The 2019 Nebraska football season ended Friday night, with Iowa once again playing executioner. The Huskers, with a 27-24 loss, finished the year 5-7 after an offseason of dreaming for Indianapolis.
As we try to collect our thoughts on everything that played out over these last 14 weeks, the Hail Varsity staff thought it would be good to get together and put some of those thoughts on the proverbial page.
Here are five questions, asked and answered, on what happened, how we should characterize it, and what’s next.
Before the season began, we were asked what the win totals would look like for “great,” “good,” and “unacceptable” seasons. We were nearly unanimous in saying a great season would be double-digit wins, a good season would be eight or nine and an unacceptable record would be six or fewer. Now, that we have 12 games and months' worth of context, do we feel like this 5-7 record is still an unacceptable season?
Brandon Vogel: I’ve thought a lot about this since Friday’s game. In August, anything less than 6-6 was hard to imagine. Here in December, 5-7 doesn’t feel like a catastrophe. Disappointing? Sure. But beyond that, it just sort of is. It’s where Nebraska was at after two seasons and now everything becomes about Year 3. “Unacceptable” is kind of an ill-fitting word, now that I think about it, and taken literally it’s a tough threshold to hit. For this particular 5-7 season to feel totally unacceptable to me I guess I’d have to feel that Nebraska’s decision-makers drastically underperformed what the players and team were capable of, and I don’t think that. I just know now that I overestimated Nebraska’s ceiling this season.
Erin Sorensen: Had you told me in August that this season would end 5-7, I probably would have called that unacceptable. I guess I did, when you look back at it. But had you told me how the season would have gotten to 5-7, I don’t know if it’s the word I would have used. Disappointing feels like a better fit. I, too, overestimated where Nebraska was. I think everyone did, for the most part. It wasn’t just local media with high hopes. National media thought big things would happen in Lincoln in Year 2 of the Scott Frost Era, even giving the Huskers the preseason Big Ten West favorite nod. And, to a degree, I think Frost thought things were a little further along than they actually were. But having lived it now, I believe it when the coaches and players say Nebraska is close (because they showed it here and there throughout the season). What I don’t know—and what none of us knew in August, nor do we know now—is how long it’ll take for close to click.
Greg Smith: It’s weird. Just the raw number of 5-7 is unacceptable. But given the context of the various struggles, injuries and close games you can understand how it got there. The first word that comes to mind about this season is disappointing instead of unacceptable, though. The fact that teams exploited the same weaknesses all season against Nebraska with great success is baffling. So is what happened with special teams which cost the Huskers multiple games. If all of this is the same next year, it will certainly be completely unacceptable.
Jacob Padilla: Half Nebraska’s games this season came down to one score and Nebraska only managed to win two of them. In each of those games (and heck, you could even throw Wisconsin into that discussion), Nebraska had every opportunity to win the game, yet time and time again it beat itself (or made it tougher than it needed to be in the two wins). That’s the part of this season that is tough to accept. Talent is certainly an issue, and there were lots of weaknesses that teams exploited all season. But so much of this year wasn’t simply a guy not being fast enough or strong enough. The mental errors happened over and over again and the players and coaches couldn’t find a way to fix them. Losing to Purdue (whose only other wins came against Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Maryland) was certainly unacceptable, and changing that one game and nothing else would have resulted in a bowl berth. So yes, I think it’s fair to call this season unacceptable, no matter how inflated you might believe the expectations were coming into this season.
Derek Peterson: I think it still has to be viewed as unacceptable, and I know that sounds harsh, but I don’t think context, or “how we got here,” or anything of the ilk should lessen the disaster this year was. Nebraska went 5-7 while outscoring its schedule by three points, 44 if you only count non-Ohio State teams. Nebraska went 5-7 while blowing double-digit leads to Colorado (finished the year 5-7), Indiana (8-4), and Purdue (4-8); if one of those games is a win, Nebraska is bowling and we aren’t talking about three straight years without the postseason, we’re talking about progress and momentum. The play from special teams has to be considered unacceptable. This kind of output from the offense, considering the level of play Nebraska got from its defense, has to be considered unacceptable. Running out of bounds with the clock under a minute to go has to be considered unacceptable. If Nebraska wants to get where I know it wants to go, those things can’t be labeled “part of the process,” they have to be deemed unacceptable. Nebraska underperformed, given the resources at its disposal and the schedule on its hands.
How would you grade the individual phases for Nebraska? Offense, defense and special teams.
