Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2014 Schedule From Easiest to Toughest

DSC04805

photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have already spent months digesting and analyzing the 2014 schedule. Which games will be the toughest? Which will be the most exciting? Which can I plan to have the in-laws over because the game won’t be close?

Well, never let it be said we don’t provide a public service. Here, ranked from easiest to most difficult, is a power ranking of Nebraska’s 2014 schedule.

No. 12: McNeese State

Once the Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule, FCS opponents like McNeese State will be a thing of the past for Nebraska. McNeese State did beat South Florida last year (and in convincing fashion, 53-21) and make it to the second round of the FCS playoff. But still, the Cowboys look to provide little more than a schedule-filler and a tune-up game.

No. 11: Florida Atlantic

The Owls come to Lincoln after a disappointing 2013 (and some off-the-field controversy) season saw the dismissal of head coach Carl Pelini. Brian Wright has a pretty big rebuilding job to do after a 6-6 record last year, and his visit to Lincoln probably won’t help.

No. 10: Purdue

Darrell Hazell had a big job on his hands when he took over at Purdue last year. And while the Boilermakers probably won’t be 1-11 as they were in 2013, it’s unlikely they will be much better in 2014. Add to the fact that the game is in Lincoln, and Nebraska should win comfortably.

No. 9: Illinois

Illinois is very much the Missouri of the B1G—a team that should be consistently much better than it is, given its location and resources. In Tim Beckman’s third year in charge, the Illini look to improve on a 4-8 record in 2013. The talent level in Champaign is improving. But the B1G schedule makers did Illinois no favors by sending the Illini to Lincoln for a second straight year.

No. 8: Rutgers

Welcome to the club, Rutgers. While the school’s athletic department may be a hot mess, on the field the Scarlet Knights might have more talent than you would expect. The question is, whether that talent can be translated into anything more than its 6-7 season last year under third-year coach Kyle Flood. Coming into a new conference, and having a trip to Memorial Stadium, won’t help that transition in 2014.

No. 7:  at Fresno State

If Nebraska is going to have a road non-conference game, Fresno State might almost be the perfect opponent. The Bulldogs are coming off a BCS-busting 2013 campaign, which should remain fresh in the memory of college football observers. But gone is quarterback Derek Carr, a big reason for Fresno State’s success last year. While a road trip is never easy, Nebraska should be able to navigate the contest.

No. 6: Minnesota

I suspect that 2013 might have been the high-water mark for Minnesota football, including a marquee and well-deserved upset of Nebraska in Minneapolis. In his fourth year, Jerry Kill has done a remarkable job of steadying the ship and making Minnesota a solid, respectable football program. But this year’s Gopher crew is no more talented than last year’s, and with the game in Lincoln and Nebraska with payback on its mind, success in Lincoln would be a big ask for Minnesota.

No. 5: Miami

Having the Hurricanes come to Lincoln has been a fantasy for Nebraska fans who grew up watching speedy Miami players run rings around Cornhuskers in “neutral site” Orange Bowl games. Snow and a bitter north wind are probably too much to ask for, and with quarterback Jake Heaps transferring from Kansas to Miami and able to play this year the Hurricanes look more dangerous.

No. 4: at Northwestern

Last year’s end-of-season slide may make some Nebraska fans less wary of the Purples. That would be foolish. In the last two years, Nebraska has needed miracle finishes to beat Northwestern. Absent those miracle finishes, Nebraska would be 0-3 against the Purples as a conference foe and this game would look much different. Nebraska should have its hands well and truly full in Evanston.

No. 3: at Iowa

This game is a little hard to rank simply because of Iowa’s schedule. The Hawkeyes won the scheduling lottery in 2014, avoiding Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State from the B1G East. Additionally, all of Iowa’s likely rivals for the division will be coming to Iowa City, with Nebraska being the final game of the season. If Iowa has dropped a game or two and is out of contention, the game will still be challenging. But if Iowa is playing for a divisional title—or to keep an undefeated season alive, which given the schedule is not impossible to imagine—then this game could become much more challenging for Nebraska.

No. 2: at Wisconsin

Gary Andersen looks to have picked up right where Bret Bielema left off in Madison. This game will feature the B1G’s two best running backs facing off between Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah. But Wisconsin will have more experience returning than Nebraska, and have the advantage of Camp Randall, which could make this trip a daunting one for NU.

