Why Nebraska Should Be Favored To Win The B1G West in 2016

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Nebraska football fans have been enduring a horrible, surreal season, seeing their Cornhuskers stumble out of the gate and be sitting at 4-6 with two games remaining. For many, the shock of this season has yet to wear off, and watching loss after loss has dulled their ability to see many good things coming in the future.

Well, keep your chins up, Husker fan. There’s plenty of reason to expect Nebraska to not only rebound from this year, but to be at the top and looking for a trip to Indianapolis next season. Here’s why.

Returning Starters

Here’s a list of Nebraska’s starters that likely will not be back in 2016, either through graduation or leaving early for the NFL

Offense: Alex Lewis (LT), Ryne Reeves (C), Chongo Kondolo (RG), Andy Janovich (FB)

Defense: Maliek Collins (DT), Jack Gangwish (DE), Byerson Cockrell (S)

That means Nebraska should have at least 15 returning starters next season. Yes, Collins will be a big loss if he does leave early for the NFL. And the turnover on the offensive line is a worry, particularly with the lack of rotation we’ve seen this season.

But outside of Janovich, all of Nebraska’s offensive skill position starters will be back next year. The secondary loses only one starter, and should improve after another full season of working in defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system.

And the redshirts from 2015 should begin to pay dividends next year. The Davis brothers (Carlos and Khalil) should be ready to contribute, and have the recruiting pedigree to suggest they can provide some help with Nebraska’s struggling pass rush. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of the highest-rated recruits in last year’s class, will have another year learning the system and should be primed to shore up Nebraska’s pass defense. And the three redshirt offensive linemen, combined with the three redshirt freshmen currently on the roster, should provide some cover for the linemen Nebraska will lose after this season.

So next season Nebraska’s roster should be deeper and more balanced, as well as having more experience in Mike Riley’s system.

Coach Effect

I know Nebraska fans frustrated with losing six games before November don’t want to hear about what a good coach Riley is. And there’s plenty of room to criticize Riley’s handling of the team this year, rest assured.

But if we look at Riley’s performance over his career, those numbers suggest reasons for optimism. Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix has created a metric called “Coach Effect” which uses past performances, talent ratings, and game locations to determine how well coaches do in comparison to how an “average” coach would do.

As of 2014, the most recent data available, Riley is the no. 11 coach in the country in terms of Coach Effect, with a 1.50 score. That means, all else being equal, a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 games more per season than an “average” coach given the talent and schedule of a particular team.

Riley’s Coach Effect score will likely come down after this season, but his number should still be one of the best in the nation. That suggests Riley should have the ability, with a huge number of returning starters next season, to be successful in 2016.

Talent Level

In addition to coaching, Bartoo’s theory of college football involves the teams with the best talent winning. Like his Coach Effect, Bartoo measures a team’s talent level by aggregating recruiting service rankings. As of 2014, Nebraska’s talent rating was no. 24 nationally. That was third in the B1G, and significantly better than Nebraska’s closest B1G West rivals, Wisconsin (no. 40), Iowa (no. 42) and Northwestern (no. 52).

This year’s preliminary recruiting classes suggest Nebraska’s talent edge should continue. According to 247 Sports, Nebraska has the no. 25 class nationally in 2016 recruiting. That puts Nebraska ahead of all its B1G West rivals, like Wisconsin (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Northwestern (no. 48).

So coming into next season, the data suggests that Nebraska’s roster should be as talented – if not more so – than any B1G West team it will face in 2016.

What 2015 Really Means

Yeah, yeah, all of that happy talk is great. But Nebraska is 4-6 with two games to go in 2015. Isn’t it a pretty big leap to expect Nebraska to go from needing a four-game winning streak (including a bowl) to avoid a losing record to a division title?

Well, that would be assuming that Nebraska’s struggles this year are indicative of the program’s true position. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they are not.

I know, you’ve heard all the excuses about Nebraska’s 2015 struggles. But the fact is, five of Nebraska’s six losses were functional coin-flips. A Hail Mary against BYU, one poor decision against Miami, a missed two-point conversion against Northwestern, all the fine margins between a disappointing season and the burning tire-fire of 2015. And the one really ugly blemish on Nebraska’s record, a 10-point loss to a 1-6 Purdue, was on the road with a backup quarterback, a backup running back, and losing NU’s most dangerous offensive weapon.

