Nebraska Football: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Secret Weapons

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are anxiously awaiting the start of fall camp under new head coach Mike Riley. As they wait, they will be looking through the roster and wondering what the secrets to a successful Nebraska season could be in 2015.

What will be Nebraska’s strengths to exploit? Its weaknesses to avoid? And what secret weapons can Nebraska fans talk about and look smart to their friends around a late summer barbecue? Here are a few options to consider.

Strength: Defensive Tackle

An argument could be made that the strongest overall position might be at defensive tackle. Maliek Collins is getting rave pre-season reviews, pegged by ESPN NFL analyst Todd McShay as a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Alongside Collins will be Vincent Valentine, who was tabbed as a third-string all-Big Ten player by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.

Being dominant on the interior of a defensive line can help a team stop the run and get a straight-line pass rush. It frees up defensive ends and linebackers, makes play-action passing less effective, and helps a secondary by decreasing the amount of time needed to cover receivers. Nebraska fans have seen what a dominant defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh can do for the rest of a defensive unit.

No, neither Collins nor Valentine are in Suh’s class. But seeing how Suh affected the Blackshirts – and opposing offenses – gives some idea of how important Collins and Valentine could be to Nebraska.

Strength: De’Mornay Pierson-El

It’s not exactly breaking news that Pierson-El is Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapon returning. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah and the questions surrounding Nebraska at quarterback (more on that in a bit), Pierson-El provides the kind of threat NU will need to attack opposing defenses.

Pierson-El’s value goes up when you consider what Riley’s offenses, and the players who have succeeded in those offenses, have looked like. At Oregon State, Riley used a steady diet of screen passes and jet sweeps designed to get shifty playmakers the ball in space and challenge defenses horizontally. Pierson-El’s speed and elusiveness make him ideally suited for those roles, or as a decoy in a straight-ahead rushing attack.

It’s hard not to see a little of Jacquizz Rodgers when you see Pierson-El. Rodgers, like Pierson-El, is small, shifty, and lightning-fast. At Oregon State, Riley was able to ride Rodgers to a win over then-no. 1 USC and make him the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2008.

Weakness: Tommy Armstrong

Hear me out on this one. Yes, Armstrong has been successful as Nebraska’s quarterback. Yes, he’s the guy with the most experience and the most ready to take on the starting job next season.

But you can’t get away from the numbers. Armstrong has a career 52.9 percent completion rate, and a 31/20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to compete for a conference title.

Of course, with a new coaching staff, it’s entirely possible that Armstrong’s numbers could improve next season. Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a history of success with signal-callers. Armstrong, with an off-season of work with Riley and Langsdorf, may be the beneficiary of that skill.

If Nebraska wants to contend for a conference title in 2015, he’ll need to be.

Weakness: New Coaching Staff

Debate over the wisdom of firing Bo Pelini and hiring Riley started almost immediately after Pelini’s dismissal, and will not be resolved for some years to come. But whether the decision was wise or foolish in the long term, for this year there is no escaping the fact that Nebraska will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive scheme. Not only that, but Nebraska will be in the no-man’s land of trying to fit players from an old scheme into a new game plan, and fitting a new scheme around the talents of the players currently on the roster.

In other words, year one of any new coaching staff has unique challenges. And given the front-loaded nature of Nebraska’s schedule, with games against BYU and at Miami in the first three contests, NU will have to be ready to play right away.

Secret Weapon: Receiver Depth

Sure, we know Pierson-El is an amazing talent. But look past him on the depth chart and Nebraska has a sneaky-good roster at receiver.

Jordan Westerkamp returns as one of Nebraska’s most reliable targets. Jamal Turner gets an extra year of eligibility and will have his final chance to be the breakout talent he was seen to be when he arrived in Lincoln. Cethan Carter has the athletic skills to create mismatches at tight end, and should be healthy enough (and in an offense which can feature a tight end) to be a factor. Alonzo Moore has speed to rival Kenny Bell, but has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a true impact.

Until the season starts, we’re not going to know how Nebraska’s run-pass balance will look on offense. But when Nebraska does decide to air it out, there will be lots of receiving options to work with.

Secret Weapon: Sam Foltz

Yes, a punter can be a weapon. Get used to it.

Field position matters in football. Take a look at a site like FBSDriveStats.com, and you can take a look at average starting field position and what a difference it makes to a team’s bottom line. The efficiency ratings from advanced analytical sites like Football Outsiders take field position into account as a primary indicia of a team’s success. Bill Connelly lists field position as one of the five most important statistics in understanding the relative merits of college football teams.

Connelly summarizes the importance of field position in one sentence. “If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.”

A punter is a crucial weapon in that field position battle. According to the NCAA, last year the difference between the no. 1 and no. 50 teams in terms of net punting average was 6.22 yards, while the difference in kick returns was only 4.74 yards.

That differential suggests that a punter, more than any other single specialist, can affect a team’s field position. And a team’s field position, as we have seen, can lead to wins.

Foltz is set up to be one of the conference’s best punters, according to Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network. Sure, punters get no respect, even less than placekickers in the eyes of most football fans. But if Foltz is able to help Nebraska win field position battles, his foot might carry NU to wins it would not otherwise achieve next season.

Nebraska Football: Why Cethan Carter Will Be Cornhuskers’ X-Factor in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the college football season truly is right around the corner, and are trying to prepare themselves. Amidst the barbecues and swimming pools, fans are combing through the roster for 2015 and trying to determine who (in addition to new head coach Mike Riley) they can look to as the reason why Nebraska will take the next step and contend for a Big Ten title.

One candidate for next year is tight end Cethan Carter. Here’s why.

