Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Iowa 31, Nebraska 28

DSC08159

Nebraska’s 2018 campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion, with Iowa kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired to defeat Nebraska 31-28. Head coach Scott Frost’s squad made up a 28-13 deficit and tied the score, but wasn’t able to keep Iowa from getting into position to win the game at the end.

With the loss, Nebraska falls to 4-8 for the second straight season, and the third year without a bowl game. So as you prepare for another maddeningly-long offseason, let’s take a look back at this year’s Heroes Game.

THE GOOD

Culture change. In the last two games against Iowa, Nebraska did not respond well to Iowa’s challenge. In 2016, Nebraska entered the fourth quarter clinging to an ember of hope, down 26-10 but still within two scores. Iowa responded, though, by putting up fourteen unanswered fourth quarter points and notching an emphatic 40-10 win.

In 2017, hard as it is to remember, Nebraska and Iowa were tied 14-14 at the half. But a 28-0 explosion for Iowa in the third quarter left little doubt, as the Hawkeyes cruised to a 56-14 romp in Lincoln.

This year, Iowa was pushing Nebraska around, with a gutsy fake field goal failing and leaving Nebraska within 15 points, down 28-13. This time, though, Nebraska didn’t fold. Instead, Nebraska reeled off 15 straight, tying the score and requiring Iowa to hit a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Throughout this year, we’ve heard a whole bunch about judging the season not by wins and losses but by a nebulous concept called “culture change.” Well, Nebraska’s response against Iowa this year, compared to the previous two, is hard evidence of just what that culture change looks like.

Record-breaker. It’s hard to fathom that wide receiver Stanley Morgan is going to end his Nebraska career playing on three teams with losing records. His accomplishments have been amazing, and against Iowa he cemented his place in Nebraska’s record books.

Last week, Morgan broke Kenny Bell’s school record for total receptions. This week, Morgan passed Bell for total receiving yards in a career and became Nebraska’s first (!) 1,000-yard receiver in school history.

With Frost’s upscale offense still being installed, it’s entirely possible that Morgan’s time on top of the leaderboard may be short-lived. But that should take nothing away from a guy whose career spanned three coaches and ended in excellence.

Rivalry accomplished. Personal foul flags away from the play were flying. Tempers were flaring and the two teams were on edge. Both coaches took risks that seemed otherwise unwarranted in an attempt to win the game.

I know, Husker Fan, that for some reason you’re not wanting to dive into the rivalry pool with Iowa. Well, Nebraska junior linebacker Mo Barry disagrees with you. So does this smart and particularly handsome analyst.

Guys, that’s what a rivalry game looks like. That’s what losing a rivalry game on a walk-off field goal feels like. Embrace it, Husker Fan.

THE BAD

Physicality. Iowa ended up running for 266 yards against Nebraska’s defense, and particularly in the first half looked like it could get six to eight yards at will. While Nebraska’s defense shored up some in the second half, throughout the game Iowa’s physical dominance was never far from the surface.

Don’t believe me? Ask Frost (as reported by the Omaha World-Herald):

“Iowa’s a bigger, stronger football team,” Frost said. “That’s right now. I never thought I’d see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team. That we can fix. We can get bigger, we can get stronger.”

Candid words from Nebraska’s head man, but that should also be read as a challenge to his own team as the offseason draws near.

Walkoff Woes. 2018 felt like a year where almost everything that could go wrong for Nebraska went wrong, particularly early in the season. Frost started the season talking about how things would get worse before they get better, and about a team hitting rock bottom and finding its way up.

And yet, Nebraska was the victim of two walk-off field goal losses. Flip those two razor-thin margins, and Nebraska – yes, this 2018 borderline-year-zero Nebraska – is 6-6 and going to a bowl game.

Sure, reaching bowl eligibility isn’t and shouldn’t be the benchmark of success for Nebraska (although this year might help an otherwise-rabid fanbase hold on to just a sliver of perspective about the game over the next few years). But it is a reflection of the work Frost and his staff have done to have this Nebraska team, with this level of changes that needed to be made, be that close to the postseason.

Missed Ya, JD. In a game of such fine margins, it’s hard not to wonder what Nebraska’s offense would have looked like with its most elusive playmaker, wide receiver JD Spielman. Walk-on receiver Kade Warner did an admirable job, with four receptions for 16 yards and the clutch two-point conversion reception to tie the game.

