Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 42, Illinois 38

DSC04594

Yeah, I know this is late. Given the level of stress induced by this game, it took a few days to recover.

Nebraska fell behind on the second play of the game and trailed for most of the contest, looking for all the world like it was finding yet another way to lose a game away from home. But late in the third quarter, Nebraska found its mojo and was able to grind out that elusive road win.

Of course, Nebraska missed a chance to make it easy on itself and its fans, having to settle for a field goal after having a first-and-goal at the one, then taking points off the board with a penalty, then missing the ensuing attempt. But a stout Blackshirt defensive stand (along with maybe a missed pass interference call) helped Nebraska escape with its third win of the season.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s cardiac-care win over Illinois …

The Good

Adversity Responded. With 5:40 left in the third quarter, Nebraska was losing to Illinois 35-21, and it looked to all the world like NU was going to continue its futility on the road. But Nebraska was able to rally, scoring three touchdowns and holding Illinois to just a field goal to escape Champaign with a win.

That’s a sign of strength, Husker Fan. It’s not at all difficult to see previous Nebraska squads having that level of adversity stare them in the face and wilt into defeat. Instead, Nebraska accepted the challenge and performed under immense pressure, and emerged victorious. Just like losing begets losing, winning begets winning, and this win coming through a cauldron of adversity can do nothing but provide confidence for the squad going forward.

DubRob. Yeah, this kid might work out after all. True freshman Wan’Dale Robinson led Nebraska in both number of carries (19) and number of receptions (8), for 186 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. And with Maurice Washington out injured and Dedrick Mills fumbling, Robinson showed he was able to run between the tackles with power in addition to being a matchup nightmare on the perimeter.

And yes, the old white guy is going to try to make DubRob a thing.

Numbers Don’t Lie. Take a look at ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s advanced statistical analysis for the game.

Without getting too far into the weeds, Nebraska putting up 690 (!) yards of total offense against Illinois meant that, just looking at the numbers, NU had a 97 percent chance of winning the game. So yes, that feeling you had of Nebraska trying to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory is borne out by the numbers.

But think about how you’d feel if, somehow, Nebraska didn’t have those turnovers and mental mistakes. If Nebraska was able to put up the offensive show it did and not step on rake after rake, this game would have been a blowout. And maybe the upcoming showdown with the Buckeyes wouldn’t seem quite as daunting.

*looks at Ohio State’s 2019 performance*

Or, maybe it still would seem pretty daunting.

The Bad

Adversity Created. It’s great to overcome adversity. It’s less great when the adversity you overcome is created by your own mistakes and ill-discipline. Illinois shocked Nebraska on the second play from scrimmage with a 66-yard touchdown run from Reggie Corbin. Illinois also scored on drives of 37, 2, 14, and 30 yards, meaning Nebraska handed Illinois four separate point-blank opportunities to score and create a hole for Nebraska to dig out of.

Not-So-Special Teams. Well, so much for Nebraska being Kicker U (as coined by a smart and particularly handsome analyst). With injuries to Barrett Pickering and Dylan Jorgensen, Nebraska has been scrounging for anyone who can kick the ball through the uprights and out of the end zone. Nebraska is (hide the children’s eyes for this) no. 117 nationally in PAT accuracy and no. 123 nationally in field goal accuracy. Nebraska’s inability to get a deep (and high) kickoff has led to opponents having great field position, putting even more pressure on a defense already stretched from offensive inconsistencies.

Nebraska is hoping that Matt Waldoch, a new walkon who played for the club soccer team FC Bugeaters, will help provide some answers. Unless Pickering is able to get back to full health soon, though, it could be a massive source of trouble for Nebraska.

The Looming Challenge. Nebraska is 3-1, and isn’t all that far away from being 4-0 (and probably nationally ranked) coming in to this weekend’s game. But anyone who has watched Nebraska this season knows that NU has not come close to putting together a truly complete four-quarter performance. Even in Nebraska’s most comfortable win over Northern Illinois, the Huskies missed two wide open deep shots that, had they hit, could have changed the complexion of the game.

And, oh, by the way, the Ohio State squad coming to Lincoln looks much more formidable than had been anticipated this offseason. New head coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields look to be hitting on all cylinders. Last week, Ohio State fell behind Miami (OH) 5-0 in Columbus – and won the game 76-5.

The Buckeyes look to all the world like a playoff team. If the inconsistent and ill-disciplined Nebraska team that showed up in Champaign takes the field on Saturday, the Buckeyes will murder them.

And the Unearned Glory

Moments after Nebraska’s win, ESPN made an announcement.

There’s an argument to be made that having Gameday in Lincoln is nothing but a good thing. It gives Nebraska additional national exposure, and can do nothing but help Nebraska’s image in recruiting. While the Buckeyes are a two-touchdown-plus favorite, and there is a distinct possibility of another prime-time humiliation for Nebraska, the presence of Gameday at a program which posted two consecutive 4-8 seasons is a testament to Nebraska’s staying power.

But there’s a darker side to Nebraska getting more unearned attention. Throughout the offseason, the fanbase – and, let’s be honest, the players and the coaches – were bathed in the Kool-Aid of lofty expectations, top-25 rankings, and the trappings of status not yet earned on the field. Sure, the coaches preached all the right things about not having earned anything, but let’s not forget these are college kids having their ears filled with how great they already are.

I refuse to believe all those unearned accolades from the offseason didn’t contribute in part to the slow start against South Alabama and the collapse in the second half against Colorado. Four turnovers and eleven (!) penalties against Illinois – including two on kickoffs as the kicking team – also speaks to a lack of focus and discipline. It’s a disturbing call-back to last year when Frost referred to his squad as playing like “one of the most undisciplined teams in the country.”

Culture change takes time, and one thing Nebraska has clearly not demonstrated is an ability to handle success – the “this is why Nebraska can’t have nice things” syndrome. Memorial Stadium should be electric, with an atmosphere not seen since 2014 Miami, or maybe 2007 USC. And perhaps Nebraska will shock the world and finally get that signature, program-defining win.

If it does, then Nebraska really will have something to puff its chest out about. Until then, basking in unearned glory does little but stunt the growth and potential of a talented squad under a promising and exciting head coach. There’s plenty of glory you can see on Nebraska’s horizon – but getting greedy and claiming it before its earned will bring little but heartache and disappointment.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: 2019 Season Projection for the Cornhuskers

DSC07952

Once again, the calendar turns towards September, and another college football season is upon us. As Nebraska fans finally enter into South Alabama Week, it’s time for the annual Double Extra Point season prediction.

