The Nebraska Cornhuskers come next in the rankings countdown of toughest Michigan State opponents in 2021. Nebraska insists that it just want to play football, unless it is against the program’s old (and to many fans, their only) rival, the Oklahoma Sooners. The Huskers fall at No. 9 in the rankings as they continue to struggle under head coach Scott Frost as he enters his fourth season at the helm in Lincoln with a 12-20 overall record (9-17 in the Big Ten).
2020 Record: 3-5
The 2020 season is likely going to be the point in time where college football fans look back in the past and point to as the moment Nebraska and the Big Ten decided they needed to start thinking about their eventual break up. That won’t happen for a while, but it will hardly surprise anyone in the years to come after how the Cornhuskers reacted to the fall season’s initial cancelation, and the way Nebraska repeatedly tried to defy Big Ten rules.
The Husker fan base took to Twitter to contrast their virtuous calls for playing football during a pandemic as holy redeemers of reason and public image compared to a conference that was riddled with off-the-field problems, as if the two issues were even remotely the same.
Then there were their players, who mostly being made up of young benchwarmers, filed a lawsuit against the conference based on dubious claims of damages to future name, image, likeness income guaranteed by a state law that would not take effect for at least another year.
Finally the season was back on and suddenly the Big Ten had it out for the Cornhuskers because they had to face off against Ohio State in the delayed season opener. Apparently having to play a conference schedule was not what Nebraska meant, and the Huskers made that clear when Wisconsin had to cancel, or intentionally ducked Nebraska if you listened to their fans on Twitter, due to a widespread COVID-19 outbreak in just the second week of the abridged season.
The Huskers decided to search around for another opponent and found Tennessee-Chattanooga was available. Despite protocols calling for daily antigen testing and twice weekly PCR testing of players and staff, Bill Moos, Nebraska’s athletic director, paid for a round of PCR testing prior to the announcement the Cornhuskers were requesting permission for the game, and claimed that these were stricter procedures than the Big Ten had. The conference-only season meant conference games only, however, and Nebraska limped to a 3-5 finish and voted not to play in a bowl game.
Nebraska owns a 9-2 record in the series, and has won the last two contests. However, the 2015 and 2012 wins were narrow margins and on controversial (aka game-altering bad calls that should not have been made). So Michigan State could very well be 4-2 in conference play with proper officiating instead of 2-4, but I digress. Also of note is that Scott Frost is 0-1 in games at Spartan Stadium following his lone visit as the offensive coordinator at Oregon in 2015. He did not travel with the team as a backup transfer quarterback with Nebraska in 1996.
2021 Offensive Outlook
This one is a bit tough to predict as the entire 2019 wide receiver recruiting class has entered the transfer portal or already transferred. Leading receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, who had 461 yards last year on 51 catches, left for Kentucky. Also gone are Jamie Nance, Darien Chase, and Demariyon Houston, none of whom saw the field last season.
However, Oliver Martin, Samori Toure, and Omar Manning all project to be the top wideouts next season and were transfers in. Martin started at Michigan in 2018 where he had a career high 125 yards on 11 catches that season, transferred to Iowa, then to Nebraska in 2020 where he had five catches for 63 yards. Toure was a top receiver at the FCS level in 2019 at Montana, and Manning was a junior college commit, but never played in 2020 due to a mixture of injuries and off-field issues.
Also transferring out of the program is backup quarterback Luke McCaffrey. Taking his place on the depth chart looks to be rising sophomore and former four-star recruit Logan Smothers who has not taken a snap in a game yet after redshirting in 2020. Leading the Husker offense will be Adrian Martinez as he enters his senior season. The once freshman phenom has been plagued by injuries, a poor offensive line, and inconsistent play since his breakout first season in Lincoln. Yet he still managed 1,055 yards and 71.5 percent accuracy on 151 attempts with a four touchdown to three interception difference.
The running back position will be a question mark, as redshirt sophomores Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson, along with redshirt freshman Sevion Morrison, will likely be battling it out for time on the field possibly as the backup. True freshman Marvin Scott III earned one start and was the second leading running back in total yards (but was fifth on the team overall) in 2020. The leading rusher in 2020, Dedrick Mills, entered the 2021 NFL Draft and signed on as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions.
The offense has put up a lot of yards under Scott Frost, but it has hardly been the explosive and high-scoring unit the incoming head coach promised the Big Ten defenses would need to adjust to back in 2018. Instead, the transfer portal has seemingly needed to adjust to his offense and media were quickly subjected to rants about wearing hoodies during warmups rather than trash-talking the league (Indiana not withstanding).
2021 Defensive Outlook
The defense was finally the strong point for Nebraska last season after being one of the worst in the league in Frost’s first two seasons. Although, strong point may give the wrong impression. The Huskers gave up an average of 29.4 points per game last season, good for eighth in the league. MSU was dead last in the Big Ten with 35.1 points per game, so it is hard to not look like I am throwing unfair shade at Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers did give up 41 points to Illinois after all.
In the secondary, the Huskers return Cam Taylor-Britt as a senior after he led the team last season with six passes defended and two interceptions. He was second on the team in pass breakups with four, but Dicaprio Bootle left for the NFL Draft. Taylor-Britt was tied with multiple players for 14th in the league in total passes defended last season.
The defensive line looks to be anchored by redshirt senior Ben Stille and redshirt freshman Ty Robinson and the defensive ends totaled 44 tackles between the two of them. Redshirt senior linebacker Will Honas was set to return this fall as well, but suffered a knee injury in spring practice that makes his return by the game against Michigan State questionable. He was second on the team in tackles with 57 total last season, and had 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
However, the biggest asset on the defensive side of the ball will likely be JoJo Domann who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition last season after leading the Huskers with 58 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. The outside linebacker was also named as a top-five returning linebacker by Pro Football Focus College.
Why No. 9?
I think I have laid out more than enough of a case by now to make clear the Cornhuskers have been a dumpster fire since deciding to fire Mike Riley before the 2017 season even started. Nebraska struggles on offense, and on defense, the Huskers have not shown to have necessarily turned a corner in 2020. What hurts Nebraska the most in this is where the game falls on the schedule.
The Huskers enter this one as a second-straight road game and the prior opponent is being hyped right now as the preseason No. 1, Oklahoma. The Sooners will likely make mince meat of their old rival and, with a run heavy quarterback in Martinez, may not even have a healthy starter under center in East Lansing. Add in the off-season distraction of Nebraska possibly trying to duck out of the Oklahoma game and you have the recipe for a bad weekend for the program prior to the game at Michigan State. Meanwhile MSU will enter this one following a road trip to Miami and be playing at home. All told, it should favor the Spartans, who will have Payon Thorne or Anthony Russo as a viable backup to whoever wins the starting job.
This is a must win game for the Spartans early in the season if they want to be confident of securing a bowl bid in November. Nebraska is still very much in rebuild mode at this point, and despite Nebraska looking down their nose at MSU as a program beneath them, this matchup has seemed to be a cursed letdown for the Spartans in the past.
Just this once it would be nice to lay down the royal ass whooping Michigan State is long overdue to dish out in this matchup, and perhaps Mel Tucker can channel his 2019 Colorado comeback early in the game and keep the gas on throughout. It will probably be close down to the wire, though.