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The Kool Aid is flowing fast and freely around the Nebraska football program.
Just months after getting a backdoor bid into a bowl game that allowed them to finish 6-7, some pundits are predicting Nebraska to win the Big Ten West. Others* are saying Nebraska is a legitimate contender for the four team playoff.
*That one of those “prognosticators” is a character from a Dr. Pepper commercial should probably be at the top of this list.
Nebraska football in the 21st century has been an ongoing Peanuts cartoon. Charlie Brown, wearing his Nebraska jersey, is confident that he can kick the ball through the uprights of their season. But before the ball goes sailing towards championship glory, it is pulled away and Nebraska ends up flat on his back.
So how will Lucy Van Pelt pull the ball away this year? Here are some things to watch out for:
At his best, he’s a dynamic playmaker who can beat you with his arm and his legs. But far too often he beats his own team with bad throws and horrible decisions. His touchdown to interception ratio got worse from his sophomore to junior season. Husker fans will probably be dancing in the streets if he throws fewer than one pick per game this year.
Nebraska’s greatest chance for success in 2016 rests in Armstrong’s hands. Do you trust him to take care of it?
Here’s the harsh truth about Tommy Armstrong: as frustratingly inconsistent as he has been, he is still the best quarterback on the Nebraska roster. And it is not even close.
Let’s take a quick look at the quarterback depth chart:
- Ryker Fyfe. In his lone start – the rock bottom 55-45 loss at Purdue – he threw four interceptions and rushed for negative 35 yards.
- Patrick O’Brien. The true freshman has a ton of recruiting hype, but zero collegiate snaps (unless you count the Spring Game where he looked like a high school kid playing against college guys).
- Zack Darlington. He will take some snaps – as Drew Brown’s holder.
- A.J. Bush. He could push for the starting job – at Iowa Western Community College.
Arguably the best quarterback on the team – Tulane transfer Tanner Lee – is ineligible to play in 2016.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Nebraska is a nine win team with Armstrong under center. If Armstrong gets hurt early in the season, do you have confidence that anybody else can guide this team to a winning record? I have doubts.
Danny Langsdorf’s play calling
We all saw the success Nebraska had running over UCLA in the bowl game (and hopefully you saw that UCLA had apparently attended a Bo Pelini clinic on rush defense). We all heard Mike Riley state that he wants Nebraska to be “top three” in the conference in rushing. But I fear that is going to be easier said than done.
Aside from not having a go-to back, an unproven line, and a coaching staff perceived to favor the forward pass, there is the notable fact that the best position group on the team is the wide receivers/tight ends. Do you trust Danny Langsdorf to stick to the run when none of the backs can consistently get four yards, and he sees Jordan Westerkamp, Cethan Carter, and a host of talented receivers perimeter blocking in vain?
This one is short and painfully simple: The offense turns the ball over WAY to often – twice per game in 2015. Meanwhile, the defense does not take the ball away nearly enough – a hair over one per game. Frankly, I’m surprised the 2015 turnover margin (-15) wasn’t bigger.
I’d like to be able to say I see a dramatic change on the horizon for the offense or defense, but I wouldn’t wager on it.
Sneak a peek at the current depth chart. Looking at the top two for each position, I count 28 guys who are sophomores or younger. Several guys will get their first game experience, start, or both against Fresno State. How many of these guys will shine under the bright lights, and how many will freeze? Are they prepared – mentally and physically – for 12, 13, or more games?
The inexperience is most glaring on the lines. While Nick Gates and Dylan Utter are technically returning starters, both will be playing new positions on the line – along with three other new starters. The defensive side is a little better, despite losing four players with eligibility left. Ross Dzuris, Freedom Akinmoladun, and Kevin Maurice saw a lot of snaps last year, but they only have nine career starts. Combined.
With conference games starting in less than a month, the kids will need to grow up fast.
Remember last year how Nebraska did not have a week off until after Week 11? The good news is this year’s schedule offers a week for rest, recovery, and fall weddings five weeks into the season. The bad news is the slate may be more challenging than last year. This year, the Big Ten goes to a nine game conference schedule. This means trading South Alabama for another Big Ten East foe.
Looking over the schedule, there is a definite possibility that Nebraska may not win away from home this year. Look at the road slate:
- Northwestern – They were a 10 win team a year ago, and always play NU tough.
- Indiana – Definitely NU’s best chance for road success, but the Hoosiers are starting to get things going, and could use a statement win.
- Wisconsin – To put it politely, Madison has not been kind to Nebraska.
- Ohio State – When Nebraska plays the Buckeyes, its realistic to think they might be 8-0 and ranked #1. Maybe we can play this game in Columbus, Nebraska…
- Iowa – Regardless of if you consider Iowa a rival, I can guarantee that they want to beat Nebraska – especially if they can repeat as division champs.
Nebraska had a losing record at home in 2015. They can’t afford to do that again in 2016.
Take one more look at the schedule. Objectively, knowing this team finished 6-7 a year ago, how many no-doubt, 100% guaranteed wins are on the schedule? If your answer is more than “seven”, you probably should lay off the Kool Aid until Signing Day.
The 2015 season was derailed early by a series of close, heartbreaking losses and some lingering drama from players loyal to the old coaching staff. After a year to implement their system – and flush out guys who weren’t buying in – everybody should be on the same page this fall. Right?
Don’t count on it.
The tragic death of Sam Foltz – arguably one of the most proven and valuable players on the team – will have a big impact. Everybody deals with grief and loss differently, and some people can be blindsided by it at unexpected times. Then there is Keith Williams and the fall out from his drunk driving case. Between the time away from practice during fall camp, the four game suspension, and any court proceedings during the season, some level of distraction is all but guaranteed.
Finally, there is Mike Riley’s job security. In no way do I consider him on any type of “hot seat” entering the season. But what if the team comes home from Ohio State with four (or more) losses? It would take a lot to insulate the team from the angst and drama that would go along with another disappointing season.