Tell me it isn't the case, Nebraska football fans.

Tell me that many of you don't have some sort of internal barometer to determine whether the Huskers are receiving the level of respect nationally that you think they deserve.

It's an easy read this summer. Nebraska is a darling of the national prognosticators even after back-to-back 4-8 seasons. The Huskers are darlings even though they have won only two of their past 13 games away from home. They are darlings even though they are a combined 1-14 against Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State since 2015. They are darlings even though they often defended the run the past two seasons like they were, well, sweethearts of the rodeo.

Don't look now, but three of the four major preseason college football magazines picked Nebraska to win the Big Ten West Division in 2019. Among Phil Steele, Athlon, Street and Smith's, and Lindy's, only Lindy's didn't have the Huskers winning the division, instead picking them to finish third. Meanwhile, several preseason polls have NU in the top 25, usually in the Nos. 17 to 25 range.

Never mind that Nebraska hasn't finished a season in The Associated Press Top 25 since ending up 25th in … drum roll, please … 2012.

Oh, darling.

Life's wickedly interesting, isn't it? In a somewhat curious development, the expectations for Nebraska football in 2019 by national media seem to exceed what many within our borders expect from the Huskers. Am I wrong?

We can agree Nebraska fans long for national respect. We're a flyover state. Even in the best of times, Husker fans often felt overlooked by national pundits. Well, the Huskers this summer aren't getting overlooked and it feels, well, sort of odd. If you're a Big Red fan wondering whether all the respect is deserved, it's OK to feel that way, especially if you understand the genesis of the glowing reports: 

1. Nebraska second-year head coach Scott Frost worked magic in 2017 at UCF, his second season at the school. National analysts perhaps envision more magic from Scott.

2. The schedule is much kinder and gentler than last season, with arguably the toughest games — Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa — to be played in Lincoln. I admittedly think the Huskers will go 3-1 in those games. So there's that.

3. Adrian Martinez. Say no more.

Oh, there's actually plenty to say. Plenty will be said and written this week during Big Ten Media Days on Thursday and Friday in Chicago. I'll try to get a better feel for what Frost meant in May when he told the Big Red Blitz crowd in Norfolk, "We won't be where we want to be for a really long time. But we're a lot closer this year than we were last year."

That stands as the quote of the offseason. So far, anyway.

Frost ultimately wants Nebraska to be an elite program along the lines of Alabama and Clemson. But NU has a lot more warts than those teams. National media perhaps don't notice all of NU's warts; they mostly just see Frost and Martinez.

Let's stop and consider what Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants most from his unit. That is, takeaways and sacks and toughness against the run. The Blackshirts had 20 takeaways in 2018, which is eight more than 2017 but still a far cry from UCF's total of 32 in its glorious 2017 season.

Nebraska recorded 25 sacks last year, 11 more than 2017 but still short of UCF's totals of 27 in 2017 and 38 in 2016.

Clemson led the nation with 54 sacks last season.

"We won't be where we want to be for a really long time. …"

If you're a Nebraska fan who experienced the program's halcyon days, the Husker run defense of the last two years must grate on you. NU won't sniff a division crown if it allows 5.57 yards per rush, as was the case in 2017 (124th nationally), and maybe not if it allows 5.0 per rush, as was the case last year (107th). UCF allowed 4.17 in 2017.

Chinander said this spring he thinks Nebraska can be good up front. Finding pass-rushers is always important, but Chinander always points first to the nose tackle, "who has to be the heavyweight champion of the world." In that regard, few players are more critical to NU's hopes of dramatic improvement than Darrion Daniels, the graduate transfer nose tackle from Oklahoma State.

Some folks feel 11 seniors on Nebraska's defense should translate into improvement on that side of the ball. I'm never too quick to adhere to that line of thinking, particularly when it comes to units that struggled the previous season. You know who has 10 starters returning on defense? Illinois. You think the Illini are a shut-down crew?

As for Martinez, the assumption of improvement on his spectacular freshman season makes sense to me because of Frost's sparkling track record developing quarterbacks and because of my faith in Mario Verduzco.

Plus, think about last season. Martinez continually showed poise and maturity beyond his years. As Nebraska stumbled to an 0-6 record, he seemed to size up the situation for what it was and kept moving forward with a sense of calm.

"He's been like that since the first day I met him," Verduzco said.

That said, Patrick Mahomes was 13-16 as a starter at Texas Tech. In other words, Martinez can't do it all. But I can envision him leading Nebraska to an 8-4 regular-season record and pushing for a division title in a wide-open race. An 8-4 finish is my ceiling, although maybe Steele can convince me NU is better than that.

He predicts Nebraska will face Utah in the Rose Bowl.

Oh, darling, that'd be wicked fun — some more Frost magic.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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