College football is just around the corner -- we’re less than five weeks away from the Gophers’ season opener on Aug. 30. So, with that in mind, I’ll take a look at Minnesota’s 12 opponents by asking five questions to a beat writer covering that team. Today’s installment is Game 7, at Nebraska.
When, where: Oct. 20, Memorial Stadium, time, TV to be determined
2017 record: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten
Opponent’s beat writer: Evan Bland, Omaha World-Herald
Five Questions for Evan Bland on Nebraska
1. Who wins the Cornhuskers' starting quarterback job and why?
This will be the hottest topic of fall camp. Nebraska has five QBs in its room – including UCF transfer Noah Vedral, who likely won't be eligible this season, and sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch – but the battle will probably come down to redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and true freshman Adrian Martinez.
There are arguments for both. Gebbia has earned the respect of his teammates and owns a reputation as a quick information processor, which coach Scott Frost lists as the top trait for any of his quarterbacks. But he's also not a burner and not a Frost recruit. Martinez, meanwhile, flashed his considerable speed during the spring game, and Frost thought highly enough of him to fly across the country to California for an in-home visit last winter while still coaching UCF's bowl practices.
Ultimately, the evaluation may come down to long-term upside as the coaching staff embarks upon its first season. Martinez appears to have more of the qualities of past Frost quarterbacks, including Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. In what has been a dead heat to this point, I'd expect Martinez to eventually earn the edge. But don't rule out the possibility of both getting some playing time early on.
2. Nebraska's defense gave up 36.4 points per game (116th nationally) and 214.8 rushing yards per game (115th nationally). What must this group do to restore the Blackshirts mystique?
The 2017 defense may have been the worst in Nebraska history. In addition to the avalanche of points and yards allowed, it tied for 106th out of 130 Division I teams in turnover margin at minus-seven.
Guess which team ranked second in turnover margin last year? Yep, UCF, at plus-17. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander runs an aggressive scheme aimed at collecting as many sacks and turnovers as possible in order to put the ball back in the hands of a Scott Frost offense that has inhabited the top five of college football's scoring offenses every year except 2016 (his first at UCF) since he took over as Oregon's offensive coordinator in 2013. The yardage and points allowed might not be among the prettiest nationally, but these Blackshirts will be willing to take chances. With that should come a physicality that was absent under previous coach Mike Riley.
As an aside, players have already said the fast-paced defense is a breath of fresh air from the wait-and-see approach of last season. With nearly the entire defensive line and most of the linebacking corps back, improvement could come quickly.
3. What is a realistic expectation for Nebraska in Scott Frost's first year as coach?
One of the nation's most difficult schedules may actually do Frost a favor in Year One. The home games (Akron, Colorado, Troy, Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State) are all winnable. The road contests (Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State and Iowa) each provide a chance for the Huskers to make a statement. Plus, Frost has made clear – and fans have accepted – that this thing might need a season to get rolling.
The most popular prognostications for the Huskers are in the range of 6-6 to 8-4. I see a 7-5 regular season, with a home loss sprinkled in and one upset away from Memorial Stadium. This team already had talent, but now it adds a proven staff. Most Husker fans would say they'd be thrilled to be consistently competitive in 2018 after a long pattern of blowout losses in the big games.
4. Nebraska will beat the Gophers if ...
... After last year, stopping Minnesota's quarterback run game would be a nice start. If Nebraska can have its offense up to speed by Oct. 20 – with an established QB starter – it should make the game interesting. If in addition the defense is playing to Frost's no-fear-of-failure mantra and creating chaos, the Huskers will be feeling good in front of another sellout crowd at home.
5. The Gophers will beat Nebraska if ...
... There's a cultural and schematic shift going on in Lincoln and, frankly, it might not be ready when the Gophers come to town. The NU returners would love to erase the memory of the 54-21 setback that was perhaps the breaking point of the lost 2017 season. But bringing in personnel to fit a new up-tempo offense takes time, and so does a defensive overhaul for a system that will ask players to do things much differently. And all that is to say nothing of the Gophers, who should be more established in Year Two under P.J. Fleck.
Looking for more on the upcoming college football season? Check out some previous posts at: