Nebraska Football: Four Equations To Explain Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season and Beyond

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“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

– Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who

Nebraska ended the 2016 season with a very familiar 9-4 record after a 38-24 drubbing in the Music City Bowl by Tennessee. After getting teased by an overtime loss in Camp Randall against Wisconsin, Nebraska fell apart and lost ugly against the best remaining teams on its schedule.

So how should Nebraska fans feel about where NU is in year two of Mike Riley’s tenure in Lincoln? Here’s four equations (because, let’s face it, what describes football better than a mathematical formula) that help inform how to think about where Nebraska is now, and where it will be going forward.

9-4 > 6-7

Yeah, the end of the 2016 wasn’t really fun, was it, Husker Fan? After a narrow loss to Wisconsin, many pundits (including this dope) thought Nebraska was ready for prime time against Ohio State.

Whoops. The Buckeyes’ 62-3 humiliation of Nebraska started NU down a slippery slope from which it could never really recover, and ugly losses to Iowa (still think it’s not a rivalry, Husker Fan?) and Tennessee made the fanbase truly question the direction of the program.

That’s probably a good thing in terms of demonstrating a fanbase unwilling to accept poor results. But everyone upset about 9-4 should really remember where NU was a year ago, at 3-6 after losing to Purdue and in danger of a truly ugly campaign.

So there’s plenty to be upset, or at least disappointed, about for Nebraska in 2016. But it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that a return to the four-loss valley is still a significant improvement from last year.

Four losses = four losses

At the start of the 2016 campaign, I was still wrestling with a question raised by @CountIstvan, who criticized the Riley hire by expressing frustration that a four-loss season in year three – basically getting Nebraska back to the Bo Pelini level – would be viewed as acceptable. As a result, he argued, firing Pelini and hiring a guy who needed three years to get to Pelini’s level of production was a waste of time.

I argued then, as I do now, that a combination of an improved culture and better recruiting means Nebraska could be seen as moving forward even if the results in wins and losses didn’t show up yet.

But no one who follows Nebraska can honestly say that the fallout from 2016 doesn’t feel a whole lot like the fallout from 2013, or 2012, or pretty much every Pelini season. Following a Nebraska team that wins the games it probably should, but gets embarrassed on a national stage.

To be fair, the response of the Nebraska faithful has made it pretty clear that where NU is right now isn’t acceptable. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst has said just as much (in an interview with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star) in terms of both winning percentage and talent level – that where Nebraska is right now isn’t good enough.

50.3 < 62.5

It’s simplistic and reductive to say that there is one thing that is the reason why Nebraska struggled in 2016. If you were looking for one candidate, you very well could argue an inability to be competitive on the offensive line.

But after watching the 2016 season unfold, I’m convinced a big part of the story can be told in the completion percentage number. Nebraska’s season completion percentage in 2016 was 50.3 percent. In comparison, the completion percentage of B1G West champion Wisconsin was 62.5 percent.

I think it’s a fair comparison. Wisconsin was far from a prolific passing offense. But completing passes at that rate allows an offense to be efficient and stay on the field, giving its team a chance to succeed.

Nebraska’s completion percentage in 2016 was simply not good enough for NU to be competitive. Starting next year, it is a virtual certainty that the percentage number will increase significantly. It doesn’t guarantee success, of course. But at least it should give Nebraska a fighting chance.

33 > 44

(Yes, I know that thirty-three is actually less than forty-four. Just go with me for a minute.)

So if we put Wisconsin as Nebraska’s target for winning the B1G West, then it’s not at all unreasonable to look at where the two schools are at in recruiting. Even after a disastrous Army All-American weekend that saw Nebraska net zero commits, NU still sits at no. 33 nationally (according to 247 Sports). Wisconsin, by comparison, sits at no. 44.

Now, to be clear, no. 33 isn’t good enough. Nebraska has 5-7 slots available, and has to close the deal on some of the highly-touted recruits it is targeting if it wants to get back to national prominence. But the first step in that road to recovery is to win the B1G West, and that means out-recruiting (and ultimately outplaying) your divisional rivals.

Wisconsin is the king of the hill at this point. Iowa is coming off a 12-0 season last year. Northwestern will always over-achieve so long as Pat Fitzgerald is coaching in Evanston. Purdue and Minnesota just hired exciting and innovative coaches. So it’s important that Nebraska is able to put enough talent on the field to win – as Eichorst said when firing Pelini – the “games that matter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All stats courtesy cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 48-25 Win Over Minnesota

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Nebraska got its first conference win of 2015 with an emphatic 48-25 win over Minnesota in Minneapolis. Breaking a two-game losing streak to the Gophers, Nebraska nearly hung a fifty-burger on a team whose defense had not allowed more than 27 all season. The win gets Nebraska to 3-4 overall and 1-2 in B1G play. So, for Nebraska fans …

The Good

Getting The Bounces. Sure, you make your own luck. But this time, the ball started bouncing Nebraska’s way. The best example was at the end of the first quarter, with Nebraska up 14-7. Nebraska faced a third-and-four, and fullback Andy Janovich fumbled the ball. Given the way Nebraska’s fortunes had been going, this would have been an opportunity for Minnesota to get the turnover, score on the short field, and put more pressure on the snakebit Cornhuskers.

