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

redalert

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.

 

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Nebraska Football: Why an Eight-Win Season in 2018 Isn’t Out of the Question for the Cornhuskers

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Long-time columnist Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star tried – unsuccessfully – to talk himself out of predicting an eight-win season for Nebraska in 2018.

There’s plenty of reasons to be doubtful of Nebraska getting to eight wins next year. Primarily, NU is coming off a 4-8 season last year, and going from four wins to eight would be a massive jump. Nebraska has an entirely new coaching staff, and will be learning an entirely new offensive and defensive structure. Nebraska’s starting quarterback will almost assuredly be either redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia or true freshman Adrian Martinez, neither of which have played a down of college football.

Sipple listed a number of reasons, including the departure of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the depth of the running backs, the strength of the wide receivers, and the track record of new head coach Scott Frost as causes for his optimism. All of those are well founded.

But Sipple didn’t mention another reason why Husker Fan might allow a little irrational exuberance to creep into the imagination as the new season dawns. Here are the five-year recruiting averages for all of Nebraska’s 2018 opponents, as compiled by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly.

Akron 124
Colorado 57
Troy 102
Michigan 22
Purdue 69
Wisconsin 35
Northwestern 53
Minnesota 48
Ohio State 2
Illinois 59
Michigan State 23
Iowa 46

Nebraska’s five-year recruiting average is no. 25. That means only three teams on NU’s 2018 schedule (Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State) have better overall talent than Nebraska.

Now, I can hear all kinds of objections being raised to this analysis. First of all, I know a bunch of you are going to be telling me that recruiting ratings are just guessing games, and that the stars don’t matter.

Well, you’re wrong. Sure, for individual players, a five-star rating isn’t a guarantee of stellar performance. But the five-year averages are looking at recruiting in the aggregate, and the numbers are pretty hard to ignore. According to Stuart Mandel,

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

There’s no perfect gauge, of course, for determining a team’s talent level. But given how predictive recruiting averages are to a team’s performance, those averages are as close as we can get to quantifying talent levels.

In other words …

Now, the other argument I can hear is probably much stronger. Sure, talent level matters, but it ain’t everything. Wisconsin is ten spots below Nebraska in the five-year recruiting average, and is 6-1 against NU since Nebraska joined the B1G. Iowa is 21 spots below Nebraska, and has beaten NU in three straight games by an aggregate score of 124-44. Northwestern (no. 53) beat Nebraska last year. Heck, even Minnesota (no. 48) hung 54 on Nebraska last year.

So obviously, just because Nebraska has better on-paper talent than teams on its schedule is no guarantee of victory. Coaching, home field, system familiarity and fit, injuries, and any other number of variables go into that equation as well.

But looking at the recruiting averages gives you at least some gauge of how the teams stack up on paper. And because Nebraska stacks up well against a number of its opponents from a recruiting average standpoint, analysts like Sipple can at least make an argument how a new coaching staff and new structures can help erase the deficits in other areas and make games against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa winnable.

Now, is an eight-win season for Nebraska likely? I tend to think not, and that six wins should be the target for Frost’s first season.

But the recruiting averages (and the points Sipple makes) at least makes the case for an eight-win 2018 a colorable one.

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

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

– Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who

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

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

9-4 > 6-7

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

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

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

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

Four losses = four losses

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

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

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

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

50.3 < 62.5

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

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

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

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

33 > 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All stats courtesy cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

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

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Earlier this week, the sports gambling site Five Dimes set Nebraska’s over-under total at 9.5 for wins in 2016. For the non-gamblers among you, the bet is just what the name of it suggests – you put your money down as to whether you think Nebraska’s win total will be over or under the number selected, in this case nine-and-a-half.

That means this particular sports book thinks the most likely scenario for Nebraska in 2016 is to win between nine and ten games. That’s a pretty bold statement for a team coming off a 6-7 season in 2015.

So, is Five Dimes just counting on rabid Nebraska fans making irrationally exuberant investment decisions? Maybe to an extent, although “souvenir” bets like that are usually on tickets to win a national title put down by chumps like me on trips to Las Vegas. An over-under line set too high will be pounced on by sharks, and could end up costing a sports book lots of money.

