For the past four years, I have been in charge of previewing Nebraska football for Off Tackle Empire. The way these things go was really simple. First we would discuss the fact that Nebraska had nine wins or more, and all things considered, life was pretty good. Next, we would dive into the fact that Nebraska turned the ball over an incredible amount of times and miraculously only lost four times. Finally, I would talk about Bo Pelini in some manner - either positively or negatively, often both - and finish with some great optimism about the future. It was pretty straight forward, and while you could argue that it was boring, it was at least accurate.
This year, however, there is a new sheriff in town, and honestly, life is about to get a lot more interesting... or less interesting. I suppose it all depends on how you feel about Coach Mike Riley. We'll dive into that even more tomorrow, but for today, let's give you the 10,000 foot view.
About Last Season
The Good News:
In what was considered a failure of a season by many, Nebraska did win nine games last season. Ameer Abdullah looked Heisman worthy at times, Nebraska spent a good portion of the year ranked, and despite four losses - as was mandated by the Pellllini Law - you might argue that they completely punched above their weight class. While essentially breaking in new QB Tommy Armstrong - taking over fulltime with an offense tailored to his skills for the first time in 2014 - Nebraska's offense was one of the better units in the conference, and hey, no tapes of the coach saying "F*ck the fans," was released. I'd call it a fairly easy year.
The Bad News:
Let's go bullet style, shall we?
- In three quarters, Melvin Gordon ran for a record - at the time - 408 yards. That figure represented roughly 15% of his yards for the season and was brutal considering it was at the clip of 16.32 yards per carry. That was not-so-good.
- To avoid losing three straight games - and what would have been four considering the bowl game - to end the season, Nebraska required theatrics and Kirk Ferentz playing dead at the 50 yard line. That Nebraska won that game isn't inherently bad by any means. The fact that Nebraska lost three of its final four games regardless is less than ideal.
- Nebraska now has a two game losing streak to Minnesota, has lost all but one to Wisconsin since joining the B1G, lost again to Michigan State, and looks to be firmly in the mushy middle that is the soft underbelly of the Big Ten West.
- Oh yeah, then we fired a coach after a nine win season... So that's fun.
- Also, that coach held a meeting with former players where he thought it would be fun to show his players how much he was behind them by driving a spike between him and the players. Oh, and then that tape was leaked, so more good times.
- Lil Red still exists
So yeah, last season wasn't a trainwreck necessarily, but that ending was less than ideal. We're all hoping 2015 goes a little bit better.
On the offensive side of the ball:
The good news is...
For all of the faults of former offensive coordinator Tim Beck, you gotta admit that the results were there. Nebraska finished fourth in the conference in rushing yards per game, rushing yards per carry, fourth in rushing TDs, fourth in passing YPA, fourth in efficiency rating, fourth in total yards per play, and fourth in total yards per game. Considering that there were some really good offenses in the B1G last year, you gotta like the sum of the parts. Going into 2015, QB Tommy Armstrong returns from a mixed campaign in which he will most likely be manning a very different offense under new coach Mike Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. Both of these guys are known for a pro-style offense predicated on the QB making good decisions, quick receivers who can either take quick passes or burn to stretch the field, and a run game that controls the pace to force secondaries up on the line a bit. Oh, and he likes jet sweeps.
Can Armstrong take advantage of this opportunity to work with QB coaches? That remains to be seen, but he'll have some help. The really good news is that despite losing all-purpose god Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska is still loaded at the RB position. Last year, Terrell Newby was the heir apparent with Imani Cross as the change of pace guy who will bruise the hell out of a defensive front. This year they'll be pushed by Adam Taylor - back after injuries in the Spring of 2014, and Mikale Wilbon who has gotten all sorts of positives from coaches and everyone who have seen him run. There is depth, although not quite proven yet, that can take this morphing offense places. Replacing all-time receiving leader Kenny Bell might be a little harder, but Nebraska does get Jordan Westerkamp, De'Mornay Pierson-El (more on him later), and Jamal Turner - healthy and looking to finish his career here strong. Oh, and in theory we will use the TE. I don't really know what we have there. In theory, Cethan Carter's experience will mean good things in this offense, but I'm in the wait and see camp.
The Bad News is...
Everything about this team depends on how fast the team assimilates to a new culture. Nebraska will need to be strong up front, and it's hard to know what we have with the offensive line. Alex Lewis will be the anchor at LT, but the rest of the line will be fights and chemistry for positions. The hope is that the rotation will be deep, but Nebraska will still need to put together a go-to. Oh, and then there's the whole part about QB being an unknown. Tommy Armstrong has talent, but is he the right guy for Riley's offense? Can the receivers not named Jordan Westerkamp prove they should be there? Can we use a TE? Will a solid every down back show up? The bottom line is that the bad news is we don't know anything. There is talent everywhere, but coaching regime changes make things sketchy and so most of us will just have to wait and see what happens next.
