Nebraska Football: The 5 Most Indispensable Cornhuskers in 2015

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Nebraska football fans know that in an era of scholarship limits, it’s hard to lose any players. But some players on a roster are harder to lose than others, and the effect of their absence on the squad is greater. As we prepare for new head coach Mike Riley’s first test, here are five of the players that Nebraska can least afford to lose.

No. 5 : De’Mornay Pierson-El

I know, I know, he’s hurt and is going to miss six to eight weeks (according to the Omaha World-Herald). But as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed already, if that timetable holds true then Nebraska might be well set to withstand his loss for those games, getting him back for the real meat of the season.

And make no mistake, Nebraska is much better with a healthy Pierson-El. More than anyone else on the roster, Pierson-El is a proven game-changer in the return game, and was beginning to show his promise as a receiver. Add him in to Riley’s offense (with the jet sweeps alone) and he changes Nebraska’s offense and how defenses have to react.

With recent news that Pierson-El might be out longer than the original timeframe given (according to Samuel McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald), Nebraska fans are rightly concerned about what impact the injury will have on the 2015 season. And while Riley should not give in to temptation and leave Pierson-El on the sideline until he can return without unreasonable risk of re-injury, his loss will be keenly felt if it does go longer than six to eight games.

No. 4: Tommy Armstrong

Armstrong might not be the quarterback Riley would have picked to run his offense, but he’s the quarterback Riley has inherited. And given the in ability of any other quarterback on the roster to legitimately challenge Armstrong for the position, it has to be assumed that Riley and his staff have concluded that Armstrong’s skill set gives Nebraska its best chance to be successful on offense.

Indeed, in the installation of this year’s offense, the scheme is tailored to fit Armstrong’s strengths and desires. According to The Best College Sports News Network, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said that he makes sure Armstrong is comfortable with a particular play before putting it into a game plan.

That’s great news for Nebraska fans having nervous flashbacks to 2004, watching Joe Dailey try to run a Bill Callahan offense for which he was woefully unsuited. But it also means big trouble for Nebraska if Armstrong goes down and one of the backups has to get significant playing time.

No. 3: Alex Lewis

There’s good news coming from Nebraska camp about the NU offensive line coming into the season. According to 247 Sports, the offensive line is “beginning to gel,” which is crucial for Nebraska to have any chance at offensive success in a year when an new system is being implemented.

But there’s only one returning starter on that line, senior left tackle Alex Lewis. His presence, particularly at such a crucially important position on the line for a right-handed quarterback, is central to Nebraska’s ability to get good play from its offensive line. And without that good play, it’s very difficult to see how Nebraska will succeed either running or throwing the ball.

No. 2: Maliek Collins

A survey of most reports from Nebraska’s fall camp has defensive tackle Collins being the best player on the team. According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Collins was one of the players cited by the Big Ten Network’s crew in their annual pre-season visit of B1G teams. And ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay has Collins as a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

That’s the kind of talent that is hard to replace. While defensive line is an area of strength for Nebraska, particularly on the interior with Vincent Valentine and Kevin Williams, the loss of Collins would be a huge step backwards.

No. 1: Josh Banderas

OK, so maybe the emergence of freshmen like Dedrick Young, Tyrin Ferguson, and Luke Gifford (according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star) can help quell the tinges of panic felt by Nebraska fans when they realize that there’s only one linebacker on the roster who started a game last year.

But if something happens to that guy – specifically, middle linebacker Josh Banderas – then feel free to resume full-blown panic. Nebraska would then be left without any returning experience at a position of critical importance, particularly in new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme.

Which, of course is why practice reports from 247 Sports about Banderas being “day to day” with a groin injury should be terrifying for Nebraska fans. Less than two weeks away from taking the field against Taysom Hill and a solid BYU club, Nebraska’s only returning starter at linebacker isn’t practicing. According to 247 Sports, if Banderas couldn’t play then the middle linebacker spot would likely be filled by Ferguson or Chris Weber.

Wrap your head around that, Husker fan. Nebraska could be facing BYU with a middle linebacker – you know, the guy who runs the back half of the defense – who is either a true freshman or a sophomore with a grand total of six career tackles.

It may turn out to be nothing, but this groin injury to Banderas may very well be the biggest story being ignored in the run-up to the start of the 2015 season.

Nebraska Football: Key Questions for Cornhuskers Against BYU

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Nebraska football fans have just one more week to wait before BYU week beginning. As a result, it’s not too early to start looking ahead and wondering what it might take for new head coach Mike Riley to lead Nebraska to a victory to start the 2015 season. Here are three questions that will be answered – one way or the other – in Nebraska’s lid-lifter.

Can the Blackshirts Stop Hill?

Even before the coaching change, this was the biggest question coming into the contest against BYU. Quarterback Taysom Hill is a remarkable talent, particularly as a runner. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports talks about Hill as a darkhorse Heisman candidate, and Matt Brown of SB Nation argues that Hill is BYU’s most talented quarterback since Steve Young (even if he doesn’t win the Heisman).

