Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Northwestern 31, Nebraska 24

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Northwestern and Nebraska in Memorial Stadium is always going to be an exciting affair. The Purples have made it two wins in a row in Lincoln, coming back from a 24-17 deficit to win 31-24 in overtime. Northwestern has now won three straight overtime games, and Nebraska has now lost three straight home games.

Head coach Mike Riley’s squad drops to 4-5 overall and 3-3 in B1G play. The loss darkens the clouds swirling over Riley’s tenure in Lincoln with challenging games remaining.

The Good

JDang Impressive. Whatever other offensive woes Nebraska has suffered this year, there’s no question that redshirt freshman wide receiver JD Spielman has been a revelation. Not only was he Nebraska’s leading receiver with 48 yards on three catches, but he also had two carried for 45 yards, including a 40-yard run that was (brace yourself) Nebraska’s longest carry of the season.

It’s been a rough year, in many ways a lost year for Nebraska. But they’ve definitely found a weapon for the future in Spielman.

The Third Quarter. Once Marcus Newby picked off an overthrown Clayton Thorson pass and returned it for a touchdown, it felt like momentum had shifted for Nebraska. Then, Nebraska went on an 18-play (!), seventy-nine yard drive eating up nine minutes and twenty-four seconds (!!). That’s the kind of drive that can steal the will to win from another team.

But then, Nebraska only got three points from the drive. Insert your own metaphor here.

Nothing. There is no third thing.

The Bad

The Other Tanner. The lack of a running game for Nebraska was covered up by an heroic performance from quarterback Tanner Lee against Purdue. And with his performances in the last few games, it looked like he had settled in and figured out how to do better protecting the ball.

Whoops.

Lee had three interceptions against Northwestern, and had an easy pick-six dropped as well. The third interception was due in large part to the pressure he faced, but the others were a familiar story – poor reads and poor decisions into coverage.

Lee was 21-for-38, a 55 percent completion percentage. Especially without a running game (more on that in a bit), that’s simply not good enough for Nebraska to win.

Running In Place. Give Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf credit, they kept at the running game as long as possible. But Nebraska ended the game with 31 carries for 112 yards, an average of 3.6 yards per carry. And that’s including Spielman’s 40-yard jet sweep.

Devine Ozigbo got all but one of the running back carries, toting the ball 23 times for 80 yards. Yes, that’s 3.1 yards per carry. There’s plenty of room to criticize Lee for his interceptions and completion percentage. But it’s also not entirely fair to pin all the blame on Lee when he has been asked to pull the entire offense himself.

Against Purdue, he could pull of those heroics. Against Northwestern, he wasn’t. In both cases, a competent running game would have made a significant difference.

The Better Team Won. Sure, getting a game to overtime means that either team has a puncher’s chance to win the game. But Northwestern outgained Nebraska by over 100 yards, 475 to 337. The Purples had five more first downs than Nebraska, was far more balanced on offense, won the turnover battle, and had fewer penalty yards than Nebraska.

It’s a bitter enough pill to swallow that Nebraska has now lost three straight home games. It’s bad enough to lose to Northwestern. But to know that, at Memorial Stadium, Northwestern was the better team and should have beaten Nebraska, should tell you everything you need to know.

And the Blessing of Clarity

New athletic director Bill Moos said it is his policy not to make any coaching decisions during the season. There’s no reason to think he will do anything different with regards to Riley.

But there can be little doubt now that the Riley era will be over at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign. Nebraska’s remaining games are at Minnesota, at Penn State, and home to Iowa – the same Iowa team that just hung 55 on Ohio State. If Nebraska wins out, it will end the season at 7-5. Nebraska needs two wins to become bowl eligible, which will require a win over either Penn State or Iowa.

So if the writing is on the wall for Riley now – assuming that outcome was ever in doubt – then Moos now will be able to make plans for 2018. If hometown hero Scott Frost is Moos’ target, he’ll likely have competition Florida, Tennessee, and any other big name schools that will be making a coaching change.

More importantly, Nebraska’s loss to Northwestern should make it clear to the Nebraska fan base that a change will be made after this season. This feels more than a little bit like 2007, when it became pretty clear after the dismissal of athletic director Steve Pederson that head coach Bill Callahan wouldn’t be back. Like that 2007 season, Nebraska fans are in for a surreal three games watching a coaching staff finish out a string.

Riley is a consummate professional, so there should be no question about getting effort from him and his coaching staff. But now Nebraska fans, in a sense, can be released from the tension of this season’s games. Win or lose isn’t likely to make a difference in the outcome of the season, so fans can be somewhat detached from the results and wait for the season to conclude.

It’s a strange, sad place to be for an honorable man like Riley. It’s a truly unfortunate place for the players to be, coming in with such high expectations and being asked to put forward the effort and sacrifice that football demands each week. And it’s a bizarre, surreal place for a fanbase as passionate as Nebraska to be as the final quarter of the 2017 season is upon us.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 28, Illinois 6

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On what is hopefully not the last Friday game Nebraska plays for a while, NU rolled into Champaign and won a comfortable 28-6 win over Illinois. Even though the Illini held the ball for almost the entire first quarter, Nebraska was efficient on offense and built a comfortable lead that it never relinquished.

The Good

O-Line Optimism. Yes, quarterback Tanner Lee deserves significant praise for an efficient and turnover-free performance. But a significant portion of Lee’s success against Illinois came because the offensive line really performed well (particularly in the first half) protecting their signal-caller and giving him the time to go through his progressions.

Sure, Illinois isn’t very good, and Nebraska’s performance has to be taken in context. But Northern Illinois isn’t very good either, and – well, we all remember what happened there. So getting that good performance has to be nothing but encouraging.