As always, we will use a four-part metric to look at the upcoming season, in an attempt to bring a little more objectivity to the analysis. Each game will be broken down into four different categories:

Better Win Expect to win all games
Should Win Expect to win more than half of games
Might Win Expect to win less than half of games
Won’t Win Expect to win no games

Once all the games are categorized, we’ll add up the categories and see where the model suggests Nebraska’s record will sit at the end of the season. Of course, we’ll also include a mostly-pure-guesswork Fearless Forecast of the score as well – although, fear not, the “official” DXP prediction will be from the model.

All statistics are from the season preview by Bill Connelly of SB Nation (now of ESPN, of course).

South Alabama (home, August 31)

Assuming the weather cooperates, Nebraska should have a relatively straightforward home opener. The Jaguars are coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2018, and is breaking in a new quarterback, wide receiver corps, and secondary. Memorial Stadium in year two of the Scott Frost Experience might not be the place to do that.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 55, South Alabama 17

Colorado (away, September 07)

The Colorado athletic department tried very publicly to avoid having Nebraska fans invade Folsom Field. That … didn’t work so well, as it inspired Husker Twitter to create its own hashtag and lit even more of a fire for Husker Fan to make the trip west.

Colorado beat Nebraska last year in Lincoln, and does have Laviska Shinault, probably the best wide receiver Nebraska will face this season. But the Buffaloes did go 5-7 and fire their head coach. Nebraska will be new head man Mel Tucker’s first big challenge, and Colorado won’t be catching NU playing it’s first game ever under Frost.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Colorado 24

Northern Illinois (home, September 14)

If there was a canary in the coalmine about Nebraska’s soon-to-be-disastrous 2017 season, it had to be the Huskies’ 21-17 upset of Nebraska on September 16, 2017. Two pick-six interceptions from Tanner Lee put Nebraska in a fourteen point hole that it did climb out of, only to surrender a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to stun the scarlet and cream faithful and give them a vision of things to come that season.

Northern Illinois is coming in with a new head coach, and coming off an 8-6 season in 2018. But the talent difference, combined with the 2017 experience that some on the roster were present for, should help Nebraska avoid an upset bug twice.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 20

Illinois (away, September 21)

This isn’t exactly a trap game, as it’s so early in the season and Nebraska really should still be feeling like it hasn’t earned anything yet. Plus, Illinois gave Nebraska some degree of fits last year before NU pulled away late. Lovie Smith is probably coaching for his job, and Illinois’ still have B1G caliber athletes, which will be a step up from the week before.

Combine that with a trip to notoriously sleepy Champaign and an inevitable look-ahead to next week (particularly if Nebraska is 3-0), and this game screams ugly, scrappy, survive-and-advance win.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Illinois 23

Ohio State (home, September 28)

Has Nebraska football advanced to the point where there’s no Won’t Win games on the schedule? I think Nebraska football has advanced to the point where there’s no Won’t Win games on the schedule!

After all, Ryan Day has taken up the mantle from Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback in Justin Fields that has all the talent in the world but hasn’t shown it yet on the field. Nebraska will be the biggest test for Day’s new Buckeyes. And if this is 4-0 Nebraska versus 4-0 Ohio State, Memorial Stadium will be crackling with the kind of energy it hasn’t seen since the 2014 Miami game.

Even with Nebraska’s near miss in Columbus last year, calling a win is still a tall order. But the change in how this game is viewed should be evidence enough how things have changed in Lincoln

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 28, Nebraska 24

Northwestern (home, October 05)

If Nebraska has a bogey team in the B1G, it’s the Purples. Nebraska has better talent than Northwestern, yet just about every year the Purples manage to combine their physical play and ruthless efficiency to take advantage of sloppy Nebraska and steal a win. This year, Northwestern will be starting Clemson (!) transfer Hunter Johnson at quarterback, which will give the Purples more talent under center than they’ve had – well, ever, in the Pat Fitzgerald era.

So this game is certainly no gimmie, especially coming off of the Ohio State tilt a week earlier. Still, perhaps more than any besides Ohio State, that Northwestern loss in 2018 stings, and this year’s Nebraska should be sharpened for revenge.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Northwestern 31

Minnesota (away, October 11)

Otherwise known as the B1G Pre-Season Hype Train Bowl, the divisions two national media darlings square off in Minneapolis. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects than Nebraska has less than a 50 percent chance to beat two teams on its schedule, Ohio State and … Minnesota.

That seems to be giving a lot of home field advantage to TCF Bank Stadium, which is … nice, but it’s no Death Valley. If Nebraska’s defensive line is what it appears to be this preseason, NU should be well poised to earn a second straight win over the Gophers.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17

Indiana (home, October 26)

Coming off of a bye, Nebraska gets to catch a breather before facing a Hoosier squad that went 5-7 in 2018. The talent level for Indiana is improving, and tailback Stevie Scott should be a handful for any defense.

But Indiana still looks to be a rebuilding B1G East school trying to find its footing. Coming off a bye, Nebraska should have plenty to take care of the Hoosiers at home.

Preview data from Corn Nation.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Indiana 21

Purdue (away, November 02)

Quick, name the last game that Mike Riley won!

Yep, it was that bonkers last-second 25-24 win in West Lafayette that kept the faintest spark of hope alive, before an overtime loss to Northwestern (of course) the following week snuffed it out. Of course, head coach Jeff Brohm didn’t have phenom Rondale Moore to deploy in 2017, and the Boilermakers rode Moore and Brohm’s innovative offense to wreak havoc.

Unfortunately for Purdue, Moore is one of only three (!) returning starters on offense. Nebraska-Purdue could be one of the most fun games to watch in the coming years, with Brohm’s offense facing off against Frost’s, but until the Boilermakers reload the talent level shouldn’t be quite even.

Data from Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. Yes, the hardcopy magazine.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 41

Wisconsin (home, November 16)

Well, here’s the acid test to see how far Nebraska has advanced in year two of Frost’s reign. Sconnie will bring in the best running back in the country in Jonathan Taylor, who pretty well single-handedly beat Nebraska in 2017 as a freshman. But Wisconsin also brings back questions at quarterback and a bruised ego from a sub-par 2018 campaign.

The Badgers have a six-game winning streak over Nebraska. If Frost really is going to return Nebraska to an era of national relevance and conference championships, that path leads through Wisconsin.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 35

Maryland (away, November 23)

A trip to the east coast, sandwiched against two physically and emotionally challenging games, going to a stadium that will likely have less than 20,000 fans, at the end of November.

Now that’s a trap game.

