Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from the Firing of Shawn Eichorst

4620042-here+we+go

After Nebraska’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois last Saturday, a smart and particularly handsome analyst said that the loss was what the beginning of the end might look like. Well, it looks a lot more like the end after Nebraska’s chancellor Ronnie Green announced that the university had immediately terminated Eichorst’s employment on Thursday.

There’s plenty to digest, but here’s three quick reactions to Eichorst’s ouster.

Riley is coaching for his job

It kinda felt like it even before Thursday’s news broke, but now there’s no question that head coach Mike Riley is fighting to stay in the big chair in Lincoln. An interim athletic director – meaning one who didn’t hire Riley – will be named in the next few days, and it’s almost certain he and Riley will meet and discuss what Riley’s target must be to keep his job.

Is it 7-5, meaning Nebraska wins out except against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State? Is it 6-6, enough to go to a bowl game? Is it higher? Does it depend on how the record happens as much as what the record is?

That will be up to the interim athletic director, with guidance from the higher powers at the school. But make no mistake, firing Eichorst now was done because Green and university president Hank Bounds saw that there was at least a good chance Riley would have to be fired at the end of 2017.

And if that firing was going to happen, then it makes far more sense to fire Eichorst now. That way, Nebraska isn’t left at the end of 2017 having to hire a new AD, then wait for that AD to come online before initiating a coaching search.

But he’s got a shot to keep it

Green was as emphatic as you could expect with regards to Riley’s status (according to Land of 10).

“Mike Riley is our football coach. We expect him to compete. This is not about Mike Riley,” Green said.

Assuming Riley wants to keep his job, those words – and the swiftness which Nebraska’s higher-ups moved on Eichorst – should sharpen his vision quickly. Riley has nine games left, and will (according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages) have better talent than seven of the nine teams Nebraska will face.

Admittedly, it’s hard to see Nebraska winning one of those games, much less seven, after Saturday’s performance against Northern Illinois. But don’t forget, in 2015 it was hard to imagine Nebraska winning another game after a horrific 55-45 loss to Purdue. Nebraska turned around the next week and knocked off no. 6 Michigan State.

Nebraska doesn’t have to beat the no. 6 team in the country this weekend. It just needs to beat Rutgers, at home, to stop the rot and give itself a chance to salvage the 2017 season – and Riley’s career in Lincoln.

Pelini’s shadow looms over Eichorst

Take a look at what former quarterback Tommy Armstrong had to say on Twitter about Eichorst as news of his firing broke.

And one from former cornerback Josh Mitchell.

That’s quite a bit of venom from two of the strongest leaders from former head coach Bo Pelini’s era. Those guys were there, lived through the whole thing, and we can learn a lot about the team’s mindset listening to them now.

But let’s not forget that their coach, the adult these college kids followed and respected, told them this about Eichorst just after his dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald).

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

Again, I’m not in any way discounting what Armstrong, Mitchell, or any of the other former Huskers have said about Eichorst and how he handled himself. Heck, check out what Mitchell had to say about Riley.

But I am suggesting that their perceptions of Eichorst may have been colored by the way Pelini chose to handle himself after his dismissal.

And it’s hard not to raise the question about how much lingering bitterness from the team about Pelini’s firing – amplified by Pelini’s own childish and selfish rant – affected the remaining players being able to fully embrace Riley and his new staff.

Look, Nebraska isn’t sitting at 1-2 with a loss to a MAC school because of Bo Pelini. Shawn Eichorst isn’t out of a job because of Bo Pelini. Eichorst’s own ham-fisted handling of the Black Friday scheduling debacle, as noted by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, may very well have been the nail in the coffin of his career in Lincoln.

But the seeds of Eichorst’s dismissal were planted in the way he handled Pelini’s dismissal, and watered by Riley’s underwhelming record over the course of 28 games.

GBR, baby.

 

Advertisements

Nebraska Football: Eichorst and Riley Foolish to Dismiss Black Friday and Iowa Rivalry

DSC00573

This week, the Big Ten Conference released conference football schedules for 2020 and 2021, and conspicuously absent was the day-after-Thanksgiving matchup between Nebraska and Iowa. Instead, it looks like Nebraska will be in a four-team rotation with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa to finish out the regular season.

So now, not only will Nebraska not have Iowa as a regular end-of-season rival, but will also be giving up its perch on the day after Thanksgiving, instead blending in with the rest of college football on that final Saturday of the regular season. Things can change between now and 2020, of course. But just looking at the schedule as it sits now, Nebraska-Minnesota will likely be third on the B1G pecking order for that day, behind Michigan-Ohio State (duh) and Iowa-Wisconsin.

There’s really two things that are happening here. The first is losing Iowa as a regular year-end rival, and the second is losing Nebraska’s place on Black Friday. The latter is receiving some significant blowback, including here and here. The arguments against giving up Black Friday are pretty clear.

From a traditionalist standpoint, Nebraska played on Black Friday since 1990. Plus, the Black Friday games are the last links Nebraska has to its Big Eight matchups against Oklahoma, and it would feel very strange for the day after Thanksgiving to arrive and not have Nebraska playing a game.

And for those of you that aren’t moved by clinging to tradition, here’s a very realpolitik reason why it’s good for Nebraska to retain its Black Friday game – it’s good for exposure.

If there’s one overarching lament of Nebraska fans since the halcyon days of the nineties, it is how Nebraska’s national relevance has crumbled. That crumbling, of course, has been well deserved given Nebraska’s performance on the field. But the fact remains that Nebraska now is nowhere near the presence on the national college football stage that it once was.

(That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be again, of course, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

So if you are a program struggling for national relevance, then why on earth would you walk away from a national television spotlight on a holiday weekend – where college football fans already know and expect you to be on their tee-vees as they eat their leftover turkey sandwiches – to be a third-tier game in your own conference?

Well, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst said the following in response to the new schedule (according to Erin Sorensen from Land of 10):

Since moving to a nine-game conference schedule, it makes sense from a student-athlete health, safety and welfare perspective to play on Saturday at the end of the regular season.

