All offseason long, Scott Frost was asked the question. What is success in Year 1 at Nebraska? His answer was always the same, success in the coach’s first season back home wasn’t going to be defined by wins and losses, but rather by a more holistic approach.
Get better day-by-day, Frost would always say. If on any given Sunday, Frost could watch back through game tape and say, “We’re better than we were last Saturday,” he was going to be happy.
But did Frost expect to have a fourth-quarter lead against Colorado in the season-opener and let it slip away? What about letting a 28-14 fourth-quarter lead at Northwestern slip away? What about being in a position to win the game at Ohio Stadium against a top-10 Buckeye team? Did he expect to go 1-5 in one-possession games in Year 1 and then miss a bowl by two wins?
I don’t know what the expectation was privately, but being so close to more success than most realists forecasted in the opening season can have a way of warping evaluations of that season. I ran a poll on Twitter that got just over 400 responses: “Was this year a success?” Nearly 20 percent of people said no, with the reasoning hard to argue with.
One person said this: “Future bright, foundation laid, hope is restored, but we gave up some games we should have won.” Maybe the best way of putting it. Even Frost feels that.
“I [take away] pride in the fact we improved through a lot of difficulties and a lot of unfortunate circumstances, and also a little disappointment,” he said during the week leading up to the Iowa game. “I wish we’d have had the team like this when the season started, I think it would have been a heck of a fun season, I think we’d have won a bunch of games. But, those changes don’t happen overnight. Sometimes there’s lessons you have to learn. There’s a lot of work to get done. Hopefully we laid the groundwork for more good things to come.”
I tend to latch onto the last part of that quote, the part about setting the foundation. It’s like house-building. Groundwork first, cool stuff later. This season was never going to be about the cool stuff. Not with the schedule, not with the roster holes, not with the lack of uniform buy-in once the season actually began. But if the last six games of the Huskers’ 2018 season are any indication, the cool stuff is coming soon.
For that reason, this first year feels like a success.
I don’t like getting into the blame game with recent regimes whenever a new guy takes over, but there’s something undeniable about what was going on throughout the weeks leading up to games in recent years. After a 40-10 loss to Iowa in 2016, then-defensive coordinator Mark Banker said Iowa’s practices must be “like a bloodbath.” Why, then, weren’t the Huskers’?
Why does simply changing strength staffs and conditioning programs all but cure a consistently injured team?
Why was there so much pushback to a new staff installing a new culture that has proven to produce elite results?
Frost had a lot to fix when he took over at Nebraska. After losing to Purdue on Sept. 29, he said there were still things he was running into even four weeks into the football season that he never expected. If it takes weeks to convince a guy he has to show up to meetings and practice on time, you have to wonder what the expectation was before.
All that stuff was present. There was a cloud, as Frost has said, over Memorial Stadium.
And then there wasn’t.
That stuff got fixed in one season. It didn’t take multiple years for a coach to get “his guys” into a system; no, that stuff changed in six weeks. Then Nebraska started winning football games and looking dangerous. Then Nebraska started having fun.
“Football is a lot like life in a million ways and one of the amazing things about football and life is when you do things the right way, it’s more fun,” Frost said. “You have more success. You enjoy what you’re doing more. It’s unfortunate we had to figure that out as this year went along but I’m really happy with where we are from that standpoint.
“It’s easy to coach this team right now because they do everything the right way.”
In every way, that feels like success.
Turning to the field, there’s plenty to like there as well. Nebraska has … dare I say … a championship-caliber quarterback in place. It has weapons at the skill positions and reinforcements on the way. Sophomore Brenden Jaimes developed into a pretty darn good left tackle and sophomore Matt Farniok proved as the season wore on that he belonged.
On defense, Nebraska found a leader and a true Blackshirt in every sense in junior Mo Barry. It found pieces to work with by moving sophomore JoJo Domann into a hybrid linebacker role and finding ways to get sophomore Deontai Williams (NU’s highest-graded defender this season, per PFF) onto the field. Corner Dicaprio Bootle took a giant step forward and led the league in pass break-ups. His partner on the other side, Lamar Jackson, is starting to become what people thought he could be.
Next season, the Huskers will return 55 percent of their ground carries, 57 percent of their receiving targets and 53 percent of their tackles. Seniors played key roles in every area for the Huskers this season and still, a majority of the production is returning. There are plenty of young players who got meaningful run this season and Nebraska still made one of the bigger statistical jumps in a Year 1 in recent history.
Because of the close losses, Nebraska will be a trendy team entering 2019. The coin-flip games will suggest Nebraska was much closer to a 6-6 team than a 4-8 one. There’s already talk of preseason top-25 rankings. Rewind the tape back to that Northwestern loss and try and picture having those discussions.
In the coming years, Nebraska won’t be able to deal in almosts. Missing a bowl will rightfully be criticized. But that timeline has started because of what Nebraska did this season. Not going bowling will hurt. Specifically because there are teams that will who Nebraska would almost certainly beat if they played right now.
“This team is good enough to beat a lot of people,” Frost said from inside Kinnick Stadium Friday night. “This team is good enough to be a bowl team.”
And the fact they aren’t doesn’t cheapen what they accomplished this year.