We’ll leave it to you to decide which of Mike Riley’s two Nebraska seasons you liked best, the one when the Huskers had a losing record but were undervalued or the one when the Huskers had a winning record but were overvalued. The truth is in there somewhere, and it’s probably right in the middle. If both years had ended up 8-5 or 7-6, those would’ve felt like true results, and that’s probably closer to basecamp for the 2017 campaign. Can the Huskers climb from there? There are reasons to say yes and reasons to say no.
The offensive line returns four starters but still has some things to prove and that’s probably the most we know about Nebraska on that side of the ball. There’s a lot of lost production everywhere else. Wide receiver has two experienced playmakers returning in De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr., but will need some new players to add depth. There are options at running back, three of ‘em, but the story of the spring and summer is new starting quarterback Tanner Lee. He looks the part, now can he provide the efficiency that is the lifeblood of the Riley/Langsdorf offense? If he can, it should help the Huskers’ offense address it’s two biggest weaknesses from 2016 — a lack of a consistent running game and a decreased rate of explosive plays.
If Nebraska’s offense in a nutshell is “same scheme, different cast,” the defense is the opposite. The Huskers’ top three tacklers were seniors last year, but Nebraska has some key players back in the secondary and on the line as it embarks on the switch to a 3-4. There are still some questions marks with that. Do the Huskers have the boundary-side outside linebacker they need? How do experienced defensive linemen adjust to new roles? Bob Diaco has shown the ability to coax quick improvement out of defenses in the past and if the Blackshirts become the Huskers’ strength in 2017, Nebraska is probably going to surprise some people.
Nebraska’s two Group of 5 games are against established programs, Arkansas State and Northern Illinois. Don’t expect losses there, but don’t expect cakewalks either. Those games sandwich a trip to Oregon to face a talented Ducks team under new direction. The Big Ten slate isn’t easy either, but the Huskers do get four of the five toughest games — Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa — at home. A late trip to Penn State will be a challenge, but at that point Nebraska should be whatever it will be in 2017.
On the recruiting trail the trend is clear — up — but this ain’t the recruiting trail, something that’s easy to forget in the summer. On the field, you can project pretty easily how this season breaks bad or good. The key to outperforming some pedestrian predictions still likely comes down to the defense’s ceiling in 2017 and the efficiency effect Lee might bring. But until we can see some proof of those things, the only trend forecast here seems to be FLAT. And somehow that seems OK, even though it’s year three.