Mike Riley's second season in Lincoln could not have started better. Can the Huskers maintain success in the home stretch?
There was a quiet confidence around the Nebraska program this past offseason. For the first time in recent memory, Cornhuskers football was shaping up to be relatively drama-free between January and August.
And then, the unthinkable happened.
The loss of Sam Foltz took the focus off of football and back on what matters in this world: people and love. The tragedy unified and galvanized a tattered fan base and program. Foltz's initials and jersey number have become a symbol and a rallying cry for Husker football, and his teammates have more than delivered on the field in a season dedicated to his memory.
Nebraska's fantastic start in 2016 has Husker Nation looking forward to football Saturdays like they haven't done in years. The articles and talk-radio segments are more upbeat and optimistic. The red "N" flags on every other porch fly just a little higher. The buzz around the state heading into each weekend is a little more intense.
Through the first half of the 2016 college football season, Nebraska Cornhusker football was back. Let's take a look and what has gone down so far and what still lies ahead for the Big Red.
Offensive MVP: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.
The senior signal-caller has been through it all. He's been dressed down by fans and media alike. He's still a punchline in the cheap seats when things aren't going as planned. But right now, his arm, legs and improved decision-making with the football are far and away the No. 1 reason for Nebraska's success through the first six games.
Defensive MVP: CB Chris Jones
You could probably give this to three or four different guys, but few players on the defensive side of the ball have stepped up over the last five games like Jones has. His pick six against Indiana was essentially the difference that allowed the Huskers to be victorious. He appears to be an NFL-caliber corner and his presence is beginning to change the way opposing offenses attack Nebraska.
Best Moment of the First Half: The Foltz Tribute
A punt on the first possession of the season has never been so special. When the special teams unit took the field with 10 men and no punter to honor Foltz, there wasn't a dry eye in the Cornhusker state. A fan base broken by a previous coach and the results of the previous season was instantly united and healed.
Best Newcomer: Defensive Line coach John Parrella
The former Husker has Nebraska's defensive front playing at another level — especially against the pass. The defensive line is more aggressive and physical than it has been since Ndamukong Suh graduated, and it's no coincidence that Nebraska is currently tied for fifth in the nation in sacks. Parrella has been nothing short of a godsend.
Biggest Surprise: Offensive Balance
During a 2015 season that Husker fans would love to forget, Nebraska threw for 1,130 more yards than it rushed for. That didn't sit well with anyone with a vested interest in the Husker program for a number of reasons. As a result, Mike Riley and his staff were relentless in selling the idea of a more balanced attack in 2016. All of Nebraska was skeptical as to whether or not Riley — historically a coach that favors the passing attack — would stick to his word. Through six games in 2016, Nebraska has thrown for 1,400 yards and rushed for 1,323.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. The Health of the Huskers
Tommy Armstrong has been banged up. Nebraska's two leading receivers have missed significant time. The Cornhuskers began the season one starter short on the offensive line. Mike Riley has been able to hold it together with underrated depth to this point. A more difficult second half of the season could spell trouble if the Huskers aren't closer to 100 percent.
2. Containing Mobile Quarterbacks
Nebraska has been burned by the two most fleet-footed quarterbacks it has faced so far. They'll face a couple more in some crucial games going forward — most notably Ohio State's J.T. Barrett. Mark Banker's defense must work on not allowing opposing signal-callers to rip off huge chunks of yardage with their legs if they want to have any shot at making to Indianapolis for the conference title game.
3. The Emergence of a Consistent Big-Play Threat
Home-run hitters change the dynamic of an offense and put added pressure and stress on opposing defenses. Right now, Nebraska doesn't have a guy who is a constant threat to take one to the house. The closest they have is Armstrong, but a couple of skill players have shown flashes and signs that they could be that player. Look for Stanley Morgan, Tre Bryant and De'Mornay Pierson-El to be utilized as potential big-play threats during the second half of the season.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 5 at Ohio State
The Buckeyes could be the best team in the country, complete with the best player in the country and led by the best coach in the country. This is a no-brainer, and the game will likely serve as a measuring stick for how far Riley's Huskers have come.
2. Oct. 29 at Wisconsin
That's not a monkey on Nebraska's back — it's an 800-pound gorilla with a Badger helmet on. The Huskers will be dealing with game planning against an elite defense, trying to stop an always solid rushing attack, getting a bead on a rising star at quarterback and looking for some sort of advantage in one of the tougher places for opponents to win. Quite simply, there are a lot of cards stacked against Nebraska in this one.
3. Nov. 25 at Iowa
All bets are off in this matchup. It's probably going to be extremely cold, which almost always alters the playing style of both teams. There is an outside chance Iowa could have as much riding on this game as Nebraska does, depending how some other chips fall throughout the year. Forget the Hawkeyes’ current record, this is basically the same team from a personnel standpoint that beat Nebraska in Lincoln last season.
4. Nov. 12 vs. Minnesota
The Gophers are always well coached and have a couple of those home-run hitters in their offensive huddle. Nebraska will be favored, but this looks like the most obvious trap game remaining on the schedule.
5. Nov. 19 vs. Maryland
The Terrapins have a couple of guys on both sides of the ball that Nebraska needs to devote a little extra attention to, but it's not going to be enough to hang with the Huskers for four quarters in late November.
6. Oct. 22 vs. Purdue
The Huskers should be able to impose their will and avenge their most embarrassing loss of 2015 rather easily. The Boilermakers have just lost their head coach in the middle of the season and are — to put it politely — a mess.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.