That’s not to absolve Riley and his staff of responsibility for those losses, of course. But over the course of this year, as the losses have piled up, a malaise has set in on the fanbase. People assumed the worst, that Nebraska’s struggles over this season have become the new normal, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

The underlying fundamentals of the program, though, suggest that 2015 is an anomaly. Nebraska was a nine-win program last year, will be in the second year of a coaching change next year, has a historically over-performing coach, and has equal or better talent than every other team in the division.

That’s not the recipe for a rebuilding year (never mind what a certain athletic director, for reasons known only to him, said earlier). That’s a recipe for a team to bounce back to at least where it was before. And with a coach who has a better track record of performance (Bo Pelini’s coach effect as of 2014 was -0.33, in comparison), it’s not unreasonable to think Nebraska could be primed to break through its glass ceiling in 2016.

Is it a guarantee? Of course not. But Nebraska fans enduring the 2015 season should take heart. As crazy as it might sound now, there is no reason not to expect – to demand, actually – that Nebraska challenge for a divisional title in 2016.

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Nebraska Football: The Cornhuskers’ Biggest Position Battles Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is starting soon, and one of the biggest things for new head coach Mike Riley to do during fall camp is to sort out contested positions. Some positions are fairly clear, but a number of positions on Nebraska’s roster will force Riley to make some decisions.

Here are five of the positions where the battles for playing time should be the fiercest.

I-Back

Of all the battles, this position might be the most contested, simply because of the talented options available. Last year, Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance made it hard for any running backs to get much playing time, and the statistics showed. Abdullah had 62.7 percent of all rushing attempts by running backs in 2014.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for an heir apparent, so the I-backs returning this year (along with the new guys) will all be starting from a fairly level playing field. Given the way the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby looks to be the most likely to start against BYU in Nebraska’s opener. But Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon should all have their chances to earn playing time in fall camp.

The offensive line if your name isn’t “Alex Lewis”

At left tackle senior Alex Lewis looks to have his place locked up next season. Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network calls Lewis a “cornerstone” for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But the rest of the offensive line is a huge question mark.

Givens Price should have a chance to compete at right tackle, with David Knevel right behind him. Chongo Kondolo and Dylan Utter will be battling with Tanner Farmer, DJ Foster, and others at guard. And at center, Ryne Reeves and Paul Thurston should be the primary contenders.

Defensive End

Nebraska’s starters at defensive tackle seem pretty clear, with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine taking up the middle. But at defensive end, Nebraska has a number of players who should be fighting for time.

Greg McMullen, given his history at the position, should be one of the first names on the list. But behind McMullen, Jack Gangwish looks to be battling with Joe Keels and AJ Natter for the other spot at end. And younger players like Sedrick King and Daishon Neil be challenging for playing time. Keep special watch on converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athletic ability could make him the surprise of the unit.

Linebacker

This position isn’t so much about who will be a starter – Nebraska is so thin at linebacker, that anyone with returning experience is likely to earn a starting job almost by default. Absent injury, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey should be all but guaranteed a starter’s role.

But behind those two is an interesting battle. Returners Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby might have first crack at the whip. But incoming freshman Dedrick Young will have a great chance to earn playing time, as he was an early-enrollee. And the other true freshmen (Mohammed Berry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) will get their shot as well.

Secondary

This caption is a little misleading, as one starting cornerback spot (Daniel Davie) and one safety spot (Nate Gerry) are likely earned already from last season’s performance. But the other spots should be the subject of fierce competition, given the depth of talent at the position.

At cornerback, Charles Jackson,  Josh Kalu, Trai Mosely, and Jonathan Rose will be fighting with incoming freshmen Avery Anderson and Eric Lee to see the field. And at safety, Byerson Cockrell and Kieron Williams will be challenged by incoming freshmen Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams (as well as any of the players at corner who may slide into the position).

Nebraska Football: Who Benefits Most From Each Departed Player

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have seen six players depart from the team after spring practice. And while those attritions do ease fears in terms of the 85-man scholarship limit, the question inevitably arises as to who benefits from those departures.

So let’s take a look at Nebraska’s roster and make some determinations as to who might benefit the most from each of the six departures this offseason.

Marcus Newby for David Santos

Of all the departures, Santos might have the most effect on this year’s Nebraska squad. Nebraska now only has four scholarship athletes outside of the incoming freshman class. Three of those four returning linebackers have little or no playing experience.

So there will be plenty of playing time to find for linebackers. Michael Rose-Ivey will likely be a starter after spending the season injured last year. That leaves one space left for competition, and Newby has shown the most potential. Newby did see the field last year, but almost entirely as a pass rush specialist.

