Nebraska offensive coordinator Matt Lubick works with the wides receivers during football practice
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Three Offensive Predictions for Nebraska Football in 2021

August 15, 2021

Poor turnover luck, yards but not the commensurate expected points, penalties when things get rolling, tons of running but not a ton of efficiency, efficiency passing but not a ton of explosiveness. . . Nebraska has had a bit of madness to its make in recent seasons under Scott Frost. 

The one thing that’s been true week in and week out is that precious little can be expected or relied upon. You just haven’t known what you’re going to get. 

Which is pretty much true of the sport in general, outside of the Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State class. Rarely do we know what’s going to happen. Seldom are we correct when we try to predict what’s going to happen. But damn if we don’t love to try year after year. 

So here’s another exercise that will surely prove to be littered with errors in a few months, done simply because it’s fun to do so. Three offensive predictions for Nebraska in 2021.

No. 1: Turnovers come down

Six of Nebraska’s eight games last season were decided by 10 points or less. That makes 18 games in three years under Frost (32 total). In those close games the Huskers have a minus-12 turnover margin. Nebraska is 6-12 in them.

After a 1-5 record and a 2-4 record in those close games in Frost’s first two seasons, Nebraska was 3-3 in close games a year ago. 

Maybe one of the more dumbed-down ways to look at rebuilding is that a team loses big before it makes a change to lose close before it learns how to win close before it puts the finishing touches on to start winning big. 

Nebraska played an uncomfortable amount of games close and held its best record in such games so far. Perhaps that’ll serve as a watershed moment. 

If that does come to pass, though, Nebraska will need to be better in the turnover department. Even in spite of the 3-3 record, NU was minus-5 in those six games. Too many giveaways. Nebraska had 18 in eight games. 

And that’s been one of the biggest areas emphasized all offseason. Quarterback Adrian Martinez’s on-target rate and catchable ball rate (both courtesy of Sports Info Solutions) were career-highs a season ago and the fourth-year man reportedly took it up another notch in spring ball earlier this calendar year. 

The interception piece of it seems to be trending in the right direction. The key will be ball security when running it. More of a directed attack from the actual tailbacks rather than the quarterbacks should prove a difference-maker. 

Nebraska will post a positive margin for the first time under Frost in 2021. 

No. 2: Two wideouts on the all-league team

Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman made the All-Big Ten second and third team in 2018. Nebraska has been shut out from the top three since. (Granted that’s only two years but still, the distinction between guys inherited and guys recruited is stark particularly at this spot.) 

Nebraska hasn’t had enough talent at wideout, or it hasn’t had enough talent yet comfortable in the scheme, or it hasn’t had enough healthy talent. Whatever the reasoning, the point remains. That is looking like it could change this season.

“I think we have at least six guys that we can play,” said offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. “Our depth this year at receiver compared to last year is night and day. Last year a lot of those guys were first-year guys. Now they’ve all been a year in this system. We actually feel like we have a good three-deep that can go in there and function and play and compete in football games and have success.”

The thing I appreciate is Nebraska hasn’t gone overboard in praising the wideout group, what with their brief collective experience and oversized potential. The talk is different than, say, the way the secondary is spoken of. “Great depth” isn’t the same as “best in the league.” I don’t think that’s done by accident. 

But Nebraska does have talent at wideout. Best-in-class talent? That remains to be seen, but talent nonetheless. 

Two of those players will earn spots on the second and third all-conference teams at the end of the season. It’s hard to see anyone taking first-team honors away from the Garrett Wilson/Chris Olave/David Bell trio, but Nebraska has a chance to put two on the top three. 

Samori Toure will prove one of the more impactful transfer additions at the Power Five level. One of the other wideouts will break through. Too much talent not to. Call this the Matt Lubick effect.

It’s funny—though somewhat expected, I suppose. When we talk about the 2020 season, teams who were breaking in new coaches with young rosters were given the benefit of the doubt. It was a bad year to have new language or lots of install. Teams didn’t have spring periods to learn, they had weird summers to try and gel, and in some cases had reworked fall camps to get prepared. Nebraska had all that, but Lubick’s entrance into the picture is often overlooked.

Now, typically it’s a red flag when a new head coach changes his offensive coordinator after his second season, but with some, Lubick’s arrival goes completely unmentioned. By all accounts he had an organizing effect on the offensive system last year, in his de-facto year zero. The longtime coach has a good offensive mind and a strong reputation in coaching circles. I suspect he’s been able to work some magic with his position group now that he’s had time with everyone.

No. 3: Nebraska won’t have a 1,000-yard rusher, but it will have two running backs that top at least 500 yards. 

That’s not a particularly bold statement seeing as a Big Ten team has had two running backs each top 500 yards in the same season 27 times since 2016. The teams to accomplish this (some more than once, hence the 27): Minnesota, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Penn State, Michigan, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. 

Nebraska hasn’t had two running backs with 500 yards each in a season Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead combined for over 1,800 rushing yards in 2012. 

Does Nebraska have two backs with Abdullah-Burkhead levels of talent? That remains to be seen; it’s possible, though hard to judge considering the greenness of the room and the fact the top three guys could all be backs we have yet to see carry the ball in a Nebraska uniform. 

Nebraska ran the ball at one of the highest rates in the country last season (30th, at 59.3%). Frost has leaned run over the course of his play-calling career. And Nebraska wants to run its quarterbacks less, which should open up opportunity for NU’s stable of running backs. The ‘cubes have taken nearly 40% of Nebraska’s total rushing attempts under Frost and Martinez, for his career, is averaging more than 13 carries a game. 

If those numbers see a dip, there’s no reason Nebraska shouldn’t be able to get its tailbacks into good opportunities. The offensive line operating with a bit more consistency should pave the way for some strong running. 

Despite ranking 71st in stuff rate last season, NU was 36th in line yards, 31st in power success rate, and 13th nationally in opportunity rate. (All numbers courtesy of Football Outsiders, you can find a glossary for those terms here.)

If Nebraska is serious about its running backs, we should see a mini resurgence of sorts from Ryan Held’s room. It won’t be a 1,ooo-yard back, but a bit of fire and ice would be a nice sign given the way things looked last year.

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