Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Buy or Sell: 2020 Nebraska Cornhuskers Football

August 18, 2020

Over the past few weeks, Brandon Vogel and Derek Peterson have run through each Big Ten program for a “Buy or Sell” kind of opponent preview. With the 13 non-Nebraska schools now covered, they wrap up the series with a brief, macro-level look at Nebraska.

Brandon Derek
Indiana Hoosiers Buy Sell
Maryland Terrapins Sell Sell
Michigan Wolverines Buy Sell
Michigan State Spartans Sell Sell
Ohio State Buckeyes Sell Buy
Penn State Nittany Lions Buy Buy
Rutgers Scarlet Knights Buy Buy
Illinois Fighting Illini Sell Sell
Iowa Hawkeyes Sell Sell
Minnesota Golden Gophers Sell Buy
Northwestern Wildcats Buy Buy
Purdue Boilermakers Buy Sell
Wisconsin Badgers Buy Buy

Heading into Year 3 for Scott Frost in Lincoln, the Huskers have the quarterback, and they figure to have a number of talented offensive weapons. But the defense is replacing its leading tackler and its entire front line. Buying or selling the Huskers in 2020?

Brandon Vogel: Buy

Nebraska has won three conference games––no more, no less––in four of the past five seasons. That’s the Huskers’ recent history with the conference-only portion of the schedule and in 2020 the whole schedule is conference-only. Not long after Thursday’s announcement from the Big Ten, I received an email from one of the offshore sports books alerting me to their updated win totals based on the schedule change. Nebraska’s over/under was 3.5. Do the quick math––three conference wins in four of the past five seasons, plus half a projected win against an evenly-matched opponent in the 10th game (if that’s indeed what we get)––and doesn’t that basically look like the same Nebraska of the last few seasons? When I checked ESPN’s Football Power Index, the schedule-change had been reflected there as well. FPI projects 3.5 wins, too, and ranks the Huskers 40th. That’s where Nebraska ranked after April’s FPI update, but back then the win total was 5.8. In ESPN’s model, swapping the three nonconference games for one more Big Ten game is a reduction of 2.3 wins. Remember back in pre-pandemic times when the Huskers were showing up in model-based top 25s and the going concern was too much hype? That’s all gone now. Hype, for any team, might be canceled in 2020, replace by uncertainty now and then, hopefully, relief later at just getting to play. But what happened to that version of Nebraska? The version that FPI and SP+ saw in February as a team poised to make some gains? The Huskers officially lost JD Spielman since those initial rankings came out, something the models can measure, and is worth a slight downgrade. But 2020 seems like it will be defined by things statistical models could never measure, unless you have an algorithm built to measure the impact of canceling all but two spring practices and getting the majority of your team back on campus for voluntary workouts earlier than your rivals. We’re in uncharted waters here. For many of the reasons mentioned below, I’m still optimistic on Nebraska in 2020 but with so many new unknowns facing every team, it’s hard to feel too strongly about anything. It will be a tough year to model, but in a year that might not even have a uniform number of games, those power rankings might become an essential measure. Put it this way: If FPI is ranking the Huskers 40th right now, I’ll buy them to finish the 2020 season, whatever it looks like, higher than that. Slightly. It’s not a ringing endorsement, more of a cautious recommendation.

Derek Peterson: Buy

What is improvement for this team? It was an OK football team a season ago, and for stretches of the season before that. A lot of what needed fixing wasn’t tangible—we’re talking about culture, learning how to win, toughness, etc. I still believe in quarterback Adrian Martinez, and I have written on numerous occasions the weapons around him on offense are enough to create something special. Defensively, Nebraska has serious questions to answer in the front seven, not the least of which being how does the pass-rush become a strength—something people have been clamoring for for years—all the while having to replace an entire starting defensive line? Nebraska went 4-8 in 2018 and then 5-7 in 2019. If there’s to be football played in 2020, it’ll be an abbreviated season, so all the milestones we typically use to judge a team go out the window. But even still, if we were judging a 2020 Nebraska team off a 12-game schedule, what would 6-6 be viewed as? Quite literally it’s an improvement; it’d be the first bowl appearance for the Huskers in four years. Should the expectation be higher though with a junior quarterback behind center and the presumed savior on the sidelines in his third year with the majority of the roster his? I’m not sure. Nebraska still figures to be a young offense; there’s a scenario where four different guys are earning their first starts in a Husker uniform. Should the expectation for the team just be to win half your football games, not get blown out in the losses, and set the table for actual contention (whatever that means) in 2021? Again, I don’t know. The pandemic, the lost spring period that came as a result, the potential for missed fall practices or missed in-season practices, it all makes this year for Nebraska sort of feel like a wash before we even get to the games. I’ve been hesitant so far to take a hardline stance on wins or things of that nature, too many things I’m unsure about and we’re just shy of two months away from the season-opener against Purdue. With the original 12-game schedule, I probably would have said 6-6. Now. . . Who is the 10th team that will be added to NU’s schedule, if it is indeed 10 games the Big Ten goes with? Anything else getting changed? Does NU still have to play Ohio State and Penn State? While I believe NU will show improvement, I think could be an otherwise “meh” team. So do I go buy or sell? Because of the Martinez/Wan’Dale Robinson/Dedrick Mills trio, I’ll say buy—I really do like the offense—but I’d rather just hold here.

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