Lane Hovey for Jariah Tolbert

Tolbert’s size (six-foot-three, 190 pounds) suggested he would be used more as a possession receiver, his height being an advantage in catching passes in traffic against smaller defensive backs. While Nebraska has a number of players who might be able to benefit from Tolbert’s departure, Hovey might be the best suited.

Hovey’s size (six-foot-four, 205 pounds) certainly is similar to Tolbert’s. And Hovey does have some experience last season, seeing playing time in every game and hauling in five catches for 69 yards. If he’s already earned himself a place in the mix, Tolbert’s departure opens the door further for Hovey to cement his place on the depth chart.

Byerson Cockrell for LeRoy Alexander

Nebraska was without Alexander’s services last year after a suspension, so it may not have been the biggest surprise that he is no longer on the roster. Given Nebraska’s depth in the secondary, Alexander’s loss is one NU can absorb, even though Alexander is a talented and promising defensive back.

Cockrell played at nickel for most of the season last year, but Nebraska under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker will likely use far fewer five-DB sets in favor of extra linebackers. So Cockrell’s experience will put him in prime position to compete for a starting safety position opposite Nate Gerry next season.

Zack Darlington for Johnny Stanton

There’s an argument to be made that Stanton’s departure really doesn’t affect anyone, as he found himself so far buried on the depth chart that he wasn’t really in competition for playing time.

So if you’re going to pick a quarterback to benefit from Stanton’s departure, it’s probably the one that looks to be second on the depth chart. And if I had to guess now, that’s Darlington. Using only the Spring Game as first-hand observation, Darlington was the one quarterback on the roster (including, disturbingly enough, presumed starter Tommy Armstrong) that could make all the throws Nebraska will need to succeed.

Alonzo Moore for Glenn Irons

If Tolbert looked to be a possession receiver, Irons projected as a burner to take the top off opposing defenses. While Irons’ skill set is a little reminiscent of De’Mornay Pierson-El, it’s unlikely there is much that could be done to affect Pierson-El’s critical role in next year’s offense.

So let’s go instead to Moore, a receiver who has the speed and skill set in the mold of Kenny Bell. But injuries have derailed Moore’s ability to stay on the field and make a contribution. If he’s able to do so this year, Moore has a shot to be a playmaker at receiver.

Drew Brown for Mauro Bondi

Much like with Stanton’s departure, it’s hard to find too much benefit for Bondi’s leaving given how far down the depth chart he found himself. But with Bondi leaving the program, all of the placekicking duties should now fall to Brown. This can do nothing but help Brown stay involved throughout the game, keeping him warm and included throughout the contest.

Nebraska Football: Grading The Performance Of Each New Starter

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans got to see their Cornhuskers get off to a good start, beating Florida Atlantic 55-7 in Lincoln. In that game, a number of starters got their first chance to shine under the spotlight. Here’s how they graded out.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, LT: A+

Jake Cotton, LG: A+

Mike Moudy, RG: A

Givens Price, RT: A

With 498 yards of total offense, it’s clear that the offensive line had a good day. Watching the game, you could see that the left side of the offensive line (led by Lewis) was getting a stronger push and imposing its will more than the right side. But that’s all a question of degree, as both sides of the line were as imposing as a Nebraska offensive line has been in quite some time.

Receivers

Alonzo Moore, WR: C

Making the starting lineup amidst a jumble of receivers was quite an accomplishment for Moore. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to cash in on the stat sheet after the game. Moore was targeted in the red zone and would have scored, had Tommy Armstrong’s pass been on target, which does increase his grade slightly.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen: A+

Vincent Valentine: A

Yes, the loss of Randy Gregory was frightening for Nebraska fans. But the emergence of McMullen, at least for this game, as a nearly unstoppable force on the other end of the defensive line was an exciting thing to see. Both in the backfield and, at times, dropping into coverage. McMullen was the defensive standout of the game.

And Valentine, while playing in a less glamourous but no less important hole, was stout up the middle, and was able to get into the backfield at times and disrupt the Owls’ offense.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle “Mike” linebacker: A-

Zaire Anderson, weak-side “Will” linebacker: A

Florida Atlantic’s first defensive series saw the Owls drive right down the field, 75 yards, to tie the score at seven. After than, FAU only gained 125 of total yards—and much of that was late in the fourth quarter when the result was well in hand.

While the defense as a whole performed well, which is a good sign for the middle linebacker who helps direct everything, Banderas did not have a stellar individual day. He had no individual tackles, and three assists, making for 1.5 total tackles on the day. Anderson, on the other hand, was effective in coverage and disruptive in the backfield.

