Nebraska Football: How Far Are The Cornhuskers From Clemson?

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On January 01, 2009, a fourth-quarter goal line stand helped Nebraska beat Clemson 26-21 to give Bo Pelini a win in his first (non-interim) bowl game. Pelini’s Cornhuskers gave Dabo Swinney a loss in his first bowl game in charge of the Tigers, and at the time it seemed a good foundation upon which to base future success.

Well, we know how that worked out. By 2015, Swinney’s Tigers were a special teams unit away from beating Nick Saban and the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide for a national title. Pelini’s 2015 saw him finishing a 5-6 season in charge at FCS Youngstown State, with his former club needing a win in the Foster Farms Bowl to finish the year at 6-7.

So what’s the difference? Both Pelini and Swinney started at the same time. How did Clemson scale the mountain to reach college football’s elite, while Nebraska languished in the “others receiving votes” valley?

Recruiting

The most glaring difference between Nebraska and Clemson between 2008 and now is how the two teams have recruited. As Dave Bartoo from CFB Matrix has observed, talent level is a critical factor in a winning college football program. Fans don’t like to admit it, but teams that win on National Signing Day are the teams most likely to win over the New Year’s weekend.

So take a look at how Nebraska and Clemson have recruited since that fateful Gator Bowl matchup in 2009. All recruiting rankings are 247 Sports national composite team rankings. I’ve also included the team’s record for that year under each coach, to get an idea of how each team performed.

Year Clemson Recruiting Clemson Record Nebraska Recruiting Nebraska Record
2009 31 9-5 42 9-4
2010 28 6-7 27 10-4
2011 10 10-4 16 10-4
2012 15 11-2 30 9-4
2013 15 11-2 22 10-4
2014 17 10-3 36 9-3
2015 8 14-1 30 6-7
2016 (to date) 11 ??? 34 ???

As you can see, at the start of the Pelini/Swinney era, there wasn’t a huge difference in the recruiting profile between the two schools. Their records bore that out, with Pelini looking like he had the brighter future.

But beginning in 2011, Clemson kicked its recruiting into gear, going from outside the top 25 to well within the top 15. As of 2011, Clemson’s average recruiting ranking nationally was 12.6, while Nebraska averaged 28 in the same time period.

It’s no coincidence that Clemson’s ability to break out of the four-loss quagmire that Nebraska languished in under Pelini coincided with its establishing a top-15 recruiting presence on a regular basis.

A Difference-Making Quarterback

If you watched the national championship game on Monday, you know that Clemson’s ability to compete with Alabama hinged on the brilliance of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. His 478 total yards (!) broke Vince Young’s record, and that was done against Alabama’s NFL-caliber defense.

Alabama was able to overcome Watson looking like the second coming of Russell Wilson only through big plays in the passing game and otherworldly special teams production. As Deadspin observed, Watson deserved better for the performance he gave.

We’ve seen that improved recruiting was able to move Clemson from an also-ran to a player on the national stage. But it was superlative quarterback play that vaulted Clemson to a true national title contender.

How has Nebraska’s starting quarterback play been since 2008? Well …

Name Comp. Att. Comp. % TD INT TD/INT ratio
Taylor Martinez (2008-2012) 575 962 59.8 56 29 1.93
Tommy Armstrong (2013-2015) 474 878 54.0 53 36 1.47
Overall QB output (2008-2015) 1049 1857 56.5 109 65 1.68

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, those numbers aren’t good enough to win the B1G West. They’re sure as heck not good enough for Nebraska to put itself on the national stage in college football. And, disturbingly, Armstrong’s performance on the two most important quarterback metrics (completion percentage and TD/INT ratio) are significantly worse than Martinez’s.

Yes, those numbers don’t take into account rushing yards, or the intangibles that a kid like Armstrong brings to the huddle. But the fact remains that Clemson found itself a difference-making quarterback and was two special teams plays away from lifting a national championship trophy. Nebraska has struggled with inconsistent quarterback performances and is stuck in the “also receiving votes” category.

Clemsoning

It wasn’t all that long ago that Clemson wasn’t really taken all that seriously as a national title contender. Sure, the Tigers had an impressive resume since 2011. But Clemson also had a habit of getting everyone’s hopes up, only to fall flat against lesser opposition.

Thanks to The Solid Verbal (a brilliant college football podcast that you should be listening to on a regular basis if you’ve read this far), this phenomenon of disappointment became known as “Clemsoning.” And, social media being what it is, #clemsoning became a big deal over the years. A big enough deal, in fact, that Swinney went on a three-minute rant about how unfair it was to single his team out for toe-stubbing (according to USA Today).

Nebraska fans should shudder how similar this sounds. Indeed, when SB Nation’s Football Study Hall looked into which teams “Clemsoned” the most, Nebraska was no. 5 on the list when blowouts were factored in.

What does that mean? That it can get better. After Monday’s performance, Clemsoning as a thing is done. Nebraska’s 2015 season was full of Clemsoning (Illinois and Purdue being the two clearest examples). So if NU wants to duplicate Clemson’s rise in the college football world, avoiding the creation of #nebraskaing (thank heaven that doesn’t roll off the tongue) would be a good place to start.

Nebraska Football: The Six Turning Points Of The 2015 Season

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So Sally can wait, she knows it’s too late as she’s walking on by

My soul slides away, but don’t look back in anger I heard you say.

  • Oasis, “Don’t Look Back In Anger”

It’s fair to say that Mike Riley’s first season in charge at Nebraska was full of surprises. A 5-7 campaign was a surprise to just about everyone (except one smart and particularly handsome analyst), made all the more difficult to take by how close it could have been to something else.

Football is a game of fine margins, and most teams can point to a play here and there that would have dramatically changed their fortunes. But Nebraska’s 2015 season seemed filled with those turning points.

So here are six turning points of the 2015 season, on which the results of the campaign rested.

