Let's pretend Nebraska won six games last year.
Everything else that happened in 2017 still happened. The defense still turned out to be a disaster. The offense still didn't have a reliable run game. Tanner Lee still left for the NFL. Shawn Eichorst was still fired. Bill Moos was still hired. Mike Riley was still fired. Scott Frost was still hired.
The only things we're changing are two games. One, the Huskers make their fourth-quarter lead over Northern Illinois hold up. It's a problematic win, still a clear indication of serious problems, but not a MAC-team-takes-a-family-photo-at-midfield embarrassment. That spares Eichorst's job for a few weeks, but when Wisconsin and Ohio State offer back-to-back home pummelings, he's still out.
Two, Nebraska converts a third-and-5 at Northwestern's 40 with under a minute remaining, Drew Brown kicks a game-winning field goal four plays later and the Huskers beat the Wildcats to open November. Northwestern was good last year. This would've been a win that gave people pause with Riley, but when Nebraska closed the season with three straight losses Moos still would've made his move. The Huskers average loss in this hypothetical would've been by 26 points, and that includes two games (Oregon, Penn State) that were laughers at halftime but ended up under two touchdowns at least. With a coaching change announced, 6-6 Nebraska opts to sit out the bowl season.
With that all being the (pretend) case, what would that record have meant for Nebraska's offseason projections and expectations? Simply flipping those two games to wins wouldn't have changed the quality of Nebraska in 2017, just the optics.
I ask because so much of what you can read right now from a national perspective is based off optics. The latest example is College Football News' preview of Nebraska. It's replacement-level stuff: Frost is great, Nebraska will be good again eventually but it's going to take some time.
But even though it was the hire Nebraska had to make, and the job Frost had to take, be careful of where you set your expectations for how successful this marriage is going to be right out of the gate.
Just because a coach is going back to his school, that doesn’t guarantee success. The hope is to get Steve Spurrier going back to Florida, but ask Texas Tech how it’s going with favorite son Kliff Kingsbury at the helm, and check in with Michigan on that Big Ten championship and national title count under Jim Harbaugh.
No one’s questioning Frost’s chops, and again, he was the right guy to hire, but don’t expect the UCF success to be instantly translatable to Nebraska. This was going to be a rebuilding job no matter who took over.
This seems to be the standard, sensible position when it comes to assessing Nebraska in 2018. I always cringe a bit when these things are tinged with notes of caution –– "be careful," Pete Fiutak writes –– because caution and fandom aren't exactly
chocolate and peanut butter chili and cinnamon rolls. (Isn't the entire point to escape from the responsibilities of reality, to be a little crazy and irrational within reason, to get the jolt of thinking this year is the year even though there's little evidence to support that belief?)
I'm probably too neutral on most things and even I think that. But the Huskers' 4-8 record in 2017 makes all of this easy. Tick that up to 6-6, however, and I think you start to see a slight difference in the Nebraska previews that deal mostly in optics. In that scenario Nebraska previews probably lean a little heavier on the "this is a better situation than this staff inherited at UCF" part of the equation and the projections would probably follow. Nobody would be predicting a West Division title, but the Huskers probably wouldn't be trending fifth either.
For those focused on actual 2017 quality, little probably changes. With this schedule the win total likely remains six, and that's fair I think. (I'll still take the over.)
That optics-quality gap, however, in my opinion, means Nebraska's actual outlook in 2018 is somewhat deflated. And that's fine. Maybe even good for a Year 1. If Husker fans simply want to see progress in 2018 –– and that seems to be the common starting point locally –– the most visible indicator of that this year will be winning more than four games.
Is that the best way to assess it? Not in my mind, but after an offseason of having expectations dulled by a win total it will be nice for the Huskers to get it back on the other end.
The Grab Bag
- The Alabama/SEC-themed chalk art at Tuscaloosa's Druid City Brewing is amazing. (Seriously, check it out.)
- The Texas Rangers drafted Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, which doesn't mean much of anything for the season ahead. (Love the MLB Draft.)
- One of the top football prospects in the 2021 class hails from Iowa.
- ICYMI: Luke McCaffrey liked what he heard from Mario Verduzco, Greg Smith offers his impressions of Nebraska's latest commit and we drafted one player on each side of the ball to add to the Huskers' roster.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.