coach frost stands on the sideline and watches the game through the sun
Photo Credit: John Konstantaras

Coaching Prowess in the Big Ten West, ‘Gettable’ Games, and Nebraska’s Place

May 26, 2021

Last week, some of the more recognizable college football voices over at CBS Sports got together and ranked the 65 Power Five college football coaches (including Notre Dame’s Brian Kelley) entering into the 2021 season. 

Scott Frost was placed at No. 47, five spots behind newly hired Illinois head coach Bret Bielema, 13 spots behind Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, and distanced from eight other Big Ten coaches. 

Six of the coaches Frost and his staff will have to scheme against this season were in the top 25. 

Here’s the list (with their overall ranking in the top 65 in parenthesis):

  1. Ryan Day — Ohio State (4)
  2. Pat Fitzgerald — Northwestern (9)
  3. James Franklin — Penn State (13)
  4. Kirk Ferentz — Iowa (17)
  5. Paul Chryst — Wisconsin (18)
  6. Tom Allen — Indiana (20)
  7. Jim Harbaugh — Michigan (23)
  8. PJ Fleck — Minnesota (25)
  9. Greg Schiano — Rutgers (34)
  10. Bret Bielema — Illinois (42)
  11. Scott Frost — Nebraska (47)
  12. Jeff Brohm — Purdue (53)
  13. Mel Tucker — Michigan State (57)
  14. Mike Locksley — Maryland (61)

Of course, this is an entirely objective measurement, so any such endeavor shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but this just sort of feels like it would be about where Frost would land in any kind of ranking by anyone. 

Here’s what Tom Fornelli wrote about Frost: “Only two coaches fell further in this year’s rankings than Frost, and the 13 spots he drops this season are tacked onto the nine he fell last year. That’s 22 spots in two years for a coach widely viewed as a “no-doubt, home-run hire” at Nebraska. Well, he’s 12-20 in three seasons with the Cornhuskers, and that 13-0 season at UCF just seems further away with every loss.”

You’d probably be hard-pressed to argue such a justification with anything that didn’t include personal bias. The crew, at least as it relates to the Big Ten, also seemed to do well to distinguish between coaching ability relative to available talent. Of course Ryan Day from Ohio State would be at the top of this kind of list, but Pat Fitzgerald above James Franklin and in the overall top 10 is interesting. In CBS Sports’ rankings ahead of the 2020 season, Fitzgerald was placed at No. 21. 

A second Big Ten West crown in three years seems to have opened the eyes of the broader college football public to what Fitzgerald has been able to do with Northwestern. The Wildcats haven’t signed a recruiting class that ranked higher than 47th nationally in two decades and yet they’ve had 11 NFL Draft picks since 2015, including two first-rounders this season. 

Perhaps Northwestern is in for a bumpy ride in 2021; a good indicator of future success or hardship is to look at returning production, and according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s formula, only BYU returns less in 2021 than Fitzgerald’s Northwestern side. On offense 29% of the team’s production from a season ago returns, which is the lowest among any FBS team. On defense, the number is 29%, which is the third-lowest. 

But few expect Northwestern to really “fall off.” In 2019, with statistically one of the worst offenses in college football, Northwestern was still a pain in the rear for most of the Big Ten. The typical talking point: Northwestern doesn’t beat itself. And that points to coaching. 

Specifically in the West, there might be only a handful (if that) of divisions in major college football with a better collection of pure coaches, and that has been reinforced here by CBS. 

Four West division coaches sit in the top 25, which isn’t to say its better than the East because four East coaches also sit in the top 25, but the narrative surrounding the West is that it’s the significantly easier pathway to a division title because there is no Ohio State. 

Frost has been harmed by this. Had Frost joined a program in the East, say Maryland for example, would a 12-20 record through the first three seasons of his tenure be viewed the same way? 

There’s obviously a lot more nuance than that, and he’s at Nebraska with better resources and he’s recruited multiple top-25 classes to Lincoln already, but it’s an interesting thing to think about. Would the “should have been able to do more by now narrative still be as prevalent as it is today if Nebraska was in the East and Maryland the West? 

All that to say, the Big Ten is tough. 

We knew this. 

A reader last week asked a schedule question: outside of the Ohio State matchup (Nov. 6), what will be the toughest Big Ten game on Nebraska’s schedule? 

Wisconsin and Minnesota were the answers given by the rest of the Hail Varsity staff, the former the obvious one and the latter a more than reasonable choice. 

But you could also make the case for the opener against Illinois. Nebraska lost to Illinois at home last season, and that side has been no walk in the park for Frost during his first three encounters with them. A Big Ten road game to open your season is always tough, and Bielema certainly has a penchant for hard-nosed football teams. 

You could also make the case for Northwestern and Fitzgerald, who Frost is 1-2 against so far. The only win came at home in a 13-10 rock fight, and on the leg of a walk-on safety kicking the game-winning field goal. Those have been tough. This might be too. 

You could also make the case for Michigan and Iowa. The Wolverines trounced the Huskers the last time the two met, and Iowa has won six straight in the season-ending series. 

If you go by CBS’ ranking of the coaches, there would only appear to be two or three “gettable” games on Nebraska’s 2021 schedule. 

Frost contends he has the deepest team he’s had yet, but he’ll have work to do once the season begins. An acceptable season for Nebraska would take Frost proving this particular ranking wrong. 

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