This, of course, from the guy who agreed for Nebraska to play Purdue on a Friday night this season, but never mind about all of that. Head coach Mike Riley also wasn’t shedding any tears about losing the Black Friday game (according to Sean Keeler from Land of 10):

I do not like to get out of the routine of what we do week to week to get ready for a game … So changing that is no fun for me, because you always have a mystery of where your team is physically in what you need to do, and what you need to do in the actual preparation part of it.

Look, it’s bad enough that Nebraska pressured FOX to can this incredibly-cool promotional commercial.

But now Nebraska’s decision-makers are tone-deaf enough to make the “player safety” argument and the “we need our routine argument.” I’m not going to dignify the player safety nonsense with a response (apparently the players will be safer against Purdue than Minnesota), but it’s a colorable argument from a football coach who is judged on wins and losses to do everything in his power to maintain routine.

I can live with that argument, but I think it’s horribly short-sighted in terms of the program’s overall development. And, apparently, so does Eichorst – or at least he’s gotten enough heat from the decision to risk an ankle injury backing away from his position.

So, “no final decisions” have been made on when the games will be played, eh, Mr. Eichorst? Then why, just forty-eight hours ago, did you tell us that “it makes sense from a student-athlete health, safety and welfare perspective to play on Saturday at the end of the regular season?”

Well, if nothing else, it’s reassuring that public pressure can influence decisions like this. So let’s move on to the second half of this issue, namely going from Iowa to the four-team rotation.

I think I’ve made my position fairly well known that I think Iowa-Nebraska could be a real rivalry. Is it yet? Of course not. Nebraska’s only six years into its B1G life.

But the green shoots are there already. Iowa fans started out really, really disliking Nebraska. And with Iowa’s recent success against Nebraska, combined with the proximity of the fanbases, there’s no reason to think that the Heroes Game could become A Thing for both teams and fanbases (even with the hopelessly anodyne corporate name and trophy). Much like pearls inside of an oyster, rivalries are born in the repetition of irritation. The proximity and passion of these two fanbases contain the perfect dynamic for such a rivalry to be born.

Yes, yes, I know, Nebraska and Iowa don’t have the history at this point to be rivals. No less a source authority than Tom Osborne has told us so (according to the Omaha World-Herald). But how in the world would you expect that history to be developed if you’re going to rip the marquee nature of the game out of the ground just as the roots are starting to take hold?

And please, don’t tell me that Iowa already has rivals. Of course it does. The Hawkeyes have been playing (and hating) Wisconsin and Minnesota for decades – never mind the rivalry-that-shall-not-be-named against Iowa State.

But guess what, Husker Fan? You remember Oklahoma, the rival-to-end-all-rivals for Nebraska, the ex that you couldn’t ever get over even as you invited over Colorado, Kansas State, and Iowa for Black Friday? The standard to which you’ve found all other potential rivals to be lacking?

Well, Oklahoma kind of has another rival. And for whatever Sooner Fan thinks of you and their games against the scarlet and cream, I can guarantee you the Oklahoma fanbase would throw Nebraska out of the boat in a heartbeat to protect the Red River Shootout Showdown against the Longhorns.

Oklahoma ain’t coming back, Husker Fan (at least as an annual rival). So if you can develop such a love for the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry even with Nebraska being the side piece for Oklahoma, then there’s a place in your heart to make the Hawkeyes a real rival.

Why don’t you want to, Husker Fan? I have a theory. Iowa, like Colorado and Kansas State before them, doesn’t carry the gravitas of Oklahoma. By deigning to allow a team at Iowa’s level on the national pecking order to be a rival, the thought process goes, Nebraska lowers itself to a level at which it does not belong. It was the same argument that led Husker Fan to look down its collective nose at Colorado and Kansas State as rivals.

Look, I’m all for high standards. In many ways, Nebraska fans’ refusal to accept NU’s current predicament is the most powerful engine driving a chance at a return to greatness.

But these high standards (which every other B1G West fan would define as “stubborn and undeserved arrogance”) are also a large factor holding Nebraska back. The fact is, Nebraska as a football program right now is right in the mixer with Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern, its divisional rivals. (And don’t look now, but Purdue under Jeff Brohm might be coming …)

The whole point of Nebraska leaving the Big XII was to find stability, which it now has. Now, with that stability, Nebraska should embrace where it is and learn to love the grind of the B1G West against its midwestern brethren. And there would be no better embrace of that then to lean into what would be Nebraska’s most natural B1G West rival.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Oregon 42, Nebraska 35

49946-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde-0-230-0-345-crop

A tight, seven-point loss to Oregon on the road, that’s the type of game everyone expected, right?

Not so much. Nebraska was humiliated in the first half, falling behind 42-14 and looking to all the world like it was on its way to another nationally-televised embarrassment. But Nebraska found something in the locker room, shutting the Ducks out in the second half and nearly pulling off a miraculous comeback.

The Good

Halftime Adjustments. Let’s just take a look at Nebraska’s defensive performances, broken down by halves.

  First Half Second Half
Total Yards 698 365
Passing Yards Allowed 558 222
Yards/Play Allowed 7.51 5.00
Points Allowed 68 10

Those numbers kinda speak for themselves. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might very well be making the greatest halftime adjustments in the history of organized football. It’s a problem, though, that he has to be (more on that later).

ONIONS! On the first drive of the second half, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-ten at the Oregon 40. Head coach Mike Riley went for it and Nebraska converted, leading to a touchdown and breathing a little life into the scarlet and cream.

On Nebraska’s next possession, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-five at the Oregon 39. Once again, Riley went for it and Nebraska converted. While that drive didn’t lead to points, it set a tone that allowed Nebraska to stay in the game and almost complete a miracle comeback.

Fine Margins. This one’s in the Good section more for Husker Fan looking for reasons to feel better about Nebraska’s loss. Quarterback Tanner Lee’s first interception was a fortunate bounce off a defender’s hand. Oregon’s third touchdown only happened when the ball went off one receivers hand and fluttered into the hands of another. At the end of the first half, another fourth down conversion – which could have kept Nebraska’s drive alive and avoid some of the points Oregon put up at the end of the half – was thwarted thanks to a false start by De’Mornay Pierson-El.

Yes, Oregon badly outplayed Nebraska in the first half, and earned every bit of its 42-14 lead. But, as we saw with how close Nebraska came to a comeback, those fine margins can make the difference between winning and losing.

