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

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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.

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

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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.

Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 36-28 Win Over Southern Mississippi

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On Saturday, Nebraska survived a shaky fourth quarter to beat Southern Mississippi 36-28, and move to 2-2 on the season. Leading 29-7 after three quarters, Nebraska looked poised for a comfortable victory as non-conference play ended. But a 21-point fourth quarter from the Golden Eagles put them in position for a Hail Mary at the end of the game, snuffed out by a Freedom Akinmoladun sack. So, in looking back for Nebraska …

The Good

Freedom! Yeah, cue all the cheesy William Wallace references you want. But Akinmoladun’s sack of Nick Mullens avoided one last test of Nebraska’s shaky secondary – not to mention the coronary health of the Nebraska fanbase.

But Akinmoladun did more than just seal the game for Nebraska. He had four tackles, two tackles for loss, and two sacks in the game. While Nebraska’s struggles in the secondary are the talking point to be sure, his ability to perform at defensive end might be the brightest spot coming out of the contest defensively. A converted tight end seeing playing time due to Jack Gangwish’s injury, Akinmoladun’s growth into the position is crucial for the Blackshirts to right the ship.

A Fullback Sighting. If new head coach Mike Riley wanted to get Nebraska’s old-school fans on board with him, giving the ball to fullback Andy Janovich wasn’t a bad plan. Janovich had five carries for 68 yards (and would have had more absent a penalty), certainly a thrill to Nebraska fans who remember Cory Schlesinger rumbling through an exhausted Miami secondary in January of 1995.

But those runs were more than just an homage to the past. Riley’s offense this year uses a lot of misdirection, and those fullback were a part of the misdirection game. In addition to the jet sweep, opposing defenses now have tape of Nebraska’s tailback going in one direction and the fullback pounding up the middle the opposite way.

For a team still looking to establish a running game (particularly with questionable offensive line performance), adding in the fullback belly play is an important element to Nebraska’s offense.

Continued Excellence. The growth and maturation of Tommy Armstrong as a quarterback might be getting overlooked, or even taken for granted. It shouldn’t be. Armstrong put the ball up 35 times and had a 65.7 percent completion rate for 368 (!) yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran the ball seven times for 75 yards, meaning he accounted for 443 yards of total offense.

Armstrong is no. 10 nationally – nationally – in total offense after four games (according to cfbstats.com). Some, like this dope, thought that Armstrong was potentially a weakness for Nebraska coming into 2015. Instead, he’s put a team with a struggling defense on his back and willed it through a rough non-conference slate.

The Bad

The Bad Quarter Came Late. If there was a saving grace about the Blackshirts’ troubles earlier this year, it was that Nebraska was able to adjust and staunch the bleeding. While Nebraska avoided a bad quarter early, it almost picked a horrible time to be terrible as Southern Mississippi carved up the defense late.

Inexplicably, the Golden Eagles waited until the end of the game to test Nebraska deep, finding success in attacking the soft underbelly of the defense.

Lacking a Killer Instinct. Sure, the fourth quarter was scary for Nebraska fans. But it shouldn’t have been if Nebraska had done its job in the first half. Nebraska kicker Drew Brown hit five (!) field goals in the first half, and three of those five were inside 30 yards. That’s a shorter kick than the NFL’s current extra point (which, as an aside, is easily the stupidest rule change in modern professional sports history).

Had Nebraska cashed in just those three drives with touchdowns instead of point-blank field goals, the score would have been 34-0 at the half, and the game would have almost certainly looked more like the South Alabama game in the second half.

Yellow Rain. At this rate, this may become a permanent feature of the ReView. Here’s Nebraska’s penalty output in the first four games of 2015.

Opponent Penalties Yards
BYU 12 90
South Alabama 7 80
Miami 13 114
Southern Mississippi 12 98
Average 10.8 91.5
National Average 6.6 59

Stats from cfbstats.com

Sure, some of those penalties – like the Casey Martin flop that drew a pass interference penalty against Joshua Kalu in the fourth quarter and should stifle soccer critics forever – were soft. But Nebraska still is struggling with alignment and personnel fouls. Those penalties helped keep a team like Southern Mississippi in the game in Lincoln. They could prove Nebraska’s undoing against teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State.

