What to watch for
Nebraska will open the 2019 season against South Alabama, who went 3-9 in 2018. While the Huskers are currently 36-point favorites and expected to win easily, there is still plenty to watch for on Saturday, Aug. 31.
A complete 60 minutes of football
Plenty has been said about last year’s season-opener, which was rained out before the first snap. Nearly every player and coach who has had a microphone in front of them this week has been asked about it. If there’s one thing everyone should hope for, it’s that this year the entire game will be played. Nebraska head coach Scott Frost had an interesting comment Monday afternoon when asked if he is in support of Saturday’s game kicking off at 11 a.m., to which he said, “if anything, it gives us a bigger window to get the whole game in.”
There’s been a lot of talk this week about the forecast during Saturday’s game, which shows a chance of rain. Forecasts can change many times over four-day periods, and rain itself will not delay this game, only lightning will. Playing football in a rainstorm is no less safe than playing in a blizzard. It’s also worth noting that with an earlier kickoff and last year’s experience still fresh in everyone’s minds, the university will likely be very prepared for all possible scenarios.
This may seem redundant, but it’s worth turning into its own point. If it does rain during the game, that will likely change Nebraska’s offensive attack. Junior college transfer running back Dedrick Mills will see the field first, while sophomore running back Maurice Washington’s status for the game is still unclear. If there is significant rainfall throughout the game, Nebraska’s running backs could see an increased workload.
It is worth noting that in last year’s blizzard game against Michigan State, the Huskers still had a run-pass ratio of 28:37.
As for South Alabama, rain could have a significant effect on their game plan as well. The Jaguars allowed 203 rushing yards per game last season and ran for 152 per game.
An improved defense
Nebraska’s defense turned heads with seven sacks in the actual season opener against Colorado last season. There weren’t many other impressive moments to follow. Expectations are high for Erik Chinander’s unit after positive reports about the defense throughout spring and fall camp. The front seven includes five seniors, including Oklahoma State transfer nose guard Darrion Daniels.
In the secondary, senior Lamar Jackson showed significant strides down the stretch of last season after getting benched for a game. Junior Dicaprio Bootle was Nebraska’s most consistent cornerback last season and junior safety Deontai Williams claims to be the hardest-hitting player on the team. South Alabama ranked in the bottom half of the Sun Belt Conference in nearly every offensive statistic, making it all the more urgent to have a dominant showing by the Blackshirts.
The new kids
If this game gets as out of hand as expected, there will be a lot of fresh faces playing in the second half. Freshman wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson will make his highly anticipated collegiate debut, and redshirt freshman Cameron Jurgens will make his first start at center. Freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey could make his debut as well. The coaches also mentioned potentially using him in other offensive packages at different positions.
With the new redshirt rule put into place last year, which allows players to appear in as many as four games before redshirting, this is a prime opportunity for players to get some snaps in a low-pressure game situation. Wide receiver Darien Chase and running back Rahmir Johnson could also see playing time on offense. On defense, linebacker Garrett Nelson and cornerback Quinton Newsome are the only two true freshmen listed on the depth chart.
A younger wide receiver core and offensive line
Junior wide receiver JD Spielman is now the most experienced receiver Nebraska has. After another year of Frost’s recruiting cycle and strength training, the receivers will likely look as fast as Frost has envisioned them. The aforementioned Robinson will have plenty of eyes on him any time he is on the field Saturday, but California transfer Kanawai Noa could also draw significant attention. If the game gets out of hand, there are several other receivers who could be targeted more than usual.
Much like the receivers, the offensive line has gotten significantly younger after losing three seniors from last season. Junior left tackle Brenden Jaimes is the only player on the team to have started more than 12 consecutive games. Junior right tackle Matt Farniok is the only other lineman who’s started a game before. The offensive line plays a significant role in Frost’s offense, and South Alabama will provide a good tune-up game for the unit before playing at Colorado the following week.
A different attitude
There was plenty of hype from within the team going into last season, but that all changed quickly after the loss to Colorado. Frost and his assistants have repeatedly said that the culture is improved within the program compared to last year. It’s time for that to transfer into games.
Nebraska hasn’t had a completely dominant performance in a non-conference game since it last faced South Alabama in 2015. There will likely be first-game jitters, but will the Huskers maintain their competitive edge and put this game away early? Can they avoid committing senseless penalties? If they answer yes to both questions, it should be a breezy afternoon at Memorial Stadium.