On the defensive side of the ball:
The good news is...
By most accounts, this wasn't an awful defense last year. In general, teams had trouble passing against Nebraska - at least efficiently - and outside of the massive breakdown that was the Wisconsin game, Nebraska was fairly average against the run. Those two things together would argue that defense wasn't a complete liability and if you think about it, that's probably fair. Unfortunately, the defense broke down at the most inopportune times. We can get to that in the bad news. Anyhow, going into 2015, DC Mark Banker has said it's all about getting simpler. He focuses on giving defenders the freedom to attack and worry less about perfection.
The defensive line will be solid with DT Maliek Collins anchoring what should be a strength for Nebraska. I would not be surprised to see him be up for awards by the end of the year. Nate Gerry is going to be a ball hawking playmaker at Safety this year as well, which should be a lot of fun to watch. In general, the line and the secondary looks solid. The linebackers? Well, now is a good time to talk about the bad news.
The bad news is...
Linebacker is thin. With David Santos being released from the team earlier this summer, Nebraska looks to have maybe three LBs with game experience and I wouldn't feel great about that situation. Michael Rose-Ivey was on the fast track before getting hurt last year, and Josh Banderas might be better in this defense than ever. Still, those two plus Marcus Newby are your known commodities. Everything else is craziness. If Nebraska goes down in a ball of flames, I would not be surprised to see it due to the lack of bodies to throw at the Linebacker position. Luke Gifford is moving from Safety, and there are some incoming talents in Mohammed Barry and Tyrin Ferguson, but uh, that is a liability to say the least.
On Special Teams:
The good news is...
Mike Riley loves him some Special Teams. Newly minted Special Teams Coordinator Bruce Read brings experience in this area and should help everyone. Sam Foltz was a solid punter last year and should build on his 26 punts downed inside the 20. Drew Brown was a mixed bag at PK, but some of that could just be because I've been spoiled by great kickers. He was 14-21 with a long of 44. He was pretty automatic inside of 40 yards, but needs to get more accurate on long kicks.
Oh, and we have a DPE. Pierson-El, mentioned earlier, is a return specialist. Three punt return TDs, second in the nation in punt yard average (17.5), and was just massively scary against Iowa, who thought it would be cool to just keep kicking to him. He's definitely a really great weapon to have, and I think Nebraska will just continue to use him more this year.
The bad news is...
Nebraska wasn't the best on kickoff coverage, and with Drew Brown taking that job on all by himself this year, I have to think that's still a concern. Additionally, there's the whole part about Brown missing a third of his kicks. I'm going to assume the best about the kicker position, but you know #collegekickers is a thing for a reason. I'm going to just move on.
On the Schedule:
The good news is...
The good news is that Nebraska misses Ohio State, gets Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa at home, and gets BYU when they're dealing with a few suspensions for fighting with Memphis.
The bad news is...
Nebraska crosses with Michigan State who is inarguably the second best B1G team going into 2015, goes to Miami during the swampy late summer in an afternoon throwdown, and has a tough out against BYU to start things off despite question marks everywhere under a new coach. In general, the away games are manageable, but I would not be surprised to see Nebraska drop a couple they shouldn't under a new coaching regime.
The bottom line?
Really, this year is all about change. New coaches, new ways of doing things, lots of new faces on both sides of the ball, new guys becoming the face of the program, and probably some new bad things like an ongoing losing streak to Minnesota... I would expect Nebraska to still win 8 or 9 games, but you should be in a 'wait and see' mode with this team. There are too many unknowns to go out on a limb and predict much confidently... not that lack of information has stopped any of you.
FIVE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS, De'Mornay Pierson-El running past entire punt coverage teams, Maliek Collins beasting on fools from the DT spot, FIVE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS, that time Nebraska beat Iowa last year because Iowa thought they'd try and keep Bo Pelini employed but it didn't work, Ameer Abdullah because you can still talk about him and that bring up that time he saved Nebraska from getting beat by McNeese State, Jordan Westerkamp's facial hair and ability to break Northwestern's heart, how nice Mike Riley seems, lots of sellouts, runza, and the fact that Nebraska has a lot of great cheap steakhouses. Oh, and FIVE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS!
Bo Pelini and his nine win streak, Lil Red, the conference/national championship drought, the relevance at a national stage drought, Melvin Gordon against Nebraska, Wisconsin against Nebraska, Lil Red, Larry the Cable Guy, Adidas uniform atrocities, Mike Riley's age, Mike Riley's overall record at Oregon State, really anything that doesn't point out that Riley is a really nice guy, leaked audiotapes, parallels between Solich and Pelini, AD Tom Osborne, #bowllosses, and Texas because why would you mention them? Unless we're talking about that time we beat them in baseball last Spring. That was fun.