Stanley Morgan. Welcome back, Stan. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan was a game-time decision with a neck injury, but dressed and played. He led Nebraska in receptions (8) and yards (96), including a stiff-arm touchdown and a remarkably physical first down catch to help keep a drive alive and help put the game out of reach early.

The Blackshirts are Back? Yes, this is the soft part of the schedule. But if you take the second half of the Oregon game and extrapolate it to a full game, Nebraska is now averaging allowing 190.8 yards and 5.7 points per game.

I know, I know, Husker Fan, you can’t get visions of Arkansas State bubble screens or Oregon’s 42-point first half out of your mind. I get it. And with Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to town, those averages are sure to go up pretty soon.

But defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s Blackshirts have put enough good performances down to have some degree of confidence in the defense as the meat of the schedule arrives in Lincoln.

The Bad

Corner Questions. If there was one glaring weakness of Nebraska’s performance against Illinois, it was at cornerback. Eric Lee drew pass interference calls on the first two deep balls he was asked to defend. Lamar Jackson struggled both in coverage and in tackling throughout the night. Against a poor and young offense like Illinois, Nebraska was able to overcome the poor play from the cornerback position.

That won’t be the case as the sharp end of the schedule, namely Wisconsin and Ohio State, comes up.

Stanley Morgan. Yes, Morgan was great against Illinois. But when he wasn’t great, he was kinda terrible. He had at least four drops and a fumble to compliment his offensive production – meaning his game could have been significantly better than it was. Almost assuredly, Morgan wasn’t fully healthy and played hurt. The extra day to prepare for Wisconsin next week might end up being very important for Nebraska.

Not All Sunshine and Roses. Lee’s performance against Illinois looked a lot like the guy Nebraska fans thought they were getting at the start of the 2017 campaign. But when your name starts trending on Twitter after you’ve thrown your third pick-six interception in two games, you know things aren’t going the way you want.

And while Lee’s game against the Illini was cause for hope, there was at least one throw that had to give Nebraska fans flashbacks. In the third quarter, Lee was rolling to his left and pressured. Off his back foot, he put up a wounded duck in the vicinity of tight end Tyler Hoppes, which looked to be an easy interception. Hoppes made a brilliant defensive play to keep the ball in Nebraska’s hands and Lee from going double digits in interceptions.

And The Resumption of Normal Service

Wrap your head around this. Nebraska’s game against Illinois – the fifth of the campaign – was the first game this year where Nebraska didn’t trail at some point in the first quarter. Before this game, Nebraska’s biggest lead at any point in a game this year had been a 10-point advantage in the first half against Arkansas State.

So it was more than a little comforting to see Nebraska up 21-3 over Illinois as the first half expired. Moreover, given how well Nebraska’s defense was playing, at no point was there ever a real concern that Illinois was going to mount a serious comeback. At the start of the season, this dope thought that the combination of a Friday game and Illinois having an extra week to prepare made this game a recipe for a shocker.

Instead, Nebraska flashed back to a more pleasant time for its fans, dominating a less talented team and never really being in danger of losing. Given how the schedule tightens up, this will likely be the last opportunity for Nebraska fans to see such a comfortable win. But it’s certainly good to see Nebraska still remembers how to cruise to a win.

GBR, baby.

Image courtesy of wellbelove.files.wordpress.com.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 27, Rutgers 17

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Well, it’s been an eventful week, hasn’t it Husker Fan? A week ago Saturday morning, the fan base was reveling in optimism from a furious comeback against Oregon and wondering if we were seeing the green shoots of optimism.

A week later, Nebraska has lost to Northern Illinois, the program’s worst loss since at least 2004. It’s seen athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired, and the status of head coach Mike Riley – and the 2018 recruiting class he’s been assembling – thrown up in the air.

Oh yeah, and Nebraska had to start conference play against Rutgers. But even with challenges on and off the field, Nebraska ground out a functional 27-17 victory over the visitors from Piscataway, moving to 2-2 overall and 1-0 in conference play.

And, yes, that means Nebraska is in first place in the B1G West. Take a picture, Husker Fan, Lee Corso style.

The Good

Playing the Hand You’re Dealt. In the first two years, Riley had to modify his offense to fit the strengths and weaknesses of his quarterback. Well, with 14:07 left in the third quarter, after current Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee threw another pick-six interception, Rutgers held a 17-14 lead in Lincoln.

Never mind surviving the season, it wasn’t clear Riley’s job would be safe through the weekend if Nebraska lost to Rutgers. So Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf leaned on the run instead, and Nebraska was able to use its depth at I-back to wear out Rutgers and escape with a win.

This Diaco Guy. After the first six quarters, new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s handiwork was – well let’s just say called into question. But since then, the Blackshirts have answered the bell. If you extrapolate Oregon’s second-half performance to four quarters, Diaco’s defense has average allowing 188 total yards and 5.6 points per game.

(Of course, that’s not charging Lee’s three pick-six interceptions against Diaco. Elephant, meet living room.)

That’s … pretty good. And with injuries to its two best defensive backs in Chris Jones and Josh Kalu, and losing Aaron Williams to a targeting penalty in the first series of the game against Rutgers. There’s a lot to worry about for Nebraska going forward, but that also might make it easy to miss the leaps and bounds the Blackshirts have made.

A Steady Hand. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Riley had a bad week. And losing in the third quarter meant that Nebraska was truly staring into the football abyss.

Nevertheless, Nebraska persisted. And that has a lot to do with Riley’s calm, relentlessly positive attitude. If you want to bury Riley for his flaws and limitations, that’s fair. But here’s what Lee had to say about Riley’s coaching of him (according to huskers.com).

Coach Riley has been great with all this, especially this week getting ready to play. After that play he just told me to stay with it and stay settled in and play the game and do what those guys are teaching me. So that was good to hear.

Look, Riley’s dug himself this hole. But at least for one week, Riley has also been able to keep the ship afloat.

