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Nebraska Cornhuskers 2020 Preview

It’s been a long off-season without Husker football. And truth be told I didn’t think I was going to be saying that as Keith Duncan was blowing kisses to the Husker sideline last fall.

After a rough 0-6 start to the Scott Frost era, Nebraska began to show life. Winning some games, playing Ohio State tough at the Horseshoe and being a rare, gutsy fourth down call by Kirk Ferentz away from taking Iowa to overtime on Black Friday.

We came into year two with high expectations. It only took Frost two years in Orlando to turn UCF around into a (National Championship) contender. Perhaps his magic was at work again?

As Lee Corso would say, “not so fast my friend.” Nebraska was ranked to open the season with plenty of hype and expectations. And what instead happened was rather than exponential growth we sort of saw them stay in place.

At times we saw flashes of what they could become. When they led Colorado 17-0, only to lose in overtime. Or having College Gameday in Lincoln for the first time in over a decade, only to get waxed by Ohio State, the equivalent of an NFL team.

We continued to hear how great the team looked in practice, how far ahead they were than the previous year. But, sophomore quarterback, Adrian Martinez, was banged up and didn’t progress like we had hoped after seeing promising flashes during his freshman season.

The offensive line struggled, on offense unless their names were Mills, Spielman or Robinson you weren’t getting much from them.

So I went into the 2020 off-season down about the Huskers. I told myself, no expectations next year. Don’t buy into how great practice was, or how far along a certain player has come. There is still a ton of work to be done.

But even coming in with low expectations for a season when Kevin Warren and the Big Ten took away my football I was upset.

As was the University of Nebraska. The Huskers fought tooth and nail in an open rebellion against the Big Ten to get the opportunity to play.

Eventually the Huskers scored their first win in 2020 even if it won’t show up in your Sunday newspaper.

Even with lowered expectations, I am over the moon excited for my Huskers to be back this season. It might be only 8 games and a sprint to December and be over in the blink of an eye but I’ll take it.

So with that, let’s break down your 2020 Nebraska Cornhuskers. Taking a look at the roster as well as all eight games on the schedule.

Offense

Quarterback: Adrian Martinez was named the starter for week one of the season as he should be. Unless he completely forgot how to play football he has earned the first snap of the 2020 season. He was also named a team captain showing the trust that his teammates have in him.

However for Martinez, Luke McCaffrey lurks on the sideline. According to reports, McCaffrey had an excellent fall camp and challenged Martinez for the starting job. With some players and even Frost himself saying that they feel like they have two starting quarterbacks.

This means a couple of things, first is Martinez will have a shorter leash than usual. Last year, Martinez was never simply pulled from a game for how he played. He was either taken out due to injury or for a certain package that utilized McCaffrey’s speed. That could change this year.

Now what I will say, is there is no more popular player on a football team than the promising back up quarterback. Sometimes there’s reason for it, and other times it’s just twitter and impatient fans.

However, competition also breeds success. Martinez has never been truly threatened for his job up until now. Sometimes it takes someone looking over your shoulder to get the best results out of someone. Perhaps we see that version of Martinez this year.

We also saw flashes of McCaffrey last year. We never saw him for a full game. While he is exciting, no team game planned for him. He is very talented yes, but what happens if he’s the starter and a team is able to game plan specifically for him? You might see different results than the splashy exciting plays we saw last year.

Running Backs: From everything I’ve seen and heard, the bell cow back will be Dedrick Mills this year.

It feels as though during the Frost era he has brought in fast, elusive and exciting backs. Think Greg Bell and Maurice Washington. And yet the main ballcarrier has been the consistent bruiser like Devine Ozigbo and now Mills.

However the new exciting toy for Husker fans to perk them up is Rahmir Johnson. And while he can provide Big Red with some highlights it’s still Mills’ job this year.

But while Johnson might be the exciting new toy, it seems as though Ronald Thompkins will be the number two back.

Pass Catchers: The main notable change in this group is no more JD Spielman. Spielman is now catching passes for TCU down in Fort Worth. With that you also lose a valuable punt returner.

It has been mentioned that Wan’Dale Robinson will be primarily a wide receiver this year, but that doesn’t stop Nebraska from using him in jet sweeps and other creative ways. Think of how Purdue uses Rondale Moore or how Kansas City has Tyreek Hill running all over the backfield to create mismatches and misdirection.

