tanley Morgan Jr. #8 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: The Best Argument for Nebraska’s Offense in the Big Ten

May 29, 2018

I don't know how long it will take Nebraska football to return to national relevance, but like a lot of others I do think it's going to happen. It feels as likely now as it has at any point since probably 2010.

More specifically I'd say that Oct. 8, 2010 was the Huskers last real flirtation with potential greatness. That was a Friday, the day after Taylor Martinez unleashed his own Manhattan Project on the Kansas State defense. He looked like the first-coming of Johnny Manziel at that point. The defense, minus big Suh, was still plenty good, giving up 12.8 points per game after five games. By the following Monday the Huskers ranked fifth in the AP poll. Then Texas, which would finish that season unranked, came to town. You know the rest.

This Nebraska team isn't close to that yet. Or maybe it is. We wouldn't know right now, but you can tell people, non-Nebraska fans even, are starting to prepare themselves to think about the Huskers as a factor nationally sometime soon by how much the national media is being asked to opine on Nebraska. (And we know the reason why, too. That would be the coach Athlon ranked as the top hire of the offseason in its new preview magazine. "There are no guarantees in the world of college football, but it will be a significant surprise if Frost does not return Nebraska to national prominence," read the un-bylined article.)

In case you missed it while getting on the road for a hopefully happy holiday weekend, Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples was asked about the Huskers twice in his mailbag late last week. The first question lumped Nebraska in with Wisconsin, Stanford, Texas, LSU and UCLA, and asked which program makes a college football playoff first. (That question, from a dual Mizzou/Illinois alum, doesn't include Nebraska right now if Scott Frost isn't here. No way.)

Wisconsin was Staples' clear pick for the most likely team followed by Stanford. Nebraska might have come in third? Hard to say without hard-and-fast rankings, but my read was Staples was more bullish on the Huskers than the Longhorns, Tigers or Bruins.

The second question was from a Husker fan and had to do with the fit of Frost's Oregon-like offense in the Big Ten. "Can he be successful or will he flame out against the traditionalists?" the question read.

This is the danger of trafficking in stereotypes. Occasionally, you miss when something evolves. The Big Ten is not a stuffy league at all. It was actually Purdue (under Joe Tiller) and Northwestern (under Randy Walker) who helped inspire offenses across the country to open up in the first decade of this century. Urban Meyer’s Ohio State offense borrows from 1950s single-wing principles, but it also relies heavily on the read option, run-pass option plays and tempo.
Now, if Mark is talking specifically about Iowa and Wisconsin—which do run offenses similar to the ones that dominated the Big Ten in the 1990s—then maybe he has a point. But my guess is some aspects of the offense Frost will run at Nebraska will pre-date the pro set. The option elements of what Frost has run at Oregon and UCF look more similar to what Nebraska and Oklahoma might have run in the 1970s and 1980s. And that’s great. Because that’s what Nebraska should be running.

The answer struck me as a bit strange. The first part is right, but refuting Big Ten stereotypes felt a little bit like play-action. We're not really talking about stereotypical offenses here, but how a specific offense matches up against a league traditionally full of tough defenses. And while Purdue and Northwestern may have been early examples of that, the most contemporaneous example might come from an unlikely place –– Bloomington.

Kevin Wilson's Indiana teams brought a balanced spread attack, based on his years at Oklahoma, to the Big Ten in 2011. In 2012 the Hoosiers ranked fourth in the Big Ten in scoring without much of a run game (10th) but the league's best passing game. In 2013 Indiana ranked second in scoring, fourth in rushing and first in passing again. After a hiccup in 2014, the Hoosiers led the conference in scoring, finished second in rushing and first in passing (again) in 2015. Now the Hoosiers' problem was that they ranked last in scoring defense in each of those seasons, but the offense clearly worked and that was with an Indiana-level talent disparity. And that's why Wilson calls plays at Ohio State currently.

So can a similar spread-the-field, attack-all-angles, be-balanced offense more commonly associated with more wide-open conferences work in the Big Ten? It worked as recently as three seasons ago. At Indiana.

That's my answer.

The second part of Staples' actual answer, with its option mention, is something of a callback to a 2015 story about Nebraska's "brand," which called for a return to the "pure option." I didn't particularly agree with that assessment then and I still don't.

My guess? (And it is still a guess.) The Huskers' offense will feel more like new-tech than a throwback, even if there is the occasional option thrown in the mix. And that is actually what has Husker fans, and some non-Husker fans, feeling like traditional results are soon on the way in Lincoln.

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