Nebraska Football: Power Ranking the Difficulty of the Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season

DSC00174

As August bears down on us, the 2016 college football season can’t be far away. With B1G Media Days coming next week, and fall camps about to open, it’s time to look at the calendar and start thinking about the season to come.

So, with a little more perspective on the coming campaign, it’s time to power rank Nebraska’s 2016 season from the easiest game to the most difficult.

No. 12: Wyoming (Sep. 10, home)

The Cowboys were 2-10 last year, and are still trying to make up a pretty significant talent gap. Craig Bohl has some work left to do.

No. 11: Purdue (Oct. 22, home)

The Boilermakers were 2-10 as well last year, and are likely still coached by Darrell Hazel in part to their mystifying defeat of Nebraska last year. Honestly, the more times you look back at that game, the more unbelievable it is that Nebraska lost to a team like Purdue.

No. 10: Fresno State (Sep. 03, home)

Fresno State isn’t BYU, but it is still a legit program with a respectable history. Sure, 3-9 wasn’t great last year, and the Bulldogs haven’t really been very good since Derek Carr left. But given last years’ experience, Nebraska fans should feel at least a little sense of concern seeing a non-directional-school as the season opener.

No. 9: Minnesota (Nov. 12, home)

Tracy Claeys has a tall task ahead of him, taking over for the perpetually-over-achieving Jerry Kill. Yes, quarterback Mitch Leidner is better than he probably gets credit for, but the Gophers still look like a squad about to fall back to earth.

No. 8: Maryland (Nov. 19, home)

Last year Maryland combined a decent (no. 54 nationally) rushing defense with a poor (no. 104 nationally) passing defense to finish 3-9. That combination (decent rush defense, poor pass defense) seems to at least benefit the Terrapins against what we think Nebraska will do offensively, which could make the game more challenging than the talent gap might suggest.

No. 7: Illinois (Oct. 01, home)

The arrival of Lovie Smith should help to stabilize an Illinois program that has been staggering under the weight of mismanagement for years. And with an NFL-caliber quarterback in Wes Lunt, the Illini have weapons to work with. But attrition will hit Illinois hard this year, pushing Smith’s guidance of the Illini back to respectability back at least a year or two.

No. 6: Wisconsin (Oct. 29, away)

Well, at least we won’t have Joel Stave to kick around anymore. Whether Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook wins the job, though, he’ll have phenomenal talent Corey Clement behind him, which should add punch to Wisconsin’s attack. Still, questions on defense and needing to break in a new quarterback should make this year’s trip to Madison less frightening than trips past.

No. 5: Indiana (Oct. 15, away)

Stop me if this seems familiar. Team finishes 6-7, with all of its losses coming in soul-crushing ways that couldn’t possibly replicate the following season. Yes, Indiana’s season was just about as ridiculous as Nebraska’s in 2015. Indiana’s offense should be just as good as it was last year, too, which should put Nebraska’s re-tooled defense to the test early. Particularly with the game in Bloomington, if you have money to wager invest on an upset, this game would be a prime candidate.

No. 4: Northwestern (Sep. 24, away)

The Purples were nowhere near as good as their 10-3 record would suggest. But the defense in Evanston last year (nationally, no. 12 in scoring defense, no. 21 in rushing defense, no. 23 in passing defense, and no. 13 in total defense) should still be salty. That’s a challenging draw for a Nebraska team going on the road for the first time in 2016, for its first conference game of the season, and coming off a challenging game against Oregon the week before.

No. 3: Iowa (Nov. 25, away)

The Hawkeyes make few bones about who they are – solid defense, good play on the lines, and an offense that will do enough to keep them in games and wait for your mistake. Iowa won a whole bunch of games last year (including in Lincoln) sticking to that formula. By the time the Heroes Game comes to Iowa City, given their schedule the Hawkeyes should be in position for another trip to Indianapolis, and ready to give Nebraska a challenge.

