photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans are not exactly known for their realism. Visions of Nebraska’s glories in the nineties can cloud the most rational fan’s judgment. But Nebraska fans are also painfully aware how the “Conference Championship” banner on the West Stadium has not been updated since 1999, making memories of those past glories grow dimmer by the day.
So perhaps a little realism isn’t a bad thing. Here are some realistic expectations of what Nebraska may achieve in 2014.
Ameer Abdullah (IB) – Given the depth in the backfield, it would not be a big surprise to see Abdullah’s carries go down from his 281 rushing attempts last year. But with what looks to be an improved (or at least more stable) offensive line, Abdullah’s production may increase. Don’t be shocked if, should he stay healthy, Abdullah at least gets close to a 2,000-yard rushing season in his senior campaign.
Tommy Armstrong (QB) – Armstrong has all the intangibles, and the one big tangible of being 7-1 as a starter. But his underlying statistics—less than a 52 percent completion, and a 9/8 touchdown to interception ratio—are not indicative of long-term success. While a full off-season of preparation and an offense tailored to his skill set will help, expecting dramatic improvement from Armstrong’s 2013 statistics is probably not realistic.
Randy Gregory (DE) – Last year at this time, Gregory was an exciting but unknown prospect as a junior college transfer. This year, he’s been tapped by many as a first-round NFL draft pick for 2015. Last year, Gregory had 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. I would expect, now that Gregory is a known commodity, he will be seeing a lot more double teams and schemes to slow him down. So while his influence may increase, it is entirely possible his stats will not reflect that increase.
Terrell Newby (IB) – Imani Cross will likely be ahead of Newby on the depth chart at the start of the season. But Newby’s breakaway speed and shiftiness make him a home run threat unlike any other on Nebraska’s roster. And if he is able to run between the tackles, something he showed in the Spring Game, then Newby could truly be a game changer for Nebraska’s offense.
Zaire Anderson (LB) – Nebraska’s linebacker corps is full of youth, talent, and potential. But it is also full of question marks. Anderson, looking to get a full season in without injury, may be the most talented of all Nebraska’s linebackers, and brings a level of experience which should elevate his level of play in 2014.
Nebraska’s non-conference schedule looks to present two challenges, a trip to Fresno State and a home matchup against Miami. However, both the Bulldogs and the Hurricanes are not the teams they were last season. Fresno State looked to be a BCS buster last year, but should be a very different team without quarterback Derek Carr. Miami has quarterback questions as well, with senior Ryan Williams undergoing surgery on his right ACL. While it is possible Williams will be able to play against Nebraska, there is no doubt he will miss all of fall camp.
So while on paper Nebraska’s non-conference schedule looks challenging, it is not at all unreasonable to expect NU to emerge 4-0 heading into conference play.
The Conference Season
Nebraska’s conference season schedule is far more challenging than it was last season. While Nebraska does avoid Ohio State and Michigan from the Big Ten East, there are plenty of pitfalls on the schedule.
Back-to-back trips to Michigan State and Northwestern, and subsequent road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa, will be the biggest challenge for Nebraska this season. The Spartans are the defending B1G champions and return a number of starters. Northwestern very easily could be 3-0 against Nebraska in conference play. Wisconsin remains formidable even after a down season, and Iowa is coming off a victory over Nebraska in Lincoln.
Nebraska navigating this schedule at 3-1 would be doing well, and a 2-2 record in those four games is not at all out of the question.
So, will Nebraska make it back to Indianapolis? It’s possible, but the odds are stacked against them. Both Wisconsin and Iowa have much more favorable schedules than Nebraska. It is entirely possible that Wisconsin will not lose more than two conference game, and Iowa not more than one. That would put a tremendous amount of pressure on both those games for Nebraska, then.
Even if Nebraska gets off the four-loss schnide this year, which is eminently possible, a loss to either Wisconsin or Iowa would likely hand the division to either of those teams on a tiebreaker. Nebraska may be a better team than last year, but with the relative schedules NU’s chances of going back to Indianapolis are dimmer.