No. 6: The Third-and-Seven Playcall against Wisconsin

The Illinois and Wisconsin games have to be looked at together. You can’t really understand the one without knowing what happened in the other. And in this case, it’s a perfect example of one team letting another beat them twice.

Nebraska went back and forth with Wisconsin in an ugly slugfest, but after an electrifying Andy Janovich touchdown (which would have been the play of the season in a fairer world), Nebraska held a 21-20 lead with 3:38 to go. Wisconsin missed a 39-yard field goal on its next drive, giving Nebraska the ball with 1:26 remaining.

Now, this is where the Illinois game comes in. The week before, Nebraska had a chance to bleed the clock and hold on for an ugly win against Illinois. But an incomplete pass on third-and-seven left enough time for the Illini to victimize Nebraska’s shaky secondary and steal a win.

A week later, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf were clearly haunted by the ghost of a week prior. After two runs, Nebraska faced another third-and-seven, and elected to run the ball into a (functionally) eleven-man Wisconsin defense. The play had no chance at all to be successful, Nebraska was forced to punt, and Wisconsin was able to repeat Illinois’ success against the Blackshirts’ secondary.

The loss against Illinois hurt Nebraska badly. But the ghost of that third-and-seven against Illinois cost Nebraska any legitimate shot at knocking off a reeling Wisconsin team the following week, too.

No. 5: Tommy Armstrong’s Interception in Overtime against Miami

Good grief, the game against Miami didn’t start well for Nebraska. Down 33-10 with 11:14 left in the game, Nebraska was well on its way to being embarrassed on national television.

But then quarterback Tommy Armstrong (with some assist from the now-fired Al Golden, Miami head coach) led Nebraska on an amazing comeback, tying the score at 33 with 33 seconds left and sending the game into overtime.

Nebraska had all the momentum, and a miracle comeback win looked to fill the scarlet and cream sails with positive energy heading into conference play.

And then, on Nebraska’s first play in overtime, Armstrong throws a terrible interception straight into the waiting arms of Miami’s Corn Elder (yes, God help me, that’s his name) and squanders all of the positive momentum gained from that fourth quarter comeback. We’re left to guess what the rest of the 2015 season would have looked like had Nebraska carried that positive momentum forward.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun’s sack against Southern Mississippi

With everything else that happened in 2015, the Southern Mississippi game is easy to forget. But it almost wasn’t.

With 9:30 left in the game, Nebraska had just scored a touchdown and led the Golden Eagles 36-21. In what was a pattern of the 2015 season, though, that lead was far from safe. Southern Mississippi answered with a touchdown to make the score 36-28 with 6:55 left. Nebraska drove to the Golden Eagles’ 8, but Drew Brown’s 29-yard field goal was blocked. Southern Mississippi had the ball with 29 seconds left at its own 20, down a touchdown.

The Golden Eagles got the ball to the Nebraska 40, with time for a Hail Mary. Memorial Stadium was well aware of what happened the last time an opponent tried that play – and that Southern Mississippi knocked off Nebraska in Bill Callahan’s first year in charge as well. So the tension level was high when quarterback Nick Mullens dropped back to heave the ball towards the end zone.

But he never got the chance. Defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun got home and sacked Mullens, preventing Southern Mississippi from asking any questions of a reeling Nebraska secondary. It’s hard to imagine given the way 2015 broke down, but were it not for Akinmoladun’s sack, the season could have been much worse.

No. 3: Mitch Mathews’ Hail Mary Catch for BYU

Welcome to Lincoln, Coach Riley. Mitch Mathews’ Hail Mary catch was one of the iconic moments of the 2015 season nationally (according to ESPN’s Mitch Sherman). And it certainly set the tone for Nebraska’s 2015 season.

Just about everything went wrong for Nebraska on that play. Nebraska chose to rush three, leaving nine back in coverage against BYU’s cadre of tall receivers. One of those three rushers was injured on the play, leaving BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum plenty of time to roll out and heave the ball deep. It didn’t make it, but with no Nebraska defender in front of the play, Mathews’ big body was able to fall into the end zone after making the grab.

The BYU game is really more of an exercise in what-ifs. Had Nebraska held on and won that game, would its mindset have been different going into Miami? Into Champaign? We’ll never know, of course, but it’s hard not to imagine that a hard-fought win over the Cougars would have translated into a far better performance in the rest of the 2015 season.

No. 2: The Third-and-Seven against Illinois

If there was any play that really sunk Nebraska’s season, it was this one. Even after a sloppy, ugly performance, Nebraska had a 13-7 lead with just over a minute to go. It was third-and-seven on the Illinois 27. The Illini had no time outs, so any play that keeps the clock running gives Illinois the ball with about 20 seconds and the length of the field to go, needing a touchdown.

Instead, Armstrong threw an incomplete pass to Janovich. You know the rest of the story.

The thing is, rolling Armstrong out was a perfectly legitimate call. Armstrong just has to know – and coaches have to make sure he knows – that he can’t let the clock stop. And yet that’s just what happened on that fateful third-and-seven, which set the events in motion that cost Nebraska the game.

And not only the game. As discussed earlier, the ghost of this loss haunted Nebraska and led to the doomed-to-fail third down call against Wisconsin that cost Nebraska another game.

So imagine if Armstrong slides instead of throwing the ball, and Nebraska escapes Champaign with an ugly 13-7 win. Then, not haunted by that play, Nebraska does something other than beat its collective head against an eleven-man Wisconsin front, gets a first down, and holds on to beat the Badgers. Even if everything else remains the same, the season ends at 7-5, and feels a heck of a lot different.

No. 1: Brandon Reilly’s Touchdown against Michigan State

I toyed with where this play should be, or even if it should be on the list. Ultimately, it’s here because Nebraska’s win over the Spartans rescued Riley’s fledgling career in Lincoln. A loss to Michigan State puts Nebraska at best at 4-8, and very possibly at 3-9 given the negativity surrounding the program at the time. Riley’s a positive guy, but that would have made for a very, very difficult offseason.