We haven’t seen his best yet

Carter will be a junior in 2015, but his production in his first two years at Nebraska has been limited. As a true freshman in 2013, Carter played in all 13 games, having 10 catches for 127. Coming into his sophomore season, it was hoped that Carter would continue the momentum from his freshman campaign and become a difference-maker for Nebraska.

But a combination of injuries and offensive scheme blunted Carter’s impact. He played in only nine games, catching six passes for 98 yards. So while the potential is there for Carter, we certainly haven’t seen it translate to production on the field as of yet.

He’s got the talent to succeed

But look at what Carter did when he returned from injury last year. Four of his six receptions last year were in Nebraska’s last two games, for a total of 73 yards. Sure, no one is going to mistake that production for a scarlet and cream Rob Gronkowski, but those numbers suggest at least the possibility of things to come.

Coming out of high school, Carter was a three-star prospect (according to 247 Sports) who projected as a pass-catching tight end. His size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) and athletic ability make him the perfect matchup problem for opposing defenses, being too athletic to be covered by a linebacker and too big to be covered by a safety. If he can stay healthy, he should have the offensive structure around him to succeed.

He’s got the opportunity

Nebraska’s transition from Bo Pelini to Riley might benefit the tight ends more than any other offensive position. Under Pelini, offensive weapons at tight end would frequently evaporate from the game plan (otherwise known as the “Mike McNeil effect”). But according to Michael Bruntz of 247 Sports, tight ends under Riley are more of a focal point offensively.

Riley’s teams at Oregon State, according to Bruntz, tended to throw out of 12 personnel (meaning one running back and two tight ends) and other run-heavy formations. This spring, tight ends saw more work, including (gasp) tight end screens.  So Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seem primed to utilize the tight end in Nebraska’s new offense.

And the tight end is a natural fall-back for a quarterback learning a new offense. Tommy Armstrong struggles with accuracy to start with, and between those struggles and the new offensive scheme, it’s a natural fit for him to look to a player like Carter who tends to run more routes and presents size mismatches to make easier throws for the quarterback.

In the NFL, we’ve seen how a pass-catching tight end can transform an offense. Carter (along with incoming freshman Matt Snyder) have the body type and skill set to provide Nebraska with the possibilities to ask those questions of opposing defenses. Given the absence of such a threat in the past, look for Carter to get his opportunity in 2015.

Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2015 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As the calendar turns to July, Nebraska football fans can start to see the 2015 season take shape. So as they wonder what the first season under new head coach Mike Riley will be like, it’s a good time to look at the schedule game-by-game and figure out which contests look to be the toughest.

Sure, there’s a long time between now and when a football is kicked in anger this September. But given what we know now, here’s how Nebraska’s schedule looks in terms of its degree of difficulty from game to game.

No. 12: Southern Mississippi (home, Sep. 26)

Yes, you read that right. The Golden Eagles, not a South Alabama program which was born in 2009 and transitioned to the FBS in 2013, are Nebraska’s softest opponent this season. After spending years as a solid program, Southern Miss fell on hard times, going 4-32 (!) since 2012.

While the Golden Eagles have improved from last year (1-11 in 2013, 3-9 in 2014), there’s still a long way between here and respectability for Southern Miss. Cashing a check for a visit to Lincoln this season may help in the long run, but it won’t make what gets put out on the field in 2015 any prettier.

No. 11: South Alabama (home, Sep. 12)

Sure, the Jaguars are only in their sixth season of existence overall, and second in the FBS. But South Alabama went 6-6 last season and made a bowl game. And this year’s squad has eleven transfers, including seven from UAB after the school dropped football (and then un-dropped football six months later, in what might be the weirdest college athletics story of the season).

But that influx of FBS talent should help to improve an already-feisty Jaguar program. Couple that influx with South Alabama being a quintessential trap game, nestled between BYU and Miami on Nebraska’s schedule, and the Jaguars are at least enough of a challenge to avoid being tabbed as NU’s easiest contest of 2015.

No. 10: Purdue (away, Oct. 31)

I’ll save you the jokes about fearing a trip to West Lafayette on Halloween. While the first half of 2014 signaled at least some signs of life from the Boilermakers, injuries mounted and the second half of the season was a disaster. Purdue scored in the 30s in respectable losses to Michigan State and Minnesota, then limped through its last four games without topping 16 on the scoreboard.

Absent a dramatic turnaround—without the recruiting evidence to suggest such a feat given Purdue’s 5-year recruiting rank of 61, according to SB Nation—the Boilermakers look to be Nebraska’s softest conference opponent next season.

No. 9: Illinois (away, Oct. 3)

It was very tempting to put Illinois, not Purdue, in the bottom spot in terms of Nebraska’s conference opponents. The Illini haven’t been very good for a while now, needing a late-season surge to make a bowl last season. And head coach Tim Beckman has been dogged by stories (such as from Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports) that he has mistreated players under his care.

That’s not good for any coach. But for a coach in his fourth season with a 12-25 record, it sets up a dead-man-walking scenario for Beckman that can be a huge distraction. Still, the Illini have a talented backfield with Wes Lunt at quarterback and Josh Ferguson at tailback. That alone is enough to move Illinois up the list, at least a little bit.

No. 8: Rutgers (away, Nov. 14)

Yep, Nebraska’s going to New Jersey for a conference game. Conference realignment, ladies and gentlemen.

Last year, the Scarlet Knights looked salty, going 5-1 with a win over Michigan and Washington State. But then Rutgers hit a murderer’s row of a three-game portion of its schedule, losing to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin by a combined 135-41.

Still, Rutgers has some talent, evidenced by a no. 48 5-year talent ranking from SB Nation. Combine that with a long trip to an unfamiliar destination and coming off a slugfest against Michigan State the week before, and Rutgers becomes a little more challenging.

