The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans.
But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season.
In the coming weeks, Land Of 10 will offer a “Best-Case Scenario” piece for the Big Ten’s presumed cluster of bowl-bound clubs. Today’s piece focuses on Nebraska, which last year lost to Purdue, the Big Ten’s worst team, and toppled Michigan State – the eventual conference champion – in the span of seven surreal days.
Here are four factors that will matter for the Cornhuskers in 2016:
1. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. hits the crucial mark of 57-percent pass completions for the season
When the smoke finally clears on Armstrong’s Nebraska career, he’ll easily stand as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns, passing Taylor Martinez in both categories. This has been the easy presumption for almost a calendar year.
The real mystery surrounding Armstrong’s senior campaign: Can he finally crack the 60-percent pass completion mark?
For some national programs, 60 percent passing is a no-brainer achievement among quarterbacks. But it’s a little different at Nebraska, given how Armstrong (6,691 yards passing, 68 total TDs, 54-percent passing) has endured multiple coaching changes during his tenure. What’s more, the school doesn’t exactly have a long tradition of passing excellence.
On the plus side, Armstrong has shown modest upticks with passing efficiency for all three years, advancing from 52 percent as a freshman to 53.3 percent as a sophomore to 55.2 percent last year.
And things are looking rosy for Year 4, as Nebraska returns its top six pass-catchers from last season — receivers Jordan Westerkamp (65 catches, 918 yards, 7 TDs), Brandon Reilly (40 catches, 754 yards, 4 TDs), Alonzo Moore (24 catches, 395 yards, 6 TDs), Stanley Morgan Jr. (All-Freshman performer in 2015), tailback Terrell Newby (924 total yards, 7 TDs) and tight end Cethan Carter.
Here’s one more reason to believe: The odds of Armstrong (22 passing TDs for both 2014 and 2015) posting back-to-back clunkers — 32 percent against Illinois and 39 percent against Wisconsin last year — are off the charts. By simply removing those two ugly affairs, Armstrong’s 2015 passing rate climbs to 58.6 percent.
2. Freedom Akinmoladun lives up to his name and frees up other defensive linemen in the pass rush
Last season, according to College Sports Reference, Nebraska was the only Big Ten West program not to have at least one defender with double-digit tackles for loss. By extension, no Nebraska player crossed the attainable threshold of five sacks in 2015 either.
Which brings us to this: Technically, Nebraska has to replace all four starters from its defensive line. But is that such a bad thing, especially with Akinmoladun and redshirt freshman Khalil Davis seemingly ready for full-time reps in the trenches? As a frosh, Akinmoladun (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) notched 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss in his first five collegiate games.
On the whole, last season’s Cornhuskers posted middling-to-wretched averages with total defense (64th nationally), scoring defense (76th), sacks (80th), tackles for loss (83rd) and passing yards allowed (121st). However, an upside-driven defensive line and experienced secondary — led by cornerback Joshua Kalu and safety Nathan Gerry (seven pass deflections apiece last year) — should bring positive change.
3. The Cornhuskers still have enough energy and focus for Wisconsin and Ohio State — after getting revenge on Purdue
The above comment comes with a dead-serious tone.
Nebraska’s shocking loss to Purdue (2-10 overall last year, 1-7 in conference) was disheartening on two fronts:
- The Cornhuskers surrendered 55 points to the Boilermakers — the same Purdue offense which averaged 18.6 points in the five games leading up to Nebraska – and just 16 points in the three outings after the huge victory.
- The Nebraska win, the Big Ten’s third-biggest upset from last season — after Michigan State over Ohio State, and Nebraska over Michigan State — marked the only conference home victory in the three-year tenure of Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell, who is just 6-30 overall.
The redemption-obsessed Nebraska players should have some extra juice for Purdue this fall. However, the Boilermakers also visit Lincoln at a tricky time, with the Cornhuskers traveling to Indiana the week before (Oct. 15) and then taking on Wisconsin (Oct. 29) and Ohio State (Nov. 5) on consecutive Saturdays — and both on the road.
Bottom line: We’re likely talking about the most crucial five-week period of Nebraska’s schedule, which includes season-defining meetings with Oregon (Sept. 17), Northwestern (Sept. 24) and Iowa (Nov. 25).
4. Sophomore Nick Gates emerges as the conference’s best newbie left tackle
Depth charts are far from official at this point, but the Big Ten could have as many as eight new left tackles this season, an underclass-heavy listing which includes Michigan’s Grant Newsome, Ohio State’s Jamarco Jones, Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, Indiana’s Brandon Knight, Rutgers’ Tariq Cole, Minnesota’s Garrison Wright, Michigan State’s Dennis Finley and the aforementioned Gates.
And of the above names, only Gates made the conference’s All-Freshman Team for 2015 — albeit at right tackle, where he made 10 starts.
Now, does this mean Gates has a chance to evolve into the Big Ten’s best left tackle this season, eclipsing the stellar work of Illinois senior Austin Schmidt or Northwestern sophomore Blake Hance, who was also a member of the All-Freshman squad? Possibly, but not likely
However, Gates certainly has a decent head start compared to the other newbie tackles, and that experience should help Nebraska average more points than last year (32.8 per outing).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.