By: John Beers
2015 record: 5-7
Staff projection: 6-6 (4-5 Big Ten), 4th in the Big Ten West
Key Returners: QB Terry Armstrong Jr., RB Terrell Newby, WR Jordan Westerkamp, S Nate Gerry, CB Joshua Kalu, P Sam Foltz
Key Departures: DL Vincent Valentine, DL Maliek Collins, OT Alex Lewis, RB Imani Cross
Offense: Nebraska’s offense in 2015 can only be described as a disappointment. Despite replacing former defensive-guru head coach Bo Pelini with the more offensive minded Mike Riley, the offense took steps backward across the board. The Cornhuskers scored five fewer points per game in 2015 compared to 2014 as the offensive couldn’t replicate their 2014 success after the departure of bell cow Ameer Abdullah to the NFL. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. actually put up more total TDs during his junior campaign compared to his sophomore campaign, yet he struggled mightily in losses to Illinois and Wisconsin. Riley’s emphasis on the passing game seemed to backfire, as almost 100 additional passing attempts only netted three more passing touchdowns, but nine more interceptions.
The good news for Riley & co. is that their receiving corps is among the best in the Big Ten going into 2016, and Armstrong will look to build on his MVP performance in last year’s Foster Farm Bowl. After splitting carries with the bruising Imani Cross last year, senior running back Terrell Newby will by the guy in the Cornhuskers backfield this coming season, where he and Armstrong should provide Nebraska with plenty of explosive plays on the ground. However, it is Nebraska’s receiving depth that is their most attractive quality on offense. They return their top six targets from last season, and Wildcat-killer Jordan Westerkamp should challenge for first-team All Big Ten honors. The Cornhuskers also get dangerous receiver and return man De’Mornay Pierson-El back in the lineup after the junior missed eight games last season with foot and knee injuries.
Defense: The Cornhuskers struggled with defending the pass in 2015, giving up the seventh-most passing yards per game in the entire FBS. The good news is that the Cornhuskers return almost their entire secondary, with playmakers Nate Gerry and Joshua Kalu looking to improve on their seven combined interceptions from last year.
The loss of Randy Gregory to the NFL was noticeable in 2015, as the Cornhuskers never developed a bona fide pass rusher. Defensive tackles Maleik Collins and Vincent Valentine provided the push up front that propelled the Nebraska defense to a top 10 ranking against the rush. However, with both Collins and Valentine gone to the NFL, the Cornhuskers will rely on unproven players such as Kevin Maurice and Mick Stoltenberg to replace their production.
Special Teams: The Cornhuskers will undoubtedly have one of the best special team units in the Big Ten, if not the country. They return fist-team All Big Ten punter Sam Foltz, who averaged 45 yards per punt in the Big Ten last year, while downing 15 punts inside the 20.
A healthy Pierson-El will give the Cornhuskers perhaps the most dangerous return man in the country. As a freshman, the speedy wideout led the country with 596 punt return yards, while putting up three return touchdowns. Assuming he stays healthy, he should challenge those numbers.
In the kicking game, junior Drew Brown will return for his third consecutive season handling the placekicking duties in Lincoln. After two seasons, Brown has 208 career points for the Cornhuskers, and is one pace to break Alex Henry’s school scoring record of 397 points. Brown finished the 2015 season second in the Big Ten with 21 made field goals and had the most made field goals of 40 yards or more in the conference.
Outlook: Riley’s Cornhuskers need a big bounce-back year after stumbling to a 6-7 record in the coach’s first campaign in Lincoln. Despite finishing the regular season at 5-7, they managed to back their way into a bowl game due to the over abundance of bowl opportunities. If Armstrong can carry over the momentum from his bowl performance, there’s no reason that the Cornhuskers shouldn’t be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the conference. After opening the season with tough, last-second losses to BYU and Miami last year, Nebraska has a chance to head into Big Ten play undefeated in 2016. Home games against Fresno State and Wyoming in the first two weeks should provide the Cornhuskers with two easy wins. Their September 17 meeting with Oregon in Lincoln will provide Nebraska with an opportunity to prove how good they are, as Oregon will once again be breaking in a new quarterback. Although they have to travel to play Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa, their home slate features potential cupcakes in Purdue, Maryland and Minnesota and it seems possible that the Cornhuskers could go undefeated in Lincoln.
Best Case Scenario: The Cornhuskers offense proves to be one of the best in the nation and they go 10-2 en route to winning the Big Ten West and squaring off against the winner of the Michigan/Ohio State game in Indianapolis. Armstrong and the talent he has around him is good enough to score in bunches against any team, enough that they could end up knocking off one of the conference favorites in Ohio State or Iowa. Armstrong has always had the talent to be one of the best players in the Big Ten, but has yet to find the consistency that would allow him to shine. He has one final season to cement his place in Nebraska history and that may be enough to drive him and the Huskers to a true bounce-back season.
Worst Case Scenario: The losses along the defensive line, along with the porous secondary prove too much to over come and the Cornhuskers lose a lot of shootouts to limp to another 5-7 season. There seems to be little doubt that the Huskers will be able to put up points, the trouble might be preventing the other team from scoring even more points. While the secondary returns largely intact, this was still a secondary that was pretty bad last year, so another year of struggling wouldn’t be surprising. Combine that with the loss of Collins and Valentine up front and the defense may prove to be just as bad as the offense is good. Should Nebraska don’t show sign of improvement, it may also means that Riley finds himself squarely on the hot seat, if not looking for another job.