And the Elephant in the Room

There’s plenty of ways to find rose-colored glasses about Nebraska’s non-conference performance. BYU and Miami are legitimately good teams with good talent. South Alabama and Southern Mississippi are not on the level of Nebraska’s talent overall, but both have enough playmakers on offense to cause trouble for Power Five teams (such as the Golden Eagles’ 311 yards passing against Mississippi State earlier this year).

But the fact remains that Nebraska is now no. 128 nationally – that’s dead last, Husker fan – in surrendering long pass plays. Take a look (although it might be wise to shield the eyes of young children) at how that breaks down.

Pass Play Yardage Number Number/Game
10+ yards 57 14.25
20+ yards 24 6
30+ yards 14 3.5
40+ yards 6 1.5
50+ yards 5 1.25

Stats from cfbstats.com

If that number/game statistic doesn’t scare you as a Nebraska fan, you’re made of stern stuff. next week, Nebraska faces Wes Lunt at quarterback for Illinois, who has an NFL-caliber arm. Connor Cook for Michigan State still awaits, C.J. Beathard for Iowa is looking good, and at this point even Wisconsin’s Joel Stave has to frighten the NU faithful.

What is even more disturbing is how the continued struggles in the secondary seem to be affecting the confidence of the squad. As Southern Mississippi continued its fourth-quarter comeback, the Nebraska secondary began to resemble a free throw shooter in basketball struggling at the line, or a golfer with the yips on the green.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst gave some suggestions on how the holes in Nebraska’s defense could be plugged. With Nebraska at 2-2 and a challenging – but still navigable – conference schedule approaching, now is the time for the Blackshirts to consider breaking that emergency glass to get things right in a hurry.

Nebraska Football: ReView Of Cornhuskers’ 36-33 Overtime Loss To Miami

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On Saturday, Nebraska lost in overtime, 36-33, to the Hurricanes in Miami. After being down 33-10 with just over 11 minutes in the game, Nebraska stormed back with three touchdowns to tie the contest.

But on the first play in overtime, Tommy Armstrong threw an interception, and a personal foul by left tackle Alex Lewis for a late hit set Miami up for a chip-shot field goal to win the game.

The Good

Tommy! Armstong’s numbers weren’t the best. He was 21-for-45, for 309 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. But those numbers are a little deceiving, as Armstrong was plagued with drops early in the contest.

But the statistics almost don’t matter. Armstrong was Nebraska’s best player on the field, and it was on his shoulders – and his legs – upon which Nebraska was able to make a comeback. Yes, it was his mistake that functionally ended the game. But without Armstrong, Nebraska gets blown out. And even in a loss, this was Armstrong’s coming-out performance as a quarterback that can get Nebraska to Indianapolis.

The Comeback. Anyone else have a flashback to Michigan State last year? Or Iowa? After looking punch-drunk at times in Miami, the last eleven minutes of regulation showed the kind of potential this new-look offense can have when it is working. It showed that the mental toughness Nebraska showed last year. And it showed Nebraska would not allow itself to be embarrassed on national television as it had been last year.

Brown’s Bomb. When Drew Brown trotted on to the field in the middle of the second quarter, it felt more like a surrender. Nebraska had been blitzed for 17 points in the first quarter, and was only able to get the ball to Miami’s 32 before needing to kick a field goal.

And seeing Brown take the field did not inspire confidence. Two weeks ago, it was Brown missing a 40-yard and a 41-yard field goal that put BYU in a position to win the game on a Hail Mary. So Nebraska fans were justified in holding their collective breath when he swung his leg at a 49-yarder.

But Brown’s kick was true, and would have been good from over 50. It ended up to be very important in the game against Miami. But perhaps even more importantly, Nebraska fans – and coaches – have now seen Brown take the field in a hostile environment and be true from long distance. Even in terms of decision-making and giving coaches enough confidence to give him a chance in the future, that’s a big deal.

The Bad

Another Bad Quarter. Against BYU, Nebraska gave up 17 points and looked like it was helpless defensively in the second quarter. Against Miami, the Blackshirts’ dreadful 17-point performance came in the first quarter, and put Nebraska on its back foot the rest of the game.

Yes, Nebraska was able to staunch the bleeding, making schematic and personnel adjustments to neutralize (at some level) Miami’s offense. But Nebraska’s propensity to get bombed early in a game is distressing.

A Bad Mix. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that the lack of a pass rush and the struggles in the secondary go hand-in-hand. That dynamic was on display again on Saturday. With a four-man rush, Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya had all the time in the world to wait for his receivers to come open.

