Nebraska Football: 2019 Season Projection for the Cornhuskers

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

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

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

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

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

South Alabama (home, August 31)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 55, South Alabama 17

Colorado (away, September 07)

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

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Colorado 24

Northern Illinois (home, September 14)

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

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 20

Illinois (away, September 21)

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

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Illinois 23

Ohio State (home, September 28)

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

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

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 28, Nebraska 24

Northwestern (home, October 05)

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

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Northwestern 31

Minnesota (away, October 11)

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

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17

Indiana (home, October 26)

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

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

Preview data from Corn Nation.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Indiana 21

Purdue (away, November 02)

Quick, name the last game that Mike Riley won!

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

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

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 41

Wisconsin (home, November 16)

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

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 35

Maryland (away, November 23)

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

Now that’s a trap game.

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Maryland 27, Nebraska 24

Iowa (home, November 29)

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

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Iowa 28

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

GBR, baby.

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An Essay on Moral Victories: NU ReView, Ohio State 36, Nebraska 31

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At the start of the season, Nebraska fans had chalked up the Ohio State game as an ugly loss and were looking at games around it on the schedule. A drubbing at Michigan, in what head coach Scott Frost called the bottom of the program’s descent, seemed to reinforce that expectation.

But that’s not what we got. Nebraska went toe-for-toe against Ohio State for four quarters, leading at halftime, before falling to the Buckeyes 36-31. So as we look back on Nebraska’s unexpectedly game showing in Columbus …

THE GOOD

A Glimpse of the Future. There were times when freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez looked like the eighteen-year-old true freshman he is, staring up at the big lights of Ohio Stadium. But there were plenty of times where Martinez looked like a true playmaker – the second coming of Russell Wilson, plus about three inches and twenty pounds, I’m telling ya – and should fill Husker hearts with hope.

Martinez ended the game 22-for-32 in the air for 266 yards and a touchdown, adding in 107 yards on 20 carries with two red-zone touchdowns.

But what might have been most impressive is his resilience. After a truly cringe-worthy decision that denied Nebraska a scoring opportunity in the red zone, there was every opportunity for him to respond like a freshman and melt. He didn’t. He responded with calm and poise, continuing to lead Nebraska on its upset bit.

More than the gaudy stats and flashy moves, that kind of maturity and resilience is what should make Nebraska fans excited to see Martinez’s growth in the future.

Blackshirt Resurgence. The statistics weren’t exactly glittering. But given how Nebraska’s defense has struggled recently, there were clear signs of life in the Blackshirts. While Ohio State’s running game was able to get on track – which isn’t a huge surprise, given the talent on the Buckeyes’ offensive line and in their backfield, combined with a bye week to prepare – Nebraska was still able to hold Ohio State’s offense under 500 yards.

Throwing the ball, Heisman candidate Dwayne Haskins only completed fifty percent of his passes, was intercepted once, and was sacked once. Nebraska turned Ohio State over three times, and scored 14 points off of those turnovers.

Heck, Nebraska even made Ohio State punt. Three times!

Kickoff Coverage. Yeah, in general the special teams was still atrocious. Poor Caleb Lightborne now has a second meme-worthy GIF to be remembered (and not in a good way) for the 2018 season. Ohio State had three kickoff return opportunities against Nebraska, and only got an average of 9.3 yards per return.

Yes, that’s baby steps. But given what a tire fire Nebraska’s special teams in general has been, finding an improvement in any area is an accomplishment.

THE BAD

Missed Opportunities. Yeah, it was fun to see a competitive game against Ohio State in the fourth quarter. But it was oh, so close, to being something more than that. Say Stanley Morgan gets an extra half yard in the fourth quarter to keep a drive alive. Say JD Spielman comes up with that catch, which in almost all certainty would have been a long touchdown. Say Martinez doesn’t have his freshman moment and eats the ball, allowing Nebraska to kick a field goal and keep the score closer.

It’s a true state of the program to recognize that being disappointed at a five-point loss is in some ways a good feeling. But it was just a couple of plays away from being much, much more.

