Are the Cornhuskers ready to compete for a Big Ten West Division title this fall?
After reaching an oh-so-familiar 9-4 record last season, Nebraska enters the 2017 college football season staring firmly down the barrel of a rebuild. That’s not exactly the place the program wanted to be in year three of Mike Riley’s tenure but it’s where the Cornhuskers look to be at in a year that could go a number of different ways depending on how quickly some fresh faces leave their mark.
RELATED: 2018 Nebraska Football Schedule
While replacing so many starters will prove to be a challenge this season, the team is not lacking options after several solid recruiting classes. Throw in a new defensive coordinator who sports a solid track record and few squads in the Big Ten can be labeled as intriguing as the one in Lincoln.
How exactly will Nebraska fare as a result? Athlon Sports polled several writers to get their take on the Cornhuskers and how they think the 2017 campaign will play out.
Nebraska Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
If you’re going to be rebuilding in the Big Ten, you better hope you’re in the West division and few are going to understand that better than Nebraska will this season. Schedule is one reason why it’s possible the Cornhuskers will receive a bit of a soft landing in what is certainly a rebuilding year. Outside of games against league powers Ohio State and Penn State, there’s a tossup just about every week and that results in a team that could win eight or nine games just as easily as they could five.
Most of the attention will be paid to the offense and for good reason with so few starters back. That said, you can probably expect better (or at least more consistent) quarterback play with Tulane transfer Tanner Lee in place and the offensive line will be on the better side in the conference. There’s not a ton of skill position guys you trust but a healthy De’Mornay Pierson-El could lead the way as a senior.
Defensively, the addition of coordinator Bob Diaco is a positive for the team in both the short and long term. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the number of big plays given up to be cut way down and the experienced secondary should help ease the scheme transition.
That said, I’m still not completely convinced this is the type of the team that can win enough of those tossups to make a run at the division title or wind up much more beyond a borderline bowl team when you add in injuries and bad luck. Things look like they are building to a good 2018 but this season might have a few bumps in the road for the Huskers.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Cornhuskers are the biggest wild card in the Big Ten West Division. Third-year coach Mike Riley brought in Bob Diaco to take over the defensive signals and transition this group to a 3-4 scheme. Overhauling the defense may take a year, especially as Nebraska enters 2017 with question marks in the front seven. On offense, new quarterback Tanner Lee should fit this scheme better than former signal-caller Tommy Armstrong. But will the Cornhuskers develop more consistency out of the ground game and find a few more targets at receiver? There are a lot of question marks for Riley, but the schedule does break in Nebraska’s favor with home games against Iowa and Northwestern in swing conference matchups. With the transition on defense and uncertainty at a few spots on offense, 7-5 or 8-4 seems like the right projection for the Cornhuskers this fall.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Nebraska has been an up-and-down sort of team since joining the Big Ten, and that trend looks to continue this fall. A decent amount of roster turnover leaves some question marks for the Cornhuskers on offense, and the defense has to find a way to clamp down in 2017 if Nebraska is to make a run for the Big Ten West Division title this season. Nebraska builds some momentum with a home win against Wisconsin but will lose ground in the Big Ten West race with a tough draw against Big Ten East leaders Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule this season. There are a handful of toss-up games Nebraska will need to go their way to end the season feeling good about the direction of the program.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
I expect the Huskers to storm out of the gate and start fast on the back of both a new-look offense and a newly installed 3-4 defense. Even outside of the Omaha-Lincoln fish bowl, Tanner Lee is being talked about as a potential early NFL draft pick in 2018 or ‘19. If he lives up to that hype – with the other offense talent around him – the Huskers shouldn't have trouble moving the ball. The biggest concern for Mike Riley's club is time and depth. As time goes on this season, teams are going to figure out the new-look Nebraska. And as the season rolls along, injuries will inevitably take their toll. That will be an issue for the Huskers on both lines and in the secondary. Couple that with the latter part of their season featuring elite opponents, tough road trips and teams that have had their number recently, the Sea of Red may be witness to another dreaded nine-win season after starting as well as 6-0.
Chip Minnich (@ChipMinnich)
Nebraska is undergoing a transition, both offensively and defensively. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley's firing of longtime assistant Mark Banker as defensive coordinator, coupled with the hiring of Bob Diaco, is ushering in the move to a 3-4 scheme that the Cornhuskers may not necessarily have the personnel to run well this season. Tanner Lee at quarterback, a transfer from Tulane, will allow Riley to run an offense more to Riley's liking, but Lee is inexperienced, so there may be some growing pains on the offensive side of the ball.
The schedule is loaded with land mines, with losses likely at Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern, at Penn State. I will give Nebraska the benefit of the doubt against Minnesota and Iowa, but a 7-5 record will only keep the Cornhusker faithful grumbling and reminiscing.