The Bad

Needing Halftime Adjustments. Judas Priest, Nebraska’s first two first halves of the 2017 campaign have been ugly to watch. They’ve resulted in a down-to-the-wire win over a Sun Belt team and digging a hole too deep to dig out of against Oregon.

I can’t pretend to explain this Jeckyll-and-Hyde performance from the Blackshirts – and I’m not entirely convinced Diaco can as well. I suppose the silver lining is that the second half performances show Nebraska’s defensive potential. But I’m not sure how many first-half embarrassments Husker Fan can tolerate.

The Kid from Tulane. Talk of Tanner Lee’s departure to the NFL after his junior campaign have, shall we say, cooled after the Oregon game. Lee was 19-for-41 through the air for 252 yards, three touchdowns, but four interceptions. Now, two of those interceptions weren’t Lee’s fault, one being a pinball deflection and one from a blind-side hit that resulted in the ball fluttering into a defender’s hand.

But even with that bad luck, Lee struggled against the Ducks. He missed a number of makeable throws, particularly in the first half when Nebraska really needed its offense to keep up. There’s plenty of things to learn for Lee going forward, but this game won’t be one that goes in his scrapbook.

Big Red Cross. What might be the biggest concern coming out of Eugene are injuries to I-back Tre Bryant and safety Joshua Kalu. Bryant has been a revelation in the first two games of the season. I could give you some stats, but this tweet says it all.

Bryant has been struggling with his knee throughout camp, and an injury to that knee causing him to miss the rest of the game is a huge worry for Nebraska. Although Mikale Wilbon got the touchdown that brought Nebraska to within seven, there’s little doubt that NU’s offense wasn’t the same without Bryant.

But what could be a more impactful injury might well be to Joshua Kalu. A hamstring injury in the second quarter took Kalu out for the rest of the game. With Nebraska’s secondary already thin after injuries to Chris Jones and JoJo Doman, the Blackshirts can ill afford to lose Kalu for any length of time.

And the Goals Still Intact

Admit it, Husker Fan. You feel fairly OK after that game. At halftime, you had visions of Texas Tech running through your mind and were worried that this season was about to slip away.

That’s fair. The fact that there’s relief about Nebraska being respectable on a national stage is a barometer of the state of Nebraska’s program. Whether that’s acceptable in the long run is a fair question.

But it’s where Nebraska is now. And (cue the cliché) it still leaves the primary goals for the season open.

Nebraska’s next three games are against Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Illinois. Presuming Nebraska holds serve, NU will be 4-1 on October 07 to welcome Wisconsin.

And that’s where the rubber will really hit the road. Diaco’s defensive charges will have five games under their belt to (hopefully) learn how to play in the first half, and the opportunity will be there for Nebraska to get a win over Wisconsin and set itself up for conference play.

Yes, that loss was disappointing – and extraordinarily weird. But there were enough green shoots there to keep hope alive when the Badgers come calling.

GBR, baby.

(image courtesy of letterboxd.com)

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 43, Arkansas State 36

hit1

“In fact, the very best advice it has to offer in these situation is to be found on the cover, where it says in those now notoriously large and famously friendly letters, ‘DON’T PANIC.’”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio script (image from RogersMovieNation.com)

Nebraska survived its first game of the Mike Riley-Bob Diaco era with a 43-36 win over Arkansas State, salted away only when Red Wolves’ quarterback Justice Hansen’s pass was tipped away in the end zone as time expired. A win is a win, but the muted buzzing from the crowd exiting Memorial Stadium after the three hour and 52 minute (!) contest sounded much more like it would after a loss than a win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s 2017 lid-lifter …

The Good …

The kid delivered. Not that long ago, this dope was worried about Tanner Lee based on his statistics from Tulane and the fact that he hadn’t played college football in over a year. Well at least for one week, against Sun Belt opposition, Lee sure put those worries to rest. He was 19-for-32 for 238 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

The numbers are impressive enough, but the throws he made – and didn’t make, when appropriate – were what should get Nebraska fans excited. His first touchdown to Stanley Morgan should be framed and hung in a museum. And he showed enough mobility in the pocket to help out an offensive line that struggled in pass blocking at times.

Diaco’s adjustments. At halftime, Arkansas State had 245 yards of total offense and 26 points on the board. Outside of the last two drives (which were a combination of fatigue and shock after a successful onside kick), the Red Wolves had 74 yards and three points in the second half.

Yes, I know those last two drives count too, and that’s not to let the defense off the hook for a disturbing performance. But while there’s plenty to criticize and worry about, the Blackshirts are going to take an amazing amount of heat this week. Given the way the defense responded in the second half, though, there’s plenty of room for optimism as well.

Lightbourne’s bounceback. Keep in mind, this was supposed to be punter Caleb Lightbourne’s first game kicking a ball in anger. He was supposed to redshirt, watching and learning as senior Sam Foltz showed him how it was done.

We know how that story ended, and we know about Lightbourne’s struggles last year. But against Arkansas State, Lightbourne delivered with an average of 42.4 yards per kick and three placed inside the 20. Given the way Nebraska’s defense looked to be on skates for much of the first half, that kind of field position advantage was invaluable, and a not-insubstantial part in how the Blackshirts were able to find their feet later in the game.

The Bad …

The first half. Sure, it was great that Diaco was able to make those adjustments. But, Judas Priest, that first half wasn’t pretty. Arkansas State took a pretty basic concept – overload one side with more receivers than defenders, then throw to one of them on a screen – and just kept going and going as Nebraska demonstrated an inability to stop it.

The fact that Nebraska was able to successfully adjust to the Red Wolves’ attack is reassuring. The fact that it took an entire half to do so – against Sun Belt-level athletes – is less reassuring.

Clock malpractice. Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 05, 2015. Specifically, set it for 55 seconds left in the game between Nebraska and Illinois. Nebraska has a third down and seven on the Illinois 27, and a 13-7 lead over the Illini. A first down wins the game, to be sure. But anything that keeps the clock running will bleed so much time away to make a comeback almost impossible.

Of course, Tommy Armstrong throws an incomplete pass, Nebraska fails a fourth down conversion, and Illinois carves through NU’s secondary to score a game-winning touchdown with ten seconds left on the clock.