The Bad

Hiding Tanner. After Lee’s pick-six, the Red Beast in the Memorial Stadium stands felt like it might be turning on the team. A smattering of boos, greeted Lee as he trotted back onto the field from the home crowd.

After the interception, Nebraska ran the ball 31 times and threw it only 12. To his credit, Lee was 8-for-12 on those throws with a pretty touchdown to De’Mornay Pierson-El. And many of those runs were after Nebraska took a two-score lead, showing Langsdorf has learned his lessons from 2015 Illinois.

But it’s also telling that Nebraska didn’t ask Lee to win a desperately-needed game. Lee was a complimentary piece of Nebraska’s second-half performance to win the game.

That’s exactly what Nebraska should have done against an outmanned Rutgers squad. It almost certainly won’t be good enough as Nebraska gets into the meat of its B1G schedule.

Running Before you can Walk. If you’re a Nebraska fan, it had to be a bit bittersweet to watch the Penn State-Iowa game Saturday evening. After ABC reminded you over and over about Iowa’s success against top-ranked teams in Kinnick, the Hawkeyes put up one of the most Hawkeye performance in history. The Nittany Lions dominated Iowa on the stat sheet throughout the game, but an Akrum Wadley touchdown with one minute left in the game have Iowa the chance for a massive upset. It was only through a wizard-like touchdown throw from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired (coupled with a simply superhuman performance from running back Saquon Barkley) that let Penn State escape Iowa City with playoff dreams intact.

I know, Husker Fan, that’s what you want to see the scarlet and cream doing on national television. That’s what you expect. That’s the target.

But that’s not Nebraska right now. Nebraska right now is a gritty come-from-behind win over Rutgers at home. It’s progress from the week before, to be sure. It’s at least a little water on that seed of hope planted in your Big Red heart.

But just keep the words of Robert Frost in mind as you reflect on Nebraska’s place in the college football world.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.

And the Al Davis Rule

Just win, baby.

Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. But this game was an existential threat to Riley’s time in Lincoln. Lose this game, and there’s no coming back. Riley is a dead coach walking, as remainder of the 2017 becomes a dead rubber. At that point, it’s hard to see how Nebraska maintains any of its top-flight recruits currently committed for 2018 and 2019.

So an ugly win is a win. It keeps the patient alive for another week. It’ll be the same on a weirdo Friday night contest in Champaign against a reeling and similarly-outmanned Illinois squad.

You’re not going to see beautiful football from the scarlet and cream next week. There will be parts of the game you’ll be watching through your fingers as you try to hide your eyes.

It doesn’t matter. Survive and advance. Get the Badgers to Memorial Stadium and see what happens. It’s a funny game, with a funny shaped ball, and confidence is a mercurial thing with a group of college kids.

Just win. GBR, baby.

(image courtesy doin-work.com)

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Northern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17

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Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois 21-17 at home, losing to a group-of-five school for the first time since a 2004 loss to Southern Mississippi. The Blackshirts played well after struggling in the first two games, but two first-half pick-six interceptions were the tale of the game. So, in looking back at the contest …

The Good

Blackshirts are Back: Hey, remember when worrying about Nebraska’s defense was a thing? The Blackshirts held Northern Illinois to 213 total yards and one offensive touchdown. Really, except for one long pass right after Nebraska took the lead – which was the prime opportunity for a letdown in the game – Nebraska’s defense answered the bell.

Fourth Down is the New Third Down: This year, Nebraska is 4-for-6 on fourth down conversions. That’s an amazing statistic, not only because of the number of attempts (averaging two per game), but in how often Nebraska has been successful. A combination of bravery and execution in the ultimate do-or-die situation.

The Conference Goals Are Still in Place: Yes, that was ugly, but Nebraska’s goal of winning the B1G West and playing in the conference championship game are …

Don’t. Just, don’t. While the “goals in place” thing might be true, it’s also ignoring the gigantic tire fire burning in the living room. (Don’t ask how the tires got in the living room. It’s a metaphor, go with it.)

The Bad

Tanner from Tulane: I hate to say I told you so, but … a smart and particularly handsome analyst said this about junior transfer quarterback Tanner Lee:

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

  Completion % TD INT TD/INT Ratio
Arkansas State 59.3 2 0
Oregon 46.3 3 4
Northern Illinois 53.2 0 3
2017 Total 52.5 5 7 0.714
Tulane Total 53.6 23 21 1.095

Lee’s performance at Nebraska looks a heck of a lot like … Lee’s performance at Tulane. And that level of performance is simply not good enough for Nebraska’s offense to be successful.

Sure, Lee’s offensive line didn’t give him much help. And sure, Lee had some critical drops – if Jack Stoll hauls in his fourth-quarter target, Nebraska likely wins this game anyway.

But that’s all part of the package for a quarterback. Lee had three interceptions against Northern Illinois, and was fortunate not to have at least three more given some of the decisions he made.

The season isn’t over, and it would be a colossal shock (absent injury) if Lee isn’t under center against Rutgers next week. Lee won the starting job because he’s the best quarterback on Nebraska’s roster in 2017.

Unless his performance improves significantly, in a hurry, that’s not going to be good enough for Nebraska to salvage even a winning season this year.

Third Down is Still Third Down: Yeah, it’s fun to see Nebraska put it all on the line and convert on fourth down. But coming into this game Nebraska was no. 103 nationally in third down conversions at 32.14 percent. Against Northern Illinois, Nebraska was 3-for-13, or 23 percent, so that national ranking is likely to go down.

That’s not good enough, not even close to good enough. A combination of poor offensive line play and shaky quarterback performance is a huge contribution to Nebraska’s poor showing on third downs this year. It’s likely more symptom than cause, but this is a number to watch if Nebraska is going to get the wheels back on the train this season.

