As the seconds ticked off the clock in Santa Clara last season, you could almost feel the sense of relief across all of Husker Nation. Defeat would not be stolen from the jaws of victory that evening, and while many would celebrate a job well done, many stopped to ask, "What if..."
What if Nebraska knocks down the ball against BYU?
What if Nebraska doesn’t throw a game-ending interception against Miami?
What if Nebraska runs the ball against Illinois?
What if Nebraska has an offensive gameplan against Wisconsin?
What if Nebraska makes the 2-pt conversion against Northwestern?
What if Nebraska has a competent QB against Purdue?
What if Nebraska doesn’t throw 4 INTs against Iowa?
It’s not realistic to believe that all of these would have changed the outcomes of the games. After all, the 2015 Nebraska Cornhuskers proved they were far from a Conference Title contending team and I would be remiss to point out that a new coaching staff plus a relatively young team meant a lot of growing pains, but after beating a UCLA team that was considered a decent national profile showed that Nebraska was perhaps a better team than its 6-7 record would reflect.
The problem with that? Who cares about context? It’s time to get to the closing arguments for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2016.
I. Case History/Opening Statement
A. Case History - We Knew nothing in 2015
This time last year was all optimism. Sure, there was a wholesale change in the coaching staff. Oh, and sure, Coach Mike Riley was far from the sexiest pick for head coach. And yes, there was also the whole problem with fixing a defense that did not have any ability to stop the run. And I guess there is the whole part where Nebraska had to replace Ameer Abdullah.
Look, any optimism Nebraska fans - and football pundits in general - had for the Huskers in 2015 was misguided. The hopes for the season were quickly dashed by a Hail Mary against BYU, and it felt like Nebraska could never quite recover. The question is now more focused on what can we expect in 2016?
B. Opening Statement
Mike Riley is a nice guy.
A. What was written about the Cornhuskers in the offseason
- The Nebraska Cocktail Party Preview
- The Nebraska Potluck 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
- Nebraska Coaches
- Nebraska Traditions
- Nebraska Hate
- Bill C. with serious preview work
B. Further thoughts on the 2016 team
Okay, so the Opening Statement was weak, but let’s talk about the Cornhuskers some more.
Offensively, Nebraska returns QB Tommy Armstrong, Jr. and a whole slew of WRs that can make plays. Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, Stanley Morgan, De’Mornay Pierson-El, and a whole host of talented freshmen gives Riley and OC Danny Langsdorf playcalling options, but if Armstrong does not cut down on its turnovers - 16 INTs by Tommy last year - then bad things will happen.
Yeah, but... run the damn ball.
I tend to be on that train, but with a caveat. Nebraska will be - once again - breaking in a still-gelling offensive line. Dylan Utter should be an early All-B1G candidate at Center, but it gets kind of fuzzy from there. A trio of Sophomores - Nick Gates at LT, Jerald Foster at LG, and Tanner Farmer (So) at RG - along with Jr. David Knevel will be working together to get the run game going. Who will be the guy? That’s a great question.
Last year, Nebraska constantly rotated between Terrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo, and Mikale Wilbon - plus the departed Imani Cross. No one back looked to take a lead, but going into the 2016 campaign it looks like more of the same. In a position that requires some rhythm and understanding of the flow of the game, one can only hope that somebody rises to the top of the pile.
But with Tommy Armstrong’s ability to make defenders miss in the open field and a host of talent up and down the offensive depth chart - and we haven’t even talked about x-factor TE Cethan Carter who will most definitely have more TDs than he did in 2015 - it is fair to believe that Nebraska has a real opportunity to make a 6-7 campaign a 9-3 campaign.
But, that defense...
Last year, Nebraska’s pass defense was about as putrid as you can imagine. That said, Nebraska does happen to return all of its secondary, so maybe there will be improvement. Anchored by Safety Nate Gerry, the secondary returns its two top CBs in Josh Kalu and Chris Jones as well as the other Safety in Aaron Williams. Behind them is a crop of young freshmen that are exciting. Eric Lee, Avery Anderson, and Lamar Jackson could push for playing time as big time players that breathe life into the 122nd ranked pass defense from last year.
Adding to that, Nebraska also has to deal with a depleted defensive line that returns the talented - and still raw - Freedom Akindolum at DE and... well, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve already listed a lot of names, and the point is that you know almost none of them. Can DC Mark Banker make this into a fearsome unit that stops both the run and the pass? That remains to be seen, but if Nebraska wants to get more of those ‘What if’ games to the win column, it better see some production in the trenches. LB should be okay as last year’s surprise defensive unit was solid. Michael Rose-Ivey, Josh Banderas, Dedrick Young, Marcus Newby, and Chris Weber all played last year and will all see time in 2016.
Tl;dr? There are question marks everywhere on this side of the ball, but there is also talent.
C. What we can learn from Pop Culture
Shake it off. That’s gotta be the mantra. Oh, and for the record Mariah shaking it off is >>> Taylor shaking it off.
D. The Schedule of Events
So I guess it comes down to schedule, huh? Nebraska will host the Fresno State Bulldogs, Wyoming Cowboys, and Oregon Ducks this year. I would venture to guess Nebraska will be favored to win two out of three there and could even sneak one by an Oregon team breaking in a new QB. There’s a chance Oregon stomps Nebraska. So again, I’m no help.
The crossovers this year include games at Indiana and Ohio State, and a visit from Maryland - a team we didn’t know existed. Can Nebraska win two out of three? That’s the hope, but Indiana is looking to extend its winning record against the Cornhuskers and let’s just not even pretend going to the Shoe is going to end well. Division wise, Nebraska hosts Illinois, Purdue, and Minnesota and travels to the rest of the quadrangle plus Northwestern. The schedule isn’t the hardest I’ve ever seen, but it’s not like there are 10 games waiting to be picked Wisconsin-style here either.
III. Emotional Plea
Honestly, I have nothing for you this year. I could see this season going in a lot of different directions, none of which necessarily end in anything but multiple losses that baffle the mind. While a person could arguably be talked into rooting for a nice guy like Mike Riley, the bigger picture is that football isn’t an emotional game that rewards people on the merits of niceness. My only hope is that cohesion, a second year of continuity in playcalling, and trust do something. Otherwise I might be writing a "in a new era of Nebraska football..." article in the not-so-distant future.
IV. The Verdict
|Aaron Yorke||7-5 (5-4)|
|Andrew Kraszewski||7-5 (5-4)|
|Brian Gillis||7-5 (5-4)|
|Creighton M||8-4 (6-3)|
|DJ Carver||8-4 (6-3)|
|Candystripes for Breakfast||6-6 (4-5)|
|Graham Filler||7-5 (5-4)|
|Jesse Collins||8-4 (6-3)|
|Thomas Speth||7-5 (5-4)|
|OTE Staff Average:||7.4-4.6 (5.3-3.7)|