I’ve been a Husker fan for all of my 21 years of existence. With each season coming to an end, it looks as if I might have experienced the peak of Nebraska’s glory as a dominant powerhouse in the 90’s as a child. So, why am I so excited for this upcoming season?
Let it be clear, I am a realist when it comes to Nebraska football. I’m not a hopeless romantic that will tell you the Huskers will go undefeated every year, and I’m also not a pessimistic fan that will tell you we’d be lucky to win five games this year. I know when our team is good, and I know when we will have an off year. This year, for the first time in a while, I can’t tell which category this team will fall under.
Maybe my heart has too big of an appetite for my brain to rationalize this season. Maybe it’s because we’re in that awkward sports transition between the end of the NBA and the start of college football, and I’m just craving something to root for. Or, maybe this team might have something special brewing in Lincoln, Nebraska.
First off, I would like to disclose that I was not a big fan of the Mike Riley hire, and still have second thoughts about the guy. When they brought in Riley from Oregon State, a few Google searches told me that he’s a nice guy, he will get you 8 wins a season, and he’s not Scott Frost.
When I woke up that December morning and was notified that Nebraska finally parted ways with Bo Pelini and elected go with a guy who had a career-best 10-4 season at Oregon State, all I could think of was Nebraska was issuing themselves a public relations makeover. Pelini was obviously not a good candidate to represent our University, and Nebraska needed to start over with a good guy. A nice guy. Mike Riley.
Initially, I, like many other Nebraska fans, wanted to see Scott Frost on the sidelines instead of Riley. Frost, a former Husker with a 1997 National Championship ring, proved he could coach an explosive offense as the offensive coordinator at Oregon. Players also seemed to like him, and he obviously knows the great tradition that is Nebraska football. However, I did not get what I wanted (not yet, that is).
So, I gave this Mike Riley guy a chance. I went into last season with an open-mind, and told myself that maybe Riley was Nebraska’s saving grace. After a home-opener loss to BYU, something Nebraska hadn’t done since 1985, and a debacle of a losing 6-7 season, I continued my theory of Nebraska hiring a “nice” guy, as opposed to the “right” guy. With all of that said, maybe last year needed to happen.
Riley is back in his second year in Lincoln with practically the same team from last year. He’s had an entire year to get to know these kids, has finally put together his dream coaching staff, and has shown that he can recruit. Has anyone heard of Keyshawn Johnson Jr.?
This upcoming season, I’m wiping the slate clean and pretending that last year never happened. I have cleared my mind and am rooting for this nice guy they call Mike Riley. He has such a calm demeanor and gives off the impression that he never panicked because maybe he has a plan after all. I feel like a kid again with all of this hope.
Riley is just the tip of the iceberg of my somewhat foolish optimism for this season. Nebraska has talent. They showed that with Pelini, and they demonstrated that even further last year. They just need some coaching and guidance. Riley can only hold their hand for so long, though. These boys need to perform for themselves, the team and the greatest fans in college football. And something tells me that this year could be that year.
Nebraska is returning a plethora of threats offensively, and could surprise a few folks on the defensive side of the ball. The Huskers graduated 20 seniors last year and lost two defensive linemen to the NFL. Despite losing these men, they still have leaders like Tommy Armstrong Jr., Jordan Westerkamp, Nate Gerry, and Terrell Newby. Not to mention that they have depth in almost every position offensively, with the exception of their offensive line.
Defensively, the Huskers could use some work. Their defensive line is their biggest concern this season, but with first year defensive line coach John Parrella, maybe he can bring back a fearsome Blackshirt line. Marcus Newby and Michael Rose-Ivey highlight the linebacker position, and Joshua Kalu and Nate Gerry will start in the secondary. This leaves positions for new guys and old to battle it out and to put their heart into earning a Blackshirt. I’d rather have that than just giving a senior a free ticket to the starting lineup.
Defense could surely be the issue of the season, but with an explosive offense, it may be acceptable to give up a few big plays. Armstrong Jr. and Terrell Newby could obtain unreal rushing yards if offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf decides to dip into the history books for a run-first playbook. I’m not comparing Armstrong Jr. to Tommie Frazier, or Newby to Ahman Green, but these guys know the system, they know their job, so why not assume they can’t pick up 5 yards a carry?
Okay, if I’m losing you, stay with me. Another perspective to view this team as a possible playoff contender is their schedule.
The Huskers start the season in Memorial Stadium against Fresno State. Assuming Fresno State does not upset them with a last second Hail Mary like BYU did, Nebraska could already have an improved record from last year, starting 1-0. When they take care of business against Wyoming the following week, they host Oregon, their biggest non-conference opponent since 2007 when College Gameday and the USC Trojans came to Lincoln. Memorial Stadium will be an electric atmosphere with a sold-out crowd, and two 2-0 teams going head-to-head. This Oregon game could determine the rest of the season for the Huskers.
If Nebraska can survive against the Ducks and progress to 3-0, they have a tough first road game against Northwestern. Since Nebraska will be seeking revenge in most games this year, I could see Nebraska pulling away in a closely battled, low scoring game.
If Nebraska starts off 4-0, and they get the job done against Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, the Huskers could enter Madison undefeated at 7-0. Wisconsin is not the deadly threat they were a few years back when they ran circles around Nebraska’s catastrophe of a defense last time these teams met in Wisconsin, but with a history of losing to the Badgers, this game is going to be highlighted on the Husker’s calendar.
If you’re still following along, I’m stressing that there’s a possibility, if Nebraska can beat Oregon at home, that they could be 8-0 heading into the biggest game of the season against the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Beating Ohio State in Columbus is the most far-fetched, idiotic possibility for a Husker fan to believe, but if both teams are undefeated, playing on a nationally televised game with their season on the line, anything could happen. Assuming the Huskers lose to the Buckeyes, it may be a blessing in disguise as they might meet again in the Big Ten Championship for redemption.
Like I said, I am a realistic Husker fan, so it’s reasonable to think Nebraska will drop at least two road games, and maybe one home game. However, I also believe in the college footballs gods, and after so many heartbreaking losses last year, Nebraska may have a game, or four, fall their way this year. If you think about it, the Huskers were about six last-minute plays away from going 12-1 last year.
Nebraska is also flying under the radar as a serious threat in the Big Ten, so they could upset a lot of teams that won’t take them seriously this year. It’s not as irrational of an idea to say Nebraska could finish 10-2 this year and end up in the Big Ten Championship game. If that is the case, odds say they have a 50/50 shot at winning the whole conference. College football playoffs anyone?
After reading this, you could be saying that I’m a hopeless romantic Husker fan. That I’m an idiotic Husker fan. That I know nothing about college football. You may be right, and Nebraska could prove me wrong again with yet another disappointing football season. But isn’t it more fun to dream like a kid again?