But Warner, many things that he is, ain’t Spielman. We’ll all be left wondering what that game would have looked like had it been Spielman on the field.

AND THE PERFECT ENDING

Nebraska’s contest against Iowa was in many ways the 2018 season in microcosm. It started dreadfully, with Iowa dominating Nebraska physically and pulling out to what seemed like an untouchable 15-point lead. Then, a combination of offensive wizardry and an improved defensive performance, Nebraska pulled itself back into the game. At the end though, Nebraska was left with no immediate payoff for its hard work, but with a strong belief that a firm foundation has been laid going forward.

Sure, a win over Nebraska’s rival to the east would have been a sweet way to cap off a sour season. But somehow this sendoff to 2018 seems to fit better. Now Nebraska will go into another long offseason knowing just how close it was – to a win over a rival, to a bowl game, to being the kind of team Frost envisioned – but that it isn’t there yet.

That feels like the kind of sour sendoff that will put a little extra fire into offseason work. Every Nebraska player coming back next year can feel like the difference between how 2018 turned out and a championship run might be an extra set of reps, an extra mile run, an extra hour of film each day.

It worked for Nebraska in 1994, when the team adopted an “Unfinished Business” motto after 1993’s disappointment. Obviously, the disappointment of 2018’s 4-8 campaign and 1993’s national title near-miss are two very different things.

But the motivational power of disappointment remains the same. So yeah, Husker Fan, that wasn’t a fun end to the season (particularly to those of us who experienced it in Hawkeye country).

However, if that disappointment ends up being the spark that lights the fire of a 2019 campaign, then it will all be worth it for you.

GBR, baby.

Advertisements

Nebraska Football: ReViewing Cornhuskers’ Win over Minnesota by the Numbers

broken+chair

Finally.

After waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting), Nebraska finally got head coach Scott Frost his first win in charge of the Huskers, an emphatic 53-28 victory over Minnesota.

Ordinarily, we at the Double Extra Point have a particular formula for game review columns. But this time, I’m going to steal a bit from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and take some specific numbers and use them to get a little insight into how Nebraska performed in this game, and what it means for the rest of the season.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right, Sam?

3×100

Devine Ozigbo, 12 for 152. Adrian Martinez, 15 for 125. Maurice Washington, 14 for 109.

That’s three Nebraska ball-carriers with over 100 yards of rushing. Oh, by the way, Minnesota was no. 28 nationally in rushing defense coming into the contest. Sure, Nebraska fans were aching to see a win regardless of how it came. But seeing such a prolific rushing performance en route to the win had to add a little sweetness.

25-6

At 28-0 nearing the end of the first half, Memorial Stadium was rocking and, just for a moment, it felt like old times again for Nebraska fans. But Minnesota ripped off three quick scores, including a clever two-point conversion, and the Gophers had pulled to within six of Nebraska halfway through the third quarter.

So here was your challenge for Nebraska mentally. After last week’s collapse against Northwestern, and against the backdrop of a team which seemingly was conspiring to find new and achingly painful ways to lose, it was impossible to avoid the “here we go again” feeling. Could Nebraska really squander a 28-point lead, to Minnesota, at home?

Not this time. After Minnesota brought the score to 28-22, Nebraska outscored the Gophers 25-6, pulling away for a comfortable – and reassuring – victory.

81.32

For as successful as Nebraska was against Minnesota, it was a fight against field position. Nebraska’s average starting field position was its own 19 yard line (18.64, if you want to be picky, although of course there is no 18.64 yard line). Compare that to Minnesota’s average starting field position of its own 38 (!) yard line, and it makes Nebraska’s convincing victory all the more impressive.

1

That’s how many more plays Nebraska ran (73) than Minnesota (72) did. Nebraska was able to rack up 659 yards with those plays, however, compared to Minnesota’s 474 yards.

10,000

That’s how much the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy, born from the union of a mascot and a parody Twitter account and given new life by a GoFundMe account raising money for the Team Jack Foundation and the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, has raised this year.

Sure, the Heroes Trophy would be awesome to bring back to Lincoln given Nebraska’s history with Iowa. But it’s still a sterile and corporate creation. And don’t get me started about the Freedom Trophy that looks to any rational observer like a sailboat.

So if nothing else, Nebraska has something to put in the trophy cabinet this year.

