerry gave Nebraska leaders on both offense and defense.
The 2014 team attained the No.11 spot in the AP Poll heading into a matchup against Wisconsin in mid-November, but a deflating 35-point loss to the Badgers in Madison dropped Nebraska to No. 21. A second consecutive loss the next week, this time to Minnesota, dropped Nebraska out of the polls. A 37-34 victory over Iowa earned Nebraska a No. 25 ranking heading into the Holiday Bowl against No. 24 USC, but a defeat at the hands of the Trojans dropped Nebraska out of the final poll.
Since 1951, the longest stretch of seasons Nebraska has ever gone without a preseason ranking is 13 straight years, beginning in 1951 and ending with the Huskers’ inclusion in the 1965 preseason poll. This four-year stretch is the longest since then, tacking an additional year on the ignominious streak of three years from 2003-2005. Since 2000, Nebraska has been featured in 12 of the 20 preseason AP polls. During the same time period, Nebraska has began the year ranked but has not finished with that distinction five times.
However, the team has not been as prominent in the postseason rankings. Since the start of the new millennium, only eight Husker teams have finished the year ranked. Half of those appearances came under Bo Pelini (from 2009-2012), while Frank Solich led Nebraska to three appearances in the final polls in the 2000s. Bill Callahan guided Nebraska to one top-25 AP finish. Only twice (2003 and 2005) has Nebraska began the year unranked and finished in the top 25.
While the team cannot control where it gets ranked, Nebraska teams ranked in the AP preseason poll have consistently underperformed relative to their preseason rank. Since 1960, Nebraska has either started or finished the year in the AP Poll 48 times, often finding itself in both the first and last polls of the season. In that timeframe, Husker teams have finished a combined 211 ranking spots lower than their original rank would have suggested. That’s an average of 4.4 positions worse per year.
In 1990 and 1998, Nebraska was ranked seventh and fourth, respectively, but fell to 24th and 19th in the final polls. The 2002 team began the year ranked 10th and rose as high as eighth but was far from the final poll after finishing 7-7. More recently, the 2010 and 2011 teams both fell 12 or more spots from a preseason top-10 rank to the mid-20s by year’s end.
When ranked between 20th and 25th in the AP Preseason Poll, Nebraska has fallen out of the rankings by the end of the season more than it has moved up. Since 2006, Nebraska has been ranked in that range four times and has failed to finish the year ranked three times. In 2006 and 2007, Nebraska earned the No. 20 spot in the preseason poll but fell out, and the team began the year ranked 22nd in 2014 but was not in the poll’s final edition.
The one Husker team in history to earn a ranking in the 20-25 range and outperform its expectation was the 2009 outfit. That team began the year ranked 24th and won four of its first five games to move up to 15th. A loss to Texas Tech dropped Nebraska from the rankings, but the Huskers regained a ranking in time to beat Colorado in the 2009 regular season finale. In the Holiday Bowl against No. 22 Arizona, No. 20 Nebraska ran for 223 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-0 beatdown. That led to a six-spot jump to No. 14 in the final AP Poll.
While he is not an AP voter, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost did submit a ballot for USA Today’s Coaches Poll, which was released on Aug. 1. He did not put his team in his own top-25 rankings.
“I hope that we are at the end of the year, but any progress that we made is just progress,” he said. “Nothing's going to happen until we go out and earn it.”
Nebraska did not receive a preseason ranking from the coaches but earned the most points among the “Others Receiving Votes” group with 152, finishing nine points behind No. 25 Northwestern.
By earning a preseason ranking, Nebraska will not mirror the rise of Frost’s first head coaching stop, Central Florida. In 2017, the Knights were unranked in the preseason poll coming off a 6-7 season. However, they recorded a perfect season and finished the year ranked sixth nationally.
While Husker fans may enjoy entering the season ranked after four years without that honor, it is not enough for Frost. When the Big Ten Network attended practice on Aug. 19, its panel asked Frost about his own expectations and those of the fans.
“I think expectations have been way too low in Lincoln for way too long,” he said.
The largest jump Nebraska has made from the AP preseason poll to the postseason edition is 19 spots, which has happened twice. Both were under Bob Devaney in the early 1960s, when Nebraska began the season unranked but finished sixth. A 19-spot jump in this year’s rankings would put Nebraska at number five nationally, likely either after a major bowl win or a loss in the College Football Playoff.
The only specifics Frost, his coaching staff and the players will share is that they expect to be competing for championships. Behind sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, a plethora of offensive weapons and a potentially improved defense, the 2019 Nebraska football team looks to become only the second team in school history to improve on its preseason No. 24 ranking. Coaches, players, fans and media think the Huskers’ future is bright. The number preceding Nebraska in January will show just how right these groups were.
Nebraska plays Southern Alabama to begin its season on Saturday, Aug. 31. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. and will be televised on ESPN.