LINCOLN, Neb. – It is extremely rare for a program one year removed from the worst start in school history and coming off back-to-back four-win campaigns to finds itself in the conversation of being a top-25 team and considered among the most legitimate challengers for a conference title. That is the position Nebraska finds itself entering 2019, and it will attempt to live up to those expectations starting Saturday when it hosts South Alabama.
TV: Noon ET, ESPN. LINE: Nebraska -36.
The Cornhuskers got off to a 0-6 start under first-year coach Scott Frost before turning their season around in a big way by winning four of their final six contests, losing only a pair of road games to Ohio State and Iowa. Nebraska's finish caught the eye of the media and opposing coaches alike, opening this season ranked 24th in the Associated Press poll and garnering the most votes by any unranked team in the coaches poll. Much of the optimism is fueled by the quick turnaround Frost orchestrated at UCF and Adrian Martinez, who set 11 school records after becoming the first true freshman quarterback to start an opener in school history last year. The Jaguars, who are still in search of their first winning season heading into their eighth year at the FBS level, might be hard-pressed to keep up with the Cornhuskers' high-powered offense after ranking 123rd in scoring defense (38.8 points) in coach Steve Campbell's first year in charge.
ABOUT SOUTH ALABAMA (2018: 3-9)
Tra Minter (team-high 801 yards rushing) became the first player in program history to run for 200 yards in a game in the Jaguars' season finale against Coastal Carolina and finished the season ranked eighth in the country with 150.3 all-purpose yards per game. Kawaan Baker - a preseason second-team All-Sun Belt selection - managed to tie a school record with 13 total touchdowns despite handling only 59 carries and tallying 33 receptions. Tyree Turner is the anchor of the defensive line at 6-1 and 305 pounds and was voted as a preseason first-team all-conference selection after totaling 51 tackles, a team-high 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2018.
ABOUT NEBRASKA (2018: 4-8)
Martinez, who ranked 12th nationally and led all freshmen nationally in total offense per game (295.1 yards) last year, also set school marks for 300-yard total offense (seven) and 400-yard total offense (three) games. Despite the graduation of 1,000-yard receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., there is plenty of depth at receiver, including junior JD Spielman and highly touted freshman Wan'Dale Robinson. Assuming the Cornhuskers are without presumptive starting running back Maurice Washington for the opener - he's awaiting an update on a pending court case - it is possible Dedrick Mills will draw the start after rushing for 1,358 yards and a NJCAA-best 19 touchdowns at Garden City Junior College (Kan.) last year.
1. Mills' 771 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns as a freshman at Georgia Tech in 2016 is more than the rest of the running backs on the Nebraska roster combined.
2. After amassing 66 receptions and 818 receiving yards last year, Spielman enters his junior season 68 catches and 1,099 receiving yards away from breaking the school records in each category.
3. Martinez ranked fourth nationally among all freshmen in passing yards at 237.9 yards per game in 2018.
PREDICTION: Nebraska 48, South Alabama 14