June 16, 2016
As time expired inside of Memorial Stadium on college football’s opening weekend, BYU backup quarterback Tanner Mangum rolled out and heaved a 42-yard pass into the arms of Mitch Mathews, completing a game-clinching Hail Mary to seal a 33-28 Cougars comeback victory over Nebraska.
At the time, it seemed like nothing more than bad luck—a brutal way for the Cornhuskers to lose their first game of the Mike Riley era.
What it wound up being was a microcosm of Nebraska’s 2015 season.
“I’d have to look back a ways, I don’t think I’ve ever really seen this before,” Riley told reporters after a 23-21 loss to Wisconsin sealed a fourth defeat by a combined 11 points six games into the season.
But with the 2016 season now approaching, good news could soon be on the horizon for the Huskers. Despite its poor fortune a season ago, Nebraska appears to possess all of the makings of a Big Ten sleeper team with a logical pathway that could ultimately send the Huskers to the College Football Playoff.
Why has Nebraska, coming off a losing season, emerged as the best bet to become this year’s version of last year’s Iowa?
In some cases, a college football team getting “another crack at it” is relative, given the turnover that happens on each roster from season to season. Even with returning star power, the reality is that no team in the sport is truly the same from one year to the next.
But in 2016, Nebraska will be pretty close.
Returning a combined 14 starters from the depth chart used in their season-ending victory over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl, the Huskers will bring back 78 percent of their overall production from last year’s team, according to SBNation’s Bill Connelly—the second-highest return rate in the entire Big Ten.
Offensively, there won’t be a team in the conference more capable of relying on experience than Nebraska, with eight starters and a Big Ten-high 94 percent of its output from a year ago back in the fold—including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., running back Terrell Newby and its top six leading receivers from 2015.
In a year where significant losses among the conference’s top contenders are commonplace, the Huskers’ proven production will serve as one their most valuable assets.
And with another year of experience in Riley’s pro-style system, an already impressive offense should only improve in the coming year.
“Having a full year under our belts with this new staff—it’s been a crazy ride so far,” said receiver Jordan Westerkamp said, per Eric Olson of the Associated Press. “It’s been a good one and we’ve learned a lot, gone through a lot with this coaching staff. It was huge for us this winter, coming off that win against UCLA.”
Defensively, Nebraska finds itself less fortunate when it comes to returning talent—especially on a defensive line replacing all four starters from a year ago, including Dallas Cowboys third-round pick Maliek Collins.
But the Cornhuskers bring back all three of their starting linebackers and three of their four starters in the secondary to a defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally against the run and showed flashes in between its inconsistencies against the pass in 2015.
Much like its offensive counterpart, Nebraska’s defense should benefit from another year in defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system.
It may be too early to proclaim the Blackshirts as “back” just yet, but if the Huskers once again fall short in 2016, talent won’t be the reason why.
Luck’s got something to do with it
Even with all of its returning talent from a year ago, this reality for Nebraska remains: All of that experience returns from a team that accumulated just a 5-7 regular-season record in 2015, before a technicality allowed it into postseason play.
In other words, what good are all these returning players if the players didn’t live up to expectations a year ago?
While that’s a fair question, advanced stats show a 2015 Nebraska team that was better than its record indicated. According to Connelly, the Huskers’ profile was more consistent of a team with a 7-5 record than a 5-7 mark. That would have only increased the optimism for Nebraska coming off a bowl win over UCLA, which ranked seventh in the nation at one point in the 2015 campaign.
Despite their top-10 rushing defense and one of the Big Ten’s top offenses, the Huskers never quite seemed capable of evading the same bad luck that plagued them in their heartbreaking opener.
Five of Nebraska’s seven defeats on the season came by fewer than five points, with neither of the other two exceeding a margin of 10.
The Huskers managed to keep games close despite ranking 117th out of 128 teams in turnover margin, a game-altering indicator that at least in some part can be attributed to luck. Per Connelly, Nebraska’s adjusted turnover margin—which accounts for luck—would have ranked closer to 61st in the country, a difference of nearly 12 turnovers throughout the Huskers’ season.
Factor that into Nebraska’s steady rate of one-score games, and it’s not hard to see how last season could have ended with a much more favorable bottom line in Lincoln.
This is where it might get tricky for the Huskers in the coming year.
While the numbers suggest a team more likely to show vast improvement than repeat a disappointing outcome, Nebraska still has to get it done on the field, and its 2016 schedule is hardly a cakewalk.
After topping off their out-of-conference slate with a game against Oregon, the Huskers’ first nine-game Big Ten schedule will feature six bowl teams from a year ago, including a cross-divisional game against mighty Ohio State.
What’s more is, outside of Wisconsin, you may not find a team in the conference with three tougher road games ahead than Nebraska, which will travel to Madison to play the Badgers, Columbus to take on the Buckeyes and Iowa City to play rival and defending Big Ten West champ Iowa at season’s end.
But a strong schedule can also serve as a double-edged sword, as the Huskers will possess no shortage of quality wins should they manage their slate successfully.
Split the back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, and Nebraska could very well control its Big Ten West destiny heading into its regular-season finale against the Hawkeyes. Win the Big Ten Championship, and at the very least, the Huskers will find themselves in the discussion to qualify for the College Football Playoff.
Of course, accomplishing all of that while coming off a 5-7 season will be easier said than done. It might even take some luck.
But if there’s a team in the Big Ten due for some good fortune in the coming year—and dating back to last year’s Hail Mary defeat—you’d be hard-pressed to find a more qualified candidate than Nebraska.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report’s Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247Sports‘ composite.
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