Why Nebraska Should Be Favored To Win The B1G West in 2016

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Nebraska football fans have been enduring a horrible, surreal season, seeing their Cornhuskers stumble out of the gate and be sitting at 4-6 with two games remaining. For many, the shock of this season has yet to wear off, and watching loss after loss has dulled their ability to see many good things coming in the future.

Well, keep your chins up, Husker fan. There’s plenty of reason to expect Nebraska to not only rebound from this year, but to be at the top and looking for a trip to Indianapolis next season. Here’s why.

Returning Starters

Here’s a list of Nebraska’s starters that likely will not be back in 2016, either through graduation or leaving early for the NFL

Offense: Alex Lewis (LT), Ryne Reeves (C), Chongo Kondolo (RG), Andy Janovich (FB)

Defense: Maliek Collins (DT), Jack Gangwish (DE), Byerson Cockrell (S)

That means Nebraska should have at least 15 returning starters next season. Yes, Collins will be a big loss if he does leave early for the NFL. And the turnover on the offensive line is a worry, particularly with the lack of rotation we’ve seen this season.

But outside of Janovich, all of Nebraska’s offensive skill position starters will be back next year. The secondary loses only one starter, and should improve after another full season of working in defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system.

And the redshirts from 2015 should begin to pay dividends next year. The Davis brothers (Carlos and Khalil) should be ready to contribute, and have the recruiting pedigree to suggest they can provide some help with Nebraska’s struggling pass rush. Defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of the highest-rated recruits in last year’s class, will have another year learning the system and should be primed to shore up Nebraska’s pass defense. And the three redshirt offensive linemen, combined with the three redshirt freshmen currently on the roster, should provide some cover for the linemen Nebraska will lose after this season.

So next season Nebraska’s roster should be deeper and more balanced, as well as having more experience in Mike Riley’s system.

Coach Effect

I know Nebraska fans frustrated with losing six games before November don’t want to hear about what a good coach Riley is. And there’s plenty of room to criticize Riley’s handling of the team this year, rest assured.

But if we look at Riley’s performance over his career, those numbers suggest reasons for optimism. Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix has created a metric called “Coach Effect” which uses past performances, talent ratings, and game locations to determine how well coaches do in comparison to how an “average” coach would do.

As of 2014, the most recent data available, Riley is the no. 11 coach in the country in terms of Coach Effect, with a 1.50 score. That means, all else being equal, a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 games more per season than an “average” coach given the talent and schedule of a particular team.

Riley’s Coach Effect score will likely come down after this season, but his number should still be one of the best in the nation. That suggests Riley should have the ability, with a huge number of returning starters next season, to be successful in 2016.

Talent Level

In addition to coaching, Bartoo’s theory of college football involves the teams with the best talent winning. Like his Coach Effect, Bartoo measures a team’s talent level by aggregating recruiting service rankings. As of 2014, Nebraska’s talent rating was no. 24 nationally. That was third in the B1G, and significantly better than Nebraska’s closest B1G West rivals, Wisconsin (no. 40), Iowa (no. 42) and Northwestern (no. 52).

This year’s preliminary recruiting classes suggest Nebraska’s talent edge should continue. According to 247 Sports, Nebraska has the no. 25 class nationally in 2016 recruiting. That puts Nebraska ahead of all its B1G West rivals, like Wisconsin (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Northwestern (no. 48).

So coming into next season, the data suggests that Nebraska’s roster should be as talented – if not more so – than any B1G West team it will face in 2016.

What 2015 Really Means

Yeah, yeah, all of that happy talk is great. But Nebraska is 4-6 with two games to go in 2015. Isn’t it a pretty big leap to expect Nebraska to go from needing a four-game winning streak (including a bowl) to avoid a losing record to a division title?

Well, that would be assuming that Nebraska’s struggles this year are indicative of the program’s true position. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they are not.

I know, you’ve heard all the excuses about Nebraska’s 2015 struggles. But the fact is, five of Nebraska’s six losses were functional coin-flips. A Hail Mary against BYU, one poor decision against Miami, a missed two-point conversion against Northwestern, all the fine margins between a disappointing season and the burning tire-fire of 2015. And the one really ugly blemish on Nebraska’s record, a 10-point loss to a 1-6 Purdue, was on the road with a backup quarterback, a backup running back, and losing NU’s most dangerous offensive weapon.

