Bo Pelini won at least nine games in each of his seven seasons as Nebraska’s head coach. But the standard in Lincoln is much higher than just nine wins a year. Mike Riley was hired away from Oregon State to elevate the Cornhuskers back into Big Ten title contention and return the program into a factor on the national scene once again. Nebraska has finished in the final Associated Press top 25 poll three times in the last four years. However, 24th was its highest finish.
Riley has a different coaching style than Pelini, but will it translate into success at Nebraska? Riley’s ability to develop talent and find underrated prospects on the recruiting trail should help the Cornhuskers over the next few years. But is that enough to knock off Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin on a consistent basis?
Related: Ranking the Top 50 Players for 2015
Is Riley the right fit at Nebraska? Can he elevate the program to win Big Ten Championships? Let’s take a look at the former Oregon State coach and his outlook for 2015 and beyond.
Mike Riley’s Job History
2003-14: Oregon State – Head Coach
2002: New Orleans Saints – Assistant Head Coach/Secondary
1999-2001: San Diego Chargers – Head Coach
1997-98: Oregon State – Head Coach
1993-96: USC – Assistant Head Coach/OC/QB
1991-92: San Antonio Riders (WLAF) – Head Coach
1987-90: Winnipeg Blue Bombers (CFL) – Head Coach
1986: Northern Colorado – Defensive Coordinator
1983-85: Winnipeg Blue Bombers (CFL) – Secondary Coach
1977-82: Linfield College – Defensive Coordinator/Secondary
1976: Whitworth College – Graduate Assistant
1975: California – Graduate Assistant (Defense)
Key Obstacles to Overcome in 2015
Adapting to New Schemes
As with any coaching change, the biggest obstacle to immediate success is how quickly a team adapts to new schemes on both sides of the ball. Nebraska is switching to a pro-style offense, while Mark Banker plans on a more aggressive approach on defense. The transition on offense is a bigger obstacle for the Cornhuskers, as quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to become more of a pocket passer and rely less on mobility. The junior threw for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns last season and must increase his completion percentage after posting a 53.3 mark in 2014. Will there be a seamless transition to the pro-style attack on offense? Or will it take a year for the offense to adjust?
Replacing Ameer Abdullah
There’s no doubt Nebraska will miss Abdullah in 2015. In 13 games last season, Abdullah rushed for 1,611 yards and 19 scores. Talent certainly isn’t an issue at running back, as Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor and Imani Cross are a capable trio to rely on in 2015. However, Abdullah was one of the best in the nation. Will the Cornhuskers match their production on the ground through the committee approach? Or will one of those players emerge as a consistent go-to option and keep the rushing game at a similar level (240.2 ypg in 2014)?
This is the biggest personnel concern for new coach Mike Riley. Nebraska does not return a player with a full season of starts from 2014. Senior David Santos was expected to anchor this group but transferred in June. The departure of Santos leaves juniors Josh Banderas (50 tackles) and Michael Rose-Ivey as the top options. Assuming Banderas and Rose-Ivey stay healthy, the Cornhuskers should be set at two of the starting spots. However, depth is a major issue here, with freshmen Dedrick Young, Luke Gifford, Adrienne Talan, Mohamed Barry and Tyrin Ferguson expected to push for snaps or crack the fall two-deep.
Team Strengths for 2015
Skill Position Talent
There’s no doubt Ameer Abdullah will be missed. However, Nebraska isn’t hurting for talent on offense. The ground attack could be more of a committee approach, and Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor and Imani Cross should be a capable trio. Assuming quarterback Tommy Armstrong settles into the new offense, there’s a lot of potential for the passing attack. Sophomore De’Mornay Pierson-El is one of the nation’s top all-purpose threats, and junior Jordan Westerkamp is back after catching 44 passes for 747 yards and five scores in 2014.
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2015
Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine might be the nation’s most underrated duo at defensive tackle. Both played in 13 games last season and combined for 21 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. Depth and proven options are short at defensive end for coordinator Mark Banker. It’s a bit of a cliché, but you have to be strong in the trenches to win in the Big Ten. Having Collins and Valentine is a good place to start for Banker as he searches for answers at defensive end.
This aspect differs from the roster pieces mentioned above, but Nebraska has a favorable path to push Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. The Cornhuskers host the Badgers in a game that could decide the division title, along with home matchups against Michigan State and Iowa in November. The road trip to Minnesota won’t be easy, but the schedule could be a boost for Nebraska’s division title hopes.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
* All rankings from 247Sports Composite
Nebraska’s recruiting rank has consistently ranked in the top half of the Big Ten. However, what’s notable about the recruiting trends is the drop in four-star prospects. The Cornhuskers signed 24 from 2011-13 but have only five over the last two years. Can Riley reverse that trend going forward?
Crossover Games Versus East Division: at Rutgers, Michigan State
Bye Week: Nov. 21
Four Critical Conference Games for Nebraska in 2015
1. Michigan State (Nov. 7)
2. Wisconsin (Oct. 10)
3. at Minnesota (Oct. 17)
4. Iowa (Nov. 27)
Best Non-Conference Game: at Miami (Sept. 19)
Wisconsin is the consensus favorite in the Big Ten’s West Division. But how big is the gap between the Badgers and Nebraska? Maybe not as much as some think. The Cornhuskers rank No. 29 in Athlon’s projected final 2015 poll, while Wisconsin ranks No. 19. With a home game against the Badgers, the Cornhuskers have an opportunity in early October to stake their claim for the division title. A crossover matchup against Michigan State is difficult, but Iowa visits Lincoln this year. The schedule isn’t overly taxing. However, the adjustment to new schemes on both sides of the ball will define just how high Nebraska climbs in the Big Ten West. Can quarterback Tommy Armstrong adapt quickly to the new offense and become the necessary passer needed in the pro-style attack? Will the Cornhuskers fill the voids at defensive end at linebacker? Recruiting rankings aren’t everything, but the trends suggest this roster is the best in the West. However, just having talent isn’t going to win games. Nebraska got an upgrade when it hired Riley. But year one could have its share of growing pains with the transition on both sides of the ball. Eight or nine wins is a realistic expectation for the first year. If the transition is smooth, and Armstrong develops into an all-conference quarterback, 10 victories is certainly within reach.
Athlon 2015 National Projection: No. 29 nationally, No. 2 Big Ten West
Athlon 2015 Record Projection: 8-4, 5-3 Big Ten
Bovada Over/Under Odds: 8
CG Technology Over/Under Odds: 8
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 8