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1. Careful what you wish for ...
When a coach raises the bar for a program but then stops raising it, fans get impatient. And impatience can bring iffy decision-making.
But even though Nebraska has experienced the phenomenon of dumping a good coach because he's not great -- Frank Solich went 58-19 and got dumped after going 9-3; he was replaced by Bill Callahan, who went 27-22 -- one gets the impression Pelini isn't going to last much longer without a breakthrough season.
If they want to fire me, go ahead. I believe in what I have done and I don't apologize for anything I have done.
-- Bo Pelini
It was obvious how this marriage was going to end. It was only a question of when.
Warts and all, Bo Pelini won at a consistent level. Since ranking eighth in F/+ in 2009, Pelini engineered a finish between 20th and 30th in four of five seasons. Following a blip in 2013 -- the Huskers still went 9-4, as was customary, but ranked just 55th -- Pelini's charges rebounded to 30th, playing better than that for three-quarters of the year but suffering significant blips in big games.
The improvement didn't fend off what was certain. Nebraska fired Pelini, forgoing nine wins a year for the dream of more. It was a frustrating end for an obviously good coach, but it was a fresh start we knew would come.
But if Pelini's firing wasn't a surprise, Nebraska's replacement certainly was.
In Mike Riley, Nebraska elected to bring in a guy who a) is the opposite of Pelini in demeanor and b) only won more than nine games once in 14 years at Oregon State. The minuses (he won only 29 games in the last five years) and pluses (he won 70 games in 10 years at Oregon State ... just think of what he could do at a bigger program) of his hire were evident, and honestly, that makes it difficult to know what to expect. His friendly grandpa carriage means he will earn a level of goodwill that Pelini never did, and perhaps that means that on-the-field bar won't be as high.
Then again, Solich was a super-nice guy. He got dumped after averaging 9.7 wins. So forget that part.
We can debate whether Nebraska sets the bar too high, but we know that the 61-year-old Riley will get at least a few years to prove himself. He has crafted one of the most unique résumés in college football -- he won two Grey Cups with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, went 14-34 in the NFL, and won 93 games for a power-conference underdog -- and this will likely be his final entry. He inherits a roster that is fun but flawed.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 30|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|13-Sep||at Fresno State||102||55-19||W||94%||36.4||100%|
|4-Oct||at Michigan State||11||22-27||L||27%||-14.5||0%|
|Points Per Game||37.8||13||26.4||61|
2. Three duds
Inevitable or not, Pelini's firing took place when it did because of three bad performances. Nebraska played at a top-20 level during the rest of the regular season, but when the Huskers slid, they slid a lot.
- Average Percentile Performance (3 regular-season losses): 24% (~top 100)
- Average Percentile Performance (9 regular-season wins): 84% (~top 20)
It was not always this stark, but this was a defining characteristic of the Pelini era. In 2014, the Huskers didn't just lose to Wisconsin, they watched as Melvin Gordon set a single-game rushing record. In 2013, they didn't just lose to UCLA and Iowa at home, they lost by a combined 41. In 2012, they lost to Ohio State and Wisconsin by a combined 64. In 2011, they lost to Wisconsin and Michigan by a combined 59.
In Pelini's last four seasons, he lost 15 games, but 11 were by double digits, and seven were by at least 20 points. He went 1-3 vs. Wisconsin, lost his last two against Minnesota, and his last two against Michigan State. And while his 2014 team bounced back after a tenuous 2013, it rarely played well against good competition.
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ top 40): 40% (record: 1-4)
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. No. 41-plus): 85% (record: 8-0)
One gets the impression that the magnitude of the losses were as important as the losses themselves. I understand that, even if I stick to my "Be careful what you wish for" attitude.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.6%||41||Succ. Rt. +||117.2||20|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||27.6||19||Def. FP+||106.0||13|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.4||66||Redzone S&P+||119.1||19|
|Q1 Rk||23||1st Down Rk||33|
|Q2 Rk||50||2nd Down Rk||23|
|Q3 Rk||25||3rd Down Rk||69|
3. A Danny Langsdorf offense
Combining carries and pass targets, Ameer Abdullah had nearly 23 intended touches per game and accounted for nearly 2,000 total yards. Abdullah and Kenny Bell combined to account for 35 percent of NU's targets and 1,059 receiving yards. Losing these two would have changed the identity of the offense even if Pelini hadn't been fired; perhaps this wasn't the worst time for change in the coaching booth.
I enjoyed writing about new coordinator Danny Langsdorf's Oregon State offenses through the years. From last year's OSU preview:
Langsdorf had helped craft what can be called (as a compliment) a "little-league offense," as in everybody touches the ball. Langsdorf and Riley (the play-caller) spread the ball around and gave playmakers opportunities.