That’s a tall order for Nebraska’s first opponent of the season, particularly when NU will be putting a brand new defensive scheme in place. While the quarters scheme run by defensive coordinator Mark Banker should be more effective against the run (as observed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), how the Blackshirts fare against Hill will be the primary determining factor in whether Nebraska can start 2015 with a win.

How Will the Offense Work?

There’s been encouraging signs coming out of fall camp for Nebraska’s offense, particularly for fans who can remember an offensive sea-change under a certain Bill Callahan. In reporting that Nebraska’s offense is “fully installed” for the 2015 season, the Best College Sports News Network quoted offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf as follows:

As we narrow our game plan down a lot, we want to make sure he [quarterback Tommy Armstrong] is comfortable, give him some thoughts and then really rank them (plays) that he likes. We get into a game, we have a menu of plays—we want to make sure the quarterback that is making the decision is comfortable with the play and feels good about it.

That’s just a little bit different than when Callahan showed up in 2004 and tried to pound a Joe Dailey-shaped peg into a West Coast Offense-shaped hole, with predictable results. Predictable, as in a 19 completions from 42 (!) passing attempts performance on a windy November afternoon in Ames, en route to a 34-27 loss.

So at least we know Riley and company are attempting to tailor Nebraska’s new-look offense to the talent on the roster, rather than installing his preferred pro-style offense. How that hybrid will work, especially against a BYU defense with a national recruiting base, will be a fascinating question to answer.

How Will Nebraska Replace Pierson-El?

As the 2014 season wore on, De’Mornay Pierson-El evolved from an option on special teams, to a game-changing punt returner, to Nebraska’s leading receiver against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Losing Pierson-El for six to eight weeks is a big blow, then, for a coaching staff already struggling to find an identity (as well as filling an Ameer Abdullah-shaped hole in last year’s offensive production). As a result, Nebraska will need to find a player (or collection of players) to fill that void.

First in line might be senior wide receiver Jamal Turner, who had a strong performance in an inter-squad scrimmage, according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald. If Turner, in his sixth season after getting a medical hardship from last season’s campaign, can live up to some of his untapped potential, Nebraska might have a chance to replace some of Pierson-El’s playmaking skills.

Nebraska Football: Pierson-El’s Injury Won’t Doom Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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“Don’t Panic”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

On Wednesday, Nebraska fans heard the news that standout wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El is out six to eight weeks with a foot injury (according to the Omaha World-Herald). Teeth were immediately gnashed throughout the Nebraska fanbase, with the World-Herald’s Dirk Chatelain forecasting that NU could be 3-4 by the time Pierson-El is fully recovered and out of the hunt for a division title. Indeed, Chatelain seems to view Pierson-El’s injury in some pretty apocalyptic terms.

Is it too early for doomsday talk? Probably. Does DPE’s injury impact Riley’s chances of a building a conference champion long-term? Probably not.

But barring an astounding coaching job, 2015 looks like an ambush, followed by a slog to the finish line. It’s not about winning a championship, it’s about competing with passion and dignity. It’s about avoiding dissension and humiliation. It’s about building momentum for 2016.

Hold on tight, Husker fans. The past few seasons were rough. But it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

Look, Chatelain is one of the smartest and best reporters covering Nebraska football. He was the guy who had the guts to do his job and challenge Bo Pelini when circumstances required, regardless of the blowback from the fans (and the coach) he received.

And Pierson-El’s injury is bad, there’s no doubt. Pierson-El was easily Nebraska’s most dangerous and dynamic weapon on offense. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska was looking for a game-changing threat offensively, and Pierson-El was the most likely candidate to fill that role.

But let’s slow the train down about Pierson-El’s injury single-handedly crushing Nebraska’s ability to compete in 2015.

First of all, let’s look at the schedule. If we assume the worst-case scenario of eight weeks out, that puts him on track to return by October 10, when Nebraska hosts Wisconsin. Before then, Nebraska has a relatively arduous non-conference schedule, hosting BYU and traveling to Miami.

BYU is a terrifying opening opponent because of quarterback Taysom Hill, whom both Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports and Mike Huguenin of NFL.com call a sleeper Heisman pick for 2015. Stopping Hill will be a huge task for Nebraska’s new-look defense.

But Pierson-El wasn’t going to be tackling Hill – good thing, too, given the size difference. He was going to help Nebraska attack a BYU defense that ranked no. 58 nationally in total defense last year (according to CFBStats.com). Nebraska may struggle with the Cougars on opening day, but that’s a defensive struggle, one the loss of Pierson-El won’t directly affect.

The game against Miami is a little trickier for Nebraska, of course. The Hurricanes ranked no. 14 nationally in total defense last year (again according to CFBStats.com), and it would be really nice for Nebraska to have Pierson-El on the field to help move the ball in South Beach.

But a loss against Miami isn’t catastrophic for Nebraska. It does nothing to harm NU’s chances to win a conference title, of course. And if Nebraska can take care of business otherwise, coming out of the non-conference season at 3-1 – particularly with Pierson-El’s injury to handle – should have no detriment on NU’s confidence.

Then, we get into the conference season. Nebraska gets a trip to Illinois to start the conference campaign, and given the Illini’s struggles (not to mention their embattled head coach), a win in Champaign for NU should still be expected.

