When looking for a team to take a step forward in the Big Ten in 2018, you can only look one direction. Progress is a more realistic goal in the West than the East. The East is dominated by programs like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State. A quartet currently ranked in the top 14 of the preseason AP Top 25 poll.
The West, meanwhile, has a top 15 team of its own. In fact, it has a top five team as Wisconsin will begin the season ranked No. 4. What the Badgers don't have right now is an obvious rival for the division crown. If you're looking for a possible contender for that spot, you'd be wise to look further to the West until your eyes rest on Nebraska.
The West is wide open
As mentioned, Wisconsin is the clear-cut favorite in the Big Ten West, and even if there are reasons to be optimistic about Nebraska in 2018, you're a bit delusional if you think the Huskers will beat the Badgers in the division this year. That's not to say it's impossible, but it's improbable.
Still, when you look around the rest of the division at teams besides Wisconsin, there is plenty of room to work. Northwestern finished last season in second place with 10 wins, but it enters 2018 without its workhorse running back of the last four seasons, and a quarterback recovering from a torn ACL suffered during the bowl game. The schedule doesn't do the Wildcats any favors, either.
Purdue was last season's surprise, but its defense played a significant role in that surprise, and nearly every major contributor on that unit doesn't return this season.
Iowa should be solid and is more likely to finish in second than Nebraska, but it also has the least-experienced offensive line in the Big Ten, which may limit its ceiling.
Minnesota is starting a true freshman walk-on at QB (though, to be clear, he was a three-star recruit with offers from other Power Five schools) and has a very young team. Look up and down the two-deep and you'll find a boatload of sophomores and freshmen as P.J. Fleck looks to establish a baseline for his program.
Illinois might be poised to take a significant step forward, but a significant step forward for the Illini would be 5-7, not posing a threat in the division.
Then there's Nebraska. A team with plenty of flaws of its own, but one that's still talented. While Mike Riley didn't win nearly enough games in Lincoln, he kept the flow of talent churning. While Nebraska hasn't been recruiting at a level to compete for national titles, it's continually had the best or second-best class in the West Division. So as Scott Frost and staff look to revitalize the program, they have some useful ingredients to work with.
The Frost Effect
Have you heard that Nebraska hired Scott Frost? It did, and it's a move that will pay off down the line. Not only is this the same Frost that helped lead Nebraska to its last national title in 1997, but it's the same Frost that turned around a UCF program in the blink of an eye.
UCF went 0-12 in 2015 and brought in Frost from Oregon, where he was the offensive coordinator. The Knights immediately improved to 6-7 in Frost's first season, reaching the Cure Bowl. Then, last year, UCF went 13-0 and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl to finish the season ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25.
It was a dramatic turnaround and one that doesn't happen by accident.
Now, that kind of quick fix isn't realistic at Nebraska. While Frost is inheriting a team that went 4-8 instead of 0-12, it's a lot easier to improve a team by six wins during your first season in the AAC than it will be in the Big Ten, where you'll have to play road games against Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin (though, UCF did play a road game against Michigan in 2016 as well, losing 51-14). Of course, the good news is Frost doesn't need a six-win improvement in 2018. A two or three-win improvement would likely be more than enough to appease the fan base.
A big reason for UCF's improvement under Frost was his offense. After averaging 13.9 points per game in 2015, the Knights offense scored 28.8 points per game in 2016, and that number increased to 48.2 points per game last season. Nebraska has more to work with, as it averaged 25.8 points per game last year.
Still, the real difference won't be on the scoreboard, but in the way it plays, and the pace it moves. During Frost's two seasons at UCF, the Knights ran an average of 949.5 plays per season on offense. Nebraska ran 827 plays on offense last year. While there isn't any clear evidence that running more plays on offense wears a defense down as the game rolls on, the fact of the matter is that being different is good. It's why we see teams like Georgia Tech and Navy continually prove to be a pain in the butt for conference opponents despite a disadvantage in talent.
There aren't a lot of teams in the Big Ten that move at the pace Frost wants his offense to operate at, making it more difficult to prepare for every week. The Nebraska offense won't be a finished product in 2018 -- odds are it will be starting either a redshirt or true freshman at QB -- and will hit bumps in the road, but it will cause headaches for opposing defenses and should be much more explosive than the 2017 Nebraska offense proved to be. Particularly in the run game behind four returning starters on the offensive line.
Defense will be better because it can't get much worse
Nebraska lost six of its final seven games last season. It's lone win -- a narrow 25-24 victory on the road at Purdue -- was the only one of those seven games in which the Huskers allowed fewer than 30 points. In fact, Nebraska allowed 54 points to Minnesota (a team that averaged 19.2 points per game in its other 11 contests), 56 points to Penn State and then another 56 points to Iowa in its final three games.
To summarize the situation, Nebraska's defense in 2017 was abysmal. Seriously, look up a defensive stat in 2017 -- either a traditional stat or an advanced metric -- and you'll find Nebraska near the bottom of the list. Because of this, and because of Nebraska's talent level, this is a unit that should improve by default, and that will help the Huskers improve overall.
Erik Chinander has taken over the defense after running things for Frost at UCF, and he'll bring an approach that's more aggressive than what Bob Diaco did in 2017. While both coordinators run a version of the 3-4, Diaco preferred dropping seven or eight guys into coverage and didn't bring a lot of extra pressure on the quarterback. Chinander's approach is more aggressive.
"We're more on the side of a one-gap 3-4 with occasional two-gappers," Chinander told reporters during the spring. "Very aggressive in bringing a fourth or a fifth rusher and playing up on people in coverage.
"Either we're going to have the personnel to get to the quarterback, or I'm going to have to manufacture it. That's my job. We're going to get it done. I don't know if it's going to be we line up with four, or we line up with three and do blitz packages and get there, but we'll get there. It's a very aggressive style."
Considering how many players return on the defensive side of the ball, Chinander will have an experienced unit to work with, which should help the implementation of this new philosophy go smoother.
Don't expect Nebraska to return to the glory days of its Blackshirts in 2018, but a move toward the middle of the conference in overall defense would result in a major step forward in the standings.
And it's another reason why Nebraska is a team you'll want to keep an eye on during the 2018 season.