In 2013, that meant giving 44 carries to receivers Brandin Cooks and Victor Bolden and targeting running backs Storm Woods and Terron Woods with 104 passes. Andy Staples wrote a lovely piece about Nick Saban and the "not Xs and Os, but Jimmies and Joes" principle; well, Oregon State's offense was the personification. Figure out what your guys can do, then get them the ball in ways that allow them to do it.
Langsdorf served as Riley's coordinator at Oregon State from 2005-13 before taking a job with the New York Giants last fall. He went to creative lengths to get the ball into his playmakers' hands, and while there were blips, the results were solid. In the eight seasons between 2006 and 2013, Oregon State's offense ranked between 16th and 31st in Off. S&P+ six times; there were a couple of stumbles (77th in 2007, 65th in 2011), but there was always a rebound.
Though the names atop Nebraska's skill hierarchy change, one assumes Riley and Langsdorf will find plenty of athletes deserving of the football.
- Running back Terrell Newby is a former blue-chipper who had a nice spring; he and big Amani Cross have hinted at between-the-tackles efficiency, and Newby did catch eight of 11 targets last season.
- As a No. 2 or No. 3 wideout, Jordan Westerkamp has averaged at least 11 yards per target in back-to-back seasons.
- De'Mornay Pierson-El's otherworldly punt return skills scream for a few bubble screens and jet sweeps.
- Jamal Turner is a spring legend who gets one last chance to produce after missing almost all of 2014 with an Achilles injury.
- Four other former four-stars (running backs Mikale Wilbon and Adam Taylor, receivers Alonzo Moore and Stanley Morgan) have opportunities to carve out a niche.
There are weapons. We'll see if incumbent quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (or someone who can overtake him) is able to direct as Riley and Langsdorf require.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Tommy Armstrong Jr.||6'1, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9003||184||345||2695||22||12||53.3%||20||5.5%||7.1|
|Ryker Fyfe||6'2, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||4||10||40||1||0||40.0%||1||9.1%||3.2|
|Johnny Stanton||6'2, 230||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8946||1||1||6||0||0||100.0%||0||0.0%||6.0|
|AJ Bush||6'3, 220||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8044|
|Zach Darlington||6'2, 205||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8737|
|Tommy Armstrong Jr.||QB||6'1, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9003||125||803||6||6.4||6.1||47.2%||10||5|
|Imani Cross||RB||6'1, 240||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9066||75||384||5||5.1||4.8||37.3%||1||1|
|Terrell Newby||RB||5'10, 200||Jr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9404||67||297||5||4.4||3.2||38.8%||2||2|
|Jordan Nelson||RB||5'7, 180||Jr.||NR||NR||13||74||0||5.7||3.6||46.2%||0||0|
|Ryker Fyfe||QB||6'2, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||6||52||0||8.7||5.0||66.7%||0||0|
|De'Mornay Pierson-El||WR||5'9, 185||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8460||5||10||0||2.0||1.1||40.0%||4||2|
|Graham Nabity||RB||6'0, 210||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Adam Taylor||RB||6'2, 210||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9058|
|Mikale Wilbon||RB||5'8, 190||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8822|
|Devine Ozigbo||RB||5'11, 225||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8560|
4. A different role for the run game
Armstrong proved himself a typical dual-threat quarterback last year, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
He completed 53 percent of his passes with a sack rate over 5 percent and an interception rate over 3 percent, but he also rushed for more than 800 yards (not including sacks) and proved adept at getting the ball over the heads of defenders who were distracted by the run. He averaged nearly 15 yards per completion, and while Bell (54 percent catch rate, 16.8 yards per catch) was a big reason, Jordan Westerkamp was, too.
Riley's Oregon State offense required quite a bit of short passing -- in four years as a starter, Beaver quarterback Sean Mannion averaged 11.5 yards per completion, but with a completion rate nearly 65 percent -- and we'll see if Armstrong can pull that off. And we'll see how much the run can help him.