No. 7: Northwestern (home, Oct. 24)

October 5, 2013, wasn’t that long ago. Northwestern was no. 16 in the country, and ESPN’s College Gameday was in Evanston to see the Purples face off against no. 4 Ohio State. It was Northwestern’s chance to really seize the moment and stake a claim as Chicago’s Big Ten Team and a player in the conference.

Ohio State won the game, 40-30. Since then, Northwestern has gone 6-13.

Prior to last year, Northwestern had a history of giving Nebraska fits, beating them in 2011 and losing heartbreakers in 2012 and 2013. But last year, Nebraska comfortably beat the Purples in Evanston, 38-17. Look for that trend to continue when Northwestern arrives in Lincoln this year.

No. 6: Iowa (home, Nov. 27)

Fans of both schools were left scratching their heads after Nebraska beat Iowa in double overtime last year, and it was the scarlet and cream that fired its head coach. After 13 (!) seasons in charge in Iowa City, the seat under Kirk Ferentz might finally be starting to warm a little after a lackluster 2014 campaign.

Iowa will be turning the reins over to sophomore quarterback C.J. Beathard, and trying to shore up an offensive line after the departure of both tackles, including Brandon Sherff. Running behind that line will be two-star running backs (according to 247 Sports) Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley.

Unless Iowa can put together a surprise campaign like 2013, it’s likely that the Hawkeyes will come to Lincoln with a great deal more pressure on Ferentz. That does not bode well for a team to repeat its defeat of Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

No. 5: Minnesota (away, Oct. 17)

Say this for the Golden Gophers under head coach Jerry Kill. They know who they are, they know what they’re good at, and they stick with it. For two years in a row, Minnesota has translated a bruising ground game and a stifling defense into a two-game winning streak over Nebraska.

But this year, Minnesota will be without tailback David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, both playing in the NFL. And Nebraska’s defense has transitioned from former head coach Bo Pelini’s stop-the-pass-first philosophy to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s nine-in-the-box quarters scheme.

The Gophers will still be a tough out for any opponent. But a combination of Minnesota’s likely regression (particularly on offense) and a Nebraska defensive scheme that presents a better matchup makes this game more manageable for NU, even in Minneapolis.

No. 4: BYU (home, Sep. 5)

Welcome to Nebraska, Coach Riley. Here’s a darkhorse Heisman contender and a matchup nightmare for you to handle in your first game. Have fun.

Cougars’ quarterback Taysom Hill is a beast running the ball. He averages 7.4 yards per carry if you eliminate sacks from consideration, according to SB Nation. And before his injury last year, Hill was completing passes at a 66.7 percent clip, with a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ration (according to CFB Stats).

That’s a big ask for a defense playing its first game under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s tutelage. And while BYU’s defense isn’t exactly a world-beater (no. 58 nationally in total defense and no. 73 in scoring defense, according to CFB Stats), drawing the Cougars as an opening act for Nebraska is a huge challenge.

No. 3: Miami (away, Sep. 19)

If Nebraska’s first home game is a big challenge in 2015, its first road game is a bigger one. Miami is an immensely talented program (no. 17 nationally in the CFBMatrix talent ranking, the best of any Nebraska opponent this year). At quarterback for the Hurricanes will be sophomore Brad Kaaya, who gave Nebraska fits last year as a true freshman in Lincoln.

Yes, Miami might be under-coached. Al Golden has a -1.00 coach effect from the CFBMatrix, meaning he can be expected to cost his team a full game (!) per season. But Miami is still the most talented team Nebraska will be facing in 2015, and as the first road game of Riley’s tenure.

No. 2: Wisconsin (home, Oct. 10)

There’s no sugar-coating this fact for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU arrived in the conference. Wisconsin has gone 3-1 against Nebraska in that span, outscoring NU 204-102. In the last two games, the Badgers have outscored Nebraska 129-55.

Ouch.

There is room for optimism for Nebraska fans this time around against the Badgers, though. The game is in Lincoln, home of Nebraska’s only win in the series. Melvin Gordon will be in San Diego (at least this year) playing for the Chargers. Nebraska’s defensive scheme under new coordinator Mark Banker should be far better structured to stop Wisconsin’s power rushing attack. And Wisconsin, like Nebraska, will be adjusting to a new head coach.

Still, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for waiting to see NU succeed against the Badgers before they believe it.

No. 1: Michigan State (home, Nov. 7)

The Spartans are still the class of Nebraska’s 2015 schedule, even after NU nearly pulled off an improbably comeback in East Lansing last season. Although tailback Jeremy Langford is gone, returning is quarterback Connor Cook to guide the surprisingly-lively Spartan offense. And under head coach Mark D’Antonio, the Spartans defense has been its calling card (no. 1 in rushing defense and no. 8 in total defense last year, according to CFB Stats).

With an experienced quarterback and a top-flight defense coming to Lincoln, Michigan State looks to pose Nebraska’s toughest challenge in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans already know they are in for big changes with the arrival of new head coach Mike Riley. But after being caught in a “Groundhog Day” type of almost-but-not-quite-good-enough seasons in the past, it’s a legitimate question to ask why fans should expect a breakthrough in 2015.

One reason for optimism might be true freshman seeing the field and making a difference. Last year, we saw what a difference De’Mornay Pierson-El made for Nebraska. Here are five (well, not exactly) true freshman who could see themselves as starters in 2015.

Dedrick Young, LB

Of all Nebraska’s incoming freshman, Young might be the one the team most desperately needs. With the departure of David Santos, Nebraska is down to four scholarship linebackers who aren’t true freshmen. One (Michael Rose-Ivey) is coming off a missed season due to injury, one (Marcus Newby) saw limited playing time last season as a pass-rush specialist, and one (Luke Gifford) redshirted last year.

