Now that we’re in August, football is right around the corner. Normally, when a program is coming off a historic season, it’s a reason for optimism. The Huskers made history for the wrong reasons becoming the first college football team to lose nine games by a single possession in a year. In Nebraska, the Kool-Aid always starts to flow in August. Nebraska’s offense has many fresh faces that should fill some big holes around the roster.
For better or worse, no team in the Big Ten returns less experience than the Huskers in 2022. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the QB position where the Huskers only return 10.5% of their 2021 attempts. Normally, losing this much production would be a cause for concern but Nebraska had a strong offseason in the portal bringing in Casey Thompson and Chubba Purdy who combined for 266 pass attempts at other Power Five programs in 2021. Mark Whipple’s offense should be less reliant on the QB run game and Casey Thompson should be a good pairing for the new OC.
Regardless of who is taking the snaps for the Huskers, the system needs to be more QB friendly in 2022. The Huskers ranked third in the nation in EPA/play and total EPA on first down passes last year. They were 95th in first down pass rate. Too often the Huskers went away from what was working instead of making the defense stop them. Pittsburgh finished the season 19th in first down pass rate and 45th in EPA/play on first down passes. Pat Narduzzi may not like Whipple’s approach to offense but being more aggressive in early downs will help the Huskers in 2022.
The departure of Adrian Martinez also left a hole in the Husker’s returning ground game ranking 9th in the Big Ten for returning carries. I expect the QB run game to be used less often than in previous years. With Rahmir Johnson and Jaquez Yant, the leading backs in 2021, returning the ground game is stronger than the numbers show. With four of the top five leaders in catches gone, the Huskers rank 12th in the conference for returning catches in 2022 with just 35.4% of the receptions returning. Again, Nebraska had success in the portal, bringing in Trey Palmer and Marcus Washington who combined for 48 catches at the Power Five level in 2021.
Every Big Ten team returned its coach in 2022 leading to more roster stability than in a year with higher coaching turnover. Nebraska made good use of the transfer portal grabbing guys to fill its immediate needs at WR and QB. Roster depth will have to come from the Husker’s recruiting.
Nebraska has recruited well compared to most of the conference since 2019 despite struggles on the field. Nebraska is fourth in average and median recruit ranking as well as the number of blue-chip recruits. While that’s a positive, fourth can only be considered the ‘best of the rest’ in the Big Ten. Ohio State’s average recruit ranking gap over second place Penn State (0.028) is greater than the gap between fourth place Nebraska and 14th place Illinois (0.027). The gap between the Huskers and third-place Michigan is similar in size with Nebraska 0.023 behind the Wolverines in average recruit rating. Nebraska has the most talent in the West and the Huskers should be expected to compete for a division title, but Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan are ahead in the talent arms race.
I suppose any preseason article needs a prediction at the end. I have the Huskers finishing this season 7-5. I think they beat all four of Indiana, Rutgers, Georgia Southern, and North Dakota. A loss to any one of those teams and it will be hard for Frost to keep his job. Multiple losses to these opponents, and I think Frost is fired on October 16th heading into the bye week. Against Minnesota, Purdue, Northwestern, and Illinois I think the Huskers win two of four. Against the Husker’s four best opponents – Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Iowa – I think the Huskers steal one win. I don’t expect a repeat of last year where every loss is a one-possession loss, but I think Nebraska remains competitive in all five losses. It is good to have college football back.
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