Still a Freshman. Martinez continues to amaze, but he’s far from perfect. The backward-pass turnover to Spielman that killed a scoring drive was the clearest example of a kid who can still let the moment become too big for him. But it wasn’t Martinez’s only mistake. There were throws he missed and running lanes he could have taken to improve his performance and Nebraska’s chance to win.

To his credit, he said as much in the post-game press conference, talking about his mistakes and what he needed to improve. That level of maturity is what makes it difficult to remember how young and inexperienced Martinez is leading a big-time college football program. So when those freshman mistakes happen, keep that in mind.

Special Teams. OK, fine, the kickoff coverage was good. That pretty much covers the good stuff. The blocked punt (which punter Isaac Armstrong could have done nothing to avoid) not only got the Buckeyes on the board, it got the crowd into the game after Nebraska had scored and stopped Ohio State on a fourth down conversion.

And that was after Lightborne’s moment of madness when he almost entirely missed the ball on a snap onside kick, ending up handing Ohio State amazing field position.

Both of those plays served to help kick start Ohio State, a team that was reeling after an ugly loss to Purdue. Had those plays not happened – or, had Nebraska pulled off the onside kick, which looked like it had a real shot if the kick was executed properly – then Nebraska could have held onto the early momentum and taken advantage of what looks to be a fragile Ohio State confidence.

AND THE MORAL VICTORY

I know what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say that there’s no such thing as moral victories. You’re supposed to say that a loss is a loss and anything less than a victory can’t ever be accepted.

I get it. And for a coach and a player, that’s absolutely the right thing to say. Being satisfied with coming close is a recipe for mediocrity. In a game of such fine margins, having anything less than intolerance for defeat is a fatal flaw.

But I’m going to guess that most of you reading this aren’t coaches or players. You’re just fans, watching from the outside, trying to figure out the status of this program to which you have hitched your emotions.

So as one of those interested outside observers, let’s be honest with each other. Saturday’s performance in Columbus was a moral victory.

Sure, this isn’t a vintage Ohio State team. Sure, the Buckeyes made tons of mistakes that helped Nebraska stay in the game.

But it’s not like Nebraska didn’t make its own mistakes as well. A strong case can be made that Nebraska could have – maybe even should have – won this game had it played cleaner and sharper.

And therein lies the difference. After Saturday’s game, more than anything I found myself disappointed after Nebraska’s five-point loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus, with a nagging feeling of a missed opportunity.

That’s … a much better feeling than most Nebraska fans expected to have. Sherman, set the WayBack machine for October 14, 2017. Ohio State was coming to Lincoln, and there wasn’t a Nebraska fan who thought NU could stay within three touchdowns of the Buckeyes. They weren’t wrong, as Nebraska was outclassed in the contest, 56-14.

Now, let’s set the WayBack Machine to November 05, 2016. Nebraska was 7-1, rated no. 10 in the nation and getting votes in the College Football Playoff poll.

(Yes, Virginia, it was only two years ago that Nebraska was a top-10 team)

As Nebraska fans had seen countless times before against top-tier opponents in a marquee matchup, Nebraska melted in the spotlight. The final score was 62-3, and somehow that score doesn’t convey how thoroughly Nebraska was handled by Ohio State.

With Frost’s arrival, Nebraska fans thought that the days of those embarrassing losses were behind them. Then Nebraska traveled to Ann Arbor and were humbled by Michigan, 56-10. After the game, Frost said that it was the low point of his program, and many observers and fans cynically replied by thinking “wait until you go to Columbus.”

Well, look what happened. Nebraska played a four-quarter contest against Ohio State in the Horseshoe. Nebraska faced off against an opponent with elite talent and stood toe-to-toe with a chance to win. Nebraska fans – and players – now have that image in their memory banks, which they can draw on for confidence.

That’s the moral victory. The narrative of Nebraska’s humiliation against college football’s royalty is – for now – rewritten. The opportunity is there for Nebraska now to redefine itself and establish a foothold on the national stage.

I know November 04, 2016, seems like a million years ago. But it is now two years to the date of the writing of this column since Nebraska was a top-10 team getting votes in the College Football Playoff poll. A lot can change in a short period of time in college football – Frost and his coaching staff are banking on that in 2019.

GBR, baby.

