The big 2014 Nebraska football preview: Huskers look like ... a 4-loss team

Nebraska has needed both frustrating losses and miraculous wins to craft this strange streak of six consecutive four-loss seasons. And with a couple of standouts and a lot of rebuilding in the trenches, it appears four losses are again a possibility.

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1. Respect the streak

Sometimes you have to step back and admire something, even if you're not sure whether it's good or bad.

Nebraska's six-year streak of four-loss seasons is simultaneously strong (that's nine or 10 wins every year, as Nebraska points out to recruits) and limiting (only one finish better than 20th in the polls). Bo Pelini's Huskers are consistently some level of good and almost never great, and that becomes frustrating to fans of any school after a while, much less a school with Nebraska's history of better-than-good finishes.

Still, sometimes you just have to admire what had to happen for a streak like this to come about.

  • In 2009-10, if the Huskers weren't great, they were close.They ranked 10th and 16th in the F/+ rankings but fell victim to just enough tight, frustrating losses -- 9-7 to Iowa State in a 2009 fumblefest, 13-12 to Texas in the controversial 2009 Big 12 title game, 20-13 to Texas at home in 2010 (Garrett Gilbert's lone shining moment in a Texas uniform), 9-6 at Texas A&M, 23-20 to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game -- to finish 10-4 both years.

  • In 2011, they weren't as good (28th) but whipped an 11-win Michigan State team and held off Penn State in Happy Valley to remain at only four losses (while a last-second loss to Northwestern kept them from three).

  • In 2012, they improved to 19th but needed tight wins over Northwestern and Michigan State to get back to 10 wins and were prevented from getting an 11th by a close loss at UCLA.

  • And in 2013, they very nearly fell apart; they dropped to 39th but beat Northwestern with a Hail Mary, held off Michigan and Penn State on the road, and upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl to somehow stay at four losses. They suffered some pretty dramatic turnovers luck (they almost lost three points per game to the turnovers fairy), but they went 5-0 in one-possession games all the same, and with the worst team of the Pelini era.

It's not easy to finish with basically the same record every year while your team's quality fluctuates so drastically from year to year. It's to the point where we look at the Huskers' schedule in the offseason and try to figure out which four games will be losses. (This year: at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Iowa, and at either Fresno State or Northwestern? Or maybe they beat Fresno State and Northwestern and lose in the bowl?)

This year, a relatively easy home slate should help immensely in the quest for 9-4 or better, as the roster itself is not very deep with breakthrough talent.

2. We might need to rename Glen Mason Territory

If you've read my previews for long enough, you've come to know the term Glen Mason Territory. I use it to describe when a coach brings solid results to a school but never really breaks through to the top level (or if he does, he doesn't do so for very long). Its namesake took Minnesota to seven bowls in eight years and twice finished in the AP top 20 at a school that hadn't finished a season ranked in nearly 40 years, but he was let go after seasons of 7-5, 7-5, and 6-7. The Gophers have had a winning record just twice in the seven years since.

It's probably pretty obvious where I'm going with this. Bo Pelini has never won fewer than nine games in Lincoln at a school that had only managed that feat twice in the six years before Pelini arrived. He has established a level of play the Huskers hadn't seen since the turn of the century, and while there has been fluctuation (10th in 2009, 39th in 2013), the Huskers are still winning.