And while Nebraska’s secondary (particularly Daniel Davie) struggled, it’s unfair to ask them to play single coverage against talented receivers for as long as they are being forced to do so. Nebraska has answered with some blitzes and additional safety help in coverage, which seemed to make some improvements later in the game.

Yellow Rain. And, they’re back. Nebraska improved – sort of – its penalty-committing ways against South Alabama in game two, going from 12 penalties for 90 yards against BYU to 7 penalties for 80 yards against the Jaguars.

But against Miami, the numbers blossomed to the worst performance of the year, 12 penalties for 98 yards. And while some of the penalties were of the spectacularly foolish and damaging kind (looking at you, Alex Lewis), many were still disturbing signs of a transition not yet complete. Nebraska was caught numerous times with an illegal formation on offense, and a substitution infraction for 12 men on the field. Lewis ended the game with two (!) personal foul penalties and an ineligible man downfield.

In fairness, Miami was worse, with 13 penalties for 114 yards, including two ejections for targeting fouls. But given how razor-thin the margin was, even a slightly cleaner game from Nebraska might have made the difference.

And the B1G West Champions-In-Waiting

After the first quarter against Miami, it seemed ludicrous to think that Nebraska would win another game, much less a divisional title this year. It was that bad, reminiscent of the embarrass-the-program performances that ran Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini out of town.

But, much like with BYU, Nebraska was able to steady the ship and come oh-so-close to a grand comeback. The win puts Miami at 3-0 in a navigable ACC conference. BYU is 2-1, with a one-point loss in the Rose Bowl to a UCLA squad many (like Kyle Bonagura of ESPN) are projecting as a playoff team.

Take a look at the rest of Nebraska’s divisional foes. Wisconsin has been far from impressive, most recently beating Troy 28-3 in Madison. If the Badgers are relying on the arm of Joel Stave to win in Lincoln, Nebraska fans have to like their chances. Minnesota, after raising a few eyebrows with a game effort against TCU in week one, haven’t looked worldbeaters either, recently squeaking by Kent State, 10-7, at home.

Northwestern has the best resume, by far, with its 16-6 win over Stanford (made even more impressive by Stanford beating USC in Los Angeles) and a 19-10 win over Duke on the road. Iowa has held serve as well, including wins over an Iowa State squad that regularly gives the Hawkeyes fits and an Alex Henery moment in beating Pitt with a walk-off field goal.

(Save your energy, commenters, I know that Henery’s kick against Colorado wasn’t a walk-off. Same basic idea, though.)

But both Northwestern and Iowa are in Lincoln. Yes, Michigan State looks like a big ask for Nebraska, but it is unlikely that any B1G West squad will have a perfect in-conference record. And if Nebraska can run the table against the division – a result I would say is still more likely than not – then a trip to Indianapolis in December for Nebraska is on the cards even with a 1-2 start.

Nebraska Football: Predictions for the Huskers’ 2015 Season

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With the new college football season finally upon us, it’s time to go on record for how the 2015 season will unfold. The arrival of new head coach Mike Riley, and the installation of an entirely new offensive and defensive structure, this year becomes even more challenging than most to call.

But we know, pretty much, as much as we’re going to know before the ball is teed up for real. So it’s time to make a call, and have something to look back on in January –either with pride or dread.

BYU

While quarterback Taysom Hill provides a stern test for the new-look Blackshirts, an overall talent gap and the Memorial Stadium crowd help Riley open his career in Lincoln with a win – or, perhaps more importantly, avoiding a loss

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 31, BYU 24 (1-0, 0-0 in conference)

South Alabama

Even coming off a bowl appearance, the Jaguars should be outmatched when they arrive in Lincoln. Assuming Nebraska is at some level ready to play, talent should prevail.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 41, South Alabama 17 (2-0, 0-0 in conference)

At Miami

If Riley’s first test was a big ask, his first game on the road is even bigger. Even with injury problems, a head coach in Al Golden who has yet to impress, and a less-than-intimidating home field, asking Nebraska for a win here in year one seems too much of a stretch.