That’s not to absolve Riley and his staff of responsibility for those losses, of course. But over the course of this year, as the losses have piled up, a malaise has set in on the fanbase. People assumed the worst, that Nebraska’s struggles over this season have become the new normal, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

The underlying fundamentals of the program, though, suggest that 2015 is an anomaly. Nebraska was a nine-win program last year, will be in the second year of a coaching change next year, has a historically over-performing coach, and has equal or better talent than every other team in the division.

That’s not the recipe for a rebuilding year (never mind what a certain athletic director, for reasons known only to him, said earlier). That’s a recipe for a team to bounce back to at least where it was before. And with a coach who has a better track record of performance (Bo Pelini’s coach effect as of 2014 was -0.33, in comparison), it’s not unreasonable to think Nebraska could be primed to break through its glass ceiling in 2016.

Is it a guarantee? Of course not. But Nebraska fans enduring the 2015 season should take heart. As crazy as it might sound now, there is no reason not to expect – to demand, actually – that Nebraska challenge for a divisional title in 2016.

Nebraska Football: The Cornhuskers’ Biggest Position Battles Heading Into Fall Camp

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that fall camp is starting soon, and one of the biggest things for new head coach Mike Riley to do during fall camp is to sort out contested positions. Some positions are fairly clear, but a number of positions on Nebraska’s roster will force Riley to make some decisions.

Here are five of the positions where the battles for playing time should be the fiercest.

I-Back

Of all the battles, this position might be the most contested, simply because of the talented options available. Last year, Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance made it hard for any running backs to get much playing time, and the statistics showed. Abdullah had 62.7 percent of all rushing attempts by running backs in 2014.

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for an heir apparent, so the I-backs returning this year (along with the new guys) will all be starting from a fairly level playing field. Given the way the backs were used in the Spring Game, Terrell Newby looks to be the most likely to start against BYU in Nebraska’s opener. But Imani Cross, Adam Taylor, and Mikale Wilbon should all have their chances to earn playing time in fall camp.

The offensive line if your name isn’t “Alex Lewis”

At left tackle senior Alex Lewis looks to have his place locked up next season. Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network calls Lewis a “cornerstone” for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But the rest of the offensive line is a huge question mark.

Givens Price should have a chance to compete at right tackle, with David Knevel right behind him. Chongo Kondolo and Dylan Utter will be battling with Tanner Farmer, DJ Foster, and others at guard. And at center, Ryne Reeves and Paul Thurston should be the primary contenders.

Defensive End

Nebraska’s starters at defensive tackle seem pretty clear, with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine taking up the middle. But at defensive end, Nebraska has a number of players who should be fighting for time.

Greg McMullen, given his history at the position, should be one of the first names on the list. But behind McMullen, Jack Gangwish looks to be battling with Joe Keels and AJ Natter for the other spot at end. And younger players like Sedrick King and Daishon Neil be challenging for playing time. Keep special watch on converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun, whose athletic ability could make him the surprise of the unit.

Linebacker

This position isn’t so much about who will be a starter – Nebraska is so thin at linebacker, that anyone with returning experience is likely to earn a starting job almost by default. Absent injury, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey should be all but guaranteed a starter’s role.

But behind those two is an interesting battle. Returners Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby might have first crack at the whip. But incoming freshman Dedrick Young will have a great chance to earn playing time, as he was an early-enrollee. And the other true freshmen (Mohammed Berry, Tyrin Ferguson, and Adrienne Talan) will get their shot as well.

Secondary

This caption is a little misleading, as one starting cornerback spot (Daniel Davie) and one safety spot (Nate Gerry) are likely earned already from last season’s performance. But the other spots should be the subject of fierce competition, given the depth of talent at the position.

At cornerback, Charles Jackson,  Josh Kalu, Trai Mosely, and Jonathan Rose will be fighting with incoming freshmen Avery Anderson and Eric Lee to see the field. And at safety, Byerson Cockrell and Kieron Williams will be challenged by incoming freshmen Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams (as well as any of the players at corner who may slide into the position).

Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers’ Top 2016 Draft Prospects

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

The 2015 NFL Draft is less than a week old. So, clearly, it’s time to look at 2016, right?

Well, why not? While it’s hard to know exactly what Nebraska will look like next year under new head coach Mike Riley, we do have some idea of the returning talent. And there are numerous resources looking ahead to 2016 (and beyond) to see what kind of talent is in the pipeline for the NFL.