Oh, and Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator Mark Banker uses a quarters defensive structure that favors three linebackers on the field for most plays.

So Nebraska is transitioning to a defensive scheme that puts an extra demand (as opposed to former head coach Bo Pelini’s preference for a fifth defensive back) on an area of the roster particularly thin this season. As a result, the young guys are going to have an opportunity early.

Young, as an early enrollee, should have the first shot at earning a starting role. Yes, he’s a true freshman, but it looks like he may be competing with a redshirt freshman and a bunch of walk-ons for that starting job.

All the other freshmen linebackers

In addition to Young, Nebraska signed four other linebackers in the 2015 class, Antonio Reed, Mohammed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan. Given the borderline crisis Nebraska is facing with its linebacker depth chart, it’s not inconceivable that one of these true freshmen could have a breakout performance in fall camp and find his way onto the depth chart.

Admittedly, it will probably take some additional injuries (or a truly monumental fall camp) before any of the other freshmen linebackers could be considered a starter. But given Nebraska’s perilous lack of depth at linebacker, and history of linebacker injuries prior to the start of a season (Michael Rose-Ivey in 2014, Trevor Roach in 2013), that scenario isn’t inconceivable.

Matt Snyder, TE

Under Riley, it appears that the tight end might be a renewed source of interest. For the 2016 class, Nebraska has already signed two tight end prospects, perhaps signaling an end to the “Mike McNeil” syndrome of talented offensive weapons at tight end disappearing from Nebraska’s game plan.

Currently there are three scholarship tight ends on Nebraska’s roster. Only one, Cethan Carter, is the kind of offensive weapon Snyder projects to be. And Carter has struggled with injuries throughout his career at Nebraska.

As of right now, Carter’s experience gives him the clear starting nod. But should Carter be unavailable, don’t be surprised if Snyder is next in line to start at tight end for Nebraska.

DaiShon Neal, DE

Neal’s path to a starting position is more circuitous than some of the others on this list. But Nebraska’s lack of proven depth at the position provides Neal with at least a plausible means to get there.

Really, Nebraska only has one defensive end returning who is truly proven in Greg McMullen. Jack Gangwish’s play at the end of last season was solid enough to make him the likely starter opposite McMullen, but we haven’t seen enough of Gangwish over the course of a season to know what to expect.

Behind McMullen and Gangwish are a number of players, but with significant questions. Senior Joe Keels and sophomore A.J. Natter have been on the squad long enough to know they have failed to earn significant playing time, at least to date. And the two redshirt freshmen, Sedrick King and Freedom Akinmoladun, have a year learning the previous system but no playing experience. Akinmoladun is also trying to learn a new position, converting from tight end.

So Neal has a number of hurdles to get from where he is now to a starter. But certainly in comparison to some other true freshman on the roster, there is at least some opportunity for Neal to clear those hurdles in fall camp.

Jordan Ober, LS

Of all the incoming freshmen, Ober might have the clearest path to a starting job in 2015. With the loss of Gabriel Miller, Nebraska was without a scholarship long snapper coming into the season. The signing of Ober recognizes the importance of the specialty position, and signals the likelihood that he should win the starting position over walk-on freshman Chase Urbach.

Don’t dismiss the importance of this development. A long snapper is an easy position to ignore. But think about how critical a consistently accurate long snap is for field goals and punts. The consequences of a bad snap in those situations is disastrous for field position, or for surrendering potential points on the board. There’s a reason Nebraska burned a scholarship on a specialist like Ober, and it would be quite an upset (and likely represent a big failure in scouting) if Ober wasn’t Nebraska’s starting long snapper in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Predicting the Cornhuskers’ 2015 Win-Loss Record

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

When Nebraska hired Mike Riley as its new head football coach, some were perplexed. How could Nebraska fire Bo Pelini after another nine-win season, something he had achieved in each of his seven years in charge?

While the reasons for Pelini’s dismissal were legion (and discussed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), the fact remains that the bar has been set high for Riley in year one. Win fewer than nine game—heck, maybe win fewer than ten games—and some fans will be baying at the moon about how Nebraska was better off under Pelini.

So, will that happen? Of course, it’s far too early to be making definitive projections about a college football season still months away. But there’s still plenty we do know to make at least some educated guesses about how 2015 will unfold for Nebraska.

BYU (Sep. 5)

Nebraska fans should be terrified of this game. BYU comes to town with (at least at this point) a healthy Taysom Hill at quarterback. He’s adequate as a passer and dynamic as a runner, and that combination has given Nebraska defenses fits in the past.

As for the Cougars’ defense, according to CFBStats.com it’s good against the run (no. 20 nationally) and not so good against the pass (no. 114). So in game one of the Riley era, Nebraska will face an opponent that will push it away from what it does well offensively and towards what it doesn’t do well.

The difference in talent level (as of 2014, Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24 and BYU’s was no. 71, according to the incredibly-useful CFBMatrix) should be enough for Nebraska to win. But don’t be at all shocked if Riley starts his career in Lincoln at 0-1.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, BYU 24 (NU 1-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

South Alabama (Sep. 12)

South Alabama isn’t exactly a paycheck game. The USA Jaguars did go to a bowl game last year, and did absorb a number of players from the now-defunct UAB Blazers football program. But even with that influx, the gap in quality between the two teams should be more than enough for Nebraska to comfortably expect a victory.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, South Alabama 13 (NU 2-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

At Miami (Sep. 19)

In 2014, Nebraska won a bare-knuckle street fight of a contest in Lincoln. In 2015, both star tailbacks (Ameer Abdullah for Nebraska, Duke Johnson for Miami) are now on NFL rosters.

