The Southpoint Sportsbook in Las Vegas has set the over/under for Nebraska at seven wins in 2017, which should be a relatively low bar to clear for a program as steeped in history and expectations as the Cornhuskers.
But Mike Riley enters Year 3 in Lincoln looking to finish in the Top 25 for the first time with the Huskers, after coming oh-so close in 2016. (Nebraska went 9-4 last year and received the 28th-most votes in the final AP poll, 26th-most in the coaches’ poll.)
How can Nebraska make its mark this year? Glad you asked.
1. Tanner Lee makes an immediate impact
Riley named Lee his top quarterback after the spring. The redshirt junior transfer from Tulane beat out redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien and could have two seasons atop the Huskers’ depth chart if all goes well for him, as he was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA after starting 19 games for the Green Wave.
Lee completed 13 of 19 passes for 190 yards in the Huskers’ spring game, but more importantly, he threw for 3,601 yards and 23 touchdowns across two seasons in New Orleans, so he has seen a lot in his college career. As with any new starter, a lot of other potential problems across the roster can be mitigated pretty quickly if Lee is dominant.
2. The defense adjusts to the new staff
Bob Diaco’s last stint as a defensive coordinator could not have gone better, as he churned out a ton of NFL draft picks at Notre Dame while leading a unit that was the backbone of a perfect regular season in 2012. His defenses had moderate success in his first two years as head coach at UConn, with the Huskies finishing 36th and 38th nationally in yards per play in 2014 and ‘15, respectively. He brings aboard a familiar face in former Irish safeties coach Bob Elliott (who coached Diaco at Iowa) and another new assistant in corners coach Donte Williams from Arizona.
3. Defense must create turnovers
Speaking of those new hires in the defensive backfield: Elliott and Williams should have some talent to work with, as Nebraska was tied for 14th nationally last season with 16 interceptions and returns virtually everyone back there aside from Nate Gerry. Nothing can turn the momentum of a game like a big pick, but the Huskers were lagging in another, just as important (if not unlucky) area last season: Their three fumble recoveries were tied for 121st nationally.
4. The receivers grow up fast for the Huskers
Who is Lee passing to? That is the big question for a Nebraska receiving corps that lost three of its top four receivers from 2016. Stanley Morgan Jr. is back after a 33-catch, 453-yard sophomore campaign, and senior De’Mornay Pierson-El should see more opportunities as well. Oh, and not a single tight end on Nebraska’s roster owns a college reception. That needs to change.
5. The ground game picks it up
Lee doesn’t have the wheels that Tommy Armstrong Jr. had out of the backfield, so that’s one problem for a Husker rushing offense that was just 73rd nationally last season. Another? Leading rusher Terrell Newby is gone after an 879-yard season, leaving Devine Ozigbo as the leading returning ball carrier (412 yards, 5 TDs). You can usually survive without a proven rusher or a surplus of proven receivers, but it is difficult to survive without both, meaning the skill players need to answer the bell quickly this year for Nebraska.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.