The next stop on the Nebraska football 2016 redemption tour is at home on Saturday against Illinois, which shoved the Huskers off the rails last year.
Under new head coach Lovie Smith, the Illini come into Lincoln 1-2 on the season and 21-point underdogs.
Meanwhile, No. 15 Nebraska is starting to chug along after its 24-13 win at Northwestern last week.
What do you need to watch for this week? Our five keys:
1. Redeeming last year’s egg
It was one of those games that, going into it, if you were busy or had errands to run you were kind of OK missing it. The Oct. 3, 2015, matchup between Illinois and Nebraska was set up to put Nebraska back on track.
Nebraska, 2-2 with losses to BYU and Miami by a combined seven points, was a 7.5-point favorite at Illinois. The Fighting Illini had three wins entering their first Big Ten game of the season, most recently a two-point victory over Middle Tennessee. It seemed like it would be a routine win for Nebraska.
And then, for reasons still no one is sure about, the Huskers laid an egg. QB Tommy Armstrong was awful, throwing 31 passes and completing just 10 of them for 105 yards and 1 interception.
The running backs were inconsistent, with then-freshman Devine Ozigbo the only Huskers back able to break 50 yards on the ground.
On the other side, Nebraska’s secondary was torched by Illinois QB Wes Lunt. He was 23-for-45 for 251 yards and 2 touchdowns and led Illinois down the field in the final seconds to beat the Huskers.
The loss began a trend for the 2015 season, and cast doubt about the hiring of Mike Riley and the potential of this team.
A year later, the tables have turned. Nebraska is back on track, entering this game with four wins, while Illinois is trying to rebuild with a new head coach in Lovie Smith.
Laying another egg would be a major setback.
2. Keith Williams returns
It’s hard to quantify the effect the return of wide receivers coach Keith Williams could have on game day, but it’s something to follow this week.
Williams, who was arrested in August on his third DUI charge, will return to the sidelines for the first time this season after being suspended for the first four games.
Williams isn’t necessarily going to drastically change the game, especially not this one, but his presence on the sideline will be a factor going forward. He’s a great coach and motivator, but after four wins and four pretty solid performances in the passing game, how much better could the passing offense be with Williams on the sideline? It could be significant. It could be minimal. Still, something to watch.
3. Lovie Smith’s Big Ten debut
This will be the Super Bowl-winning coach’s first Big Ten game. The first real game that matters in his tenure at Illinois.
Smith led Illinois to a victory over Murray State in the season opener but since then Illinois hasn’t been able to do much effectively except throw the ball.
Lunt threw for 312 yards and found 10 different receivers in Illinois’ loss to Western Michigan but led the Illini to only 10 points. The Broncos racked up 287 rushing yards against Illinois and had their way with the Illinois front seven.
Smith’s bread and butter for years in the NFL was his defense, which clearly is not ready yet. But maybe, on national television on the road against No. 15 Nebraska, this is his time to show a little of why Illinois shoveled out millions to hire him.
4. The Tommy Armstrong Show
The Nebraska offense is starting to hit its stride. Senior QB Tommy Armstrong has not played better in his career at Nebraska than he has through the first four games this season.
He’s nearing 1,000 yards passing already and has thrown 8 touchdown passes and just 1 interception. So far, he has the highest completion percentage of his career and the highest quarterback rating and yards per throw.
And Illinois’ defense is a disaster.
The Illini give up 28 points per game, the second-worst in the Big Ten. Illinois gives up 196 yards through the air a game, which is good for seventh in the Big Ten. For Armstrong and the Nebraska offense, this Illinois game should be a confidence-builder.
5. Can Nebraska look like a top 10 team?
Nebraska has quietly moved into the top 15 in the AP Poll for the first time since 2014 and just the second time since 2012.
That hasn’t garnered a ton of attention, and if Nebraska keeps it up, the Huskers could soon find themselves at No. 10 or better going into the matchup against Wisconsin in late October.
Against Illinois, and then Indiana and Purdue, this is Nebraska’s time to show it deserves to be where it is. Dominant wins would prove that.
If you want a measuring stick, the goal for Nebraska should be to run for more than 200 yards, not throw any interceptions and keep its opponents to under 125 rushing yards per game. Plus, win big.
The next few weeks, starting with Illinois on Saturday, is Nebraska’s chance to prove it has a legitimate shot at the conference championship game in Indianapolis.