CHICAGO – “I’m very, very interested in this team, this 2017 team,” Mike Riley said as an introduction to the crowd of reporters at Big Ten media day on Tuesday.
You and everyone else, Coach. In Nebraska at least. Interested is about the only word for it, because the Huskers are a riddle here at the start of a new season.
Combine a new defense with a new quarterback and you get plenty of questions, but not a lot of story and people need story. It’s how we make sense of the world.
Or, as Riley put it in reference to the uncertainty surrounding Nebraska: “I don’t know how that narrative sounds in general, but that’s where we are. I do have a lot of faith and am very interested in what this is going to look like going forward.”
Well, it sounds . . . interesting. If you take Riley at his word – and you usually can – even he is anxious to see just how in the heck this all comes together.
But you’ll take unsure over indifferent, which might be an even better description of the Huskers’ perception nationally. If conference media days are the unofficial start to a college football season, then the clock has technically started on Nebraska’s 18th season since its last conference title. The Huskers haven’t lost fewer than four games in a season since 2003 and haven’t finished a season ranked higher than 14th in the Associated Press poll since 2009.
All of which is to say that the Huskers haven’t exactly inspired a lot of intrigue as a member of the Big Ten. Michigan? The Wolverines have to replace 10 starters on defense, but, just two seasons in, Jim Harbaugh gets the benefit of the doubt. Sure, the Wolverines have yet to finish better than third in the East, but they’re also 20-6 under Harbaugh with two top-15 finishes.
Wisconsin? The Badgers have appeared in conference title games under three different coaches since the start of the 2012 season and will start this season in the top-15 despite having their third defensive coordinator in as many years.
To predict similar heights for the Huskers this season requires something specific – faith.
It’s a word Riley used more than once in Chicago. And, until we get to see the official unveiling of the 2017 team, that will be all there is. Husker fans have to decide how much to believe the guys who are the closest to it.
But there are reasons to believe that both of Nebraska’s biggest questions here near the end of July could be legitimate strengths by October or November. The defense made gains in year two under the guy it fired, so what’s to be expected with a well-regarded and in-demand defensive mind at the helm?
“I have a feeling that how this thing is being coached from the front backwards — the front end, the linebackers — I’ve been impressed with that and I’ve been really impressed with the buy-in of the players,” Riley said. “I know that is a key, key ingredient. If we can play good defense and basically not let the big plays and the big points get away from us, then we’re going to have a chance to win every game.”
Again, a feeling, but not one without some reasoning behind it. The same goes for quarterback Tanner Lee, who continues to pile up praise despite pedestrian numbers at Tulane.
“I’m excited about where we can go offensively with this team,” Riley said. “I think our quarterbacks are good players. I have never been in a spring game where I’ve had three quarterbacks make it look like football pretty nicely, that was encouraging to me.”
Every coach is excited at media days, but that one, too, could have merit.
We’ve spent most of the spring and summer in Nebraska talking about quarterback fit and what it might mean for how many points the Huskers put on the board, and prevent, this fall.
But that time is nearly over. Media days are both a beginning and an end – an end to talking season, a start to answer season.
Feels like about the right time for those answers to start to arrive. But that’s just a feeling.
That’s all there is for the next few weeks.