After Illinois, Nebraska gets Wisconsin in Lincoln. If the eight-week timetable holds, Pierson-El should be back for this game. It’s fair to expect, though, that he’ll be limited and not the dynamic weapon from last season. The Badgers are always solid and should pose a stern test for Nebraska’s divisional title chances.

But the game is in Lincoln. The Badgers are also undergoing a coaching change with Paul Chryst taking over in Madison. Melvin Gordon now wears a lightning bolt instead of a motion-W on his helmet. Joel Stave will still likely be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback. And if this is Pierson-El’s first game back, Wisconsin will still have to account for him regardless of how limited his injury might make him.

In other words, there’s reason to believe that Nebraska can hang with this year’s Wisconsin squad even without a fully-healthy Pierson-El.

Next for Nebraska comes a trip to Minneapolis. At this point, Pierson-El should be recovering, and hopefully at least close to full speed. The Gophers, of course, have a two-game winning streak over Nebraska, so it’s not unreasonable to think this game without a fully-functional Pierson-El could be problematic.

But as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed, much of Minnesota’s recent success against Nebraska is a result of a peculiarly-good matchup of the Gophers’ power-rushing attack against Pelini’s defensive structure. Nebraska’s new defense should neutralize that matchup advantage, allowing the relative talent of the two sides (Nebraska no. 24, Minnesota no. 64 in 2014 according to CFBMatrix) to shine through.

After Minnesota, Nebraska has a home game against Northwestern and a road game against Purdue. Even with the Purples’ history against Nebraska, both of these games would have to look favorable for Nebraska even without Pierson-El.

Nebraska’s next game would then be against Michigan State. That game is in Lincoln, on November 07, nearly three months after Pierson-El’s injury. Barring setbacks, there’s no reason to think Pierson-El won’t be fully fit to take the field against Sparty.

Nebraska’s task to win the B1G West in Mike Riley’s first year was going to be arduous even before Pierson-El’s injury. Losing its best playmaker makes Nebraska’s job harder this year, no doubt.

But there’s no reason to lower Nebraska’s 2015 goals to “avoiding dissention and humiliation” just yet.

Nebraska Football: New Defense Should Help Huskers Against Big Ten Rivals

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Nebraska football fans are well aware – painfully aware – of NU’s struggles against its division rivals since entering the B1G. When you look at the statistics from that era, though, the reason for those struggles becomes apparent.

Specifically, we’re going to be looking at Nebraska’s rushing defense against the three teams now in the B1G West that are built to be power rushing attacks. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa are all built to primarily run the ball right at you, as opposed to the spread-based concepts from the Big XII where teams on offense tried to create space by spreading receivers all over the field.

Here’s how Bo Pelini’s Blackshirts did against the run when facing these road-graders:

Year Opponent Rushing Yards Allowed
2012 Wisconsin (regular season) 56
2012 Minnesota 87
2012 Iowa 108
2012 Wisconsin (B1G championship) 539
2013 Minnesota 271
2013 Iowa 155
2014 Wisconsin 581
2014 Minnesota 281
2014 Iowa 142

So, what do these numbers tell us about Nebraska’s defense at the end of Pelini’s reign?

It hadn’t been bad for that long

September of 2012 wasn’t that long ago, when the Blackshirts bottled up Montee Ball and held the Badgers to 56 total rushing yards en route to a victory in Memorial Stadium. It was after that game where Pelini infamously told the assembled post-game media (according to Huskers.com) that “[c]ontrary to what you guys think, I haven’t forgotten how to coach defense and how to stop the run.”

As we know, karma catches up with Pelini about two months later, in exactly the way that the Blackshirts couldn’t catch Melvin Gordon.

But it wasn’t until that fateful matchup in Indianapolis where Nebraska’s weakness against the run was exposed. Minnesota utilized that to great effect, rushing for nearly 300 yards in each of its two upset victories over Nebraska. And Wisconsin didn’t forget how to turn the corner on the Blackshirts either, embarrassing Nebraska in Madison.

Iowa wasn’t really on the same level

Yes, Iowa plays smash-mouth football too. Fer cryin’ out loud, the Hawkeyes trotted out a glorified fullback in Mark Weisman as their feature tailback for two years in a row. And yes, Iowa has played Nebraska close three straight years, winning once and arguably deserving a second win last season.

But the numbers don’t support the premise that Iowa has run over Nebraska the way Wisconsin and Minnesota have since December of 2012. While Nebraska’s struggles to retain the Heroes Game trophy are real, they aren’t the same as against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

So why should things be different?

Scheme is everything. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker runs a quarters-based defense, where three linebackers stay on the field almost all the time, and the safeties are tasked with run-stopping duties. While there will be a lot of cover-two concepts, expect to see at least one safety in the box against run-heavy teams.

Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity did a much more detailed breakdown of Banker’s defensive scheme here, which you should read if you want more information.

In comparison, Pelini’s defensive schemes relied on keeping two safeties high (meaning deep and away from the line of scrimmage) to avoid being beaten by the deep pass. While effective in that regard, it also forced the defensive into a one-on-one situation against offensive blockers. If one defender was out of position or lost a battle, there was a Melvin Gordon-sized hole for an opposing ball carrier to barrel through.

