Nebraska Football: What the Cornhuskers Must Do for a Successful Season

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Nebraska’s 2017 campaign is about to start in earnest, but we still have time to take a step back and consider what has to happen for the season to be a success. Obviously, wins and losses will define how Nebraska fans look back on the season. But it’s more helpful to think about specifically what needs to happen on the field for that success to arrive.

Head coach Mike Riley is entering year three of his tenure in Lincoln. After a disastrous – but unlucky – 6-7 season in 2015, he followed up with an improved – but lucky – 9-4 campaign last year.

Former head coach Bo Pelini was dismissed from his position after seven years, in part, for not being able to get over the four-loss hump. And while there’s little thought that Riley is on the hot seat now, it’s not at all inconceivable to think he is a year away from the hot seat if Riley’s Cornhuskers don’t show signs of progress in 2017.

So, what will those signs of progress be? Here’s three things to look for.

Tanner Lee lives up to his billing

I get it, there’s a lot about Nebraska we don’t know coming into this season. The entire defense is being revamped (more on that in a bit), and we haven’t even seen how it looks. The offensive line is entirely shuffled. Almost all of Nebraska’s offensive production from last year is gone. Chris Jones, Nebraska’s best defensive player (and arguably its best player overall) is lost to injury.

So I understand the desire for some stability. But it’s a recurring theme that amidst all of the uncertainly, the one thing most observers are not worried about for Nebraska is the level of quarterback play under transfer Tanner Lee. Check it out here, and here, and here.

That’s … kinda nuts. I know he was the offensive MVP of the scout team last year, I know he’s looked great in fall practice, and I know that he’s ruggedly handsome.

But he hasn’t played any real football in almost two years. And when he did, at Tulane, he had a career completion percentage of only 53.6 percent and a 1.095 touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Yes, it was with a Tulane team bereft of talent, and Lee played through an injury. Still, the only evidence we have of Lee taking snaps in anger shows him playing at a level nowhere near good enough for Nebraska to be successful on offense in 2017.

Hopefully for Nebraska fans, Lee is everything that he’s being billed as coming into this season. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, an entire season can spiral downward if the quarterback play for a team isn’t good enough.

But to take Lee’s success as a given this year is crazy. The table is set for him, to be sure, but Nebraska fans should need to see him actually deliver before checking that particular box off.

The defensive transition is smooth

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is a fascinating character, full of high energy and sometimes-mystifying quotes. But he’s also bringing with him a 3-4 defensive structure he’s kept tightly under wraps, not even letting fans see a glimpse of it at this year’s Spring Game.

It was a gutsy call for Riley to fire former defensive coordinator Mark Banker after last season. But given Nebraska’s late-season collapse, particularly against Iowa, it was an understandable move made by a head coach who knows time is precious.

But that doesn’t make the task of transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 (and from a one-gap to a two-gap system) any easier. Combine the challenge of learning an entirely new way of playing defense with the need to figure out how players recruited for the previous regime fit into the new system, and you have a recipe for defensive breakdowns.

No defense is perfect. But with a schedule that is more daunting this year than last, Nebraska can ill afford a rough transition on defense if it wants to succeed in 2017.

Beat Iowa

I know, I know, Iowa isn’t a rival to Nebraska. I’ve heard that over and over and over again. For a (ahem) seasoned observer of Nebraska football, those protestations sound hauntingly familiar to things Husker Fan has said about Nebraska’s neighbors to the west and the south.

There’s a longer think-piece about this coming (lucky you), but let’s take a look at where we find ourselves now. Iowa owns a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Riley has never beaten Iowa. And last year’s 40-10 (!) curb-stomping in Iowa City is a large reason why Diaco and not Banker is directing the Blackshirts this year.

But think of it in a broader context. As maddening as the end of 2016 was, one demon Nebraska did excise was losing to teams with inferior talent. Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Tennessee all were at least equals in terms of the players on the field to Nebraska.

Iowa, not so much. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting rankings – which is as good a tool as any to measure raw talent on the field – Nebraska is no. 22 nationally. Iowa is no. 40, the team with the lowest recruiting ranking of any squad NU lost to last year.