Instead, the win gave Nebraska fans – and Nebraska players – a desperately needed taste of hope for the future. This is what Nebraska can be, beating a top-10 team on national television, when things go right. The celebration of the players after that game told the story of just how important the win was for the program. If Nebraska goes on to win a conference title in the next two or three years (a legitimate possibility, if things break right), then the Michigan State 2015 win was the bedrock upon which those championships were built.

And yet, the argument could be made that the specific play wasn’t all that critical. First of all, the decision not to call Reilly ineligible for going out of bounds was, at best soft. Even Riley himself said he was expecting the penalty to be called.

But so what if it was? Anyone who was watching the Michigan State secondary and how in-rhythm Armstrong was would be comfortably sure that Nebraska would have been likely to score anyway. It’s no guarantee, of course, so that’s why the play remains at the top of the list. But I’m convinced that even if the flag would have been thrown, Nebraska would have won that game regardless.

Shut Up, Of Course 5-7 Nebraska Should Accept A Bowl Bid

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It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.

– St. Augustine

After Nebraska’s 28-20 loss to Iowa dropped NU to 5-7, many fans thought there would be no postseason. But because of the proliferation of bowl games, and the loss of other teams in contention, it appears that Nebraska is almost certain to receive a bowl invitation. The most likely destinations for Nebraska would be the Foster Farms Bowl in San Francisco or the Quick Lanes Bowl in Detroit.

Sure, those aren’t the most glamorous of destinations, especially for a program with the history of Nebraska. As a result, many have suggested that Nebraska should turn down a bowl bid this year.

Look, I love Kenny Bell, both as a person and for what he did in Lincoln. But on this one, he’s just wrong.

What’s important about a bowl invitation for Nebraska isn’t really the game. It’s the extra practices. By going to a bowl, Nebraska should get somewhere between 12 and 15 practices. That’s close to an entire spring practice work of extra work.

That amount of extra time with the players would be invaluable for any team. But for Nebraska, just finishing its first season under new head coach Mike Riley, those extra practices are absolute gold.

It’s not just for installation of Nebraska’s new offensive and defensive schemes, although the extra time working on those concepts is certainly welcome. But coming off a 5-7 season, the bowl practices will provide the coaching staff with more time to work with the current roster, with an eye on 2016.

Again, that’s the point. Sure, bringing home a trophy from the Foster Farms Bowl or the Quick Lanes Bowl would be nice. But it’s the preparation for next year that makes the bowl opportunity one Nebraska can’t afford to turn down.

What’s the argument against going to a bowl? Well, one is that the coaching staff could use the time to focus on recruiting. And, sure, recruiting is a 24/7 activity, and any time spent on future classes should be a benefit.

But Nebraska will still have plenty of time to recruit between the end of December and the beginning of February. And a bowl appearance will give recruits another opportunity to see Nebraska play a meaningful game, and get an idea of how their talents could fit in with Riley’s program.

The recruiting angle, though, isn’t where most people object to Nebraska taking part in a lower-tier bowl. Instead, the argument fundamentally centers around Nebraska being above such a thing. It’s embarrassing, the line of thinking goes, for the scarlet and cream to be seen in a bowl game crammed between ads for oil changes. And if, God forbid, Nebraska loses the game, it ends the season with eight losses.

But, let’s face it. How much of a difference is there in terms of embarrassment between a 5-7 season and a 5-8 season? There’s no question that Nebraska’s season has worked out in a way that no one (well, almost no one) could have seen coming.

Closing your eyes and wishing the 2015 season away, though, doesn’t work. And by declining a bowl invitation solely to avoid embarrassment, Nebraska would be throwing away an extra spring practice worth of time the coaching staff can use to prepare for next season.

Pride in your school, your team, and your program is a good thing. But when pride leads you to make foolish decisions, it’s a problem. While a 5-7 Nebraska team may not be as far away from glory as its record indicated (indeed, this dope even thinks NU should be favored to win the B1G West next year), it’s also not the Nebraska program of the 1990’s.

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999. It is no position to be indulging in selfish pride and turning down an opportunity to get better.

Nebraska Football: Five Things We Learned From the Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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After Nebraska’s 28-20 loss to Iowa left the Cornhuskers at 5-7 for the 2015 season, NU’s fans were left looking to the future. While a bowl game looks to be in the cards, most Nebraska fans are more than ready to turn the page on 2015. But before we let the season go, it’s time to learn what lessons have been learned.

Change Is Hard

Some, like this dope, thought that Nebraska wouldn’t miss a beat when Mike Riley took over from Bo Pelini. Nebraska would be able to retain the best of what it did previously, clean up its mistakes, and take a step forward.

Others, like this smart and particularly handsome analyst, saw Nebraska’s 5-7 season coming.

A new offense and a new defense – and, most importantly, a roster full of players not recruited for the coaches’ system – is a recipe for a rough transition. And even though some of the losses were of the heartbreaking and head-shaking variety, the fact remains that Nebraska had seven of them in 2015.

Hopefully for Nebraska fans, the extra practice from a bowl game (and NU fans better not ever complain about “too many bowls” again) along with an extra year in the system should make 2016 a much better experience.

The Quarterback Is Important

Now that the jury’s in on the 2015 season, let’s take a look at how Tommy Armstrong did.

Year Attempts Completions Yards Comp. % TD INT
2014 345 184 2695 53.3 22 12
2015 428 235 3152 54.9 21 20

Clearly, Armstrong was asked to do more this year than last, with an extra 83 passing attempts (an additional 6.92 attempts per game). Some of that was due to the change in offenses with a new staff, and some was due to the absence of a game-changing back like Ameer Abdullah.

Unfortunately, at the end of 2015 Armstrong’s results didn’t look that much difference than Armstrong in 2014. Armstrong’s completion percentage made a marginal improvement, certainly not enough for Nebraska to be successful. And, worryingly, Armstrong’s touchdown-to-interception ratio got significantly worse, going from 1.83 in 2014 to an abysmal 1.05 in 2015.