Maryland’s talent is better than you think, but even a year removed from the unparalleled disaster D.J. Durkin left, new head coach Mike Locksley will have a challenge on his hand rebuilding the Terrapins. And a public spat with a Michigan assistant coach probably isn’t going to help things.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Maryland 27, Nebraska 24

Iowa (home, November 29)

Wisconsin may be the bellweather game for Nebraska’s growth in the B1G West, but it’ll be the last Black Friday game (for two years, at least) that will really tell the tale of Frost’s second season in Lincoln. Iowa fans have been clamoring for this to be a rivalry (even though they’ll never admit it), and Nebraska fans are thiiiiiiiiis close to accepting the role.

Accept it, Husker Fan. Iowa will be bringing in a very Iowa team to Lincoln. The Hawkeyes may well have the best pure pass rusher Nebraska will face in A.J. Epenesa. But they will not have first round NFL draft picks Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson running down the seams. This game should come to the fourth quarter, potentially with the B1G West title on the line.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Iowa 28

Conclusion

Let’s count up our categories and see what the model predicts for Nebraska’s 2019 campaign.

Category Number Forecast Wins
Won’t Win 0 0
Might Win 4 1
Should Win 6 4
Better Win 2 2
  Total projected wins 7

So, the DXP model puts Nebraska at 7-5, which at this stage would probably feel a little disappointing for Nebraska fans. It shouldn’t be, given where the program has been and the promise being shown. And the fact that 7-5 would be seen as disappointing for fans – as well as for players and coaches – is a testament to the importance of expectations, as pointed out by a smart and particularly handsome analyst.

For those who want to feel better about the upcoming season, the Fearless Forecast has Nebraska at 9-3, and that’s with a trap-game loss to Maryland. The best thing about predictions, though, is that we’re about to get some additional data to see just how accurate (or inaccurate) our models are.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 54, Illinois 35

DSC08041

Nebraska’s alternate uniforms were a throwback to 1923, but the game in which the uniforms were worn was very much a creature of the 21st century, with Nebraska winning a shootout over Illinois, 54-35.

Nebraska’s offense was humming, notching 606 total yards, while the defense struggled some, surrendering 509 yards. But Nebraska was plus-three in turnover margin, which helped NU avoid any risk of an upset bid from the Illini.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s third win of the 2018 season …

THE GOOD

Divine Devine. Hey, remember when this dope looked at senior I-back Devine Ozigbo and just saw him and Mikale Wilbon as “returning with the most experience?”

Well, Ozigbo proved that dope wrong. He’s currently no. 25 nationally in rushing yards per game at 95.8. He’s been both the chain-mover and the homerun threat out of the backfield that Nebraska has been needing. He’s been a revelation and, as head coach Scott Frost said, looks very much like a Sunday kind of guy next year.

Nine-Tenths of the Law. One of the fears about Nebraska’s tempo spread attack is whether NU would be able to protect its struggling defense by possessing the ball. Early in the season, that was an active question when Nebraska was in position to win.

But in the last two games, Nebraska was able to execute clock-chewing drives. Against Ohio State, in the second quarter Nebraska had a 10-play, 64 yard drive taking 4:00, and an eight-play, 47 yard drive taking 3:54, both resulting in touchdowns. Against Illinois, in the third quarter Nebraska had a seventeen-play (!), 82 yard drive for a touchdown that took a full 7:48 (!!) off the clock – and included three fourth-down conversions.

Those time of possession numbers aren’t mind-boggling, but they are evidence that Nebraska’s offense does have the ability to keep its defense off the field for at least a little while, minimizing the stress being put on an already thin unit. Seeing this kind of complimentary football is both reassuring and encouraging going forward.

Special Teams. Against Bethune-Cookman, Nebraska returned a punt for a touchdown. This week, Nebraska blocked a punt. More importantly though, it looks like Nebraska has solved to a large degree its issue with kickoff return coverage. Against Illinois, Nebraska averaged 13.8 yards per return, and only 9.3 yards per return against Ohio State.

Against Troy? 25.5 yards per return.

THE BAD

Homecoming. Welcome home, AJ Bush. After a couple of stops, the Nebraska transfer started a game at quarterback in Memorial Stadium, but for Illinois. And he had himself a game, rushing for 187 (!) yards on 25 attempts with three (!!) touchdowns. He added in 126 yards through the air, but on an 11-for-25 day with two interceptions (although, in fairness, his receivers didn’t exactly help him out).

For Nebraska fans with a sentimental streak, it was the best of both worlds. A former Husker got to have his day in the sun and put up some numbers, while Nebraska was still able to notch a win. That, of course, is easier to say after the game as opposed to when Bush was running wild and answering Nebraska score-for-score.

Walking Wounded. Both receiver JD Spielman and I-back Maurice Washington appeared to suffer injuries against Illinois. Washington has struggled with staying on the field all year, which is not a huge surprise for a true freshman with a slight frame. But losing both – and losing Spielman, in particular – against a stout Michigan State defense would be a huge challenge for Nebraska.

AND THE NEW NORMAL

Blackshirts. Tradition of Toughness. Throw the Bones. In the nineties, much of Nebraska’s identity was defined by defensive prowess. If you play word-association with “Nebraska football,” one of the first images you’ll get is a gleeful Nebraska defender crossing his arms and screaming after a sack.

That’s not where Nebraska is now. Nebraska is currently no. nationally in scoring defense, no. 90 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 101 nationally in passing defense.

Sure, some of that is a transition year, and likely has to do with a talent deficit on the defensive side of the ball. But some of it is structural, too.

Take a look at the national rankings of UCF’s defensive performance last year, when the Knights went 13-0 (and won the national championship, amirite?)

Total defense 91
Rushing defense 59
Passing defense 49

That’s better than Nebraska’s rankings this year, of course. But it’s not elite. At best it’s middle-of-the-pack good. And that’s in a year where UCF went undefeated.

Ultimately, a football team reflects the nature of its coach. Under a defensive-minded coach like Bo Pelini, Nebraska would take its cues from its defense, and Nebraska’s 10-3 upset of Oklahoma should be looked at as a model for how Pelini’s teams would win.

Frost is, schematically, the opposite of Pelini. He’s an offensive mind who wants to outscore you – and is perfectly content to let you score a few points in the process. UCF’s 62-55 overtime win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game might have been an extreme version of it, but it still fits into the template of how Frost’s teams win games.

This isn’t to say that Nebraska fans shouldn’t expect – shouldn’t demand – better defensive play. Overall, Nebraska’s defense has not been good enough and needs to be better both this year and going forward. But expectations need to be calibrated for the Blackshirts.

If defensive coordinator Erik Chinander can get his unit into the top-50 nationally defensively, in combination with what Frost’s offense, that should be enough for Nebraska to win a lot of games. But it’s going to look different from what winning Nebraska teams have looked in the recent past.