But even though Nebraska has experienced the phenomenon of dumping a good coach because he's not great -- Frank Solich went 58-19 in six years at NU and got dumped after going 9-3 in 2003; he was replaced by Bill Callahan, who went 27-22 in four years -- one gets the impression that Pelini isn't going to last much longer without a breakthrough season. And that breakthrough season probably isn't going to be 2014.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 39
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug Wyoming 102 37-34 W 32.7 - 41.8 L
7-Sep Southern Miss 120 56-13 W 36.8 - 27.2 W
14-Sep UCLA 15 21-41 L 20.2 - 33.4 L
21-Sep South Dakota State N/A 59-20 W 50.3 - 38.3 W
5-Oct Illinois 71 39-19 W 35.1 - 19.8 W 2.9
12-Oct at Purdue 114 44-7 W 18.9 - 13.9 W 5.8
26-Oct at Minnesota 55 23-34 L 26.3 - 40.1 L 1.0
2-Nov Northwestern 59 27-24 W 26.6 - 24.8 W 4.0
9-Nov at Michigan 37 17-13 W 19.7 - 10.8 W 3.4
16-Nov Michigan State 6 28-41 L 57.1 - 22.0 W 7.4
23-Nov at Penn State 61 23-20 W 23.5 - 22.0 W 6.7
29-Nov Iowa 29 17-38 L 29.5 - 27.5 W 9.9
1-Jan vs. Georgia 22 24-19 W 24.7 - 16.2 W 11.2
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +0.4% 61 +7.2% 32 +1.5% 38
Points Per Game 31.9 48 24.8 51
Adj. Points Per Game 30.9 49 26.0 50

3. The defense clicked

Part of the frustration in the Pelini era has been that every unit has been great at some point. The offense ranked 18th in Off. F/+ in 2008 and eighth in 2012. The defense ranked fourth in Def. F/+ in 2009 and eighth in 2010. Special teams ranked in the top 20 of Special Teams F/+ from 2008-2011.

But when the defense was at its best, offense was a liability. When the offense got ironed out, the defense fell out of the top 20. And when the two units were at their combined best -- eighth in Off. F/+ and 30th in Def. F/+ in 2012 -- special teams fell apart (110th). This has been a cat-herding experience* for Pelini, who has to be more frustrated about this than Nebraska fans are.

* Cats. Pelini. Yeah, that was totally unintentional. Totally.

For the season as a whole, Nebraska's defense was only good in 2013 and didn't meet the greatness standard established in 2009-10. But after a brutal first month that saw the Huskers allow 6.9 yards per play to South Dakota State and 8.1 to Wyoming, the defense rounded into form.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Nebraska 35.0, Opponent 32.1 (plus-2.9)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Nebraska 22.9, Opponent 22.4 (plus-0.5)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): Nebraska 33.7, Opponent 21.9 (plus-11.8)

The national average for yards per play was around 5.7 in 2013. In the final nine games of the season, Nebraska allowed more than 5.1 just once (strangely enough, it was to Minnesota) and allowed 4.8 or fewer six times. The Blackshirts became a bit of a punchline because of Wyoming and South Dakota State but got angry and got much, much better. That this surge coincided with defensive end Randy Gregory's breakout (0.5 sacks in the first five games, 9.0 in the next eight) probably isn't a coincidence.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.06 102 IsoPPP+ 99.9 61
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 45.1% 43 Succ. Rt. + 106.2 43
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 31.5 101 Def. FP+ 95.4 103
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.8 22 Redzone S&P+ 103.1 47
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.6 ACTUAL 29 +3.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 59 43 43 43
RUSHING 19 24 19 18
PASSING 97 60 73 86
Standard Downs 44 34 68
Passing Downs 49 50 58
Q1 Rk 29 1st Down Rk 36
Q2 Rk 58 2nd Down Rk 57
Q3 Rk 41 3rd Down Rk 52
Q4 Rk 68

4. Tim Beck's job was more difficult in 2013

Everything came together for the 2012 Nebraska offense. Ameer Abdullah and (when healthy) Rex Burkhead gave the Huskers 1,826 rushing yards running behind a line that went from shaky to great with experience. Taylor Martinez was healthy enough to play all 14 games and found a tremendous play-action weapon in wideout Kenny Bell. Plus, offensive coordinator Tim Beck found an incredible play-calling rhythm, mixing a run-heavy approach with both play-action and quick, easy first-down passes. He mastered the art of keeping Martinez out of passing downs and in situations where, if he he was throwing the ball more than eight yards, it was to a really, really wide open receiver.

