Way too early 2016 look: Nebraska
Coach: Mike Riley (second season, 6-7)
2015 record: 6-7 (3-5 in B1G)
Biggest losses: Maliek Collins, DT; Vincent Valentine, DT; Andy Janovich, FB
Biggest returners: Jordan Westerkamp, WR; Nate Gerry, S; Tommy Armstrong, QB
2016 recruiting class ranking (247sports): No. 34 (6th in B1G)
Top committed recruit: Four-star OG John Raridon
2016 strength: Receivers
There aren’t many teams in the country that are five-deep at the wide receiver position. Nebraska is one of them. Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El will be the All-B1G picks but what makes the Huskers dangerous is their depth at the position. Brandon Reilly is coming off a breakout season while Alonzo Moore developed into a key red zone target and Stanley Morgan might be the No. 1 receiver of the future. That doesn’t even include the talented Cethan Carter, who will be one of the top returning pass-catching tight ends in the country. But with all of Nebraska’s talent out wide, the Foster Farms Bowl showed us that the Huskers could be transitioning back into a run-first team. If they do choose to go to the air, they have plenty of weapons to make teams pay.
2016 weakness: Pass Rush
Nebraska loses a lot up front with the NFL departures of defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. Tackles that can get after the quarterback are tough to come by. Nebraska will also miss the high-energy presence of Jack Gangwish. There are questions as to who will fill some big holes up front. Kevin Maurice figures to step into a major role, as could Ross Dzuris and Freedom Akinmoladun, who flashed his potential as a pass-rusher in non-conference play. What could plague Nebraska is a lack of pressure from its linebackers. Josh Banderas, Marcus Newby, Michael Rose-Ivey and Dedrick Young are all back for a unit that struggled in 2015. There are veteran quarterbacks across the board in the B1G West. If Nebraska can’t find ways to get to them in the backfield, that No. 121 pass defense ranking isn’t going anywhere.
Way-too-early 2016 projection: 8-4 (6-3 in B1G)
I actually think the Huskers will be one of the more improved B1G teams in 2015. The Foster Farms Bowl should’ve showed Mike Riley this team’s blueprint for success. That is, no matter how much talent the Huskers have at receiver and how big Tommy Armstrong’s arm is, they should still be a run-first team. The defense certainly wouldn’t mind that either. We’re going to see what kind of strides this group has made when Oregon comes to Lincoln for a non-conference showdown. Nebraska got a favorable crossover draw with facing Indiana and Purdue, but the Huskers will travel to Columbus in November. Road games against Iowa and Wisconsin won’t be a picnic, either. For Nebraska to look like a top-25 team by season’s end, it obviously has to do a much better job finishing games — on both sides of the ball — and it has to establish an identity far earlier than it did in 2015. If they can do that, Riley will start to silence some of his critics.