In other words, Husker Fan, get used to seeing a lot of points on the scoreboard – for both teams. My guess is that as long as Nebraska has more of those points most of the time, though, y’all should be fine.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Predictions for the Cornhuskers’ 2018 Season

frostAs the first game of the Scott Frost era comes close, it’s time to make things official and predict how the 2018 season will unfold for Nebraska. At the Double Extra Point, we use a particular system to try and make season predictions less of a guessing game.

The system is to break the games on the schedule into four different categories. Better Win games are ones Nebraska should be able to win all the games in the category. Should Win games are games where Nebraska should win a majority (more than half) of the games in the category. Might Win games are games where Nebraska should win less than a majority (less than half) of the games in the category. And Won’t Win games are games where Nebraska shouldn’t win any in the category.

Once the games are categorized, we can then add up the expected wins from each category and get a season win total. Of course, I’ll also make a Fearless Forecast for each game, and rest assured I will take credit for whichever prediction ends up closer to reality.

(Kidding! The “system” prediction is the official season call from the DXP!)

Akron, Sept. 1

The Zips are coming off a 7-7 record in 2017, but were ranked no. 112 nationally in S&P+, the analytical model used by Bill Connelly of SB Nation. They do return most of their defense, but are far behind Nebraska in terms of their five-year recruiting average (again from Connelly of SB Nation), meaning NU’s talent should be far superior.

After last year, nothing should be taken for granted, but Akron does provide as soft of an opening for Frost’s tenure in Lincoln as he could reasonably hope for.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Akron 17

Colorado, Sept. 9

If nothing else, the return of Colorado to Nebraska’s schedule has reignited the Nebraska-Colorado venom across social media.

One year removed from a Pac-12 title game, Colorado went 5-7 last year, and Connelly’s analytics have the Buffs doing one worse this season. Colorado does return a starting quarterback, but that’s about it offensively, with a lot of work to rebuild defensively as well.

So while Nebraska brings a number of advantages to the game, Colorado will be the first Power Five opponent Frost’s Huskers face.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Colorado 31

Troy, Sept. 15

redalert

TRAP GAME WARNING!

If there’s a game early in the season that should scare the bejeezus out of Husker Fan, this is it. A trip to Ann Arbor is the following weekend. The opponent’s name is Troy, and I don’t care how dialed in a team is, I refuse to believe it’s not a challenge to get Nebraska athletes to one hundred percent buy in to an opponent named Troy. And the game is an 11:00 a.m. kickoff, games Nebraska traditionally struggles to perform well in.

Exhibit A: September 16, 2017, 11:00 a.m.: Northern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17

Exhibit B: September 6, 2014, 11:00 a.m.: Nebraska 31, McNeese State 24

Oh, by the way, Troy beat LSU last year, 24-21, in Death Valley. So the Trojans aren’t going to have any fear coming into Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska’s a better team than Troy, and should win this game. But this is a scary scenario for Frost’s first season.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Troy 27

At Michigan, Sept. 22

Frost didn’t get any favors from the schedule makers with his first road trip. Michigan is loaded, particularly on defense. Nebraska has a true freshman quarterback making his first road trip, and two walk-ons (including one true freshman) behind him.

Yes, Michigan has been underwhelming under Jim Harbaugh. But that’s underwhelming for Michigan standards. That doesn’t mean it makes the task for Nebraska any easier in Ann Arbor.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Michigan 38, Nebraska 24

Purdue, Sept. 29

The Boilermakers are a trendy sleeper pick in the B1G West, and head coach Jeff Brohm took remarkable strides in his first season. But keep in mind, Purdue was one of Nebraska’s four wins last year, and that was in East Lafayette. The Boilermakers do return both their quarterbacks, but still have enough of a talent deficiency to make this a game Nebraska should win at home.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 53, Purdue 38

At Wisconsin, Oct. 6

If there’s an acid test for Frost’s Year One at Nebraska, it’s the trip to Camp Randall. It’s easy to look back at 2017 and remember it as a tire fire. But don’t forget that going into the fourth quarter, Nebraska was tied with Wisconsin. It wasn’t until Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst took the ball out of quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s hands and let freshman phenom tailback Jonathan Taylor run wild on then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense that the Badgers pulled away in the fourth quarter.

Talent-wise, the teams are relatively equivalent, with Nebraska having a slight advantage in the five-year  recruiting average. But Wisconsin has a significant advantage in terms of scheme and culture. If the Frost Effect is going to push Nebraska to a conference competitor in 2018, this would be the game we would find out.

But that’s likely a bridge to far to ask Frost to bring his charges this season.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 24

At Northwestern, Oct. 13

The Battle for NU is a strange beast. Each team has an amazing record at their opponent’s field. Since joining the B1G, Nebraska is 3-0 in Evanston, and 1-3 in Lincoln. And the one Nebraska win was courtesy of the Kellogg-to-Westerkamp Hail Mary, otherwise Northwestern would be 4-0 in Memorial Stadium.

This year’s contest is in Evanston, so weirdly that’s good news for Nebraska. What’s better news for Nebraska is that Justin Jackson is now playing for the Los Angeles Chargers, and Clayton Thorson is still … Clayton Thorson. This sets up to be the best shot for Frost’s first road win as head Husker.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 40, Northwestern 21

Minnesota, Oct. 20

It was the Minnesota game when you knew it was over. In the three games prior to Nebraska, Goldie scored a total of 47 points.

Minnesota hung 54 against Nebraska on that cold November afternoon in Minneapolis.

Does that mean Minnesota should be a favorite to beat Nebraska this year? No. The talent differential between the two teams is still stark.

And Minnesota’s 54 points wasn’t a reflection of the talent level and fundamentals of the two squads. It was the result of a coaching failure by then-head man Mike Riley in his staff that broke the 2017 Nebraska squad. It’s unfair to say the team quit. But it’s very fair to say that the team was given more than it could bear, and against Minnesota the result of that failure became apparent.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 47, Minnesota 17

At Ohio State, Nov. 3

I don’t know who at the B1G scheduling office has it in for Nebraska, but fer cryin’ out loud there’s been a lot of Buckeyes on the slate recently.

  1. 2017. 2018. 2019. 2020. 2021. 2024.

At this point it kinda feels like Ohio State is getting a trial run in the B1G West. Sure, Ohio State has been embroiled in scandal lately. But because head coach Urban Meyer only got a three-game suspension for his mishandling assistant coach Zach Smith’s history of domestic violence (and that’s describing it mildly, although the story is still unfolding), it is unlikely that Ohio State will be anything less than the machine it has been under Meyer by the time Nebraska rolls into Columbus.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 49, Nebraska 21 (but Nebraska makes Brutus punt for the first time since 2012!)

Illinois, Nov. 10

It looked good on paper, didn’t it? Former NFL head coach – former Super Bowl head coach with the Bears – Lovie Smith comes to college to coach the team from whom the Bears copied their team colors.