A Confidence Game: Boy, the first drive of the game against Northern Illinois didn’t look like the game would end as it did. Nebraska was in an offensive rhythm, biting off big chunks on the ground and through the air. It looked like Nebraska’s decision to take the ball at the start of the game was going to pay dividends, allowing NU to get an early lead and put some confidence back in the squad.

Then Shawun Lurry made a break on Lee’s bubble screen and went 87 yards for a score. Nebraska looked shell-shocked on offense, never really getting back into rhythm until the third quarter. It wasn’t entirely different from how Nebraska’s defense looked against Oregon last week, after Lee’s interception allowed the Ducks to take an early 14-point lead.

Don’t forget these are still college kids, learning a new system on both offense and defense. In both of Nebraska’s last two games, NU has had to dig itself out of double-digit holes. Nebraska has only held a lead for one minute and 22 seconds in the last two games. That’s going to weigh on the psyche of a team, and might be the biggest hurdle Nebraska faces going forward.

And the Calling of the Question

After Nebraska’s 6-7 campaign in 2015, Riley likely lost a year of patience from the Nebraska fans. Coming into 2017, this dope thought that Riley might be a year away from the hot seat.

A loss to Northern Illinois changes that. Northern Illinois is no. 119 nationally in terms of five-year recruiting rankings, one of the best ways to measure talent. The Huskies are easily the least talented team Nebraska will face in 2017 – the next least talented team is Illinois at no. 72.

With the talent disparity, at home, Nebraska has no business losing to Northern Illinois. Ever. This is the type of stain that doesn’t come off of a coaching resume. This is the type of loss that goes in the first paragraph of a coaching tenure’s obituary.

This is the type of loss that puts a coach on the hot seat. Don’t believe me? Ask Nebraska’s athletic director, Shawn Eichorst.

What Eichorst said after the Northern Illinois loss wasn’t really all that important. It was the fact that Eichorst came out and said something at all. Eichorst is famously averse to media appearances, and would only have come out so soon after the game – giving Riley the “dreaded vote of confidence” – if he thought it was necessary.

Eichorst was right. As it stands now, Nebraska will need to upset Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Penn State to have a shot at an 8-4 season. And that’s assuming Nebraska wins all of other remaining games on its schedule, including on the road against a suddenly-scary Purdue, at home against perennial nemesis Northwestern, on the road against Minnesota, and at home against an Iowa squad with a two-game winning streak.

Nebraska is 1-2. Nebraska is one play away from being 0-3. And the long knives are already at least being reached for, by no less than Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. Scott Frost is still turning heads with his work as Central Florida’s head coach. So is Trev Alberts as UNO’s athletic director, by the way.

That doesn’t mean the season is over, of course. There’s nine games left. In 2015, a reeling 3-6 Nebraska squad raised up and beat no. 6 Michigan State in Lincoln. If Nebraska can find itself and get some confidence in the next two weeks, it’s not impossible to imagine Nebraska pulling off an upset when the Badgers come to Lincoln. Heck, Nebraska has outscored its opponents 31-0 in the third quarter this year. Put that performance together for another three quarters, and anything can happen.

The evidence suggest that result is unlikely. At this point, 7-5 feels like the best-case scenario, with losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 6-6 finish – or worse – probably seems more likely.

There’s time to fix things, no doubt about it. But three games in to Riley’s third season, this is what the beginning of the end looks like.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Oregon 42, Nebraska 35

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A tight, seven-point loss to Oregon on the road, that’s the type of game everyone expected, right?

Not so much. Nebraska was humiliated in the first half, falling behind 42-14 and looking to all the world like it was on its way to another nationally-televised embarrassment. But Nebraska found something in the locker room, shutting the Ducks out in the second half and nearly pulling off a miraculous comeback.

The Good

Halftime Adjustments. Let’s just take a look at Nebraska’s defensive performances, broken down by halves.

  First Half Second Half
Total Yards 698 365
Passing Yards Allowed 558 222
Yards/Play Allowed 7.51 5.00
Points Allowed 68 10

Those numbers kinda speak for themselves. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might very well be making the greatest halftime adjustments in the history of organized football. It’s a problem, though, that he has to be (more on that later).

ONIONS! On the first drive of the second half, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-ten at the Oregon 40. Head coach Mike Riley went for it and Nebraska converted, leading to a touchdown and breathing a little life into the scarlet and cream.

On Nebraska’s next possession, Nebraska faced a fourth-and-five at the Oregon 39. Once again, Riley went for it and Nebraska converted. While that drive didn’t lead to points, it set a tone that allowed Nebraska to stay in the game and almost complete a miracle comeback.

Fine Margins. This one’s in the Good section more for Husker Fan looking for reasons to feel better about Nebraska’s loss. Quarterback Tanner Lee’s first interception was a fortunate bounce off a defender’s hand. Oregon’s third touchdown only happened when the ball went off one receivers hand and fluttered into the hands of another. At the end of the first half, another fourth down conversion – which could have kept Nebraska’s drive alive and avoid some of the points Oregon put up at the end of the half – was thwarted thanks to a false start by De’Mornay Pierson-El.

Yes, Oregon badly outplayed Nebraska in the first half, and earned every bit of its 42-14 lead. But, as we saw with how close Nebraska came to a comeback, those fine margins can make the difference between winning and losing.

The Bad

Needing Halftime Adjustments. Judas Priest, Nebraska’s first two first halves of the 2017 campaign have been ugly to watch. They’ve resulted in a down-to-the-wire win over a Sun Belt team and digging a hole too deep to dig out of against Oregon.

I can’t pretend to explain this Jeckyll-and-Hyde performance from the Blackshirts – and I’m not entirely convinced Diaco can as well. I suppose the silver lining is that the second half performances show Nebraska’s defensive potential. But I’m not sure how many first-half embarrassments Husker Fan can tolerate.