But Miami will have the benefit of a settled head coach in Al Golden, think what you will of him. Sophomore quarterback Brad Kayaa will be settled in to his offensive duties. And Miami will easily be the most talent team Nebraska will face in the non-conference season.

Particularly if Nebraska gets by BYU in the lid-lifter, a win over Miami could give Riley fantastic momentum and buzz. But given the travel (even though Miami is hardly an intimidating road game) and talent level of the Hurricanes, that’s an awfully big ask as Nebraska transitions to life under Riley.

Fearless Forecast: Miami 31, Nebraska 24 (NU 2-1 overall, 0-0 in conference)

Southern Mississippi (Sep. 26)

It’s really remarkable what’s happened to the Golden Eagles. In 2011, Southern Miss was 12-2, and looking like a non-power-conference team on the rise.

In the next three years, Southern Miss has gone 4-32.

Yes, the Golden Eagles will likely be better under head coach Todd Monken’s third year in charge. And yes, it was Southern Miss who delivered a stunning upset to Nebraska in Bill Callahan’s first year in charge.

But that was a different Southern Miss team in 2004. The Golden Eagles’ appearance on the schedule may be coincidental, but a similar outcome to what happened in 2004 is unlikely.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 10 (NU 3-1 overall, 0-0 in conference)

At Illinois (Oct. 3)

Illini head coach Tim Beckman has been busy defending himself against allegations that he mistreated his players. According to the Chicago Tribune, Darrius Millines added his voice to Simon Cvijanovic as former players critical of Beckman’s handling of injuries.

For a team that snuck into a bowl game last year at 6-6 and desperately trying to turn a corner, this type of controversy is exactly what the Illini don’t need. How much of a story this will be—or if Beckman is still in charge in Champaign on October 3—is yet to be determined.

Either way, this won’t help an Illini squad already overmatched against Nebraska.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Illinois 10 (NU 4-1 overall, 1-0 in conference)

Wisconsin (Oct. 10)

The second incarnation of the Freedom Trophy will be played in Lincoln, with Nebraska coming off a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Badgers last season—a loss that likely contributed in large part to the firing of Pelini as head coach.

Both teams will be breaking in new head coaches, with Paul Chryst taking the helm in Madison. But Chryst has deep ties with Wisconsin, and his arrival is nowhere near the culture shock that Riley is in Lincoln.

This game may well be the de facto Big Ten West championship game, and should be fascinating to watch. But given how Wisconsin has played against Nebraska in their last two encounters, it’s hard not to lean towards the Badgers.

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 20 (NU 4-2 overall, 1-1 in conference)

At Minnesota (Oct. 17)

They couldn’t make it three straight, could they?

It’s hard for Nebraska fans to wrap their collective heads around this, but the Golden Gophers hold a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In 2015, though, Nebraska will not be trying to massage a clearly-injured Taylor Martinez through a game at quarterback like it did the last time the two met in Minneapolis, and Minnesota will not have David Cobb running the ball.

Combine that with the talent disparity (Nebraska at no. 24, Minnesota at no. 64 in 2014, according to CFBMatrix), and 2015 should be the year Nebraska breaks the Gopher jinx.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Minnesota 16 (NU 5-2 overall, 2-1 in conference)

Northwestern (Oct. 24)

In 2012 and 2013, the Purples had Nebraska dead to rights, but couldn’t land the knockout blow. After a win in 2011, Northwestern could easily have been 3-0 against Nebraska going into last year’s game in Evanston.

But Nebraska pulled away in that game, winning 38-17. Northwestern slipped quite a bit last season, finishing at 5-7. There’s little to suggest that the Purples will be able to right the ship in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Northwestern 14 (NU 6-2 overall, 3-1 in conference)

At Purdue (Oct. 31)

Purdue’s last bowl appearance was after the 2012 season, where the Boilermakers lost to Oklahoma State in the Heart of Texas Bowl, 58-17. Since then, Purdue went 1-11 in 2013 and 3-9 in 2014.

So, yes, there’s progress. But there’s also quite a ways to go. And even with the game being at home (and on Halloween, no less), the disparity between Purdue and Nebraska should be on display.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Purdue 13 (NU 7-2 overall, 4-1 in conference)

Michigan State (Nov. 7)

Say goodbye to former Legends Division rival Michigan State, as the Spartans fall off Nebraska’s schedule with their relocation to the B1G East division last season. And given how Michigan State has fared against Nebraska recently (winning two straight), Nebraska fans might not be sad to see them fall off the schedule.

But Michigan State returns the most experienced and effective quarterback of Nebraska’s 2015 opponents in Connor Cook. And while the Spartans do lose receiver Tony Lippett and running back Jeremy Langford to the NFL, head coach Mark D’Antonio’s defense should still be a stern test for Riley’s pro-style offense in its first year in Lincoln.

Fearless Forecast: Michigan State 21, Nebraska 17 (NU 7-3 overall, 4-2 in conference)

At Rutgers (Nov. 14)

For a time, Rutgers looked like it might have a sneaky good 2014 football season. The Scarlet Knights started out 5-1, with their only loss a 13-10 heartbreaker against Penn State.

Then, the Knights were drubbed by Ohio State, 56-17, and proceeded to lose four of their last six games. Rutgers did finish last season at 8-5, with a win over North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. But Nebraska handled Rutgers comfortably last year, 42-24, and there is little about a trip to Piscataway that suggests a different outcome in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Rutgers 21 (NU 8-3 overall, 5-2 in conference)

Iowa (Nov. 27)

Hawkeye fans were amazed at how Iowa stumbled to the finish line in 2014, losing three of its last four games (including blowing a 17-point lead to Nebraska before losing in overtime), and yet seeing Nebraska and not Iowa make a change at head coach.