Life was more difficult in 2013. Martinez suffered a foot injury early in the year, limped through three games, missed three, came back for one week, and was done for the season. He was replaced, back and forth, by Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong, Jr. Kellog was as much a game manager as anything, rushing only 16 times but completing 80 passes with a 60-percent completion rate and two-percent interception rate, both perfectly reasonable. Armstrong, meanwhile, was more prone to both rushes and big pass plays (14.2 yards per completion to Kellogg's 11.5) but completed only 52 percent of his passes with an alarming 6 percent interception rate. Beck's play-calling shifted depending on who was behind center, and predictably, the results weren't quite as strong.

Martinez and Kellogg have both graduated, so it's sink-or-swim with the volatile Armstrong (and a completely rebuilt offensive line) in 2014.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Ron Kellogg III 80 134 919 6 3 59.7% 7 5.0% 6.1
Tommy Armstrong, Jr. 6'1, 220 So. 3 stars (5.7) 68 131 966 9 8 51.9% 4 3.0% 6.9
Taylor Martinez 69 110 667 10 2 62.7% 6 5.2% 5.4
Ryker Fyfe 6'2, 190 So. 2 stars (5.3)
Johnny Stanton 6'2, 225 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Ameer Abdullah RB 5'9, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 281 1690 9 6.0 5.4 43.8%
Imani Cross RB 6'1, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 85 447 10 5.3 5.2 40.0%
Tommy Armstrong, Jr. QB 6'1, 220 So. 3 stars (5.7) 63 235 2 3.7 3.5 38.1%
Terrell Newby RB 5'10, 195 So. 4 stars (6.0) 54 298 2 5.5 3.7 44.4%
Taylor Martinez QB 34 159 0 4.7 4.9 47.1%
Ron Kellogg III QB 16 54 0 3.4 2.0 43.8%
King Frazier RB 12 44 1 3.7 2.0 50.0%
Graham Nabity RB 6'0, 210 So. NR 5 24 0 4.8 0.8 60.0%
Adam Taylor RB 6'2, 210 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Mikale Wilbon RB 5'8, 190 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

5. Steady Ameer

The quarterback is a volatile sophomore. The go-to wideout (Kenny Bell) had a great sophomore season and a wholly mediocre junior campaign; the other receiving options are almost all sophomores. The line returns 16 career starts, one of the lowest marks in the country. The Nebraska offense is in pretty serious flux right now, but with all the uncertainty, the Huskers at least have Ameer Abdullah.

Only 16 FBS players carried the ball at least 250 times in 2013. Of those 16, only six averaged 5.43 or greater Highlight Yards per opportunity. Of those six, only three had a 43 percent Opportunity Rate: NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch, Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews, and Abdullah. Washington's Bishop Sankey (5.44 per opportunity, 42 percent opportunity rate) came close to that mark, but of the country's most durable backs, Abdullah had the best combination of explosiveness and efficiency.