Against Iowa, we saw what that number means. Nebraska outperformed Iowa in just about every statistical category. Nebraska’s defense – the source of distress for most of the season – did more than enough to win the game. But Armstrong’s four interceptions were the difference between victory and defeat in this year’s Heroes Game.

That’s to take nothing away from Iowa’s win. The Hawkeyes are a solid squad of ham-and-eggers, doing what they do and waiting for you to make the mistake. That formula has earned Iowa a trip to Indianapolis for, functionally, a play-in game for the College Football Playoff.

Armstrong’s performance this year was not good enough for Nebraska to achieve its goals – just like it wasn’t good enough last year. In 2016, a different quarterback has to be under center for Nebraska. Perhaps it’s a different Armstrong, one who can use his remarkable talents and learn to avoid the back-breaking mistakes. Perhaps it’s four-star phenom Patrick O’Brien, who looks to enroll early and get a head start on learning Riley’s offense. Perhaps it’s one of the other quarterbacks on the roster, like Ryker Fyfe, A.J. Bush, or (my dark-horse pick) Zack Darlington, with an additional year learning the system.

But without improvement at the quarterback position, Nebraska has no chance to advance in 2016.

Old Habits Die Hard

Nebraska found a number of creative ways to lose a football game in 2015. But against Iowa, the refrain was hauntingly similar to losses of Huskers past. Turnovers (four interceptions, and a minus-three turnover ratio) and penalties (eight for 95 yards, compared to Iowa’s six for 54) turned a game that Nebraska dominated statistically into an eight-point loss.

Last year, Nebraska was no. 75 nationally in turnover margin, and no. 56 nationally in penalties (according to cfbstats.com). Against Iowa, the problems that plagued Nebraska in years past came back to cost Nebraska a chance at a winning season in 2015.

Lincoln Ain’t Corvallis

Riley is no stranger to seasons like Nebraska’s 2015. In his second stint at Oregon State, Riley finished 5-7 or worse four times in 12 years. By the end of his tenure in Corvalis, Riley was beginning to feel some heat as a result of the team’s performance.

A sub-.500 record one year in four might earn you 12 years in Corvalis, but not in Lincoln. At least some Nebraska fans are willing to give Riley a pass on 2015, given the combination of a new coach and a host of injuries. But Riley has to know that in Lincoln, 5-7 has to be an anomaly, not a recurring theme.

Patience is No Fun

2015 hasn’t been much fun. A series of losses and catastrophic injuries has made Nebraska’s season one to endure more than enjoy. The hope for Nebraska fans has to be that the spade work of 2015 – learning a new system and adapting the roster to meet the demands of the new scheme – will pay off in years to come.

Thanks to a whole bunch of new made-for-TV bowl games, Nebraska should make a post-season appearance. That means Nebraska will get the extra bowl practices, and a head-start on preparations for the 2016 season.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has said Nebraska should be favored to win the B1G West next season. 2016 seems like a long ways away – and there’s certainly no guarantee of success – but if the crucible of 2015 produces a trip to Indianapolis in 2016, it will all be worth it.

The Nebraska-Iowa Series Could Become A Real Rivalry This Year

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When Nebraska left the Big 12 for the B1G, one question to be asked is who Nebraska’s rival in the conference would be. Nebraska’s traditional day-after-Thanksgiving game needed an opponent, and NU’s neighbor to the east was the natural choice. Soon after the series started, it got the moniker of the “Heroes Game” and an anodyne trophy to play for.

The Nebraska-Iowa series has been competitive since its inception in 2011, with the trophy changing hands each season since 2012. But even with the close games (including an overtime thriller in Iowa City last year), a rivalry between the teams has really failed to launch.

The relative struggles of the two teams may have something to do with the lack of juice in the contest. Only once, in 2012, was a trip to the B1G Championship on the line. Nebraska won the game, but Iowa came into the contest at 4-7 and eliminated from bowl contention beforehand.

Nebraska’s had other fish to fry coming into the league, as well. At the start, Nebraska’s “crossover” rival was Penn State, trying to recapture the history of that series. But the Jerry Sandusky scandal put Penn State on the shelf.

Nebraska has also had quite a history with Wisconsin, most of it not particularly good for the scarlet and cream. Plus, Wisconsin’s success in recent years made the Badgers a much more palatable rival for most Nebraska fans.

But this year has the potential to change all of that. Assuming Iowa can hold serve at home against Purdue, the Hawkeyes will come to Lincoln at 11-0 and with their College Football Playoff destiny in their own hands.

Nebraska, on the other hand, will be sitting at 5-6, needing a win just to guarantee bowl eligibility (and the extra practices that even an appearance in the Pinstripe or Foster Farms Bowl would provide). Dismissive sniffs from Husker fan about Iowa not being good enough to consider a rival will go out the window in 2015.

Iowa fans have, in general, never needed much of a reason to dislike Nebraska. Even when Nebraska was in the Big 12, many Iowa fans have held a special disdain for their Big Red neighbors to the west. The chance to sew up a perfect regular season and guarantee Nebraska a losing season would be an amazing early Christmas present for the black and gold faithful.

Nebraska fans, on the other hand, see this year’s Heroes Game as a chance to maintain some of what they see is order in the football universe. Iowa is enjoying a season for the ages, and (assuming a win over Purdue) would be two wins from the greatest accomplishment in the history of the program.

So one of two things can happen on the day after Thanksgiving. Iowa can knock of the Big Red, sending it to a losing season as it is on its way to compete for a College Football Playoff berth – and having that to hold over the heads of their scarlet-and-cream neighbors for the rest of time. Or, Nebraska can spoil Iowa’s historic chance at glory, and in the process redeem a disastrous first year for head coach Mike Riley.

Yes, the Heroes Game is a manufactured event with an anodyne trophy. But – finally – there’s something important on the line for both teams. A game like this, and the emotions that will be generated on either side of the Missouri River as a result, is the stuff that real rivalries are made of.