No. 2: Oregon (Sep. 17, home)

The Ducks weren’t at their national-title-challenging caliber last year, and have another FCS transfer quarterback in Dakota Prukop learning the ropes in 2016. But Oregon’s talent is still better than Nebraska’s (no. 19 vs. no. 24, according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting average),

No. 1: Ohio State (Nov. 05, away)

Yeah, the Buckeyes in 2016 are basically quarterback J.T. Barrett and a whole bunch of “Hello, My Name Is” stickers. But by November, those Buckeyes will have had plenty of experience, and the talent differential (and playing the game in the Horseshoe) should make this a difficult trip for Nebraska.

All stats courtesy cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

Nebraska Football: Three Players Who Need To Improve in 2016

DSC02811

Coming off a 6-7 campaign, it’s fair to say that there might be more than three players who need to improve for Nebraska’s 2016 season to impress. But for Nebraska to right the ship (and, according to one smart and particularly handsome analyst, be favored to win the B1G West title next season), there are three critical players on the roster who need to significantly outperform their 2015 season.

Not Featured: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

I know, I know, this doesn’t make sense. How can Armstrong not be a player that needs improvement when this dope already said that his completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio weren’t good enough for Nebraska to win a division title?

Because, to be honest, at this point it’s unreasonable to expect those numbers to change. Armstrong is going to be a senior in 2016. For those two most important statistics, here’s what his career numbers look like.

Year Attempts Comp. % TD-to-INT
2015 402 55.2 1.375
2014 345 53.3 1.833
2013 131 51.9 1.125

As you can see, Armstrong’s completion percentage has – barely – been improving in his three years under center. His ratio, which was atrocious in his freshman season, actually got worse last year after some promising signs of improvement in 2014.

Sure, a new coaching staff and a new offensive philosophy can explain a lot of Armstrong’s struggles last season. And sure, it’s possible that a second year under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf might help Armstrong make a leap in both categories.

But at this point, it’s really hard to assume or even expect that. Armstrong is a senior, who has played 33 games for Nebraska. Much like Taylor Martinez before him, at this point in his career Armstrong is likely who he is going to be – in his case, a great leader, a tough competitor, a dangerous playmaker, and an inaccurate and turnover-prone quarterback.

If Armstrong develops into something more in his senior campaign, then it’s a bonus for Nebraska. But for now, we have to expect Armstrong to deliver about what he has delivered throughout his career.

Nate Gerry

Gerry has had an … interesting career at Nebraska. As a freshman, then-head coach Bo Pelini moved Gerry to linebacker in an attempt to find his best position. Gerry returned to his position at safety as a sophomore, and looked like he was going to be a world-beater.

But then Pelini was dismissed, and in came head coach Mike Riley with defensive coordinator Mark Banker.  Pelini’s defensive schemes put a prime on defending the pass, at the expense of the running game. Banker’s quarters-style defensive strategy is the opposite, focused on stopping the pass at the expense of the deep middle passing game.

That’s a huge change for a safety, and Gerry’s transition was – not ideal. We know what Nebraska’s pass defense, particularly in the fourth quarter looked like last year.

giphy

You want numbers? Take a look at these comparisons.

  2014 2015
Pass yards allowed/game (nat’l rating) 205.8 (33) 290.5 (122)
Scoring defense (nat’l rating) 26.4 (60) 27.8 (75)
Total defense (nat’l rating) 383.7 (53) 400.4 (64)

What do these numbers tell us? Well, that Nebraska wasn’t all that much different in terms of both total defense and scoring defense between 2014 and 2015 – with a pass defense that went from no. 32 nationally to no. 122.

That means if Nebraska pass defense improves even to average, then Nebraska’s overall defense should be much better in 2016. It will have to be, if this smart and particularly handsome analyst is right and Nebraska looks to be in contention for the B1G West this year. Gerry, as a senior, will be one of the team leaders, and it’s up to him in his second season under Banker to find his sophomore form.

Freedom Akinmoladun

Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense (and puncher of fellow coaches) recently died. And while his personality might be the perfect polar opposite of Riley’s, he could not have been more right about how a pass rush helps a secondary. Here’s what Ryan had to say about how a pass rush helped a secondary.

“A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back.” (courtesy of the Houston Chronicle).

