In 2019, Nebraska football came into the season with a top-25 ranking and high expectations for head coach Scott Frost’s second year with the Huskers.
That season ended up being underwhelming, as Nebraska didn’t live up to its perceived potential and finished 5-7.
This season, those expectations are mostly gone, and there seem to be more questions than answers about the team’s potential.
Some of the biggest questions don’t arise from anything Nebraska does on the field, but the viability of the Big Ten’s nine-week schedule with no bye weeks. If a COVID-19 outbreak happens on the team or for one of the Huskers’ opponents and causes a game to be canceled, there’s no current option for making that game up. On top of that, if a player gets the coronavirus, they’ll be out for 21 days, which could equate to missing a third of the season.
Even if just one or two games get canceled, or one key player sits out, it’ll be hard to get a full grasp on where Nebraska is at as a team this season.
But, if things go smoothly, it’ll still be an unpredictable season for Nebraska football.
On the offensive side, there are reasons to be hopeful. Even with glaring holes, the Huskers ranked fifth in the Big Ten in total offense last season.
Those holes include starting quarterback Adrian Martinez regressing in his sophomore season, missing two games due to injury and uncertainty at running back and wide receiver.
Martinez declined as a passer, as his completion percentage dropped by 5.2% from 2018. He also threw seven less touchdowns and one more interception in one less game than he played in his freshman year. Despite that, he was named the starter for this Saturday’s matchup with Ohio State, although the team has expressed confidence in redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey as well.
If Martinez returns to form and builds on what he did his freshman year, it would mean a lot of good things for Nebraska. If he struggles out of the gates, the team may switch to McCaffrey.
Arguably the most reliable part of Nebraska’s team going into this year is the running game. The quarterback position will certainly be a part of that attack. Martinez led the team in rushing attempts last year, and McCaffrey had twice as many rush attempts as passes.
Both Husker quarterbacks found success on the ground. Martinez ran for 646 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019, while McCaffrey averaged 6.9 yards per carry on 24 attempts.
At running back, senior Dedrick Mills will be Nebraska’s bell cow. Mills led the Huskers in rushing last season with 745 yards and 10 touchdowns on 5.2 yards per carry. He also proved to be a competent receiver out of the backfield, collecting 15 receptions for 123 yards. His best game came against a tough Wisconsin defense, where he ran for 188 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
“I expect a big senior year for him,” running backs coach Ryan Held said of Mills in a press conference on Oct. 8. “You know, he's going to have to carry a good amount of reps for us. So he's done really well up to this point. I know he's excited to keep getting better and get ready for the first game.”
Behind Mills, redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins, who did not play at all last year due to an injury, will serve as the second-string running back.
Another strong position group for Nebraska will be the tight end position. While the group didn’t do much in the receiving game last year, Husker coaches are confident there is potential at the position due to the experience of the group. Senior Jack Stoll is returning after a 25 catch, 234 yard, one touchdown season. Out of all returning players, Stoll was second in both catches and yards last year, behind sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson.
Tight ends coach Sean Beckton also praised senior Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek as someone who could make a big impact this season.
“We’re expecting him to come in and be a dominant force in the run game and a dominant force in the pass game,” he said in a press conference.
Nebraska’s wide receivers will also look to help out in the passing game. The Huskers lost JD Spielman this past offseason, who had over 800 yards in each of his first three seasons with Nebraska. The team will also need to replace Kanawai Noa, who had the third-most receiving yards on the team with 245, while also adding a couple of touchdowns.
Robinson and junior Kade Warner come in as clear starters at the position. Robinson played more of an all-purpose back role last year, with 88 rushing attempts and 40 receptions. He was a standout last year, finishing the season with 793 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns in 10 games. Warner battled injuries last season and only played four games as a result, but had eight catches for 101 yards in the games he did play.
Behind those two, the group will mostly be made up of new faces. Junior JUCO transfer Omar Manning has been expected to be a big contributor since his commitment after being ranked as the nation’s top junior college wide receiver. Senior walk-on Levi Falck and sophomore walk-on Wyatt Liewer have seen praise from players and coaches in press conferences leading up to the regular season.
On the defensive side, there are more questions. Nebraska’s defensive strength last year was pass defense, as the Blackshirts ranked No. 30 in the country in that category in 2019. However, the defense will need to make up for the loss of cornerback Lamar Jackson.
Senior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle, junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and senior safeties Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams will lead the secondary. Williams in particular may help keep the secondary at a high level, as he only played in the first half of the season opener last year before suffering a season-ending injury.
In the trenches, the run defense will look to improve on a poor 2019. The Nebraska defense allowed 188.1 yards on the ground per game last season, good for 11th in the conference. The team will also need to replace multiple key players in the front seven, after losing defensive linemen Darrion Daniels, Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis, along with linebacker Mohamed Barry.
Nebraska will look to improve these things and find success in a schedule that is shorter than usual. On top of that, the front half of the schedule features three top-15 teams. The Huskers open with No. 5 Ohio State on the road, before returning home to face No. 14 Wisconsin. After a road clash with Northwestern in Week 3, Nebraska will host No. 8 Penn State.
The schedule gets relatively easier after that, with matchups against Illinois, Iowa, Purdue and No. 21 Minnesota. Nebraska will also have a Week 9 game on championship week against the Big Ten East team which shares its division standing.
The Huskers went 2-5 against the opponents on their 2020 schedule last year, and didn’t play Penn State.
A key for Nebraska’s improvement this season will be continuing to improve on the road. The Huskers are 2-8 on the road in the Frost era. They did go 2-3 last year, but one of those wins came against Maryland, which went 1-8 in conference play, and one of the losses came against Purdue, which finished the game with its third-string quarterback and went 3-6 in conference play.
The Huskers will look to stay consistent regardless of the opponent or site of the game in 2020.
“We’re deeper than we have been [in previous years],” Frost said in a press conference in early October. “We have more athletes that are capable of competing at the Big Ten level, hopefully we can keep them healthy this year.”