Can the Cornhuskers win the West?
With fall practice set to open around the nation for all 128 college football teams, the time to finalize preseason predictions is coming to an end.
Of course, there are a handful of teams every year that are flagged in the preseason as a wildcard to watch. These "wildcard" teams are often the most difficult team to figure out in predictions.
Most projections for the Big Ten in 2014 designate Ohio State and Wisconsin as the favorites to meet in Indianapolis for the conference title game. While Ohio State and Michigan State are the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the East, there’s more uncertainy in the West.
Wisconsin is pegged as the preseason favorite, but the Badgers return only eight starters. The significant personnel turnover in Madison provides plenty of hope for Iowa and Nebraska to contend for the West Division title.
Could the Cornhuskers be the surprise team in the West Division in 2014? Despite a -11 turnover margin and an injury to starting quarterback Taylor Martinez early in the season, Nebraska finished 9-4 last year. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why to buy into this team and a few reasons to pick against Nebraska in 2014.
Three Reasons Why Nebraska Will Surprise in 2014:
1. Development of front seven on defense:
Ohio State and Michigan State own the top two defensive lines in the Big Ten for 2014, but Nebraska can make a strong case as the No. 3 group in the conference. End Randy Gregory is one of the nation’s best and could improve on last year’s sack total (10.5) in 2014. The Cornhuskers are searching for more options at the other end spot, with Greg McMullen and A.J. Natter leading the way for snaps. While there’s some uncertainty at end, the interior of the line should be improved in 2014. Sophomores Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are both breakout candidates this year, with junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Kevin Maurice also in the mix for snaps. Combine the emergence of Collins and Valentine on the interior with emerging players like David Santos, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose at linebacker, and it’s easy to see why Nebraska’s defense should be better against the run. The Cornhuskers allowed 4.5 yards per carry against Big Ten offenses and gave up 16 scores in eight conference contests. Expect both of those numbers to improve in 2014.
2. Ameer Abdullah and the Receivers:
Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong is still developing, but the Cornhuskers can insulate their young passer with a strong rushing attack. Ameer Abdullah is one of the nation’s top backs, averaging 6.1 yards per carry in Big Ten play last season. Abdullah checks in at only 195 pounds, but he’s capable of handling carries between the tackles or bouncing it to the outside to break big plays. The senior can handle 275-290 carries if necessary, but Abdullah has plenty of help from backfield mates Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor. The Cornhuskers should have one of the Big Ten’s deepest backfields in 2014. Kenny Bell averaged only 11.1 yards per catch last season but inconsistency at the quarterback spot hurt his overall numbers. The senior is one of the Big Ten’s top receivers and should benefit from an offseason to work with Tommy Armstrong as the No. 1 quarterback. Nebraska’s receivers may not have the flash of Maryland or Ohio State, but this group should rank among the top five in the Big Ten. Needless to say, the talent at the skill positions is there for the Cornhuskers.
3. Quarterback Play…
Nebraska’s offense was placed into a difficult spot last year when Taylor Martinez suffered a season-ending foot injury. Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III each attempted over 130 passes, and the Cornhuskers finished No. 11 in the Big Ten in passing offense. Despite the inexperience at quarterback, Nebraska managed to finish 9-4 and 5-3 in the Big Ten. Armstrong has the physical tools to be a successful quarterback in the Big Ten, but he has to develop as a passer. That goal seems reasonable in 2014, especially as Armstrong is expected to be more comfortable with the offense in his second year, and the Cornhuskers have a strong supporting cast in place. With a tight battle expected at the top in the West Division, Armstrong’s emergence could be the difference between finishing third or playing in Indianapolis in early December.
Three Reasons Why Nebraska Won’t:
1. …Quarterback Play
While improvement is expected, is Tommy Armstrong ready to take a step forward in his development this year? Armstrong is credited with a 7-1 mark as Nebraska’s starting quarterback last season, but he completed only 51.9 percent of his passes and tossed eight picks on 131 attempts. Considering 2013 was his first taste of college snaps, it was no surprise Armstrong had his share of ups and downs. But is he ready to take that next step? Armstrong should have a better overall season than he did in 2013. However, is modest improvement going to be enough to win the West? Or will it take Armstrong having a special season to lift Nebraska to the division title? For the Cornhuskers to win the West Division, Armstrong has to do a better job of protecting the ball in 2014. With a strong rushing attack and defense, Nebraska doesn’t need Armstrong to throw for 300 yards each week. However, limiting mistakes and playing with more efficiency is a must.
2. The Schedule
Out of the projected top three teams in the West, Nebraska has the toughest route to a division title. Wisconsin and Iowa do not play any of the projected top four teams from the East in Athlon’s 2014 Big Ten projections. The Cornhuskers only catch one of the top four teams, but it’s a huge road test at Michigan State. Nebraska also has road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa – the two teams Bo Pelini's squad is likely to be fighting for the division title. The Cornhuskers also travel to Evanston to play Northwestern, and each of the last three meetings against the Wildcats has been decided by a field goal or less.
3. Rebuilt Secondary
Nebraska’s secondary finished 2013 ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. The Cornhuskers allowed only eight passing scores in conference games last year, but three starters must be replaced. Safety Corey Cooper is the lone returning starter, with Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Stanley Jean-Baptiste departing from last year’s unit. The secondary isn’t hurting for experienced options, as senior Josh Mitchell has 15 career starts and sophomore LeRoy Alexander played in all 13 games last season. Junior cornerback Charles Jackson had a good spring and is ready to seize a starting job. Can this unit match last year’s totals? The Cornhuskers should have one of the Big Ten’s best defensive lines, so the secondary won’t have to hold their coverage for too long. The schedule doesn’t feature a plethora of standout passing games, but Illinois, Michigan State, Northwestern and Fresno State will each provide a stiff test for Nebraska’s rebuilt secondary. Even with a front seven that will rank near the top of the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers can't afford to give up many big plays in the secondary.