The Kid from Tulane. Talk of Tanner Lee’s departure to the NFL after his junior campaign have, shall we say, cooled after the Oregon game. Lee was 19-for-41 through the air for 252 yards, three touchdowns, but four interceptions. Now, two of those interceptions weren’t Lee’s fault, one being a pinball deflection and one from a blind-side hit that resulted in the ball fluttering into a defender’s hand.

But even with that bad luck, Lee struggled against the Ducks. He missed a number of makeable throws, particularly in the first half when Nebraska really needed its offense to keep up. There’s plenty of things to learn for Lee going forward, but this game won’t be one that goes in his scrapbook.

Big Red Cross. What might be the biggest concern coming out of Eugene are injuries to I-back Tre Bryant and safety Joshua Kalu. Bryant has been a revelation in the first two games of the season. I could give you some stats, but this tweet says it all.

Bryant has been struggling with his knee throughout camp, and an injury to that knee causing him to miss the rest of the game is a huge worry for Nebraska. Although Mikale Wilbon got the touchdown that brought Nebraska to within seven, there’s little doubt that NU’s offense wasn’t the same without Bryant.

But what could be a more impactful injury might well be to Joshua Kalu. A hamstring injury in the second quarter took Kalu out for the rest of the game. With Nebraska’s secondary already thin after injuries to Chris Jones and JoJo Doman, the Blackshirts can ill afford to lose Kalu for any length of time.

And the Goals Still Intact

Admit it, Husker Fan. You feel fairly OK after that game. At halftime, you had visions of Texas Tech running through your mind and were worried that this season was about to slip away.

That’s fair. The fact that there’s relief about Nebraska being respectable on a national stage is a barometer of the state of Nebraska’s program. Whether that’s acceptable in the long run is a fair question.

But it’s where Nebraska is now. And (cue the cliché) it still leaves the primary goals for the season open.

Nebraska’s next three games are against Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Illinois. Presuming Nebraska holds serve, NU will be 4-1 on October 07 to welcome Wisconsin.

And that’s where the rubber will really hit the road. Diaco’s defensive charges will have five games under their belt to (hopefully) learn how to play in the first half, and the opportunity will be there for Nebraska to get a win over Wisconsin and set itself up for conference play.

Yes, that loss was disappointing – and extraordinarily weird. But there were enough green shoots there to keep hope alive when the Badgers come calling.

GBR, baby.

(image courtesy of letterboxd.com)

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 43, Arkansas State 36

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“In fact, the very best advice it has to offer in these situation is to be found on the cover, where it says in those now notoriously large and famously friendly letters, ‘DON’T PANIC.’”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio script (image from RogersMovieNation.com)

Nebraska survived its first game of the Mike Riley-Bob Diaco era with a 43-36 win over Arkansas State, salted away only when Red Wolves’ quarterback Justice Hansen’s pass was tipped away in the end zone as time expired. A win is a win, but the muted buzzing from the crowd exiting Memorial Stadium after the three hour and 52 minute (!) contest sounded much more like it would after a loss than a win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s 2017 lid-lifter …

The Good …

The kid delivered. Not that long ago, this dope was worried about Tanner Lee based on his statistics from Tulane and the fact that he hadn’t played college football in over a year. Well at least for one week, against Sun Belt opposition, Lee sure put those worries to rest. He was 19-for-32 for 238 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

The numbers are impressive enough, but the throws he made – and didn’t make, when appropriate – were what should get Nebraska fans excited. His first touchdown to Stanley Morgan should be framed and hung in a museum. And he showed enough mobility in the pocket to help out an offensive line that struggled in pass blocking at times.

Diaco’s adjustments. At halftime, Arkansas State had 245 yards of total offense and 26 points on the board. Outside of the last two drives (which were a combination of fatigue and shock after a successful onside kick), the Red Wolves had 74 yards and three points in the second half.

Yes, I know those last two drives count too, and that’s not to let the defense off the hook for a disturbing performance. But while there’s plenty to criticize and worry about, the Blackshirts are going to take an amazing amount of heat this week. Given the way the defense responded in the second half, though, there’s plenty of room for optimism as well.

Lightbourne’s bounceback. Keep in mind, this was supposed to be punter Caleb Lightbourne’s first game kicking a ball in anger. He was supposed to redshirt, watching and learning as senior Sam Foltz showed him how it was done.

We know how that story ended, and we know about Lightbourne’s struggles last year. But against Arkansas State, Lightbourne delivered with an average of 42.4 yards per kick and three placed inside the 20. Given the way Nebraska’s defense looked to be on skates for much of the first half, that kind of field position advantage was invaluable, and a not-insubstantial part in how the Blackshirts were able to find their feet later in the game.

The Bad …

The first half. Sure, it was great that Diaco was able to make those adjustments. But, Judas Priest, that first half wasn’t pretty. Arkansas State took a pretty basic concept – overload one side with more receivers than defenders, then throw to one of them on a screen – and just kept going and going as Nebraska demonstrated an inability to stop it.

The fact that Nebraska was able to successfully adjust to the Red Wolves’ attack is reassuring. The fact that it took an entire half to do so – against Sun Belt-level athletes – is less reassuring.

Clock malpractice. Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 05, 2015. Specifically, set it for 55 seconds left in the game between Nebraska and Illinois. Nebraska has a third down and seven on the Illinois 27, and a 13-7 lead over the Illini. A first down wins the game, to be sure. But anything that keeps the clock running will bleed so much time away to make a comeback almost impossible.

Of course, Tommy Armstrong throws an incomplete pass, Nebraska fails a fourth down conversion, and Illinois carves through NU’s secondary to score a game-winning touchdown with ten seconds left on the clock.