Nebraska was no. 78 nationally in sacks. Yes, the pass defense last year was atrocious, and it’s easy to point fingers at the secondary. But the lack of pass rush was a huge contributing factor to Nebraska’s woes defending the long ball.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much of a cavalry riding in to the rescue. While Riley’s 2016 recruiting class was impressive, given that Riley was coming off a 6-7 campaign, one glaring deficiency was a true pass rush specialist.

It falls, then, to the players on the roster to heat up the opposing quarterback. And of all the pass rushers on the roster, Akinmoladun looks to be the one most likely to shine. Last year was his first at defensive end after moving from tight end, and Akinmoladun possesses the raw athletic ability to get past an opposing tackle and get home.

For Nebraska to be successful next season, Akinmoladun will need to make that leap.

Nick Gates

OK, here’s a comprehensive list of the starters on Nebraska’s offensive line who will be playing in the same positions they manned in 2015.

If that doesn’t frighten you as a Nebraska fan coming into the new season, then you aren’t paying attention.  Nebraska’s offensive line will be undergoing a huge transition, with three new starters being broken in and two players likely shifting positions from 2015.

Of the players shifting positions, Gates will be the one with the most on his shoulders.  Last year, Gates played at right tackle, but looks (based on projections from Ourlads) to be playing left tackle in 2016. That position (especially with a right-handed quarterback) is the most important on the offensive line, and it looks to be filled next year by a redshirt sophomore who has not started a game at left tackle in his college career.

For Nebraska to reach its goals in 2016, Gates will have to excel in his new home on the offensive line quickly.

All stats from cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: Riley’s Decision to Have Rape Victim Address Team Sends a Powerful Message

On June 22, Brenda Tracy will speak to the Nebraska football program about her experience being raped by a group of four men, including three college football players. In 1998, four players were present during Tracy’s assault, two of them Oregon State players under then-head coach Mike Riley. When Riley was still Oregon State’s head coach, he promised Tracy an opportunity to speak to his team and tell her story. After his move to Lincoln, Riley made sure Tracy was aware that his offer was still good (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

John Canzano of The Oregonian recounted Tracy’s description of the ordeal she will be sharing with the Nebraska football team on June 22:

She’ll tell them about the four college football players – two of them Beavers – who were present, and the drink she accepted without knowing what was in the cup.

Tracy will try to find the words to explain what it felt like to grow sleepy, then lose consciousness, only to wake up being sexually assaulted by four men. She’ll talk about being terrified, unable to fight back, and how she pleaded with one of them to make it stop.

The assault went on all night, and continued the next morning. Tracy eventually woke up on the floor of the apartment with crumbs, condom wrappers and garbage stuck to her naked body.

“Those men treated me like garbage,” Tracy said.

The stories of how Oregon State and law enforcement officials in Corvallis failed Tracy was described in gut-wrenching detail by Canzano. And it’s more than fair to question Riley about how he responded to those allegations. Tracy summarized how she felt about the inadequacy of Riley’s response.

“One game for my rape,” she told Canzano. “One (expletive) game.”

The story is hauntingly familiar to what happened in Waco with the assaults and alleged assaults surrounding the Baylor program (as outlined by Max Olsen of ESPN). It’s hauntingly familiar to how the investigation of sexual assault allegations against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston were mis-handled by the Tallahassee Police Department and local prosecutors (as described by Patrick Redford of Deadspin). It’s hauntingly familiar to how law enforcement in State College failed to investigate or prosecute Jerry Sandusky as he was serially abusing children at Penn State (as detailed by Nate Schweber of the New York Times).

Stories like that – failures like that, betrayals like that of both the victims and those who could be wrongly accused – are why I still have to say “alleged” assault so many times. Not because the assaults didn’t happen, necessarily, but because the desire to protect the program outweighed the pursuit of justice. Because time and time again for coaches, local law enforcement, and university administrators, the screams of the crowd on football Saturdays drowned out the screams of victims in dorm rooms and locker room showers.

With Art Briles’ dismissal as head football coach at Baylor, much digital ink (like here and here and here) has been spilled about how we as a country have reached a turning point, about how we will get serious about investigating and prosecuting sexual assault allegations against football players.