Unfortunately for the Illini, it really hasn’t worked out. Illinois is 5-19 since Smith arrived in Champaign, and 2-16 against the B1G. Former Nebraska quarterback AJ Bush was named Illinois’ starter for the 2018 campaign. But Illinois’ recruiting under Smith gives little comfort to Illini faithful.

Yes, Illinois was one of Riley’s ugly losses in 2015. And as we’ve seen before <cough Northern Illinois cough> nothing should be taken for granted. But this should be Nebraska’s second-softest game on the 2018 slate.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 55, Illinois 28

Michigan State, Nov. 17

Sparty and Nebraska are right next to each other in terms of five-year recruiting averages, meaning the talent level on the field should be very even. And Michigan State did what Nebraska faithful are hoping from Frost’s crew, jumping from a dreadful 3-9 in 2016 to 10-3 in 2017.

With the game being in Lincoln, many are marking this game as Frost’s best chance to get a quality win. It’s fair analysis, Sparty under head coach Mike D’Antonio looks to be a tall order for Nebraska at the back end of a grueling schedule.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Michigan State 31, Nebraska 28

At Iowa, Nov. 23

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, this thing is now a rivalry. Losing two straight to the Hawkeyes by a combined score of 96-24 will do that.

The five-year recruiting averages would suggest that Nebraska’s on-field talent is better than Iowa’s. Results on the field would suggest that Iowa has a significant leg up on Nebraska.

Nebraska fans are certainly hoping that Frost will be able to restore what they perceive to be order in the universe by regularly beating Iowa. Maybe that will happen, as coaching and scheme in Lincoln come to equal the recruiting rankings.

But for the last game of a grinding season, in Iowa City, it will be tough sledding for Nebraska to break the trend of the Heroes Game over the last few years.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Iowa 28, Nebraska 24

Conclusion

So let’s see what the system suggests Nebraska’s win total should be for 2018

Category Number Expected Wins
Better Win 2 2
Should Win 5 3
Might Win 3 1
Won’t Win 2 0
  Total Expected Wins 6

So the system pegs Nebraska at 6-6 for 2018, whereas the Fearless Forecasts have NU going (checks notes) 7-5 on the campaign. That’s right in line with what the investors in Las Vegas, with Nebraska’s win total (according to oddsshark.com) at 6.5 for 2018.

However, both Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald and Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star have called an 8-4 campaign for Frost’s inaugural season. Sure, this dope said that there’s reason to believe in an 8-4 season.

But there’s also a real risk that if expectations run too high in 2018 and Nebraska fails to deliver – and don’t kid yourself, the path to 5-7 or worse for this season with a first-year head coach and a threadbare quarterback depth chart is there for all to see – then there is a real risk that the giddy optimism of this season could turn into the cynical backbiting that has plagued Nebraska’s fanbase since the firing of Frank Solich.

And, as that smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, a poisoned fanbase is the biggest risk to Frost’s ability to succeed in Lincoln. So enjoy your football, Husker Fan, Lord knows the wait has been long this year. But please please please please please, don’t let your excitement run away with you this year.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 28, Illinois 6

normal service

On what is hopefully not the last Friday game Nebraska plays for a while, NU rolled into Champaign and won a comfortable 28-6 win over Illinois. Even though the Illini held the ball for almost the entire first quarter, Nebraska was efficient on offense and built a comfortable lead that it never relinquished.

The Good

O-Line Optimism. Yes, quarterback Tanner Lee deserves significant praise for an efficient and turnover-free performance. But a significant portion of Lee’s success against Illinois came because the offensive line really performed well (particularly in the first half) protecting their signal-caller and giving him the time to go through his progressions.

Sure, Illinois isn’t very good, and Nebraska’s performance has to be taken in context. But Northern Illinois isn’t very good either, and – well, we all remember what happened there. So getting that good performance has to be nothing but encouraging.

Stanley Morgan. Welcome back, Stan. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan was a game-time decision with a neck injury, but dressed and played. He led Nebraska in receptions (8) and yards (96), including a stiff-arm touchdown and a remarkably physical first down catch to help keep a drive alive and help put the game out of reach early.

The Blackshirts are Back? Yes, this is the soft part of the schedule. But if you take the second half of the Oregon game and extrapolate it to a full game, Nebraska is now averaging allowing 190.8 yards and 5.7 points per game.

I know, I know, Husker Fan, you can’t get visions of Arkansas State bubble screens or Oregon’s 42-point first half out of your mind. I get it. And with Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to town, those averages are sure to go up pretty soon.

But defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s Blackshirts have put enough good performances down to have some degree of confidence in the defense as the meat of the schedule arrives in Lincoln.

The Bad

Corner Questions. If there was one glaring weakness of Nebraska’s performance against Illinois, it was at cornerback. Eric Lee drew pass interference calls on the first two deep balls he was asked to defend. Lamar Jackson struggled both in coverage and in tackling throughout the night. Against a poor and young offense like Illinois, Nebraska was able to overcome the poor play from the cornerback position.

That won’t be the case as the sharp end of the schedule, namely Wisconsin and Ohio State, comes up.

Stanley Morgan. Yes, Morgan was great against Illinois. But when he wasn’t great, he was kinda terrible. He had at least four drops and a fumble to compliment his offensive production – meaning his game could have been significantly better than it was. Almost assuredly, Morgan wasn’t fully healthy and played hurt. The extra day to prepare for Wisconsin next week might end up being very important for Nebraska.

Not All Sunshine and Roses. Lee’s performance against Illinois looked a lot like the guy Nebraska fans thought they were getting at the start of the 2017 campaign. But when your name starts trending on Twitter after you’ve thrown your third pick-six interception in two games, you know things aren’t going the way you want.

And while Lee’s game against the Illini was cause for hope, there was at least one throw that had to give Nebraska fans flashbacks. In the third quarter, Lee was rolling to his left and pressured. Off his back foot, he put up a wounded duck in the vicinity of tight end Tyler Hoppes, which looked to be an easy interception. Hoppes made a brilliant defensive play to keep the ball in Nebraska’s hands and Lee from going double digits in interceptions.

And The Resumption of Normal Service

Wrap your head around this. Nebraska’s game against Illinois – the fifth of the campaign – was the first game this year where Nebraska didn’t trail at some point in the first quarter. Before this game, Nebraska’s biggest lead at any point in a game this year had been a 10-point advantage in the first half against Arkansas State.

So it was more than a little comforting to see Nebraska up 21-3 over Illinois as the first half expired. Moreover, given how well Nebraska’s defense was playing, at no point was there ever a real concern that Illinois was going to mount a serious comeback. At the start of the season, this dope thought that the combination of a Friday game and Illinois having an extra week to prepare made this game a recipe for a shocker.