Now, let’s look at this year’s Arkansas State game. Nebraska starts a drive from its own 22 with 5:46 left in the contest. Two Tre Bryant runs get Nebraska to third and four. With a 43-29 lead, a first down likely puts the game out of reach for Arkansas State. But keeping the clock moving is just as important, particularly given how the Red Wolves had been able to march at will on the Blackshirts.

Instead, Lee throws an incomplete pass, giving Arkansas State enough time to score, get an onside kick, and bloody nearly score again to send the game into overtime – or allow the Red Wolves to win it with a two-point conversion.

Sure, it took a bunch of really unlikely things to happen for Arkansas State to be in a position to tie or win the game. But more adept clock management – an area Riley has consistently struggled with – would have never allowed the Red Wolves to be in that position in the first place.

My blood pressure. OK, guys, this is game one, and against a Sun Belt opponent. There’s Oregon, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, not to mention the big hitters like Ohio State and Penn State. I’m not a young man any more. Seriously, guys, I can’t do this for another eleven games. I’m not saying get beat, to be sure. But, seriously, just put those guys away when you get a chance, please?

And The Inevitable Overreaction.

Let me make myself clear, first of all. Things aren’t fine, as the dog sipping coffee in the burning café says. Getting taken to the wire by a Sun Belt team suggests there’s a problem. And given that the Red Wolves straight-up dropped a touchdown earlier in the game and had a deflected interception on the Nebraska 1 stop another drive, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that Arkansas State should have won the game – or, at the very least, that Nebraska was plenty lucky to have won.

But Nebraska did win. And after that fortunate win there’s going to be plenty of OMG NEBRASKA SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKZZZZ!!!!!11!!! hot-takery in response to the Arkansas State squeaker. Stories of an impending 4-8 implosion are being written on message boards as we speak, and much of the guarded optimism surrounding 2017 has likely dissipated.

And, sure, this game could end up being the canary in a coal mine if Nebraska collapses going forward. But there’s enough green shoots of hope from this game to make such a collapse unlikely. Lee looked straight-up amazing, making throws Nebraska fans haven’t seen in … well, a really long time. Bryant was given the entire game, and responded with 192 yards on 31 carries behind some solid run blocking. Until it tired – which, having to face 89 (!) plays, isn’t a shock – Nebraska’s second-half defensive performance bordered on impressive.

So, yeah, there’s plenty to worry about from Nebraska’s win over Arkansas State. But please, Husker Fan, hold off on mashing that panic button just yet.

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

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

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

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

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

Tanner Lee lives up to his billing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The defensive transition is smooth

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

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

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

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

Beat Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: Four Takeaways from the End of Spring Practice

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Sure, anyone can give you an instant breakdown of Nebraska’s Spring Game, feeding you the hot takes and farming for your sweet, sweet clicks. But we at the Double Extra Point know you come here for reasoned and thoughtful analysis, the kind that takes some time to generate.

OK, fine, I’ve been really busy, and a little bit lazy. But there is some value of taking a breath and looking back at where Nebraska football is after head coach Mike Riley’s third spring in charge. Here’s four big takeways as we prepare to go through the long dark summer of baseball, cookouts, and hot-weather tomfoolery until football starts back up in August.

It’s Not Year One for Riley, But it Kinda Is

Riley isn’t going to get much breathing room even with all the changes coming to Lincoln this autumn. He’s going into year three of his tenure, after a 5-7 season in his first year and going 2-3 to end his second year with an aggregate score of 140-37. Riley isn’t on the hot seat for 2017, but he may very well be a year away from it.

And yet, there very little about 2017 that will look like 2016 in terms of the team taking the field. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will be deploying his much-discussed 3-4 defense, and we won’t learn anything about the Blackshirts’ transition until Arkansas State comes to town. And Nebraska’s signal-callers are going to look different than … well, just about any time in NU’s recent history.

Shortly after the Spring Game, Riley said junior transfer Tanner Lee would be Nebraska’s starter going into fall camp (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald). Behind Lee will be redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien and sure-to-redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. All three were impressive in spring practice, and showed well at the Spring Game.

But it was Lee who had the highlight of the contest, with a 30-yard touchdown pass to JD Spielman that brought a collective gasp to the Memorial Stadium crowd.

That’s … a throw Nebraska fans aren’t used to seeing their quarterback execute. So Lee being the first name on the sheet isn’t a surprise. But Nebraska’s quarterback depth now is as good as it’s been in quite some time – maybe since Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer. Given what’s happened to Nebraska in the last few years when its starter went down, it’s hard not to see this season as something very different in terms of NU’s offense.

But with a quarterback like Lee (or O’Brien, or Gebbia) as opposed to the run-first guys like Taylor Martinez or Tommy Armstrong, and with the shift in defensive scheme, Nebraska is going to look very different in 2017.

Diaco the Poker Player

Anyone who thought they were going to get a glimpse of what Nebraska’s 3-4 defensive attack was going to look like in 2017 were sorely mistaken. At no point in the Spring Game did Nebraska come out in a three-man front, playing lots of nickel, and generally being super plain and boring with its defensive alignment.

That was by design. Diaco, and Riley, made a conscious decision to keep the Blackshirts’ new look under wraps to avoid giving opponents an off-season worth of film to study.

At one level, that’s kind of silly. A 3-4 defense isn’t exactly revolutionary, and any competent offensive gameplan will at some level know what’s coming and how to defend against it.

Having said that, though, at least some of the benefit of a 3-4 scheme is deception, with an offense not knowing from down to down where the fourth pass rusher is coming from even without a blitz. And given that Nebraska will be breaking in a new defensive structure (as well as a new offensive structure), any tiny little advantage might be helpful.

Recruiting as the Known

OK, sure, there’s no such thing as a “known” in recruiting, especially before national signing day. But still, what’s happened with Nebraska’s recruiting in the last few weeks is nothing short of remarkable.