Why Nebraska Should Be Favored To Win The B1G West in 2016

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Nebraska football fans have been enduring a horrible, surreal season, seeing their Cornhuskers stumble out of the gate and be sitting at 4-6 with two games remaining. For many, the shock of this season has yet to wear off, and watching loss after loss has dulled their ability to see many good things coming in the future.

Well, keep your chins up, Husker fan. There’s plenty of reason to expect Nebraska to not only rebound from this year, but to be at the top and looking for a trip to Indianapolis next season. Here’s why.

Returning Starters

Here’s a list of Nebraska’s starters that likely will not be back in 2016, either through graduation or leaving early for the NFL

Offense: Alex Lewis (LT), Ryne Reeves (C), Chongo Kondolo (RG), Andy Janovich (FB)

Defense: Maliek Collins (DT), Jack Gangwish (DE), Byerson Cockrell (S)

That means Nebraska should have at least 15 returning starters next season. Yes, Collins will be a big loss if he does leave early for the NFL. And the turnover on the offensive line is a worry, particularly with the lack of rotation we’ve seen this season.

But outside of Janovich, all of Nebraska’s offensive skill position starters will be back next year. The secondary loses only one starter, and should improve after another full season of working in defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system.

And the redshirts from 2015 should begin to pay dividends next year. The Davis brothers (Carlos and Khalil) should be ready to contribute, and have the recruiting pedigree to suggest they can provide some help with Nebraska’s struggling pass rush. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of the highest-rated recruits in last year’s class, will have another year learning the system and should be primed to shore up Nebraska’s pass defense. And the three redshirt offensive linemen, combined with the three redshirt freshmen currently on the roster, should provide some cover for the linemen Nebraska will lose after this season.

So next season Nebraska’s roster should be deeper and more balanced, as well as having more experience in Mike Riley’s system.

Coach Effect

I know Nebraska fans frustrated with losing six games before November don’t want to hear about what a good coach Riley is. And there’s plenty of room to criticize Riley’s handling of the team this year, rest assured.

But if we look at Riley’s performance over his career, those numbers suggest reasons for optimism. Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix has created a metric called “Coach Effect” which uses past performances, talent ratings, and game locations to determine how well coaches do in comparison to how an “average” coach would do.

As of 2014, the most recent data available, Riley is the no. 11 coach in the country in terms of Coach Effect, with a 1.50 score. That means, all else being equal, a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 games more per season than an “average” coach given the talent and schedule of a particular team.

Riley’s Coach Effect score will likely come down after this season, but his number should still be one of the best in the nation. That suggests Riley should have the ability, with a huge number of returning starters next season, to be successful in 2016.

Talent Level

In addition to coaching, Bartoo’s theory of college football involves the teams with the best talent winning. Like his Coach Effect, Bartoo measures a team’s talent level by aggregating recruiting service rankings. As of 2014, Nebraska’s talent rating was no. 24 nationally. That was third in the B1G, and significantly better than Nebraska’s closest B1G West rivals, Wisconsin (no. 40), Iowa (no. 42) and Northwestern (no. 52).

This year’s preliminary recruiting classes suggest Nebraska’s talent edge should continue. According to 247 Sports, Nebraska has the no. 25 class nationally in 2016 recruiting. That puts Nebraska ahead of all its B1G West rivals, like Wisconsin (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Northwestern (no. 48).

So coming into next season, the data suggests that Nebraska’s roster should be as talented – if not more so – than any B1G West team it will face in 2016.

What 2015 Really Means

Yeah, yeah, all of that happy talk is great. But Nebraska is 4-6 with two games to go in 2015. Isn’t it a pretty big leap to expect Nebraska to go from needing a four-game winning streak (including a bowl) to avoid a losing record to a division title?

Well, that would be assuming that Nebraska’s struggles this year are indicative of the program’s true position. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they are not.

I know, you’ve heard all the excuses about Nebraska’s 2015 struggles. But the fact is, five of Nebraska’s six losses were functional coin-flips. A Hail Mary against BYU, one poor decision against Miami, a missed two-point conversion against Northwestern, all the fine margins between a disappointing season and the burning tire-fire of 2015. And the one really ugly blemish on Nebraska’s record, a 10-point loss to a 1-6 Purdue, was on the road with a backup quarterback, a backup running back, and losing NU’s most dangerous offensive weapon.

That’s not to absolve Riley and his staff of responsibility for those losses, of course. But over the course of this year, as the losses have piled up, a malaise has set in on the fanbase. People assumed the worst, that Nebraska’s struggles over this season have become the new normal, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

The underlying fundamentals of the program, though, suggest that 2015 is an anomaly. Nebraska was a nine-win program last year, will be in the second year of a coaching change next year, has a historically over-performing coach, and has equal or better talent than every other team in the division.

That’s not the recipe for a rebuilding year (never mind what a certain athletic director, for reasons known only to him, said earlier). That’s a recipe for a team to bounce back to at least where it was before. And with a coach who has a better track record of performance (Bo Pelini’s coach effect as of 2014 was -0.33, in comparison), it’s not unreasonable to think Nebraska could be primed to break through its glass ceiling in 2016.

Is it a guarantee? Of course not. But Nebraska fans enduring the 2015 season should take heart. As crazy as it might sound now, there is no reason not to expect – to demand, actually – that Nebraska challenge for a divisional title in 2016.

How Fragile Is The Nebraska Football Program?

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So, how are you holding up, Husker fan? Just when you thought the season couldn’t get more surreal, the Blackshirts get a fifty-burger dropped on them by a 1-6 Purdue team, losing 55-45. The loss drops Nebraska to 3-6 on the season, with games against undefeated Michigan State and Iowa and a road trip to Rutgers still to come.

To call this season a disaster does a disservice to disasters everywhere, and it’s put the fanbase in a frenzy. Many are convinced that the hiring of head coach Mike Riley was a disastrous mistake, and a signal that the Nebraska program was fading into the sunset of past glories.