And if you want to donate to the cause, you can still do so here.

(Image above is from the Broken Chair GoFundMe page)

54-21

That was the score last year, with Minnesota’s mauling of Nebraska making it clear that Mike Riley would not return as head coach. While any win is euphoric (even generating an inappropriate Gatorade shower), returning the favor to Minnesota by a similar score had to be especially satisfying for anyone who made the trip to Minneapolis last year.

8/12

Coming into the game, Nebraska was no. 112 nationally in third-down conversions at 34.18 percent. That low percentage (along with penalties) is one of the prime reasons why a team that was regularly gaining over 500 yards of offense per game could be winless.

But today, Nebraska was 8-for-12 on third down conversions, helping to keep drives alive and NU’s offense on the field.

1

(Yes, I know this is the second time I’ve used a one for the number. Just pipe down and keep reading.)

In addition to third-down conversions, penalties have been Nebraska’s bugbear this year. Rather than focusing on the raw number – 6 for 43, a significant improvement – the more illustrative number might be the number of first downs – one – that Minnesota got off a penalty. That helps to understand that Nebraska didn’t give Minnesota a ton of help moving the ball and keeping drives alive – and we can see the difference in performance that results from such a change.

0

That’s the amount of originality that Iowa trolls fans had in co-opting the Cleveland Browns’ beer fridge idea. Now that Nebraska’s won, though, that nonsense is over (and Husker Fan can get a couple of free beers in the process.)

5

That’s the number of games left on Nebraska’s schedule. Three of those are home games, with road trips to Columbus and Iowa City looming.

After the Northwestern loss, the skies seemed very dark and it was hard to see how there could be any joy or hope left in Nebraska’s 2018 campaign. What a difference one game makes. Now that you’ve seen what Nebraska could like once a few things start clicking, the remainder of Nebraska’s schedule looks a little different.

After all, Purdue just demolished Ohio State, 48-20. While the likeliest outcome will be the Buckeyes coming off their bye week and being razor sharp against Nebraska in two weeks, at least now Husker Fan can dare to dream a little bit. Upset the Buckeyes in Columbus, and all of a sudden getting to six wins and a bowl game becomes a legitimate goal.

(And, yes, for the record, I did just take a win against Bethune-Cookman next week for granted. If Nebraska loses that game, y’all know whose fault it will be.)

Is Nebraska going on a six-game unbeaten run after losing its first six likely? Absolutely not. Ending the season with four wins would still be a positive accomplishment after the start of 2018.

But you can’t get to a six-game win streak without winning the first one. Now Nebraska has that win, and the taste of blood in its mouth. Seeing all that faith and hard work and culture change has finally paid tangible dividends. So long as the team doesn’t think that it’s done working – and I suspect Frost will be making very sure there is no laurel-resting this week – then this could make for quite a show down the stretch.

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: Why an Eight-Win Season in 2018 Isn’t Out of the Question for the Cornhuskers

DSC00525

Long-time columnist Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star tried – unsuccessfully – to talk himself out of predicting an eight-win season for Nebraska in 2018.

There’s plenty of reasons to be doubtful of Nebraska getting to eight wins next year. Primarily, NU is coming off a 4-8 season last year, and going from four wins to eight would be a massive jump. Nebraska has an entirely new coaching staff, and will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive structure. Nebraska’s starting quarterback will almost assuredly be either redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia or true freshman Adrian Martinez, neither of which have played a down of college football.

Sipple listed a number of reasons, including the departure of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the depth of the running backs, the strength of the wide receivers, and the track record of new head coach Scott Frost as causes for his optimism. All of those are well founded.

But Sipple didn’t mention another reason why Husker Fan might allow a little irrational exuberance to creep into the imagination as the new season dawns. Here are the five-year recruiting averages for all of Nebraska’s 2018 opponents, as compiled by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly.

Akron 124
Colorado 57
Troy 102
Michigan 22
Purdue 69
Wisconsin 35
Northwestern 53
Minnesota 48
Ohio State 2
Illinois 59
Michigan State 23
Iowa 46

Nebraska’s five-year recruiting average is no. 25. That means only three teams on NU’s 2018 schedule (Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State) have better overall talent than Nebraska.

Now, I can hear all kinds of objections being raised to this analysis. First of all, I know a bunch of you are going to be telling me that recruiting ratings are just guessing games, and that the stars don’t matter.