No. 1: at Michigan State

Have the Spartans turned a corner? Is Sparty now the alpha dog in the Wolverine State? Are the defending B1G champs the favorites again? All of those are legitimate questions, and Spartan fans will be loaded for bear after Nebraska came to East Lansing and stole a win in 2012. Nebraska’s trip to East Lansing is easily NU’s most difficult contest of the 2014 season.

Advertisements

Nebraska Football: Projecting Who Will Win Cornhuskers’ Open Starting Positions

IMG_0776

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have a number of ways to get through the summer months, and one of them is to figure out who will be starting for the Scarlet and Cream in the upcoming season. Rather than looking at box scores, Nebraska fans will pore through recruiting magazines and rosters from the season past to get an idea of what the next season’s crop of Cornhuskers will look like on the field.

So let’s put our guessing hats on and see if we can determine who will win the open starting jobs this fall. Note the emphasis on open starting jobs—you don’t need me to tell you that Ameer Abdullah will be the starting I-back and Randy Gregory will get the nod at defensive end.

If a position is missing, that’s because I don’t view it as an open starting position. Yes, that means there is an entire position group (offensive backs) that gets omitted as a result. But it helps keep our focus on the positions that are truly up in the air, at least based on what we know now before the start of fall camp.

Offensive Line

Tackle: Alex Lewis

Guard: Jake Cotton, Ryne Reeves

Center: Mark Pelini

Sometimes taking a chance on a kid pays off. Yeah, it’s not great PR to have a transfer like Lewis have to serve a jail sentence for an assault before he can start playing for your football team. But the fact remains that Lewis looks to have beaten David Knevel for the starting left guard position, acquitting himself well in practice against no less than Randy Gregory.

Having two new guards to break in on an offensive line never bodes well. But Cotton and Reeves do look like they should be able to settle in, keeping junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo on the bench and in the rotation.

As for center, you’d think that Bo Pelini might want sophomore Paul Thurston to win the job simply to avoid the need to break in another new center next year. But Pelini’s experience at that crucial position should be enough to earn him the starting spot.

Receivers

WR Z: Alonzo Moore

WR A: Jordan Westerkamp

Moore has always been an enticing option, combining size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) with speed. But he’s never been able to stay healthy enough to make a contribution on the field. A healthy summer should see Moore hold off Taariq Allen, another big-bodied receiver who has struggled to stay healthy.

The battle for starting at the slot could be one of the most fascinating in fall camp. Jamal Turner has been a ball of potential ever since he arrived—but has never been able to convert that potential into production on the field. Westerkamp, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of a safe pair of hands. Look for that reliability to earn Westerkamp the nod over Turner, although both should see the field a lot.

Defensive Line

Defensive End: Greg McMullen

Defensive Tackle: Aaron Curry

McMullen’s experience should help him hold off junior college transfer Joe Keels, at least initially, and hang on to the starter’s job. Pelini has also demonstrated some willingness to experiment with hybrid players like Maliek Collins and Marcus Newby at rush end, meaning that the end position opposite Randy Gregory could be highly flexible.

Vincent Valentine looks to have one position at defensive tackle locked up, and the battle for the second position between Curry, Collins, and Kevin Maurice should rage throughout fall camp. Look for Curry to win the position by a nose based on his experience, and Pelini’s desire to use Collins as an edge pass rusher at times.

Linebackers

WILL: Zaire Anderson

BUCK: David Santos

MIKE: Michael Rose

As a senior, 2014 is Anderson’s year to shine. He may be the most talented of all Nebraska’s linebacker corps, but he has struggled with injuries since his transfer from junior college. A healthy season could see Anderson becoming one of Nebraska’s surprise stars on defense.

Santos will have to work to keep a hard-charging Josh Banderas out of the starting lineup at WILL, not to mention younger talent like Courtney Love and Marcus Newby. But as one of the most experienced linebackers in the corps, Santos is the best bet to keep the position.

Rose began to shine at the end of 2013, and could very easily emerge as a leader next year. His play in the middle of the field helped shift Banderas from MIKE to WILL, helping to cement Rose’s position going forward.

Secondary

Cornerback: Jonathan Rose

Safety: Nathan Gerry

Nickel: Charles Jackson

At corner, Rose and Byerson Cockrell will be fighting for the starting corner spot opposite Josh Mitchell right up until the first game of the season. I would give Rose the nod simply because of the extra year he’s had in the program, but don’t be shocked if both see extensive playing time.

