The Big Ten’s West Division is up for grabs, and Nebraska has the talent and personnel to finish ahead of Wisconsin and Iowa. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong should be better in his second year under center, and he will have the luxury of working with two of the Big Ten’s top skill players in running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell. Only three starters return on defense, but one of the players is All-America defensive end Randy Gregory. The Cornhuskers have a tough road schedule, which includes trips to Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Bo Pelini’s team has a difficult path to a division title, but this program is positioned for another solid year.
The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 29, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Previewing Nebraska’s Offense for 2014:
All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah is back after considering an early exit by way of the NFL Draft. Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards, fourth-most in Husker history, with 100 or more yards in 11 games. There’s depth at I-back, including big back Imani Cross, who scored 10 touchdowns on just 85 carries. Ball security has been an emphasis for Abdullah and the rest of the offense.
Abdullah caught 26 passes, third-most on the team. But the Huskers ranked next-to-last in the conference in passing. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a threat on the option but threw almost as many interceptions, eight, as touchdown passes, nine. That has to change.
Kenny Bell, who has more career receptions than the rest of the wide receivers combined, is in position to become the leading receiver, statistically, in school history. Jamal Turner is a game-breaker but has never become the consistent threat expected when he was moved from quarterback as a freshman. He was limited by injury last season.
A key to success will be the development of a rebuilt offensive line. Left guard Jake Cotton is among the team’s emotional leaders. Left tackle Alex Lewis, a transfer from Colorado, is a potential star.
Previewing Nebraska’s Defense for 2014:
Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at every team, features and predictions for the upcoming season.Even though the Huskers are young on defense, this side of the ball should be the strength of the team, with end Randy Gregory, an All-America candidate, leading the way. He led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks, nine of them in conference play. The Huskers’ marked defensive improvement over the course of last season coincided with his development following a transfer from Arizona Western Community College. Sophomore tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins will anchor the middle of the line. They need to stay healthy, unless some young players develop quickly.
Depth isn’t a problem at linebacker, which has a wealth of returning players, including Trevor Roach, who missed last season because of injury. David Santos was second on the team in tackles but will have to compete for playing time. Sophomores Michael Rose and Josh Banderas are also important pieces.
Safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Josh Mitchell are the most experienced players on defense, with a combined 32 starts. Mitchell is among the team’s vocal leaders.
Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists for 2014:
The Huskers ranked 121st nationally in punt returns; their longest was 19 yards. Incoming freshmen should help, Glenn Irons prominent among them with nine return touchdowns as a high school senior. Bell tied for the Big Ten lead in kickoff-return average. The senior wide receiver returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Penn State. Punter Sam Foltz, a walk-on, is back, but placekicker Pat Smith must be replaced. Mauro Bondi, who had 48 touchbacks on kickoffs, will be challenged by freshman Drew Brown.
Bo Pelini’s record is 58–24, with at least nine victories in each of his six seasons. But he has yet to coach a conference champion. In fact, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999, much too long for a program with three national titles in the five years prior to that.
In the aftermath of a 38–17 regular-season-ending loss to Iowa, speculation spread that Pelini’s tenure as coach might be over. But he has since received a contract extension through the 2018 season. Extension or not, however, there’s pressure to win a championship and return to national relevance. The Huskers should have the defense for that. The question is whether the offense can be balanced enough to get the job done against a schedule that sets up very well in a restructured division of the expanded Big Ten.