Big Ten Team Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers
WNUR’s Ben Goren (@BenG412) previews the Nebraska Cornhuskers and if they can win the ripe Big Ten West. Ben’s prediction is slightly more optimistic than the WNUR staff, who slotted the Cornhuskers 2nd in the Big Ten West.
WNUR’s Prediction: 8-4 overall, 5-3 in conference.
I don’t think any Northwestern fan wants to revisit the events of the Wildcats’ visit to Lincoln, Nebraska last year, but just for the sake of coping with loss, let’s go through it just once more. From his own 43 yard line, Ron Kellogg III heaved a ball that fluttered to the Northwestern 2, where a couple of Wildcat hands gave it the extra oomph to push it into the end zone, where Jordan Westerkamp was waiting to claim the game winning touchdown. Westerkamp is back, Kellogg is not, but remaining at Nebraska is an imposing team, potentially ready to make the next leap from West division also-ran, to West division champ.
Offense: The Nebraska offense will begin and end with their running back Ameer Abdullah, and there are certainly worse players for a team to lean on. A cursory glance at Abdullah’s stats shows why he’s being picked for a Heisman dark-horse run. 1690 yards at a 6 YPC clip and 9 scores in Abdullah’s 13 games put him firmly in the elite group of running backs. Across the offensive 11, Nebraska returns 4 other starters, including 6-1 wide out Kenny Bell, the burner who hauled in 577 yards and 4 scores plus 609 yards of kick return yards and another score. Plus, his fro alone should be worth another 3-5 scores. Starting QB Tommy Armstrong Jr returns as well, but for the Huskers to make a leap, Armstrong must make one as well. His pedestrian 966 passing yards while completing just 52% of his passes will have to improve, and with red zone specialist Quincy Enunwa now off to greener pastures, the task won’t be made easier. Up front could be problematic too, with only one returning full time starter, guard Jake Cotton, is back. Abdullah will be the Nebraska offense, whether the supporting cast can do enough to let him be successful? Well that remains to be seen.
Defense: Nebraska had a solid defense from a yards perspective last year, ranking 32nd in passing, 54th in rushing, and 40th overall. But don’t let the smooth taste fool you. Nebraska gave up 34 to Wyoming, 41 to UCLA, 34 to Minnesota, 41 to Michigan State, and 38 to Iowa. Yet they also held Michigan to 13 and Georgia to 19. What to make of the Nebraska defense? Well they aren’t short on individual talent. Some people see Randy Gregory, Nebraska’s übertalented defensive end, as a top ten pick. Some even higher. Nebraska returns a crew that recorded 28 TFLs and 14.5 sacks. Not to shabby. Move back one position group, and you run into a group of 3 returning starting linebackers. In David Santos, Michael Rose, and Zaire Anderson, Nebraska may just have the most solid linebacking corps in the Big Ten. The secondary may just be a weak spot. The losses of Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans see 18 pass break ups, 8 interceptions and, shockingly, 13.5 TFLs. The remaining players in the secondary are lacking in experience and number. There are shades of Northwestern’s 2013 secondary on these Huskers.
Special Teams: Uh oh. While Kenny Bell may well be an All-B1G selection at kick returner, and Sam Foltz had a decent year punting the ball last year, placekicking could prove to be a major problem. Pat Smith went 12-13 on field goals and 43-45 on PATs, Budzien-esque numbers. Mauro Bondi, who looks to takeover the job, went 1-1 and 7-8 on PATs. If there’s anything the Jeff Budzien era should have taught Northwestern fans, it’s that a consistent, reliable kicking game means wins. Nebraska has no such thing (at least that we’ve seen).
Final Word: A cursory look at the schedule shows a pretty tough row to hoe for the Huskers. Road games at Fresno State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa are unfriendly, and Miami at home is no joke either in non-conference play. Nebraska has 5 gimme wins (FAU, McNeese State, Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue), and you can just about give them Minnesota at home as well. A grueling conference road slate makes things a little harder. It’s hard to see the Huskers taking wins in East Lansing and Madison, and Iowa City could be a terrifying prospect if the Hawkeyes take advantage of their soft schedule. If Armstrong can complete 60% of his passes and the O-line gel quickly, Nebraska could put down double digit wins this year. In all likelihood, Nebraska drops MSU, Wisconsin, Iowa and quite possibly either Fresno or Miami. In classic Pellini fashion, the Huskers will go 9-3 and take their chances getting to 10 in their bowl game. While Nebraska may have the best player in the Big Ten, whether his team will match his greatness is another story.