Defensive Backs

Nathan Gerry, S: A

Daniel Davie, CB: A

Byerson Cockrell, NICKEL: A

Davie was a surprise start, with many (including this dope) thinking that Jonathan Rose would end up winning the starting cornerback position. But Davie came up with a great game, as did Gerry who was all over the field making plays. Cockrell fitted in well at NICKEL, both in run support and pass coverage, making the sting of Charles Jackson’s injury a little less painful.

Specialists:

Drew Brown, PK: B+

Brown got the first chance at placekicking, drilling a 44-yard field goal along with the extra point duties until the fourth quarter. Mauro Bondi did come out and kick a fourth-quarter extra point, showing that there is at least competition for the placekicking role and lowering Brown’s grade slightly.

Meet Nebraska’s New Starters for 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Just like the changing of the leaves, every year Nebraska fans can count on seeing new starters shine. So as the new season is less than two weeks (!!) away, it’s time to look and see which new players will be getting the nod to start for Nebraska.

Of course, without an official depth chart, some of these are guesses (or as we call them in the business, “informed analytical speculation”). Areas of the team that are unlisted have all returning starters.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis, left tackle: If there’s any new starter to be excited about this year, it might be Lewis. After transferring from Colorado, many thought he might be struggling to supplant David Knevel for the starting tackle position. Instead, he’s become what BTN’s Tom Dienhart called potentially “one of the Big Ten’s best” at the position.

Mike Moudy, right guard: Although getting a stiff challenge from Chongo Kondolo, look for the senior to come back from his injury and claim the starting right guard position. According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Moudy now is fully healed from a season-ending ACL tear. His experience should be enough to give him the nod.

Givens Price, right tackle: Sometimes a change of position can do a world of good. Price has shifted positions throughout his Nebraska career, but according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star his shift from guard to tackle may have elevated Price to a starter in his senior season.

Defensive Line

Greg McMullen, defensive end: Sure, you’re excited about that other guy on the end of Nebraska’s defensive line. But McMullen is no slouch himself, and the senior’s talent and experience should provide a solid anchor opposite the destruction Randy Gregory looks to wreak.

Vincent Valentine, defensive tackle: If Alex Lewis isn’t enough of a hipster new starter to be excited about Valentine should be. A prototypical defensive tackle in size (six-foot-three, 325 pounds), Valentine gives Nebraska the option to use him as a true nose tackle, allowing NU to play with a three-man front and freeing up pass-rushing specialists (like Maliek Collins or Marcus Newby) as outside linebackers.

Linebackers

Josh Banderas, middle (MIKE) linebacker: The loss of Michael Rose to a season-ending injury was certainly a setback, given the grasp of the position and the leadership required that Rose was building at the end of 2013. But it does open the door for Banderas, who earned playing time at the position last year as a true freshman. Hopefully for Nebraska, the extra year of experience will help Banderas take over as leader of the linebacking corps.

Zaire Anderson, weak-side (WILL) linebacker: Take a look at Nebraska’s linebacker unit, and you’ll see it littered with freshmen and sophomores. Anderson (along with Trevor Roach) are the greybeards of the unit, seniors who are likely to see playing time. With injuries claiming parts of the last two seasons, Anderson is hopeful that his senior campaign can be uninterrupted and show the productivity he did at the end of 2013.

Defensive Backs

Jonathan Rose, cornerback: For much of the spring, the competition between Rose and Byerson Cockrell for a starting cornerback position was one of the closest on the team. But with the season-ending injury to Charles Jackson and Cockrell shifting to nickel, Rose looks to have secured the starting cornerback position opposite Charles Jackson.

Nathan Gerry, safety: Last year, Gerry saw playing time as a true freshman at linebacker, but always looked to be a hybrid-type player without the requisite size to play in the middle of the field. Now he has relocated to safety, where his speed and hard-hitting ability should allow him to flourish.

Byerson Cockrell, nickel: The loss of Charles Jackson, one of Nebraska’s best overall athletes, to a season-ending injury just as he was about to see significant playing time at nickel was one of the most disappointing developments of fall camp. But Cockrell has been impressing Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis (according to Huskers.com), and his play may soothe some of the fears that arose with Jackson’s injury.

Special Teams

Drew Brown, placekicker: Yes, I know that Brown is still locked in a battle with junior Mauro Bondi for the starting placekicker position. But if Bondi hasn’t done enough in the previous two years to lock down the position—and the coaching staff has felt the need to bring kickers in each of the two years after signing Bondi—then I think the smart money is on the true freshman winning the job.