College football is back and let us all take a moment to quickly do a happy dance. I'll keep this short and sweet; this week, I'm looking at five things.
On Thursday, week one of the college football season begins. And I’ll have my eyes on the game between Tulsa and No. 10 Oklahoma State. Mostly because the line for that game (OKST -18) seems a little curious given the Cowboys’ offensive explosiveness and the fact they enter 2017 as a team to watch in the Big 12 title and even College Football Playoff discussion.
I’m also keeping an eye on the Cowboys because they play an FCS team, Pitt and a Group of 5 school with nothing to lose to begin the year for the second straight season. Last time around, they romped the FCS school, barely beat Pitt and then lost (sorry not sorry Mike Gundy) to the “prove it” school. Last year it was Central Michigan, could it be Tulsa this time around?
No. 2 Ohio State and Indiana also play on Thursday night. That game wasn’t pretty for the Buckeyes at times last season and the Hoosiers will get Ohio State fresh out of the gates this time around.
If you’re looking for Saturday games to hold you over until the Huskers kickoff shortly after 7 p.m., don’t forget about the No. 11 Michigan vs. No. 17 Florida doozy at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas. Florida suspended seven players, including one of their best offensive talents, but there’s still plenty of intrigue left in that matchup. Michigan wants to prove it's still a force in the Big Ten despite losing so much from a season ago, and Florida wants to show off its new quarterback.
Now for the game that really matters. I’m sure you’ve heard by now, but Nebraska will play a football game on Saturday night.
It’ll be the season opener, the home opener and, what every fan watching will be hoping for, a dress rehearsal for week two. The Huskers host Arkansas State and the line was in the twenties but has since dipped into the high teens. Bottom line, Nebraska should win. And its new quarterback, junior transfer Tanner Lee, should have a big game.
All eyes will be on Lee for Nebraska. Head coach Mike Riley said Monday morning that Lee is here because of the pressure that comes with playing on this stage and winning on this stage. After a so-so two years at Tulane, Lee wants to prove something.
Here’s the thing though, Lee hasn’t been on this stage yet. He hasn’t even been hit on a football field once in over 600 days. I’m going to be watching for the first quarter jitters. Is he going to come out guns blazing and throw a little too hard a little too fast? Is that spiral that we’ve been told was always tight going to wobble a bit? And what if he throws a pick? What’s the response from him, or the coaching staff for that matter. What about when the nation's best pass rusher in defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones inevitably gets to him and delivers a shot? Does he bounce back up or does that linger?
With so many people praising Lee’s every move, it’s hard to fathom he would perform poorly and they’re all wrong, but it’s still worth keeping an eye on the technical things. This might be a tune-up for the defense and the special teams as they prepare for Oregon, but the offense needs to look impressive early or people will get anxious.
I know, I know, quarterback and defense as my first two “things I’m watching,” I’m really going out on a limb here. But they’re the two biggest unknowns for a reason. When Lee is sitting, new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense takes center stage.
We basically know what we’re going to get from the safety spot. Diaco thinks senior Joshua Kalu is going to be a star, and junior Aaron Williams was just voted to represent the team at Big Ten Media Days a month ago (that’s notable for so many reasons given the talent on that side of the ball). And the cornerback spot seems like it should be a question mark, but the coaching staff has been high on the trio of sophomores Lamar Jackson and Eric Lee Jr. and freshman Dicaprio Bootle.
Then there’s the defensive line, which is basically all back.
I’m, however, most interested in the linebacker group, specifically on the edges.
Senior Marcus Newby has a clear hold on the starting spot, despite backup Luke Gifford playing “the best football [Riley’s] ever seen him play.” Then there’s sophomore Alex Davis on the other side, who played last season with his hand in the dirt, but has moved back to Diaco’s CAT position.
“Bob does a great job of painting a picture for a player,” Riley said of Diaco’s teaching style, “but is done in a way that always keeps the player on the edge of learning.”
Riley said Davis has grabbed hold of his new position and gained a lot of confidence in knowing his was hand-picked by Diaco for that role. It will be interesting to see how that, and the position change, will translate to the field.
I don’t know that we should expect to see much from the new-look defense in terms of exotic packages and funky player groupings – that might get saved for Oregon – but, we'll see some and that will be intersting enough.
Watching last season’s tape of a then-true freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn was difficult at times. The potential was there, but so were the shanked punts, the questionable decision making and the misses.
Lightbourn has said he’s put that behind him, and is moving forward with a sense of confidence. He’s added weight and muscle, something that he’s said will help him to get distance on punts without having to try as hard. He’s also spent the summer and fall working directly with Diaco and stressing on the smallest of details.
When the offense stalls out, I’m very curious to see how far Lightbourn has come in terms of his development. Power didn’t seem to be the main issue last season, that was more accuracy and consistently getting good contact with the ball. Can he pin the Red Wolves a couple times? Can he flip field position?
I don’t know, but I want to know.
When the Huskers released their first official depth chart, there was still no indication anyone had gained an edge over the other. Then Riley said the staff knows who will get the first carry already and knows the timeshare won’t be equally divvied up. That means they have a guy in mind they like, now they just want to see them in action.
Intrigue going up.
The top three guys, Mikale Wilbon, Devine Ozigbo and Tre Bryant, each bring something a little different to the table but none bring much in the way of in-game experience eye-catching numbers. Ozigbo had his first career 100-yard outing in the first game last season despite not being the starter, but he’s got even more competition now.
Then there’s the freshman Jaylin Bradley. Running backs coach Reggie Davis said Bradley has a role on several special teams packages, and he’s listed as the third guy at kick returner. Riley also said he’s going to get some run in the backfield. What’s that going to look like?
Part of me thinks this by-committee approach will last a bit longer than the first week, but the quick passing game is going to have to be a big part of the offense given who Arkansas State has on the other side of the ball and if someone, anyone, has a big game catching it out of the backfield and doesn’t screw up in pass protection, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they get a chance to be the guy against Oregon.
Football’s back y’all, there’s a lot to think about.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.