Instead, Nebraska flashed back to a more pleasant time for its fans, dominating a less talented team and never really being in danger of losing. Given how the schedule tightens up, this will likely be the last opportunity for Nebraska fans to see such a comfortable win. But it’s certainly good to see Nebraska still remembers how to cruise to a win.

GBR, baby.

Image courtesy of wellbelove.files.wordpress.com.

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: NU ReView, Nebraska 31, Illinois 16

dsc04393

Nebraska fans saw an uninspired Cornhusker team struggle for three quarters against a spirited Illinois squad, before scoring 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to notch a win that was nowhere near as comfortable as the final score might suggest. My photos of the game are here. So for Nebraska fans looking back on Nebraska’s second conference win of 2016 …

The Good

Stick To The Plan. Nebraska’s plan against Illinois was pretty straightforward. Even though Nebraska trailed for a good part of the game, Nebraska still maintained its run-heavy playcalling. The final tally ended up with Nebraska having 49 rushing attempts to 23 passes, a plan that clearly bore fruit in the fourth quarter against a weary Illini defense.

That helped senior I-back Terrell Newby have a break-out game, finishing with 140 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns. And it was a far cry from the pass-happy game plan last year against Illinois in Champaign. In head coach Mike Riley’s second year, it’s clear lessons were learned from last year’s campaign.

Bye Bye. At the start of the season, Nebraska’s bye seemed poorly placed. It was early in the season, and Nebraska had two games against lesser competition before its gauntlet of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Getting a breather before Indiana and Purdue, even coming off a 5-7 season, did not seem like an ideal use of a bye week.

But, boy, does Nebraska need the week off now. With an offensive line bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a MASH unit and injuries to wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter still to be determined, Nebraska would be ill-prepared to face another B1G foe – especially one coming off a huge upset of Michigan State. Proving once again how little pre-season predictions mean, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Nebraska.

Rising To The Occasion. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and two of his teammates got quite a bit of attention last week when they knelt during the national anthem before the Northwestern game. Rose-Ivey endured quite a bit of criticism, including from some local politicians (including some that was exceptionally ill-informed, as discussed by this smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Some people around the country have reacted poorly to the athlete’s protests, as evidenced by East Carolina’s fans booing their own band when some knelt during the anthem (according to SB Nation). So in a deep red state (politically, not in a football sense) like Nebraska, it was certainly an open question how NU fans would react when Rose-Ivey’s name was announced in the starting lineups.

Well, Nebraska fans came through. Here’s what Michael Rose, Rose-Ivey’s father, had to say on Twitter about the fans’ cheering of Rose-Ivey’s name.

It’s nice that Nebraska won the game. But this is one time where the ridiculously self-congratulatory moniker foisted on the Sea of Red by former athletic director Steve Pederson, really did ring true. On that cloudy October afternoon, Nebraska fans really were the Greatest Fans In College Football.

The Bad

Next Man Up. By the end of the Illinois game, Nebraska had three players on the offensive line that were backups – at best – at the start of the season. But when an injury to David Knevel pressed walk-on Cole Conrad into duty – playing next to Corey Whitaker, who was making his first start of the season at guard – the depth of Nebraska’s offensive line was called into question.

As discussed above, Nebraska’s bye couldn’t come at a better time. Indiana just beat Michigan State in Bloomington, and Purdue knocked off Nebraska last year. And that’s before Nebraska gets back-to-back trips to Madison and Columbus. If Nebraska is going to continue this run, its offensive line has to produce.

Cashing In. Part of the reason Nebraska struggled against Illinois was because it wasn’t able to take advantage of opportunities it had to score. Four times Nebraska had the ball at the Illinois 42 or closer, and NU got exactly zero points out of those possessions.

It was a similar story against Northwestern last week. Four times, Nebraska had the ball at the Purples’ 41 or closer, and didn’t get a single point from those possessions. Of course, two fumbles at the goal line will help make that particular statistic look worse.

Advanced analytics, like Bill Connelly at SB Nation, use efficiency of offensive performance as one of the key metrics to determine how well a team is playing. Having a number of those empty possessions might help explain why Nebraska is only no. 23 in the most recent S&P+ rating (according to Football Outsiders) while no. 12 in both the AP and coaches’ poll.

Leaving it Late. Yeah, you’ve all heard the number by now. Nebraska has outscored its opponents 78-6 in the fourth quarter. That’s a remarkable achievement, and speaks volume to the resilience and coaching of the team.

But it’s also playing with fire. Perhaps more than any other game this season (other than Oregon), Nebraska’s late-game heroics felt especially needed. Illinois not only took a lead into the fourth quarter, but felt at many points like it could have taken charge and pulled an upset.

Fourth-quarter pull-aways are great, but leave little margin for error. One turnover, one defensive error, or one great play by the opponent could have been enough to render Nebraska’s comeback unsuccessful.

And The How Many

Look, it’s a good thing that Nebraska is 5-0. A very good thing. At this point last year, Nebraska was 2-3. So an undefeated and twelfth-in-the-country Nebraska is awesome for the scarlet and cream faithful, regardless of how it came about.

But as a famous smuggler once said, don’t get cocky. If you feel a little cockiness coming on, just use the bye week to take a glance at how Nebraska’s opponents this year have fared. After losing in Lincoln, Oregon has dropped a game to Colorado (no real shame in that, the Buffs are actually pretty good this year) and Washington State (well …)

Fresno State is 1-4, with its only win over FCS Sacramento State. Yes, Northwestern did beat Iowa last week, but it also lost to FCS Illinois State. Before their game in Lincoln, Illinois got beat at home, 34-10, by Western Michigan. Heck, Wyoming has the best record of all the teams Nebraska has played in 2016 to date.

So Nebraska doesn’t appear to have faced a Murderer’s Row of opponents to earn it’s 5-0 mark. But it’s still 5-0. My golf partners have long since become sick of hearing me, after an ugly shot gets a lucky bounce and ends up on the fairway, that “it ain’t about how, it’s about how many.”

That pithy logic holds true for Nebraska as well. There’s no style points sought after here. Nebraska’s one win away from bowl eligibility in early October, with a trip to Indianapolis entirely in its hands. After last year, Nebraska fans can’t ask for anything more than that.

Nebraska Football: Power Ranking the Difficulty of the Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season

DSC00174

As August bears down on us, the 2016 college football season can’t be far away. With B1G Media Days coming next week, and fall camps about to open, it’s time to look at the calendar and start thinking about the season to come.

So, with a little more perspective on the coming campaign, it’s time to power rank Nebraska’s 2016 season from the easiest game to the most difficult.

