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Is Nebraska the Big Ten West Division's Sleeper Team for 2015?

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska Cornhuskers

It’s a new era for Nebraska football in 2015. Mike Riley was hired to replace Bo Pelini, and the former Oregon State coach inherits a team that has won at least nine games in each of the last seven seasons. However, the bar in Lincoln is higher than just getting to nine victories. Competing for conference championships is a must, and the Cornhuskers have all of the necessary resources to be a top 15-20 team on a consistent basis.

As Riley heads into his first year, Nebraska isn’t considered the favorite in the Big Ten West Division. Wisconsin is a consensus favorite among the preseason prognosticators, with Ohio State the clear pick to win the Big Ten.

Related: Nebraska’s Maliek Collins Ranks as One of College Football's Top 50 Players

While the Badgers are the favorite in the West Division, the Cornhuskers shouldn’t be overlooked and could be a sleeper pick to make the trip to Indianapolis in early December.

Is Nebraska the Big Ten West Division's Sleeper Team for 2015?

(Here are a few reasons to buy the Cornhuskers as a West Division title contender in 2015)

1. Manageable Big Ten Schedule

A crossover game against Michigan State is challenging, but Nebraska misses Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, and Wisconsin and Iowa visit Memorial Stadium in 2015. The upcoming slate certainly isn’t easy, especially with the crossover matchup against the Spartans and the road trip to Minnesota. However, if Nebraska knocks off Wisconsin in October, it would give Riley’s team a chance to position itself for a run at the West Division title in November.

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2015

2. Improvement Behind a First-Year Coach

Every year, it seems there are a handful of teams that make a jump in the standings based on the strength of a new coaching staff and schemes. Could Nebraska get the first-year bump in 2015? Riley’s career record at Oregon State was just 93-80, but winning in Corvallis is no easy task. Riley knows how to get the most out of a roster and discover hidden gems on the recruiting trail. Both of those tactics should work well in Lincoln. Riley’s biggest challenge in terms of personnel will be getting quarterback Tommy Armstrong to adapt to the new pro-style approach.

Related: Setting the Expectations for Mike Riley in 2015

3. Dangerous Offense…If the Pieces Fall Into Place

Make no mistake: There are question marks about Nebraska’s offense. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to play better and adapt to the new scheme, standout running back Ameer Abdullah must be replaced, and three new starters must be found on the offensive line. But if all of the pieces fall into place, this is a dangerous offense. After all, the Cornhuskers averaged 37.8 points per game last season. That number could climb in 2015 if Armstrong develops, and Terrell Newby, Imani Cross and Adam Taylor handle the workload at running back. Sophomore De’Mornay Pierson-El is a rising star to watch this fall.

Related: Ranking the Toughest Games on Nebraska's Schedule

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4. Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine

Stopping opposing offenses starts in the trenches for most defenses. Nebraska needs to develop a few pass rushers, but the tackle combination of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine is among the best in the nation. Both players check in over 300 pounds and should have no trouble wreaking havoc against opposing offensive linemen or quarterbacks. Some teams may choose to add double teams to Collins or Valentine, which should help alleviate some of the pressure on the younger players, allowing more one-on-one matchups to get to the quarterback. 

Related: Big Ten's 2015 All-Conference Team

5. Turnover Margin

Nebraska lost two of its three conference games by five points or less last season. What could be the difference in close matchups? Turnovers. In Big Ten games last year, the Cornhuskers were a minus-two in turnover margin. Luck plays a big part in recovering turnovers, but Nebraska could do a better job of holding onto the ball. In eight conference matchups, the Cornhuskers gave away 20 turnovers.

6. Talent

Recruiting rankings are never going to be 100 percent accurate, but there is some truth in the data. Earlier this offseason, Athlon examined the Big Ten team recruiting rankings, with Ohio State and Michigan ranking as the top two rosters in the conference. But No. 3 could be a surprise to some: Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have averaged a No. 27 finish nationally in recruiting rankings over the last five years, with Wisconsin – Nebraska’s biggest challenger in the West – at No. 41. Again, the recruiting rankings aren’t everything. But there is plenty of talent for Riley to work with in his debut in Lincoln.