Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch For at the Red-White Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will have its fifteenth and final spring practice play the annual Red-White Spring Game before a crowd likely to be north of 80,000 in Memorial Stadium. As year three of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach begins, fans will be wondering what to expect after last year’s record was an improvement over the prior season, but saw some ugly losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.

So what should a smart fan (and a DXP reader, but of course that’s redundant) be looking for from Saturday’s glorified final practice? Well …

Can The Quarterbacks Complete Passes?

I know, that sounds mean. But here’s Nebraska’s completion percentage from 2009-2016:

2009 57.7
2010 57.8
2011 56.0
2012 62.0
2013 57.7
2014 52.9
2015 55.9
2016 50.3

The last three years, of course, were with Tommy Armstrong as starting quarterback. And those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to expect success on the field.

This year, with Armstrong’s departure, the quarterback battle looks to be between redshirt junior transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee played two years at Tulane, and many fans hope his experience will help him win the job and lead Nebraska’s offense out of the doldrums.

His career stats? A 53.6 completion percentage and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio. Sure, that was at Tulane, not Nebraska. But still, those aren’t numbers that inspire confidence.

With the threat of a quarterback run game now gone, Nebraska will need significantly more efficient play from the passing game to be effective on offense. Whether the starter is Lee or O’Brien, we will at least get a glimpse of what to expect from them on Saturday.

Can The Offensive Line Hold Up?

Nebraska’s passing game was a mess last year, and much of that comes from the signal-callers and their limitations throwing the ball. But part of the problem has been an offensive line that has struggled to perform at a high level. Injuries were a part of the problem last season, of course. But it’s rare to finish a season without some attrition on the offensive line from injury.

Going into Saturday, we do not yet have a good grasp on who will be starting up front on offense. We also don’t know exactly how the Red and White squads will be divided, so it may very well be that a full first-team offensive line won’t be on the field at the same time on Saturday.

But we will get at least some look at how this year’s version of the Pipeline will look come September.

Can The Running Game Get Established?

Yes, it’s fair to say that this question will hinge in large part on the answer to the last question about the offensive line. But it’s also fair to say that Nebraska has a whole bunch of I-Backs to pick from, none of whom have yet to show the ability to take over a game. For the three primary returning backs, here’s their yards per carry from 2016.

Mikale Wilbon 5.93 (15 carries)
Devine Ozigbo 4.25 (97 carries)
Tre Bryant 4.00 (43 carries)

Last year, Nebraska had the no. 73 ranked rushing attack nationally – and that was with Armstrong’s running ability factored in as a part of the offense. This year’s offense will likely not feature a quarterback run game, but will (hopefully, for Nebraska’s sake) have a more efficient passing attack. On Saturday, we will get at least a glimpse of how that effects Nebraska’s ability to run the ball.

Will The New 3-4 Defensive Scheme Take Time To Learn?

62-3. 40-10. 38-24.

Those were the scores of Nebraska’s last three losses (to Ohio State, (shudder) Iowa, and Tennessee), and were a significant factor in why Bob Diaco and not Mark Banker is Nebraska’s defensive coordinator in 2017.  But it’s not like Nebraska was dreadful on defense overall last year. NU was no. 30 nationally in total defense, and no. 33 in scoring defense.

So, on the good side, that means Diaco has a good platform on which to build. But, on the concerning side, it also means that a substantial shift in defensive scheme (from 4-3 to 3-4) runs the risk of upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

Diaco said (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) that the Spring Game will be more of a “dress rehearsal” than an audition, and that “[i]f you’re interested in filming the spring game to figure out what we’re going to do on defense, you’re going to waste a lot of film and footage.”

OK, sure, a smart reader like you might expect that Diaco wouldn’t come out with a quote like “hey, Nebraska opponents, make sure to check out the Spring Game because we’re totally going to show you all our sneaky trick defensive plays.” So of course what will be on the field this Saturday will be a pretty sanitized version of the Blackshirts compared to this September.

(And, at the risk of being snarky, it would be helpful to let Diaco know that most recording is now done digitally instead of using something like this. Although, in fairness, the latter is far cooler.)

Can Nebraska Generate Pressure on the Quarterback?

While we should be able to learn something about Nebraska’s new-look Blackshirts on Saturday, it is fair to say that we might know less about Nebraska’s ability to pressure the quarterback in 2017. Even if the offensive line is a question mark (see supra), it is unlikely that Nebraska will be calling any elaborate blitzing or pressure schemes.

Still, one of the advantages of a 3-4 front is to permit even four-man pressure from multiple locations, potentially causing confusion to opposing offenses (as discussed by Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald). And Nebraska could use the help on that front, checking in at no. 65 nationally in sacks and no. 85 in tackles for loss last year.