New offensive coordinator and receivers coach, Matt Lubick, has been saying that the tight ends will be featured much more in this offense. Jack Stoll, the king of the highlight catches might see an uptick in targets. As well as a guy like Austin Allen who’s 6’8 size should be a matchup nightmare for some times. Especially in the red zone.

Kade Warner was named a captain this year as well as being named All-Mustache Team for 2020.

Just absolutely stunning.

I like Warner, for starters he’s always in the right place at the right time. He’s a good blocking receiver and just seems to come up with a catch in the first quarter and then you don’t hear from him again until a big third down at the end of the game.

Outside of that it will be interesting to see who else steps up. The wide outs were a concern last year for Frost and company, saying he needed more from a group last year that lost their best player in Spielman this season.

Does Omar Manning step into frame? Do we get spoiled by in state recruit and freshman Zavier Betts?

As you can see more questions than answers for this group this year.

Offensive Line: A glaring weakness for the Huskers the last couple of seasons perhaps now its strength.

All five starters return which is crucial for an offensive line. You need consistency up front and the best offensive line play is when all five guys up front are playing in unison.

It’s the classic five individual fingers vs. a fist analogy. An offensive line needs to be a fist.

Not only that but it’s a rather experienced line. Heading into last season the middle three of the line had played in only a handful of games combined. And that’s including center Cam Jurgens who made the move from career tight end to center last season. And also added a few pounds…

And then there is the newest addition to the line that has Husker fans excited, Bryce Benhart. A mountain of a man, 6’9 and 330 pounds. Rumor has it that defensive ends who tried to run around him ended up in his gravitational pull.

The offensive line was something that needed to be fixed. There is not a single successful football team that has a bad offensive line. Frost has made that a priority in his recruiting and guys like Jurgens and Benhart are our first true grades that we can hand out to Frost.

If the offensive line truly can make the leap we keep hearing about on Saturday’s Nebraska will be a formidable foe.

Blackshirts

Defensive Line: The defensive line will be a young group for Nebraska in 2020. Ben Stille a stalwart up front will be back for his senior season.

And we will start to get a look at someone like Ty Robinson. A player that Nebraska won a recruiting battle with the likes of Alabama, Oregon, USC, Penn State and Notre Dame.

He was a big get for Big Red and this year we should be able to see what we won in that battle.

But is there a Ndamukong Suh or even a Randy Gregory standout in this group? Not that I can see no. There may still be some Saturday’s where you watch the opponent’s quarterback standing in the pocket until Sunday.

Linebackers: No more Mohammed Barry for this group. The heart and soul of the Husker defense the last couple of years has graduated. The inside linebacker duties now fall on the shoulders of Colin Miller and Will Honas.

Outside linebacker has plenty of question marks but JoJo Domann is back. Domann seems to be a turnover machine, he is always around a loose football.

And can Caleb Tannor match the playmaking ability of Domann? That remains to be seen but he will be the other name on the edge you either hear about or you’re yelling at your TV because he didn’t set the edge.

Secondary: The Secondary should be a strength for Nebraska. Dicaprio Bootle, who feels as though he has been here forever, will be the number one corner coming into the season.

Deontai Williams will be patrolling centerfield.

And perhaps one of my favorite Blackshirts, Cam Taylor-Britt, should be a name you hear often.

Taylor-Britt when he can stay healthy and on the field is a game changer. He is a ball hawk with a nose for the football and we have already seen him make some big plays.

Week 1: @ Ohio State, L 38-20

I’m not bold enough to predict an upset here for Nebraska, but I am bold enough to think that they will cover the 26 point spread.

Ohio State is just too good. There is too big of a talent gap for me to conclusively say that Nebraska has a real shot in this game. It will just be good to get football back.

I know some big name programs have sort struggled, out of the gate this year. And that with no fans in the stands it has helped road underdogs pull off some big upsets, but I don’t see that happening here.

Don’t forget that Ohio State has been chomping at the bit and fighting just as hard as Nebraska was to play this year. They will come into this one motivated, even with a huge matchup against Penn State looming next weekend.

I can see this being a huge lead at halftime for the Buckeyes before they take their foot off the gas pedal in the second half allowing Nebraska to make this one look closer.

However I will say, it would be poetic for Nebraska the team that initially fought the hardest for Ohio State to get to play and have a chance at a championship, to crush those hopes week one. It would be very on brand for 2020.

Week 2: Wisconsin, W 31-28

I AM BOLD ENOUGH TO PICK THIS UPSET THOUGH.