After all, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999.  It hasn’t been relevant on the national stage since a blowout loss to Miami in the 2000 national championship game.  And in a low-population state in the middle of the country, the fear amongst the fanbase is that Nebraska’s inherent recruiting challenges combined with the current struggles means NU is destined to recede into the college football history books.

Sure, national relevance and the College Football Playoff (heck, even the top 25 at this point) look a million miles away from where Nebraska is right now. But is this the new normal for Nebraska? There’s plenty of reasons to suspect that it is not.

Before we get deeper into the discussion, I’ll go through all the reasons why this year could be considered an anomaly. Five of Nebraska’s losses were by a total of 13 points, and came with NU leading in the fourth quarter. Three were on the opposing team’s final offensive possession. And the loss to Purdue was without Nebraska’s starting quarterback (Tommy Armstrong), starting tailback (Terrell Newby), and most dynamic offensive weapon (De’Mornay Pierson-El).

More importantly, the Purdue loss demonstrated what a smart and particularly handsome analyst worried about earlier this season. Football is hard work. It’s a hard game to play, and it’s a hard game to prepare for. It’s a lot to ask a group of 18-22 year olds to absorb heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss and give maximum effort on the field. It’s a lot to ask those 18-22 year olds to continue believing in themselves and the process enough to perform confidently play after play.

I know, Husker fan, that you don’t want to hear any of that. You’re mad, and you’re hurt, and you’re scared, and you don’t want to hear any excuses. That’s fair. Riley may be a great guy and well respected in the coaching fraternity, but his job is to deliver wins on Saturday. He’s off to the worst start Nebraska football has seen since before Bob Devaney, and he’s responsible for that.

But is 2015 the harbinger of things to come? Is Nebraska football relegated to a program fighting for a win in November to earn a trip to Detroit in late December facing a third-tier ACC team?

Well, other programs have had their fallow periods. In 2007, Alabama was 4-9. In 2006, Michigan State was 4-8. In 2012, Iowa was 4-8. This year, Texas is 3-5.

Wait, let me say that again. This year, Texas is 3-5. That makes you feel a little better, doesn’t it, Husker fan?

The point is that teams have shockingly bad seasons, and rebound. A losing season does not destroy the foundations of a program. If the foundation is strong, then a bad season can be a baseline for a football revival.

So how do you tell if a program has a strong foundation? Well, at the risk of reprising an unfortunate John McCain quote, you first look to see if the fundamentals are strong.

Dave Bartoo of CFB Matrix believes that a program’s talent and coaching can explain almost all of a team’s performance on the field. So let’s take a look at what his numbers say about Nebraska’s program.

As of 2014, Nebraska’s overall talent ranking was no. 24 nationally, right between Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech. While that talent ranking certainly could be better, it puts Nebraska no. 3 in the B1G overall and no. 1 in the B1G West. That means, from a talent standpoint, Nebraska has enough raw material on the field to be competing for conference titles each year.

With regards to coaching, as of 2014 Mike Riley had a coaching effect of 1.50, meaning that a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 more games per year than an “average” coach based on relative talent. That coach effect rating was no. 11 nationally.

Yes, Riley’s coaching effect will likely go down after the results of this season. But that’s the danger of small sample sizes. The benefit of work like Bartoo’s is that you can take a longer view informed by more data to help make judgments. Riley’s inability to coach is taken as a given by many Nebraska fans – understandably so, if you just look at the results of this season. But taking more data and a larger sample size into account, the numbers suggest the opposite conclusion.

So, Nebraska has the talent to compete, and a coach with a track record over a number of years that would indicate an ability to over-perform based on his talent level. But there is one more element of the Nebraska program that suggests a disastrous season like 2015 will not be enough to swamp the boat.

Shawn Eichorst, Nebraska’s athletic director, is not the most popular man amongst the fans these days. Part of that is a function of his position – bosses in suits focused as much on spreadsheets as opposed to playbooks are easy villains when the football team struggles. Any athletic director who wasn’t previously a national championship winning head football coach is going to be the target of fan ire when things go poorly in football.

But Eichorst did something very important when he fired Bo Pelini – he set the standard high for Nebraska football. Here’s what he said at the press conference announcing Pelini’s dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald):

[T]here are standards and expectations at Nebraska that are high both on and off the field. And although we did win a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most …  We have high standards and expectations, and that’s to play championship football … Nebraska has everything it needs to be successful at the highest level. We can go back and analyze the 80’s and 90’s and all that other sort of stuff but that is not going to help us out today. I think we are positioned to play championship-caliber football here at the University of Nebraska.

Of course, given a 3-6 start to the Riley era, it’s hard not to see those words as a reprise of former athletic director Steve Pederson’s infamous “gravitating towards mediocrity” line when he fired Frank Solich. But Eichorst very clearly set the expectations for Nebraska – championship-caliber football.

And those high standards demanded from a fanbase are, ultimately, what will keep a program strong. Both Eichorst and Riley will be held to those standards, even if the time frame as to achieving them will be the subject of debate.

But, ultimately, programs don’t fade into the history books because of failures on the field. They fade into history because those on-the-field failures break the will of the fanbase to demand better.

So for all of you calling for Riley’s firing at the end of this season or tomorrow afternoon – as unreasonable and irrational as that might be – keep it up. Well, maybe with a touch of reality sprinkled in. But as long as the man in charge of the program is setting the expectation at “championship-caliber football” – and the fanbase is holding the program accountable to that expectation – then the program will survive a lean year like this.

Nebraska Football: Mike Riley’s Magic Number for Winning

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“Sixty percent completion rate, it’s a magic number. Yes it is, it’s a magic number.”

– to the tune of “Three Is A Magic Number,” Schoolhouse Rock

With Nebraska off to its worst start in football since the pre-Bob Devaney era, Nebraska fans are freaked out. In trying to grapple with a reality that involves Nebraska needing to win out to avoid a 6-6 season (and the need to change the patch on its uniform to “Nebraska Football – A Non-Losing Tradition”), people have looked all over for answers. It’s the coach. It’s the defense. It’s the injuries.