Fearless forecast: Miami 27, Nebraska 23 (2-1, 0-0 in conference)

Southern Miss

The Golden Eagles may be on the road back to respectability, but there’s still a long way between that and being competitive with Nebraska in Lincoln. Any fears of a repeat performance from Southern Miss like in Bill Callahan’s first year should be unfounded.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 45, Southern Miss 13 (3-1, 0-0 in conference)

At Illinois

Firing head coach Tim Beckman less than two weeks before the season starts can’t be helpful for Illinois’ preparation. While it does remove the “dead man walking” element from the season, having an interim coach should make this season feel a bit lost for the Illini.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 35, Illinois 20 (4-1, 1-0 in conference)

Wisconsin

Time to get bold. Yeah, the Badgers have humiliated Nebraska in their last two meetings. But Melvin Gordon is now in the NFL. Joel Stave is still quarterback for Wisconsin. The Badgers are going through a coaching change, although nowhere near the kind of culture change as at Nebraska. And, perhaps most importantly, Nebraska’s new defensive scheme should be far better suited to stop Wisconsin’s rushing attack (as pointed out by a smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Add to that mix the fact that the game is in Lincoln, where Nebraska is 1-0 against Wisconsin (take that, Bucky!), and it’s time to risk being called a homer.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 21, Wisconsin 20 (5-1, 2-0 in conference)

At Minnesota

Yes, Goldie has a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Yes, Minnesota’s program is flourishing under head coach Jerry Kill. But I still can’t buy the Gophers as a contender to make it three over Nebraska, even in Minneapolis.

As with Wisconsin, Nebraska’s struggles with the Gophers over the last couple of years have come in large part because of a self-imposed mismatch due to former head coach Bo Pelini’s defensive structure. Add to that Minnesota losing three top-flight players to the NFL in the last two years (defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb, and tight end Maxx Williams), and the Gopher run of good fortune should end in 2015.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 27, Minnesota 13 (6-1, 3-0 in conference)

Northwestern

It really is amazing how the 2013 game against Ohio State in Evanston seems to be a high-water mark for Northwestern. Going into that game, the Purples were nationally ranked and had ESPN’s Gameday on campus. But after Ohio State did the business against them, the program has been on a downward trajectory.

Northwestern’s trajectory against Nebraska is on a similar arc. After winning in Lincoln in 2011, the Purples lost two straight heartbreakers. But last year, Nebraska was able to pull away and win convincingly, in Evanston. There’s little reason to think that trend line should change this season.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 38, Northwestern 21 (7-1, 4-0 in conference)

At Purdue

Illinois’ dismissal of Tim Beckman probably helps to ensure that Purdue won’t finish in last place this season in the B1G West. But even with a road trip, the talent disparity should help Nebraska to a comfortable win on Halloween.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 44, Purdue 10 (8-1, 5-0 in conference)

Michigan State

Having Nebraska at 8-1 at this stage of the season may seem like irrational exuberance about NU’s 2015 season. But any such exuberance would end with the Spartans roll into town. With a veteran returning quarterback in Connor Cook, a talent level equal to if not surpassing Nebraska, and a stingy defense, NU’s fairy-tale start to the season looks to end.

Fearless forecast: Michigan State 27, Nebraska 13 (8-2, 5-1 in conference)

At Rutgers

It’s tempting to see this game as a trap game, particularly coming off of what is likely to be a physical and emotional beat-down for Nebraska the week before. A long trip against an improving Rutgers team in that scenario is a recipe for disaster. But given how late in the season this game is and the kind of experience Riley and his staff have, Nebraska should be prepared enough to survive a closer-than-expected contest.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 20, Rutgers 16 (9-2, 6-1 in conference)

Iowa

The Heroes Game hasn’t quite grown into the rivalry that the B1G hoped it would when Nebraska joined the league. But the games have been competitive (if not necessarily watchable, other than last year’s overtime contest in Lincoln).

Iowa looks on track to another middle-of-the-pack conference season under head coach Kirk Ferentz. If that’s the case, and Nebraska has a chance to clinch the division in Lincoln, the game could have an energy it has been hoping for. Look for Nebraska to shade a close one.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 24, Iowa 21 (10-2, 7-1 in conference)

B1G Championship

So, Riley gets a trip to Indianapolis in his first year. Safe money has Nebraska facing off against Ohio State, the first ever unanimous pre-season no. 1 in the Associated Press. But don’t be surprised if it’s Michigan State, not Ohio State, that represents the B1G East in Indianapolis. Yes, the Buckeyes were dominant in the postseason last year. But don’t forget, that same Buckeye squad lost to Virginia Tech and were outplayed for large swaths of the game against Minnesota.

