I do not need to tell you that the first three years of Scott Frost’s tenure at Nebraska have been worse than anticipated. Frost would have to win seven of the first six games in 2021 (not a typo) just to tie Mike Riley for wins through 38 games. But not all wins or losses are created equal. A win against Oklahoma is much more significant than one versus a MAC school. So just how well has each Nebraska coach against various opponent tiers over the last 50 years?
For this exercise I use Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings. These ratings go back to 1970 so they provide a good historic comparison. For each game I assigned each opponent a tier based on their final season ranking. A game against a top 10 team by SP+ is considered Tier 1, 11-25 is Tier 2, 25-75 is Tier 3, and 76+ is Tier 4. This analysis excludes bowl games as well and FCS opponents who do not have a SP+ rank. For brevity, losses and ties will be combined in the “loss” column.
Tom Osborne has an impressive 20-23 record against Tier 1 opponents. His 43 games against these opponents all averaged within a single point as well. However, things have not been as good for Nebraska since he stepped down. One of the three Tier 1 wins occurred in 1998 against Missouri. Pelini is the only coach to win a Tier 1 game in the 2000s getting the first in a defensive struggle against Oklahoma in 2009 and the second was, in perhaps Taylor Martinez best game, the 2010 Oklahoma State game.
Solich, Callahan, and Pelini were all able to keep games in this tier relatively close. Things have taken a turn the last six years. In the last eight games against Tier 1 opponents, only the 2018 Ohio State game was within single digits. On average, Nebraska has lost these games by an average of 32.6 points.
Osborne is, unsurprisingly, dominant against Tier 2 opponents with a 33-10 record. All coaches since have only been able to compile 17 wins against this level of competition. Tier 2 is also some of the games best remembered, for the wrong reasons, of the Pelini era including the 2012 Big Ten Championship game and giving up a then FBS record 408 rushing yards to Melvin Gordon in 2014. Frost’s only win against Tier 2 was the 2020 Penn State game.
While the results have been disappointing during both the Riley and Frost eras, one major difference exists between the two. The two coaches are on the opposite ends of the spectrum form Tier 1 and 2 games per year. Frost has faced on average 4 top two tier teams per season while Mike Riley squads only played this level of competition 2.67 times per season.
For 33 years Nebraska dominated Tier 3. Devaney, Osborne, and Solich combined to go 175-10 from 1970-2003 against unranked, bowl caliber competition. Tier 3 has been a rough patch for the last six years. Mike Riley is the only Husker coach to average a losing score against this tier. Frost and Riley are the only two Husker coaches to have a losing record against these opponents.
The Huskers went from 1970-2014 without ever losing a game to a Tier 4 opponent. Since 2015 its lost four times. The first loss was in 2015 against Purdue. Colorado finished both seasons it played Nebraska in the fourth tier. And just last season Nebraska dropped a game to a Tier 4 opponent against Illinois. While Frost has played the highest percent of top two tier opponents, he’s also tied with Riley for the most Tier 4 opponents per season with three.
I started this project with the idea that maybe the modern Big Ten is a much tougher slate than the old Big 8 and Big 12 schedules. While Frost has faced the highest number of Top 25 SP+ per season he is also faced the most non-Bowl caliber competition and struggled. What might be the biggest point of concern and of optimism is the offensive output under Frost. He ranks last in scoring in three of the four categories. If the offense can turn a page and start to look more like what he had at Oregon and UCF he may have more of the success as his predecessors.