Fun fact, or well depressing fact actually. Nebraska has the same record against Wisconsin as it does against Texas, 4-10.

However 2020 has been an upside down year in college football. We have seen a wide array of upsets and outcomes that flat out just don’t make sense.

I for one see Wisconsin absolutely steam rolling Illinois week one.

But it would be very 2020 for Wisconsin to drop their next game, in Lincoln on Halloween no less. 2020 has been the weirdest year of our life times, Halloween is going to produce some absolutely wild outcomes in college football.

Week 3: @ Northwestern, W 28-24

Oh boy three weeks into what’s suppose to be a brutal schedule and the Huskers are above .500.

At least I hope so. I feel more confident in picking the Wisconsin upset than this game just because throw out all trends, stats, historical relevancies when these two teams meet up. It is always a dog fight.

With that said though I think Nebraska gets the job done, on the road in Evanston. It will be a normal home game for the Wildcats with no fans there but if anything that hurts Nebraska since usually the stands are filled with red, out numbering the purple.

Week 4: Penn State, L 52-20

Huskers at 2-1 heading into a home game against the Nittany Lions are flying high. And they get slammed back down to earth.

Penn State’s defense is legit, even without NFL lottery pick Micah Parsons.

It remains to be seen if Sean Clifford can be “The Guy” for Penn State this year against stiff competition but I feel like in this game he sure looks the part against the Blackshirts.

Matt Coatney is fielding all sorts of phone calls from the “I told you so” crowd after this one.

Week 5: Illinois, W 42-17

Rough one against Penn State but Nebraska picks themselves up off the turf and figures it out against Illinois. The offense is humming.

And a week after we saw McCaffrey play against Penn State, Adrian Martinez steps up his game and reminds you that he is the starting quarterback for a reason.

And it provides Nebraska with plenty of confidence heading into Black Friday against….

Week 6: @ Iowa, L 23-20

So much for the confidence. And I would love to predict a victory over Iowa here but I just can’t.

Firstly, I already predicted Wisconsin. There is no chance 2020 is good to me and lets Nebraska pick up wins against both Iowa and Wisconsin. Just no way.

Second, with no fans in the stands that will effect plenty of teams. And some will not be able to get up to the level of play needed without that extra boost.

However, Iowa will not be one of those teams. They are too well disciplined under head coach Kirk Ferentz to let something like no fans ruin a rivalry game for them.

Tough to put into writing, I don’t like doing it, but Iowa continues their streak over Nebraska.

Plus we don’t want to end the streak on the road in front of no fans do we? Break it in 2021 in front of a sold out Memorial Stadium.

Week 7: @ Purdue, W 27-13

A back and forth, up and down season continues, this time in West Lafayette where Nebraska topples Purdue for the first time in the Scott Frost era.

As odd as that seems, Nebraska hasn’t beaten Purdue since Tanner Lee’s last minute heroics in 2017.

This time the job finally gets done in a cold, snowy game in Indiana. Dedrick Mills runs all over Purdue as the offensive line has it’s best day of the year. The Huskers move to 4-3 on the season.

Week 8: Minnesota, L 28-20

Senior day in Lincoln and the culmination of what has been the weirdest year in Nebraska history. And with it we welcome in PJ “Professor Quirrell” Fleck and the Golden Gophers in a game set for December 12th.

Minnesota has proven all of 2020 that they were for real last season. Despite easily accepting the Big Ten’s decision and not wanting to play the Gophers prove that they belong in contention for the Big Ten West.

Tanner Morgan uses Rashod Bateman to prove that he is the second best quarterback in the conference. Behind of course only Justin Fields who has the Zoom invite for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

It is an entertaining game however, going back and forth between the two offenses but Nebraska’s last minute drive falls short.

Final Record 4-4

In the end it was an up and down season for Nebraska. An upset over Wisconsin was the the highlight. And some close losses to Iowa and Minnesota prove that this team is talented enough to be there, but just needing to make a few more big plays.

And losses to Ohio State and Penn State remind Nebraska fans that there is still a lot of work to be done to get to that sort of level.

All in all though, a 4-4 record in a makeshift season that wasn’t even suppose to be played? I’ll take it, sounds like fun.

Frost’s recruits and talent is starting to take the field and make plays for his team. And despite the .500 record the 2020 season will build hope and promise for the 2021 campaign.

Go Big Red.

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Connor Ryan (@connoryan68/@PodVerbalCommit/@YourFantasy_CGS)

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