Now, let’s look at this year’s Arkansas State game. Nebraska starts a drive from its own 22 with 5:46 left in the contest. Two Tre Bryant runs get Nebraska to third and four. With a 43-29 lead, a first down likely puts the game out of reach for Arkansas State. But keeping the clock moving is just as important, particularly given how the Red Wolves had been able to march at will on the Blackshirts.

Instead, Lee throws an incomplete pass, giving Arkansas State enough time to score, get an onside kick, and bloody nearly score again to send the game into overtime – or allow the Red Wolves to win it with a two-point conversion.

Sure, it took a bunch of really unlikely things to happen for Arkansas State to be in a position to tie or win the game. But more adept clock management – an area Riley has consistently struggled with – would have never allowed the Red Wolves to be in that position in the first place.

My blood pressure. OK, guys, this is game one, and against a Sun Belt opponent. There’s Oregon, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, not to mention the big hitters like Ohio State and Penn State. I’m not a young man any more. Seriously, guys, I can’t do this for another eleven games. I’m not saying get beat, to be sure. But, seriously, just put those guys away when you get a chance, please?

And The Inevitable Overreaction.

Let me make myself clear, first of all. Things aren’t fine, as the dog sipping coffee in the burning café says. Getting taken to the wire by a Sun Belt team suggests there’s a problem. And given that the Red Wolves straight-up dropped a touchdown earlier in the game and had a deflected interception on the Nebraska 1 stop another drive, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Arkansas State should have won the game – or, at the very least, that Nebraska was plenty lucky to have won.

But Nebraska did win. And after that fortunate win there’s going to be plenty of OMG NEBRASKA SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKZZZZ!!!!!11!!! hot-takery in response to the Arkansas State squeaker. Stories of an impending 4-8 implosion are being written on message boards as we speak, and much of the guarded optimism surrounding 2017 has likely dissipated.

And, sure, this game could end up being the canary in a coal mine if Nebraska collapses going forward. But there’s enough green shoots of hope from this game to make such a collapse unlikely. Lee looked straight-up amazing, making throws Nebraska fans haven’t seen in … well, a really long time. Bryant was given the entire game, and responded with 192 yards on 31 carries behind some solid run blocking. Until it tired – which, having to face 89 (!) plays, isn’t a shock – Nebraska’s second-half defensive performance bordered on impressive.

So, yeah, there’s plenty to worry about from Nebraska’s win over Arkansas State. But please, Husker Fan, hold off on mashing that panic button just yet.

Nebraska Football: Prediction for the Cornhuskers’ 2017 Season

DSC09452

There’s nothing quite like leaving things late, but a season prediction on the morning of Nebraska’s first game still counts as getting your shot called. First, a caveat. With a new quarterback, a functionally new offense, an entirely new defensive scheme, and a new special teams coach, there’s only one honest answer about what to expect for this season.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Unfortunately, that’s not enough content for a site like this. So let’s go through the exercise and look through Nebraska’s 2017 schedule game by game. In an effort to make this more than just guesswork, for a season prediction I break the games down into four categories:

Better Win: Given the disparity in talent, Nebraska should be expected to win all of the games in this category.

Should Win: Nebraska should be a favorite in this game, but the opponent is strong enough to win even without a total NU meltdown. Nebraska should win a majority of these games.

Might Win: Nebraska should be an underdog in this game, but close enough in talent to win without needing a miraculous performance. Nebraska should win a minority of these games.

Won’t Win: Nebraska is outclassed from a talent standpoint and would need the stars to align for a victory. Nebraska should not expect to win any of these games.

By breaking the games down into these categories, the idea is to take the guesswork out of predicting a final record. Of course, I’ll also give a Fearless Forecast guess of the result, meaning I get two bites at the apple in terms of a final record prognostication.

Arkansas State (Sep. 2)

The Red Wolves come into Lincoln with some talent, including a likely NFL draft pick on the defensive line in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Nebraska’s depth should ultimately win out, but with all of the new schemes NU is breaking in don’t be surprised to see this contest tight in the fourth quarter.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Arkansas State 17

at Oregon (Sep. 9)

The Ducks have a new coach in Willie Taggart, so Oregon will be in a full-on year-one scenario when Nebraska comes to Eugene. But Oregon should have at least equal, if not greater talent than Nebraska on the field. And while Nebraska did knock the Ducks off in Lincoln last year, the metrics (as well as Oregon’s bizarre aversion to extra points) suggest NU was pretty fortunate to get that win. A Nebraska win would be quite a springboard for 2017, but it looks an uphill climb.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Oregon 27, Nebraska 20

Northern Illinois (Sep. 16)

Another Group of Five school that has some degree of talent, but not to the level of Nebraska. With two games in the books, Nebraska’s transition should be a little more solid and ready to handle what the Huskies have to offer.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 10

Rutgers (Sep. 23)

Although the Scarlet Knights gave Washington a scare for a half, eventually the Huskies were able to pull away in Piscataway. Second year head coach Chris Ash is laying the foundation for Rutgers to climb out of the B1G cellar, but there’s still a ways to go.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Rutgers 13

at Illinois (Sep. 29)

This has trap game written all over it. Nebraska goes to Champaign on a Friday night, to what is likely a half-empty stadium, playing a struggling Illini squad ahead of a brutal two-game stretch. Riley’s last trip to Illinois ended poorly, and last year Nebraska seemed to put an end to its head-scratching losses. But if there were ever a time for a shocker, this is it.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Illinois 9

Wisconsin (Oct. 7)

Here’s where the rubber hits the road for Nebraska. While Wisconsin has had Nebraska’s number since NU joined the B1G, keep in mind that the last two games between these squads have been coin-flips. With the game in Lincoln, and the transition well underway, look for Nebraska to finally get over a Wisconsin-sized hump.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Wisconsin 21

Ohio State (Oct. 14)

If Wisconsin is a measuring stick for where Nebraska stands in the B1G West, the Buckeyes will give Nebraska a good look at where it stacks up against the elite. Ohio State, along with Alabama, might be the most talented team in the country. A combination of the game being in Lincoln and a functioning offense should make things closer than last year (an admittedly low bar), but Nebraska is still quite a ways from competing head to head with Ohio State.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 41, Nebraska 21

at Purdue (Oct. 28)

