This is part the part of the Big Ten Blog season where we preview the upcoming football season in a road trip fashion. Next stop, we're taking I-35 to I-80 West. It's your turn Nebraska.
2016 Record (Bowl Game) : 9-4 (Music City Bowl vs. Tennessee, L 24-38)
Nebraska hasn't finished in the top 10 since 2001. Nebraska hasn't won a National Championship since 1999. Nebraska fans will continually tell you how elite of a program they have. And sure, they undoubtedly have a rich college football history. There is one objective truth about Nebraska football: potential recruits were born post-Tom Osborne and the Huskers last national championship. They do not care about the the 20th century.
Nebraska football is in a state of transition regarding their future. At times they've seemed to reach out and grab greatness of millenniums past, at times winning 10 games in 2012 but never quite reaching the mountain of dominance that Wisconsin has controlled in the Big Ten West. 2016 was no different. An October 29th cracker of a game against Wisconsin at Camp Randall derailed the then 7th ranked team from Lincoln, a game that Wisconsin would win 23-17 in overtime. A 59 point drubbing against Ohio State and a 30 point embarrassment against rival Iowa would put a tremendously bitter bow on a season that started with seven consecutive wins. A departure of a longtime colleague of Mike Riley's and the departure of Nebraska's all-time leader in total offense highlight a pivotal 2017 for Nebraska Cornhusker football.
The offense is going to look significantly different in 2017 much to the pleasure of Mike Riley as he enters his third year in Lincoln. Tommy Armstrong is Nebraska's all-time leader in total offense. But, this isn't to say the marriage between him and Riley was a good one. Mike Riley came from Oregon State where he guided Sean Mannion into becoming the PAC-12's all-time leader in passing yards. Riley desperately wants to get to a pro-style type quarterback. Enter Tanner Lee. Lee is transferring in from Tulane after a change in offensive style in New Orleans. Lee started 19 games and threw for 23 touchdowns during his time for the Green Waves. Nebraska will also be looking to run the ball better outside of the designed runs for Armstrong last year. Iowa and Wisconsin both were in the top half in conference rushing last year while Northwestern is returning the best running back in the conference not names Saquon Barkley. Nebraska is losing almost 1300 yards of rushing between Armstrong and running back Terrell Newby. Sophomore Tre Bryant will take over the starting role. The offensive line will return four lineman from their bowl lose to Tennessee led by offensive tackle Nick Gates who was a 3rd-Team All-Big Ten Media pick as sophomore. Jordan Westerkamp graduated after spending the better part of a decade at Nebraska. He ended his career second in receptions and fourth in receiving yards all time. The burden of replacing his production will fall on junior Stanley Morgan who trailed only Westerkamp on the team in receiving yards last year with 453. De'Mornay Pierson-El will provide some explosiveness as it's already felt on special teams. He is second nationally in career punt return yards. It'll be a tough burden to bear for Lee at quarterback as he'll have to direct an offense that only returns 14 percent of offensive yards.
The Blackshirt defense gave up 78 points in their final two games of 2016. Giving up 40 points in to Iowa is a fireable offense in and of itself if you were to poll many Nebraskans. It just may have been too as defensive coordinator Mark Banker was let go just about a week and half after their Holiday Bowl loss. Banker and Riley had worked together for close to two decades so the defensive situation was contentious at best. Former UConn head coach Bob Diaco and the defense now changes over to a 3-4 from a 4-3 base defense. Diaco most notably coordinated the 2012 Notre Dame defense that saw them only to get eviscerated by Alabama in the national championship. The transition will be expedited as there is experience in the front seven. Mick Stoltenberg and Freedom Akinmoladun will anchor the defensive line as they'll match off against teams too concerned with name pronunciation than too block them . Akinmoladun led the team with 10 QB hurries. The linebackers will have a combination of young talent and experience. Marcus Newby and Dedrick Young combined for 78 tackles so they will be able to balance out some new faces in to replace Josh Banderas' team-leading 93 tackles from a year ago. Unfortunately, the strongest unit took a big hit as defensive back Chris Jones may not return this season after meniscus surgery has sidelined him for up to six months. Joshua Kalu and Kieron Williams return with 6 combined interceptions at the free safety position. There just may be too much transition in the defense to confidently map out production.
Nebraska travels to Oregon for a non-conference match up week 2. This game will gauge how well Bob Diaco's defense is being transitioned into as the Ducks rushed for 336 yards last year against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska can take solace in hosting Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa as if that's some sort of consolation. They also travel to Happy Valley for a shot at Penn State. Brutal. The streak continues and Nebraska won't finish in the top 10 again. There is too much in transition in Lincoln for Nebraska to seriously compete in the West.