Nebraska Cornhuskers: CFN College Football Preview 2021

·13 min read

College Football News Preview 2021: Previewing, predicting, and looking ahead to the Nebraska season with what you need to know.

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– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Nebraska Schedule Analysis
– Nebraska Cornhuskers Previews
2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015

2020 Record: 3-5 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten
Head Coach: Scott Frost, 4th year, 12-20 (31-27 overall)
2020 CFN Final Ranking: 55
2020 CFN Preview Ranking: 47
2019 CFN Final Ranking: 93

Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: Offense

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. By Year Three under Scott Frost, the Nebraska offense was expected to be a dangerous, fast-paced, high-octane attack that screwed up everything in its path.

The Huskers cranked up the yards – averaging 391 per game – but a whole lot of turnovers, no downfield passing game, and too many inconsistencies stalled the progress. Eight starters are expected back for new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick to work with, and a slew of players are coming in through the transfer portal.

The quarterback situation is set. There’s no hinting that Luke McCaffrey could take over – he’s a Louisville Cardinal now. There’s no suggesting that someone else could rise up and take the gig. It’s Adrian Martinez, and that’s it.

The junior shows just enough flash to think he’s about to turn into the superstar he was expected to be as Frost’s guy from the start, and he was hardly bad last season with a team high 521 rushing yards and completing 71% of his throws. Now he has to make more downfield plays and turn more good drives into points.

Leading receiver Wan’Dale Robinson is a Kentucky Wildcat now, leaving Levi Falck and his 13 catches for 122 yards and one score as the leading returning wide receiver.

The tight ends are terrific – Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek can both catch – but the offense needs former Iowa transfer Oliver Martin and 6-4, 225-pound JUCO transfer Omar Manning to be fantastic.

The running game that finished second in the Big Ten will be strong again, but it would be nice to get more from the backs – Martinez shouldn’t be the No. 1 rusher again. The guys are there. They’re young, but they’re talented in what might just be the best rotation yet under Frost – at least that’s the hope.

USC transfer Markese Stepp got hurt in spring ball, but he should be one of the main men to go along with Marvin Scott and Gabe Ervin two good-looking backs to work around. Now the line has to do its job, and without the two top blockers from last year -Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok.

Cameron Jurgens is a good, sound center and Bryce Benhart is a 6-9, 330-pound mountain of a right tackle. The starting five will be just fine around those two.

– What You Need To Know: Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction

NEXT: Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: Defense

Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: Defense

The defense desperately needs difference-makers. It has experience – nine starters are expected to be back – and it has some strong talents.

Be shocked if this isn’t the best D in the Scott Frost era. Last year it allowed a not-that-bad 387 yards and 29 points per game – the 3-5 record was more on the offensive side.

The pass rush wasn’t great, but the line generated pressure into the backfield. The run defense was just okay, but there weren’t enough takeaways. All of that should should change for the better.

The defensive line has live bodies to use in a good rotation. 6-5, 295-pound Ben Stille is one of the team’s best players, but he’s not really a pass rusher.

However, Stille’s a strong force on the end in the 3-4, 310-pound Ty Robinson is growing into tough guy against the run, and 335-pound Damion Daniels is a big body on the nose. Start with those three, and there’s plenty of depth to rotate in.

The linebacking corps doesn’t have any sure-thing all-stars other than JoJo Domann, but it’s got plenty of returning production starting with second-leading tackler Will Honas – he also tied for the team lead in tackles for loss – to go along with veterans Luke Reimer and Garrett Nelson.

Domann didn’t do a whole lot to get to the quarterback last year, but he led the team with 58 stops in his hybrid outside linebacker gig.

The pass defense was roasted just enough to be a problem. Nebraska was able to get by Purdue despite being ripped up, but Justin Fields went 20-of-21, Illinois won hitting 72% of its passes, and there were just five picks.

Corner Dicaprio Bootie left, but the safety situation is potentially outstanding with Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke two super-seniors who combined for 108 tackles.

The corner situation is interesting with a slew of tall options – 6-4 Braxton Clark is like a safety working outside – to go along with veteran Cam Taylor-Britt.

– What You Need To Know: Offense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Nebraska Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Best Nebraska Cornhuskers Offensive Player

QB Adrian Martinez, Jr.
The expectations were through the roof from the start. He was supposed to be the bright, shiny quarterback who was going to take Nebraska into a whole new era, and it hasn’t happened quite yet.

But he’s been good, and he’s coming off his strongest run yet. He didn’t hit a whole lot of downfield passes, but the absence of playmaking receivers had something to do with that. He’s still a dangerous runner, connected on 71% of his throws, and now in his fourth season he should be even sharper.

2. C Cameron Jurgens, Soph.
3. TE Austin Allen, Jr.
4. OT Bryce Benhart, RFr.
5. RB Markese Stepp, Soph.


Nebraska Football Schedule 2021: Analysis, Best and Worst Case Scenarios

Best Nebraska Cornhuskers Defensive Player

LB JoJo Domann, Sr.
A few defensive backs could make an argument for this spot, but Domann continues to be the main man for a defense that keeps improving.

The 6-1, 230-pounder is a beefed up former safety who turned in a strong junior year with 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks with ten tackles for loss, and followed it up with a team-high 58 stops. He needs to get into the backfield a wee bit more as a pass rusher, but he’s got the wherewithal to be a solid pass defender and disruptive force.

2. S Marquel Dismuke, Sr.
3. S Deontai Williams, Sr.
4. DE Ben Stille, Sr.
5. LB Will Honas, Sr.

Top Incoming Nebraska Cornhuskers Transfer

RB Markese Stepp, Soph.
It’s hardly a sure thing that he’s the main man running the ball even when he’s healthy – he suffered a foot injury this offseason but should be ready to go in the fall – but the talent is there to be the lead back.