Maybe. Hopefully. But I’ve heard that before, read those think pieces before. Remember this devastating “We Were Penn State” Sports Illustrated cover after the Sandusky scandal broke in 2011? Remember how we thought after that, something as insignificant as winning college football games would no longer take a back seat to protecting the vulnerable from being victimized by the powerful and influential? How after Sandusky those in positions of authority – coaches, local law enforcement, and university administrators – would never allow the status of The Program to interfere with the investigation and prosecution of crimes?

Fast forward a little less than five years. Penn State’s sanctions have largely been wiped away. The Tallahassee police made sure we could never get to the bottom of Winston’s assault allegations. Baylor happened. And those are just the high-profile cases.

So what will it take to change the culture of college football, to truly make sexual assault unacceptable, to make college football players and coaches who commit and abet those crimes truly accountable?

Well, perhaps what it will take is someone inside the fraternity – like Riley, known and respected throughout the world of college football – to own his past failures and address the issue with his team and with his fanbase head-on. Riley has acknowledged that he’s changed how he looks at allegations of sexual assault since Tracy’s incident in 1998.

“Doing the right thing is the key,” Riley told Canzano. “What I’ve learned is that some things that are not negotiable about the opportunity to be on a team. One of those is certain kinds of assault, and one of them is anything to do with guns.”

In a 2014 interview with Canzano, Riley discussed how his thoughts about handling sexual assault allegations have changed through the years.

“It’s so sad to me that it still haunts her. It’s scary what that means to a lady,” Riley said. “Maybe retribution would have helped that. I don’t know. I just reminded our team here recently about those things that will change their life and others in a blink of an eye.

“What I hope I’ve learned through the years is ‘What are we really doing here?’ There are deals, you have to look at it case by case, and gather information. I don’t necessarily think you have to wait for the courts to say ‘guilty’ when you’re talking about guns, when you’re talking about abuse of women, when you’re talking about assault, DUI, drugs and you usually know enough to know that these guys have disrespected the program.

“I’m in the business of helping these guys grow, but some guys refuse that and you have to cut them loose totally. Some guys you have to suspend, see how they do from there. … It’s a hard world to be in. You’re judge and jury. But if there were a baby sitter that was accused of molesting kids, would you continue to let them babysit your kids and wait for a jury to decide?”

Still, Tracy’s feelings about Riley are understandable.

“I despised that man,” Tracy told Canzano about Riley. “I hated him with every cell in my body. This is a coach who victimized me, and now I’m going to stand in front of his football team and tell them how I felt.”

Riley is making sure that Tracy gets the chance to tell her story to his players. He doesn’t have to do that. No charges against Riley’s players at Oregon State were ever filed (thanks, in large measure, to the failures of law enforcement to properly investigate the assault and preserve evidence). Tracy’s civil lawsuit against Oregon State – and Riley – is ongoing (according to Bryan Denson of The Oregonian).

But Riley is keeping his word to Tracy anyway, and a new group of college students will hear first-hand the experience of a woman raped by a group of college football players. Nebraska’s football players are no different than other football players at big-time programs around the country – some wonderful kids, some selfish, many with an over-developed sense of entitlement coming from a life of being the best football player on a team and all the perks from an adoring community that status entails.

Those players will hear a very human story of horror and trauma inflicted upon a woman when college football players – kids in exactly the same situation they are in – felt entitled to take what they wanted from her without her consent. And maybe, just maybe, those words will echo in their minds when an opportunity to take advantage of their privileged status arises for members of Riley’s football team.

Over the years, Tracy has been able to make her peace with Riley, even though she has not yet been guaranteed an opportunity to meet with him on a one-on-one basis when she comes to Lincoln.

“I don’t hate Riley today,” Tracy told Canzano. “Thank God. That type of anger eats away at your soul. I’ve found a lot of peace.”

And Riley’s explanation to Canzano as to why he agreed to let Tracy speak to his team gives some insight about what Riley hopes Tracy’s talk to his team achieves.

“I think kids have to always understand it’s about choices,” Riley said. “The other basic thing to understand is how you treat people. It’s one more piece. I really appreciate Brenda reaching out, stepping out to do this. I think it will be a real-life thing. I think that’s what players need to know about. There’s people’s lives involved here and how it affects them.