Nebraska returns to the house of horrors that inflicted the program’s worst loss since Iowa State in 2009. But a week’s rest after Wisconsin and Ohio State should help Nebraska focus and get its season back on track.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 13

Northwestern (Nov. 4)

The Purples have a history of hanging tough in Memorial Stadium, pulling off an upset two years ago and losing only on a Hail Mary two years before that. Nebraska should be on more stable footing this time around, though, and allow the talent differential between the to squads to show through.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 37, Northwestern 17

at Minnesota (Nov. 11)

P.J. Fleck was quite a hire for Minnesota, but will be a huge culture shift from the program Jerry Kill built in his years up north. The Gophers look to be dangerous in the next few seasons, but it’s a big ask for them to be ready in year one to compete.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 21, Minnesota 13

at Penn State (Nov. 18)

Ooh, I so want to be bold on this game. Penn State looked like world-beaters at the end of last season, with a legitimate argument to get into the College Football Playoff. But at the start of last year, the Nittany Lions were decidedly average, and much of their late-season success was down to YOLO balls from quarterback Trace McSorley. Still, the Lions have elite talent (including Saquon Barkley, the best tailback in the B1G), and the game is in Happy Valley. At best, Nebraska would have to be well ahead of schedule to pull off this upset.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Penn State 45, Nebraska 31

Iowa (Nov. 24)

It was last year’s 40-10 (!) loss to Iowa that likely ended Mark Banker’s tenure as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, so this year’s Heroes Game will be a good marker to see how far the Blackshirts have come. If Nebraska is able to present more of an offensive threat than a hobbled Tommy Armstrong did last year, look for Nebraska to get back on track in this rivalry.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 17

Season Summary

Under the category system, Nebraska has five Better Win games (meaning five wins), three Should Win games (meaning two wins), two Might Win games (meaning one win) and two Won’t Win games (meaning no wins). That comes out to a 9-3 campaign for Nebraska.

Looking at the Fearless Forecasts, Nebraska also comes out with a 9-3 season, losing to Oregon, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 7-2 B1G record might be enough for Nebraska to earn a trip to Indianapolis, unless Wisconsin can win out the rest of its conference slate.

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

DSC05297 (1)

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.

Nebraska Football: Three Things We Learned from the Cornhuskers’ Pre-Spring Defensive Depth Chart

DSC03934

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

– To A Mouse, Robert Burns

A certain smart and particularly handsome analyst had a great idea. Do a preview of Nebraska’s depth charts before spring practice started, as a great way to lead into a discussion about how the roster could be composed. The depth chart projection, then, would be a convenient vehicle to analyze where the roster might be weak, or how changes on both sides of the ball could alter how players get used.

Then head coach Mike Riley, in his opening press conference of spring practice, had to go and mess everything up by announcing the entire defensive depth chart. You can see it here, thanks to Hail Varsity.

Now, in fairness, this isn’t exactly a depth chart in the sense of knowing who are the starters and who will be backups. But it does group the defensive roster into positions for new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.

So now that the cat’s out of the bag, and our plans for the next couple of articles at the DXP are ruined, let’s at least take a look at Riley’s version of the Sorting Hat and see what stands out.

Field-side inside linebacker could be a problem

For the most part, Nebraska looks to have decent depth at most positions. But at field-side ILB, the roster looks a little thin. Dedrick Young should have the inside track to start, given the amount of time he played last year (even though his performance fell off towards the end of the season). But after Young, it’s two untested players. Mohammed Barry saw some work on special teams last year but precious little on defense, and redshirt freshman Greg Simmons is an unknown quantity.

Should something happen to Young – either through injury or poor play – then the field-side ILB spot for Nebraska becomes one of the biggest question marks on the defensive unit next season.

Whither the 2015 class?

Of Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class, two of the top four recruits were defensive backs. Eric Lee was the highest rated recruit of that class (according to 247 Sports) at cornerback, and Avery Anderson was the fourth-highest rated player who moved between cornerback and safety.

So it’s a little jarring to see the pre-spring depth chart to list neither Lee nor Anderson. There’s spots on the depth chart for untested kids like JoJo Doman, Dicaprio Bootle, Tony Butler, and Marquel Dismuke. But no mention of the stars from Nebraska’s 2015 class.

That could mean the two of them are destined to be considered busts. Or, it could mean that Nebraska has an untapped vein of talent waiting in the wings of the secondary.

The names are going to take getting used to

Two inside linebackers? A “strong-side” and “field-side” outside linebacker? Defensive “ends” that have functionally the same role as defensive tackles Nebraska fans have grown up watching?

Yes, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 will be a big adjustment for Nebraska’s players and coaches, both in terms of players on the field and recruiting for the future. But it’s also going to be a big adjustment for fans watching Nebraska’s defense starting in 2017.  The new names – and new roles – for the front seven of the Blackshirts will take some practice.

Nebraska Football: Projecting the Cornhuskers’ Offensive Backfield Depth Chart

DSC04026

With spring practice coming up quickly, now is a good time to start taking guesses as to what Nebraska’s depth chart will look like this autumn. Of course, these projections are subject to change, with injuries and what we learn from the results of spring practice.

You can take a look at the Double Extra Point’s new roster distribution tool, seeing how Nebraska’s 105-man roster breaks down by position and by class (including both scholarship and walkon players) to get an idea of what the coaches will be working with. So let’s get started with the glory-boys in the backfield.

Quarterback

For the first time since the 2010 season, Nebraska is entering spring practice with a legitimate quarterback battle. The three contenders look to be junior transfer Tanner Lee, redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, and true freshman Tristan Gebbia.

Lee almost certainly has a leg up on the competition, having played for two seasons at Tulane before his transfer to Lincoln. A marked difference from quarterbacks in the past, Lee is a true pocket passer presenting no threat as a runner. He only completed 53.6 percent of his passes at Tulane, but the surrounding talent at Nebraska will be a significant upgrade. As a co-MVP of the scout team in 2016, Lee is in pole position to start for Nebraska next season.