Regardless of whether it’s Ohio State or Michigan State, though, neither team is a good matchup for Nebraska. Making it to Indianapolis will be a great accomplishment for Riley in Year One, but asking for a number to be added next to the lonely “1999” on the East Stadium façade for conference championships is a step too far.

Nebraska Football: Worst-Case Scenario For the 2015 Season

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While Nebraska football fans can be forgiven for their optimism, deep down they know that disaster could be lurking around the corner. Coaching transitions are always difficult, and new head man Mike Riley is bringing in a new philosophy on offense and defense for Nebraska to absorb. And while a smart and particularly handsome analyst has already talked sunshine and unicorns about Nebraska’s run this year to the College Football Playoff, there’s also a scenario that goes far worse for the scarlet and cream.

A Brutal Start

If the wheels come off for Nebraska this year, it could be in large part based on the challenging first three games. Riley’s career at Nebraska starts by facing a BYU team led by potential Heisman darkhorse quarterback Taysom Hill. Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports is one of many pundits highlighting Hill’s size and athleticism as a reason why he could be a star in 2015.

Directional State, this ain’t, for a first game in charge for Riley and company. If the Blackshirts struggle with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme in their first live game, Nebraska could easily find itself 0-1 to start the season.

Then, after a bit of a breather with South Alabama (although the Jaguars did go to a bowl game last year), Nebraska heads to south Florida to face Miami. The Hurricanes will be led by sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya, who went 28-42 against Nebraska last year for 359 yards and two touchdowns. Miami’s talent is better than Nebraska’s, according to the 2014 rankings from CFB Matrix, suggesting the Hurricanes will have an on-field advantage. And this will be Riley’s first road game in his Nebraska career.

Especially coming after an opening-game loss, it’s not at all inconceivable that Nebraska could get beaten by Miami and start the 2015 campaign 1-2.

Armstrong Doesn’t Progress

Although much has been made about Riley adapting his offense to meet his personnel, it’s hard to see how Nebraska has success on offense without quarterback Tommy Armstrong improving his completion percentage. Which is why this quote from BTN’s Tom Dienhart, after watching some fall practice, should be terrifying.

After watching two practices, I have concerns. Armstrong lacks consistent touch and accuracy. He has a rep for being sharper on long passes than he is on shorter ones. Not good in Riley’s pro-style/West Coast attack.

If Armstrong doesn’t progress from the career 52.9 completion percentage passer he’s been, Nebraska’s offense will struggle. And without a star like Ameer Abdullah in the backfield to bail him out, that could make Nebraska ripe for the picking as conference play unfolds.

The B1G Meat Grinder

Nebraska’s two toughest conference games, Wisconsin and Michigan State, are at home. But it’s not like Nebraska has enjoyed a great deal of success against either team recently. Last year, Nebraska lost to the Spartans in East Lansing in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 27-22 score would indicate.

Sadly, Nebraska’s 59-24 loss to Wisconsin in Madison last year wasn’t as close as that score indicated, either.

So let’s say Nebraska falls to both Wisconsin and Michigan State. What else is on the schedule? Well, Minnesota holds a two-game winning streak over Nebraska, and gets NU in Minneapolis. While there are ample reasons to think Riley will make Nebraska a better matchup, history suggests the Gophers could well extend their streak to three.

How about Northwestern? Other than last year’s contest, every game Nebraska has played against the Purples has been a challenge. There’s a good argument to be made that, since Nebraska’s entry into the B1G, Northwestern should have been 3-0 against the scarlet and cream going into last year’s contest. So it’s not impossible to imagine the Purples coming to Lincoln and upsetting Nebraska in Riley’s first year.

And then there’s Iowa. While Nebraska fans would love nothing more than to dismiss the Hawkeyes, the fact remains that Iowa beat Nebraska last time the teams met in Memorial Stadium. And Nebraska needed a De’Mornay Pierson-El punt return (and criminally-negligent game management from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz) to overcome a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and win the game in overtime.

So there’s every reason to think Iowa can hang with – and ultimately beat – Nebraska at home on Black Friday in 2015.

Wisconsin. Michigan State. Minnesota. Northwestern. Iowa. Sure, it’s not likely that Nebraska would lose all of those games. But it’s certainly not impossible. And if Nebraska starts dropping games, momentum could make losing more games likely.

That would lead to Nebraska ending the 2015 season at 5-7, and providing disturbing flashbacks to the last time a new head coach with a West Coast offensive philosophy arrived in Lincoln. And while this dystopian view of 2015 is less likely than the rose-colored vision discussed earlier, fans should discount it at their peril.