The mobile Armstrong could help to take attention off of him (even though he's not nearly as explosive as Martinez), and when he needs to be spelled, he has a stable of high-quality backups. But he is the surest thing on an offense in need of sure things.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Quincy Enunwa WR-Z 96 51 753 53.1% 26.8% 46.7% 7.8 69 7.7 91.1
Kenny Bell WR-X 6'1, 185 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 88 52 577 59.1% 24.6% 50.6% 6.6 -81 6.8 69.8
Ameer Abdullah RB 5'9, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 30 26 232 86.7% 8.4% 45.8% 7.7 -42 7.1 28.1
Jordan Westerkamp WR-A 6'0, 195 So. 4 stars (5.8) 25 20 283 80.0% 7.0% 30.4% 11.3 65 11.2 34.3
Sam Burtch WR-A 6'3, 195 Jr. NR 22 12 147 54.5% 6.1% 61.9% 6.7 -12 5.7 17.8
Cethan Carter TE 6'4, 240 So. 3 stars (5.6) 19 10 127 52.6% 5.3% 64.7% 6.7 -8 5.7 15.4
Jamal Turner WR-A 6'1, 185 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 19 13 102 68.4% 5.3% 47.4% 5.4 -51 5.3 12.3
Jake Long TE 14 8 121 57.1% 3.9% 41.7% 8.6 18 9.8 14.6
Alonzo Moore WR-Z 6'2, 185 So. 4 stars (5.8) 11 6 75 54.5% 3.1% 60.0% 6.8 -4 5.4 9.1
Taariq Allen WR-Z 6'3, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 7 3 22 42.9% 2.0% N/A 3.1 -24 0.0 2.7
Imani Cross RB 6'1, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 6 4 13 66.7% 1.7% 60.0% 2.2 -35 2.2 1.6
Sam Cotton TE 6'4, 250 So. 3 stars (5.5) 5 3 22 60.0% 1.4% 100.0% 4.4 -16 2.4 2.7
Brandon Reilly WR-X 6'1, 195 So. NR 4 3 24 75.0% 1.1% 66.7% 6.0 -10 6.9 2.9
Terrell Newby RB 5'10, 195 So. 4 stars (6.0) 4 3 1 75.0% 1.1% 0.0% 0.3 -33 0.9 0.1
Kevin Gladney WR 6'1, 185 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Christian Bailey WR 5'11, 195 So. NR
Lane Hovey WR 6'4, 205 So. NR
Monte Harrison WR 6'2, 205 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 107.4 3.09 3.24 42.5% 71.1% 16.6% 120.2 3.5% 5.5%
Rank 38 46 68 29 48 23 47 35 49
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Cole Pensick C 12 2nd All-Big Ten
Jeremiah Sirles RT 41
Spencer Long RG 33
Andrew Rodriguez RG 21
Brent Qvale LT 18
Jake Cotton LG 6'6, 305 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 11
Mike Moudy RG 6'5, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 3
Mark Pelini C 6'0, 290 Sr. NR 2
Matt Finnin LT 6'7, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Ryne Reeves LG 6'3, 300 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Zach Sterup RT 6'8, 315 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Givens Price RG 6'4, 305 Jr. NR 0
Paul Thurston C 6'5, 290 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0
David Knevel OT 6'9, 305 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Zach Hannon OL 6'5, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Alex Lewis (Colorado) OL 6'6, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Tanner Farmer OL 6'4, 315 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
Nick Gates OL 6'5, 275 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Jerald Foster OL 6'3, 312 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

6. So ... about that line...

The offensive line was the unsung hero of 2012. Granted, Martinez's magic running and Beck's play-calling helped, but the Huskers ranked fourth in Adj. Line Yards in 2012. Even after losing Martinez and guard Spencer Long, they still ranked a healthy 38th last year. (And with someone other than Martinez doing most of the passing, the sack rates improved.)

In 2014, the line starts over. Gone are five players with 125 starts on their résumés. Cole Pensick was all-conference in 2013, and Jeremiah Sirles and Long were all-conference in 2012. This was an effective, experienced unit. In theory, as many as four seniors could start this year, but they're four seniors with barely a year of starting experience between them. We'll get to see just how good Abdullah is this year, I guess.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.09 39 IsoPPP+ 102.3 51
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.6% 62 Succ. Rt. + 97.5 65
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 28.5 99 Off. FP+ 94.5 112
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 43 Redzone S&P+ 109.6 25
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.3 ACTUAL 18.0 -3.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 40 57 65 60
RUSHING 54 84 87 74
PASSING 32 41 35 34
Standard Downs 88 88 53
Passing Downs 25 11 87
Q1 Rk 89 1st Down Rk 96
Q2 Rk 34 2nd Down Rk 31
Q3 Rk 53 3rd Down Rk 7
Q4 Rk 30