Assuming quicker receivers like Pierson-El [Update: He'll likely miss a few games due to a foot injury] and Turner play a role in the horizontal game, either via handoffs or extended handoffs (quick passes), that could stretch defenses enough to punish them with zone reads and between-the-tackles running by Newby and Cross. They haven't suggested they could become home run hitters like Abdullah, but that isn't necessarily their role. They will be asked to soften defenses up in the middle until they get burned on the outside. It isn't guaranteed to work, but it could.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Jordan Westerkamp||WR||6'0, 195||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9060||67||44||747||65.7%||19.7%||58.2%||11.1||217||11.2||105.2|
|De'Mornay Pierson-El||WR||5'9, 185||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8460||36||23||321||63.9%||10.6%||52.8%||8.9||43||8.7||45.2|
|Alonzo Moore||WR||6'2, 195||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8856||30||10||136||33.3%||8.8%||46.7%||4.5||-6||4.0||19.1|
|Jamal Turner (2013)||WR||6'1, 190||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9658||19||13||102||68.4%||5.3%||47.4%||5.4||-51||5.3||12.3|
|Taariq Allen||WR||6'3, 200||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8291||17||8||73||47.1%||5.0%||47.1%||4.3||-30||3.7||10.3|
|Brandon Reilly||WR||6'1, 195||Jr.||NR||NR||15||6||83||40.0%||4.4%||53.3%||5.5||2||5.7||11.7|
|Terrell Newby||RB||5'10, 200||Jr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9404||11||8||45||72.7%||3.2%||45.5%||4.1||-50||4.1||6.3|
|Cethan Carter||TE||6'4, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8572||10||6||98||60.0%||2.9%||70.0%||9.8||24||10.9||13.8|
|Sam Cotton||TE||6'4, 250||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8181||9||3||41||33.3%||2.6%||55.6%||4.6||-2||4.4||5.8|
|Lane Hovey||WR||6'4, 205||Jr.||NR||NR||8||5||69||62.5%||2.4%||75.0%||8.6||8||8.4||9.7|
|Trey Foster||TE||6'0, 245||Jr.||NR||NR||3||1||6||33.3%||0.9%||33.3%||2.0||-8||1.3||0.8|
|Luke McNitt||TE||6'2, 240||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Lavan Alston (injured)||WR||6'0, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8832|
|Stanley Morgan||WR||6'0, 185||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8765|
|Matt Snyder||TE||6'5, 245||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8523|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Alex Lewis||LT||6'6, 290||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8243||13|
|Zach Sterup||OL||6'8, 320||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8771||10|
|Givens Price||RT||6'4, 310||Sr.||NR||0.8382||3|
|Dylan Utter||LG||6'1, 285||Jr.||NR||NR||1|
|Ryne Reeves||OL||6'3, 300||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8988||1|
|Chongo Kondolo||RG||6'4, 300||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8167||0|
|Matt Finnin||RT||6'7, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8000||0|
|Paul Thurston||C||6'5, 295||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9357||0|
|David Knevel||LT||6'9, 310||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8767||0|
|Zach Hannon||C||6'5, 305||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8625||0|
|Tanner Farmer||OL||6'4, 310||RSFr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9021|
|Nick Gates||OL||6'5, 290||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8929|
|Jerald Foster||OL||6'3, 310||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8708|
|Jalin Barnett||OL||6'4, 310||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9207|
|Christian Gaylord||OL||6'6, 275||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8882|
|Michael Decker||OL||6'4, 285||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8544|
5. A surprisingly good line rebuilds again
I was pretty concerned about NU's line heading into last season; it had performed at a top-50 level but had to replace five players with 125 career starts and entered 2014 with just 15, mostly from guard Jake Cotton.
But while the sack rates ended up iffy, the run stats were great. Granted, you can pin some of the sack issues on Armstrong and some of the run-blocking success on Abdullah, but the line played at the same level despite losing so many starters.
This year, the Huskers try to avoid a double-dipping issue. A year after losing five experienced starters, Nebraska loses three more. Senior tackle Alex Lewis is a keeper, and there are still plenty of juniors and seniors, but when you have to dip into the well twice in two years, depth issues rear their heads. I bet NU avoids serious deficiencies, but it's a red flag.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||38.9%||32||Succ. Rt. +||105.9||43|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||36.1||1||Off. FP+||109.0||8|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.5||82||Redzone S&P+||91.0||99|
|Q1 Rk||32||1st Down Rk||29|
|Q2 Rk||62||2nd Down Rk||83|
|Q3 Rk||85||3rd Down Rk||41|
6. A Mark Banker defense
Riley is a loyal guy. In Langsdorf and Mark Banker, he found two coordinators he liked and stuck with them through occasional shaky years. Banker's philosophy is like Langsdorf's on offense -- figure out what your athletes can do, and craft an identity around that -- and like Langsdorf, there have been hits and misses. Oregon State ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 25 in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012 and 65th or worse in 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2014.
Banker's 2014 Oregon State defense was perilously thin, wore down over the course of a half (58th and seventh in the first and third quarters, and 103rd and 110th in the second and fourth) and struggled to stop the run.