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

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Finally.

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

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

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

3×100

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

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

25-6

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

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

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

81.32

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

1

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

10,000

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

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

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

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

(Image above is from the Broken Chair GoFundMe page)

54-21

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

8/12

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

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

1

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

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

0

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

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Predictions for the Cornhuskers’ 2018 Season

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

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

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

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

Akron, Sept. 1

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

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Akron 17

Colorado, Sept. 9

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

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

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Colorado 31

Troy, Sept. 15

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TRAP GAME WARNING!

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

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

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

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

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Troy 27

At Michigan, Sept. 22

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

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

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Michigan 38, Nebraska 24

Purdue, Sept. 29

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 53, Purdue 38

At Wisconsin, Oct. 6

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

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

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 24

At Northwestern, Oct. 13

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

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 40, Northwestern 21

Minnesota, Oct. 20

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

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

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

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 47, Minnesota 17

At Ohio State, Nov. 3

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

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

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

Won’t Win

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

Illinois, Nov. 10

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

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

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 55, Illinois 28

Michigan State, Nov. 17

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

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Michigan State 31, Nebraska 28

At Iowa, Nov. 23

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

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

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

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Iowa 28, Nebraska 24

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: Making Sense of Riley’s Status as Husker Head Coach

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Where do we go from here now that all other children are growing-up?

And how do we spend our lives if there’s no-one to give us a hand?

– Games People Play, The Alan Parsons Project

It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it? Nebraska came into 2017 as a huge unknown, and has to this point been a borderline-disaster. Ugly defensive performances early against Arkansas State and Oregon, pick-six interception after pick-six interception, Nebraska’s worst loss in over a decade, and capitulation against the measuring sticks of the conference have hit Nebraska fans like a train wreck.

Nebraska’s seen the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst and the hiring of replacement Bill Moos from Washington State. And, most importantly, it’s seen head coach Mike Riley’s job seriously called into question seven games into the third year of his tenure.

So what do we make of all this?

Ohio State was never going to define Riley’s tenure

Yeah, last week wasn’t pretty. Sure, Nebraska’s 56-14 loss to Ohio State in Memorial Stadium was better than last year’s 62-3 debacle. But if anything, the 56-14 score was flattering … to Nebraska. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst put it on Twitter:

So if you’re judging Nebraska against Ohio State, then clearly last week wasn’t good enough. But, realistically, Nebraska was never expected to compete against the Buckeyes. If Moos has not made his mind up about Riley yet (a position which is clearly not universally shared), then Ohio State wasn’t going to be the measuring stick against which Riley’s performance would be judged.

Nebraska’s next five games are at Purdue, home to Northwestern, at Minnesota, at Penn State, and home to Iowa. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages, Nebraska has better talent than every school on that list not named Penn State. So if you are judging Riley’s future based on the remainder of 2017, then winning four of the next five would seem to be the fairest test.

If Riley is still coaching for his job, Nebraska’s performance against Ohio State shouldn’t be what decides his fate. Instead, it should be how Nebraska performs against the winnable games left on its 2017 schedule.

Nebraska is worse now than when Riley arrived

Boy, that’s a rough subhead to write. But it’s hard to argue. Nebraska likely wasn’t as bad as its 6-7 mark in 2015, after being the victim of a number of ridiculous bad-luck losses. But it also likely wasn’t as good as last year’s 9-4 mark, benefitting from a number of fortunate victories.

This year? Nebraska’s earned every bit of its 3-4 mark. It was a last-minute drive by Arkansas State away from sitting at 2-5 with losses to a Sun Belt and a MAC school.

Riley’s defenders would point out, fairly, that Nebraska is installing an entirely new defense and functionally a new offense given the change at quarterback. Nebraska’s struggles this season were in some way inevitable as a result.

That’s a big ask, wanting functionally a “reset” year-zero year at a program like Nebraska. This is Riley’s third year in Lincoln, and it’s fair for him to expect a little more time to get his players and install his system.

But in his tenure, Nebraska has three indefensible losses (2015 Illinois, 2015 Purdue, and 2017 Northern Illinois). And Nebraska now has the kind of blowout losses (2016 Ohio State, 2016 Tennessee, 2017 Wisconsin, 2017 Ohio State) that helped show Bo Pelini the door even with winning nine games consistently.