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 94 3.05 3.04 38.2% 61.4% 19.6% 138.5 8.2% 9.1%
Rank 88 78 38 49 29 56 11 3 20
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Randy Gregory DE 6'6, 245 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 52.0 7.4% 16.0 9.5 1 1 1 1
Jason Ankrah DE 13 28.0 4.0% 7.5 4.0 1 3 2 0
Avery Moss DE 12 27.5 3.9% 6.5 4.5 1 1 0 0
Thad Randle DT 11 23.0 3.3% 3.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Aaron Curry DT 6'1, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 18.5 2.6% 3.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Vincent Valentine DT 6'3, 320 So. 3 stars (5.7) 13 16.5 2.3% 4.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Greg McMullen DE 6'3, 280 So. 4 stars (5.8) 11 12.5 1.8% 3.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Maliek Collins DT 6'2, 300 So. 3 stars (5.7) 12 9.0 1.3% 1.5 1.0 0 0 1 0
Kevin Williams (2012) DT 6'2, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 5 2.5 0.3% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Kevin Maurice DT 6'3, 280 So. 3 stars (5.7) 6 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
A.J. Natter DE 6'5, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Joe Keels DE 6'3, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
Peyton Newell DE 6'3, 285 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

7. Randy will need help

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

Randy Gregory was a four-star JUCO transfer, so it's not like he was completely unheralded by any means. But needless to say, his profile has grown dramatically in a small amount of time. Or to put it another way, nobody saw this coming 12 months ago.

Once Gregory got up to speed following a flat September, he was almost unstoppable, and he made a significant difference on a team looking for play-makers up front. Nebraska's defense over the final two months of the season was as close as the Huskers have come to their 2009-10 level since Prince Amukamara left town.

In 2014, Gregory will have a new supporting cast around him. Jason Ankrah and Avery Moss were decent ends in their own right, and Thad Randle was the steadiest in last year's batch of tackles. Players like tackle Vincent Valentine and end Greg McMullen are young and full of potential, and another JUCO transfer joins the ranks (Joe Keels), but Gregory is the only known entity of the bunch, and this was already a line that struggled mightily against run blocking (11th in Adj. Sack Rate but 88th in Adj. Line Yards).

At least the linebackers are solid. This is probably the most high-upside set of LBs the Huskers have had in quite a while, with three returning starters combining for 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, and some deflections last fall. Run defense will almost certainly continue to be an issue in 2014, but the athleticism and potential for help in pass defense is still pretty high.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
David Santos BUCK 6'0, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 67.5 9.6% 6.5 2.0 0 2 0 0
Michael Rose MIKE 5'11, 240 So. 3 stars (5.7) 12 51.5 7.3% 5.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Zaire Anderson WILL 5'11, 220 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 12 40.0 5.7% 5.5 3.0 0 1 0 0
Josh Banderas MIKE 6'2, 235 So. 4 stars (5.8) 13 20.0 2.8% 2.5 2.0 0 1 0 0
Jared Afalava LB 4 9.5 1.3% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Colby Starkebaum LB 13 4.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Trevor Roach
(2012)
LB 6'2, 235 Sr. NR 5 3.0 0.4% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Austin Williams LB 6'0, 200 Sr. NR 10 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 2 0
Marcus Newby LB 6'1, 215 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Courtney Love LB 6'1, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Corey Cooper SS 6'1, 215 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 71.5 10.2% 4 2 1 1 1 0
Ciante Evans CB 13 38.0 5.4% 10.5 3 4 6 1 0
Andrew Green FS 13 36.0 5.1% 1.5 0 0 3 0 0
Stanley Jean-Baptiste CB 13 34.0 4.8% 3 1 4 12 0 0
LeRoy Alexander FS 6'0, 200 So. 3 stars (5.6) 13 31.0 4.4% 1 0 1 1 0 1
Josh Mitchell CB 5'11, 160 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 27.0 3.8% 3 0 1 6 0 0
Harvey Jackson FS 10 26.5 3.8% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Nathan Gerry FS 6'2, 210 So. 3 stars (5.7) 13 25.0 3.6% 2 0 0 0 0 0
Mohammed Seisay CB 12 8.5 1.2% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Charles Jackson S 5'11, 180 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Wil Richards S 7 4.0 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jonathan Rose CB 6'1, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)
Daniel Davie CB 6'1, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
D.J. Singleton S 6'1, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Boaz Joseph CB 6'1, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Drake Martinez S 6'2, 195 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Byerson Cockrell DB 6'0, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.4)

8. A lot of play-making out the door

An elite pass rush helped out, but the pass defense was pretty solid on its own in 2013. Ciante Evans pulled an incredibly rare feat (10+ TFLs by a defensive back), while Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste combined to pick off eight passes and break up another 18. Again, this was the most active, exciting defense NU has had since 2010, and like 2010, the secondary was deep and athletic.