“I think they have to know that.”

And, more importantly, Tracy described to Canzano her reasons for coming to Lincoln and describing her ordeal to Riley’s team.

“College football needs to change,” she said. “It needs a hero. It needs someone to be vocal and call on the rest of college football to be transparent and accountable when something like Baylor happens. Who better to step up nationally than Mike Riley?”

Nebraska Football: JUCO Transfer Talk Highlight Needs on Defensive Line

DSC08736

Over the last week, Nebraska has brought in two junior-college transfer candidates on the defensive line for a look at the Huskers. Graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu came to Lincoln for his first of five potential visits after receiving his degree from Utah, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star. And defensive end Raveon Hoston from Valley College of Los Angeles said on Facebook that he has received an offer from Nebraska, according to Sam McEwon of the Omaha World-Herald.

It’s not a huge surprise, of course, that Nebraska is looking for a “break glass in case of emergency” option on the defensive line. The departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine to the NFL were not unexpected, but left a big hole in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive front. Kevin Williams followed up with his transfer from Nebraska to Michigan State, which put even more stress on the defensive line.

How much stress? Well, only three defensive linemen (Freedom Akinmoladun, Kevin Maurice, and Ross Dzuris) will be back in 2016. According to Athlon Sports, Maurice – the only returning tackle – has one start, while defensive ends Akinmoladun and Dzuris have eight each.

That’s mighty thin for such an important position on the field. At the moment, Nebraska will be leaning heavily on redshirt freshmen Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis and untested sophomores Peyton Newell and Mick Stoltenberg to solidify things up the middle.

So the signing of Tu’ikolovatu for Nebraska would be a massive (literally and figuratively) addition to Nebraska’s defensive line. He played in all 13 games for Utah last year, a team that finished sixth (!) nationally in rushing defense. If Tu’ikolovatu does pick Nebraska, he would almost certainly walk into Lincoln as a starting defensive tackle and give the Davis twins an additional year to develop before being asked to perform as starters.

The pursuit of Hoston is a little more interesting, as Nebraska’s depth at defensive end is (slightly) better than at tackle. Sedrick King, A.J. Natter, and DaiShon Neal should all be competing for playing time, although the experience of Akinmoladun and Dzuris should pencil them in as starters for next season.

Still, Nebraska’s pass rush in 2015 was woeful, checking in at no. 78 nationally in sacks. Nebraska was also no. 122 in pass defense overall, no. 123 in pass defense on third down, and no. 122 in pass defense on third down and 10 or more yards to go. Sure, some of those struggles can be laid at the feet of the secondary, but the lack of a consistent pass rush (which Nebraska struggled with all season) makes the secondary’s job a lot harder.

Hoston had 19 tackles, three sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. His addition to Nebraska’s roster, if it comes to pass, wouldn’t be the obvious shot in the arm at end that Tu’ikolovatu’s would be at tackle.

But at the very least, the fact that Nebraska is exploring at least two junior college transfers on the defensive line suggests the coaching staff recognizes one of NU’s biggest weaknesses coming into the 2016 campaign. And is looking for a means to address that weakness immediately.

(All stats from cfbstats.com unless otherwise indicated).

Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Get to Ten Wins in 2016

IMG_6122

Earlier this week, the sports gambling site Five Dimes set Nebraska’s over-under total at 9.5 for wins in 2016. For the non-gamblers among you, the bet is just what the name of it suggests – you put your money down as to whether you think Nebraska’s win total will be over or under the number selected, in this case nine-and-a-half.

That means this particular sports book thinks the most likely scenario for Nebraska in 2016 is to win between nine and ten games. That’s a pretty bold statement for a team coming off a 6-7 season in 2015.

So, is Five Dimes just counting on rabid Nebraska fans making irrationally exuberant investment decisions? Maybe to an extent, although “souvenir” bets like that are usually on tickets to win a national title put down by chumps like me on trips to Las Vegas. An over-under line set too high will be pounced on by sharks, and could end up costing a sports book lots of money.