Well, you’re wrong. Sure, for individual players, a five-star rating isn’t a guarantee of stellar performance. But the five-year averages are looking at recruiting in the aggregate, and the numbers are pretty hard to ignore. According to Stuart Mandel,

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

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

There’s no perfect gauge, of course, for determining a team’s talent level. But given how predictive recruiting averages are to a team’s performance, those averages are as close as we can get to quantifying talent levels.

In other words …

Now, the other argument I can hear is probably much stronger. Sure, talent level matters, but it ain’t everything. Wisconsin is ten spots below Nebraska in the five-year recruiting average, and is 6-1 against NU since Nebraska joined the B1G. Iowa is 21 spots below Nebraska, and has beaten NU in three straight games by an aggregate score of 124-44. Northwestern (no. 53) beat Nebraska last year. Heck, even Minnesota (no. 48) hung 54 on Nebraska last year.

So obviously, just because Nebraska has better on-paper talent than teams on its schedule is no guarantee of victory. Coaching, home field, system familiarity and fit, injuries, and any other number of variables go into that equation as well.

But looking at the recruiting averages gives you at least some gauge of how the teams stack up on paper. And because Nebraska stacks up well against a number of its opponents from a recruiting average standpoint, analysts like Sipple can at least make an argument how a new coaching staff and new structures can help erase the deficits in other areas and make games against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa winnable.

Now, is an eight-win season for Nebraska likely? I tend to think not, and that six wins should be the target for Frost’s first season.

But the recruiting averages (and the points Sipple makes) at least makes the case for an eight-win 2018 a colorable one.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: More Examples that Huskers-Hawkeyes Is a Rivalry

DSC05724

Husker Fan, pay attention. Your noisy neighbors are right in your backyard, and they’re raising a ruckus.

On Tuesday, Hawkeye coaches were part of an I-Club booster meeting at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs. Hosted by Iowa play-by-play legend Gary Dolphin, the speakers threw a little red meat out for the 200 some Hawkeye fans in attendance (according to the Omaha World-Herald).

I hear everyone is fired up about Scott Frost coming here. Seems like a terrific guy, Dolphin said. But there’s a new Nebraska wave. It’s like this. Five fingers, and now turn your thumb in. That’s the new Nebraska wave, because four of the last five years we’ve kicked your butt.

(Full disclosure. I had no idea what Dolphin was talking about until my Hawkeye fan brother-in-law explained it was referring to Iowa winning four of the last five games against Nebraska, and the “wave” was more “hi, how are you” than “water crashing into the beach.” Apparently Dolphin is decipherable only if you listen to him frequently.)

That’s Dolphin throwing some significant shade at the Big Red neighbors, which is well-earned after Iowa’s recent success on the football field.

Regardless of what a smart and particularly handsome analyst has said, Nebraska fans have been reluctant to embrace Iowa as a rival. Many Nebraska fans still want to look down their noses at Iowa, treating them like Colorado or Kansas State, and pining for a return to an Oklahoma rivalry.

Iowa fans have no such compunctions. While head coach Kirk Ferentz held off on directly firing shots at Nebraska, this interaction (as reported by the World-Herald) is illustrative.

Ferentz said the two highlights of Iowa’s season last year were the wins over Iowa State and Nebraska. He later mentioned the 55-24 win over a ranked Ohio State at home, but when Ferentz mentioned the Nebraska win again, the crowd of about 200 interrupted him in applause.

There’s a couple of things to break down from that paragraph. First, Ferentz views Iowa’s wins over Iowa State and Nebraska as more highlight-worthy than Iowa’s utter decimation of then-fifth-rated Ohio State. That’s insightful in terms of how important Ferentz views beating his neighbors as opposed to the nation’s elite.

But what’s more illustrative is how the crowd reacted. An upset thrashing of Ohio State not only didn’t move the needle for the assembled Hawkeye faithful, but was interrupted by applause when Ferentz referenced the Nebraska win.

Do you get it, Husker Fan? Hawkeye fan really doesn’t like your team. Iowa fans have hated Nebraska since before the Big Red joined the B1G. And beating Nebraska four out of the last five years – the last two games by an aggregate score of 96-24 – is the answer to Hawkeye fans’ wildest dreams.