But this time, the ball bounced right back into Janovich’s arms, allowing Nebraska to not only retain possession but fall forward for the first down. Finally, it seemed, the worm had turned in Nebraska’s favor.

Tommy’s Back. There’s plenty of stats to chew on in understanding the difference between a heartbreaking loss (or three) and a comfortable win. But take a look at Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers:

Opponent Completions Attempts Completion %
BYU 24 41 58.5
South Alabama 26 38 68.4
Miami 21 45 46.7
Southern Miss 23 35 65.7
Illinois 10 31 32.3
Wisconsin 11 28 39.3
Minnesota 18 26 69.2

Games won are in bold.

There’s a couple of interesting things to observe here. First, Armstrong’s passing attempts have been consistently decreasing, likely an adaptation of head coach Mike Riley and offense coordinator Danny Langsdorf to Armstrong’s skill set.

Second, and more interestingly, is how completion percentage correlates to success. When Armstrong is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, Nebraska wins. Less than 60 percent for Armstrong, and Nebraska loses. Correlation isn’t causation, but at this point it’s fair to say that Nebraska’s is keyed on Armstrong being accurate with the football.

The Courage Of Your Convictions. Here we go again. Against Illinois with a critical third down to ice the game, Nebraska put Armstrong on a roll-out. He threw an incompletion, and gave Illinois enough time to win the game.

Against Wisconsin (as observed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), the ghost of that play haunted Nebraska. With another critical third-down conversion, Nebraska ran three times straight into the teeth of an eleven-man Wisconsin front, giving the Badgers possession and time to win the game.

So once again, Nebraska was facing a crucial third down, this time needing six yards from its own 42 with 5:42 left in the game. Minnesota had cut Nebraska’s lead to 38-25, and the ghosts of collapses past were haunting the Nebraska fanbase. The reaction of fans on social media could be fairly summarized as follows:

Dear Coach Riley:

Run. The. Ball.

Sincerely, Twitter.

Instead, Armstrong dropped back and completed a 27-yard pass to Jordan Westerkamp, getting a first down and keeping the drive alive. Nebraska would eventually kick a field goal, stretching its lead to 41-25, and leaving Minnesota only 3:03 left for a two score comeback.

While fans’ reaction to the pass call was mainly NONONONONOYESSSSSSSSSSS, Riley should be commended for having the guts to make the pass call. Against Wisconsin, the decision to run up the middle was coaching not to lose. Against Minnesota, even with all the heat he would have caught had it not worked out, Riley trusted his offense and his quarterback – and was rewarded for his courage.

The Bad

No Hiding. We’ve talked before about how Nebraska’s struggles in the secondary came in no small part from a lack of a pass rush. Well, that wasn’t the case against Minnesota. Both with a four-man rush and with a blitz, Nebraska heated up and harassed Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner for most of the game.

Leidner – who came into the game completing 57.8 percent of his passes – went 26-40 for 301 yards passing. Minnesota’s previous best game passing this season was 264 yards – against Ohio.

Numbers can, indeed, lie. But there’s no escaping the conclusions from both the statistics and from watching the games. Nebraska’s secondary is a huge liability, one that was overcome against Minnesota. But absent a massive improvement going forward – which is not reasonable to assume being seven games into the season – then Nebraska will struggle throughout the 2015 season.

A Work In Progress. The return of De’Mornay Pierson-El is without question a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense. His first punt return, a 42-yarder, reminded Nebraska fans of just how dangerous he can be. His tip-drill touchdown reception to help win the game for Nebraska is a glimpse of what the offense will look like with him as a participant.

But he’s not the complete package yet. Twice, he let fieldable punts hit the ground, allowing Minnesota to stick Nebraska with horrific field position. Whether it’s a combination of rust and skittishness from his muffed punt against Illinois last week, Pierson-El has to make better decisions in terms of fielding punts deep in his own territory.

Helping The Enemy. Let’s start with the obvious – beating Minnesota was a very good thing for Nebraska. But it may have the inadvertent effect of putting the B1G West out of reach.

Iowa is 3-0 in conference play, in comparison to Nebraska’s 1-2. The Hawkeyes’ remaining schedule is Maryland, at Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, and at Nebraska. Given what Iowa has left, it is entirely possible – even likely at this point – that Iowa will be undefeated coming into Black Friday against Nebraska.

With a two-game lead and a soft schedule, Nebraska’s defeat of Minnesota may have gone a long way in guaranteeing Iowa a trip to Indianapolis.

And The REAL B1G Trophy

You all know what a big deal it was for Nebraska to get off the schneid and save its 2015 season. So let’s take this time to focus on what’s really cool about this game.