Nebraska is currently sitting at no. 11 nationally (according to 247 Sports) with its 2018 recruiting class. Led by Brendan Radley Hiles, the sixth-best prospect Nebraska has signed since 2000 (!), the class of eight commits to date should be filling Husker hearts with hope about the talent coming to Lincoln. After watching the NFL Draft, and seeing Nebraska break its streak of 54 years with multiple players selected, it’s hard not to come to the cold realization that NU’s talent pool had thinned in recent years.

It appears that trend is reversing. But still, a note of caution should be heard. While Nebraska is rated no. 11 nationally, that’s still only good for fifth in the B1G. One spot behind Minnesota. So, take those numbers for what they’re worth.

Better Team, Worse Record?

Nebraska fans could be forgiven for being a little confused about what to think about their team. In 2015, the team wasn’t nearly as bad as the 6-7 record would have suggested, suffering one inexplicable loss after another. In 2016, the team likely wasn’t as good as the 9-3 record would have suggested, as evidenced by lopsided losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.

Nebraska’s 2017 squad shapes up to be very different, and perhaps more dangerous, than Riley’s two previous teams. But the schedule it faces also looks to be more challenging than the previous two years.

Consider Nebraska’s road trips to Oregon, Minnesota (you know, the team with the no. 10 nationally ranked recruiting class) and Penn State, with home contests against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Iowa.

The three most difficult contests are likely at Oregon, Ohio State, and at Penn State. If Nebraska drops those three games – not at all an unreasonable expectation given NU breaking in a new offense and a new defense – then it will have to run the table just to match 2016’s achievement. That would include wins over Wisconsin (which hasn’t lost to Nebraska since 2012), Northwestern (which perennially plays Nebraska tough) and Iowa (which hasn’t lost to Nebraska since 2014).

It’s very likely Nebraska’s 2017 team will be better on offense, and perhaps on defense, than the 2016 squad. It’s also very likely that the 2017 record won’t reflect that improvement.

Photos of the 2017 Spring Game can be found here.

Nebraska Football: Five Things To Watch For at the Red-White Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will have its fifteenth and final spring practice play the annual Red-White Spring Game before a crowd likely to be north of 80,000 in Memorial Stadium. As year three of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach begins, fans will be wondering what to expect after last year’s record was an improvement over the prior season, but saw some ugly losses to Ohio State, Tennessee, and (shudder) Iowa.

So what should a smart fan (and a DXP reader, but of course that’s redundant) be looking for from Saturday’s glorified final practice? Well …

Can The Quarterbacks Complete Passes?

I know, that sounds mean. But here’s Nebraska’s completion percentage from 2009-2016:

2009 57.7
2010 57.8
2011 56.0
2012 62.0
2013 57.7
2014 52.9
2015 55.9
2016 50.3

The last three years, of course, were with Tommy Armstrong as starting quarterback. And those numbers are simply not good enough for Nebraska to expect success on the field.

This year, with Armstrong’s departure, the quarterback battle looks to be between redshirt junior transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee played two years at Tulane, and many fans hope his experience will help him win the job and lead Nebraska’s offense out of the doldrums.

His career stats? A 53.6 completion percentage and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio. Sure, that was at Tulane, not Nebraska. But still, those aren’t numbers that inspire confidence.

With the threat of a quarterback run game now gone, Nebraska will need significantly more efficient play from the passing game to be effective on offense. Whether the starter is Lee or O’Brien, we will at least get a glimpse of what to expect from them on Saturday.

Can The Offensive Line Hold Up?

Nebraska’s passing game was a mess last year, and much of that comes from the signal-callers and their limitations throwing the ball. But part of the problem has been an offensive line that has struggled to perform at a high level. Injuries were a part of the problem last season, of course. But it’s rare to finish a season without some attrition on the offensive line from injury.

Going into Saturday, we do not yet have a good grasp on who will be starting up front on offense. We also don’t know exactly how the Red and White squads will be divided, so it may very well be that a full first-team offensive line won’t be on the field at the same time on Saturday.

But we will get at least some look at how this year’s version of the Pipeline will look come September.

Can The Running Game Get Established?

Yes, it’s fair to say that this question will hinge in large part on the answer to the last question about the offensive line. But it’s also fair to say that Nebraska has a whole bunch of I-Backs to pick from, none of whom have yet to show the ability to take over a game. For the three primary returning backs, here’s their yards per carry from 2016.

Mikale Wilbon 5.93 (15 carries)
Devine Ozigbo 4.25 (97 carries)
Tre Bryant 4.00 (43 carries)

Last year, Nebraska had the no. 73 ranked rushing attack nationally – and that was with Armstrong’s running ability factored in as a part of the offense. This year’s offense will likely not feature a quarterback run game, but will (hopefully, for Nebraska’s sake) have a more efficient passing attack. On Saturday, we will get at least a glimpse of how that effects Nebraska’s ability to run the ball.

Will The New 3-4 Defensive Scheme Take Time To Learn?

62-3. 40-10. 38-24.

Those were the scores of Nebraska’s last three losses (to Ohio State, (shudder) Iowa, and Tennessee), and were a significant factor in why Bob Diaco and not Mark Banker is Nebraska’s defensive coordinator in 2017.  But it’s not like Nebraska was dreadful on defense overall last year. NU was no. 30 nationally in total defense, and no. 33 in scoring defense.

So, on the good side, that means Diaco has a good platform on which to build. But, on the concerning side, it also means that a substantial shift in defensive scheme (from 4-3 to 3-4) runs the risk of upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

Diaco said (according to Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald) that the Spring Game will be more of a “dress rehearsal” than an audition, and that “[i]f you’re interested in filming the spring game to figure out what we’re going to do on defense, you’re going to waste a lot of film and footage.”

