Scott Frost has a chance to do something this season that no coach has done at Nebraska since Frank Solich.
To be fair that statement could apply to a number of things, including "go to a Rose Bowl" or "finish a season in the top 10 of the AP poll." But I'm not thinking of either of those.
To be fair, again, that statement also applied to every coach that's come after Solich and could've been said at the start of every season since 2003. (How this statement would've been received had you said it aloud, however, varied widely year to year.)
Here's the specific achievement I'm talking about: Beat one of the 10 best teams in college football.
That's 10 best according to the end-of-the-year Sagarin ratings. I don't choose those because they prove a point or are better than any other power rating. I choose them because they're old. The Sagarin page at USA Today includes ratings back to 1998. The page also includes yearly tallies of teams' records versus top-10 and top-30 teams, so that's convenient.
I didn't set out this morning to find this information, it found me. I simply wanted to look up Nebraska's 2018 Sagarin rating, 54th (earning Nebraska the dubious distinction of being the best four-win team in the country last year), when I scanned over to see the "VS top 10" and "VS top 30" categories. Nebraska was 0-3 and 0-4 respectively.
"Huh," I thought. For all of the buzz this offseason, none of it is obviously coming from the teams Nebraska beat in 2018. I knew that, I guess, but hadn't thought about it in a while. I flipped to the 2017 rankings––0-3 versus the top 10, 0-5 the top 30. That wasn't a surprise, but at that point I had to know the last time the Huskers had a win against one of the 10 best.
I assumed this search would end in 2015. Nope. That Michigan State team Nebraska beat that year was No. 6 in the CFP rankings at the time but finished 17th in Sagarin. That meant Mike Riley didn't do it. I scanned through all of the Bo Pelini years. He didn't do it. Bill Callahan didn't do it. From the start of the 2002 season to now, Nebraska is 0-27 against the top-10 teams in the end-of-year Sagarin ratings.
The Huskers last win against such a team was the 2001 win over Oklahoma. Since 1998, so starting the year after Frost's NU playing career, Nebraska is 3-34 against the Sagarin top 10 and 31-63 against the top 30. That probably does a better job of summing up the last two decades of Nebraska football than the Huskers' record over that stretch or the conference-title drought does. Since Nebraska beat Oklahoma in a classic in 2001, 224 games ago, the big wins, the can't-be-ignored wins, simply haven't been there.
If you could choose one streak and magically make it end this season, you'd choose Nebraska's conference title drought. That would put a trophy in the case and the Huskers in a big-time bowl game (at worst). But if that, for the sake of argument, was off the table, the next pick might be to beat a team that matters. Most successful coaching tenures have that moment, that win that says "we're here."
I don't know how many of those games Nebraska will have in 2019. This is just setting myself up to look foolish at the end of the year, but how many of the 10 best teams in college football will the Huskers face this season. Maybe Ohio State? That's why everyone is already so amped for that game and what it could mean, but I'm not willing to bet the farm that the Buckeyes are top 10 at the end of the year with a new coach and new quarterback. (I’d probably bet the farm’s oldest tractor, however.) Maybe Iowa or Wisconsin? Those are the next-best bets, outside of a title-game opponent if you're willing to go that far, but few are projecting the Hawkeyes or Badgers that high at this point.
Odds are that Nebraska will end up facing at least one Sagarin top-10 team in 2019. There have been only two seasons since 1998 that the Huskers haven't, 2003 and 2015. It's also uncommon for the Huskers to face three top-10 teams in a season, something Nebraska did in 2017 and 2018. Prior to that, it had only happened in 1998 (0-3), 2001 (1-2) and 2007 (0-3).
While my initial reaction to seeing an 0-3 in that column for the 2018 team was to hit pause on the buzz machine. When I looked closer, however, that 0-3 is actually some of the fuel for the buzz machine. While there were no wins, 0-3 last year included the loss to Michigan (was what it was), but also the narrow losses at Ohio State and Iowa. (The Hawkeyes finished 10th in Sagarin last year.)
Nebraska almost got one of those big wins twice over the second half of last season. This season, it would be nice for Nebraska fans if the Huskers actually got one. It's been long enough.
The Grab Bag
- Football returns in earnest this week. To set the stage Erin Sorensen looked at the expectations around Nebraska entering 2019 . . .
- . . . and I looked at why simply being better, again, would be a big deal for the Huskers.
- In what is now an annual tradition, Derek Peterson tallied all of the weight changes from last year’s media guide to this year’s. Pretty interesting stuff.
- Are changes to the football recruiting calendar needed?
Today’s Song of Today