Something Old, Something New
For seven straight years, the Huskers have lost four games. No more, no less. Can they break the trend in year one under Riley? Should they be expected to? Here are my keys to the season:
1) Injuries and turnovers. I won’t spend much time on these, because they’re obvious. Turnovers can make or break a team, especially if they occur at key moments. Similarly, if DPE, Maliek Collins, and half the offensive line blow knees before October, don’t expect much. Nebraska’s no different from any other team in this respect, except they seem to have committed more turnovers and suffered more injuries than most teams in recent years. Some of that is self-inflicted, some of that is just bad luck. (Amendment: I wrote the rough draft of this post the day before Pierson-El was sidelined 6-8 weeks with a foot injury. Off to a good start, then.)
2) Tommy Gun. Tommy Armstrong has toughness, both physically and mentally, and a knack for making big plays. Unfortunately, he’s a terribly inconsistent passer who’s prone to making face-palm passes every now and then. Can he limit the mistakes and refine his passing skills? If so, look for great things from a proven leader. If not, it could be a long fall.
3) The lines. We know Nebraska has talent in the heart of the defensive line. But can those big fellas assert themselves under Mark Banker’s new defensive scheme? Whenever I get excited about Collins and Valentine in the middle, I remember them and the rest of their defensive comrades being bullied by a bunch of Gophers (never mind Melvin Gordon and the Badgers). This D-line should draw comparisons to the days of Suh and Company. If not, expect porous defensive stats. On the other side of the ball, health and consistency have been the problem the last few years. I don’t expect a return of the Pipeline, but a little more cohesiveness would be nice for a quarterback looking to take a leap forward and a running back corps trying to replace a legend.
4) Resiliency. I mentioned fire last week in regard to what I hoped to see from Riley’s teams in general, and Nebraska will need it in 2015, perhaps right out of the gate. With a new coaching staff and new culture, there will be some bumps and setbacks. Likely some losses. In Pelini’s first year, the team was markedly better by end of season than at the beginning. In Callahan’s first year, the team never improved a lick. If Riley is the real deal, it’s not unthinkable for the Huskers to use 2015 as a springboard into a strong 2016 campaign, but not if they don’t show the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Riley seems like an even-keel, stoic guy. Here’s hoping he can impart that mentality to his players without taking away any fire from their bellies.
Game by Game Breakdown:
BYU: This is the toughest opening test the Huskers have faced since their season-opening winning streak began in 1985. The Cougars, with a healthy Taysom Hill, have embarrassed Texas twice in the last two years, and could have a field day if the Blackshirts aren’t ready to rumble. They return 17 starters, assuming some aren’t suspended from the bowl game brawl, and will give Nebraska all they want. I expect the Huskers to play well, but my gut tells me BYU snaps the streak and launches a dark horse playoff run in Lincoln. Record: 0-1
SOUTH ALABAMA: The Jaguars made it to a bowl game last year, but who didn’t? Bottom line is, the folks from Mobile don’t have the horses to compete with Nebraska if the Huskers are dialed in. Situated between BYU and Miami, this has the makings of a sandwich game, but this early into a new coaching staff’s administration, I don’t expect to see a lack of interest. It may not be a cakewalk, but the Huskers win comfortably. Record: 1-1
@ MIAMI: The Canes have speed and talent, but motivation is always the question for the squad from Coral Gables. (Or is it Miami Gardens?) Given the loss last year in Lincoln, and the chippy nature of that game, I expect The U to be rocking and rolling. We’ll get a good look at how the Huskers respond to a challenge when Miami jumps out early. Nebraska will rebound, maybe even take a second half lead, but ultimately fall in their first road contest. Record: 1-2
SOUTHERN MISS: This will be the first of two swing games for the Huskers. On paper, Southern Miss isn’t in Nebraska’s league. But if the Huskers limp in at 1-2, motivation could be a problem (as could a letdown if the Huskers roll in off a big win over Miami). Look for some sluggish moments early, and maybe even a bit of a scare. But in the end, Nebraska will take care of business against the Golden Eagles. Record: 2-2