BV: On a national scale? Offense C, defense C, special teams F. Boil it down to simple points per play and the offense and defense were both about average in 2019. Now, compared to what I thought was possible for those units? Then I’d go offense D+, defense B- and special teams, still, F.
ES: I agree with Brandon’s assessment. C, C, F. There were moments when all sides of the ball outperformed that rating, of course, but it wasn’t enough. If it was, the grades would be higher.
GS: Offense C-, defense B, special teams F. I still think Nebraska’s defense was better than people gave it credit for during most of this season. They were not helped at all by an offense that couldn’t get into a rhythm and perhaps the worst special teams in school history.
JP: I’ll go with C-, C+ and F for the three phases, respectively. At various points throughout the season, each phase (even special teams) looked like an A unit. But Nebraska couldn’t sustain it in any phase for even four complete quarters against any team with a pulse (so, not Northern Illinois and not Maryland), let alone multiple games.
DP: Offense gets a D. Defense gets a B. Special teams gets an F. On the first: scoring went down, play-to-play efficiency went down, the rushing game went from 16th nationally in yards per carry to 62nd, red zone efficiency went from top-30 to bottom-15, the turnover numbers didn’t improve, the negative plays happened more often, Adrian Martinez threw seven fewer touchdowns and one more interception. And despite all that, the defense actually improved while bearing more of a burden than last year.
As a scoring offense, 2018 Nebraska was better than 2019 Nebraska. Nebraska went from 20th in yards per play to 74th. What was the biggest contributing factor to Nebraska’s offensive struggles? Was it quarterback play? If so, does that merit a legitimate competition at the spot next season?
BV: I’m still going with the run game, which I guess might be a surprise given how much everyone talked about Martinez’s play and the lack of receivers this season. The Huskers averaged nearly as many yards per carry in 2018 losses (4.57) as in 2019 wins (4.71). That’s a good indication of to what degree a strength became a weakness. Last season Nebraska averaged 7.34 yards per rush in wins. It was lethal, as it’s designed to be in this offense. This season there was little difference between how the Husker ran in wins and losses (4.31). It’s hard for them to win with an average run game.
ES: There will be a quarterback “competition” this spring. How legitimate it actually is, well, that I don’t know. But there will be one and you should prepare yourselves for it now because we’re all going to talk about it. But the offense’s lackluster performances weren’t just at the hands of Martinez. The offensive line struggled to the point where the newest member—who was also a converted tight end—looked better than those around him toward the latter half of the season. Brandon mentioned the run game, so I won’t reiterate that here but it took a toll. Add in the inconsistencies with the receivers—which was often credited to “trust” on both sides—and you’ve got a whole slew of problems. That’s not even accounting for Maurice Washington, for better or worse, and what the offense lost when he left. Add in Wan’Dale Robinson becoming the sole X-factor at times and you’re walking a fine line of what you can even be good at because an opposing defense is just going to look there. Frost has said they need more guys like Robinson, and he’s right. But the offense really just needs to take a hard look in the mirror this offseason. Because maybe there will be a quarterback “competition” and maybe that’ll make some people happy, but I hope the evaluation goes much, much deeper than just one position.
GS: The offensive line is the winner here for me. Snap issues causes early timing and confidence issues even though they got ironed out later. Poor run blocking kept the run game from getting momentum for large parts of the season. Iffy pass protection aided in Martinez’ nervousness in the pocket. The other problem Nebraska had at the same time is Martinez took a big step back and outside of JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson there were no plays being made on the outside.
JP: I thought Nebraska had a chance to be pretty good on offense, and that was even taking into account potential issues in the offensive line, wide receiver and running back rooms considering everything they lost. The issues at those three position groups proved to be worse than I thought they’d be, but the primary reason for my optimism was the play-caller and the quarterback. I thought Nebraska had enough weapons and a good enough scheme that Adrian Martinez, the freshman All-American heading into Year 2, would be able to elevate the offense and win Nebraska at least eight games. Instead, Martinez took a big step backward and Scott Frost keeps calling swing passes and receiver screens. I don't think there was a single thing that Nebraska did well consistently on offense this season, so that’s probably the “biggest contributing factor” to the struggles, but good quarterback play and great coaching can cover up a lot of ails. Nebraska didn’t get the former and the results would suggest it didn’t get the latter either. As for the quarterback competition, Nebraska will have it. They split reps in the offseason. But ultimately one guy determines who wins that competition.
