Tommy Armstrong and the Cornhuskers host the Bulldogs looking for a strong start to Year 2 of the Mike Riley era in Lincoln
Fresno State and Nebraska are two programs that are not used to losing football games. Nebraska, historically, is one of the sport's blue bloods, while the Bulldogs have only failed to go bowling three times since the turn of the century.
Both programs fell on pretty hard times a season ago. Fresno turned in a dismal 3-9 season while the Cornhuskers wrapped up their campaign at 6-7. Be that as it may, it won't stop more than 90,000 people from packing Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday — helping to extend Nebraska's NCAA-record sellout streak to 343 games dating back to 1962.
The outlook for Nebraska in 2016 is considerably more favorable than it is for Fresno State. The Huskers appear to be one of the more talented teams in the Big Ten West and are expected to be serious contenders for that division's championship. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are as young and inexperienced as they've been in years. Subsequently, most experts do not expect Fresno State to fare any better than its 3-9 showing from 2015.
Fresno State at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: BTN
Spread: Nebraska -28.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nebraska's Defensive Line
The Huskers lost two defensive tackles to the NFL Draft this past spring. Despite starting two NFL-caliber defensive tackles in 2015, Nebraska was only able to muster 24 sacks during the entire season. The Blackshirts will need to find a more effective way to get to the quarterback if they want to compete with the likes of Iowa and Northwestern this season. The fact that Fresno State likes to throw the ball around will give the Huskers ample opportunity to rotate players, fine-tune their scheme and figure out the combination of personnel which can best improve the pass rush. Look for Freedom Akinmoladun to lead that effort off of the edge. If Nebraska has a hard time consistently getting to the quarterback against Fresno State, that's obviously a cause for concern in Lincoln.
2. Tommy Armstrong's Decision Making
Armstrong — like most quarterbacks — is a popular topic of conversation on local Nebraska talk-radio as well as in the local watering holes. His propensity to make head-scratching decisions with the ball keeps fans up at night and has contributed to losses that perhaps should not have been. He should have plenty of time in the pocket against a defense that only returns four starters and was among the NCAA's worst a season ago. Husker fans will want to see Armstrong avoiding mid-to-long range throws into double- and triple-coverage, opting instead to tuck the ball and use his best weapon — his legs — to pick up easy yards. That said, don't expect him to have to force too many passes against the Bulldogs, as Armstrong's receivers are considered one of the better groups in the Big Ten and should be open all day.
3. Fresno State's Receivers vs. Nebraska's Secondary
If the Huskers are not able to be effective in the pass rush, their secondary is going to be challenged. Nebraska fields a nice group of starting corners and safeties but will be without All-Big Ten safety Nate Gerry, who is suspended due to a violation of team rules. As talented as the Huskers are in the secondary, depth is a question mark. Look for Fresno State to repeatedly challenge Nebraska deep early on. If the Bulldogs can connect on a couple of big plays early, they could force Armstrong and the offense to play a little more out of its comfort zone than expected or desired. If that happens – as we saw last year with Nebraska in close games — all bets are off.
Until Nebraska is in complete control of this one, the Sea of Red in Lincoln will be anything but calm. That said, it shouldn't take a Husker team that is athletically superior at every position very long to impose its will on a Fresno State team that is still a season or two away from being competitive again in the Mountain West. Look for the Huskers to build an early lead through the air on the backs of their talented receivers. That will force the Bulldogs to press, leading to mental mistakes that they are not talented enough to overcome. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley will probably use the entire second half of this game to get his less experienced non-starters some valuable minutes and improve the quality of depth under fire while he has the chance.
Prediction: Nebraska 52, Fresno State 17
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.