Photo Credit: Ryan Loco

Ranking the Five Best Players Nebraska Will Face in 2021

July 15, 2021

I wonder, if there was a Hail Varsity equivalent at a school like Michigan—maybe they have a magazine, I don’t know, we’re one of a kind though—and they were writing about the best players the Wolverines would face in 2021, would any Huskers show up? 

If the lifeblood of the sport is recruiting, the most essential and basic building block is talent. One of Husker head coach Scott Frost’s most pressing issues upon taking over the program was rebuilding that talent level. The results through three seasons and into a fourth cycle are less quantitatively substantial and more qualitatively defensible, which is to say you’re either trusting in the vision or struggling to see the good. 

Surely Nebraska’s had enough talent to be better than just 12-20 under Frost. The same team that started 0-6 in 2018 took Ohio State to the very brink in its own house later that year. Quarterback Adrian Martinez looked to be a surefire future star that day. 

Nowadays, those kinds of guys look to be more on the defensive side of the ball. 

If the question is “best opposing players on a schedule,” the answer is more likely to be Cam Taylor-Britt or JoJo Domann than it is someone on the offensive side of the ball. The argument to be made there is that’s not necessarily because that side of the ball doesn’t have talent, but that it’s just unproven at this point. 

In that, the 2021 season will be a fun one. Questions will be answered. 

Or, I suppose, your list of best opposing players could just be a roster preview of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Would a Michigan-based publication be able to do that? Or are they contractually obligated to ignore Ohio State’s existence until it’s time to get walloped? 

Anyway, here’s the exercise from a Nebraska perspective. To be fair to the other Big Ten programs, despite college football being a brutally unfair oligarchy, Ohio State will be limited to one spot on this list of the five best players Nebraska will face in 2021. 

No. 1: Garrett Olave, Ohio State wideout

No, that’s not a typo. I said Ohio State would only get one spot on the list, which it has. I said nothing about how many players would occupy that spot. And, really, can you blame me? Ohio State’s hilariously outrageous treasure trove of talent begins with not arguably but literally the two best receivers in college football. 

Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson had 729 yards and 723 yards receiving last season, respectively. Olave did his damage on 50 catches, Wilson on 43. Olave produced seven scores, Wilson six. Only Penn State’s Jahan Dotson had more 20-plus-yard receptions than Wilson’s 14. 

Olave might be the most polished route-runner in college football. There are no wasted motions. The body control is good. He’s into the defender and then 4 yards away from him in the blink of an eye. Olave isn’t particularly spectacular as an open-field runner, but he doesn’t need to be. He’s a deep threat with good athleticism and good hands. The wideout would have been a first-round draft choice in this most recent NFL draft but he opted to stay in school. Ohio State finally catches a break.

Wilson is equally strong as a route-runner, excelling at sitting into the soft spots of zones. 

The truly terrifying piece of this duo is the fact they might have a No. 3 who is just as talented in Jaxon Smith-Njigba. 

No. 2: Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa center

A defensive tackle two years ago, an All-American center in 2020. Linderbaum was one of three finalists for the Rimington Trophy, the award given to the best center in football. He was a first-team All-America selection by PFF and The Athletic and a second-team selection by the AP, FWAA, and Phil Steele. Consider him a shoe-in for placement on the first team this year. 

Per PFF, Linderbaum allowed three pressures in 280 pass-blocking situations. Some of Iowa’s overall o-line metrics were fairly pedestrian—things like line yards, stuff rate, sack rate from Football Outsiders—but Iowa was sixth nationally in power success rate (short-yardage rushing on third and fourth) and Linderbaum’s combination of athleticism and smarts was a key reason why.

No. 3: Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma quarterback

What needs to be said beyond that he’s the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy? Call him a product of a strong system, but that doesn’t much matter when you have to face that system on a Saturday. When Rattler was on last year, his first year as the full-time starter, he was lethal. For such a young player, he’s remarkably gifted at fitting balls into tight windows while on the run. Stylistically he’s a callback to the Baker Mayfield/Kyler Murray days when OU had elite improvisational talents outside of a normal play’s structure. Though Rattler doesn’t have the wheels of Murray or the consistency in decision-making of late-stage Mayfield, he’s still one of the top returning players in all of college football because of his sheer arm talent. Doesn’t hurt playing in Lincoln Riley’s system, though. 

No. 4: Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan defensive lineman

If not for the one-spot-per-team rule this spot would go to Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto. But we play by the rules here, and as such the spot goes to Hutchinson. 

Hutchison is 6-foot-6 and 269 pounds. He’s not exactly an athletic marvel, but he still finds a way to win matchups thanks to a well-polished technical game. He’s long, he’s got a strong base and good balance, and he can line up anywhere. Good footwork and strong hands help in the run game. 

Funny enough: his first career tackle for loss came against the Huskers in 2018. He had 10 in 2019 while future first-rounder Kwity Paye drew the attention. Last year was supposed to be the next big step in Hutchinson’s game but an injury ended his season after three appearances. Clean health in 2021 and he’s a guy who could be a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Watch him just waltz right by Tristan Wirfs. That’ll be a test for tackles the league over. 

No. 5: Brandon Joseph, Northwestern safety

Is there a better safety in the league? Joseph can make an argument for one of the best in the country. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, Joseph led the Big Ten in interceptions with six. Team simply did not beat him in behind. He could anchor single-high coverage, he could walk down into the box, he could cover in the slot. In having to replace Greg Newsome II, a corner gone to the draft this past year, Northwestern could lean on Joseph more for his coverage abilities. He tracks the ball well and good athleticism lets him roam sideline to sideline. 

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