It's less deep in 2014. Steady safety Corey Cooper returns, as do two sophomore safeties (LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry) and a senior corner (Josh Mitchell) who got quite a bit of playing time last fall. But Evans and Jean-Baptiste are gone, as are safeties Andrew Green and Harvey Jackson. Mitchell has potential in terms of getting his hands on passes, and Gerry seems pretty good near the line of scrimmage, but the depth has vanished unless some redshirt freshmen are ready to make a difference from the start of the year.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Sam Foltz 6'1, 205 So. 71 41.6 7 16 22 53.5%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Mauro Bondi 6'0, 205 Jr. 77 63.2 48 1 62.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Pat Smith 43-45 8-8 100.0% 4-5 80.0%
Mauro Bondi 6'0, 205 Jr. 7-8 1-1 100.0% 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Kenny Bell KR 6'1, 185 Sr. 23 26.5 1
Alonzo Moore KR 6'2, 185 So. 5 23.2 0
Jordan Westerkamp PR 6'0, 195 So. 19 2.7 0
Jamal Turner PR 6'1, 185 Sr. 2 3.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 38
Field Goal Efficiency 13
Punt Return Efficiency 97
Kick Return Efficiency 36
Punt Efficiency 46
Kickoff Efficiency 77
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 98

9. A field position nightmare

Nebraska's special teams ratings bounced back pretty far after a surprisingly awful 2012, but it was mostly because of place-kicker Pat Smith, who was mostly automatic on kicks under 40 yards. Punting and kick returns were alright, but between kickoffs (lots of touchbacks missed with some breakdowns), punt returns, the offense's propensity for costly turnovers, and a defense that didn't quite force enough three-and-outs, Nebraska was quite bad in the field position battle. They were 98th in the country in Field Position Margin (minus-3.0 yards per drive) and got even worse in conference play (minus-4.6, ahead of only Illinois).

Finding a new punt returner might not be a bad idea, but with potentially the same offensive volatility and struggles on run defense, Nebraska might be destined to lose the field position battle again in 2014.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug Florida Atlantic 89
6-Sep McNeese State NR
13-Sep at Fresno State 48
20-Sep Miami 30
27-Sep Illinois 63
4-Oct at Michigan State 13
18-Oct at Northwestern 50
25-Oct Rutgers 78
1-Nov Purdue 108
15-Nov at Wisconsin 15
22-Nov Minnesota 73
28-Nov at Iowa 34
Five-Year F/+ Rk 17.6% (21)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 22
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* -11 / -4.3
TO Luck/Game -2.6
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (5, 6)

10. A hell of a road slate

Nebraska has a schedule similar to Michigan's: a ton of winnable home games mixed with a nearly impossible road slate.

Of the four projected top-35 teams on the slate, three host the Huskers (as does an athletic Fresno State squad); meanwhile, six of seven home opponents project worse than 60th. (McNeese State was a pretty damn good FCS team and just added Kansas State's Daniel Sams, by the way, but ... no.)

That sounds like a four-loss season to me.

My first impression is that Nebraska will top last year's No. 39 F/+ ranking, but mainly because the Huskers were quite a bit better than that over the last nine games. It's hard to imagine this team, with both lines and the secondary getting rebuilt, will be able to crack the top 20 or top 25.

And this puts Pelini (and his bosses) in an awkward situation. Pelini has won the last two offseasons -- first thanks to Jack Hoffman, then thanks to @FauxPelini -- but he's probably running out of time in search for a breakthrough, and it's hard to see a breakthrough happening in 2014.

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