Nebraska’s first year under new coach Mike Riley ended with a disappointing 6-7 final record. While the six-win mark was just the program’s third losing season since 1962, the 2015 campaign wasn’t as bad as the final ledger indicated. With 11 returning starters and a full year entrenched with this coaching staff, the Cornhuskers have the opportunity to surprise in the Big Ten West Division in 2016.
The balance of power and overall strength of divisions for any conference is always cyclical. However, the Big Ten heads into 2016 is an interesting position. It’s no secret the East Division is stronger and has more overall depth from top to bottom. With Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State leading the way, the East should have three teams capable of contending for national titles and a spot in the top 10-15 nationally in preseason polls on an annual basis. However, that’s not the case in the West Division. Iowa is the clear favorite in the West, but most preseason polls believe the Hawkeyes will be the only top 25 team from this division. Wisconsin faces one of the nation’s toughest schedules, Northwestern needs marked improvement from its offense to repeat last year’s 10 wins, while Minnesota and Illinois are under the direction of new coaches.
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2016
Even though Iowa is a heavy favorite in the West Division, Nebraska has a chance to surprise and earn a trip to Indianapolis to play for the conference title in December. Here are five reasons to keep an eye on the Cornhuskers as a threat to win the Big Ten West:
5 Reasons Why Nebraska Can Surprise in the Big Ten West in 2016
1. Close Losses in 2015
Last season’s seven losses certainly didn’t sit well in Lincoln. However, a deeper look at the resume shows Nebraska wasn’t far from a winning record or an 8-4/9-3 season. Six of the losses came by eight points or less, while the other defeat was a 10-point loss at Purdue with starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong sidelined due to injury. A few plays here or there could have made a difference in the win column and significantly changed the outlook on Riley’s debut. How might Nebraska make a few plays differently in 2016 that could result in a few wins? Let’s start with turnovers…
2. Turnover Margin
Nebraska ranked 13th in the Big Ten with its minus-12 turnover margin in 2016, and it’s minus-11 mark in league play was the worst in the conference. There are some controllable factors when it comes to turnovers, but for the most part, luck plays a big role in this area. After a year of bad luck in the turnover department, Nebraska is due for a few bounces in its direction this season. Small improvement to even or just in the positive category for turnover margin could be the difference in three games this year. Simply, if Nebraska cuts down its mistakes and wins the turnover battle in a couple of games, the Cornhuskers are going to turn close losses into victories.
3. Year Two of the Coaching Staff
Transitioning to a new staff is never easy. After seven years under Bo Pelini, Nebraska had to adapt to new schemes and an overall change in direction for the program. A few coaching changes produce immediate improvement in the win column, but a lot of hires take a season or two to deliver results. In Riley’s case, this was not a one-year fix. The Cornhuskers had depth issues on defense and transitioned to a different scheme on offense, featuring more of a pro-style approach behind quarterback Tommy Armstrong. The answers won’t necessarily come immediately, but Riley inked a solid recruiting class (No. 25 in 247Sports Composite) and is off to a good start for the 2017 haul. That’s a positive sign for the future, as the coaching staff is building a foundation for the program to contend in the Big Ten West once again. While the future looks bright, just having another year of familiarity with this staff is going to pay dividends for Nebraska in 2016.
4. Nebraska’s Offense is One of the Best in the Big Ten
If Nebraska is going to contend in the West Division, it will have to do so on the strength of its offense. Six starters are back for coordinator Danny Langsdorf, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong. The Texas native has experienced his share of ups and downs over the last three seasons but finished third in the Big Ten with 3,030 passing yards and fourth in passing scores (20) last fall. As expected under Langsdorf, Armstrong’s rushing totals dropped, but he still averaged 4.1 yards per carry and scored seven times on carries. If Armstrong limits his mistakes and continues to develop within the offense, Nebraska’s attack should be one of the best in the conference. The Cornhuskers are deep at receiver, and this unit will only get better if De’Mornay Pierson-El returns at full strength from a leg injury suffered in 2015. The ground game also appears to be in good hands with running backs Terrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon. While three new starters must emerge on the line, there’s a good foundation in place with tackle Nick Gates and center Dylan Utter. After averaging 32.8 points a game in 2015, Nebraska should be able to increase that total closer to 35 (or higher) in 2016.
5. Defensive Improvement in the Back Seven
The biggest concern for coach Mike Riley in 2016 has to be the defense. The Cornhuskers surrendered 27.8 points a game in 2015 (10th in Big Ten), gave up 5.9 yards per play and ranked 78th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Improving significantly on those totals won’t be easy with a rebuilt defensive line, but there’s plenty of optimism in the back seven. There’s more overall depth and talent here than at the start of 2015. Sophomore linebacker Dedrick Young is one of the Big Ten’s rising stars on defense, and seniors Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey are expected to round out this corps. Three starters are back in the secondary, and this unit could receive an instant impact from top recruit and true freshman Lamar Jackson. Additionally, All-Big Ten safety Nate Gerry and cornerbacks Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu return to provide a solid foundation. While the line faces a transition period, the rest of the defense should be able to pick up some of the slack and show improvement in 2016. And with a dynamic offense in place, the Cornhuskers won’t necessarily need a true shutdown defense. Improving upon from last year’s points allowed (27.8) and yards per play (5.9) is a realistic expectation if new line coach John Parrella quickly finds new faces to replace standouts Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. One name to watch up front: End Freedom Akinmoladun.
Nebraska was better than its six-win record suggested last season. However, this isn’t a team without flaws. The offense has a chance to be one of the best in the Big Ten, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to cut down on his interceptions after tossing 16 in 2015. The defense will improve in the back seven and there are promising players to step up in the trenches. The defensive line is the biggest concern for Riley and will decide just how much this unit improves on the stat sheet. The schedule is manageable, but road trips to Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa aren’t easy. With Wisconsin facing a brutal schedule, and Northwestern facing significant question marks on offense, Nebraska is Iowa’s biggest challenger in the Big Ten West. And with a little better luck in the turnover department, combined with an offense capable of scoring 30-35 points a game, the Cornhuskers have a chance to finish 8-4 or 9-3 in 2016.