I think we all know where this is headed.
However many wins you thought Nebraska needed in 2022 for this Scott Frost era to continue, there’s no way getting there involved starting 1-2 with losses to Northwestern and Georgia Southern. And a top-10 Oklahoma coming to Lincoln next week.
The Huskers—to whatever degree these things are discernible in the offseason—did have a schedule that seemed conducive to piling up early wins. It also, as the king of close losses in 2021, was a team you’d think might get some of those games back in 2022. That’s usually how it works.
That’s not how it has worked so far.
Nebraska was a 12-point favorite against Northwestern and lost by three. It was a 23-point favorite against Georgia Southern and lost by three. It was likely, based on preseason power ratings, to be favored in seven of its first eight games. After playing in Ireland to open the season, the Huskers got their next four games at home, the fourth after a bye week.
Nebraska went on the road in back-to-back weeks, but then got a bye week again. Everything looked favorable.
The Huskers, with an influx of new players and coaches, just needed to come out and play differently than they have before. Not even a lot different, just a little bit. A little better.
Of course, they haven’t, and now you’re looking at, what, needing a 6-3 finish to even have the conversation about the future of Nebraska football beyond this year? Maybe that conversation doesn’t start without 7-2? Maybe we don’t even make it to December before it becomes a conversation.
Such are the stakes of this loss. It was the Huskers’ 22nd loss in 27 games decided by one score since 2018. It was the first game Nebraska had lost at Memorial Stadium when scoring 35 or more points ever; 214-0 before Saturday.
If you thought there were no new ways Nebraska could lose a close game, here was one. The Huskers averaged better than 7 yards per play, putting up 575 total and scoring touchdowns on all six drives that crossed the Georgia Southern 40.
But the Eagles averaged 7.5 yards per play, 642 total yards, and had the Huskers’ defense on skates the entire night to a degree that recalled Colorado in 2001 or Kansas in 2007. Quite simply, everything Georgia Southern did worked. Nebraska didn’t force its first punt until the third quarter. It didn’t have its first chance for a three-and-out until the Eagles’ final drive, when punting wasn’t an option.
Georgia Southern picked up a fourth-and-2 and went on to score the game-winning touchdown with under a minute remaining.
“We’ve got to play more complete games,” Scott Frost said after the loss, “and that wasn’t even close.”
It wasn’t. Despite nearly 60% of Nebraska’s games under Frost being decided by eight points or fewer, including seven of the last nine dating to last season, a breakthrough has never felt further away.
That’s after three games in the 2022 season, a season when everyone knew a breakthrough had to happen. Nebraska’s offense can, yet again, look pretty good for stretches. The defense, maybe a more gradual but consistent highlight since 2018, probably could’ve been expected to take a slight step back based on what it lost from 2021.
Georgia Southern, in its second game under a new coach transitioning a program from an option-based system, putting up 600 yards and 45 points on the road is not a slight step back. Special teams, despite some solid individual play, are so far a wash from last year overall.
There’s no unifying football theory to what the Huskers do. Frost, quite clearly, feels a special ownership over the offense even if he’s no longer calling the plays. Last week, during his halftime TV interview, he cited that group’s struggles, then, at his press conference two days later, said he didn’t know the offense only got 24 plays in the first half.
On Saturday, it was abundantly clear the defense was the issue, but what could Frost even do about that if he wanted to? He’d spent the previous four seasons basically ceding that side of the ball to his defensive coordinator. Special teams, it often felt, was just the stuff that filled in the gaps, and that’s how it often looked.
Every week, I watch as much college football as I can. Maybe too much, if I’m being honest. Every week, I see teams that, whether they go on to win or lose, make it clear they’re playing for something, an idea or principle that goes beyond “let’s do it to win this game” and feels more like “let’s do it because this is what we’re about.”
It comes in many different forms. I saw it in Georgia Southern on Saturday, remarkable because it was in its second game under a coach who represented a total sea change from everything that had made the program successful in the past, and, to be really frank, could be viewed as off the scrap heap based on how his USC tenure ended.
I saw it in Marshall, a program that’s been winning for a while but is in just its second year under head coach Charles Huff and doing it in a new conference, the Sun Belt, to boot. The Thundering Herd beat No. 8 Notre Dame, in South Bend, 26-21.
I saw it in Appalachian State, another Sun Belt program that has won a lot recently and is doing it now under an alum, former All-America offensive lineman Shawn Clark. The Mountaineers beat No. 6 Texas A&M in College Station through no trickery or luck. Appalachian State just smashed the Aggies in the face, repeatedly, and was simply better.
I can’t remember the last time I had a similar feeling from Nebraska football. I’ve been watching it professionally since 2011.
There was a moment in the fourth quarter, when Helton settled for a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Huskers’ 2, that I thought Georgia Southern might have just given the game away. Modern football strategy makes it clear that going for it in that instance is the move with a positive expectation long term.
But then I remembered that the book on Nebraska, pretty tough to refute at this point, is “nah, make them make the plays.” And that was the right play after all. The Huskers had the chance to do it. They mounted a 98-yard drive full of good plays that almost did it.
When there was only one play to be played, however, Nebraska came up short again. This is what it looks like to just play the games and not have any bigger reason, something to lean on when the chips are down, beyond playing the games. Maybe the offense is good enough to win this day, the defense the next day. Maybe both are good enough, but you hit just the right combination of turnovers, special teams gaffes, poor field position, etc., etc., to lose. It’s just disorganization.
That’s not the players’ fault. College football is nothing if not an example of what strong leadership can do. Maybe it’s one of our best examples of that.
Nebraska continues to be the counterexample.
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.