The Nebraska Cornhuskers have been stuck in a “Twilight Zone” episode the past six years, which all ended with four losses. While this means head coach Bo Pelini‘s squads have been good enough to win nine-ten games consistently, fans are certainly getting restless for a step forward.
With the balance of power favoring the Big 10‘s East division, it would appear the Huskers will have a good shot in 2014.
QBs Taylor Martinez and Ron Kellog III have graduated, leaving the starting job in the hands of sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr., who has teased Nebraska with big play potential, but also scared them with a 51.9 percent completion rate and a nine-eight touchdown-interception ratio. These numbers will need to improve if he is going to be able to support Heisman hopeful RB Ameer Abduallah, who returns for his senior season after rushing for 6.0 yards a carry and accounting for nearly 2,000 total yards. Thankfully, Armstrong Jr. does bring some dual-threat ability to the backfield, which also features a capable group of backups in Imani Cross (447 rush yards, 10 touchdowns) and Terrell Newby (298 yards, 5.5 yards-per-carry).
The Huskers’ receivers, however, are a bit unproven. Senior Kenny Bell had a bit of a letdown year in 2013 (577 yards and four touchdowns after 863 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012), but his return is certainly welcomed considering a majority of the other returning players with experience are sophomores. If a couple of these players step up and provide reliable hands, however, the unit will be fine.
After ranking fourth in Adjusted Line Yards in 2012 and a respectable 38th last season, the offensive line becomes a major concern in 2014 due to the departure of five players with 125 combined starts. The returning group offers an alarming 16 total, which ranks among the fewest in the nation.
Nebraska will be led by former JUCO transfer Randy Gregory, who has quickly worked his name into discussions for the top pick in next year’s NFL Draft after amassing 52 tackles, 16 tackles-for-loss and 9.5 sacks. Oh, and he also got his hands on an interception and a fumble. Unfortunately, Gregory’s solid support group, comprised of ends Jason Ankrah and Avery Moss and DT Thad Randle, has left campus. There are a few rising talents in the group, including tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins and ends Aaron Curry and Greg McMullen, who could fill in. Another JUCO transfer, Joe Keels, will also likely be in the mix.
The linebackers, however, are already proven commodities. All three starters, David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson, return having combined for 17 tackles-for-loss and five sacks. There’s also sophomore Josh Banderas, who racked up 2.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks in 2013. Although run defense may be an issue again this season, the group will help in pass defense, which will be a necessity after the departure of corners Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans and safeties Andrew Green and Harvey Jackson.
The secondary isn’t completely in shambles, though. 2013’s leading tackler, strong safety Corey Cooper, returns to lead the unit and sophomores LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry bring some experience at the other safety spot. Senior corner Josh Mitchell, meanwhile, looks ready to pick off a few passes this season.
The Huskers have an easier schedule than they would if they played in the Big Ten East, but arguably five of their seven toughest games come on the road, including a trip to Fresno State in Week 3 that could be a trap game with the Miami Hurricanes looming the following week.
Navigating the group of road games against the Spartans, Badgers and Hawkeyes will likely determine if Nebraska earns the right to represent the West in the Big 10 Championship Game. If they can win two out of those three — preferably in-division opponents Iowa and Wisconsin for tie-breaker purposes — and take care of business against Minnesota and Northwestern, they should be in.
On the flip side, with two challenging non-conference games, an unproven QB and offensive line, and a rough road slate, the glass half-empty guy can also see another four-win season — sending fans in Lincoln into simultaneous groans.
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