Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.
Two other Big Ten teams play on Saturday. One of them is the
For four decades, Nebraska football was one of the most dominant programs in all of college football.
But those days are getting farther away with every passing season.
Nebraska is one of the few FBS college football programs that can boast over 900 all time wins. From Bob Devaney’s first season as head coach in 1962 through 2001, their worst season record was 6-4 twice.
Nebraska had several advantages going for it that simply eroded over the years. They had a power running offense that heavily used the I formation and had just enough option looks to make the defense respect the quarterback’s running ability. In 1969, Devaney oversaw the development of what is widely considered to be the first modern strength and conditioning department, making that a huge emphasis. Steroids were also rampant, but Nebraska was ahead of the curve with strength and conditioning.
The Huskers would take partially-qualified students from all over the country and enroll them, having them sit out a year while getting in the S&C program until they could qualify academically. These were players many other major programs wouldn’t bother with; Nebraska gained a bigger talent pool by doing this, and also by using a private recruiting jet.
Furthermore, every high school in Nebraska had a copy of the Huskers’ playbook, so they had a wealth of walk-on talent to pull depth from that was already familiar with running their offense.
Devaney’s undefeated 1970 and 1971 seasons brought national championships, while Tom Osborne won titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. After Osborne retired to become the AD, the effect of losing some of these advantages became pronounced.
For one, there were new NCAA rules in the mid-90’s restricting partial qualifiers and limiting the roster size. Nebraska was also no longer allowed to use their private jet for recruiting, and by this time every serious football program had a modern strength and conditioning approach. With more innovative defenses to stop the run, Nebraska could no longer rely on a talent, strength or conditioning advantage to win games and this culminated in an infamous 37-14 defeat by Miami in the 2001 national championship game. It had been in the works for years, but this was the end of Nebraska being a true powerhouse.
Nebraska was traditionally a member of the Big Eight conference along with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Colorado, Iowa State and Missouri. This conference existed from 1907 until 1995 when some Texas schools took it over to create the Big 12. Eventually, tensions with Texas caused Nebraska to leave for the Big Ten where they had modest success under Bo Pellini with four straight 9-win seasons. However, he was fired for being an asshole.
His successor, Mike Riley, totally retooled the offense to no avail and lasted three seasons. To much fanfare, Nebraska hired 1996 Cornhusker quarterback Scott Frost to be the next head coach starting in 2018.
It’s gone poorly.
History vs Illinois
It has, however, made for some very entertaining viewing. With a vast talent advantage, Frost coached himself right out of the season opener against the Illini last year. They began what was supposed to be a Year Of Destiny by getting a safety returning a punt.
Lovie Smith’s last win as head coach also came against Frost in 2020. In 2015, a confused Mike Riley had quarterback Tommy Armstrong throw 31 times in winds exceeding 25MPH, losing to Illinois 14-13 when Bill Cubit called the same play for the Illini four times in a row on the goal line and finally hit it to win the contest.
Illinois faced the Cornhuskers in their prime twice, losing 52-25 and 59-14 in 1985 and 1986.
Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 conference titles) is 5-13-1 against Nebraska (5 national championships, 43 conference titles). The Illini hold a two-game win streak against Nebraska for only the second time.
Nebraska had a truly unbelievable ride last year. They finished 3-9 despite finishing as a top-25 team in some advanced statistical profiling rankings. They averaged 27.9 points per game and allowed just 22.7. How did they finish 3-9?
Terrible special teams play and mistakes in crucial moments of every close game.
Take away the points Illinois scored on a long fumble return touchdown and the aforementioned punt return safety and Nebraska wins the game.
Against Michigan State, their punter kicked the ball to the right when the coverage team was setting up to pursue to the left. Take away that easy punt return touchdown and the Huskers win that one.
Despite playing 6 ranked teams and 3 top ten teams, the Huskers didn’t lose a single contest by double digits. Instead it was losing the turnover battle 4-0 in a five point Purdue loss; a late fumble in a 3 point loss at Michigan; blowing a 21-6 third quarter lead against Iowa thanks to two field goals, a blocked punt touchdown and a safety. Nebraska could legitimately have won 10 games last year. They won three.
Coaching Staff & Identity
Scott Frost was supposed to be their version of Jim Harbaugh. He first gained notoriety as the offensive coordinator for Marcus Mariota’s Heisman-winning 2014 season at Oregon before building UCF from an 0-12 mark in 2015 to a 13-0 mark just two years later.
He’s been the architect of the offense, which is an uptempo spread game with a dual-threat quarterback emphasizing the run game. Scott Frost likes to go fast and keep the defense on its heels. Nebraska has some great athletes at the skill position and wants to give them opportunities to reach top speed.
Erik Chinander is returning for year 5 as the defensive coordinator running a 3-4 defense that plays cover 4 on the back end. He has been aggressive blitzing, but his units have played tough physical defense that has shown up pretty well for the Huskers in recent years.
Dudes To Watch
Texas transfer Casey Thompson appears to be in line for the starting quarterback job, and he’s absolutely the kind of dual threat quarterback that should be able to thrive in Frost’s offense. A lot of transfer receivers may end up being contributors, but I want to highlight LSU transfer DeColdest Crawford because he has an incredible name and has been doing commercials for a local HVAC company.
The defense has a lot of turnover, but that’s not too different from the offense. It’s an absolute buffet of former blue chip recruits on both sides, with ASU transfer Tommi Hill being the biggest prize at cornerback
Season Prediction & Fan Expectations
Nebraska absolutely has the talent to win the Big Ten West, but for as many unreasonably optimistic Huskers fans as there are out there, an awful lot are ready for the Scott Frost era to end. This is a team that could genuinely finish anywhere between 4-8 and 9-3. I have no idea what to make of them. Their Week Zero game against Northwestern will be very revealing.