The 6-0, 235-pound former USC Trojan from for just over 500 yards with six touchdowns in his three years, averaging over five yards per carry. He’s got the power to go along with a nice burst, and he’s not going to have to do it all with all the young talent in the rotation.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Nebraska Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

Nebraska Cornhuskers Biggest Key: Offense

A downfield passing game would be a big, big help. This, and stopping the turnover problem are vital to any sort of success. There’s a massive fumbling issue – 22 of them, losing nine – that has to go away, but making things happen down the field is even bigger.

Adrian Martinez and the now-Louisville Cardinal Luke McCaffrey didn’t have a problem completing passes, but they didn’t go anywhere.

The Husker quarterbacks combined to hit 68% of their throws, but they went for just 9.75 yards per completion with a mere five touchdowns in eight games.

The 2019 Husker quarterbacks averaged over 13 yards per completion, and that’s been about the norm for the program lately. Being under ten yards per try is disastrous, and it’s a big part of the reason why Nebraska lost to Minnesota (3.8 yards per throw) and Northwestern (under five yards per pass).

Nebraska Cornhuskers Biggest Key: Defense

The run defense has to do even more. It was great against Purdue, but that’s partly because the pass defense was getting consistently hammered. Too many other teams were able to bash away.

The Huskers allowed over 200 yards four times in eight games and gave up over four yards per carry. On the positive side, 2020 was a giant improvement for the run D after the previous three seasons, but it still wasn’t enough. In terms of raw numbers, the run D stats tied into another issue.

The pass rush. It was one of the weaker pass rushing defenses in the Big Ten.

For a team that struggled in so many areas on both sides of the ball, pressure and sacks were a big, big help. It’s only a slight coincidence that the Huskers were 3-1 when the came up with multiple sacks and 0-4 when they didn’t.

Nebraska Cornhuskers Key Player To A Successful Season

WR Zavier Betts, RFr.
Adrian Martinez is obviously the team’s most important and key player, but he might only go as far as the receivers can help him.

Wan’Dale Robinson didn’t make a ton of big plays, but he caught a whole lot of passes. Now he’s off to Kentucky, and the most reliable returning targets are probably the tight ends.

The Huskers really, really need a No. 1 wide receiver.

There are a slew of promising targets, and the 6-2, 200-pound Betts is one of the possible stars. He was third on the team in receiving yards with just 131, but he’s got the size and explosion to do a whole lot more.

Nebraska Cornhuskers Key Game To The 2021 Season

at Illinois, Aug. 28
The Huskers were embarrassed by the Illini at home last year, allowing 285 rushing yards, a big day through the air, and 41 points in the ugly loss. This time around it’s a road trip in late August to kick off the season as well as the Big Ten campaign.

Lose this, and it’s uh-oh time with a trip to Oklahoma a few weeks later and a November looming with Ohio State, at Wisconsin, and Iowa to deal with.

Nebraska Schedule Analysis

2020 Nebraska Cornhuskers Fun Stats

– Penalties: Nebraska 54 for 485 yards – Opponents 39 for 357 yards
– Fumbles: Nebraska 22 (lost 9) – Opponents 13 (lost 2)
– 2nd Half Scoring: Opponents 113 – Nebraska 60

NEXT: Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

Nebraska Cornhuskers College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

It could be worse.

Before going on an epic tear of success, Nebraska failed to come up with a winning season between 1955 and 1962.

Even worse, the program followed up a trip to the Rose Bowl in 1940 with nine straight losing seasons.

It’s been four years since Nebraska last had a winning campaign, and that’s not what the place signed up for when Scott Frost left UCF for what seemed like the perfect gig.

So what’s been the problem over the last three years? For all of the various talking points about recruiting, and losing part of the pipeline to Texas, and a few other concerns, they all fall flat considering Northwestern went to two Big Ten championships in the last three seasons.

Minnesota has been solid, and even freakin’ Illinois has made it to a bowl game since Frost took over. That leaves Maryland and Rutgers. Those are the only other Big Ten programs to not get to a bowl game over the last three years.

It’s not necessarily Frost’s fault, but how many Nebraska players have been selected over the last two drafts? Four – and they were all late round fliers.

Of course there have been some excellent Huskers in the NFL over the last several years – Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh among the best of the bunch – but there hasn’t been a top 50 pick since Prince Amukamara went to the Giants in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

There’s a talent problem. However, there’s a strange positive to not having a ton of elite-level stars. You get back a team loaded with experience.

Set The Nebraska Cornhuskers Regular Season Win Total At … 5.5

There are plenty of promising young players who might change things around in a hurry.

The receiving corps and running backs have a world of upside, the defensive line is as deep and as good as it’s been in the Frost era, and the secondary has the potential to be very, very strong.

If Adrian Martinez turns into the special quarterback everyone thinks he can be, all of a sudden this becomes a dangerous team that can finally break though.

It’s time to go against type and start winning all the close battles – 12 of the losses under Frost have been by eight points or fewer.

However …

Buffalo and SE Louisiana. Those are the two wins. There will be more, but considering how many times lately the Huskers found ways to lose games they seemingly had in hand, there aren’t many sure things.

Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota are all winnable – but those are on the road – and the Purdue game at home is a must get.

Northwestern, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa – are you totally sold that Nebraska can win at least two of those? How about the road games at Oklahoma and Wisconsin?

And because there’s been zero luck in the Frost era, the Huskers miss Maryland and Rutgers.

But again, this should be the best Nebraska team in a long while, and there’s no reason to hope for anything less than a winning campaign and a bowl appearance.

It might not be exactly what the base is looking for, but it would be a giant leap forward.

Nebraska is way overdue for a break, and this team might make a few of its own.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
Nebraska Schedule Analysis