O’Brien has a tremendous amount of talent, and how has a year of experience under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s tutelage. He also has enough athleticism to be at least a little bit of a threat running the ball. Gebbia was a highly-recruited target coming out of California in the 2017 recruiting class (although not quite as highly rated as O’Brien, according to 247 Sports). But at six-foot-three and 180 pounds, Gebbia is going to need to put some weight on before he’s ready to compete in the B1G.

The bottom line is that if Lee isn’t the starter against Arkansas State in September, then it likely means either he’s been hurt or O’Brien has blown the doors off of the coaching staff in terms of his improvement.

Projected depth chart, quarterback

Tanner Lee

Patrick O’Brien

Tristan Gebbia

I-back

With Terrell Newby’s graduation, competition for starting I-back should be just as intense (although maybe not watched as closely) as the quarterback race. Leading the team in carries returning in 2017 is junior Devine Ozigbo and sophomore Tre Bryant, so it’s hard not to think of them as having a leg up in terms of winning the starting job.

Senior Adam Taylor has been buried on the depth chart since an ankle injury in 2014 set him back. Junior Mikale Wilbon is a curious case in terms of how he’s been used. Of the four I-backs who got significant snaps in 2016, Wilbon easily had the highest yards-per-carry average. But he only had 15 carries, well below the next closest I-back, Bryant at 43. There’s a reason Wilbon hasn’t earned the coaches’ trust to see the field more, and he’ll be digging himself out of that hole this offseason. True freshman Jaylin Bradley will get a look this spring, but absent injures don’t be surprised to see him redshirt in 2017.

If you’re going to guess on one of these backs winning the starting position, my money would be on Ozigbo. When he’s been healthy, Ozigbo has the power to move defenders and enough wiggle to create space. He’s also got a violent running style that would allow him to punish defenders if he’s able to get into a rhythm. Given that Nebraska will be breaking in a new quarterback – and almost certainly an entirely new offensive system – a bellcow power back would be just what the doctor ordered.

Projected depth chart, I-back:

Devine Ozigbo

Tre Bryant

Mikale Wilbon -OR-

Adam Taylor

Fullback

It’s certainly odd to look at the roster distribution for Nebraska and see six fullbacks – and only one of them being a scholarship athlete (and that one being a true freshman, to boot). After the heady days of Andy Janovich’s 2015 season, we know that head coach Mike Riley isn’t afraid to use a versatile fullback as an offensive weapon.

And he’s got one in true freshman Ben Miles. Sure, being former LSU head coach Les Miles’ son helps with the recruiting buzz, but don’t think that Miles the younger is just a gimmick on the roster. He’s athletic enough to lead block as a fullback, catch passes out of the backfield, or even line up in the slot (much like how the Atlanta Falcons used fullback Patrick DiMarco last year) to cause defenses all kinds of matchup nightmares.

Senior walkon Luke McNitt did an admirable job last year trying to fill Janovich’s shoes. But with Miles’ arrival, Nebraska now has a chance to put a true weapon on the field at the fullback position.

Projected starting lineup, fullback:

Ben Miles

Luke McNitt

Nebraska Football: Yes, Recruiting Rankings Are Important For the Cornhuskers

DSC00358

So, we’re a little ways away from 2017’s National Signing Day, and Nebraska ending up with a no. 23 ranked class nationally (according to 247 Sports). Reports tended to think the class ranged from solid to good but not great. But there is a pretty universal agreement amongst those covering the team that Nebraska needs a good recruiting performance to win trophies.

But not everyone agrees with that premise. Keyshawn Johnson (senior, not the incoming freshman) thinks recruiting rankings are for fools (according to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity).

There is a not-insignificant portion of the fan base that feels this way about recruiting, too.  So, let’s imagine a conversation with such a fan – we’ll call him the Grumpy Recruiting Skeptic (GRS) – and help see if we can understand the tension.

GRS: I am so glad recruiting season is over.

DXP: I know, it’s pretty exhausting, but it’s nice to see Nebraska making some progress.

GRS: No, I mean I’m just tired of hearing about all this recruiting nonsense. It’s such a waste of time.

DXP: What do you mean?

GRS: This is Nebraska, we don’t need to worry about all that five-star nonsense. Back in the day, we’d win with grit and our walk-on program.

DXP: Well, even those teams in the nineties had some pretty talented players on them.

GRS: Of course. But we didn’t spend our time obsessing about which five-star kid was going to go where, because who knows what those kids will end up being. Highly rated kids flame out all the time, so I don’t know why we obsess about it so much.

DXP: You’re right, individual highly rated players do crash and burn. But in general, the better you do in recruiting, the more likely you are to win.

GRS: That’s what those sites want you to think. But how come teams like Texas and Florida get all the good recruits and don’t win squat?

DXP: Again, you’re looking at individual instances. The averages don’t take Mack Brown into account. Just read this piece from Matt Hinton from SB Nation, it explains why the ranking sites are helpful.

GRS: <clicking website, staring intently, putting phone down in frustration> TL;DR, what’s the point?

DXP: Basically, Hinton categorized schools in terms of their recruiting prowess as seen by the sites, ranking them from one-star schools to five-star schools. Here’s what their overall winning percentages are, from 2010-2013.

Five-star schools .679
Four-star schools .557
Three-star schools .495
Two-star schools .367
One-star schools .394

GRS: So, you’re telling me the good schools win a lot. Do they pay you for this?

DXP: OK, that was hateful. And besides, the numbers speak for themselves, I think. You recruit well, you win pretty often. You don’t recruit as well, you don’t win as often.

GRS: Yeah, but even those “five-star” schools have big time recruits that don’t work out. Even mighty Nick Saban at Alabama has his recruiting busts.

DXP: I think you’re missing the point. You’re right, college football is littered with individual five-star prospects that never amounted to anything …

GRS: See, you agree with me. I knew you’d come around.

DXP: Ahem. BUT, you can’t look at recruiting by cherry-picking individual cases. For it to really make sense, you have to look at it as a whole.

GRS: So you’re saying I shouldn’t be looking at all those amazing individual prospects that Jeremy Crabtree gets so excited about.

DXP: Well, sort of. Let me show you something Stuart Mandel of FOX Sports worked up. He was looking at the 2015 NFL Draft class.

So despite comprising less than 1 percent of all recruits, five-stars accounted for a quarter of 2015 first-rounders. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of all recruits are designated as being three stars or less, yet their representation in the first round is nearly half that.

