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Nearly every metric says Nebraska is improving under fourth-year coach Scott Frost except the team's record, which paints the picture of a program flailing under the quarterback-turned-savior tasked with bringing one of college football's bluebloods back to national prominence.
After a competitive loss on Saturday to Ohio State, the Cornhuskers sit at 3-7 overall and 1-6 in the Big Ten, in sole possession of last place in the West division. With two games left in the regular season, Frost is assured of his fourth losing finish; overall, the program has five losing seasons in a row and six in the past seven years.
Nebraska nonetheless announced that Frost will return in 2022 under a restructured contract and with a number of coaching changes, citing growth unrepresented in the standings.
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"I have been clear that I have been looking for incremental progress, and I have seen that in several key areas this season," athletics director Trev Alberts said in a statement.
"Our team has continued to compete at a high level and the young men in our program have remained unified and shown great resiliency, which is an important reflection on the leadership of Coach Frost and his staff."
The school's decision to retain Frost is a reflection on several factors unique to Nebraska:
For starters, there's the huge financial cost of a coaching change and subsequent hire. As of Dec. 1, the school would have owed Frost $20.4 had he been fired without cause. That total grows when taking into account the cost of hiring a new head coach and staff of incoming assistants.
There's the slim list of no-doubt replacements and the program's overall distaste over the idea of starting from scratch for the sixth time since Tom Osborne retired in 1997. The openings at LSU and Southern California will be joined by others in the weeks to come, further diluting the school's pool of candidates. If you can't bring in Matt Campbell, Matt Rhule or Luke Fickell, what's the point?
The Cornhuskers have tried a number of coaches in the past 25 years: the longtime assistant (Frank Solich), the NFL retread (Bill Callahan), the fiery defensive coordinator (Bo Pelini), the calming grandfather (Mike Riley) and the can't-miss local hotshot (Frost). What Nebraska has not tried is patience, even if selling persistence in the face of four consecutive losing years will flop among a good portion of the fan base and make the school a punchline among its Big Ten rivals.
Lastly, there is the sense inside and out of the program that Nebraska is close to some sort of a breakthrough — if not to the top of the Big Ten, at least into position to be in annual contention for the West.
The Cornhuskers have outscored opponents 190-176 in conference play with just one win. They've outscored all opponents 286-209. No loss has come by more than nine points. Nebraska has also faced perhaps the nation's most difficult schedule, with games against four teams ranked in the top eight of the debut College Football Playoff rankings. Still ahead in the final two games are Wisconsin and Iowa, which were also in the committee's initial top 25 last week and won Saturday.
There's no question the Cornhuskers compete, even if eventually undone by mistakes on special teams, mental miscues on offense and the tendency to melt down late in close games — factors that can be attributed to coaching as much as physical ability.
Does the team's effort reflect positively on Frost? Absolutely. But doesn't the Cornhuskers' inability to stay composed reflect poorly on his leadership? The duality gets to the root of the dilemma for Nebraska as the program aims to get back to respectability in the Big Ten.
Yet at a moment when multiple Power Five schools have made midseason firings and several, most recently Texas Tech, have even made midseason hires, Nebraska's announcement goes against the grain to represent one of the most unique decisions in recent Football Bowl Subdivision history.
To bring back a coach after four straight losing seasons is nearly unheard of, and even then reserved only for historic also-rans: Duke, Vanderbilt, Indiana and Rutgers are among the short list of schools to do so since 1990.
The number of coaches to reward that faith is even smaller. Greg Schiano turned things around with the Scarlet Knights. David Cutcliffe has found success with the Blue Devils.
A better analogy for Frost may be former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who played cornerback for the Hokies, won games at Murray State, returned to his alma mater in 1987 with the program facing scholarship restrictions and went 24-40-2 in his first six seasons. Beamer wouldn't have another losing finish before retiring in 2015.
He'll get one more shot to prove he can turn things around, with an almost brand-new staff of coaches on offense and with zero room for error. No coach will enter the 2022 season under greater pressure to deliver: Frost must win and win big to justify the faith.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nebraska keeping Scott Frost shows rare faith after losing season