Big Ten Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Our Big Ten preview series is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll make our way through the Big Ten East and West from the bottom to the top. The countdown continues with Nebraska.
Our own Ben Goren looks at a team that has hopes to be the class of a weakish Big Ten West.
2014 Record: 9-4, 4-4 B1G
WNUR Sports 2015 Staff Projection: 9-3, 6-2 B1G
Key Returning Players: Tommy Armstrong Jr (QB), Jordan Westerkamp (WR), Nate Gerry (S)
Key Departing Players: Ammer Abdullah (RB), Randy Gregory (DE), Kenny Bell (WR), Bo Pelini (Head Coach), @FauxPelini (Internet Celebrity), @FauxPelini’s Cat (Internet Celebrity)
If the Big Ten was normal last season, Ameer Abdullah probably would have been the class of the conference. But Melvin Gordon and to a lesser extent Indiana’s Tevin Coleman meant that Abdullah’s borderline Heisman candidate-quality season gets overlooked. Along with Abdullah, Nebraska’s 2014 offense was bolstered by Tommy Armstrong’s dual threat ability and a dynamic one-two punch on the edges with Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp. All in all, Nebraska put together the 31st best offense according to S&P+ rankings.
That’s gonna be a high bar for the 2015 team to meet. Abdullah is gone and so is top target Kenny Bell. Between those two, there are 2,677 total yards that have flown the coup. That’s an awfully big number to sneeze at.
But there are still plenty of weapons for the Cornhuskers, and it all starts with quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr, who is probably the best quarterback in the division. That might explain a little bit more about what the Big Ten West looks like than how good Armstrong is, but he’s still a very useful player. Last season he rushed for 803 yards and 6 scores to go along with his 2695 yards, 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions through the air. He’ll be able to throw it to Jordan Westerkamp and he can still hand it off to Imani Cross (5.1 ypc last year) and Terrell Newby, the jewel of Nebraska’s 2013 recruiting class (yes even higher than Randy Gregory).
The real story for Nebraska’s 2015 offense will be how they adjust to new coach Mike Riley’s offense. Oregon State under Riley relied on quick hitting horizontal passing, not exactly the kind of spread option/home run passing that made Nebraska the 24th most explosive offense according to IsoPPP last season under Bo Pelini. Can Armstrong manage the game and be accurate? We’ll see.
Despite having übertalented Randy Gregory, Nebraska’s defensive line was not superb last season. Nebraska’s defense finished 93rd nationally in adjusted line yards, 98th in stuff rate (when the running back is tackled at or before the line of scrimmage), and 93rd in adjusted sack rate. That ain’t great when you have a player who many thought was the most talented rush end in college football.
Along with Gregory, Nebraska will have to replace 2/3 of its linebackers and half its starting secondary. Nebraska’s defense was overall a solid unit last season. They were the 49th best defense in the country according to S&P+ rankings. It’s hard to see them doing much better than that next season.
The defense has some playmakers with Greg McMullen at end, Vincent Valentine clogging the middle, and Nate Gerry playing centerfield, and they’ll probably make a decent number of havoc plays. Whether or not they can consistently lock teams up for 60 minutes is an entirely different ball game.
Special Teams Preview:
This is the best phase for Nebraska. Punter Sam Foltz averaged over 42 yards per punt last season and put had just 5 touchbacks to 26 punts inside the 20. Kicker Drew Brown went 12-14 on field goals within 40 yards, didn’t miss a PAT in 59 attempts, and between him and kickoff specialist Mauro Bondi, 36% of all Nebraska kickoffs were touchbacks. In the return game, teams will have to punt away from De’Mornay Pierson-El who took 3 punts back to the house and will be the feautred kick returner this season. Last year, Nebraska placed 6th in F/+ special teams ranking. They’ll be even better this year.
The Big Ten West is like 1000 times easier than the Big Ten East. I personally don’t see any team in the conference hitting 10 wins. There just isn’t an elite team in this conference.
But if someone is going to be a nuisance to Ohio State/Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship, it’s going to be Nebraska. Their hardest games of the year (Michigan State and Wisconsin) are both in Lincoln. They get to play Rutgers for one of their crossover games. Opening the year against BYU might be tricky, but on the whole, Nebraska has a very kind schedule.
On the field, Nebraska has a quarterback who, although flawed, is still clearly the class of his division. Adjusting to life after Abdullah will be an adjustment, but with other talented pieces and a solid line in front of him, he should take another step forward this season. The Big Ten West is open, but Nebraska, not Wisconsin, should be the frontrunners.
Best Case Scenario?
Tommy Armstrong flourishes under Mike Riley, the front 7 turn into a good-to-solid unit and one or two skill players emerge as go to guys. Nebraska rolls through its non-conference schedule, handles Wisconsin at home, goes down to Michigan State, and makes people think about the College Football Playoff until they lose by 60 to Ohio State.
Worst Case Scenario?
Mike Riley’s new schemes don’t get traction. The team can’t replace it’s top playmakers from a year ago and the offense regresses to a mediocre unit. The defense can’t stop the run. Nebraska loses to BYU and Miami in non-conference play before losing to Wisconsin, on the road to Minnesota, home against Michigan State and finds itself in the 8-4 area. Plus THE CURSE OF FAUX PELINI HAUNTS THE STADIUM FOREVER.