Nebraska Football: Games That Could Ruin Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

At one point in history, any loss would be considered catastrophic for Nebraska football fans, something to be agonized over throughout the year. But Nebraska fans have endured enough multiple-loss seasons under Frank Solich and Bill Callahan, and enough comically-bad losses under Bo Pelini, to be a little numbed to the pain of an individual defeat.

But even if Nebraska fans have become (somewhat) accustomed to losses, there are still a number of games on the schedule that could ruin Nebraska’s 2015 season. Here they are, and why those individual losses would be so catastrophic.

South Alabama or Southern Mississippi

No, we’re not going to list every game on Nebraska’s schedule, even though some fans would consider any loss disastrous. But if Nebraska would drop a game to one of its two paycheck opponents, it would color the rest of the 2015 season. Even a 9-3 or 10-2 final result would be tainted with a “yes, but” from a loss to a clearly inferior opponent.

It’s not unprecedented. In 2013, Oregon State got beat at home in a season opener by Eastern Washington. And in 2011, the Beavers dropped their season opener at home to Sacramento State. So Riley’s teams certainly have a history of shocking losses to sub-par opposition.

Let’s be clear. It is unlikely in the extreme that Nebraska will drop either of these games. But it was unlikely that McNeese State would outplay Nebraska last year in Memorial Stadium, as well. And if the worst does befall Nebraska against either of these opponents, it will be the story of the 2015 season.

BYU

There’s an argument to be made that the BYU season opener isn’t as critical for Nebraska as some other games on the schedule. It’s a non-conference game, and unless Nebraska is going to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, how NU does in conference is the only real gauge of success.

But let’s face it. Nebraska is starting a season with a new head coach, after firing a guy who never won fewer than nine games in seven years. Yes, Riley is a great guy whom just about everyone loves. But if Nebraska opens the season 0-1 – especially if the loss is ugly, which is not impossible to imagine given that NU is breaking in a new offense and a new defense – then the good feelings of this offseason could evaporate quickly.

Miami

I hesitated to include this game, as there’s only one real scenario where a loss to Miami could ruin Nebraska’s season. If Nebraska ends the non-conference season 3-1 with a loss to the Hurricanes, then there will be very few complaints.

But if Nebraska drops the opener to BYU, and then loses to Miami, Nebraska will (with all due respect to the Jaguars and Golden Eagles) be 2-2 starting conference play. Losing one non-conference game will likely be accepted by most of the Nebraska fanbase. But losing two of its first three games could throw a fanbase into a panic.

Minnesota

The Minnesota Golden Gophers have a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In football. Raise your hand if you thought that sentence would ever be written.

You, in the back. Put your hand down, you liar.

Minnesota under Jerry Kill, though, was almost like a laboratory experiment designed to beat Nebraska even though it was thoroughly out-manned in talent. According to Dave Bartoo’s College Football Matrix, in 2014 Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24, while Minnesota’s was 64. With that big of a disparity, a two-game winning streak for Minnesota is an amazing accomplishment. And a remarkable failure on Nebraska’s part.

With a smash-mouth running attack, Kill’s Gophers were perfectly suited to attack former head coach Bo Pelini’s defense that focused primarily on stopping the pass and would drop an eighth defender into the box only reluctantly. Combine that with smart and disciplined play, along with NFL-level talent (running back David Cobb, tight end Maxx Williams, and defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman), and you have the recipe for a winning streak.

Under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska will likely play more three-linebacker sets with a safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage, offering an eight-man (or even nine-man) front against the run. Instead of meeting strength with weakness, the Blackshirts should go into this matchup against Minnesota meeting strength on strength.

So this is a game that Nebraska should win, regardless of the Gophers’ two-game win streak. That means a loss to Minnesota, in conference and in division, would seriously threaten Nebraska’s goal of a return trip to Indianapolis in December.

Wisconsin

Admit it, Husker fan. You want this one. You want it more than any other game on the schedule.

You remember the feeling of being up 17-3 (!) in the second quarter last year, in Camp Randall. You remember thinking that this might, finally, be the metaphorical corner for Nebraska to turn.

And then you saw a corner turn, all right. A whole bunch of corners, actually, turned by Melvin Gordon on the way to rushing for 408 yards against the Blackshirts. Gordon shattered the previous NCAA record for rushing yards in a game (in three quarters, and on only 25 carries) and led Wisconsin to a 59-24 demolition of Nebraska, likely securing Pelini’s dismissal at the end of the season.