Of course, sober and rational fans know that there are any number of nuances and competing factors contributing to five losses by a total of 13 points. But this is A Blog on The Internets, so a “silver bullet” answer is needed to fix Nebraska’s woes.

And as luck may have it, a look at the numbers might suggest something along those lines. A smart and particularly handsome analyst has already observed the striking correlation between Nebraska completing 60 percent or more of its pass attempts and winning. Here’s that table, updated for the Northwestern game.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2
Northwestern 24 48 50.0

Games won are in bold.

The theory holds up perfectly for Nebraska this year. Nebraska is 3-0 in games where Armstrong’s completion percentage is 60 percent or over, and 0-5 when it is under 60 percent.

But how does that hold up in Riley’s history? Well, thanks to the fine folks at cfbstats.com, we can crack open the record books and take a look back at least to 2008.

Year Record with rate >= 60% Record with rate <60%
2015 3-0 0-5
2014 6-4 1-2
2013 3-3 2-4
2012 7-1 2-3
2011 3-7 0-2
2010 4-1 1-6
2009 8-4 0-1
2008 5-3 4-1
Overall 66-23 (.742 win pct.) 10-24 (.294 win pct.)

In other words, since 2008 Riley’s teams have won nearly three in four games where his team’s completion percentage is 60 percent or greater, and lost more than three in every four games where that completion percentage is less than 60 percent.

It does make some sense, though, when you look at how Riley’s teams have run the ball since 2008 (again, from cfbstats.com).

Year Yards/Carry
2015 4.94
2014 3.77
2013 3.46
2012 3.66
2011 3.27
2010 3.76
2009 4.13
2008 4.22

While this year’s yards-per-carry is more than acceptable (and might suggest an offensive game plan, particularly if quarterback Tommy Armstrong is unable to play against Purdue this Saturday, as reported by Michael Bruntz of Huskers Illustrated), history suggests that Riley-coached teams have never run the ball effectively. Therefore, it stands to reason that Riley relies on a quarterback completing a high percentage of his throws to move the ball effectively.

Watching Nebraska this year on offense tends to lend credence to the theory. Even with a nearly five-yards-per-carry average, Nebraska’s offense has very much relied on the pass to establish the run rather than vice versa. When Armstrong is in a rhythm and completing passes, everything else clicks. But when he isn’t (or, in fairness, his passes are being dropped), Nebraska’s offense bogs down.

Which makes for the potential of a fascinating experiment on Saturday. Should backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe play due to Armstrong’s injury, look to see if he’s able to hit that magical sixty-percent completion rate against Purdue. If he can hit that number, it will be interesting to see what Nebraska’s offense looks like.

Yes, it’s Purdue, and a good performance by Fyfe wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) displace Armstrong as the starter next week against Michigan State. But the completion percentage number is a good one to keep your eye on throughout the rest of this season – and to keep in the back of your mind as Nebraska looks towards 2016.

How Nebraska Fans Should Handle Huskers’ Struggles In Mike Riley’s First Year

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Cognitive Dissonance (cog*ni*tive  dis*son*ance, noun): the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

Year one of Mike Riley’s reign as Nebraska head football coach has been any number of adjectives. Disappointing. Shocking. Agonizing. Maddening. Surreal.

As Nebraska sits at 3-5, needing a win over a now-top-15 rated team in Michigan State or Iowa to earn a .500 record, fans are torn. Sure, everyone knows that firing a coach eight games into a season is madness. But everyone knows that 3-5 for Nebraska is never, ever, ever acceptable.

Those who cover the team are just as torn. Samuel McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald points out that Riley’s results aren’t all that different than former head coach Bo Pelini’s, but without the individual heroics of a Lavonte David, Taylor Martinez, or Ameer Abdullah to bail it out. Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald, on the other hand, blistered Riley with a j’accuse of everything that’s gone wrong this season. Shatel didn’t call for Riley’s job, but he didn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement either.

Husker Fan, you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Let’s start with a fundamental premise. Nebraska is 3-5. In football. That’s not good enough – ever. Now, here’s where the cognitive dissonance sets in.

Yes, but …

Riley is in his first year at Nebraska, with players on offense and defense that aren’t suited to what he wants to do. Struggles were going to be inevitable.

Yes, but …

Riley was brought in as an experienced coach, a safe pair of hands that could figure out how to use the talent on hand to navigate Nebraska through those difficult waters of transition. He knew there would be a transition, and had an entire offseason to prepare his players for it.

Yes, but …

Nebraska under Riley has been so close to winning. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how close Nebraska was to 6-0 at one point in the season, for heaven’s sake. A couple of bounces the other way, and we’re not having this existential conversation.

Yes, but …

Nebraska is still 3-5. As Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said about NFL teams, “you are what your record says you are.” And while there are plenty of reasons for the record, coaching decisions are a part of those close losses.

Yes, but …

Nebraska has been decimated with injuries and suspensions this year. The defensive back seven, especially the linebackers, haven’t had a chance when true freshmen and walk-ons are being asked to shoulder the load in a new defensive system.

Yes, but …

Injuries can explain some defensive struggles. Injuries can’t explain Nebraska going from no. 33 in pass defense in 2014 to no. 126 in 2015, and from no. 53 in total defense nationally last year to no. 93 this year (according to cfbstats.com). Sure, it’s a new system under defensive coordinator Mark Banker. But it’s pretty clear the players on the roster aren’t executing that system very well – and that’s on Banker and the staff.

Yes, but …

Riley overachieved at Oregon State, one of the toughest places to succeed in all of major college football. His track record there suggests he’s going to be able to get Nebraska out of this mess.

Yes, but …

Oregon State was 5-7 last year under Riley, losing seven of its last nine games. In his last two years, Riley was 6-13 in conference. For his career at Oregon State, Riley was 93-80, just barely over .500 over fourteen seasons.