(In fairness, Wisconsin is no. 38, but the Badgers have a stronger history of over-performing their recruiting rankings than the Hawkeyes do).

Think about it this way. Let’s assume no more ridiculous losses to Purdue and that Nebraska can take care of business against teams like Northwestern and Minnesota. Nebraska ends the season at 8-4, but with two different scenarios.

The first scenario is with losses to Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. Disappointing, to be sure, but in many ways it may be Nebraska’s most likely scenario for 2017.

The second scenario is with losses to Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State, but finally beating Wisconsin – and then losing to Iowa on Black Friday.

Of the two, which scenario would feel worse for you, Husker Fan? Which scenario might slide Riley closer to that hot seat in 2018?

You know the answer. So does Riley, which is why he fired his long-time friend after Nebraska’s day-after-Thanksgiving embarrassment last year.

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Nebraska Football: A Theory on the Cornhuskers’ Collapse Last Season

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Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 29, 2016. Nebraska just missed exorcising its demons in Camp Randall with a thrilling 23-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin, but showed to the world that it could stand toe-to-toe and compete on a national stage. That near-miss loss meant that Nebraska was still 7-1 on the season, including an impressive (although, if you believe in win percentage as a metric, unlikely) victory over Oregon. It was encouraging enough for this dope to even end his ReView of the Wisconsin game with defiance, saying “bring on the Buckeyes.”

Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out for Nebraska. After Ohio State’s 62-3 evisceration of NU, the season took on water in a hurry. Nebraska pulled out a gritty 24-17 win over Minnesota, and a comfortable 28-7 victory over an outmanned Maryland, but those wins proved to be paper over the cracks.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Nebraska was dominated 40-10 by Iowa (!), surrendering 264 rushing yards (!!) and 404 total yards (!!!) to the Hawkeyes. Nebraska drew Tennessee in the Music City Bowl, and lost 38-24 to the Volunteers in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score might have indicated.

So Nebraska’s 2016 campaign ended at 9-4, a decided improvement over the 6-7 mark from a season prior. But in Nebraska’s three losses in its final five games last year, it was outscored 140-37, and outgained by total yards in those contests by more than a two-to-one margin, 1519 to 739.

What happened? How did a season that saw Nebraska at 7-0 and ranked no. 7 nationally end with such a resounding thud?

Obviously, a big part of it was that Nebraska’s quality of opposition improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Oregon looked like a great matchup on paper in 2016, but ended the season at 4-8 and a fired head coach. Ohio State, Tennessee, and (gritting teeth) Iowa were dramatically tougher opponents than Nebraska’s early-season victims, so it should not have been surprising that Nebraska had more difficulty at the end of 2016.

Additionally, Nebraska’s 7-0 mark coming into Wisconsin was clearly, in retrospect, inflated. Given the game flow, Nebraska was pretty fortunate to beat what turned out to be a very flawed (if talented) Oregon squad in Lincoln. Other than the Ducks, Nebraska’s best win in that 7-0 stretch was … Northwestern? Wyoming?

Those factors can explain some of what happened at the end of 2016. But it wasn’t just that Nebraska struggled at the end of last year. Let’s be honest. Nebraska collapsed at the end of 2016. Nebraska capitulated to the strongest teams at the end of its schedule. (And yes, that’s officially throwing shade at Minnesota.)

So what else explains the magnitude of Nebraska’s late-season collapse. There’s a whole bunch of factors, of course. And I will state from the outset that this is just rank speculation from a total outsider, observing from a distance. But I would venture an educated guess that there were two significant factors that contributed to last year’s swoon.

The first is the effect of injuries to quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Of course, his terrifying injury against Ohio State threw Ryker Fyfe into duty in Columbus. But Armstrong had been walking wounded for quite some time before his Ohio State scare, and a combination of injuries against Minnesota a week later knocked him out of the following game against Maryland.

Armstrong tried to soldier through his injuries against Iowa, and it showed. He ran six times for 13 yards and was 13-35 throwing for 125 against the Hawkeye defense. Armstrong was a shell of his former self on Black Friday, and everyone – including Iowa’s defense – could clearly see it.