Illinois Game Prediction
Once again, I have no idea what to think. Frost was finally forced to hire a special teams coach, addressing an area in which Nebraska was truly horrible last year. They’re the more talented team, perhaps by a wide gap, but Illinois has shown the ability to win games by out-executing opponents. I can’t believe I’m saying this about Illinois. That’s how crazy Nebraska is.
Why Nebraska Sucks
Well, I’ve covered this very clinically in the first section of this article, but if you’d like some additional context…
Despite their team’s name, Nebraska generally ranks a distant third behind Iowa and Illinois for corn production. The reason people don’t talk about Illinois this way is because there’s actually a major city in Illinois that people care about. Not true for Iowa and Nebraska.
I laid out in pretty great detail the reasons Nebraska had such incredible success and how they fell from those heights. These are not rare insights. This is common knowledge. Many Nebraska fans cannot accept this and choose to believe in two reasons: everyone else cheating better and Nebraska not having enough toughness.
These fans are led by the alpha meathead…Scott Frost himself.
Scott Frost estimates there are 15-20 total vomits per practice from offensive linemen under new position coach Donovan Raiola.— Sam McKewon (@swmckewonOWH) August 19, 2022
“It’s not because they’re not in shape – he’s just working them hard.”
More from @EvanBlandOWH: https://t.co/aHiY6mAI3O
Frost and the Huskers threw an enormous shitfit because the 2020 season was initially canceled due to a global pandemic that’s killed over a million Americans so far. They threatened to schedule their own season and go independent, and were furious that the Big Ten had altered football season. Many thought the Big Ten did so only out of fear of a Nebraska championship.
I don’t think it’s a question of whether or not Scott Frost believed in COVID-19 conspiracies. Even if he had believed the truth, which is that it’s a disease that, especially before vaccines were available, can kill or permanently debilitate people including college athletes, his actions suggest that he doesn’t understand why players can’t just fight it off with windsprints.
Here’s Frost suggesting that wearing hoodies during pregame warmups at Minnesota contributed to their loss because it suggests a lack of toughness and discipline…while himself wearing a hoodie.
I genuinely believed this guy would at least get to a Big Ten title game as the head coach of the Huskers. As it turns out, he’s kind of a clown! He’s an Internet Tough Guy, but in real life. He’s the guy who says what tough guy thing he would have done if he were there (or if that were his kid how he would have handled it) but only if he’ll never have to be tested on it.
Before coaching a game at Nebraska, Frost advised the world that he wouldn’t tolerate recruits or players who engaged in problematic behaviors like disrespect of women. The next year, back Maurice Washington was suspended by Frost after being hit with a felony child pornography charge.
…Until the Huskers needed a spark on offense, and Washington came into the first game in the second half.
I’m not holding this against Nebraska, though Tom Osborne had some similarly lax disciplinary standards. Nebraska can and should do better than Frost. He’s a clown, but he also represents a dangerous and toxic culture. The players deserve better; he deserves to lose the opener to Northwestern.
Matt Rejc: I’m a huge fan of high and mighty fanbases getting taken down a notch, so last year’s week zero win over Nebraska meant a lot to me. I just ate up all of the “sky is falling” articles that the Cornhusker media machine cranked out. But as the year went on, and the one-score Nebraska losses mounted, the narrative took root in the national media that the Huskers were just super unlucky in 2021 and that they’re poised to break out and win 8-9 games in 2022.
From the outside looking in at just the stats, you could maybe believe the “unlucky” narrative. But for those of us in the Big Ten West who had the pleasure of playing Nebraska, we all know that’s not true. The reality is that poor coaching stemming from Scott Frost and obscenely bad special teams kept an otherwise talented Nebraska roster (all top-25 recruiting classes since 2018) in the basement of the division with Northwestern.
So many of the games that the Huskers narrowly lost last season were the result of backbreaking late turnovers and/or special teams disasters. The key here is that many of these issues, especially those regarding special teams, are coaching errors. Sometimes you can clean house with coordinators to cover up a head coach’s deficiencies (us with Zook, MSU with D’Antonio), but it never works long-term, and it won’t with Scott Frost either.
Alex Orr: Smack dab in the middle of the moment of silence for Bobby Roundtree at the season opener last year, some Nebraska fan decided to yell “GOOOOO BIG REDDDDDDD.”
Drew Pastorek: Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011 partially because they were sick of getting dunked on by Oklahoma & Texas. The Cornhuskers would surely be able to join the mere mortals of the Big Ten and just Thanos their way to multiple conference titles. They’ve reached the B1G Championship game exactly once (2012), and gave up 70 points to goddamn Wisconsin.
Scott Frost literally just bragged about his players vomit during practice. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he has absolutely zero accountability and doesn’t hesitate to throw his players under the bus. Frost was moved back to Nebraska and immediately lost everything that was cool or interesting or exciting about him: orchestrator of Oregon’s offense, head coach that turned a winless team into an undefeated team (the UCF-for-National Champs campaign was great if for no other reason than to watch SEC bootlickers lose their collective minds).
Like Matt, I also relish in watching other sanctimonious programs get their comeuppance. The Cornhuskers are the Indiana Hoosiers of football — the media proclaims them to be good, but nobody under the age of 25 actually remembers them being good. Frank Solich won 58 games in six years and got fired. Bo Pelini won 67 games in seven years and got fired (but he was a total asshole, you guys!).
My wife’s best friend was born in Lincoln...and cheers for Iowa.