Nebraska may end up an underdog to Wisconsin, even at home. A loss to Wisconsin may not derail any of Nebraska’s reasonable expectations in Riley’s first year.

But a loss to Wisconsin means you, Husker fan, have to deal with Bucky owning you for another year.

(On the plus side, though, a loss to Wisconsin would mean this ridiculous thing won’t be cluttering up the trophy cabinet in Memorial Stadium. Seriously, it looks like someone is trying to make a giant sailboat out of the two stadium facades.)

Iowa

I know, I know. Nebraska fans really don’t take Iowa seriously as a rival. If Nebraska has to have an in-division rival, most Nebraska fans would pick Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes aren’t that big of a deal to most Nebraska fans.

But Iowa fans don’t feel that way about Nebraska. Doubt me? Check out here, here, here, and here.

There’s one of two things that could happen on the day after Thanksgiving. Either Nebraska could be on the verge of a division title, with a loss to Iowa preventing that return trip to Indianapolis. Or, Nebraska could be out of contention for the division, and a loss to the Hawkeyes in Memorial Stadium would end a disappointing season on a sour note.

Either way, ending the regular season by watching Nebraska’s black-and-gold neighbors charge across the field as time expires to grab the Heroes Game trophy and parade it back to Iowa City in triumph will leave a lasting impression on the Nebraska fanbase throughout the offseason. That’s not the way Riley wants to see his first season in charge end.

Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2015 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: Five Toughest Quarterbacks Cornhuskers Will Face in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the quarterback is the most important part of an offense, so the teams with the best quarterbacks will be the hardest to beat. Next season, Nebraska will face a number of talented signal-callers as new head coach Mike Riley learns the ropes of his position.

Here are the five quarterbacks Nebraska is likely to have the most trouble with next season.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

No. 5: Mitch Leidner, Minnesota

It seems odd to think of a quarterback from the offensively-challenged Gophers to make this list. But Leidner led Minnesota into Lincoln last year and beat Nebraska, so NU fans should think twice before dismissing his ability.

Leidner’s statistics aren’t jaw-dropping (51.5 percent completion rate, 11/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2014). But in Jerry Kill’s smash-mouth offense the quarterback does not need to be the primary weapon. Instead, the quarterback merely directs the offense and makes plays when necessary.

Which is exactly what Leidner did last year against Nebraska, going 8-of-17 for 135 yards through the air, and carrying the ball 22 times for 111 yards on the ground. If Leidner is able to match those numbers against Nebraska this year, NU will struggle to avoid a third straight defeat.

No. 4: Wes Lunt, Illinois

Injuries derailed Lunt’s 2014 season at Illinois after transferring from Oklahoma State. Even in the eight games he played last year, though, Lunt amassed a 63.5 percent completion rate and a 14/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are enough to make any defensive coordinator nervous.

Although Illinois’ weapons are certainly limited, a healthy Lunt will be able to get the best out of them, and provide a challenge for Nebraska’s new-look defense.

No. 3: Taysom Hill, BYU

Much like Illinois’ Lunt, injuries robbed Hill of what could have been a darkhorse Heisman candidacy last year. Hill’s primary threat is with his legs, having rushed for 463 yards on 86 carries and scoring 8 touchdowns in only seven games last year.

But Hill is also effective as a passer, with a 66.7 completion rate and a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Hill’s dual-threat skill set represents a huge challenge for opposing defenses, and the fact that he is the first quarterback Nebraska will face under Riley’s leadership makes him all the more dangerous.

No. 2: Brad Kaaya, Miami

It’s not like Kaaya had a bad game against Nebraska last year. As a true freshman in a hostile atmosphere, Kaaya went 28-of-42 for 359 yards passing and three touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions, and that in combination with Miami’s inability to stop Ameer Abdullah helped Nebraska to a ten-point victory.

But in 2015, the game will be in Miami. Abdullah will not be wearing scarlet and cream, and Nebraska will be taking its first road trip under Riley. Kaaya will have a full year of experience under his belt, while Nebraska will be in only the third game learning a new defensive scheme. And Miami will be looking for payback after a chippy game in Lincoln last year.

No. 1: Connor Cook, Michigan State

Cook probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He’s not flashy or gaudy, and Michigan State is much more known for its defense than its offense.