The stage is set for a coaching change

Moos’ arrival in October wasn’t good news for Riley. I don’t believe it’s a guarantee that Riley will be fired, which puts me at odds with many of the reporters covering Nebraska on a local and national level.

But if Riley is going to be fired, having a new athletic director in place makes that process work a lot better. If Moos decides that Riley has to go – whether that was on the plane ride to Lincoln, or at some point during the remainder of the season – then a sitting AD can start right away on the job search process. And if this year’s off-season coaching carousel might be competitive, having someone get a jump start on the process could be critical.

But there’s history that might suggest Riley could stay

The consensus seems to be that Riley is a dead coach walking. I know it feels that way after Wisconsin and Ohio State. And if Nebraska drops a game to Purdue or Minnesota, then it’s going to be a hard conclusion to avoid.

But remember how you felt after Northern Illinois. It seemed like there was no way Riley could continue. But two wins (over two pretty atrocious football teams) got Nebraska fans excited enough to generate an electric atmosphere in Lincoln when the Badgers came to town.

What do you think a three-game winning streak would do for the mood of the fanbase? How much better would things look after three straight wins?

Don’t forget, too, that Moos gave Mike Leach a fourth year at Washington State after winning three, six, and three games in his first three years. The scenarios are different, of course, but Moos at least has some history of taking his time when appropriate.

So what’s next?

I have no idea. I really like Riley as a person. I can see what he’s trying to do on offense. And I really like the direction Nebraska recruiting is heading.

But I don’t like the direction Nebraska’s product on the field has been heading. I don’t like some of the personnel decisions and game-management that have led Nebraska to its current overall record. And I really don’t like the sense of resignation seeping into the fan base. For the Ohio State game, secondary market tickets were available for less than $20. That’s an unsustainable level of faith in the program by its fans. It’s hard to imagine going into an offseason with this level of defeatism permeating the fanbase. That, by itself, would be a convincing argument for a coaching change.

Then there’s the native son, Scott Frost, waiting in the wings. Frost seems to be the next big thing in coaching, and it’s hard to imagine him saying no if Nebraska came calling. Frost would likely be able to unify a fan base that’s been fractured since the firing of Frank Solich in 2003 (although, don’t forget, Frost was booed by Nebraska fans after spurning NU to attend Stanford as a freshman).

And while you don’t want to make a decision from fear, can you imagine what Nebraska fans would be like if Moos stuck with Riley and Frost went to Tennessee? There would be an element of the fan base that would never stop comparing the two – and woe to Moos and Nebraska if Frost took off with the Volunteers.

Ultimately, I think it’s very unlikely that Riley is back for 2018, primarily because I don’t see this group of Cornhuskers being able to win all four games likely needed to save his job. So I am resigned to a coaching change, taking a hit on the recruiting class (which is far less important in the long run than it will seem at the time), and an off-season of uncertainty for Nebraska.

Nebraska Football: Prediction for the Cornhuskers’ 2017 Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas State (Sep. 2)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Arkansas State 17

at Oregon (Sep. 9)

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Oregon 27, Nebraska 20

Northern Illinois (Sep. 16)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 10

Rutgers (Sep. 23)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Rutgers 13

at Illinois (Sep. 29)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Illinois 9

Wisconsin (Oct. 7)

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

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Wisconsin 21

Ohio State (Oct. 14)

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

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 41, Nebraska 21

at Purdue (Oct. 28)

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

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 13

Northwestern (Nov. 4)

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 37, Northwestern 17

at Minnesota (Nov. 11)

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 21, Minnesota 13

at Penn State (Nov. 18)

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

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Penn State 45, Nebraska 31

Iowa (Nov. 24)

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

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 17

Season Summary

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

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

Nebraska Football: 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: 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: Best-Case Scenario for the 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are greeting the start of fall camp with optimism, as new head coach Mike Riley prepares for his first season in charge. Before a ball is snapped in anger, the possibilities for Nebraska’s 2015 season are limitless, and the winds of change that have blown through Lincoln are giving hope to all of the scarlet and cream faithful.

