NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan

Nebraska's new athletic director grabbed hold of a controversy last week and wrestled it to the ground the same way he did opposing players when he was a former All-American linebacker for the Cornhuskers. In confirming that the football program was being investigated by the NCAA for what initially seem like minor violations, Trev Alberts was providing context for the future of Nebraska football.

This new AD, five weeks on the job, is in charge. His football coach, Scott Frost, might as well be on notice.

You don't need all the quotes. Let's just say ADs are not in the business of rushing to a microphone after being outed over an NCAA investigation.  All you had to do is read the body language. Frost was quickly trotted out in front of reporters with Alberts leading the way in an impromptu press conference addressing the investigation.

The coach looked like a kid who had been caught passing notes in fifth-grade math. Frost looked shamed.

"We just wanted to acknowledge there is an NCAA investigation," Alberts said.

Schools under NCAA scrutiny have literally gone years without admitting that much. So yeah, it's fair to assume Alberts has staked out his territory in Lincoln.

The subtext: Frost is on, well, thin ice. The Nebraska legend enters Year 4 with a new AD looking over his disappointing 12-20 record at his alma mater. Those two things -- a sub-.500 record and a new AD -- are never a good combination for an embattled coach.

The man who hired Frost, Bill Moos, "retired" this summer. (Stepping down five days after the announcement -- 18 months from the end of his contract -- suggested something other than a retirement.)

That record needs some excavating. There have been no three-game winning streaks. Only nine of the wins have come against FBS competition. The last time Nebraska went this long without a bowl game (four years) was 1959.

If the decline continues, Frost's best security might be a buyout that would top $20 million.

"It tells me I better start winning," a grinning Frost said during sparsely-attended appearance in Kearney, Nebraska, this summer. "Starting to feel like The Charlie Daniels Band -- used to be really big, now he just plays county fairs and stuff like that."

Taken all together, the Week Zero opener against Illinois is the most compelling game on Saturday's short schedule. It is a game Frost would be advised to win.

The Illini won by 18 last year in Lincoln. Illinois comes in armed with that confidence and the momentum of new coach Bret Bielema being back in the Big Ten.

The discussion itself whether Nebraska will be relevant again seems to be muted. There are bigger storylines within the Big Ten alone from Jim Harbaugh's survival at Michigan to Penn State's anticipated bounce back to whether Ohio State will run roughshod through the conference.

In that sense, even the hype train has passed Nebraska by. It is a former power trying to get some traction both on the field and in the national conversation.

"Nebraska is a non-factor in the minds of college football prospects," CBS Sports college football writer Barrett Sallee said. "Older folks recognize what Nebraska was, but that's past tense. Players these days view it as just another school that is more or less an afterthought in the Big Ten."

It might be a stretch for the average 18-year-old to recall the greatness of Tom Osborne, Frost's hall of fame coach. It is all so troubling. Frost was a home-run hire in 2018: native son, national champion, the last quarterback progeny of Osborne.

Frost had the chops (Oregon offensive coordinator, UCF coach) and the energy to remake his Huskers. The timing seemed to be perfect. Frost's spring game almost had a spiritual feel to it.

Today, Nebraska's Class of 2022 is currently ranked last in the Big Ten, according to the 247Sports Composite. There are further signs of Nebraska's decline. More than 30 players have transferred since 2020. As of late July, reports stated the record sellout streak of 375 games was in jeopardy.

"We have some work to do," Alberts said of the streak.

Nebraska's is still the biggest name on the schedule this Saturday. That statement may never be made again this season. It is partially a function of the Huskers a) playing on Week Zero and b) there being only five FBS games on Week Zero.

Nebraska remains in that handful of teams that makes the sport better when it's good. But college football has gotten along just fine without it. The Huskers haven't been able to develop the needed momentum despite playing in the Big Ten's "other" division.

They have only one Big Ten West division title in their 10 seasons in the league. The last conference title for Nebraska came in 1999, when it was still in the Big 12.

The program got into a familiar hiring rut that has plagued several high-profile names. In 2018, Frost became Nebraska's fourth coach since 2004. Prior to Frost, none of them had particularly distinguished themselves as head coaches.

Frost was different. Frost was better. Now, Frost is on notice.