Consider 5Dimes Sportsbook to be a bigger fan of Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Mike Riley than a few Big Red backers. 5Dimes has the Huskers sitting at an over/under of 9.5 wins for the upcoming season which would easily put them in 2016’s Top 25.
Here’s what they need to do to get there.
1. Tommy Armstrong Must Improve
Consider this to be No. 1 out of everything that absolutely must happen for the Cornhuskers to have the type of year they want. While Armstrong has a bevy of talented receivers, his feet are a more reliably dangerous weapon.
If he is going to continue heaving the deep ball, he has to up his accuracy or he’s handicapping his team with wasted downs. So far, he’s shown that he’s far better off hitting a 15-yard route and letting his receivers take over.
Using Armstrong as a dual-threat quarterback in the truest sense should bring wins and plenty of them. Keeping him to a sweet spot of 25 passes per game (30 tops) is the way to go if he can manage to get a hot hand and remain efficient.
2. Offensive Line Must Help Provide Balance
Despite being younger overall, this unit has the potential to not only keep Armstrong safe in the pocket but also provide running room for Devine Ozigbo, Terrell Newby and Mikale Wilbon.
Nick Gates and David Knevel at left and right tackle, respectively, looked fantastic this spring and Gerald Foster truly has come into his own at left guard. Tanner Farmer took over at the right guard spot, but the real question is who’ll play center?
Dylan Utter had been doing so through most of spring practice, but he didn’t participate in the Red-White Spring Game with redshirt freshman Michael Decker filling in and looking, well, really good in his place.
Regardless of who eventually claims the spot in the middle, this is a group that will be challenged to dig deep and find their inner road graders. Fortunately, they have what should be two relatively easy opponents in Fresno State and Wyoming as tune-ups before Oregon comes calling.
If they can open holes for their backs and keep Armstrong upright and able to scramble in space, good things are in the Huskers’ future.
3. Defensive Line Must Step Up
This statement nearly runs across the board. Defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun is poised for a big year, but new defensive line coach John Parella needs to find a complementary pass rusher.
In addition, Nebraska loses four defensive tackles with eligibility in Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine who are now on NFL rosters, Kevin Williams, who transferred to Michigan State, and Greg McMullen, who has hung up his cleats.
The good news is that Parella has quality talent to work with in Kevin Maurice, Mick Stoltenberg, brothers Carlos and Khalil Davis and Peyton Newell.
Parella’s going to earn his paycheck right quick.
4. Defense Needs to Get Back to Takeaways
Nebraska sat at a horrific minus-12 in turnover margin last season primarily thanks to Armstrong’s erratic passing. Regardless of whether or not he cuts down on interceptions, the Blackshirts need to get back to forcing the Husker offense back onto the field.
Creating fumbles and snagging interceptions must become far more frequent and the Huskers have recruited the types of athletes that can make this a reality. However, those plans need to materialize immediately.
5. Special Teams Must Be Reliable As a Whole
Drew Brown is as reliable as his brother when it comes to kicking and Sam Foltz is one of the best punters in the land. Nebraska will find someone electric to return kicks and punts either from the current roster or the crop of incoming recruits.
What needs to improve is the return game in its entirety. Special teams coordinator Bruce Read has already received a hefty dose of criticism after Nebraska ranked as one of the very worst teams in the country with 17.6 yards per kick return and a middling 10.4 taken back on each punt last season.
The Huskers have return threats at the ready, especially if De’Mornay Pierson-El comes back at 100 percent, but even he can’t take it to the house without proper blocking.