Buy or sell: Will Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. claim the Big Ten passing title?
It remains a difficult concept to grasp, even though it’s been a successful venture:
Nebraska … as a passing school.
In the 1980s and ’90s, my formative years of watching college football, the Cornhuskers were unabashedly devoted to running offenses (wishbone, triple option, etc.). The results were staggering: Nebraska posted 13 seasons of double-digit victories from 1980-1997 and claimed 10 conference crowns (Big 8/Big 12), two national titles (1994, 1995) and one split national championship (1997).
In the present, new-era Nebraska strives for offensive balance, relying on conventional tailbacks and prolific passers to average 30-plus points per game. (The Cornhuskers averaged 32.8 in 2015); and the 2016 season will be no different, as senior Tommy Armstrong Jr. (career numbers: 6,691 yards passing, 53 passing TDs) moves closer to school records for passing yards (7,258) and passing touchdowns (56 — both marks held by Taylor Martinez).
Today’s piece won’t lament Armstrong’s record-breaking pursuit, since both marks are imminently within reach. Instead, we’ll focus on the Buy Or Sell notion of Armstrong winning the Big Ten passing title.
THE REALISTIC GOAL
Armstrong (55.2-percent passing in 2015) likely won’t eclipse last year’s mark of 402 pass attempts, but 380 sounds like a workable number for all parties involved (running backs are still essential at Nebraska).
Within that logic, if Armstrong can boost his completion rate to a happier neighborhood of 57-58 percent, he’ll likely be a candidate for 3,300 yards passing.
That figure breaks down like this:
- 12 games/3,300 yards passing (no bowl): 275 yards per game
- 13 games/3,300 yards passing (bowl): 253.8 ypg
- 14 games/3,300 yards passing (Big Ten title game, plus bowl): 235.7 ypg
THE COMPLEMENTARY PIECES
The Cornhuskers return their 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 (a 1:4 catch-to-TD ratio last year), Stanley Morgan Jr. (Big Ten All-Freshman pick in 2015), tight end Cethan Carter and tailback Terrell Newby (924 total yards, 7 TDs).
Outside of Michigan, none of the presumed Big Ten powers can rival Nebraska’s continuity within the passing game – another reason it would be surprising if Armstrong didn’t sweep the conference categories of passing yards and passing TDs.
However, for “total touchdowns among quarterbacks” … we’re already conceding that trophy to Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett (45 TDs in 2014 as the Buckeyes’ full-time QB).
There wasn’t much mystery to last season’s race for the Big Ten passing title.
Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld (3,573 yards passing, 27 TDs) won in a rout, crushing all comers by at least 500 yards. He also tossed more touchdowns than any other conference QB, despite playing in only 12 games (no bowl).
With Sudfeld off to the pros, Armstrong (3,030 yards passing, 29 total TDs) ascends as the early-line favorite for the 2016 passing crown, so much that among the returning QBs, only Wes Lunt (Illinois), Mitch Leidner (Minnesota) and C.J. Beathard (Iowa) posted per-game averages of 200-plus yards last year.
Within that group, Lunt has the most upside for reaching 3,200 yards passing. The Fighting Illini could be trailing late in numerous games this fall, forcing the strong-armed senior to go vertical frequently. Of course, if new coach Love Smith has a heavy-handed voice, Lunt’s passing expertise will merely complement Illinois’ ball-controlled offense, led by sophomore tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn (a 1,200-yard candidate).
That’s a nice dream scenario for Year 1. After all, very few coaches get their way at the beginning of reclamation projects, although Illinois certainly has more talent than a garden-variety five-win program.
Among the newcomers (first-year QBs), Michigan transfer John O’Korn — who passed for 3,117 yards/28 TDs as a freshman at Houston (2013) — likely poses the greatest threat to Armstrong’s yardage endeavor. But then again, O’Korn’s no lock to beat out Wilton Speight or Shane Morris for the opening-day start.
Let’s begin with the good news: Four of Nebraska’s 2016 opponents (Purdue, Maryland, Oregon, Indiana) finished in the bottom 30 last season in passing yards allowed. In fact, of 127 FBS defenses in that category, the Hoosiers and Ducks ranked 125th and 126th, respectively. Ouch.
Now for the bitter pill: Last year, six of the Cornhuskers’ 2016 opponents ranked in the top 26 for passing yards allowed — a stellar group which includes Wisconsin (seventh nationally), Minnesota (11th), Illinois (15th), Ohio State (16th), Northwestern (23rd) and Wyoming (26th).
In other words, it’s imperative for Armstrong to take advantage of the porous pass defenses whenever possible, including against Fresno State (49th against the pass) and Iowa (60th). Otherwise, things could get dicey in the latter half of the schedule.
History supports that statement. Of Armstrong’s five career outings of 300 yards passing, only one game occurred against Big Ten competition (320 yards passing, 4 total TDs vs. Michigan State last year).
Inclement weather could also play a role in Armstrong’s passing proficiency (or lack thereof). Citing his last seven November starts, the Nebraska senior holds disparate averages of 201 yards passing and 2.3 touchdowns.
In the grand scheme, it’s all good, though.
For Tommy Armstrong capturing the Big Ten passing title: BUY
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.