So what are you going to do, Husker Fan? Are you still going to just sit back and pretend this isn’t happening? Because this whole idea of thinking that you’re too good for a Hawkeye rivalry isn’t really working out for you.

It’s time, Husker Fan. The Hawkeyes have plenty of rivalry hate for you, and they’re right across the river. It’s time to give some of it back to them.

Nebraska Football: Iowa Can Be, and Should Be, Nebraska’s Rival

DSC05724

Nebraska will play Iowa on the day after Thanksgiving, putting a merciful end to the 2017 season. The contest will feel much more like a wake than a game, given how things have unfolded. A best-case scenario will see Nebraska end the season at 5-7, making that two years in three that head coach Mike Riley has led NU to such a regular season record.

There has been considerable ink spilled about whether Riley will be fired at then end of the season (deep announcer voice – Riley will be fired) and who will replace him. Adding one more voice to that speculation on the decisions of athletic director Bill Moos wouldn’t really add much to the conversation.

So let’s take a look instead on what’s happening on the field on Friday, and in the hearts of Nebraska fans. Nebraska is facing Iowa on Black Friday. What does that mean?

Well, Moos wants it to mean that Nebraska is facing off against its conference rival. Here’s what he said on the Sports Nightly radio program (according to the Omaha World-Herald):

“I’m going to really push, to establish Iowa as being our rival,” Moos said on air. “We came into the Big Ten and we need a rivalry game, and I’ve already been to the Big Ten and talked to them about that so hopefully we can keep that Black Friday game and have that be Iowa each year.”

Moos sounds like he’s reading the writing of a smart and particularly handsome analyst and jumping in quickly to salvage Nebraska’s Black Friday game against Iowa each year.

(Deep announcer voice – Moos has neither read, nor heard of, the Double Extra Point).

That’s an encouraging sign, to see that Moos recognizes the value both of the Black Friday game and a rivalry against Iowa. Hopefully he’ll be able to convince the bigwigs in the conference (B1Gwigs?) to undo the schedule change that sees Nebraska depart Black Friday after 2020.

But, Husker Fan, it’s time for you to embrace Iowa as your rival. There’s a whole bunch of good reasons why now is the time.

First of all, it’s an acknowledgment of where the two teams are. Since joining the B1G, Nebraska is 3-3 against Iowa, with the Hawkeyes owning a two-game winning streak. Iowa and Nebraska have each been to one B1G conference title game, and Iowa has one more Rose Bowl appearance in that time than Nebraska.

Yes, Husker Fan, I know you don’t want to accept Iowa as your rival because you think you’re saying you judge Nebraska against the standard of Iowa rather than teams like Ohio State and Alabama.

At some level, I get that. A program like Nebraska, with its resources and history, should be aiming for national relevance in a way that a program like Iowa has not shown itself to be.

And yes, I know you felt like Colorado and Kansas State were forced upon you as rivals after the Big 12 took away Nebraska’s yearly meeting with Oklahoma, and you’re still pining for those “Bury Switzer” bumper stickers your father put on his station wagon.

Well, that ain’t happening. Nebraska isn’t – and shouldn’t – even considering departing the B1G. It is now a member of one of the two most powerful conferences in college sports. Through the Big Ten Network, Nebraska has access to one of the most innovative and far-reaching marketing outlets to showcase itself. Membership in the B1G enhances the credibility and prestige of the university as a whole.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also 51 million other reasons why the B1G is a great home for the Big Red.

So you can hold your breath until your face turns Sooner Crimson all you want. The future of Nebraska football is annual tilts against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois – and, yes, Iowa – from now on. You can either keep pining for your lost love, or you can lean in and embrace Nebraska’s new home.

In some ways, Nebraska fans’ reluctance to do has been part of the problem. Nebraska’s performances against its divisional opponents has been pretty average. Yes, part of that has been a talent and coaching issue. But part of it, I’m convinced, is the team not really investing in its divisional home and really buying into the need to win consistently against the B1G West. And if the fans buy in, that just puts all the more pressure on the team to do the same.

And it’s not like the other side isn’t willing to engage. Sure, Iowa might seem a little cool on Nebraska as a rival, especially given Iowa’s trophy games against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa State. And given that Nebraska is struggling and kind of asking to be let into the rivalry tent, Iowa is sure to give Nebraska a taste of its own medicine and play coy.

