Since its decision to hire Scott Frost as the new head football coach in December, Nebraska appears to be slowly shedding its status as a college football’s most conspicuous irrelevancy. The storied, and once-great, program is now instead beginning to assume the more buoyant and intriguing label of “sleeping giant”. Crucially for Cornhusker fans, the implication here is that, contrary to popular belief, the program’s malaise might only be temporary after all.
The Obituaries have been written
Nebraska’s descent from the very pinnacle of college football in the 21st century was a living, breathing challenge to the “too-big-to-fail” proposition that surrounds so many leading enterprises. Nebraska football was, at one point, quite simply as big as it got. 11, 12, even 13 win seasons were the norm for the Cornhuskers during 1990s, as the program developed a formidable reputation for being two-steps ahead of the college football world when it came to everything from player conditioning to walk-on development. But in recent years, the Huskers have been little more than Big Ten also-rans with no eyes on the playoff. Despite recording 361 consecutive home game sellouts at Memorial Stadium, obituaries abound detailing the program’s recruiting limitations, history of poor coaching appointments, and disastrous on-field strategic decisions. Perhaps most cuttingly, it’s a program that is frequently charged with trading on history, nostalgia, and little else.
In recent months, however, something has changed in Lincoln. The acquisition of Frost — who led the explosive UCF Knights past #8 Auburn in the Peach Bowl last year — has galvanised the fan base and raised expectations. As Nebraska quarterback from 95-97′, Frost is also a link back to the heady days of the 1990s. He not only understands the expectations of the fans, but shares them too. Almost overnight, Nebraska was a transformed from a deeply self-conscious program fretting about its position in the pedestrian Big Ten West, to a self-confident one considering the possibility of a full-scale resurrection.
Scott Frost on the recruiting trail
Frost’s laudable decision to transplant his entire coaching staff from Orlando to Lincoln was a significant statement of intent: While recruiting will be central to the rebuild, player development will be paramount. Ignoring the hype and avoiding short-cuts will be foundational tenets of Frost’s blueprint at his alma mater. “The formula at a lot of places is to recruit five stars and throw them on the field and hope you out-recruited everybody”, Frost noted in December, “the formula at Nebraska is going to be hard work and developing players better than everybody else”.
But despite his cautious and realistic words, Frost has hardly waved the proverbial white flag on the Big Ten’s hotly-contested recruiting trail. Indeed, the recruiting composite from Rivals certainly makes for encouraging reading for anyone with an interest in seeing the Cornhuskers return to prominence. According to the ranking, Nebraska pulled in not just a top-25 recruiting class, but one that ranks third in the Big Ten (ahead of Michigan), and first in the Big Ten West. Although Nebraska’s 2017 class was ranked 20th overall, it fell behind four other Big Ten schools including Michigan and Maryland. Although Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class stands out for its mediocrity in the Jim Harbaugh era, surpassing the Wolverines is still an important benchmark for a rebuilding Nebraska program. Whichever way you spin it, a third-place finish in the Big Ten recruiting table is an inordinately positive step forward for the Cornhuskers.
Finding an edge in the Big Ten
Notwithstanding, however, Frost’s potential, Nebraska still has a lot going against it. The program can appoint whoever it wants as head coach, but it will still be in Lincoln, Nebraska — and in a sport where geography is currency, this poses a problem. Since leaving the Big 12, and losing the pipeline to Texas, the Cornhuskers have famously struggled to gain competitive advantage over their rivals when it comes to recruiting. Cognisant of this natural and irreversible limitation, Nebraska already spends more on recruiting than any other Big Ten program, while still falling behind the conference’s top-tier programs. Frost has valiantly attempted to sell Lincoln as a happy intermediate between a small rural town and a sprawling metropolis, but only time will tell whether recruits take the same rose-tinted view of city comprising a total population just shy of 250,000.
But although it remains unclear whether Nebraska can ever compete with likes of Ohio State and Penn State for the midwest’s most coveted signatures, Frost and his staff can use their connections in the south — most notably in Georgia and Florida — to find the right pieces for their athlete-first offensive scheme. If they wish to replicate UCF’s offense in Lincoln, they will need to recruit players that possess a distinct speed advantage in 1-on-1 situations — and for that, there’s arguably nowhere more fertile than Florida. So far, Frost has been exploiting his knowledge of the Sunshine State with vigour, targeting overlooked SEC-level players.
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Fans hoping for last year’s 4-8 record to the flipped into a 7-5, or even 8-4 should take a moment to pause. In 2018, Nebraska will go on the road to Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Iowa. For team in the relatively languid Big Ten West, this is about as tough as it gets. 2018 will be about implementing Frost’s offensive scheme and re-building some of that national notoriety that was lost during the early years of this century. Nebraska, the sleeping giant, has woken up, and is beginning to take its first steps back on the national stage after an extended period of hibernation. If the Cornhuskers are to return to the sport’s top table, and reassume their status as a Blue Blood, it will be a long road back. But it’s a road Frost can help them to navigate.