That means the book makers at Five Dimes must have some confidence that Nebraska can get to ten wins in 2016 – besides just listening to this smart and particularly handsome analyst who picked Nebraska as the B1G West favorite next season. Here’s what has to happen for Nebraska to get ten wins next season.

Beat Oregon

A ten-win season almost certainly would require knocking off Oregon in Lincoln on September 16. Given where the two programs have been over the last few years, that sounds like a tall order for Nebraska.

But Oregon isn’t quite what it has been in years past. Quarterback is a huge question mark for the Ducks, hoping FCS transfer Dakota Prukop will be the heir to Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will be taking over Oregon’s defense, bringing his skill set to Eugene but asking the Ducks to learn a new scheme next season.

Nebraska will likely come into this game as an underdog. But with the game in Lincoln, and Nebraska being Oregon’s first big test of 2016 (with no disrespect to UC Davis or Virginia), a win over the Ducks could help put NU on the map. And if the over ticket for Nebraska is to be cashed, NU will almost certainly have to pull the upset.

Avoid the Toe-Stubber

Yeah, a 5-7 regular season was pretty dreadful for Nebraska last season. But that record includes two head-scratching losses to Illinois and Purdue, both on the road.

The two upsets were very different. Nebraska’s loss to Illinois involved asking Tommy Armstrong to make 31 passes in high winds, while the loss to Purdue had much to do with tossing backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe into the fire due to Armstrong’s injury.

Either way, though, those two games were inexplicable losses when comparing the relative talent levels of the two teams. If Nebraska wins those games, even with everything else that went wrong in 2015, the season would have ended at 8-4. The distance between 8-4 and 10-2 seems far more manageable than the actual records earned last year.

Win on the Road

If Nebraska is going to win ten games, it’s going to have to get work done on the road in conference. Trips to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa will likely determine Nebraska’s fate in the B1G West. Last year, Nebraska had its contests against those divisional rivals in Lincoln, and lost all three in excruciating fashion.

In 2016, the schedule flips and Nebraska will have to face those teams on the road. And if Nebraska is to reach the ten-win plateau, it will have to do better on the road in 2016 than it did at home in 2015.

Get the Bounces

Nebraska’s struggles in close games could not have been more well documented. And it would be falling prey to the Gambler’s Fallacy to think that Nebraska was due a run of good luck to make up for all the bad bounces it got in 2015.

Instead, perhaps it’s more reasonable to think that Nebraska’s secondary won’t be quite as vulnerable to the deep ball as it was throughout much of 2015 – a weakness that clearly cost it games against BYU, Miami, Illinois, Wisconsin, and (exhausted deep breath) Northwestern. Add to that a second year in an offense to help Armstrong avoid at least some of the turnovers that doomed Nebraska (such as against Iowa), and you have a recipe to turn those close losses into wins.

If Nebraska is to win ten games in 2016, it will have to find ways to convert those close losses into victories.

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

Games won are in bold.

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Coach Riley:

Run. The. Ball.

Sincerely, Twitter.

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And The REAL B1G Trophy

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the B1G, Nebraska. Finally.

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

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Nebraska football fans have endured the most challenging – and surreal – first half of a season in 2015. Under new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska through six games is 2-4 and 0-2 in conference. But how close is that 2-4 to 6-0 – and what difference does that make to how fans perceive the status of the program under Riley?

First, let’s take a closer look at Nebraska’s losses. Part of what we are going to use is the Agony Clock, a little like the Doomsday Clock from Cold War days, to get an overall impression of just how close Nebraska is to an unblemished regular season record. But we’re also going to look at some of the decisions from Riley and his staff that may have led to the close losses.

BYU

With one second remaining in the game, Nebraska led 28-27. BYU had the ball on Nebraska’s 42, and hit a Hail Mary pass to win the game.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: There’s a good argument to be made that the decision to rush three on the Hail Mary play was overly conservative. But don’t forget that defensive end Jack Gangwish got hurt on the play, meaning Nebraska really only had two pass rushers, and a harder time keeping quarterback Tanner Magnum in the pocket. And even with that, it was a technique breakdown not having anyone in front of the ball in the secondary.

If you want to point at one questionable call within the staff’s control that put Nebraska in a bad position, then you could look at the third-and-two call when Nebraska had the ball on the BYU 22, trying to close out the game. A jet sweep to Jamal Turner was called, losing two yards, and forcing Drew Brown (who had already missed from 40 yards) into a 41-yard attempt.