Put it this way: About one in four five-star recruits like No. 1 pick Jameis Winston goes on to become a first-rounder, but only about one in 64 three-star recruits like No. 2 Marcus Mariota does.

GRS: Well … that’s about the NFL, all I really care about is what happens in college.

DXP: But it illustrates the main point. You have to think of each recruit as a percentage chance to become a successful football player.

GRS: So think of these kids as numbers instead of as human beings. No wonder you run a blog out of your parents’ basement.

DXP: It’s a nice basement, thank you very much. And you’re avoiding the point. To really understand why recruiting rankings are important, you have to think of each recruit as a percentage chance to be successful. The higher the recruit (as we see from Mandel’s work), the higher percentage chance that he’ll be a successful player.

GSP: That seems pretty obvious.

DXP: I know, but I don’t think most people think of it that way. The individual hits and misses are easy to remember and visualize. But it only makes sense when you think about the group as a whole.

GSP: Meaning …

DXP: Well, let’s take Nebraska’s 2017 class as an example. There’s 20 kids in the class. Let’s say head coach Mike Riley recruited well, and each kid had a forty percent chance of being a success. Compare that to, just as an example, a less successful recruiter whose class would have kids with a thirty percent chance of being successful. You following me?

GRS: You’re not talking about Frank Solich, are you? Don’t get me started on Solich being fired …

DXP: <exasperated sigh> No, I’m not talking about Solich. I’m not really talking about anyone in specific. I’m just trying to make the point.

GRS: OK, then I’m with you.

DXP: Now, which class would you rather have, the forty-percenters, or the thirty-percenters?

GRS: Well … the forty-percenters, I guess.

DXP: Because that gives you the best chance to win, right?

GRS: Yeah, I guess so.

DXP: Even though, statistically, more than half of even the forty-percent class will fail.

GRS: But how do you explain teams like Kansas State, that consistently win with lesser talent.

DXP: Good question. The short answer, I’m pretty sure, is that Bill Snyder is a warlock.

GRS: It would explain a lot.

DXP: But it’s true, teams with lesser talent do win all the time. It’s just really hard to do. Yeah, you can win with (using our example) a thirty-percent roster. But it’s going to happen less often than teams with a forty-percent roster, that’s just math. (And, as the amazing commercial reminds us, if you argue with math, you will lose). Or, you have to make up the difference with better coaching. Snyder can do that. But most coaches can’t. If nothing else it makes your margin of error that much smaller.

GRS: But … you know, they say that if we go back to worrying about recruiting rankings, we’ll go back to the Callahan era …

DXP: Literally no one is saying that.

GRS: Being good at recruiting means Callahan and Steve Pederson and Solich going to Ohio!!!!!!!!11!!1!

DXP: OK, slow down, take a deep breath. Here, put on your 2005 Ohio Bobcats jacket.

GRS: Mmmmm, so green and snuggly. OK, I’m better now.

DXP: So, are you feeling a little better about recruiting rankings?

GRS: Well … maybe a little. But don’t ask me to like the stupid thing with the hats they do.

DXP: Baby steps, my friend, baby steps.

Nebraska Football: What the 2017 Recruiting Class Means for the Cornhuskers (And a Super Six!)

DSC09452

On Wednesday, Nebraska signed a class of 20 prospects who will join the Cornhusker roster for the 2017 season. The eight defensive and 12 offensive players were rated no. 21 nationally by ESPN, no. 23 by 247 Sports, and no. 20 by Rivals. Bill Connelly of SB Nation does an aggregate recruiting ranking, which puts Nebraska at no. 22 nationally this year, no. 22 over a two-year timespan, and no. 26 over a five-year timespan.

So, a decent class, but not the top-15 heights that some were hoping for. But what does this mean for where Nebraska is now as a program, and where it’s going?

Fishing in the Right Streams

Yeah, holding your breath on National Signing Day to wait for high school kids to put on a hat is a little nerve-wracking. And given that Nebraska only signed 20 players instead of the expected 22 or 23 means that spots were likely being held for Signing Day decision-makers like C.J. Verdell, Joseph Lewis, and Deommodore Lenoir, who went elsewhere.

Oh, yeah. And there was Jamire “Three Commitments” Calvin, too.

And while that’s frustrating and disappointing, it’s something you’d better get used to as a Husker fan if you want to sit at the Big Kids’ Table in college football. For Nebraska to get over its four-loss plateau, it’s going to need the talents of players who wait until National Signing Day to put on a hat.

The fact that Nebraska is in the mix right to the end with so many of these players is a great sign. Landing one more of those guys would likely have put Nebraska safely into the top 20. This year’s class has decommits from Ohio State and Florida, showing once again that head coach Mike Riley can go toe-to-toe with national juggernauts and win recruiting battles.

So, yes, Nebraska’s 2017 can definitely be chalked up as a good-but-not-good-enough performance. But this is also coming off a second season of Nebraska’s on-field performances being somewhat less than inspiring. If the addition of a quarterback friendlier to Riley’s offensive system and the addition of new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco bear fruit on the field in 2017, then 2018’s class may have even more promise to offer.

An Incomplete List

Nebraska signed 20 players to Letters of Intent, bringing its total of scholarship players to 83 (the roster breakdown done by the Omaha World-Herald is here, although at the time of writing it did not have the entire 2017 class listed). In his discussion with the media about the 2017 class, Riley said that he liked the flexibility of having a couple extra scholarships available to use.

OK, sure, having those extra scholarships can be useful if there is a late-available kid or for a JUCO target. But let’s be real. Those spots would have been filled if guys like Lewis or Lenoir would have picked Nebraska.

That leaves Nebraska’s roster a little thin, particularly at wide receiver. And with all the talent departing next year, recruiting defensive backs is going to be a huge priority for 2018.

Winning the West

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. If there’s anything that’s an indictment on how far Nebraska has fallen from mid-nineties glory, that lonely “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference championships should serve as a reminder in ten-foot-tall lettering.

But to win a conference title, you need to win your division. Perhaps in year seven (!) in the Big Ten, Husker Fan will finally be ready to embrace its divisional rivals as the primary focus for Nebraska’s success.

So how is the rest of the B1G West doing in recruiting (according to Bill Connelly’s five-year recruiting rankings from SB Nation)?