Additionally, Pelini loved his hybrid guys, players who were a little too big to play safety and a little too small to play linebacker. He had great success with guys like DeJon Gomes, and tried to force Nate Gerry into that role as a freshman. Banker relies less on hybrids and more on true linebackers, falling back on the quarters scheme to provide support for the run and the pass.

So how did it work out? Well, Banker was defensive coordinator with Mike Riley at Oregon State from 2003-2014. There’s not a ton of smash-mouth teams in the Pac-12, but Stanford certainly qualifies. Let’s take a look at how Oregon State’s defense stood up against Stanford in comparison to its yards-per-game rushing average.

Year Rushing Yards Allowed Stanford’s Yearly Avg. Differential
2012 163 175 -12
2013 185 208 -23
2014 151 172 -21

In each of the last three contests, Oregon State held Stanford – the closest thing the Pac-12 has to a smash-mouth program – to under its yearly rushing average. And remember, this is an Oregon State squad that has significantly less talent than Stanford.

So given those results, it’s not unfair to expect that Nebraska should fare far better against its smash-mouth divisional brethren. This should make for far more competitive contests against Wisconsin, and should spell the end of Minnesota’s hex over Nebraska.

As for Iowa, well, Nebraska’s struggles against the Hawkeyes may have as much to do with a tryptophan hangover as anything else.

All stats were either from cfbstats.com or the team’s official websites.

Nebraska Football: Worst-Case Scenario For the 2015 Season

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While Nebraska football fans can be forgiven for their optimism, deep down they know that disaster could be lurking around the corner. Coaching transitions are always difficult, and new head man Mike Riley is bringing in a new philosophy on offense and defense for Nebraska to absorb. And while a smart and particularly handsome analyst has already talked sunshine and unicorns about Nebraska’s run this year to the College Football Playoff, there’s also a scenario that goes far worse for the scarlet and cream.

A Brutal Start

If the wheels come off for Nebraska this year, it could be in large part based on the challenging first three games. Riley’s career at Nebraska starts by facing a BYU team led by potential Heisman darkhorse quarterback Taysom Hill. Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports is one of many pundits highlighting Hill’s size and athleticism as a reason why he could be a star in 2015.

Directional State, this ain’t, for a first game in charge for Riley and company. If the Blackshirts struggle with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme in their first live game, Nebraska could easily find itself 0-1 to start the season.

Then, after a bit of a breather with South Alabama (although the Jaguars did go to a bowl game last year), Nebraska heads to south Florida to face Miami. The Hurricanes will be led by sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya, who went 28-42 against Nebraska last year for 359 yards and two touchdowns. Miami’s talent is better than Nebraska’s, according to the 2014 rankings from CFB Matrix, suggesting the Hurricanes will have an on-field advantage. And this will be Riley’s first road game in his Nebraska career.

Especially coming after an opening-game loss, it’s not at all inconceivable that Nebraska could get beaten by Miami and start the 2015 campaign 1-2.

Armstrong Doesn’t Progress

Although much has been made about Riley adapting his offense to meet his personnel, it’s hard to see how Nebraska has success on offense without quarterback Tommy Armstrong improving his completion percentage. Which is why this quote from BTN’s Tom Dienhart, after watching some fall practice, should be terrifying.

After watching two practices, I have concerns. Armstrong lacks consistent touch and accuracy. He has a rep for being sharper on long passes than he is on shorter ones. Not good in Riley’s pro-style/West Coast attack.

If Armstrong doesn’t progress from the career 52.9 completion percentage passer he’s been, Nebraska’s offense will struggle. And without a star like Ameer Abdullah in the backfield to bail him out, that could make Nebraska ripe for the picking as conference play unfolds.

The B1G Meat Grinder

Nebraska’s two toughest conference games, Wisconsin and Michigan State, are at home. But it’s not like Nebraska has enjoyed a great deal of success against either team recently. Last year, Nebraska lost to the Spartans in East Lansing in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 27-22 score would indicate.

Sadly, Nebraska’s 59-24 loss to Wisconsin in Madison last year wasn’t as close as that score indicated, either.

So let’s say Nebraska falls to both Wisconsin and Michigan State. What else is on the schedule? Well, Minnesota holds a two-game winning streak over Nebraska, and gets NU in Minneapolis. While there are ample reasons to think Riley will make Nebraska a better matchup, history suggests the Gophers could well extend their streak to three.

How about Northwestern? Other than last year’s contest, every game Nebraska has played against the Purples has been a challenge. There’s a good argument to be made that, since Nebraska’s entry into the B1G, Northwestern should have been 3-0 against the scarlet and cream going into last year’s contest. So it’s not impossible to imagine the Purples coming to Lincoln and upsetting Nebraska in Riley’s first year.

And then there’s Iowa. While Nebraska fans would love nothing more than to dismiss the Hawkeyes, the fact remains that Iowa beat Nebraska last time the teams met in Memorial Stadium. And Nebraska needed a De’Mornay Pierson-El punt return (and criminally-negligent game management from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz) to overcome a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and win the game in overtime.

So there’s every reason to think Iowa can hang with – and ultimately beat – Nebraska at home on Black Friday in 2015.