So even without the blitzes or other extra schemes, getting a look at how a 3-4 front attacks an opposing offense should give fans at least a taste of what’s to come in 2017.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

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Nebraska Football: Husker Fan, Chill Out About The ESPN FPI Prediction

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This week, ESPN released its Football Power Index (FPI), an analytical tool that simulates thousands of college football matchups to predict future outcomes. The FPI results for the 2017 season are out and they are … not optimistic for Nebraska.

The FPI thinks that Nebraska will win somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5 games in 2017, making it no. 58 in the nation. In looking at the schedule next year, that’s a lower rating than Ohio State (no. 1), Penn State (no. 8), Oregon (no. 21), Northwestern (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Minnesota (no. 55).

Reactions on Husker message boards were, of course, calm, measured, and grammatically accurate. Basically, they broke down into archetypes.

Grizzled Old-School Husker Fan: Bah, what do those eggheads know about a game played on the field!

Snarky Hipster Husker Fan: Gee, can’t wait to watch that exciting half-a-loss Nebraska gets this year.

Angry Message Board Husker Fan: ESPN HAS ALWAYS HATED USSSSS!!!!!!11!!!!1!!

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach: It’s all because we fired Bo.

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach, Five Years Ago: It’s all because we fired Callahan.

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach, Ten Years Ago: It’s all because we fired Solich.

But the FPI results shouldn’t be a surprise. Here’s how ESPN describes the methodology for the FPI rankings.

The model comprises four major components: the last four seasons of performance on offense, defense and special teams, with the most recent season counting most; information on offensive and defensive returning starters, with special consideration given to a team returning its starting quarterback or gaining a transfer quarterback with experience; a four-year average recruiting ranking of four systems (ESPN, Scouts, Rivals and Phil Steele); and head coaching tenure. These four components interact and are assigned different weights depending on the team to produce preseason FPI.

Combining all of the factors above produces a predicted value on offense, defense and special teams, which represents the number of points that each unit would be expected to contribute to the team’s scoring margin if it were to face an average FBS team on a neutral field.

Bill Connelly from SB Nation (and the robot from the incredibly entertaining Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody) released his 2017 S&P+ preseason ratings, which consider recruiting, returning production, and recent history. That formula has Nebraska at no. 42 nationally, behind Ohio State (no. 2), Penn State (no. 8), Wisconsin (no. 11), Oregon (no. 23), and Northwestern (no. 37).

So the computers hate Nebraska in 2017. Why?

Well, first of all, the Nebraska that takes the field in 2017 will bear almost no resemblance to the 2016 squad (which may either relieve you or terrify you, based on your perception of last year’s team).

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, the undoubted engine of whatever offense Nebraska could produce last year? Gone, replaced either by a Tulane transfer with a career completion percentage of 53.6 percent and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio, or a redshirt freshman who has never taken a snap in a college game.

Wait, there’s more. Nebraska’s leading rusher? Gone. Leading receiver? Gone. Third leading receiver? Gone. Fourth leading receiver? Gone. Any tight end on the roster with a career catch? Gone.

Remember, analytics in general and the FPI in particular look at returning production to “decide” how good a team will be going forward. Nebraska, outside of receiver Stanley Morgan, has basically no returning production. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the analytics don’t think much of Nebraska’s chances in 2017.

So take another look at Connelly’s S&P+ preseason rankings. They rank Nebraska no. 22 nationally in recruiting, no. 32 nationally in a five-year average (thank you, 2015), but no. 72 nationally in returning production. That explains, almost entirely, how Nebraska ends up in the mid-forties overall.

Does that mean Nebraska can’t be successful in 2017? Of course not. But it highlights the danger that could burst Husker Fans’ bubble of optimism – that we really don’t know what to expect from the guys wearing the scarlet and cream next year. Tanner Lee might tear things up next year and make Nebraska’s new passing attack thrive. But we don’t know, and we won’t know until the season plays out.

And the analytics are giving us a preview of what the national pundits will likely do as the season gets closer – show that Nebraska has lost the benefit of the doubt. Remember, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. Nebraska hasn’t been competitive in a conference title game since 2009, and needed a once-in-a-generation player like Ndamukong Suh to get that close.

If and when Nebraska gets back to the point where it can legitimately compete for conference titles, the national spotlight and the benefit of the doubt will be back, rest assured. Nebraska is still a legacy name, like Alabama was when it labored under the tutelage of Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula before some guy named Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa.

But Nebraska ain’t Alabama, at least not yet. And until Nebraska can show it won’t wilt under the spotlight, don’t expect the national college football audience – or the analytics – to give Nebraska the benefit of the doubt.