Iowa has now handed the keys at quarterback to C.J. Beatherd, a move many Hawkeye fans had been clamoring for throughout much of 2014. Neither team has won a home Heroes Game trophy since the inauguration of the anodyne monument in 2011.

But given Iowa’s struggles to find traction over the last few years, look for Nebraska to break that streak in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 20 (NU 9-3 overall, 6-2 in conference)

Nebraska Football: Reasonable Expectations for the Huskers’ 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans do have the capacity for being reasonable (evidence sometimes notwithstanding). So as we settle in for the off-season, let’s take some time to look ahead and think about what we can reasonably expect from Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley.

Nebraska Will Improve on Turnovers, not Penalties

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has used this table before, but what it reveals about Nebraska under former head coach Bo Pelini is striking. Take a look at where Nebraska ranked under Pelini nationally in terms of penalty yards per game and turnover margin (stats courtesy of CFBStats.com)

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

The bold italic numbers, as a refresher, are the times when Nebraska finished in the top half nationally in those statistical categories. In other words, if the number isn’t in bold italics, it means Nebraska was (put charitably) below average.

Put less charitably—especially when the national rankings were in triple digits—it means Nebraska was regularly atrocious.

How did those numbers look in the same time period under Riley at Oregon State? In comparison, it’s a mixed bag.

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 83 56
2009 87 31
2010 80 35
2011 118 100
2012 78 29
2013 78 42
2014 123 41

With regards to penalties, you could argue that Riley’s Beavers were worse than Pelini’s Cornhuskers. But with regards to turnover margin, Riley’s teams were far better than Pelini’s.

So you can stop expecting Nebraska to commit fewer penalties just because Riley is such a soft touch in comparison to Pelini. But you can expect Nebraska under Pelini to do a much better job in protecting the football.

True Freshmen Will Make An Impact

A combination of talent and lack of depth will likely push a number of true freshmen onto the field in 2015. The clearest path to the field is probably possessed by linebacker Dedrick Young, given that Nebraska only has five non-freshmen scholarship linebackers on the roster (you can see a class-by-class breakdown of NU’s roster competition here, courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald).

Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of Nebraska’s highest-rated recruits (according to 247Sports), should be in the mix for playing time even in NU’s crowded and talented secondary. Matt Snyder, a talented offensive weapon at tight end, could be pressed into earlier service if the spring injury to Cethan Carter lingers into the fall. And Jordan Ober looks to come in right away and start for Nebraska at long snapper after losing scholarship snapper Gabriel Miller to injury last year.

Nebraska’s Record Will Be About The Same As 2014

Cue the “then why did we fire a coach who never won fewer than nine games” shrieking in three, two, one …

Nebraska’s 2015 schedule isn’t the most difficult, but it’s got some pitfalls. The season opener against BYU is a big challenge, given that Nebraska will be installing a new offense and a new defense. Riley’s first test of his new-look Cornhusker squad will be against a program with a national championship in its locker, not an FCS directional school coming to Lincoln for a paycheck.

Nebraska also has to travel to Miami to face a Hurricanes squad with more talent on paper than the Cornhuskers. In conference, Nebraska also has to go to Minneapolis to face a Golden Gopher team with a two-game winning streak over NU (I know, I had to read that a couple of times to let it truly sink in). Games against Wisconsin and Michigan State (and, to a lesser extent, Iowa and Northwestern) will challenge Nebraska, but they are at Memorial Stadium.

Last year Nebraska went 9-3 in the regular season. Given the two challenges in the non-conference and the five in-conference, combined with the difficulties of transitioning to a new coach and a new system, besting a 9-3 record would be a challenge. It would take a big step up in quarterback play, or a big step back from a number of Nebraska’s conference foes, to comfortably predict a step up from NU’s 2014 record.

We’ll have a discussion later about whether or not that can represent progress for Nebraska. Be patient, it’s a long off-season.

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Top 2016 Draft Prospects

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

The 2015 NFL Draft is less than a week old. So, clearly, it’s time to look at 2016, right?

Well, why not? While it’s hard to know exactly what Nebraska will look like next year under new head coach Mike Riley, we do have some idea of the returning talent. And there are numerous resources looking ahead to 2016 (and beyond) to see what kind of talent is in the pipeline for the NFL.

So let’s take a look to see who on Nebraska’s roster might be hearing their names called next May.

Prospect rankings from NFLDraftScout.com.

Maliek Collins (unranked DT, junior)

This is more than a little projection, given that Collins will be a junior next hear. But throughout spring practice, Collins has been the most disruptive player for the Blackshirts. According to Mitch Sherman of ESPN, Collins was compared by former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini to LSU standout Glenn Dorsey. And he, along with fellow defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, were “the strength” of Nebraska defense this spring.

So if Collins continues his standout performance, don’t be shocked to see him give consideration to leaving after his junior season at Nebraska.

Ryne Reeves (no. 18 OG)

If Reeves can stay healthy, he has an opportunity in his senior season to make a name for himself and perhaps earn a look to playing on Sundays. He has the frame (six-foot-three, 295 pounds) and the skill set to be effective, to be sure. And if Reeves is able to stay upright and on the field this year, he will have the chance to earn his ranking.

Alex Lewis (no. 15 OT)

Talk about a guy who has benefited from a change in scenery. Lewis started his career at Colorado, transferring to Nebraska after a conviction for assault. But since he has arrived, Lewis has stayed out of trouble and been a steady starter at the critical position of left tackle for Nebraska.

If Lewis is able to up his game and have a standout senior campaign, he could be one of the names called next May in the 2016 NFL draft.

Nebraska Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Cornhuskers This Spring

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are just now settling in for a long summer’s absence of football. And with the arrival of new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska fans have had a lot of change to absorb.