No. 12: Wyoming (Sep. 10, home)

The Cowboys were 2-10 last year, and are still trying to make up a pretty significant talent gap. Craig Bohl has some work left to do.

No. 11: Purdue (Oct. 22, home)

The Boilermakers were 2-10 as well last year, and are likely still coached by Darrell Hazel in part to their mystifying defeat of Nebraska last year. Honestly, the more times you look back at that game, the more unbelievable it is that Nebraska lost to a team like Purdue.

No. 10: Fresno State (Sep. 03, home)

Fresno State isn’t BYU, but it is still a legit program with a respectable history. Sure, 3-9 wasn’t great last year, and the Bulldogs haven’t really been very good since Derek Carr left. But given last years’ experience, Nebraska fans should feel at least a little sense of concern seeing a non-directional-school as the season opener.

No. 9: Minnesota (Nov. 12, home)

Tracy Claeys has a tall task ahead of him, taking over for the perpetually-over-achieving Jerry Kill. Yes, quarterback Mitch Leidner is better than he probably gets credit for, but the Gophers still look like a squad about to fall back to earth.

No. 8: Maryland (Nov. 19, home)

Last year Maryland combined a decent (no. 54 nationally) rushing defense with a poor (no. 104 nationally) passing defense to finish 3-9. That combination (decent rush defense, poor pass defense) seems to at least benefit the Terrapins against what we think Nebraska will do offensively, which could make the game more challenging than the talent gap might suggest.

No. 7: Illinois (Oct. 01, home)

The arrival of Lovie Smith should help to stabilize an Illinois program that has been staggering under the weight of mismanagement for years. And with an NFL-caliber quarterback in Wes Lunt, the Illini have weapons to work with. But attrition will hit Illinois hard this year, pushing Smith’s guidance of the Illini back to respectability back at least a year or two.

No. 6: Wisconsin (Oct. 29, away)

Well, at least we won’t have Joel Stave to kick around anymore. Whether Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook wins the job, though, he’ll have phenomenal talent Corey Clement behind him, which should add punch to Wisconsin’s attack. Still, questions on defense and needing to break in a new quarterback should make this year’s trip to Madison less frightening than trips past.

No. 5: Indiana (Oct. 15, away)

Stop me if this seems familiar. Team finishes 6-7, with all of its losses coming in soul-crushing ways that couldn’t possibly replicate the following season. Yes, Indiana’s season was just about as ridiculous as Nebraska’s in 2015. Indiana’s offense should be just as good as it was last year, too, which should put Nebraska’s re-tooled defense to the test early. Particularly with the game in Bloomington, if you have money to wager invest on an upset, this game would be a prime candidate.

No. 4: Northwestern (Sep. 24, away)

The Purples were nowhere near as good as their 10-3 record would suggest. But the defense in Evanston last year (nationally, no. 12 in scoring defense, no. 21 in rushing defense, no. 23 in passing defense, and no. 13 in total defense) should still be salty. That’s a challenging draw for a Nebraska team going on the road for the first time in 2016, for its first conference game of the season, and coming off a challenging game against Oregon the week before.

No. 3: Iowa (Nov. 25, away)

The Hawkeyes make few bones about who they are – solid defense, good play on the lines, and an offense that will do enough to keep them in games and wait for your mistake. Iowa won a whole bunch of games last year (including in Lincoln) sticking to that formula. By the time the Heroes Game comes to Iowa City, given their schedule the Hawkeyes should be in position for another trip to Indianapolis, and ready to give Nebraska a challenge.

No. 2: Oregon (Sep. 17, home)

The Ducks weren’t at their national-title-challenging caliber last year, and have another FCS transfer quarterback in Dakota Prukop learning the ropes in 2016. But Oregon’s talent is still better than Nebraska’s (no. 19 vs. no. 24, according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting average),

No. 1: Ohio State (Nov. 05, away)

Yeah, the Buckeyes in 2016 are basically quarterback J.T. Barrett and a whole bunch of “Hello, My Name Is” stickers. But by November, those Buckeyes will have had plenty of experience, and the talent differential (and playing the game in the Horseshoe) should make this a difficult trip for Nebraska.

All stats courtesy cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Get to Ten Wins in 2016

IMG_6122

Earlier this week, the sports gambling site Five Dimes set Nebraska’s over-under total at 9.5 for wins in 2016. For the non-gamblers among you, the bet is just what the name of it suggests – you put your money down as to whether you think Nebraska’s win total will be over or under the number selected, in this case nine-and-a-half.

That means this particular sports book thinks the most likely scenario for Nebraska in 2016 is to win between nine and ten games. That’s a pretty bold statement for a team coming off a 6-7 season in 2015.

So, is Five Dimes just counting on rabid Nebraska fans making irrationally exuberant investment decisions? Maybe to an extent, although “souvenir” bets like that are usually on tickets to win a national title put down by chumps like me on trips to Las Vegas. An over-under line set too high will be pounced on by sharks, and could end up costing a sports book lots of money.

That means the book makers at Five Dimes must have some confidence that Nebraska can get to ten wins in 2016 – besides just listening to this smart and particularly handsome analyst who picked Nebraska as the B1G West favorite next season. Here’s what has to happen for Nebraska to get ten wins next season.

Beat Oregon

A ten-win season almost certainly would require knocking off Oregon in Lincoln on September 16. Given where the two programs have been over the last few years, that sounds like a tall order for Nebraska.

But Oregon isn’t quite what it has been in years past. Quarterback is a huge question mark for the Ducks, hoping FCS transfer Dakota Prukop will be the heir to Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will be taking over Oregon’s defense, bringing his skill set to Eugene but asking the Ducks to learn a new scheme next season.

Nebraska will likely come into this game as an underdog. But with the game in Lincoln, and Nebraska being Oregon’s first big test of 2016 (with no disrespect to UC Davis or Virginia), a win over the Ducks could help put NU on the map. And if the over ticket for Nebraska is to be cashed, NU will almost certainly have to pull the upset.

Avoid the Toe-Stubber

Yeah, a 5-7 regular season was pretty dreadful for Nebraska last season. But that record includes two head-scratching losses to Illinois and Purdue, both on the road.

The two upsets were very different. Nebraska’s loss to Illinois involved asking Tommy Armstrong to make 31 passes in high winds, while the loss to Purdue had much to do with tossing backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe into the fire due to Armstrong’s injury.

Either way, though, those two games were inexplicable losses when comparing the relative talent levels of the two teams. If Nebraska wins those games, even with everything else that went wrong in 2015, the season would have ended at 8-4. The distance between 8-4 and 10-2 seems far more manageable than the actual records earned last year.