OK, sure, a smart reader like you might expect that Diaco wouldn’t come out with a quote like “hey, Nebraska opponents, make sure to check out the Spring Game because we’re totally going to show you all our sneaky trick defensive plays.” So of course what will be on the field this Saturday will be a pretty sanitized version of the Blackshirts compared to this September.

(And, at the risk of being snarky, it would be helpful to let Diaco know that most recording is now done digitally instead of using something like this. Although, in fairness, the latter is far cooler.)

Can Nebraska Generate Pressure on the Quarterback?

While we should be able to learn something about Nebraska’s new-look Blackshirts on Saturday, it is fair to say that we might know less about Nebraska’s ability to pressure the quarterback in 2017. Even if the offensive line is a question mark (see supra), it is unlikely that Nebraska will be calling any elaborate blitzing or pressure schemes.

Still, one of the advantages of a 3-4 front is to permit even four-man pressure from multiple locations, potentially causing confusion to opposing offenses (as discussed by Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald). And Nebraska could use the help on that front, checking in at no. 65 nationally in sacks and no. 85 in tackles for loss last year.

So even without the blitzes or other extra schemes, getting a look at how a 3-4 front attacks an opposing offense should give fans at least a taste of what’s to come in 2017.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Nebraska Football: Husker Fan, Chill Out About The ESPN FPI Prediction

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This week, ESPN released its Football Power Index (FPI), an analytical tool that simulates thousands of college football matchups to predict future outcomes. The FPI results for the 2017 season are out and they are … not optimistic for Nebraska.

The FPI thinks that Nebraska will win somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5 games in 2017, making it no. 58 in the nation. In looking at the schedule next year, that’s a lower rating than Ohio State (no. 1), Penn State (no. 8), Oregon (no. 21), Northwestern (no. 29), Iowa (no. 39), and Minnesota (no. 55).

Reactions on Husker message boards were, of course, calm, measured, and grammatically accurate. Basically, they broke down into archetypes.

Grizzled Old-School Husker Fan: Bah, what do those eggheads know about a game played on the field!

Snarky Hipster Husker Fan: Gee, can’t wait to watch that exciting half-a-loss Nebraska gets this year.

Angry Message Board Husker Fan: ESPN HAS ALWAYS HATED USSSSS!!!!!!11!!!!1!!

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach: It’s all because we fired Bo.

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach, Five Years Ago: It’s all because we fired Callahan.

Husker Fan Pining For Previous Coach, Ten Years Ago: It’s all because we fired Solich.

But the FPI results shouldn’t be a surprise. Here’s how ESPN describes the methodology for the FPI rankings.

The model comprises four major components: the last four seasons of performance on offense, defense and special teams, with the most recent season counting most; information on offensive and defensive returning starters, with special consideration given to a team returning its starting quarterback or gaining a transfer quarterback with experience; a four-year average recruiting ranking of four systems (ESPN, Scouts, Rivals and Phil Steele); and head coaching tenure. These four components interact and are assigned different weights depending on the team to produce preseason FPI.

Combining all of the factors above produces a predicted value on offense, defense and special teams, which represents the number of points that each unit would be expected to contribute to the team’s scoring margin if it were to face an average FBS team on a neutral field.

Bill Connelly from SB Nation (and the robot from the incredibly entertaining Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody) released his 2017 S&P+ preseason ratings, which consider recruiting, returning production, and recent history. That formula has Nebraska at no. 42 nationally, behind Ohio State (no. 2), Penn State (no. 8), Wisconsin (no. 11), Oregon (no. 23), and Northwestern (no. 37).

So the computers hate Nebraska in 2017. Why?

Well, first of all, the Nebraska that takes the field in 2017 will bear almost no resemblance to the 2016 squad (which may either relieve you or terrify you, based on your perception of last year’s team).

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, the undoubted engine of whatever offense Nebraska could produce last year? Gone, replaced either by a Tulane transfer with a career completion percentage of 53.6 percent and a 23/21 TD/INT ratio, or a redshirt freshman who has never taken a snap in a college game.

Wait, there’s more. Nebraska’s leading rusher? Gone. Leading receiver? Gone. Third leading receiver? Gone. Fourth leading receiver? Gone. Any tight end on the roster with a career catch? Gone.

Remember, analytics in general and the FPI in particular look at returning production to “decide” how good a team will be going forward. Nebraska, outside of receiver Stanley Morgan, has basically no returning production. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the analytics don’t think much of Nebraska’s chances in 2017.

So take another look at Connelly’s S&P+ preseason rankings. They rank Nebraska no. 22 nationally in recruiting, no. 32 nationally in a five-year average (thank you, 2015), but no. 72 nationally in returning production. That explains, almost entirely, how Nebraska ends up in the mid-forties overall.

Does that mean Nebraska can’t be successful in 2017? Of course not. But it highlights the danger that could burst Husker Fans’ bubble of optimism – that we really don’t know what to expect from the guys wearing the scarlet and cream next year. Tanner Lee might tear things up next year and make Nebraska’s new passing attack thrive. But we don’t know, and we won’t know until the season plays out.

And the analytics are giving us a preview of what the national pundits will likely do as the season gets closer – show that Nebraska has lost the benefit of the doubt. Remember, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. Nebraska hasn’t been competitive in a conference title game since 2009, and needed a once-in-a-generation player like Ndamukong Suh to get that close.

If and when Nebraska gets back to the point where it can legitimately compete for conference titles, the national spotlight and the benefit of the doubt will be back, rest assured. Nebraska is still a legacy name, like Alabama was when it labored under the tutelage of Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula before some guy named Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa.

But Nebraska ain’t Alabama, at least not yet. And until Nebraska can show it won’t wilt under the spotlight, don’t expect the national college football audience – or the analytics – to give Nebraska the benefit of the doubt.