The Beavers created decent havoc numbers, but despite a solid pass defense, run deficiencies led to big plays.
Meanwhile, last year's Nebraska defense created decent havoc numbers, but despite a solid pass defense, run deficiencies led to big plays.
This is familiar territory for Banker, if nothing else.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Greg McMullen||DE||6'3, 280||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9068||13||33.5||4.8%||7.0||4.0||0||4||0||0|
|Vincent Valentine||DT||6'3, 320||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8744||13||32.5||4.7%||6.5||3.0||0||2||1||0|
|Maliek Collins||DT||6'2, 300||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8661||13||31.0||4.5%||10.5||4.5||0||0||0||0|
|Jack Gangwish||DE||6'2, 265||Sr.||NR||NR||12||13.0||1.9%||3.0||0.5||0||1||1||0|
|Kevin Williams||DT||6'2, 275||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8631||10||12.0||1.7%||6.0||3.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kevin Maurice||DT||6'3, 280||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8286||10||5.0||0.7%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Logan Rath||DT||6'4, 280||Jr.||NR||NR||2||2.5||0.4%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Joe Keels||DE||6'3, 265||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8790|
|Ross Dzuris||DE||6'3, 250||Jr.||NR||NR|
|A.J. Natter||DE||6'5, 250||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8903|
|Peyton Newell||DL||6'3, 270||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8882|
|Freedom Akinmoladun||DE||6'4, 255||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8575|
|Mick Stoltenberg||DT||6'5, 265||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8296|
|Sedrick King||DE||6'4, 240||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8224|
|Carlos Davis||DT||6'2, 265||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8891|
|Khalil Davis||DT||6'2, 265||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8730|
|Daishon Neal||DE||6'7, 250||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8588|
7. This line was bad with Gregory
Randy Gregory entered 2014 as a projected top-10 draft pick, but he struggled with injury and double-teams, and his stats suffered, especially against the run. He was still a strong pass rusher (9.5 sacks in 2013, seven in 2014), but he made far fewer run stuffs (6.5 non-sack tackles for loss in 2013, 1.5 in 2014), and he just didn't get enough help. Nebraska's run defense, a weakness in 2013, remained so last fall. And now the pass rush must also be rebuilt with Gregory off to the NFL.
There are plenty of options. NU boasts nine junior and senior linemen and 10 former high-three- or four-star recruits, and in Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins, the Huskers have a couple of tackles who combine immense size with quickness. But the whole was still less than the sum of the parts last year. That's not guaranteed to change.
There's plenty of new blood at linebacker. Last year's two primary linebackers (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) are gone, and Michael Rose-Ivey returns after missing 2014. Anderson and Roach provided a little bit of desperately needed playmaking against the run, and Anderson broke up five passes. The line better improve because the linebackers might not.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Michael Rose-Ivey (2013)||LB||5'11, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9010||12||51.5||7.3%||5.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|David Santos||LB||6'0, 225||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8736||10||35.5||5.1%||1.5||0.0||1||0||0||0|
|Josh Banderas||LB||6'2, 235||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9053||12||34.5||5.0%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Chris Weber||LB||6'3, 220||So.||NR||NR||13||4.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Marcus Newby||LB||6'1, 220||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8941||9||2.0||0.3%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Brad Simpson||LB||6'0, 220||Jr.||NR||NR||10||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Luke Gifford||LB||6'3, 215||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8460|
|Dedrick Young||LB||6'1, 220||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8609|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nate Gerry||S||6'2, 205||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8534||13||68.5||9.9%||4.5||0.5||5||4||2||1|
|Daniel Davie||CB||6'1, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8532||13||33.0||4.7%||5||0||2||5||0||0|
|LeRoy Alexander (2013)||S||6'0, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8071||13||31.0||4.4%||1||0||1||1||0||1|
|Joshua Kalu||CB||6'1, 175||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8429||13||23.5||3.4%||1||0||1||3||2||1|
|Byerson Cockrell||S||6'0, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8370||13||23.5||3.4%||1||0||1||7||0||0|
|Jonathan Rose||CB||6'1, 195||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9367||13||15.5||2.2%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Kieron Williams||S||6'0, 190||So.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||13||6.5||0.9%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Chris Jones||CB||6'0, 170||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8233||12||6.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Charles Jackson (2013)||S||5'11, 180||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9605||13||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Boaz Joseph||CB||6'1, 190||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8422|
|Trai Mosley||DB||5'10, 170||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8282|
|Eric Lee Jr.||DB||6'0, 180||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9414|
|Avery Anderson||DB||6'0, 175||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8935|
|Aaron Williams||DB||5'11, 185||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8610|
8. The secondary could succeed with help
Despite continued issues against the run, Nebraska's defense improved from mediocre (66th in Def. S&P+) to solid (46th) because the pass defense went from solid to very good. There were glitches -- Miami and USC combined to complete 51 of 81 for 680 yards, six touchdowns, and three picks -- but for the season, opponents completed 48.5 percent (second-lowest in FBS) with a 104.8 passer rating (fourth-lowest). And NU did this despite a pass rush that was lacking.