Gamer that he is, Armstrong fought hard to get back on the field for the Music City Bowl, but his injuries simply wouldn’t allow it. Fyfe started against the Volunteers and was … well, he had eight rushes for minus-27 yards, and was 17-36 for 243 yards passing with two touchdowns.

It’s fair to say, then, that Armstrong’s injury was a significant factor in Nebraska’s late-season struggle. But it’s more than that. Fyfe was Nebraska’s best option as Armstrong’s backup. God bless the kid from Grand Island, he’s a good athlete, worked very hard, and did the best he possibly could in the situation in which he found himself.

But it was clear to any observer from the outset that Fyfe was never good enough for Nebraska to be competitive against a sturdy opponent. And, more importantly, it had to have been clear to the Nebraska squad that going into games against Iowa and (especially) Tennessee, having a quarterback as limited as Fyfe gave NU almost no chance to be competitive.

Outside of perhaps a goaltender in hockey, there is no position in sports more important than the quarterback in football. If there was one fatal flaw in former head coach Bo Pelini’s time in Lincoln (well, apart from the obvious), it was Pelini’s inability to get his signal-caller right.

Between Armstrong and Taylor Martinez, Pelini’s quarterbacks were dynamic and dual-threat, but ultimately limited due to their inability to pass effectively and avoid turnovers put a ceiling on how effective Nebraska’s offense could be. But maybe even more damning of an indictment might be how poor the depth at quarterback has been in Lincoln.

And that lack of depth ultimately undid Nebraska last season. A loss to Ohio State in Columbus was, in retrospect, not a surprising result. And asking Fyfe to come in for an injured Armstrong, with Nebraska already down 21 points, would have made anything other than a blowout surprising.

So really we’re down to two big losses – Iowa (!) and Tennessee – that defined Nebraska’s 2016 season. Why did Nebraska capitulate so badly in those games?

Let’s take as a given that both teams are very good, and worthy winners. But it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s collapse, in part, as a subconscious response by a team knowing that their quarterback gave them no chance to be successful on that day.

Against Iowa, Armstrong gamely tried to play, but it was clear from the start that his injury was going to rob him of his effective rushing of the ball. And without that threat of a run, Armstrong simply was not good enough as a quarterback to be effective.

Against Tennessee, Nebraska was asking Fyfe to go up against an SEC defense (including a future NFL first-round draft pick in defensive end Derek Barnett). Fyfe, as he always did, but up his best effort. But his best effort ended up being a sub-50 percent completion rate. Remarkably, Nebraska remained within a couple of scores throughout the game, but the outcome was never in doubt.

And it’s hard not to think that part of the reason Nebraska couldn’t hold up against Tennessee was because, at some level, the team knew that they couldn’t be successful with Fyfe under center.

Now, my caveats again. I wasn’t in that locker room, and I don’t know anyone that was. But I’ve been an observer of the game for a long time, and I know what my expectations were going into the Music City Bowl. I know what my expectations were against Iowa once it was clear that Armstrong couldn’t run. And if I knew that, it’s hard to imagine that the team didn’t at some level think that too.

And keep in mind, this was a team that had expended a lot of emotional energy that year. The sudden death of punter Sam Foltz just before the season started shocked and saddened the team, and the fan base overall. Throughout the year, the team remembered Foltz before each game, and accepted the support of opposing teams who wanted to sympathize in Foltz’s death as well.

Which, of course, was exactly the right thing to do. It was inspiring to see those young men rally around each other in their grief and memory of a remarkable student athlete taken too soon. I defy you not to tear up when you watch the “missing man” delay of game penalty tribute Nebraska took against Fresno State to honor Foltz’ loss.

But that kind of emotional energy, week after week during a hard campaign, had to take a toll on a group of young men. Add it that toll the disappointment of an overtime loss against Wisconsin, and then the unspoken futility of sub-optimal quarterback play, and you have a recipe for a collapse.

Is that what happened? I don’t know. Is it a plausible explanation, at least as a contributing factor, to how Nebraska could surrender 40 points to Iowa and 521 total yards to Tennessee at the end of a particularly grueling 2016 campaign?

I think it could have been. And if that’s the case, it provides a reason to be hopeful for a 2017 season that is otherwise chock full of questions.