In three years under head coach Blake Anderson, there have been two Arkansas States. There’s the Arkansas State that’s winless against regular-season FBS nonconference opponents the last two years and 1-9 since 2014. Then there’s the Arkansas State that went on to win at least a share of the Sun Belt title the past two years despite the ugly starts, and is 20-4 under Anderson in conference play.
Will the Huskers get Sun Belt Arkansas State or nonconference Arkansas State on Saturday? Let’s take a closer look.
THE LINE: The Nebraska-Arkansas State line opened at Nebraska -19 in Vegas, but you’ll find it now at -16 or -16.5. The computers think it should be lower. Over at thepredictiontracker.com, a collection of more than 50 computer projections, the average line is Nebraska -10.78. That gives the Huskers a nearly 74-percent win probability and a 37-percent chance of covering.
On to some key numbers to know for Nebraska-Arkansas State.
Start with the one everyone’s been talking about all week – sacks. Arkansas State was great at getting them and, a year ago at least, Nebraska was pretty good at avoiding them. The Red Wolves are probably the better bet to carry that trend over to 2017.
Defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones sacks almost everybody. He’s got the FBS career-sacks record within reach this season and has been in on a sack in 18 of 26 games over the past two seasons. The Red Wolves did lose Chris Odom (12.5 sacks in 2016) from last year, so that might allow teams to put more focus on stopping Rolland-Jones and everyone we'll leave Memorial Stadium wondering what all the hype was all about. Or this still might be the team that sacked the quarterback on 9.21 percent of dropbacks a year ago, tied with Clemson for sixth nationally.
Nebraska only gave up a sack on 3.61 percent of passing attempts in 2016, 13th nationally. It’s no secret that Tommy Armstrong Jr. had a ton to do with that. In the three games in which Ryker Fyfe had the majority of passing attempts – Ohio State, Maryland and Tennessee – Nebraska’s sack rate climbed to 6.25 percent, slightly worse than the national average.
We don’t know what sort of elusiveness Tanner Lee brings to the party yet. There are reasons to believe Lee will fall somewhere between the Armstrong-Fyfe extremes. “I think that having that consistent pocket and consistent drops and footwork is going to help the line,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said earlier this month. “Tanner’s good with that; he’s got good footwork, he’s not too deep or too shallow in the pocket.”
We’ll see if it looks that way on Saturday. Nebraska is probably going to throw the ball at least 35 times. On average, Arkansas State would’ve netted three-plus sacks out of that last year. A number like that, which would have to include a number of pressures that didn’t result in sacks but still affected the play, would be trouble for the Huskers in the opener. If Nebraska can keep the sack rate below 6 percent (two sacks on 35 attempts), that would be a win for an offensive line with plenty still to prove against a defensive line that looks a lot like a Power 5 line even without Odom. It’s a good test for the Huskers in the opener.
It’s not the only test Nebraska’s offense has to pass, however. While everyone is expecting to see the same passing game of the past two years, just one that looks totally better, the Huskers’ run game has to show some gains, too.
The Riley-Langsdorf offense is one that thrives on first-down efficiency. Per Hail Varsity’s Cody Nagel, Nebraska is 10-1 over the past two seasons with a 45-percent success rate on first down, 4-10 when that number drops below 45 percent.
Here’s what that means: For a play to be a success on first down the offense needs to gain 50 percent of the yards needed. Most of the time that’s 5 yards. The average FBS offense was successful on first down 42.9 percent of the time. When Nebraska has been a little bit better than average, it has been really tough to beat.
And here’s where the run game comes in. Over the past two seasons, Nebraska has run the ball on first down nearly 70 percent of the time, including 75 percent last year. The Huskers’ run game wasn’t explosive at all last year, but it was decently efficient. There’s a reason Riley uses that word all the time when referring to the run game.
Per Football Study Hall, Nebraska ranked 56th nationally in rushing success rate last season. If its yardage numbers remain mostly the same as in 2016, but the Huskers climb the rankings in this category you should see big gains for the offense as a whole. And maybe more wins.
Arkansas State is the perfect opponent in this regard, too. Part of the reason the Red Wolves’ sack numbers were so high was because they consistently put teams in passing situations. This was a highly efficient defense a year ago. It ranked fifth nationally in defensive success rate, keeping teams behind the chains 65.8 percent of the time.
If that happens on Saturday, the Huskers’ presumably improved passing game won’t look it. By screen, stretch or slant, Nebraska will need to stay out of too many passing downs. Every team is better when it does, but it seems to matter even more with this offense. Taking Arkansas State’s excellence in this area into account, a below-average first-down success rate of, say 41 percent, is still probably efficient enough for the Huskers to get a win.
The final facet to this game that should play a big role in determining the winner involves Arkansas State’s run game. It wasn’t good last year in any way. The top two rushers from 2016 – Warren Wand and Johnston White – return, which is a good news/bad news situation given the struggles a year ago. That might also be true of the five new starters on the offensive line.
This adds up to a pretty promising outlook for Bob Diaco’s new-look Blackshirts. In three seasons under Anderson the Red Wolves have averaged 3.1 yards per carry in nonconference games. Arkansas State is 4-11 in those games.
It might seem like a high bar for a new defense in its first game, but given Arkansas State’s previous struggles and the Huskers’ experience on defense, 3.5 yards allowed per carry on Saturday isn’t unrealistic. Hit that number and Nebraska will give itself enough of a cushion to withstand some occasional breakdowns in the passing game, where Red Wolves quarterback and former Oklahoma Sooner Justice Hansen will be throwing to a solid set of receivers against two largely unproven cornerbacks from Nebraska. Arkansas State should get some yards that way. But if running the ball is still a no-go for the Red Wolves against a Power 5 foe, Nebraska fans will go home happy.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.