But NFL scouts have their eyes on Cook. CBS Sports has Cook as the no. 1 quarterback prospect for 2016, and Walter Football projects Cook as the no. 6 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Between those lofty projections, and the salty defense he will have protecting him, Cook will provide Nebraska with the sternest challenge as a signal-caller in 2015.

Nebraska Football: Coach Mike Riley’s Biggest Challenges for Nebraska in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Mike Riley knew he had a big job on his hands when he took over as Nebraska’s head football coach. But now that spring practice is over, Riley will be focusing on the upcoming 2015 season. As we settle in for a long summer offseason, let’s take a look at three things that will be occupying Riley’s attention as he prepares for the upcoming campaign.

What the Quarterback Will Be

Notice the very specific phrasing of this challenge. It’s not who Nebraska’s quarterback will be—all evidence points to junior Tommy Armstrong, absent injury. The bigger question is what the role of quarterback will be in Nebraska’s new offense.

At Oregon State, Riley’s quarterbacks were pure pocket passers. Riley’s most recent signal-caller, Sean Mannion, left Corvallis as the Pac-12’s career passing leader and was a third-round pick by the St. Louis Rams in this year’s NFL Draft.

If that’s going to be what Riley is expecting, Armstrong is a bad fit. Mannion had a career 64.6 completion percentage and a 1.43 touchdown-to-interception ratio (according to Sports Reference), while Armstrong has a career 52.9 completion percentage (according to Huskers.com).

But Riley might be changing his expectations of his quarterback. His first quarterback recruit for 2016 (according to 247 Sports) is Terry Wilson, a dual-threat quarterback. Why would Riley be bringing in a dual-threat quarterback if he wanted to move Nebraska into a pocket-passer style of offense?

It’s clear that Tommy Armstrong will not be Riley’s Joe Dailey, a run-first quarterback asked to run a pass-heavy offensive scheme. But trying to find that balance between the offense Riley has run with the talent in Lincoln will be one of Riley’s biggest challenges this season.

How Nebraska Adapts To A New Defense

Nebraska’s defense will look quite different under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker. As described by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Banker’s Blackshirts will think less, react more, and play fast. That’s in stark contrast to former head coach Bo Pelini’s focus on complex schemes and blitzes to keep opposing oCffenses off-balance and look for advantages in matchups.

It sounds great, a very exciting style to watch. But it will also mean that Nebraska will have to win more battles athletically, as opposed to a reliance on scheme to make up the gap against a more talented opposing offense. And a team playing fast is also vulnerable to misdirections, counters, and other offensive schemes designed to use a defense’s speed and aggression against it.

Particularly in year one of Banker’s new defense, Nebraska could be face with growing pains as it learns how to play defense fast and simple. That could result in some ugly plays—which could lead to ugly losses if not managed properly.

September

“Wake me up when September ends.”

– Green Day

Say what you will about Pelini and the way he left, but he consistently won nine games. He never had his Callahan moment of a losing season and missing out on a bowl game. Yes, he never won the big prize, but he never guided Nebraska onto the reef like coaches past had done.

Some still question the hiring of Riley, whose career record of 93-80 in college may not inspire confidence in his ability to lead Nebraska to compete with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Of course, as a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Riley’s record in Corvallis was far more impressive than the .538 winning percentage, given the limitations at Oregon State.

But there will still be some skepticism about Riley’s ability to win at Nebraska. And his first three games present a stern challenge. A home opener against BYU and dark-horse Heisman candidate in quarterback Taysom Hill could easily see Nebraska start off 0-1. And after a paycheck game against South Alabama, Nebraska has to make a trip to South Beach to play a very talented Miami squad.

Yes, on paper Nebraska should probably be favored to win both games. But given that Nebraska is also installing a whole new offense and whole new defense, it’s not at all implausible to imagine Nebraska losing to both BYU and Miami.

And a 1-2 start to his tenure could easily to poison the well for Riley with the Nebraska faithful, particularly if NU struggles in the rest of the season and limps to a poor (dare I say) Callahan-like record in 2015.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. If Nebraska beats BYU and knocks of Miami on national television, Nebraska could find itself vaulted into the spotlight with a feel-good story of Riley’s success.

So while Riley should be afforded time to put his stamp on the program, the fact remains that the first three games of his career in Lincoln have the potential to define how he is viewed by the Nebraska faithful and the college football world as a whole.