When Nebraska came into the B1G in 2011, its game with Iowa was anointed the “Heroes Game” with an associated focus-group-approved Heroes Trophy. Last year, for reasons known to absolutely no one, the Nebraska-Wisconsin game was saddled with the ridiculous sailboat-like Freedom Trophy. Neither of these trophies have any of the personality or charm of trophies like Floyd of Rosedale or the Old Oaken Bucket.

No more. Nebraska and Minnesota are now playing for the Bits of Broken Chair Trophy. The idea was born on Twitter between Minnesota’s mascot, Goldie, and Nebraska’s favorite parody coach account, @FauxPelini.

But, you say, that can’t be a real thing, can it? Well …

Welcome to the B1G, Nebraska. Finally.

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: New Defense Should Help Huskers Against Big Ten Rivals

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Nebraska football fans are well aware – painfully aware – of NU’s struggles against its division rivals since entering the B1G. When you look at the statistics from that era, though, the reason for those struggles becomes apparent.

Specifically, we’re going to be looking at Nebraska’s rushing defense against the three teams now in the B1G West that are built to be power rushing attacks. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa are all built to primarily run the ball right at you, as opposed to the spread-based concepts from the Big XII where teams on offense tried to create space by spreading receivers all over the field.

Here’s how Bo Pelini’s Blackshirts did against the run when facing these road-graders:

Year Opponent Rushing Yards Allowed
2012 Wisconsin (regular season) 56
2012 Minnesota 87
2012 Iowa 108
2012 Wisconsin (B1G championship) 539
2013 Minnesota 271
2013 Iowa 155
2014 Wisconsin 581
2014 Minnesota 281
2014 Iowa 142

So, what do these numbers tell us about Nebraska’s defense at the end of Pelini’s reign?

It hadn’t been bad for that long

September of 2012 wasn’t that long ago, when the Blackshirts bottled up Montee Ball and held the Badgers to 56 total rushing yards en route to a victory in Memorial Stadium. It was after that game where Pelini infamously told the assembled post-game media (according to Huskers.com) that “[c]ontrary to what you guys think, I haven’t forgotten how to coach defense and how to stop the run.”

As we know, karma catches up with Pelini about two months later, in exactly the way that the Blackshirts couldn’t catch Melvin Gordon.

But it wasn’t until that fateful matchup in Indianapolis where Nebraska’s weakness against the run was exposed. Minnesota utilized that to great effect, rushing for nearly 300 yards in each of its two upset victories over Nebraska. And Wisconsin didn’t forget how to turn the corner on the Blackshirts either, embarrassing Nebraska in Madison.

Iowa wasn’t really on the same level

Yes, Iowa plays smash-mouth football too. Fer cryin’ out loud, the Hawkeyes trotted out a glorified fullback in Mark Weisman as their feature tailback for two years in a row. And yes, Iowa has played Nebraska close three straight years, winning once and arguably deserving a second win last season.

But the numbers don’t support the premise that Iowa has run over Nebraska the way Wisconsin and Minnesota have since December of 2012. While Nebraska’s struggles to retain the Heroes Game trophy are real, they aren’t the same as against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

So why should things be different?

Scheme is everything. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker runs a quarters-based defense, where three linebackers stay on the field almost all the time, and the safeties are tasked with run-stopping duties. While there will be a lot of cover-two concepts, expect to see at least one safety in the box against run-heavy teams.

Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity did a much more detailed breakdown of Banker’s defensive scheme here, which you should read if you want more information.

In comparison, Pelini’s defensive schemes relied on keeping two safeties high (meaning deep and away from the line of scrimmage) to avoid being beaten by the deep pass. While effective in that regard, it also forced the defensive into a one-on-one situation against offensive blockers. If one defender was out of position or lost a battle, there was a Melvin Gordon-sized hole for an opposing ball carrier to barrel through.

Additionally, Pelini loved his hybrid guys, players who were a little too big to play safety and a little too small to play linebacker. He had great success with guys like DeJon Gomes, and tried to force Nate Gerry into that role as a freshman. Banker relies less on hybrids and more on true linebackers, falling back on the quarters scheme to provide support for the run and the pass.

So how did it work out? Well, Banker was defensive coordinator with Mike Riley at Oregon State from 2003-2014. There’s not a ton of smash-mouth teams in the Pac-12, but Stanford certainly qualifies. Let’s take a look at how Oregon State’s defense stood up against Stanford in comparison to its yards-per-game rushing average.

Year Rushing Yards Allowed Stanford’s Yearly Avg. Differential
2012 163 175 -12
2013 185 208 -23
2014 151 172 -21

In each of the last three contests, Oregon State held Stanford – the closest thing the Pac-12 has to a smash-mouth program – to under its yearly rushing average. And remember, this is an Oregon State squad that has significantly less talent than Stanford.

So given those results, it’s not unfair to expect that Nebraska should fare far better against its smash-mouth divisional brethren. This should make for far more competitive contests against Wisconsin, and should spell the end of Minnesota’s hex over Nebraska.

As for Iowa, well, Nebraska’s struggles against the Hawkeyes may have as much to do with a tryptophan hangover as anything else.

All stats were either from cfbstats.com or the team’s official websites.

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.