Wisconsin. Michigan State. Minnesota. Northwestern. Iowa. Sure, it’s not likely that Nebraska would lose all of those games. But it’s certainly not impossible. And if Nebraska starts dropping games, momentum could make losing more games likely.

That would lead to Nebraska ending the 2015 season at 5-7, and providing disturbing flashbacks to the last time a new head coach with a West Coast offensive philosophy arrived in Lincoln. And while this dystopian view of 2015 is less likely than the rose-colored vision discussed earlier, fans should discount it at their peril.

Nebraska Football: Best-Case Scenario for the 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are greeting the start of fall camp with optimism, as new head coach Mike Riley prepares for his first season in charge. Before a ball is snapped in anger, the possibilities for Nebraska’s 2015 season are limitless, and the winds of change that have blown through Lincoln are giving hope to all of the scarlet and cream faithful.

So let’s run with that optimism a little, and see what Nebraska’s season would look like if everything broke the right way. Here’s the big things that would need to happen for Nebraska’s 2015 season to sparkle, and what the end result might be.

Tommy Armstrong finds his groove

It’s not a big surprise to regular visitors to know that the two stats of focus for Tommy Armstrong here are his completion percentage and his touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year, here were Armstrong’s stats in Nebraska’s wins and losses in the regular season:

  Completion % TD-to-INT ratio
Wins 53.2 2.125 (17/8)
Losses 47.5 0.667 (2/3)

The numbers tell a pretty clear picture, especially the touchdown-to-interception ratio. Neither completion ratio is stellar, but a sub-.500 ratio is a recipe to lose games. The TD-to-INT ratio, though, is the real differential between the two numbers. It may be a small sample size, but Armstrong’s ratio difference between wins and losses says a lot about why those outcomes came about.

If Armstrong is able to post – or improve – his statistics throughout the season, Nebraska’s chances for a stellar season improve dramatically.

(In fairness, Nebraska’s loss in the bowl game to USC is a bit of an outlier, as Armstrong had a 62.7 completion ratio and a 3-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio.  But with the interim coach and all the upheaval from Bo Pelini’s dismissal, it’s hard to know what to make of that game. If Armstrong puts up his Holiday Bowl numbers this season, though, Nebraska should win the B1G West.)

The linebackers and offensive line click

While there are question marks for the whole team with a transition to a new head coach, the two biggest areas of concern are at linebacker and offensive line. At linebacker, Nebraska only returns one player (Josh Banderas) with any starting experience, and only two (Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey) with any starting experience at all.

It will be up to returning players Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby, along with incoming freshmen like Dedrick Young and Mohammed Barry, to make an impact at a critical position for the Blackshirts.

Similarly, Nebraska’s offensive line has only one player returning with significant starting experience in left tackle Alex Lewis. All four other offensive line positions have question marks, including the critical position of center.

It’s a little frightening to think that Nebraska is so unsettled at such critical positions. But if Nebraska is able to make things work right off the bat at both linebacker and offensive line, then the strengths NU has at other positions should shine through.

The season ends with a Playoff appearance

Scoff if you want, but Nebraska is set up – if everything clicks – to make college football’s final four. It would likely being 12-0 going into the B1G title game. That would mean wins over BYU and Miami in the non-conference, a daunting but not impossible task for a new head coach.

The conference schedule actually sets up well for Nebraska. The most difficult games – Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa – are all in Lincoln. The most challenging road game is at Minnesota, but the change in defensive scheme should make the Gophers a better matchup for Nebraska.

So let’s say Nebraska makes a perfect run through the regular season, likely matching up with the defending national champion Ohio State in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes would be a prohibitive favorite, and should be given the relative talent profiles of the two teams.

However, Ohio State wasn’t a dominant force last year. It’s easy to forget after the Buckeyes demolished Wisconsin in the B1G title game (with then-coach Gary Anderson leaving Madison days later) and steamrolled through the playoffs, of course.

But Ohio State also lost to an average Virginia Tech team. It also went to overtime against Penn State and struggled mightily with Minnesota. Nebraska might not be on a talent level with Ohio State, but it certainly is on a level with the teams that either beat or ran Ohio State very close in 2014. If those teams could play with the Buckeyes, there’s no reason a 12-0 Nebraska couldn’t rise up for one game.

Of course, this is a best-case scenario, with the new offense and defense clicking right away and the injury bug staying away from Lincoln. But if all those things happen, a surprise Playoff appearance isn’t an unachievable goal for Riley in year one.

Nebraska Football: Nice Guy Mike Riley Can Still Recruit With The Sharks

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

OK, we get it. Mike Riley’s a nice guy. In case you hadn’t heard, you can read about it here, here, here, and here. Big Ten Media Days last week were full of breathless wonder at how nice Riley is, inevitably comparing him to the occasionally cranky previous head coach.

That’s fine in the summer, but some fans are worried that Riley’s pleasant demeanor will hold Nebraska back. A nice guy like Riley, fans worry, won’t be able to stand up and compete toe-to-toe with the upper echelon coaches in college football.

In other words, as Leo Durocher said (although he really didn’t), nice guys finish last.