Win on the Road

If Nebraska is going to win ten games, it’s going to have to get work done on the road in conference. Trips to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa will likely determine Nebraska’s fate in the B1G West. Last year, Nebraska had its contests against those divisional rivals in Lincoln, and lost all three in excruciating fashion.

In 2016, the schedule flips and Nebraska will have to face those teams on the road. And if Nebraska is to reach the ten-win plateau, it will have to do better on the road in 2016 than it did at home in 2015.

Get the Bounces

Nebraska’s struggles in close games could not have been more well documented. And it would be falling prey to the Gambler’s Fallacy to think that Nebraska was due a run of good luck to make up for all the bad bounces it got in 2015.

Instead, perhaps it’s more reasonable to think that Nebraska’s secondary won’t be quite as vulnerable to the deep ball as it was throughout much of 2015 – a weakness that clearly cost it games against BYU, Miami, Illinois, Wisconsin, and (exhausted deep breath) Northwestern. Add to that a second year in an offense to help Armstrong avoid at least some of the turnovers that doomed Nebraska (such as against Iowa), and you have a recipe to turn those close losses into wins.

If Nebraska is to win ten games in 2016, it will have to find ways to convert those close losses into victories.

Agony Analyzed: How Close Is Nebraska Football to Being 6-0?

DSC02665

Nebraska football fans have endured the most challenging – and surreal – first half of a season in 2015. Under new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska through six games is 2-4 and 0-2 in conference. But how close is that 2-4 to 6-0 – and what difference does that make to how fans perceive the status of the program under Riley?

First, let’s take a closer look at Nebraska’s losses. Part of what we are going to use is the Agony Clock, a little like the Doomsday Clock from Cold War days, to get an overall impression of just how close Nebraska is to an unblemished regular season record. But we’re also going to look at some of the decisions from Riley and his staff that may have led to the close losses.

BYU

With one second remaining in the game, Nebraska led 28-27. BYU had the ball on Nebraska’s 42, and hit a Hail Mary pass to win the game.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: There’s a good argument to be made that the decision to rush three on the Hail Mary play was overly conservative. But don’t forget that defensive end Jack Gangwish got hurt on the play, meaning Nebraska really only had two pass rushers, and a harder time keeping quarterback Tanner Magnum in the pocket. And even with that, it was a technique breakdown not having anyone in front of the ball in the secondary.

If you want to point at one questionable call within the staff’s control that put Nebraska in a bad position, then you could look at the third-and-two call when Nebraska had the ball on the BYU 22, trying to close out the game. A jet sweep to Jamal Turner was called, losing two yards, and forcing Drew Brown (who had already missed from 40 yards) into a 41-yard attempt.

Miami

With 11:14 left to go in the game, Nebraska was down 33-10. But Nebraska went on a remarkable comeback, getting a two-point conversion after a touchdown with 33 seconds remaining in the game to tie the score.

But in overtime, quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw an interception on Nebraska’s first possession, allowing Miami to set up a game-winning field goal. The overtime issue makes the Agony Clock a little harder to judge, but we’re going to leave it set where it was after BYU.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: Very little about the fourth quarter or overtime was a coaching issue. Armstrong was brilliant in leading Nebraska’s comeback, and putting the ball in his hands for the overtime was the only decision that made sense. Ultimately, the game was lost in the first quarter, and it’s hard not to look at the decision to start Daniel Davie at corner as one of the key factors in the loss. After being torched for 17 points in the first quarter (and being fortunate it was only 17), Davie was substituted and Nebraska only surrendered one touchdown the rest of the game.

Illinois

With 51 seconds remaining, Nebraska led Illinois 13-7 with the Illini having the ball at its own 27 yard line. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt hit Malik Turner for a 50-yard strike, giving the Illini a first down at the Nebraska 7 yard line. Penalties ended up giving Illinois six (!) shots at the end zone, which the Illini finally converted with a one-yard pass from Lunt to Geronimo Allison to take the lead with ten seconds remaining.

Agony Clock – 0:11

Coaching Mistakes: The decision on third-and-seven to roll Armstrong out will live in infamy for Nebraska fans.  Both coach and player (according to Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network) agree that the play should have been a run only, but Armstrong attempted a pass which fell incomplete, stopping the clock and preserving Illinois’ chance at a comeback.

Riley took responsibility for the call, which is exactly what he should have done. But the decision – put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker, on the edge where he is most effective – ultimately was the right one. The execution of the decision, and the preparation of the player to be in that circumstance, failed Nebraska. But as we would see a week later, the results of that failure of execution and preparation haunted Nebraska a second time.

Wisconsin

Nebraska led Wisconsin 21-20, and Badgers’ kicker Rafael Gaglione missed a 39-yard field goal with 1:26 remaining. But Nebraska was unable to get a first down and Wisconsin had all three time outs remaining, so the Badgers got the ball back on their own 30 with 1:03 left in the game. Wisconsin drove the ball to the Nebraska 28, and Gaglione redeemed himself by making a 48-yard field goal with 0:04 left to play.

Agony Clock – 0:15

Coaching Mistakes: If there was one game where coaching decisions directly cost Nebraska in the clutch, it was Wisconsin. Nebraska had the ball with 1:26 left to go, and needed one first down to ice the contest. Nebraska chose to bring in Imani Cross, the biggest – and least elusive – of its running backs. Three running plays were called, directly into the middle of an 11-man (!) front from Wisconsin. The play calls almost guaranteed a three-and-out, putting Nebraska’s secondary into a horrific déjà vu scenario.

And this is where the Illinois game comes back. Again, the decision to put Armstrong on the edge to get that necessary first down was the right decision. The failure against Illinois was one of execution and communication, not in play-call. So why did Nebraska instead choose to run three plays into the teeth of the Wisconsin defense, with no chance of success? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard not to conclude Riley felt so stung by the third-and-seven at Illinois that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Which, ironically, led to the overall coaching mistake that cost Nebraska a chance to win.

So What?

Much of the narrative around Riley’s detractors centers around his decision-making costing Nebraska games this year. And there’s plenty of broader-narrative coaching decisions to question about Riley. Game plan questions, like why Nebraska had a game plan to throw the ball 31 times in a tight game against Illinois when it was getting 5.5 yards per carry. Penalty questions, specifically why Nebraska is no. 120 nationally in penalties committed, according to cfbstats.com. And most frustrating, why Nebraska is a national worst no. 128 in pass defense allowing 348.5 yards per game – although the lack of a pass rush, while still a coach’s responsibility, goes a long way to explain those gory numbers.

So this isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for Riley and his staff. There’s plenty of mistakes he’s made.

But the narrative of Nebraska being 2-4 because of immediate late-game decisions by Riley isn’t fair. It’s a reaction by fans hurting and angry – and justifiably so – seeing their team lose four of its first six games in comically-painful ways.