So let’s take a look to see who on Nebraska’s roster might be hearing their names called next May.

Prospect rankings from NFLDraftScout.com.

Maliek Collins (unranked DT, junior)

This is more than a little projection, given that Collins will be a junior next hear. But throughout spring practice, Collins has been the most disruptive player for the Blackshirts. According to Mitch Sherman of ESPN, Collins was compared by former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini to LSU standout Glenn Dorsey. And he, along with fellow defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, were “the strength” of Nebraska defense this spring.

So if Collins continues his standout performance, don’t be shocked to see him give consideration to leaving after his junior season at Nebraska.

Ryne Reeves (no. 18 OG)

If Reeves can stay healthy, he has an opportunity in his senior season to make a name for himself and perhaps earn a look to playing on Sundays. He has the frame (six-foot-three, 295 pounds) and the skill set to be effective, to be sure. And if Reeves is able to stay upright and on the field this year, he will have the chance to earn his ranking.

Alex Lewis (no. 15 OT)

Talk about a guy who has benefited from a change in scenery. Lewis started his career at Colorado, transferring to Nebraska after a conviction for assault. But since he has arrived, Lewis has stayed out of trouble and been a steady starter at the critical position of left tackle for Nebraska.

If Lewis is able to up his game and have a standout senior campaign, he could be one of the names called next May in the 2016 NFL draft.

Nebraska Football: Projecting the Cornhuskers’ Post Spring Two-Deep Depth Chart

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know already that new head coach Mike Riley won’t be putting out a two-deep after spring practice. So apparently it’s up to us to fill that urgent need. Of course, this is filled with speculation in terms of where the players stand now in the eyes of the new coaching staff, and could change dramatically by September.

But, come on, it’s April. Let’s live a little given how long we have to wait for football to come back.

Offensive Line

Alex Lewis might be the only certain starter of the bunch, so this position group looks to be in flux between now and fall camp. The return of Ryne Reeves will make a particular difference both for depth and competition at center.

LT: Alex Lewis, Zach Sterup

LG: Zach Sterup, DJ Foster

C: Paul Thurston, Ryne Reeves

RG: Chongo Kondolo, Zach Hannon

RT: Givens Mordi Price, David Knevel

Offensive Backs

It’s still Tommy Armstrong’s world, until and unless one of the contenders can step up and take the job away from him. As for I-back, being the starter might not mean a lot as the position will likely be a committee rather than one bell-cow back.

QB: Tommy Armstrong, Zack Darlington

IB: Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor

FB: Andy Janovich, Mitch McCann

Receivers

The starting receivers actually look pretty settled, although there could be quite a bit of competition for the next man up. Cethan Carter’s return should make Nebraska’s offense much more dangerous with what he provides at tight end.

WR X: Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly

WR Y: Jamal Turner, Jariah Tolbert

WR A: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Alonzo Moore

TE: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton

Defensive Line

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine could be the best defensive end pairing in the Big Ten this season. But who will be in the rotation at defensive end—as well as behind Collins and Valentine—could be quite a question to answer

DE: Jack Gangwish, A.J. Natter

DE: Greg McMullen, Freedom Akinmoladun

DT: Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice

DT: Vincent Valentine, Kevin Williams

Linebackers

If nothing else, the linebacker position might make Riley feel right at home. Given Nebraska’s depth problems, a two-deep at linebacker could prove challenging for NU to field, particularly if there are any injuries of significance.

MIKE: Josh Banderas, David Santos

WILL: Michael Rose-Ivey, Luke Gifford

SAM: Marcus Newby, Dedrick Young

Secondary

It will look a little strange to not see “Nickel” as part of a two-deep for Nebraska, but new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters system will usually keep all three linebackers on the field. Given the depth at this position, the two-deep is likely to exclude a number of talented players.

CB: Daniel Davie, Josh Kalu

CB: Byerson Cockrell, Jonathan Rose

S: Nate Gerry, Charles Jackson

S: LeRoy Alexander, Kieron Williams

Specialists

Not a lot of competition at most of these positions, but excelling on special teams could be a huge competitive advantage for Nebraska in 2015. Assuming it can get the placekicking position sorted out …

PK: Drew Brown, Mauro Bondi

P: Sam Foltz, Mauro Bondi

KOS: Mauro Bondi, Drew Brown

LS: Jordan Ober, Josh Faulkenberry

Punt Return: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jamal Turner

Kick Return: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Jamal Turner