Miami

With 11:14 left to go in the game, Nebraska was down 33-10. But Nebraska went on a remarkable comeback, getting a two-point conversion after a touchdown with 33 seconds remaining in the game to tie the score.

But in overtime, quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw an interception on Nebraska’s first possession, allowing Miami to set up a game-winning field goal. The overtime issue makes the Agony Clock a little harder to judge, but we’re going to leave it set where it was after BYU.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: Very little about the fourth quarter or overtime was a coaching issue. Armstrong was brilliant in leading Nebraska’s comeback, and putting the ball in his hands for the overtime was the only decision that made sense. Ultimately, the game was lost in the first quarter, and it’s hard not to look at the decision to start Daniel Davie at corner as one of the key factors in the loss. After being torched for 17 points in the first quarter (and being fortunate it was only 17), Davie was substituted and Nebraska only surrendered one touchdown the rest of the game.

Illinois

With 51 seconds remaining, Nebraska led Illinois 13-7 with the Illini having the ball at its own 27 yard line. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt hit Malik Turner for a 50-yard strike, giving the Illini a first down at the Nebraska 7 yard line. Penalties ended up giving Illinois six (!) shots at the end zone, which the Illini finally converted with a one-yard pass from Lunt to Geronimo Allison to take the lead with ten seconds remaining.

Agony Clock – 0:11

Coaching Mistakes: The decision on third-and-seven to roll Armstrong out will live in infamy for Nebraska fans.  Both coach and player (according to Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network) agree that the play should have been a run only, but Armstrong attempted a pass which fell incomplete, stopping the clock and preserving Illinois’ chance at a comeback.

Riley took responsibility for the call, which is exactly what he should have done. But the decision – put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker, on the edge where he is most effective – ultimately was the right one. The execution of the decision, and the preparation of the player to be in that circumstance, failed Nebraska. But as we would see a week later, the results of that failure of execution and preparation haunted Nebraska a second time.

Wisconsin

Nebraska led Wisconsin 21-20, and Badgers’ kicker Rafael Gaglione missed a 39-yard field goal with 1:26 remaining. But Nebraska was unable to get a first down and Wisconsin had all three time outs remaining, so the Badgers got the ball back on their own 30 with 1:03 left in the game. Wisconsin drove the ball to the Nebraska 28, and Gaglione redeemed himself by making a 48-yard field goal with 0:04 left to play.

Agony Clock – 0:15

Coaching Mistakes: If there was one game where coaching decisions directly cost Nebraska in the clutch, it was Wisconsin. Nebraska had the ball with 1:26 left to go, and needed one first down to ice the contest. Nebraska chose to bring in Imani Cross, the biggest – and least elusive – of its running backs. Three running plays were called, directly into the middle of an 11-man (!) front from Wisconsin. The play calls almost guaranteed a three-and-out, putting Nebraska’s secondary into a horrific déjà vu scenario.

And this is where the Illinois game comes back. Again, the decision to put Armstrong on the edge to get that necessary first down was the right decision. The failure against Illinois was one of execution and communication, not in play-call. So why did Nebraska instead choose to run three plays into the teeth of the Wisconsin defense, with no chance of success? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard not to conclude Riley felt so stung by the third-and-seven at Illinois that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Which, ironically, led to the overall coaching mistake that cost Nebraska a chance to win.

So What?

Much of the narrative around Riley’s detractors centers around his decision-making costing Nebraska games this year. And there’s plenty of broader-narrative coaching decisions to question about Riley. Game plan questions, like why Nebraska had a game plan to throw the ball 31 times in a tight game against Illinois when it was getting 5.5 yards per carry. Penalty questions, specifically why Nebraska is no. 120 nationally in penalties committed, according to cfbstats.com. And most frustrating, why Nebraska is a national worst no. 128 in pass defense allowing 348.5 yards per game – although the lack of a pass rush, while still a coach’s responsibility, goes a long way to explain those gory numbers.

So this isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for Riley and his staff. There’s plenty of mistakes he’s made.

But the narrative of Nebraska being 2-4 because of immediate late-game decisions by Riley isn’t fair. It’s a reaction by fans hurting and angry – and justifiably so – seeing their team lose four of its first six games in comically-painful ways.