So let’s run with that optimism a little, and see what Nebraska’s season would look like if everything broke the right way. Here’s the big things that would need to happen for Nebraska’s 2015 season to sparkle, and what the end result might be.

Tommy Armstrong finds his groove

It’s not a big surprise to regular visitors to know that the two stats of focus for Tommy Armstrong here are his completion percentage and his touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year, here were Armstrong’s stats in Nebraska’s wins and losses in the regular season:

  Completion % TD-to-INT ratio
Wins 53.2 2.125 (17/8)
Losses 47.5 0.667 (2/3)

The numbers tell a pretty clear picture, especially the touchdown-to-interception ratio. Neither completion ratio is stellar, but a sub-.500 ratio is a recipe to lose games. The TD-to-INT ratio, though, is the real differential between the two numbers. It may be a small sample size, but Armstrong’s ratio difference between wins and losses says a lot about why those outcomes came about.

If Armstrong is able to post – or improve – his statistics throughout the season, Nebraska’s chances for a stellar season improve dramatically.

(In fairness, Nebraska’s loss in the bowl game to USC is a bit of an outlier, as Armstrong had a 62.7 completion ratio and a 3-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio.  But with the interim coach and all the upheaval from Bo Pelini’s dismissal, it’s hard to know what to make of that game. If Armstrong puts up his Holiday Bowl numbers this season, though, Nebraska should win the B1G West.)

The linebackers and offensive line click

While there are question marks for the whole team with a transition to a new head coach, the two biggest areas of concern are at linebacker and offensive line. At linebacker, Nebraska only returns one player (Josh Banderas) with any starting experience, and only two (Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey) with any starting experience at all.

It will be up to returning players Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby, along with incoming freshmen like Dedrick Young and Mohammed Barry, to make an impact at a critical position for the Blackshirts.

Similarly, Nebraska’s offensive line has only one player returning with significant starting experience in left tackle Alex Lewis. All four other offensive line positions have question marks, including the critical position of center.

It’s a little frightening to think that Nebraska is so unsettled at such critical positions. But if Nebraska is able to make things work right off the bat at both linebacker and offensive line, then the strengths NU has at other positions should shine through.

The season ends with a Playoff appearance

Scoff if you want, but Nebraska is set up – if everything clicks – to make college football’s final four. It would likely being 12-0 going into the B1G title game. That would mean wins over BYU and Miami in the non-conference, a daunting but not impossible task for a new head coach.

The conference schedule actually sets up well for Nebraska. The most difficult games – Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa – are all in Lincoln. The most challenging road game is at Minnesota, but the change in defensive scheme should make the Gophers a better matchup for Nebraska.

So let’s say Nebraska makes a perfect run through the regular season, likely matching up with the defending national champion Ohio State in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes would be a prohibitive favorite, and should be given the relative talent profiles of the two teams.

However, Ohio State wasn’t a dominant force last year. It’s easy to forget after the Buckeyes demolished Wisconsin in the B1G title game (with then-coach Gary Anderson leaving Madison days later) and steamrolled through the playoffs, of course.

But Ohio State also lost to an average Virginia Tech team. It also went to overtime against Penn State and struggled mightily with Minnesota. Nebraska might not be on a talent level with Ohio State, but it certainly is on a level with the teams that either beat or ran Ohio State very close in 2014. If those teams could play with the Buckeyes, there’s no reason a 12-0 Nebraska couldn’t rise up for one game.

Of course, this is a best-case scenario, with the new offense and defense clicking right away and the injury bug staying away from Lincoln. But if all those things happen, a surprise Playoff appearance isn’t an unachievable goal for Riley in year one.

Nebraska Football: Five Things Standing in The Way of a B1G Championship

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

For the most part, Nebraska football fans aren’t unrealistic. Honest. They don’t expect to see Nebraska winning national titles like in the late nineties. They do expect, however, to see Nebraska competing for conference titles, especially seeing other schools in similar situations (such as Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Oregon) able to do the same.

This year, new head coach Mike Riley will be trying to do what three coaches before him were unable to accomplish. So what’s standing between Nebraska and a conference crown? Here are five of the biggest hurdles.