That means the book makers at Five Dimes must have some confidence that Nebraska can get to ten wins in 2016 – besides just listening to this smart and particularly handsome analyst who picked Nebraska as the B1G West favorite next season. Here’s what has to happen for Nebraska to get ten wins next season.

Beat Oregon

A ten-win season almost certainly would require knocking off Oregon in Lincoln on September 16. Given where the two programs have been over the last few years, that sounds like a tall order for Nebraska.

But Oregon isn’t quite what it has been in years past. Quarterback is a huge question mark for the Ducks, hoping FCS transfer Dakota Prukop will be the heir to Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will be taking over Oregon’s defense, bringing his skill set to Eugene but asking the Ducks to learn a new scheme next season.

Nebraska will likely come into this game as an underdog. But with the game in Lincoln, and Nebraska being Oregon’s first big test of 2016 (with no disrespect to UC Davis or Virginia), a win over the Ducks could help put NU on the map. And if the over ticket for Nebraska is to be cashed, NU will almost certainly have to pull the upset.

Avoid the Toe-Stubber

Yeah, a 5-7 regular season was pretty dreadful for Nebraska last season. But that record includes two head-scratching losses to Illinois and Purdue, both on the road.

The two upsets were very different. Nebraska’s loss to Illinois involved asking Tommy Armstrong to make 31 passes in high winds, while the loss to Purdue had much to do with tossing backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe into the fire due to Armstrong’s injury.

Either way, though, those two games were inexplicable losses when comparing the relative talent levels of the two teams. If Nebraska wins those games, even with everything else that went wrong in 2015, the season would have ended at 8-4. The distance between 8-4 and 10-2 seems far more manageable than the actual records earned last year.

Win on the Road

If Nebraska is going to win ten games, it’s going to have to get work done on the road in conference. Trips to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa will likely determine Nebraska’s fate in the B1G West. Last year, Nebraska had its contests against those divisional rivals in Lincoln, and lost all three in excruciating fashion.

In 2016, the schedule flips and Nebraska will have to face those teams on the road. And if Nebraska is to reach the ten-win plateau, it will have to do better on the road in 2016 than it did at home in 2015.

Get the Bounces

Nebraska’s struggles in close games could not have been more well documented. And it would be falling prey to the Gambler’s Fallacy to think that Nebraska was due a run of good luck to make up for all the bad bounces it got in 2015.

Instead, perhaps it’s more reasonable to think that Nebraska’s secondary won’t be quite as vulnerable to the deep ball as it was throughout much of 2015 – a weakness that clearly cost it games against BYU, Miami, Illinois, Wisconsin, and (exhausted deep breath) Northwestern. Add to that a second year in an offense to help Armstrong avoid at least some of the turnovers that doomed Nebraska (such as against Iowa), and you have a recipe to turn those close losses into wins.

If Nebraska is to win ten games in 2016, it will have to find ways to convert those close losses into victories.

Nebraska Football: Takeaways from the Spring

DSC00808

Now that spring practice is (yeah, I know, quite a distance) behind us, let’s take a step back and take stock of where Nebraska is heading into the 2016 season. Coming off of a 6-7 campaign, Nebraska fans will be wanting reasons for optimism heading into a new season, so the storylines coming out of this spring will have to tide things over until the autumn.

Armstrong is the man

The arrival of heralded phenom quarterback Patrick O’Brien led some Nebraska fans to wonder if senior-to-be quarterback Tommy Armstrong would have legitimate competition in 2016. While Armstrong’s ability to make a big play has won games for Nebraska during his career, his consistent struggles with accuracy and turnovers lend some (like this smart and particularly handsome analyst) to question whether NU can win trophies with Armstrong at the helm.

But at the Spring Game, we didn’t see O’Brien on the field until the second half. And his performance (6-10 for 59 yards and a game-sealing interception) didn’t exactly light the world on fire.

Sure, it’s the Spring Game, also known as the last in a series of practices. Very little weight should be given to just about anything seen therein.

Still, it’s hard not to get past the fact that Ryker Fyfe and A.J. Bush saw the field before O’Brien did. That suggests O’Brien has a ways to go to see the field in 2016, and could be in line for a redshirt season.

