Hype met reality Saturday in Lincoln, Neb., and reality won. Reality always wins, even against this hype.
This is hype multiplied to the nth power, the sort that sometimes tornadoes through college football but never at a place like Nebraska. Scott Frost will do this to people: He’ll get the Nebraska football program to believe it can be something after a generation of doing nothing, which is pretty powerful stuff.
In that big picture, the hype is justified. Frost was and is a dream hire. It’s safer today to say he’ll achieve great things at his alma mater than to say he’ll crash and burn.
In the meantime, reality’s still undefeated. A slight dose came to Nebraska and showed how this process is going to go: tough, a slog, without any breaks, without any shortcuts and, for at least a little while, as many losses as wins. In a few years, maybe, the Cornhuskers will look back on Saturday’s 33-28 loss to Colorado and ask: We lost to these guys? If you’re surprised today it’s because you ignored the truth of the situation.
Frost has been saying since his arrival, sometimes loudly but often just on the margins of a conversation, that this whole thing was going to take time. It’s why he took the job in the first place. Nebraska was a place that tugged at the heartstrings and all that, but what really sold the former title-winning quarterback was the goodwill. His leash is longer than pretty much any other coach in the country. Florida and Tennessee might’ve said the right things, but Frost always knew the score. Few have it better than he’s got it in Lincoln.
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Or worse, in a way. The hype has been out of control since the day Frost signed his name on the dotted line. It was inevitable that days like Saturday would happen — but that didn’t stop the hype from blurring the truth of the situation. Losing at home to Colorado validates what Frost has been saying-but-not-saying for about eight months: This is an average team that will steadily get better. This isn’t going to be like Central Florida. Or it will, just not the UCF you’re thinking of: Try UCF in 2016, not 2017.
He even said it to USA TODAY Sports from Big Ten media days in Chicago. We need to get our place in place, he said, but Nebraska will be “competing for our side,” meaning the Big Ten West, next season. This year, Nebraska should take six wins — if the Cornhuskers can get it — and be happy.
But there were positive signs on Saturday, even as the biggest was clouded by what would be a crippling blow to the Cornhuskers’ bowl chances.
The offense was humming far better than could’ve been expected, racking up 565 yards in total yardage and rushing for 329 yards, a program-best since Sept. 27, 2014. In Frost’s first game, Nebraska rushed for more yardage than in any game during Mike Riley’s failed three-year tenure. So that’s a positive sign.
Newcomers made their mark at the skill positions. Running back Maurice Washington had a play or two that spoke to his bright future. A few additions on the defensive side had their moments. And quarterback Adrian Martinez was as expected: The freshman wasn’t cowed by the scene in his first start, and showed the sort of athleticism and a runner and deep touch as a passer to be a name to know on a national level. And then he got hurt.
The severity of Martinez’s knee injury isn’t known quite yet, though Frost did say postgame that the early word is “semi-encouraging,” a modified phrase only a football coach would say. The depth behind Martinez has been a worry since redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia transferred to Oregon State. Now it’s a major concern, one that would alter the Cornhuskers’ projected results in the run through Big Ten play.
That matters, but it also sort of doesn’t. This isn’t a one-year thing for Nebraska but a long-term plan. A win against Colorado wouldn’t have changed that. Nor does a loss. The season that’s coming over the next three months won’t change that. So believe the hype about Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers. Just don’t ignore reality.