Consistent Quarterback Play

If the website would permit it, I would have this headline in bright flashing neon with a klaxon alarm blaring in the background.

(Hey, webmasters, get on that, wouldya?)

Throughout the Bo Pelini era, nothing held Nebraska’s progression back more than its signal-caller. In 2009, Nebraska’s defense was historically good with a once-in-a-generation talent in Ndamukong Suh. But a near-absence at quarterback (an injured Zac Lee) and an additional one second in Dallas doomed Nebraska’s chances for a conference title.

Starting in 2010, the Taylor Martinez era began. For the next four years, Martinez’s dazzling athleticism covered his deficiencies as a signal-caller, placing a ceiling on Nebraska’s accomplishments. And last year, Tommy Armstrong’s toughness and leadership were not enough to overcome his 52-percent completion percentage and his 22/12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Combine that with the loss of Ameer Abdullah, who was arguably Nebraska’s best I-back since Ahman Green, and NU’s drought of conference titles since 1999 continued.

Riley has five scholarship quarterbacks to pick from in 2015. But there is no evidence—yet—to suggest that Nebraska fans can expect dramatic improvements from its signal-caller. If Riley can be the quarterback-whisperer and boost the performance of Armstrong (or whomever ends up winning the job), then Nebraska may finally have a shot at replenishing the trophy cabinet.

Mental Mistakes

If inconsistent quarterback play was the primary reason for Pelini’s teams to struggle, mental mistakes might have been a close second. Consider these stats for the Pelini era (courtesy CFBStats.com)

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

Ugly stuff. The numbers in bold italics represent the times (once in seven years for penalties, twice for turnover margin) when Nebraska was in the top half nationally. Or, put less delicately, when Nebraska wasn’t below average in two of the statistical categories most closely aligned with mental mistakes.

To win a conference title, Nebraska will be competing against schools with better talent. Until Nebraska can stop beating itself, there is no reasonable likelihood it can even hope to win at the levels necessary to win a conference title.

A Reliable Placekicker

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Nebraska has been blessed throughout its history with great placekickers. Last year was the first in some time that Nebraska’s placekicker could not be counted on to deliver in clutch situations.

It’s not that true freshman Drew Brown was horrible in 2014. Brown went 14-for-21 in field goals, for a respectable 66.7 percent. Overall, Nebraska was no. 80 nationally in field goal percentage, meaning it was slightly below average.

But as with mental mistakes, Nebraska’s talent deficiencies at the highest level mean that it must excel in other areas to win conference titles. And that means Nebraska must be able to count on putting points on the board, even from long distance, from its kicker.

Wisconsin

204-102. 1407-818.

What are those numbers? The aggregate final score and rushing totals of Nebraska’s four games against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten.

There’s no way to sugar-coat it for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU’s arrival in the B1G. Even with Nebraska’s victory over the Badgers in 2012, Wisconsin has utterly humiliated Nebraska’s defense on three separate occasions. There’s a good case to be made that the 581 rushing yards (!) that the Badgers hung on the Blackshirts in 2014 did as much to get Pelini fired as his legendary tirades.

And Nebraska can’t get to Indianapolis without going through Wisconsin. Yes, the Badgers come to Lincoln this year with a new coach and without Melvin Gordon. But unless Riley can do what Pelini could not and solve the Wisconsin riddle, Nebraska’s dreams of a conference title will go unfulfilled.

That School Down South

Assuming Nebraska can finally slay the beast from Madison that has been haunting it for the last three years, there’s another fairly imposing hurdle to clear. Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State hasn’t lost a regular season conference game, is the defending national champion, and could very well have gone two-for-three had the Buckeyes not chosen to play in the 2011 Gator Bowl and therefore been ineligible for the BCS the following year.

And they might have been a year early in winning the title last year, given the talent coming back.

Nebraska has a number of hurdles to clear to give some company to the lonely “1999” on the façade of the West Stadium on the “conference champions” line. But the biggest hurdle might be the scarlet-and-grey monster from Columbus.

(The “team down south” moniker, by the way, comes from the legendary Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, in which partisans from each school will refuse to call the other school by name.)