But before we let spring football for 2015 go, let’s take time to look back and see what we’ve learned about the new-look Nebraska.

The Offense Will Fit The Players

After the Bill Callahan experience, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for their concern about a coaching change. Nebraska’s 2004 campaign was a disaster, with Callahan attempting to force the square peg of quarterback Joe Dailey into the round hold of Callahan’s West Coast offense. The result was a 5-6 season and a poisoning of the well between Callahan and the fan base.

Riley looks to understand the folly of that arrogance. According to Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf look to be tailoring Nebraska’s 2015 offense to the strengths of its talents, rather than trying to force them into a rigid system. For example, Nebraska looks to be operating more out of a shotgun this year, even though it appears that Riley and Langsdorf would prefer a quarterback operating under center.

“That is what they (quarterbacks) feel comfortable with,” Langsdorf said. “I’m OK with (shotgun).”

The Defense Will Be Simpler

Bo Pelini’s defensive scheme was very effective, no one will deny that. But it was also very complicated, and relied on players (particularly safeties) to make reads and respond accordingly. A mistake on those reads could be catastrophic.

New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system looks to be simpler, relying more on the athleticism of its players to be effective. Linebacker Josh Banderas compared Banker’s system to Pelini’s (according to Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald) and his thoughts were revealing.

“But now I feel like I can just play football instead of a scheme. I’m a lot more fluid and can have more fun.”

Now, simpler and more fluid can be a two-edged sword. Nebraska may be vulnerable to being out-schemed offensively, or just out-matched athletically. But at the very least, the Blackshirts will look very different under the new regime.

Tommy Armstrong Will (Probably) Be The Starter

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

– Rita Mae Brown (and probably not Albert Einstein)

Armstrong has a career completion percentage of 52.9 percent. At the Spring Game, his completion percentage was 50 percent. While Riley has a history of working with and improving quarterbacks, and Langsdorf arrives in Lincoln after coaching quarterbacks for the New York Giants, the idea of Armstrong dramatically improving his accuracy is still worthy of skepticism.

As a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, that’s just not good enough for Nebraska to win a conference title.

And yet, everyone from Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald to Mitch Sherman of ESPN to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star remain convinced that the starting quarterback’s job is Armstrong’s to lose. Certainly, Armstrong’s experience and success as a starter are huge advantages for him. Perhaps Armstrong can make strides in Riley’s offense. Or perhaps the other quarterbacks on the roster simply haven’t been capable of showing enough in practice to unseat the incumbent.

So absent a huge shakeup in fall camp, look for Armstrong to lead the line for Nebraska against BYU in September.

The Sweep is Here To Stay

Nebraska fans can be forgiven for having nightmares about the jet sweep, after Wisconsin ground the Blackshirts to a fine red mist deploying it with Melvin Gordon in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game.

Well, it looks like Nebraska will finally be joining that party. At the Spring Game, we saw the jet sweep deployed a number of times, to great effect. Combining a jet sweep or a fake sweep with an inside zone running game gives Nebraska an opportunity to put defenders in a quandary, forcing them to make a decision and perhaps be a step or two behind the ball carrier.

According to Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, don’t be surprised to see the jet sweep as a staple of Nebraska’s offensive attack.

“I think that sweep play is always going to be something that is part of our identity,” said Riley. “There’s some other stuff that goes with it that has always been fun to do, and it’s nice to see it take shape like that because when it’s going it gives you another running weapon in your offense.”

Mike Riley is not Bo Pelini

If nothing else, Pelini’s departure has freed some of the journalists covering Nebraska to lift the curtain and show off some of the warts that were present under his leadership. Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star discussed the “mismanagement” of linebacker Josh Banderas, to the point of him nearing a transfer. Perhaps more damning, Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald wrote about Pelini’s “loser’s limp” of complaining how hard it was to recruit to Lincoln, and about the “frat house” atmosphere in the football program without “adult” leadership.

Citing as an example of the “frat house” atmosphere, Barfknecht referred to an interview with defensive tackle Kevin Williams this spring, where Williams said “meetings actually start on time now.”

Is that a little thing? Of course it is. But big things are nothing more than a collection of little things put in the proper order.

Riley’s arrival does not, of course, guarantee success for Nebraska. Indeed, in 2015 Riley will face a challenge to even equal Pelini’s win-loss total from the previous season.

But there is no question that Nebraska under Riley will look and feel radically different than it did under Pelini.

Nebraska Football: Five Things Standing in The Way of a B1G Championship

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

For the most part, Nebraska football fans aren’t unrealistic. Honest. They don’t expect to see Nebraska winning national titles like in the late nineties. They do expect, however, to see Nebraska competing for conference titles, especially seeing other schools in similar situations (such as Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Oregon) able to do the same.

This year, new head coach Mike Riley will be trying to do what three coaches before him were unable to accomplish. So what’s standing between Nebraska and a conference crown? Here are five of the biggest hurdles.

Consistent Quarterback Play

If the website would permit it, I would have this headline in bright flashing neon with a klaxon alarm blaring in the background.

(Hey, webmasters, get on that, wouldya?)

Throughout the Bo Pelini era, nothing held Nebraska’s progression back more than its signal-caller. In 2009, Nebraska’s defense was historically good with a once-in-a-generation talent in Ndamukong Suh. But a near-absence at quarterback (an injured Zac Lee) and an additional one second in Dallas doomed Nebraska’s chances for a conference title.

Starting in 2010, the Taylor Martinez era began. For the next four years, Martinez’s dazzling athleticism covered his deficiencies as a signal-caller, placing a ceiling on Nebraska’s accomplishments. And last year, Tommy Armstrong’s toughness and leadership were not enough to overcome his 52-percent completion percentage and his 22/12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Combine that with the loss of Ameer Abdullah, who was arguably Nebraska’s best I-back since Ahman Green, and NU’s drought of conference titles since 1999 continued.