It’s an easy – and lazy – trap to fall in. Football is a violent game, and needs a brutal and ruthless man at the helm. Nice guys are fine to trim the hedges, but a strong, alpha male is a necessity to win at the highest level.

A guy like Nick Saban, for example. Saban’s temper is stuff of legend, enough for GQ to call him “The Scariest Man In College Football.” How can a pushover like Riley, the thought process goes, compete with a ruthless winner like Saban?

On the field, we won’t know yet. But we already know he’s scored a victory in recruiting with Jordan Stevenson. A four-star running back according to 247 Sports, Stevenson was set to attend Wisconsin before being blocked from entering the school. A frenzy of late recruiting was triggered, and Stevenson’s decision came down to Nebraska and Alabama (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

To win like the big guys, you have to recruit like the big guys. And Nebraska, in Riley’s first year in charge – before he’s taken the field for a single game, was able to outduel Saban’s Crimson Tide for a prize offensive talent ready to take the field in 2015.

And that’s not a one-off. There’s no more hyper-aggressive alpha male than Jim Harbaugh, the new head man at Michigan. Harbaugh was insufferable enough to get himself shown the door by the San Francisco 49ers less than two years after a Super Bowl appearance. He was aggressive enough to get legendarily-chill Pete Carroll into a “what’s your deal” argument at midfield. And he has been talented enough to be incredibly successful wherever he goes.

Surely a man that oozes that kind of power and confidence will be more than a match for a sweet potato like Riley, right?

Well, maybe not. When Harbaugh got the job in Ann Arbor, one of the first things he did was to go after Nebraska recruits. Remember, Harbaugh and Riley coached together in the Pac-12, at Stanford and Oregon State respectively, so Harbaugh was familiar with Riley.

Tight end recruit Matt Snyder and defensive end Daishon Neal were both wooed by Harbaugh to decommit from Nebraska. But both declined Harbaugh’s advances, electing to stay with Riley in Lincoln. Indeed, Neal aired some dirty laundry about Michigan’s recruitment (according to Mitch Sherman of ESPN), making the Wolverines look bad in the process.

Sure, we don’t know what Nebraska on the field under Riley will look like. But, as been argued by Dave Bartoo’s CFB Matrix and SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, amongst others, recruiting matters. As axiomatic as it may seem, teams that get better recruits (according to the recruiting rankings) are more likely to be successful on the field.

So we’ll find out shortly how Riley will stand up on the field against the sharks of college football. But in the short time he’s been in charge of Nebraska, we’ve already seen him get recruiting wins over some of the biggest names in the sport.

Don’t let the nice guy image fool you, in other words.

Nebraska Football: Games That Could Ruin Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

At one point in history, any loss would be considered catastrophic for Nebraska football fans, something to be agonized over throughout the year. But Nebraska fans have endured enough multiple-loss seasons under Frank Solich and Bill Callahan, and enough comically-bad losses under Bo Pelini, to be a little numbed to the pain of an individual defeat.

But even if Nebraska fans have become (somewhat) accustomed to losses, there are still a number of games on the schedule that could ruin Nebraska’s 2015 season. Here they are, and why those individual losses would be so catastrophic.

South Alabama or Southern Mississippi

No, we’re not going to list every game on Nebraska’s schedule, even though some fans would consider any loss disastrous. But if Nebraska would drop a game to one of its two paycheck opponents, it would color the rest of the 2015 season. Even a 9-3 or 10-2 final result would be tainted with a “yes, but” from a loss to a clearly inferior opponent.

It’s not unprecedented. In 2013, Oregon State got beat at home in a season opener by Eastern Washington. And in 2011, the Beavers dropped their season opener at home to Sacramento State. So Riley’s teams certainly have a history of shocking losses to sub-par opposition.

Let’s be clear. It is unlikely in the extreme that Nebraska will drop either of these games. But it was unlikely that McNeese State would outplay Nebraska last year in Memorial Stadium, as well. And if the worst does befall Nebraska against either of these opponents, it will be the story of the 2015 season.

BYU

There’s an argument to be made that the BYU season opener isn’t as critical for Nebraska as some other games on the schedule. It’s a non-conference game, and unless Nebraska is going to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, how NU does in conference is the only real gauge of success.

But let’s face it. Nebraska is starting a season with a new head coach, after firing a guy who never won fewer than nine games in seven years. Yes, Riley is a great guy whom just about everyone loves. But if Nebraska opens the season 0-1 – especially if the loss is ugly, which is not impossible to imagine given that NU is breaking in a new offense and a new defense – then the good feelings of this offseason could evaporate quickly.

Miami

I hesitated to include this game, as there’s only one real scenario where a loss to Miami could ruin Nebraska’s season. If Nebraska ends the non-conference season 3-1 with a loss to the Hurricanes, then there will be very few complaints.

But if Nebraska drops the opener to BYU, and then loses to Miami, Nebraska will (with all due respect to the Jaguars and Golden Eagles) be 2-2 starting conference play. Losing one non-conference game will likely be accepted by most of the Nebraska fanbase. But losing two of its first three games could throw a fanbase into a panic.

Minnesota

The Minnesota Golden Gophers have a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In football. Raise your hand if you thought that sentence would ever be written.

You, in the back. Put your hand down, you liar.