Don’t let that fool you. There’s a built-in hatred within the Iowa fanbase for Nebraska. Some of that is being a divisional rival, but some of it pre-dates Nebraska’s arrival in the B1G. Here’s how RossWB from Black Heart, Gold Pants described his (not safe for work) feelings for Nebraska in 2011:

No, my first hate* was Nebraska. Growing up in northwest Iowa, it was an easy hate to develop. In those days, there were really only two choices: you could be an Iowa fan or you could be a Nebraska fan. (Outside of my parents, I knew a few masochistic Iowa State fans, but they were a definite minority.) It would have been a very easy time to be a Nebraska fan — they were just beginning their run of three titles in four years — but it was also easy to not become a Nebraska fan. Their fans were (too often) arrogant, preening assholes** and their program was, in many ways, loathsome***. They combined many of the worst aspects of rednecks and blue blood royalty, taking two often-terrible things and creating something even worse.

That’s a pretty good summary of Iowa fans’ perception of Nebraska. It’s not entirely unearned, given how Nebraska fans cling to the 90s like a lifeboat in the ocean. That hubris was brought into full focus in 2014 when then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst cited as a reason for firing then-head coach Bo Pelini a comparison between the Nebraska and Iowa programs – basically subtweeting that Nebraska is too good of a program to be rubbing shoulders with a program like Iowa.

It is also, without question, born in part of resentment and jealousy watching a neighboring agricultural state have a wildly successful football program with a nationally-known brand.

(Deep announcer voice – this is an example of the kind of shade that rivalries are built on)

So, yeah, the pump is primed for Iowa fans to embrace this rivalry. Just look at this. And this. And this. Heck, you know it’s probably a rivalry already if Iowa fans are rolling out smack-talk like this after last year’s 40-10 (!) Iowa win:

If it’s 9:20 in Iowa City, what time is it in Lincoln? 40 to 10.

It’s time for Nebraska fans to embrace it right back. And on Friday, you’ll have a perfect opportunity to test out whether you can embrace that Iowa rivalry.

Nebraska is 4-7, and isn’t going to a bowl game. Iowa is 6-5, and a win will likely affect only whether Iowa will be going to Detroit or New York for its December bowl game. Substantively, there’s nothing on the line.

But there’s that trophy, that ridiculously-sanitized Heroes Game trophy the B1G picked up from a grocery store. Take a look at the picture on this post, Husker Fan. That’s Iowa, in 2013, running across the Memorial Stadium turf, grabbing that trophy off the Nebraska sideline, and parading it in front of the assembled black and gold faithful pouring “let’s go Hawks” cries into your ears as you trudged home.

How does that make you feel, Husker Fan? If you’ve made it this far, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how it makes you feel, even if you don’t want to admit it out loud.

It pisses you off. It makes your Husker blood boil seeing those guys carry a trophy off of your stadium. It makes you want to right that wrong, to shut up your Hawkeye-fan neighbor or co-worker or family member over the holidays and the long off-season.

In other words, it pumps you up and gives you real, visceral stakes on the Nebraska-Iowa game. A win on Friday won’t send Nebraska to a bowl or put Nebraska in the top-25. But it will feel damn good to have in your back pocket as you see your Hawkeye friends and family.

So, Friday’s game is important to win, regardless of either team’s record. Sounds like a rivalry, doesn’t it, Husker Fan?

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

DSC00573

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Prediction for the Cornhuskers’ 2017 Season

DSC09452

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

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas State (Sep. 2)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Arkansas State 17

at Oregon (Sep. 9)

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Oregon 27, Nebraska 20

Northern Illinois (Sep. 16)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 10

Rutgers (Sep. 23)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Rutgers 13

at Illinois (Sep. 29)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Illinois 9

Wisconsin (Oct. 7)

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Wisconsin 21

Ohio State (Oct. 14)

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

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 41, Nebraska 21

at Purdue (Oct. 28)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 13

Northwestern (Nov. 4)

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 37, Northwestern 17

at Minnesota (Nov. 11)

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 21, Minnesota 13

at Penn State (Nov. 18)

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

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Penn State 45, Nebraska 31

Iowa (Nov. 24)

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 17

Season Summary

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

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

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

DSC05297 (1)

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

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

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

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

Tanner Lee lives up to his billing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The defensive transition is smooth

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

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

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

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

Beat Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fyfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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