Nebraska football is the fifth winningest program in the history of the collegiate game with a record of 865-357, trailing only Notre Dame, Texas, Yale, and Michigan. The Cornhuskers made an absurd 43 straight bowl games until Bill Callahan led them to two losing seasons in four years between the years 2003-2007. The school boasts 5 national championships (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, and 1997) and has won at least 9 games in every season that Bo Pelini has coached the team (2008-present).
Despite all of this storied and recent success, Nebraska fans have grown accustomed to hearing national columnists discuss other teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, among others) when discussing potential Big Ten title teams recently. This column will look at this year’s Cornhuskers squad and introduce you to some names that could prove to become vitally important in earning this year’s Huskers the programs first conference title since 1999.
This year’s offense will be led by redshirt-sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr out of Bradenton, Florida. Armstrong was forced into duty last year early in the season after four year starter Taylor Martinez was forced to miss the remainder of the 2013 season with a foot injury that still hasn’t healed (Martinez signed a three year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League but the contract was voided after Martinez failed his physical, with doctors citing the need for surgery to his foot).
Armstrong took his lumps at times last year, completing just over 50% of his passing attempts, however he was able to lead the Huskers to a 7-1 record as a starter, including a 24-19 victory over the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2014 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.
The receiving core for the Huskers begins at the top with Kenny Bell from Aurora, Colorado. The senior is the leading returning receiver on the roster and has big play potential (Big Red fans will remember a 4th and 2 last year against Michigan late in the fourth quarter where Bell caught a quick out and scampered down the field to set up Ameer Abdullah’s winning score).
Jamal Turner, Jordan Westerkamp (He of the brilliant mustache/Hail Mary recipient), and Taariq Allen are other receivers returning for Nebraska who all will see the field this season. This is one of the better units in the Big Ten, despite the loss of Quincy Enunwa who was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the New York Jets.
The running game at Nebraska will be strong yet again this season with All-American and Heisman trophy candidate Ameer Abdullah being the feature back. Abdullah rushed for over 1600 yards last season and will bring a sense of stability to a position that features familiar names in Junior Imani Cross and Sophomore Terrell Newby. Originally from Homewood, Alabama, Abdullah chose the Huskers over Auburn out of high school and hasn’t looked back since.
If Nebraska wants any shot at playing in the Big Ten Title Game, the team will have to get at least another 1600 yard season out of Abdullah, if not even more. Nebraska likes to run various options and motions on offense in order to get the defense on their toes, and Abdullah’s quick decision making is vital to that attack. He also possesses a natural sense of unity with Armstrong on the option, keeping good spacing and allowing for Armstrong to make the correct decision most of the time.
The offensive line is the biggest question mark here, as the team loses valuable starters from last season’s team such as Cole Pensick, Andrew Rodriguez, and Jeremiah Sirles. Mark Pelini should see playing time this season at center, with Mike Moudy and Jake Cotton seeing time at each guard spot. The Tackles are a largely unknown quantity, however my best guess would be that Colorado transfer Alex Lewis will hold down the left side while Sophomore Zach Sterup handles duties on the right.
The offense will be as good as the offensive line allows for them to be in the 2014 season. If they are able to open holes for Abdullah to run for, this offense should average around 40 points per game.
The Cornhusker defense has been an enigma recently. The team played very well in sloppy conditions against Georgia in the Gator Bowl to end last year and continued to improve almost every game throughout last season, however this is still a relatively young group. The defensive line possesses a huge difference maker with potential All-American and surefire first round draft pick Randy Gregory holding down one of the defensive end spots.
The side opposite Gregory is far more interesting, at least in terms of position battles, due to the departure of Avery Moss, who was suspended for a year by the University for Public Indecency in January. Greg McMullen should see serious time as the projected starter on the other side of the line with Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins holding down the starting spots in the middle. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Huskers didn’t switch more between a 4-3 and a 3-4 front this year to utilize their depth at linebacker and give their thin defensive line some rest during the game.
The Linebacker’s for the Huskers are the most experienced group among the returners on defense, however Pelini stated that he needs “a difference maker to step up” and I agree with him. Zaire Anderson is a name to remember here but I also think that David Santos and Michael Rose will see substantial playing time as well.
The secondary for Nebraska takes a major hit by departures losing Stanley Jean-Baptiste (drafted 2nd round by the New Orleans Saints), Ciante Evans, and Andrew Green. The Huskers have maintained great to elite level pass defense in Pelini’s tenure as head coach, often times making NFL caliber and elite level college quarterbacks look like they should be playing division 1-AA (remember the 2010 Big 12 championship game and Colt McCoy?).
Corey Cooper will hold down one starting safety spot while I expect the hard hitting LeRoy Alexander to occupy the other spot. Josh Mitchell will be the No. 1 corner but it is unknown who will step up behind him. My sense is the team and coaches would like for Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose to step up and play up to his talent level but he is in a battle for the 2nd corner spot with Junior College recruit Byerson Cockrell, who Pelini praised to reporters throughout the spring. The second corner spot is worth keeping an eye on.
Mauro Bondi should finally take over field goal duty after taking a back seat behind Brett Maher and Pat Smith the last two seasons. He will also handle kick off duties. The punting duties are wide open. The Cornhuskers need to badly improve their punt return and kick return units, which were downright dreadful at points last season, minus Kenny Bell’s kick return for a touchdown at Penn State.
The first two non-conference games for the Cornhuskers should be a relative breeze as the team welcomes Florida Atlantic and McNeese State to Lincoln. The schedule gets interesting with the next couple of games however as NU travels to Fresno, California in what I think is the biggest trap game of the season for this Huskers squad against Fresno State. Fresno has been known to be very good, especially at home, and nearly nipped the Cornhuskers in Lincoln last time these two teams met. The Huskers need to be careful in this one and make sure that they are not looking ahead to the following week’s opponent, the Miami (FL) Hurricanes.
The ‘Canes visit to Nebraska is sure to fire up some old memories for the more veteran college football crowd, as these two teams played regularly throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s in postseason play, usually with the national championship game on the line. This is slated to be an 8PM Eastern Time kick off and is the leading candidate to host ESPN’s College Gameday show for week 4. Next, the Huskers welcome Illinois to Lincoln for a second straight year. This game wasn’t close last year and shouldn’t be close this year either, as Nebraska looks to blow out the Illini yet again.
The next two weeks are extremely tricky for Nebraska as they have to travel to East Lansing to take on Michigan State and then follow up that trip with a voyage to Evanston to take on the Northwestern Wildcats, who have developed into a fairly competitive rival to the Huskers in their time in the league so far (similar to Iowa State was in the Big 12). The Huskers host Rutgers and Purdue next in what should be two relatively simple wins. The schedule ends on a tough note with a trip to Wisconsin, a home game vs Minnesota (who beat Nebraska last year in Minneapolis), and a rivalry game trip to Iowa who won in Lincoln last year on Senior Day.
The Huskers will likely have to split the trips to MSU and Wisconsin if they want to have a chance at winning the Big Ten West division. I believe this team will survive a scare against Fresno State and defeat Miami (FL) at home to enter the conference slate 4-0 and ranked somewhere in the top 20.
This team has the roster to end the season anywhere from 8-4 to 11-1 but I believe the team will end up 10-2 (6-2) losing two of the three road games at Michigan State, Northwester, or Wisconsin. If this team can manage a 6-2 record with a win over Wisconsin, or a 7-1 record with a loss to Wisconsin, it is possible to make the Big Ten title game. I believe in the job Pelini is doing at Nebraska and think that this team will be able to surprise some people this season.