Corey Cooper looks entrenched in one safety spot, so I would see Gerry and LeRoy Alexander battling for the other spot. It’s clear the coaches like Gerry’s talent, as he saw the field last year at linebacker. Safety looks to be a better fit for Gerry, and the versatility he brings in being able to play multiple positions makes him incredibly valuable.

Jackson has always been a special talent, and it looks like he may finally have the discipline to get on the field and stay there. Replacing Ciante Evans will be a tall task, but Jackson’s physical skills could be a huge weapon in that position.

Special Teams

Placekicker: Drew Brown

Kick Returner: Jamal Turner

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s kicking game could be a huge problem in 2014. Mauro Bondi, Nebraska’s scholarship kicker, wasn’t able to beat out Western Illinois transfer Pat Smith last year, and has done little to inspire confidence from what we have seen of him in 2014. Look for Brown, younger brother of former Husker and NFL kicker Kris Brown, to beat out Bondi and win the placekicking job as a true freshman.

As for the return game, it’s not like Nebraska could do much worse in 2014. Turner and Terrell Newby look to be the two most likely candidates, although I’m sure the coaching staff would be tempted to let Abdullah try his hand. But if Turner’s going to be missing out on playing time at receiver—and I have him losing his starting job to Westerkamp, remember—then that gives him more time and energy to make a contribution as a kick returner.

Nebraska Football: Why Monte Harrison Spurning Cornhuskers Hurts

IMG_0214

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans were watching the Major League Baseball first-year player draft with some interest, waiting to see where wide receiver prospect Monte Harrison would be selected. With most mock drafts having Harrison go in the first round, Nebraska fans had some hope when Harrison wasn’t selected until pick no. 50, to the Milwaukee Brewers. Would that mean Nebraska would have a chance for Harrison to put professional baseball on the back burner and come to Lincoln?

If so, that hope didn’t last long.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”><p><a href=”https://twitter.com/search?q=%23Brewers&amp;src=hash”>#Brewers</a&gt; have signed 2nd round pick Monte Harrison for $1.8MM, per <a href=”https://twitter.com/jimcallisMLB”>@jimcallisMLB</a&gt;. He was committed to play football at Nebraska. Big get!</p>&mdash; The Brewer Nation (@BrewerNation) <a href=”https://twitter.com/BrewerNation/statuses/475396760169623552″>June 7, 2014</a></blockquote>

<script async src=”//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

The transfer of wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow from Washington has been occupying the imagination of Nebraska fans recently, however, so the loss of Harrison from NU’s 2014 class may have been a bit undersold. But it’s still a big loss, for a number of reasons.

 

Stringfellow won’t arrive until 2015

As a transfer, Stringfellow will have to sit out the 2014 season. He’ll still have three years of eligibility left, but he won’t be able to help Nebraska next season. Harrison, on the other hand, would have been eligible to play right away as a freshman.

So the most immediate impact of Harrison’s decision to sign with the Brewers is that there will be no big-time help coming at receiver for the 2014 season.

 

Harrison fit what Nebraska needs at receiver

Here’s what I would project as Nebraska’s starting two-deep at receiver next year:

WR X: Kenny Bell (6-foot-1, 185 pounds), Brandon Reilly (6-foot-1, 190 pounds)

WR Z: Alonzo Moore (6-foot-2, 185 pounds), Taariq Allen (6-foot-3, 185 pounds)

WR A: Jordan Westerkamp (6-foot-0, 200 pounds), Jamal Turner (6-foot-1, 185 pounds)

(all measurables from Nebraska’s depth chart of Dec. 19, 2013)

According to 247 Sports, Harrison is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, but with top-end speed. It’s hard to see how a player with Harrison’s size, speed, and athleticism wouldn’t have cracked Nebraska’s two-deep in 2014.

 

Harrison is just that good

According to Andrew Holleran of CollegeSpun, many thought that Harrison was the best overall athlete in the MLB first-year player draft this year. Think about that for a second. The best overall athlete of 2014 draft, that’s pretty high praise. Sure, he went in the second round, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a phenomenal talent.

Had Harrison not signed with the Brewers, he would have been one of, if not the, most talented player in Nebraska’s 2014 class (with competition only from offensive guard Tanner Farmer). He had 1.8 million reasons to sign his contract with the Brewers, and Nebraska fans should be wishing Harrison nothing but the best in his budding baseball career.

But, boy, from a selfish standpoint he could have made quite a difference for Bo Pelini’s squad, both this year and in years to come.