It’s that time of year, Husker fans. Time to break out the tailgate gear, dust off the game day attire, and head to Lincoln for another year of Nebraska football.
For most fans, 2015 will go down as a year to forget for Nebraska football. Having to sneak into a bowl game via APR scores after a sub-.500 year won’t go down in anyone’s mind as one of the Huskers finest seasons.
However, lost among the irrational calls for Mike Riley’s head and groans about playing the Foster Farms Bowl before the calendar flipped to January, there were some signs that the tide had started to turn for NU.
In Nebraska’s bowl win over UCLA, the offensive coaching staff finally seemed to embrace a few of Tommy Armstrong’s strengths. The defensive backfield started to resemble that of a Power 5 conference school. And Nebraska managed to capture some momentum at the end with a win in San Francisco.
So, with another year of off-season work under Riley’s care, its not unreasonable to assume both the offensive and defensive units will look more comfortable this year, and could easily pick up right where they left off in the bowl game. It should be noted that Nebraska does face replacing some key personnel, and are once again thin at a few positions.
In terms of weaknesses, the biggest areas of concern for the Huskers are the offensive and defensive lines, and consistency of quarterback play. If Tommy Armstrong Jr. can overcome some of his turnover issues, and the coaching staff continues to play to his strengths as they did in the bowl win, perhaps he’s primed for big time bounce back season. There’s no question he has big play potential, but simply needs to minimize mistakes.
On both lines, depth and personnel appear to be significant question marks. Could the offensive line group, with three new starters, improve from a year ago? Sure. But without seeing them in game action, its tough to just assume it’ll be a step forward. Losing Gerald Foster to injury for the season during camp underscores this even more.
Defensively up front, the Huskers will needs to show a more consistent pass rush from a year ago. Defensive end might be the thinnest position on the team, and both starters (Ross Dzuris, Freedom Akinmoladun) will need to show more this season.
That said, there are also plenty of strengths for this Nebraska team. Wide receiver, running back, linebacker, and perhaps even the secondary are primed to be bright spots for the Huskers this year. The wideout group is probably the deepest and most talented in school history, and injuries over the past two season have blessed the Huskers with incredible depth at the linebacker spot. Some fresh faces in the defensive backfield could also lead to a big improvement this year.
Taking everything into consideration, and going game by game through the schedule, I’m picking the Huskers to go 8-4 this year.
In terms of confidence level, I’m probably closer to feeling a 7-5 season than 9-3. There’s a few swing games that I could see going either way - Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana - which could impact the outcome considerably.
The good news is, barring a few key injuries, I don’t see a plausible scenario in which Nebraska fails to go at least .500 this year, and overall, this should be an improved football team from a year ago. Even though the Huskers won’t win the Big Ten West, they should be in solid contention for second place, and will look much more comfortable in year two under Mike Riley. It should be a big momentum building year, and hopefully lead to a much bigger 2017 campaign.
Here’s how I arrived at 8-4 for Nebraska this season:
9/3 - Fresno State - Win
If Nebraska doesn’t get these first two games at home, the issues likely run a lot deeper than what I pointed out above. The only way the Huskers could struggle here is if they go minus two or three in the turnover battle, and those miscues happen in some really bad spots. It could happen, but I won’t bank on it.
9/10 - Wyoming - Win
See above. You can play it up anyway you want, but Nebraska should be better at just about every spot on the field.
9/17 - Oregon - Loss
This may not turn out to be an Oregon team of Marcus Mariota lore, but the Ducks are just plain fast all over the field, and I think Nebraska is going to have a hard time keeping up. Because of how fast they can score, Oregon isn’t a team you want to turn the ball over to, and Nebraska has had their fair share of issues with that recently. Ultimately, its just a bad matchup for the Huskers.
9/24 - @ Northwestern - Win
One of the toughest games on Nebraska’s Big Ten schedule for me to call one way or the other. I think Northwestern might be slightly better than a year ago, but not have nearly as good of a record. I’m told Nebraska doesn’t have a very good track record wearing alternate uniforms (for whatever that’s worth), and the combo of QB Clayton Thorson and RB Justin Jackson might prove to be a little too much for the Huskers. I could see it going either way, but I’ll lean towards NU picking up a big road win to open conference play.
10/1 - Illinois - Win
Illinois will improve under Lovie Smith this year, but not dramatically. Gone are most of the skill position players that tortured Nebraska on the road in terrible weather conditions a year ago. I can’t see NU dropping two in a row to Illinois, especially given how last year’s contest played out in the fourth quarter.
10/15 - @ Indiana - Loss
This one might surprise some folks, but this is a very tricky spot for the Huskers. Indiana is a tough place to play - its not a great environment (at all), and Nebraska hardly ever makes this trip for some reason. Kevin Wilson’s teams never have issues scoring points, and they’ve changed things up on defense this year with new coordinator Tom Allen. There’s a chance its a shootout, and if that’s the case, I’ll go with the home team.
10/22 - Purdue - Win
No way, no how does Nebraska lose this game at home this year. If the Huskers only win one game - this will be it. Katy bar the door if they don’t.
10/29 - @ Wisconsin - Win
The Huskers catch Wisconsin at a good time, at the tail end of a Michigan State - Michigan - Ohio State- Iowa stretch, with three of those game on the road. The Badgers could be pretty beat down at this point, and I’m not sold Bart Houston can muster enough a the QB position to make Wisconsin all that dangerous this year.
11/5 - @ Ohio State - Loss
Pretty easy call here - it would be a massive upset if Nebraska wins in Columbus.
11/12 - Minnesota - Win
Behind Northwestern, the second toughest game to call in the Big Ten. Is Mitch Leidner really an NFL QB? Can he make his way into the first round? Will Tracy Claeys have as seamless of a transition to head coach as what we’re being made to believe? End of the day - I’ll believe it all when I see it. Until then, this one goes to the Huskers.
11/19 - Maryland - Win
New head coach DJ Durkin is a good one and will turn this thing around, but not right away. The Terps will challenge for the dubious honor of worst in the Big Ten this year. Should be a win for Nebraska.
11/25 - @ Iowa - Loss
The Hawkeyes should be really, really good this year, folks. Even when Nebraska has been the far superior team, these games at Kinnick have always been close, and this is the year Iowa finally gets it done at home. Nebraska finishes a respectable second place in the Big Ten West, and Iowa marches on to Indianapolis the following week.
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