Will the Cornhuskers thrive under Mike Riley this year?
Nebraska and Michigan are two of the Big Ten’s most intriguing teams to watch in 2015. Both programs have new coaches guiding the program, as former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh has returned to Ann Arbor, while Mike Riley was hired to replace Bo Pelini in Lincoln.
With the coaching changes at both programs, combined with an intriguing core of talent, the Cornhuskers and Wolverines have potential to finish among the nation’s top 25 teams this season.
But which program is more likely to do so? Athlon Sports continues its look at some of the top preseason storylines with a look at Nebraska or Michigan and which is more likely to finish in the top 25.
Nebraska or Michigan: Which Team has a Better Chance to Finish in the Top 25 in 2015?
Nebraska is my pick. Actually, I’m not sure either will find itself in the top 25 by season’s end, but, if forced to pick one, the Cornhuskers are the safer pick. Being ranked at the bottom of the poll is all about getting to the eight-, nine-win mark, and Nebraska has the talent and schedule to get there. Personnel-wise, I trust Tommy Armstrong, De’Mornay Pierson-El (breakout player alert!), Jordan Westerkamp and the running back committee far more than what Michigan is rolling out there. Also, its Big Ten road games (Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue & Rutgers) are beyond manageable. The home games (Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State & Iowa) are far more challenging, but Nebraska is 12-4 in Big Ten home games since joining the conference.
I think it all depends on who can get the quarterbacks performing up to snuff the fastest. Both have new offensive schemes with new head coaches. Michigan needs to find an answer at quarterback, wide receiver and running back while Nebraska has Tommy Armstrong but needs a replacement for Ameer Abdullah's absence.
I think schedule alone gives the nod to Nebraska, it appears, on paper at least, to be easier. Michigan will need to finish with a strong finish to the season in order to achieve any type of Top 25 standing. Is it possible? Sure, but Michigan has a long way to go. I will have to give the nod to Nebraska right now, Michigan has too many questions that need immediate answers.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is a tough one, as I think both teams have a good shot to finish in the top 25. But if I have to pick one, I would take Nebraska over Michigan. The Wolverines have a tougher path in the East Division with two top-10 teams in Ohio State and Michigan State, along with an improving Penn State squad. Jim Harbaugh is the nation’s top coaching hire for 2015, and Jake Rudock should provide stability at quarterback. But Nebraska’s path to a spot in the final top 25 poll is much easier. The Cornhuskers catch the Spartans in crossover play, but the other game (at Rutgers) in play against the East Division is very manageable. And Nebraska hosts Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa this year – three potential swing games in the West. Sure, there will be a transition period for Nebraska in coach Mike Riley’s first year. However, there’s also a lot to like about this team. If quarterback Tommy Armstrong settles into the new offensive attack, and the defense fills a few voids in the front seven, challenging for the West Division title isn’t out of reach. There’s no doubt Harbaugh is going to have Michigan playing better in 2015. But I like Nebraska to edge the Wolverines in the final rankings and push for a top-25 finish.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten's Coaches for 2015
The Michigan Wolverines and the Nebraska Cornhuskers are two big-time names in the Big Ten who are facing similar circumstances. Both teams will have new head coaches (Jim Harbaugh and Mike Riley) and will have to replace big-time pieces on their offense, for Michigan it is Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess, while Nebraska has to fill the shoes of Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell. So who has the better chance at finishing the 2015 season in the Top 25? Well, that would have to be the Cornhuskers. Let me tell you why. I figure it would take either team at least nine wins to crack the Top-25 based on the records of the teams in last year’s final poll. First, let’s look at the schedules. Michigan plays a much tougher non-conference schedule and is in the much harder Big Ten East and plays Ohio State and Michigan State, while Nebraska gets to play both Purdue and Illinois. Michigan will be hard pressed to break the seven win mark as they try and break in a new quarterback Jake Ruddock - assuming he is the starter - and will have to replace a ton of talent on an already struggling offense. It could be difficult for the Huskers to sneak into the top-25 as well, but they do have the better opportunity for that to happen.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Can I say both? I'd definitely lean Nebraska over Michigan if I had to pick one, but I think both are really good picks to overachieve their preseason rankings. Both rosters have talent, in particular, on defense. The two biggest differences on the field are the edge Nebraska gets in the scheduling department and in the offensive backfield. Mike Riley should be excellent on the ground with a two-headed rushing attack while Michigan may have not find its rushing identity right away. The Huskers play a significantly easier schedule within the Big Ten. Both play a tough road non-conference game and BYU at home outside of the Big Ten, but the Wolverines league slate is significantly more difficult. That alone gives Nebraska a really good shot at landing in the Big Ten title game while even a great year for Jim Harbaugh likely leads to a second- or third-place finish in the Big Ten East.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten's Quarterbacks for 2015
Michigan fans have every right to be excited about the future of the program with Jim Harbaugh taking control of the Wolverines, but expectations should be slightly scaled back in 2015. A schedule that opens on the road against Utah and includes BYU in non-conference play and later sees a late-season road game at Penn State followed by big, bad Ohio State the following week is not easy, and I did not even mention Michigan State visiting Ann Arbor. The Spartans have owned Michigan in the in-state rivalry lately, and they still seem to have the more well-rounded team heading into the new season.
Nebraska must play the Spartans as well, but Nebraska skips Ohio State this year. New head coach Mike Riley also has challenging non-conference match-ups against BYU and at Miami to deal with, but the schedule seems to be more favorable to the Huskers. Nebraska also has a solidified quarterback situation and a returning cast of receivers to keep the offense going while the defense brings back eight starters. Nebraska can afford a slow start more than Harbaugh and the Wolverines can this year.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott), Athlon Sports Contributor Network
There isn’t much on Michigan's roster that would keep me up at night as an opposing coordinator. They simply don't have the horses to hang with Michigan State or Ohio State and will open as underdogs at Utah.
Iowa transfer Jake Rudock provides senior leadership at quarterback, but it’ll be a rebuilding effort for Jim Harbaugh during his first season.
On the other hand, Mike Riley inherits the core of a Nebraska team that was two plays from winning 11 games last year. His staff is talented enough to mold the Huskers into his vision quickly. Having arguably the best group of receivers in the Big Ten won’t hurt.
The Huskers are good enough to beat every team on their schedule and they’ll likely reach double-digit wins.
I’ll take Nebraska.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Jim Harbaugh was a home-run hire for Michigan, make no mistake about it, but I actually think first-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley is positioned for more success in Year 1 at his new school. Riley inherits a team that won nine games last season and returns its starting quarterback, along with several other key pieces on both side of the ball. Harbaugh, on the other hand, is in many ways starting over, not only instilling his philosophies and his way of doing things into the program, but also in terms of personnel, especially on offense.
Both fanbases should be pretty happy with the new direction their respective programs are heading, but in my opinion the Cornhuskers have the look of a potential top-25 team, while the Wolverines still seem a year away. Don’t forget that defending national champion Ohio State and an extremely talented and well-coached Michigan State team also reside in Michigan’s division, making Harbaugh’s job this season that much tougher.