Riley has five scholarship quarterbacks to pick from in 2015. But there is no evidence—yet—to suggest that Nebraska fans can expect dramatic improvements from its signal-caller. If Riley can be the quarterback-whisperer and boost the performance of Armstrong (or whomever ends up winning the job), then Nebraska may finally have a shot at replenishing the trophy cabinet.

Mental Mistakes

If inconsistent quarterback play was the primary reason for Pelini’s teams to struggle, mental mistakes might have been a close second. Consider these stats for the Pelini era (courtesy CFBStats.com)

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

Ugly stuff. The numbers in bold italics represent the times (once in seven years for penalties, twice for turnover margin) when Nebraska was in the top half nationally. Or, put less delicately, when Nebraska wasn’t below average in two of the statistical categories most closely aligned with mental mistakes.

To win a conference title, Nebraska will be competing against schools with better talent. Until Nebraska can stop beating itself, there is no reasonable likelihood it can even hope to win at the levels necessary to win a conference title.

A Reliable Placekicker

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Nebraska has been blessed throughout its history with great placekickers. Last year was the first in some time that Nebraska’s placekicker could not be counted on to deliver in clutch situations.

It’s not that true freshman Drew Brown was horrible in 2014. Brown went 14-for-21 in field goals, for a respectable 66.7 percent. Overall, Nebraska was no. 80 nationally in field goal percentage, meaning it was slightly below average.

But as with mental mistakes, Nebraska’s talent deficiencies at the highest level mean that it must excel in other areas to win conference titles. And that means Nebraska must be able to count on putting points on the board, even from long distance, from its kicker.

Wisconsin

204-102. 1407-818.

What are those numbers? The aggregate final score and rushing totals of Nebraska’s four games against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten.

There’s no way to sugar-coat it for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU’s arrival in the B1G. Even with Nebraska’s victory over the Badgers in 2012, Wisconsin has utterly humiliated Nebraska’s defense on three separate occasions. There’s a good case to be made that the 581 rushing yards (!) that the Badgers hung on the Blackshirts in 2014 did as much to get Pelini fired as his legendary tirades.

And Nebraska can’t get to Indianapolis without going through Wisconsin. Yes, the Badgers come to Lincoln this year with a new coach and without Melvin Gordon. But unless Riley can do what Pelini could not and solve the Wisconsin riddle, Nebraska’s dreams of a conference title will go unfulfilled.

That School Down South

Assuming Nebraska can finally slay the beast from Madison that has been haunting it for the last three years, there’s another fairly imposing hurdle to clear. Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State hasn’t lost a regular season conference game, is the defending national champion, and could very well have gone two-for-three had the Buckeyes not chosen to play in the 2011 Gator Bowl and therefore been ineligible for the BCS the following year.

And they might have been a year early in winning the title last year, given the talent coming back.

Nebraska has a number of hurdles to clear to give some company to the lonely “1999” on the façade of the West Stadium on the “conference champions” line. But the biggest hurdle might be the scarlet-and-grey monster from Columbus.

(The “team down south” moniker, by the way, comes from the legendary Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, in which partisans from each school will refuse to call the other school by name.)

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers Poised for a Bounceback Year in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are gearing up for the Spring Game on April 11, knowing they are in for a long summer to wait before getting more football in the fall. If you’ve been following a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst, you know we’ve already discussed players who need to step up, players who have a starting role locked up, and players we have questions about, amongst other spring quandaries.

But who is poised for a bounce-back year for Nebraska. Who is ready to get off the map and reclaim their place in the spotlight for the scarlet and cream? Here are three candidates.

Jamal Turner

Turner is probably the clearest bounce-back candidate for Nebraska, simply because of how far he’s fallen. When he arrived on campus, he looked briefly to compete with Taylor Martinez for the starting quarterback job (and if you want to cue up a fascinating “what if” scenario, there’s a good one for you).

But when it was clear that Martinez was going to be the signal-caller, Turner shifted to wideout. By his sophomore year, he looked to be establishing himself at the position. But injuries derailed his progression, hampering his junior year and costing him the entirety of 2014.

Now, with a medical hardship in hand, Turner has an opportunity to establish himself in Riley’s pro-style offense. If he can retain the speed and quickness that made him such an electric prospect when he arrived in Lincoln, he might finally have the chance to be the star Nebraska fans have thought him to be.

Tommy Armstrong

It’s an interesting philosophical discussion to consider whether Armstrong needs to “bounce back” or not. He’s 16-5 as a starter, with a career passer rating of 130.64. But he also has a career completion rate of 52.9 percent, and a disturbing 31/20 touchdown/interception ratio.

So perhaps it’s unfair to label Armstrong as a bounce-back player in terms of the wins and losses he is a part of. But it is fair to tag him with that label in terms of his accuracy and decision-making, two elements that will be critical in Riley’s offense.

Riley has a history of developing quarterbacks, most recently Sean Mannion at Oregon State. While Armstrong’s winning percentage doesn’t need a bounce-back, his efficiency and decision-making do if Nebraska is to compete for conference titles.

Josh Banderas

Few players in scarlet and cream have had the highs and lows that Banderas has in his young Nebraska career. He was a starting middle linebacker as a true freshman. He was put into the doghouse and wouldn’t see the field for weeks at a time due to a lack of performance. He was, according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, mishandled by Bo Pelini and his staff.

But now he’s getting his chance to shine under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker. According to reports from spring practice (including the Fremont Tribune), Banderas is settling into his role at middle linebacker. And given Nebraska’s lack of depth at linebacker, Banderas will have a long leash to get the position right this time.