Minnesota under Jerry Kill, though, was almost like a laboratory experiment designed to beat Nebraska even though it was thoroughly out-manned in talent. According to Dave Bartoo’s College Football Matrix, in 2014 Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24, while Minnesota’s was 64. With that big of a disparity, a two-game winning streak for Minnesota is an amazing accomplishment. And a remarkable failure on Nebraska’s part.

With a smash-mouth running attack, Kill’s Gophers were perfectly suited to attack former head coach Bo Pelini’s defense that focused primarily on stopping the pass and would drop an eighth defender into the box only reluctantly. Combine that with smart and disciplined play, along with NFL-level talent (running back David Cobb, tight end Maxx Williams, and defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman), and you have the recipe for a winning streak.

Under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska will likely play more three-linebacker sets with a safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage, offering an eight-man (or even nine-man) front against the run. Instead of meeting strength with weakness, the Blackshirts should go into this matchup against Minnesota meeting strength on strength.

So this is a game that Nebraska should win, regardless of the Gophers’ two-game win streak. That means a loss to Minnesota, in conference and in division, would seriously threaten Nebraska’s goal of a return trip to Indianapolis in December.

Wisconsin

Admit it, Husker fan. You want this one. You want it more than any other game on the schedule.

You remember the feeling of being up 17-3 (!) in the second quarter last year, in Camp Randall. You remember thinking that this might, finally, be the metaphorical corner for Nebraska to turn.

And then you saw a corner turn, all right. A whole bunch of corners, actually, turned by Melvin Gordon on the way to rushing for 408 yards against the Blackshirts. Gordon shattered the previous NCAA record for rushing yards in a game (in three quarters, and on only 25 carries) and led Wisconsin to a 59-24 demolition of Nebraska, likely securing Pelini’s dismissal at the end of the season.

Nebraska may end up an underdog to Wisconsin, even at home. A loss to Wisconsin may not derail any of Nebraska’s reasonable expectations in Riley’s first year.

But a loss to Wisconsin means you, Husker fan, have to deal with Bucky owning you for another year.

(On the plus side, though, a loss to Wisconsin would mean this ridiculous thing won’t be cluttering up the trophy cabinet in Memorial Stadium. Seriously, it looks like someone is trying to make a giant sailboat out of the two stadium facades.)

Iowa

I know, I know. Nebraska fans really don’t take Iowa seriously as a rival. If Nebraska has to have an in-division rival, most Nebraska fans would pick Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes aren’t that big of a deal to most Nebraska fans.

But Iowa fans don’t feel that way about Nebraska. Doubt me? Check out here, here, here, and here.

There’s one of two things that could happen on the day after Thanksgiving. Either Nebraska could be on the verge of a division title, with a loss to Iowa preventing that return trip to Indianapolis. Or, Nebraska could be out of contention for the division, and a loss to the Hawkeyes in Memorial Stadium would end a disappointing season on a sour note.

Either way, ending the regular season by watching Nebraska’s black-and-gold neighbors charge across the field as time expires to grab the Heroes Game trophy and parade it back to Iowa City in triumph will leave a lasting impression on the Nebraska fanbase throughout the offseason. That’s not the way Riley wants to see his first season in charge end.

Nebraska Football: Adidas Gets It Right (Mostly) With Cornhusker Alternate Uniforms

Photo from adidas, story by Patrick Runge

For the last few days, Nebraska fans have been on pins and needles as adidas teased the Cornhuskers’ new uniforms. On Thursday, we finally got a look at what adidas has in mind.

This year’s offering will be a one-off, worn on October 24 against Northwestern (much like the Purples did last year with their Gothic-inspired alternates against Nebraska). It’s not quite as dramatic a look as adidas gave Louisville for its alternate uniform. And it’s not the sweeping full-uniform change that adidas put together for Miami this year. Nor is it the missed-opportunity disaster that adidas fostered on UCLA.

So how did adidas do in making Nebraska part of their #3StripeLife?

The Good

The helmet works well, basically replicating the standard helmet with a matte black base and chrome red striping. Functionally, it’s a matte version of the 2012 alternate helmet, which up to now was the sharpest of the helmet offerings.

There is one difference, though. On the back of the helmet, there will be giant-sized player numbers with the same horizontal slashes that permeate the design of the uniform.

The jersey is a real amalgam of previous alternates for Nebraska. Since 2013, adidas has used the stencil-like numerals for Nebraska’s alternate, and this year’s offering is no different. It has the black from Nebraska’s 2013 alternate, and incorporated the “metallic” look from the 2014 model.

However, by using a red-on-black color scheme, hopefully adidas will make the numbers legible from a distance, a huge problem with the 2014 offering.

The pants are functionally identical to last year’s model, with the color scheme being swapped (red-on-black instead of black-on-red) this year. The subtle sans-serifed N inside of the side stripes on the pants is repeated this year, which is a clever addition.

One other observation is the number adidas chose for the reveal, 15. It may not be breaking news, but this is further confirmation that De’Mornay Pierson-El will be the face of Nebraska this season.

The Bad

Yes, the undershirt is ridiculous, as pointed out by Paul Lukas of UniWatch.

