There are 99 days until the start of the 2021 Nebraska football season. As we flip the countdown from triple to double digits, here is what we know and what is still up in the air.
We know the schedule
The Huskers open the season at Illinois August 28. The non-conference schedule features Fordham (September 4) and Buffalo (September 11) before a road trip to Oklahoma (September 18). For as much panic as it caused Husker faithful and all the fodder it gave national pundits, the NU-OU game was never seriously in doubt.
Aug. 28 at Illinois
Sept. 4 Fordham
Sept. 11 Buffalo
Sept. 18 at Oklahoma
Sept. 25 at Michigan State
Oct. 2 Northwestern
Oct. 9 Michigan
Oct. 16 at Minnesota
Oct. 30 Purdue
Nov. 6 Ohio State
Nov. 20 at Wisconsin
Nov. 26 (Fri.) Iowa
We don’t know how the Big Ten Conference will handle COVID-19.
Handling COVID-19 in 2020 included postponing the season before bringing it back with a conference-only schedule. Once the season did begin, a complex metric of positivity rates was used to decide if games would even be played. Players were also held out a certain number of days for a positive test or close contact.
Nebraska missed out on playing Wisconsin when the Badgers went onto a program pause, and most teams lost out on at least one game. No non-conference games were allowed to replace lost contests. That means we missed out on the possible Nebraska-UT Chattanooga matchup.
The conference also adjusted its own rules to get Ohio State into the league championship game over Indiana.
How will those policies carryover or be updated for 2021?
We know the starting quarterback.
It’s Adrian Martinez.
Last year we had the will he won’t he for Luke McCaffrey threatening to take the position. McCaffrey eventually replaced Martinez for a time in 2020, but his passing deficiency quickly allowed defenses to focus on the run. McCaffrey has since transferred, and neither Logan Smothers nor Heinrich Haarberg are taking that spot from Martinez.
We don’t know the starting running back.
USC transfer Markese Stepp missed the entire spring with a foot injury. He is the only running back who isn’t a freshman or redshirt freshman.
Marvin Scott III and Jaquez Yant looked good in the Spring Game but are both brand new to campus and they weren’t going against the top defense during the tackling portion of the day. Others in the room: Rahmir Johnson, Gabe Ervin Jr., Ronald Thompkins, and Sevion Morrison.
When you’re trying to run the QB less but have a consistent running game, knowing who is getting the ball is paramount.
We know everyone on a super-senior led defense.
Five Blackshirts are taking advantage of an NCAA-granted sixth collegiate season. They are Will Honas, JoJo Domann, Deontai Williams, Marquel Dismuke, and Ben Stille. Cam Taylor-Britt also elected to return instead of test the draft waters.
Honas will miss most, if not all, of the 2021 season after suffering a non-contact knee injury days before the Spring Game.
Other returners that are expected to play plenty of snaps: Damion Daniels, Luke Reimer, and Braxton Clark.
We don’t know who else might leave the program.
Two underclassman receivers entered the transfer portal a week after the Red-White Spring Game and have already found new homes. Redshirt running back Ronald Thompkins entered the portal this week. The NCAA adopted a one-time transfer policy for all sports, beginning this year. The deadline for fall and winter athletes to notify their schools of their intention to transfer is July 1.
We know Scott Frost will be sharing play-calling duties.
Frost shared play calling with offensive coordinator Matt Lubick last season. He said that sharing those duties will allow him to manage more of the team and free him up during the week to work with players more individually, especially quarterback Adrian Martinez.
That shared play calling was supposed to be on display at the Red-White Spring Game as well, but not much should be taken from that showcase.
We don’t know how that split will work exactly.
Does “split” mean 50/50? 60/40? Situational or just on big downs?
“Matt Lubick had a lot more to do with the play calling, particularly toward the end of the season, than I’ve had a coordinator have before,” Frost told the Lincoln Journal Star in January. “It was pretty split in those last probably four games.”
The era of head coaches calling plays, outside of must-have moments and when they want something specific run, is over. That split will likely be fairly even, but just beginning to share tells me, if things go well with Lubick making the calls, Frost is within a couple seasons of giving up play calling entirely.
We know a full Memorial Stadium is likely.
There will be a concert held there just weeks before the first home game. The expected capacity for that event? 90,000.
With the latest CDC guidelines relaxing mask recommendations and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department’s mask mandate ending this week, plus the new DHM allowing 100% capacity both indoors and outdoors, a packed Memorial Stadium for six Saturdays and a Friday this fall is expected.
We don’t know (exactly) how new head coaches will affect two of the first three opponents.
Season-opening opponent Illinois will be led by Bret Bielema. The former Wisconsin coach welcomed Nebraska into the Big Ten Conference with a 48-17 drubbing of the Huskers in their first-ever game in the league, then proceed to set rushing records in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game with Melvin Gordon as the Badgers dominated again 70-31. That’s the last time Nebraska competed in a conference championship game.
But that was at Wisconsin. Bielema doesn’t have those horses at Illinois yet. This one is very much a wild card with a new staff, especially on the road to start the season.
Buffalo, which had its own elite running back a season ago as the Bulls fell in the MAC Championship, is completely different than just a couple months back. RB Jaret Patterson was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Washington Football Team. Coach Lance Leipold is now at Kansas, where he took a bunch of assistants. Several players entered the transfer portal.
So what do the Bulls have now? Coach Maurice Linguist came in from Michigan, where he was the defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator for just a couple of months, having spent the 2020 season as the cornerbacks coach with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
As for the players, expect younger names or transfers getting a shot in the transition. Don’t expect Buffalo to place Nebraska on upset alert in a way that was originally anticipated.
We know the expectations.
Expectations at Nebraska always fall on the high end of the spectrum for fans and the lower end nationally, at least recently.
Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos has said repeatedly that he expects this season to result in eight or nine wins. That would be a big jump from the first three years under Frost. Being in year four, and with the entire coaching staff back from last season, making a bowl game is an absolute must. Competing for the Big Ten West has even become a conversation if the ball can bounce the Huskers’ way a couple times.
But ESPN’s Football Power Index projects Nebraska to get around six wins this season. The schedule is also, once again, ranked as one of the toughest in the country.
Fans just want to see wins, and they especially want Frost to start doing that more. The expectations of 9-10+ win seasons every year are gone (for now), but Moos might not be too far off with setting the floor at eight. I guess the number of wins would fall under the “we don’t know” category.
We don’t know how much pizza the Nebraska media will eat at press conferences and home games to make up for last season.
No more boxed meals or rations. Husker media (mostly me), as much as anyone else, is ready for a return to normal in 2021.