That can change, of course. With another phenom quarterback in Tristan Gebbia committing to Nebraska for 2017 and the signing of Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley might well think it worth the risk to give O’Brien playing time next season if he can earn his way up the depth chart.

But if O’Brien wasn’t playing with the first team at the Spring Game, it’s hard to think that he will make enough of a move in the fall to unseat a three-year starter like Armstrong. So it looks a near lock that Armstrong will be leading Nebraska’s offense in 2016.

Questions on the lines and at I-back

Both of Nebraska’s lines will look very different in 2016 than the previous season. The early departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine left a gaping hole in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line that needs filling. Nebraska’s offensive line will likely not have a single starter in the same position from 2015.

That has the potential to be a good thing, particularly on the offensive line where players like David Knevel, Tanner Farmer, and DJ Foster are likely to get a chance to shine. But it’s a frightening scenario to have no returning experience up front on offense.

At I-back, there looks to be an impressive array of talent, but little clarity in terms of how it will be used. Senior back Terrell Newby may have missed his chance to seize the reins of a starting job last year, and now looks to be fending off challenges from sophomore Devine Ozigbo and junior Adam Taylor.

How those backs will be used — and whether Nebraska will truly take a committee approach at I-back in 2016 — is an open question after this spring.

Strength on the edges

If the interior of Nebraska’s offense and defense is a question, the exterior of the offense is not. Nebraska’s wide receiver corps looks to be the strongest unit on the team — and maybe the strongest set of receivers in school history.

Jordan Westerkamp should lead the unit with his remarkable hands and his chemistry with Armstrong. Brandon Reilly is a dangerous deep threat, as is the oft-injured Alonzo Moore. Stanley Morgan was a revelation in his freshman season last year, and should force his way on to the field. Tight end Cethan Carter began coming on at the end of 2015 as a matchup nightmare. And with a year to recover and other weapons around him, De’Mornay Pierson-El may be Nebraska’s secret weapon.

Of course, that presents a challenge for offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, as (see above) the almost-certain starting quarterback for Nebraska in 2016 has a career completion percentage of 54 percent.

Waiting for 2017

In many ways, Nebraska’s 2016 campaign may be another season of transition. With Armstrong as the starting quarterback, Langsdorf will almost certainly tailor his offensive philosophy to suit Armstrong’s strengths as a runner and minimize his weaknesses regarding his accuracy as a passer. Some form of spread-option attack will be grafted in to the offensive scheme Riley and Langsdorf prefer.

Starting in 2017, though, the offense should look far more like what we have seen from Riley at Oregon State. If you look at the quarterbacks Nebraska has lined up for 2017 and beyond (like O’Brien, Lee, and Gebbia) you can see into the future for what NU’s offense will look like — short, accurate passing from the pocket as a key element of the attack.

In addition, Nebraska’s overall talent level in 2017 may start to look more like a team ready to contend for conference honors. Currently — with only eight commits — Nebraska sits at no. 21 nationally for its 2017 class, according to 247Sports. If Nebraska is able to use its success with players like Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Gebbia to lure other talented players (like five-star cornerback Darnay Holmes, from the same Calabasas High School as Johnson and Gebbia), then NU’s 2017 could end up in the top-15 or even top-10.

And that’s critical for Nebraska to return to national prominence. As observed by many, including Dave Bartoo’s CFBMatrix, success in recruiting has a direct correlation to success on the field. Of course, signing class after class of top-10 talent is no guarantee of on-field victories (see, e.g., Texas).

But it’s a heck of a lot more likely to win on the field if you have the athletes to at least compete with top-tier teams in your conference. Since the Callahan era, Nebraska’s recruiting has lagged in the twenties to thirties nationally — and Nebraska has struggled in that time to compete against top-tier competition.

If things continue as they have this off-season, 2017 may be the year Nebraska turns the corner in recruiting and puts talent on the field that gives NU a legitimate shot to compete for conference and national titles in the coming years.

 

The Double Extra Point 2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Nebraska Football: How Far Are The Cornhuskers From Clemson?

IMG_2110

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

DSC02840

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

DSC00736

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.