(And before you say it, yes, we’ve all heard the one about the N standing for “knowledge,” thank you very much.)

But it’s an undershirt. No one other than the players will ever see it outside of today’s reveal.

Of bigger concern is the tire-tread  stretch pattern on the jerseys. Of course, we’ll hear from adidas all about how it will make the players faster, lighter, and stronger. But, come on. The primary reason for the design is to give a unified look to all adidas-outfitted schools. The German outfitter wants you to know at a glance that a uniform is living the #3StripeLife, and the pattern (along with the diagonal slashes in the stripes, as seen with Nebraska, Miami, and UCLA) is how adidas will accomplish that goal.

And The Amalgam

Adidas has come under withering scrutiny over the last year or so for producing flops in uniforms. It’s no accident that Michigan, Tennessee, and Notre Dame have all stopped living the #3StripeLife when they got the chance recently.

So there was not a little pressure on adidas to get things right this year for their football offerings. After a huge fail (UCLA), an interesting alternate (Louisville), and a qualified success (Miami), what adidas would do with Nebraska was a cross-your-fingers moment.

Taken on its own, the 2015 alternate is a success. For alternates, black seems to work better than red, as it’s easier to differentiate it from Nebraska’s standard uniforms without being overly weird. Prior to this season’s gear, the 2013 black uniforms were the best in my book, followed by the under-loved 2012 giant N uniforms (although Wisconsin’s that year were better) and then the 2014 “duct-tape” model which worked far better in theory than in practice.

But when you look at the history of Nebraska’s alternates (never mind how weird it is to think of alternate uniforms as having a “history”), this year’s offering seems like a re-tread.

See what I did there, referring to Nebraska’s tire-tread-pattered uniform as a “re-tread”? Quality analysis at work.

There’s really not much new in these uniforms. Instead, it feels like taking the best parts of previous uniforms and melding them together in the hopes of getting something right. Functionally, the uniform takes the black helmet from 2012, the black shirts from 2013, and the shiny numbers and N-pattered pant stripes from 2014 in a way that will be (hopefully) legible from a distance.

So overall, it should be fun to see Nebraska take the field on October 24 in these uniforms. Assuming the numbers are legible, adidas managed to avoid a car-crash of a uniform. And the black uniforms and helmets should be a hit.

But it’s hard not to feel like this year’s offering is anything more than a recycling of previous years’ models. And that’s not what an alternate uniform is supposed to be.

Nebraska Football: The Cornhuskers’ Biggest Position Battles Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is starting soon, and one of the biggest things for new head coach Mike Riley to do during fall camp is to sort out contested positions. Some positions are fairly clear, but a number of positions on Nebraska’s roster will force Riley to make some decisions.

Here are five of the positions where the battles for playing time should be the fiercest.

I-Back

Of all the battles, this position might be the most contested, simply because of the talented options available. Last year, Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance made it hard for any running backs to get much playing time, and the statistics showed. Abdullah had 62.7 percent of all rushing attempts by running backs in 2014.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for an heir apparent, so the I-backs returning this year (along with the new guys) will all be starting from a fairly level playing field. Given the way the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby looks to be the most likely to start against BYU in Nebraska’s opener. But Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon should all have their chances to earn playing time in fall camp.

The offensive line if your name isn’t “Alex Lewis”

At left tackle senior Alex Lewis looks to have his place locked up next season. Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network calls Lewis a “cornerstone” for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But the rest of the offensive line is a huge question mark.

Givens Price should have a chance to compete at right tackle, with David Knevel right behind him. Chongo Kondolo and Dylan Utter will be battling with Tanner Farmer, DJ Foster, and others at guard. And at center, Ryne Reeves and Paul Thurston should be the primary contenders.

Defensive End

Nebraska’s starters at defensive tackle seem pretty clear, with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine taking up the middle. But at defensive end, Nebraska has a number of players who should be fighting for time.

Greg McMullen, given his history at the position, should be one of the first names on the list. But behind McMullen, Jack Gangwish looks to be battling with Joe Keels and AJ Natter for the other spot at end. And younger players like Sedrick King and Daishon Neil be challenging for playing time. Keep special watch on converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athletic ability could make him the surprise of the unit.

Linebacker

This position isn’t so much about who will be a starter – Nebraska is so thin at linebacker, that anyone with returning experience is likely to earn a starting job almost by default. Absent injury, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey should be all but guaranteed a starter’s role.

But behind those two is an interesting battle. Returners Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby might have first crack at the whip. But incoming freshman Dedrick Young will have a great chance to earn playing time, as he was an early-enrollee. And the other true freshmen (Mohammed Berry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) will get their shot as well.

Secondary

This caption is a little misleading, as one starting cornerback spot (Daniel Davie) and one safety spot (Nate Gerry) are likely earned already from last season’s performance. But the other spots should be the subject of fierce competition, given the depth of talent at the position.

At cornerback, Charles Jackson,  Josh Kalu, Trai Mosely, and Jonathan Rose will be fighting with incoming freshmen Avery Anderson and Eric Lee to see the field. And at safety, Byerson Cockrell and Kieron Williams will be challenged by incoming freshmen Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams (as well as any of the players at corner who may slide into the position).