The loss of safety Corey Cooper and incredibly underrated corner Josh Mitchell could stem progress, but corner Daniel Davie does return, and Joshua Kalu had his moments as a freshman. Plus, safety LeRoy Alexander returns from suspension. [Update: Alexander is transferring.]
As with the rest of the defense, experience is not an issue. The two-deep could feature as many as three seniors and three juniors, but there might be roles for younger players like Boaz Joseph, or incoming four-stars Eric Lee Jr. and Avery Anderson, if they thrive in fall camp. And if the run defense improves, the pass defense should hold its own.
|Sam Foltz||6'1, 200||Jr.||63||42.2||5||20||26||73.0%|
|Drew Brown||5'11, 180||So.||47||60.0||14||1||29.8%|
|Mauro Bondi||6'0, 210||Sr.||34||63.9||15||0||44.1%|
|Drew Brown||5'11, 180||So.||59-59||12-14||85.7%||2-7||28.6%|
|Mauro Bondi||6'0, 210||Sr.||1-1||0-0||1-1||100.0%|
|De'Mornay Pierson-El||KR||5'9, 175||So.||10||14.7||0|
|De'Mornay Pierson-El||PR||5'9, 175||So.||34||17.5||3|
|Kieron Williams||PR||6'0, 185||So.||2||14.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||6|
|Field Goal Efficiency||92|
|Punt Return Efficiency||1|
|Kick Return Efficiency||16|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||5|
9. Maybe the best special teams weapon in the country
Special teams was long a Pelini strength; Nebraska ranked between sixth and 18th in special teams efficiency six times in seven years, and just about all of the reasons for their 2014 surge are back.
Drew Brown was a steady place-kicker as a freshman (though he was a bit lacking in kickoff distance and on longer field goals), and Sam Foltz's punts are high and long. Ameer Abdullah was an awesome returner, but it's hard to mourn his departure if it means more opportunities for De'Mornay Pierson-El.
We all enjoy good players no matter the position, but we also have our types, the positions or players who get us particularly jazzed up. For some of us, it's a burly running back. For others, it's a killer defensive tackle or a ball-hawking safety. One of my favorite archetypes is the show-stopping return man. From Notre Dame's Rocket Ismail on punts to Colorado's Ben Kelly at the turn of the century, I enjoy great return men a little bit more. (Second place: the long-legged gazelle receivers.)
That means Pierson-El is one of my favorite players at the moment. He's still learning at the receiver position, and as with Kelly and others, there's never any guarantee that a great return guy will thrive on offense or defense. But despite woeful run defense and iffy punt and kick coverage, Nebraska was one of the best field position teams in the country, and Pierson-El was a major reason.
He had a 25-yard return against McNeese State, an 86-yarder against Fresno State, a 62-yarder against Michigan State, a 42-yarder against Purdue, and a game-turning 80-yarder in the fourth quarter against Iowa. He is electric. His Twitter handle is @DontPunt_15, but ... please punt to him! Do it for me.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||22.1% (26)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||30 / 23|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-2 / 0.4|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||-0.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (6, 6)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||9.1 (-0.1)|
10. An opportunity
The Big Ten is a strangely clustered conference. Ohio State is the clear No. 1, and I think Michigan State will still be a clear No. 2, but any of five teams (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan, Minnesota) could jump to No. 3, and there's barely any separation among the other seven.
Opportunity awaits each team in that No. 3-8 tier, and Nebraska gets Wisconsin and Michigan State at home. Plus, only one of four conference road opponents is projected higher than 63rd. If Langsdorf and Riley are able to press the right buttons on offense, and if the run defense can be mediocre for the first time in three years, Nebraska's got a shot at a really nice season. [Update: Riley said that five to-be-named players will be suspended for the Huskers' opener against BYU.]
Like everybody else in the Huskers' tier, the range of outcomes is wide, but the light road slate makes theirs less questionable than others', and if they beat Wisconsin, they could be in excellent shape of winning the Big Ten West.
Riley is a lovely representative of a university, and he's done all the right things since taking the job. He's undeniably brought happiness, but he still has to win.