When the Associated Press preseason Top 25 was released earlier this month, the names at the top were familiar. Clemson was first, Alabama second, and the rest of the top 10 was littered with recent contenders like Oklahoma, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. But toward the bottom, there was a bit of a surprise. The Nebraska Cornhuskers were ranked No. 24 (with one voter putting them as high as No. 12) despite finishing each of the past two seasons at 4-8.
That puts Nebraska in rare company. Since preseason polls began in 1950, only 31 teams have ever been ranked after a losing season, most recently Texas two years ago. And just five had a record worse than the Huskers.
What makes Nebraska even more unusual is the sustained losing entering this season. Just nine other schools have been ranked in the preseason after consecutive losing seasons. None came off consecutive eight-loss seasons — or even had as many combined losses over the previous two years.
So, why Nebraska? Do the Huskers deserve the early recognition?
A lot of the excitement comes from Scott Frost, in his second year coaching Nebraska. In Frost’s second year at the University of Central Florida, just two years removed from a winless season, his team finished undefeated. Husker fans and the media seem to expect a similar second-year bump.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez showed promise last season as a true freshman despite battling injuries. Just 19 years old, Martinez is in the top five of Heisman betting favorites.
And in Frost’s first year, the Huskers did finish with a better team than the one that started — possibly only because the one that started was horrible. Nebraska began 0-6, the worst start in program history, before winning four of its last six and losing a one-score game to eventual Big Ten champion Ohio State — though the Huskers’ “signature win” was a touchdown-free 9-6 victory over Michigan State, which finished just 7-6 on the year.
Despite finishing 2018 sixth in a weak Big Ten West division, Nebraska is getting a lot of attention, with some even saying it could be a title contender. The question is if that will translate to an improved team this season.
Let’s look at the 31 teams who were ranked in the preseason poll after a losing season and see what we can learn from them.
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You might think that teams with a new coach or quarterback would get the nod in the polls, with a new regime the sign of a turnaround to come. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Of those 31 ranked teams, 27 had the same coach as the previous season, and 23 had the same quarterback;1 61 percent kept both; not a single one had a new coach and a new quarterback. Voters may be expecting an improvement from teams keeping the same core.
Most of these teams also didn’t have a “hot” finish to the prior season. Only UCLA in 1995 came in with three straight wins. Just six teams won their last game of the season (1990 UCLA had a tie) and the 31 teams averaged barely one win over the last three games and less than two wins over the last five.
These teams do seem to get the benefit of the doubt from their pedigree, something Nebraska certainly has. More than 80 percent had won a championship at some point in team history, and more than half within the past 25 years. All but one played in a major conference.2 Nebraska seems to fit this category. Most voters probably still remember Nebraska’s three championships between 1994 and 1997, the last two when Frost was quarterback.
Unlike Nebraska, however, most of the 31 ranked teams had a more recent track record of success, even within their two previous years. And the majority had a postseason top-10 ranking within just the previous five years. Nebraska, meanwhile, hasn’t won even its division since 2012 and has lost at least four games for 15 straight years.
But history may be on Big Red’s side. Of those 30 other ranked teams, we would expect3 12 or 13 to be top 25 in the postseason. Sixteen were. And of the other nine that were ranked after two losing seasons, six finished top 20, and all finished with more wins than losses.
The high hopes in Nebraska are a lot to live up to. But a significant turnaround wouldn’t be unprecedented. Five years ago, TCU went from 4-8 to 12-1 and very nearly made the college football playoff. In 2012, Ohio State rebounded from a 6-7 season to finish 12-0 under new head coach Urban Meyer (though the Buckeyes were ineligible for the postseason). And back in 1964, coming off a 2-7 season, Notre Dame and new head coach Ara Parseghian from Northwestern went 9-1 for a share of the national championship.
A lot will have to go right for Nebraska to complete a major rise. We’ll soon find out if they’re up to the task.