Exhausted yet? Everything about Nebraska’s 2015 is a producer of cognitive dissonance. Nebraska fans know that 3-5 isn’t acceptable. Nebraska fans also know there’s all kinds of explanations/reasons/excuses why Nebraska is 3-5 right now.

So how do you reconcile those two irreconcilable truths in your brain, Husker fan?

Well, here’s a cold, hard fact to absorb. Riley will not be fired this year, period. Set aside the arguments about how a first-year coach should never be fired, absent some kind of horrific criminal or behavioral issue. Let’s pretend this is English soccer, where coaches get fired at the drop of a hat.

Right now, Nebraska is paying Pelini about $1.5 million/year until February of 2019, according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald. Riley’s contract is $2.7 million/year with escalators and incentives through February of 2020. That means if Riley was dismissed after this season (or after the third quarter this Saturday, if Twitter is to be believed should the Purdue game go poorly), Nebraska will be paying coaches $4.2 million per year not to coach.

Add in the $3 million for a new coach (which would likely be low, given what Nebraska would have to offer after giving a coach just one year in charge), and Nebraska would be shelling out $7.2 million per year in coaches’ salaries.

For comparison’s sake, Alabama head coach Nick Saban makes just over $7 million/year, according to USA Today.

So face facts, Husker Fan. Riley’s not going anywhere this year, and likely next year, for dollars-and-cents reasons if nothing else.

What does that mean? Well, if you’ve convinced yourself after eight games that Riley can’t do any better, you’re in for a long stretch over the next few years. You can wrap yourself in the comfortable self-righteousness of an “I told you so” blanket to keep you warm, if it makes you feel better.

But you don’t know. Neither do I. There’s simply an insufficient data set to make a definitive judgment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln at this stage. As we have seen, there’s sufficient evidence to support a positive or a negative outlook.

The fact is, though, that the Nebraska fan base will have to live with that uncertainty for a while. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired Pelini because there was certainty in his mind about the status of the Nebraska program. He was certain – with good evidence to support his conclusion – that Nebraska was never going to become a conference title contender under Pelini.

Firing Pelini was a risk. Hiring Riley was a risk. Eichorst could very well have stayed in the safe harbor of Pelini’s four-loss seasons, big-game capitulations, and public embarrassments.

But ships aren’t built to stay in a harbor. They’re made to venture out into the open sea, in search of glory.

Nebraska Football: The Five Most Indispensable Cornhuskers

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Nebraska football fans have endured a strange season, with a win over Minnesota last week lifting the team to 3-4 on the 2015 campaign. But now that we are into the second half of the season, we’ve seen the players that are most important to Nebraska’s success. These five are the players Nebraska can least live without for the rest of 2015.

All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated.

No. 5: Alonzo Moore

When wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El was lost for the start of the season, many Nebraska fans worried who would fill his role. But after struggling with injuries and performance on the field, junior receiver Alonzo Moore stepped in right away and provided a spark to Nebraska’s offense. He’s been effective in what many envisioned Pierson-El’s role in the jet sweep – Moore is Nebraska’s sixth-leading rusher, and second in yards per carry only to Andy Janovich.

And as a receiver, Moore is third on the team in total yardage. He is second in yards per reception to – you guessed it – big-play fullback Janovich. Moore provides a stretch-the-field speed threat that can help open running lanes, and his consistency this year has been an unheralded cog in the transition to new head coach Mike Riley’s offense.

No. 4: Josh Kalu

Yes, I am fully aware that cornerback Josh Kalu is a member of a secondary that boasts the worst pass defense in the FBS. But remember that the transition to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s scheme asks the most of the secondary. Sure, it’s been harder (OK, fine, a lot harder) than most anticipated, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made.

And it’s been Kalu that has made the most progress to date in that secondary. As the season has gone on, you can see Kalu doing better in single coverage technique, and getting more confident in making plays on the ball. Ultimately, Nebraska’s pass defense is only going to improve with superior play in the secondary. And Kalu, right now, provides Nebraska’s best shot at getting that level of performance.

No. 3: Jordan Westerkamp

It’s easy to dismiss a guy like Westerkamp as a possession receiver, a steady-Eddie type who won’t ever make the splash plays but is super dependable. Of course, we know that Westerkamp can make plays that are behind-the-back sensational and game-winning critical.

But even with the spectacular in his locker, it is Westerkamp’s consistency which makes him so valuable. He leads the team in reception yardage, and is second only to Moore in touchdown receptions. Westerkamp is a reliable third-down target, crucial for Nebraska’s offense to stay on the field and keep pressure off a beleaguered defense.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

Don’t let the statistics fool you. Right now, defensive tackle Maliek Collins is seventh on the team in tackles, second in tackles for loss, and fourth in sacks. But his presence in the middle is affecting everything else on the front end of Nebraska’s defense.  Collins has been a lynchpin of Nebraska’s rushing defense, currently no. 7 nationally. And as the season is wearing on, you can start to see him becoming more and more of a disruptive force. Particularly against Minnesota last week, you saw Collins able to break through and apply pressure to the quarterback through the middle. And when he has been split outside, Collins has been able to wreak havoc as a pass rusher.

With the return of defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, Collins may get some additional space to work against opposing offenses. Regardless, his play has been instrumental in Nebraska’s defense, and his loss would be catastrophic going forward.

No. 1: Tommy Armstrong

This one wasn’t really close. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out how critical Armstrong’s performance has been for Nebraska this year.

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2

Games won are in bold.

The analysis is pretty straightforward. When Armstrong is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, Nebraska wins. When he doesn’t, Nebraska loses.

Of course, it’s not just Armstrong’s passing that makes him important to Nebraska. Armstrong’s rushing ability has been crucial, and the inclusion of that element (both planned and unplanned) has been the biggest area of growth in Riley’s new offense.

Losing any other player for Nebraska would be costly, but would leave NU with options. If something happens to Armstrong, though, it’s hard to see how Nebraska would recover.