Team 2017 Nat’l Rank Two-year Nat’l Rank Five-year Nat’l Rank
Nebraska 22 22 26
Wisconsin 38 36 34
Iowa 40 41 50
Illinois 46 57 58
Northwestern 53 48 48
Minnesota 56 52 55
Purdue 69 72 71

What do all these numbers mean? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that no one from the West is ready to compete nationally. We’ll talk more later about why recruiting ratings matter, but here’s a fascinating bit of statistical analysis from Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports.

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

The only team that’s even close to consistent top 20 recruiting performance from the B1G West is Nebraska, but as you can see from the five-year ranking, even that has been buoyed by recent performance.

This, by the way, is precisely the point where those college football fans who disdain recruiting rankings (such as Keyshawn Johnson, by the way, as told to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity) will point out that Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent national powers over the last ten years, and that Iowa is only one season removed from an undefeated regular season and being one play from the College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is a fair point. The Badgers have been in the final AP Top 25 every year since 2013, topping out at no. 9 this year. And in 2012, Wisconsin won the B1G (although I don’t remember what happened in the conference title game) and played in the Rose Bowl.

But that means Wisconsin is dramatically overperforming its overall talent. It does so by recruiting to a system and narrowly focusing on players that are good fits for that system (which might sound like some other guy Nebraska fans have heard of). It’s a valid strategy, as Wisconsin has clearly proven. But it also means you have to significantly outcoach opposing teams and consistently either unearth diamonds in the rough or develop average players into top-flight college performers.

That’s tough to sustain. Just as Michigan State, which follows a similar model to Wisconsin and endured a 4-8 season one year after a College Football Playoff appearance.

Well, how about Iowa? No one is going to take last year’s 12-0 performance away from the Hawkeyes. But it was also in large part the product of the stars aligning and the schedule softening. Outside of that magical 2012 run (which, unfortunately, ended with a bit of a thud), Iowa hasn’t lost fewer than five games since 2009. That would suggest 2012 was an outlier, and Iowa’s performance is about what a team that recruits in the forties nationally should expect.

Yes, Nebraska’s time in the B1G has not been as productive in the trophy cabinet as Husker Fan would have liked or expected. But, the bottom line is that Nebraska should have a clear talent advantage over the rest of its divisional rivals. Even more encouraging, Nebraska is one of only four teams in the B1G West (along with Iowa, Illinois, and Purdue) that is improving on its five-year average, suggesting positive momentum in recruiting. Now, it just needs to start translating that recruiting advantage to wins on the field and trips to Indianapolis in December.

Super Six (and a Sleeper)

It wouldn’t be a National Signing Day piece without an obligatory review of the signing class. So here is the official Double Extra Point Super Six for Nebraska’s 2017 class:

No. 6: Kurt Rafdal / Austin Allen (TE)

OK, OK, I know I’m cheating by listing both of them. But these are two impressive-looking tight end prospects coming to Lincoln. Rafdal is six-foot-seven and 230 pounds, while Allen in six-foot-eight and 210 pounds. Both are offensive weapons, and with the potential for a quarterback to truly spread the field, they should be able to create mismatches and allow the tight end to (finally) become a vital cog in Nebraska’s offensive engine.

No. 5: Brendan Jaimes (OT)

As with just about any offensive lineman, Jaimes will probably need a redshirt season to get himself physically able to handle life in the B1G. But he has the frame (six-foot-five, 250 pounds) and the skill set to be Nebraska’s left tackle from 2019 going forward.

No. 4: Guy Thomas (DE/OLB)

There’s a reason Nebraska fans were holding their collective breath on Signing Day to see if Thomas was still “N.” There’s nothing more valuable on defense than a natural pass rusher, something Nebraska has been without since Randy Gregory. Thomas probably isn’t a Gregory-level player, but he’s the closest thing in this class to a player that can heat up opposing quarterbacks. He’ll likely slide to an outside linebacker in Diaco’s 3-4 scheme, which should make him more dangerous as a pass rusher.

No. 3: Tyjon Lindsey (WR)

There’s a reason Urban Meyer wanted this kid to play in the Shoe. Lindsey is a game-changing playmaker with speed and moves and hands to score on offense and on special teams. Given his size (five-foot-nine, 161 pounds), he would be expected to at least start out in the slot. But given his talent, don’t be surprised if he ends up being able to play as an outside receiver. With Nebraska transitioning to a more quarterback-accurate offense, a player like Lindsey has the chance to make an immediate impact.

No. 2: Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (WR)

It’s unfortunate that Johnson’s talent is going to be lost in the shuffle a little, given his famous father and the expectations that brings. I expect Johnson to be an impressive contributor on the field, a bit in the Jordan Westerkamp mode in terms of the type of receiver he is.

But Johnson’s impact on Nebraska, both this year and going forward, is the buzz his commitment and continued recruiting has given NU. The “Calibraska” movement doesn’t happen without Johnson’s energetic commitment, and Nebraska’s recruiting momentum likely doesn’t take hold without that Calibraska movement.

So regardless of what his on-field contributions will be – and, again, I think Johnson is going to surprise with how well he plays – in a sense he’s already done his job for Nebraska.

No. 1: Damion Daniels (DT)

Daniels might not be the best player in the 2017 class. But he might be the most important. With Nebraska migrating to a 3-4 defense under Diaco, it is going to need a big run-stuffer to play the nose tackle, one that eventually will have the size to play “two-gap” on both sides of the center.

Daniels is six-foot-three and 315 pounds as a high school senior. He’s got the frame to be that true nose tackle in the future – with an outside shot of the future being 2017 if he has a good spring.

Sleeper: Ben Miles (FB)

Yeah, it was cool to see the Mad Hatter don a Nebraska lid on ESPN. But Les Miles’ boy can play. He’s an effective lead blocker, and a good enough athlete to be deployed as an H-back or even out of the slot as a receiver. He’ll play on special teams, and has a shot to be a four-year contributor.

Remember Andy Janovich’s senior campaign in 2015, and all the what-might-have-beens (such as those raised by a smart and particularly handsome analyst) if he would have been given a more featured role in Nebraska’s offense? Well, with Miles we might get to answer some of those questions.