Frost
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Nebraska’s Overlooked Advantage

February 01, 2018

I don’t know if it has officially solidified into a movement yet, but if you follow Nebraska recruiting on Twitter you may have seen the tag “Big Red Revival” thrown around. Maybe there was no solidifying to be done. Given that Nebraska football needs to be revived, the man selected to do it is a former Husker great and the attendant excitement is through the roof for both of those reasons, it’s possible that the revival was inherent to the coaching change. There was no movement to start because the movement just moved here from Orlando.

Either way, that’s the tone of things in and around Lincoln right now. It contains both contemporary relevance and nostalgia, a tough exacta to hit for anyone, but it may not be exactly the nostalgia you remember. That’s worth exploring a little bit.

I linked this story from Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall in yesterday’s Hot Reads, but I wanted to look at it a little more closely. It’s titled “How Scott Frost changes the Big Ten West,” and the section headings give you a pretty good idea of what you’re in for:

  • Nebraska’s opponents are, ironically, heavily influenced by the Tom Osborne tradition at Nebraska.
  • You can’t out-Wisconsin Wisconsin. But you might not have to.
  • Frost isn’t coming to Nebraska to recruit a bigger team than the Huskers’ rivals in the West, and it isn’t likely that he would be able to anyway.

This section in particular I think really gets to what’s behind the “revival:”

Frost was a Husker QB during the brilliant final stretch of the Osborne era, and the lesson he seems to have taken is not to try and be the largest team in the trenches, but to be the most skilled.
Nebraska’s I-formation offenses overwhelmed with variety. In dozens of ways, they could confuse opponents and create angles for scrappy blockers to open running lanes. Similarly, Frost’s take on the spread offense is to determine the rules for opposing defenses and then force them to break them.

I’m not sure we talk about this aspect of Nebraska football enough when we discuss the good old days. The first thing that generally comes to mind when imagining Tom Osborne’s great teams is the punishing ground game that produced scores of great offensive linemen, running backs and quarterbacks. We talk about the advantages that allowed a school on the plains to compete at a level far above its “natural resources” would indicate. Some of those advantages, like strength and conditioning, Nebraska engineered. Some, like the ability to accept Prop 48 recruits, were simply there until they weren’t, subject to changing rules and a changing game. But all of those advantages have been cited countless times when people decide to discuss why Nebraska football hasn’t been Nebraska football for the better part of two decades.

The one that doesn’t get cited often enough, however, is Osborne’s ability to conduct a symphony of offense. It gets talked about a lot in coaching circles, but not as much in general. This isn’t really surprising. One, Osborne’s nature avoids this characterization at every turn. Two, to admit that one of Nebraska’s big advantages was Osborne’s unique ability to understand how things worked, and thus what would work in most scenarios, is to realize that that advantage has a life span and may not be easily replicable.

That’s no fun for Husker fans hoping to see Nebraska reach similar heights after Osborne. Better to think that if Nebraska just changed its practice procedures or signed better recruits or found this new edge or that new edge that things could be dusted off, given a little bit of shine and be just as good today as they were 20 years ago. Those things you can control.

But the evidence supports the thing you can’t control: Osborne’s unique strengths. Not just the evidence at Nebraska, but the evidence everywhere. It’s why coaching changes are so hard to get right. You can measure past results and use those to project future results, but at some point you’re left trying to guess at what’s in the head of the guy you’re hoping to hire. How good of a problem solver is he?

That’s tough to determine without knowing the specific problems that will arise with each new job. It’s not fair, to either person, to put Scott Frost in the same category yet. The early returns are certainly encouraging, but things are different at each place you go.

I am encouraged, however, when I see discussions like this happening around Frost. I think it gets to the heart of the issue. There are certain physical things a team has to do to be successful. You can’t ignore that, but at a certain level, the highest level, the final edge is probably mental. At some point, winning a hand isn’t about how good your cards are, but how good of a card player you are.

Frost forces people to consider that notion, and that’s pretty fun.

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