DP: Misses. I think there will be a lot of people clamoring for Luke McCaffrey and I just don’t know whether they’re justified or not—the sample size is still too small. (Also, my hill to die on this offseason will be that Noah Vedral didn’t get a legit shot and maybe operated this offense the best based on what he did on the field.) All that to say, I don’t know how real a “competition” we’re in for at the QB spot. I say misses, because the biggest contributing factor to ineffective offense this season, as I see it, are misses in the first two years on the trail. Two pass-catchers are off the team with suspension. Two more have either transferred or plan to. Two JUCO additions played the exact same role and leave with a combined 21 catches in two years. One other pass-catcher has yet to make it to campus. The non-Wan'Dale Robinson guys signed in the 2019 class weren’t ready to make an impact. Robinson had to play running back because Greg Bell and Maurice Washington aren’t around. I think they misjudged the situation they were walking into in the offensive line room and course-correcting for the last class wasn’t going to help this season. I think they misjudged what style of receiver was needed in the Big Ten, and course-correcting now probably won’t help next season unless a certain JUCO guy joins the fold. Some misses aren’t Nebraska’s fault. And if you wanted to argue the feet shouldn’t be held to the fire for guys taken in a two-months-to-execute transition class who didn’t pan out, I’m fine with that. But there are a few situations where I think even the coaching staff would admit, “Yeah, that was a mistake.” I think that played a pretty significant role.
With roster attrition and recruiting class movement still to be had, knowing what we know now, what should the expectation be for Nebraska in 2020?
BV: A bowl game is the easy answer, but if it came with a 6-6 record that would feel like another baby step. Nebraska needs a bigger step than that. Nebraska needs a winning season and 8-4 would look a lot better than 7-5.
ES: A bowl game is a non-negotiable and it really, really, really has to be better than 6-6. If Nebraska can get to 8-4 in Year 3 and maybe, just maybe, compete for the Big Ten West title, things will look a lot brighter than they do right now.
GS: A big step forward is needed. The expectation should be a bowl game but a bigger season than that will be needed to show something to the fan base and itself. 8-4 should do the trick there.
JP: Bill Moos said at least six wins and a bowl game was the expectation for this year, and until the Huskers reach that threshold it should probably remain as the expectation. Simply meeting expectations isn’t exciting, though. To get the fan base fired up, the program has to show real progress: take care of business against the teams you should beat and steal at least one game from the best teams on the schedule.
DP: Purdue at home, Central Michigan at home, South Dakota State at home, Cincinnati at home, Northwestern on the road, Illinois at home, Rutgers on the road. Those are the first seven games for Nebraska in 2020. Four straight home games to open the season. If Nebraska isn’t already bowl-eligible by Halloween, there’s a serious problem.
What will be your lasting impression of 2019?
BV: It feels like a lost season. There were some small and important differences between Year 1 and Year 2, both good and bad, but mostly Nebraska just felt the same and to some degree 2020 might feel like a hard reboot. From the outside, it’s a struggle to have a different perspective than that. The coaches and players all say the progress is there, but the only way anyone outside of the locker room has to measure it is by what happens on the field. Now, there could be a point in 2020 where things get rolling and everyone will see the fruits of this labor. Until then, I’ll remember 2019 as a season when we still didn’t.
ES: Mostly immemorable. It felt like a lot of the same. A lot of the games were games I’ve sat through before, so I can’t say a lot of this season will be one I’ll remember.
GS: This is the year that the honeymoon phase ended for Frost and his staff. There were a lot of questionable decisions made by the leaders of this program. So, I’ll mostly remember this year as a turning point for the staff. Whether it becomes a good or bad turning point will be seen in 2020.
JP: I don’t think I will have a lasting impression of this season, unfortunately. Like Brandon said, this is just another lost season, and like Erin said, that’s a familiar feeling. One could say that about every season of Nebraska football I’ve covered since I joined Hail Varsity in 2015 (even the 9-4 year under Mike Riley considering what came after it).
DP: A little bit of heartache. It hurt to see guys turn from darlings to disappointments so quickly. I want people to be happy and there didn’t seem to be a ton of happiness this season. A line from senior linebacker Mohamed Barry after the Iowa game stung in the moment and it’s going to hang with me for a long time; he was asked what he’d tell his freshman self and in his response, he said: “Eighteen-year-old Mo Barry didn’t know all the pain he would feel.” That hurts, even to the most casual of observers. I guess we overvalued this team heading into the season, but I think they underperformed during. Things were adversarial at times as a result. I don’t say that to complain that Frost was too prickly in press conferences, quite the opposite actually. I wish we could have gotten the quippy Frost instead of the Frost that doesn’t want to be in front of a podium talking about the same errors for the fifth week in a row, and I wish that because the former means he’s getting to enjoy this a little more.