No. 25 Nebraska
Now that Nebraska has righted the ship following the strange transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley, they are dying to be back in contention for conference championships.
They've won one conference title since 1999 and have played in just one title game since then (2012). Despite notable losses at every level on both sides of the ball, the Huskers have the starting talent and depth to contend with Wisconsin for the West crown.
2016 Record: 9-4 (6-3, Big Ten)
Nebraska matched the 2015 win total (six) by Oct. 15 with a road win over Indiana. And while they did lose four of their final six games — including blowouts to Ohio State and Tennessee in which they allowed 110 points and 1,519 yards of offense — it was a much-needed bounceback season.
Head Coach: Mike Riley (3rd year, 15-11 overall)
After six wins in 2015 — the program's worst since five victories in 2005 — prompted preposterous hot seat rumors, Riley ripped off seven-straight wins to open 2016 and finished with nine victories.
He's back in the good graces of most fans but, still, nine wins is not enough in Lincoln. Bo Pelini was fired for — among other reasons — delivering seven-straight seasons with at least nine wins.
“I think we’re trending upwards right now,” Riley said at Big Ten Media Days. “I feel good about that with our football team. And there are parts that would not necessarily, within me, agree. But the way I feel about this team is very, very positive.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Tanner Lee, WR Stanley Morgan Jr., WR De'Mornay Pierson-El, OT Nick Gates, OT David Knevel, G Tanner Farmer
Nebraska's offense failed to score 30 points in each of their final nine games and were held to 17 or fewer three times, including three in the loss to Ohio State. They weren't great in any one area but also weren't atrocious anywhere either, leaving optimism as Tulane transfer Tanner Lee takes over at quarterback.
Per usual with other programs who have similar quarterback situations (e.g. Florida transfer Will Grier at West Virginia), Lee is far too important to be left for the Player Additions section below. He was mostly average with the Green Wave, completing 54 percent of his passes, averaging barely five yards per attempt and throwing 21 interceptions to 23 touchdowns.
“People initially just felt comfortable with him,” Riley said of the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Lee. “You could tell that was the case. And then through time, he also became well-respected because he was a worker, took great pride — which is interesting — being the scout team quarterback after having started games in college already."
Lee will be the most traditional pro-style quarterback for Nebraska in a long time, and his success will be 100-percent dependent on an offensive line that returns four players with starting experience, including junior left tackle David Knevel, an all-conference honorable mention selection.
“You’re going to see the kitchen sink,” Riley said of defenses blitzing Lee.
The Huskers don't return a player who had more than 175 rushing yards last year — though they do skill players elsewhere. Upperclassmen Stanley Morgan Jr. and De'Mornay Pierson-El are back at receiver, and senior tight end Tyler Hoppes will have a bigger role with the departure of Cethan Carter.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Mick Stoltenberg, DE Freedom Akinmoladun, LB Dedrick Young, S Aaron Williams, S Kieron Williams, S Joshua Kalu
Mike Riley replaced longtime assistant Mark Banker at coordinator with former Notre Dame coordinator and UConn head coach Bob Diaco. Still 44 years old, Diaco will get another head coaching chance soon if he can elevate the Huskers' defense — which has struggled with top-tier opponents — to a new level.
"Very impressed with what our team defensively learned during spring practice when you change schematically like that from a big change going from a 4-man front foundation to a 3-man front," Riley said.
That up-front change should give more time and opportunities for a talented secondary to make plays. Keiron Williams, Aaron Williams (below) and Chris Jones combined for 11 interceptions. Jones, however, suffered a knee injury in July and will likely miss the entire season.
The line is led by juniors Freedom Akinmoladun and Mick Stoltenberg, the latter of whom added 25 pounds to have more strength as a run-stopping nose tackle.
“We have been pulling up some old clips to just kind of see Coach Diaco’s old defenses,” Stoltenberg said. “It’s definitely given us an idea of what we’re about to do. It’s definitely been a good tool for us . . . but it’s exciting now that we’re going to kind of get some practice going and get our own tape to look through.”
Junior linebacker Dedrick Young is their only returning linebacker with big experience.
Notable Player Losses
QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., RB Terrell Newby, WR Jordan Westerkamp, TE Cethan Carter, DT Kevin Maurice, DE Ross Dzuris, LB Josh Banderas, S Nathan Gerry
The Huskers' lone draft pick was safety Nathan Gerry. The Eagles' fifth-round pick was an All-Big Ten Third-Team pick last year after posting four interceptions and 74 tackles. Leading tackler Josh Banderas is also gone, as is sack leader Ross Dzuris and disruptive defensive tackle Kevin Maurice.
Offensively, Tommy Armstrong might be missed more than expected early in the season. He and Jordan Westerkamp connected on 38 passes and five touchdowns last year.
Notable Player Additions
QB Patrick O'Brien, WR JD Spielman, CB Elijah Blades.
Tanner Lee won the starting job during spring practice but redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien is a player to keep an eye on during fall camp. A huge — literally (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) — former four-star recruit from California, O'Brien is the future Huskers' quarterback.
Another redshirt freshman, receiver JD Spielman, is dripping with potential. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder was Scout Team Offensive MVP last year.
True freshman cornerback Elijah Blades is competing for playing time behind sophomore Lamar Jackson and senior Chris Jones.
Six of Nebraska's first eight games are at home, including back-to-back games against Wisconsin (Oct. 7) and Ohio State (Oct. 14). Their lone non-conference road game is Oregon in Week 2.
|Saturday, Sept. 2
|vs. Arkansas State
|Saturday, Sept. 9
|Saturday, Sept. 16
|vs. Northern Illinois
|Saturday, Sept. 23
|Friday, Sept. 29
|Saturday, Oct. 7
|Saturday, Oct. 14
|vs. Ohio State
|Saturday, Oct. 28
|Saturday, Nov. 4
|Saturday, Nov. 11
|Saturday, Nov. 18
|at Penn State
|Friday, Nov. 24