As Nebraska’s fall camp continues, there is a lot of positive news, hyperbole, and high expectations being placed on the Huskers. If you consume enough of the preseason Kool Aid, you can easily convince yourself that this Husker team is poised to win the Big Ten West and even challenge for a spot in the new football playoff.,
On the surface, I agree. Those things are possible. But such rose-colored glasses thinking overlooks some very serious concerns on this Nebraska team. Things that easily turn a promising season into another four loss campaign – or worse.
1. Quarterback. Despite some preseason noise about being pushed by Ryker Fyfe, Tommy Armstrong will be the starter and likely will get every opportunity to succeed. I think Armstrong did a decent job last year as a redshirt freshman coming off the bench for the injured Taylor Martinez. Armstrong’s supporters love to point out that NU was 7-1 in games he started*. But Armstrong has been tagged with the dreaded “game manager” label, which is football code for “not talented enough to win games on his own”.
*Let’s break down that 7-1 record:
- South Dakota State: Won 59-20. 12-15 passing for 169 yards, 0 INT, 1 TD. Five rushes for 38 yards. The Jacks are a FCS team. They may be an above average FCS team, but let’s be honest and acknowledge there were likely 20 guys on the 2013 Husker team who could have quarterbacked NU to victory over SD State.
- Illinois: Won 39-19. 8-13 passing for 135, 0 INT, and 2 TD. 9 rushes for 18 yards. It’s worth noting that the highlight of the day – Kenny Bell’s leaping, one-handed circus catch and touchdown – would have been intercepted had Bell not made the catch of his life.
- At Purdue: Won 44-7. 6-18 passing for 43 yards, 3 INT and 0 TD. 4 rushes for 5 yards and a TD. Purdue is the Big Ten equivalent of a FCS team, so thankfully Armstrong’s worst game of the season didn’t hurt NU. Against any other Big Ten team, those numbers will get you benched, beat, or both.
- Northwestern: Won 27-24. 15-29 passing for 173 yards, 3 INT and 1 TD. 17 rushes for 69 yards and a TD. It is true that half of Nebraska’s points came on drives led by Armstrong. It is also true that Armstrong’s three interceptions only led to three Northwestern points. But mostly, it is true that Armstrong was on the sideline when Jordan Westerkamp caught the game winning Hail Mary.
- At Michigan: Won 17-13. 11-19 passing for 139 yards, 0 INT and 1 TD. 12 rushes for 13 yards. Armstrong rightfully gets a lot of credit for “winning in the Big House”, but it is worth noting that he got bailed out by Ameer Abdullah catching a horrible and ill-advised option pitch on the goal line and turning it into a game winning touchdown.
- Michigan State: Lost 41-28. 9-21 passing for 143 yards, 1 INT and 2 TD. 5 rushes for 9 yards. There was a lot of blame to go around for this loss, but being personally accountable for three turnovers (which led to 14 points) didn’t help.
- At Penn State: Won 23-20 (OT). 1-2 passing for 1 yard, 0 INT and 0 TD. 1 rush for 1 yard. Armstrong hurt his ankle and didn’t record a stat after the first quarter.
- Georgia: Won 24-19. 6-14 passing for 163 yards, 1 INT and 2 TD. 10 rushes for 26 yards. For my money, this was Armstrong’s best win, and the one that should give Husker fans hope about his future.
Where does that leave us? Give Armstrong credit for wins against Illinois, Michigan, and Georgia. If you’re feeling charitable, you can count South Dakota State and Purdue as well. The Michigan State loss is on his tab. But I can’t give Armstrong credit for the Northwestern or Penn State wins just because he took the first snap.
Add it all up, and that 7-1 record as a starter is more like 3-1. That’s still good for a redshirt freshman against some big competition, but it gives a better representation of his season than a bogus 7-1 record.
Quarterback depth is a big concern. Fyfe seems like he would be a serviceable replacement, but after that it gets scary in a hurry.
2. Defensive End. Defections, recruiting misses, and suspensions, oh my. If it wasn’t for Randy Gregory destroying the curve like he does with unsuspecting quarterbacks, this position might be number one.
3. Kicker. Lost in the feline fun of the Spring Game were these ugly stats: the lone scholarship kicker misses an 18 yard FG attempt, a PAT, and has another PAT blocked.
In his post-spring remarks, Bo Pelini specifically mentioned incoming freshman Drew Brown, and most fans are targeting the little brother of legendary kicker Kris Brown as the answer. But what if Brown can’t get it done either? Looking back at 2013, one can easily point to three games (Wyoming, Michigan, Penn State) where a Nebraska win was directly enabled by a Pat Smith field goal and/or a miss by the opposing kicker. I don’t think it is a big stretch to say that the difference between an 8-4 regular season and a 5-7 one was a competent field goal kicker. One other stat to chew on:
Is 2014 the year Nebraska fans realize just how good they’ve had it with kickers over the last decade?
4. Defensive depth. Nebraska lost three defensive starters (Charles Jackson, Leroy Alexander, and Michael Rose) in the first week of fall camp. There are guys on the roster to take their places, but they are young and mostly unproven. What happens if they don’t produce or get hurt? The lack of proven depth at several defensive positions should not be confused with the next one…
5. How long will it take to get the defense up to speed? Bo Pelini likes to tinker and experiment during the first few games of the season. He likes to play with lineups and combinations of players looking for a unit that will perform up to his high standards.
The end result is typically a strong defense that peaks down the stretch. But the downside is the potential for blown assignments and statistically ugly performances while Bo aligns his chess pieces (see the first three games of 2013). If the offense struggles out of the gate, the defense needs to be able to carry the team, not burden them by giving up 35 points per game. Pelini and Papuchis better have it figured out by the Fresno State or Miami games.
6. The schedule. There is not a single gimme on Nebraska’s road schedule. Fresno State has a long history of knocking off big name schools at home. Michigan State is the reigning Rose Bowl champ. Northwestern is thisclose to being 3-0 against Nebraska in the Big 10. Wisconsin has routed NU in two of their three meetings. Iowa seems to be embracing the Heroes Game rivalry (or at least the opportunity to beat NU) more than Nebraska has.
Given the minefields Nebraska will face on the road, there is no room for error on a home schedule with Miami, Minnesota, and three other B1G teams good enough to steal a win in Lincoln.
7. How many of Nebraska’s demons return in 2014? Pelini critics can easily rattle off the list of things that have plagued Nebraska squads under Bo: penalties, turnovers, punt returns, getting beat by inferior teams, blowout losses, and sideline meltdowns.
Frankly, it’s unrealistic for even the biggest Bo-liever to think all of these things go away in 2014. The concern is how many of them reappear, when, and at what cost?
At the risk of being called a hater, downer, or worse, it’s worth noting that despite these obstacles, Nebraska could still challenge for a division title, win nine games, and play in a January 1 bowl game. But it is tough to see Nebraska going much farther unless they can avoid these landmines.
Time will tell.