@ ILLINOIS: The Fighting Illini is slowly improving under Tim Beckman—er, scratch that, he just got canned. This could be devastating to a team just a weak before the season begins, but then again, with Illinois, there isn’t all that much to devastate. If Nebraska shows up ready to play and doesn’t give the game away, Illinois should find themselves, as they have the last two years, significantly overmatched by the Big Red. Record: 3-2
WISCONSIN: There’s just no way the illogical Badger beatdowns continue. Is there? Sconnie loses all-world Melvin Gordon and several linemen, but they, as the Huskers used to do, just reload. I don’t expect much of a change under Paul Chryst, and by the time they roll into Lincoln, the Badgers should have recovered from an early season tussle with Alabama. Nebraska will have plenty of motivation after giving up a million yards rushing in the last few outings against Wisconsin, but I can’t pick Nebraska until they hold a Badger tailback under 200 yards rushing. Record: 3-3
@ MINNESOTA: This is the second swing game of the season. If I’m right and Nebraska heads to the Twin Cities at .500, the game against the Gophers could determine how the season goes (similar to the trip to Ames in 2008). Minnesota doesn’t do anything special, nor with anyone special. But they do what they do quite well, and they’ve taken advantage of Nebraska mistakes the last two years. The Huskers, in my opinion, are the more talented team, but they will need to be crisp. This time, I think they will be, and get what could be a signature road win for Mike Riley’s first team. Record: 4-3
NORTHWESTERN: Last year’s fourth quarter the exception, Nebraska’s four battles with Northwestern have been incredibly close and compelling. This is another instance where, if the Huskers play to their best, they should be able to dispatch a Wildcat team that has faded over the last few seasons. The ’95 championship team will be honored at this game, and if the Huskers pick up where they left off last year in Evanston, their performance should honor them as well. Record: 5-3
@ PURDUE: The Boilermakers improved marginally from 2013 to 2014, and could be fighting for bowl eligibility this year with 18 returning starters. Like with Illinois, Nebraska should win this game, but conference road tests late in the year are never gimmes. I expect Nebraska to spit the bit in one of these games, and with the Spartans on the horizon, the trip to West Lafayette could be the place. But the talent gap is enough that I’ll still pick the Huskers. Record: 6-3
MICHIGAN STATE: This could be the showcase game for Riley and the Huskers, played at home under the lights. The Spartans are proven and solid, but not unbeatable. Two months in, I think the Huskers will have gelled and figured out who they are, and I think they’ll give Michigan State all they can handle. In fact, I think they’ll do what Riley’s Beavers did so often during his time in Corvallis and upset a top ten team. Record: 7-3
@ RUTGERS: Coming off a huge win the previous week and having to make a long trip east (please, oh please, schedule this as an 11 kickoff, Big Ten) I think the game against the Scarlet Knights will be a tough one. The State University of New Jersey is not the laughing stock they once were, and has enough talent to pull the upset. Look for rain, wind, a few fumbles in the all-whites, and a frustrating defeat to hit that magical four-loss plateau. Record: 7-4
IOWA: Maybe I’m being myopic, but it felt like Nebraska’s comeback in Iowa City last year signaled the tipping point for the Hawkeyes. They’ve grown frustrated with the once-enamored Kirk Ferentz, and I think the wheels come off the Iowa bandwagon in 2015. Off a loss and a bye, Nebraska will be raring to go and I think they’ll pummel the Hawkeyes for a senior day win. Record 8-4
BOWL GAME: It’s impossible to tell how the bowl selection will play out, let alone how motivated a potential Huskers opponent will be. But I’ll say that with an 8-4 record, Nebraska will fall enough in the pecking order to draw an opponent they can beat (read, not an SEC team). Give the Huskers a win to get over the nine-win hump, making 2015 a good but not great season. Sound familiar?
OVERALL: There isn’t a guaranteed loss on the schedule, and aside from a couple of non-conference cupcakes, not an easy win either. It’s not inconceivable to see this Nebraska team survive early struggles with “mid-major” BYU and mercurial Miami, outduel Wisconsin, and be sporting a bagel in the loss column to November. It’s also not absurd to see them with a losing record into the late stages of October, and with a few bad breaks, struggling for bowl eligibility. The tolerances, to borrow a term from CBS golf analyst Nick Faldo, are finer than they used to be in college football. For that reason, I’ll stray from either extreme and pick a middle-of-the-road 9-4 record. Year one, I think that will be okay with most Husker fans. I know it would be for this one.