LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska had a few tough games in 2016. At Wisconsin, at Ohio State the week after, at Iowa against a hot Hawkeyes team who knocked off No. 2 Michigan just weeks before.
But Dec. 30, when Nebraska lines up against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, will be Nebraska’s toughest test in 2016 — and a window into the 2017 season.
To recap all that the Huskers are dealing with:
- The offense will be without senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, who is out for three months with a non-contact injury.
- The defense will be without senior safety Nate Gerry, who was ruled ineligible this week. Gerry is second on the team in tackles and interceptions.
- Senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong likely won’t play. After practice on Thursday, Nebraska coach Mike Riley declared him doubtful. Armstrong hass been dealing with a hamstring injury for almost a month and a half.
- Backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe is still battling a left-wrist injury, which he suffered in his only start of the season against Maryland. He’s only been able to take snaps under center the past two days.
- Senior running back Terrell Newby also is dealing with an injury, as is backup running back Tre Bryant, who Riley said is “doubtful.”
- Senior wide receiver Alonzo Moore is “looking like” he’ll practice next week, but Riley isn’t entirely sure.
- Nebraska will play Tennessee in the state of Tennessee.
- Do you really need any more to pile on?
There’s not a simple solution to any of the issues listed above. Which is why this game will be so important for the legacy of the 2016 season — and for the 2017 season. There are a few things at stake here.
The first is the legacy of the 2016 season, which is currently in disarray. The 40-10 Iowa loss all but shattered any positive feelings around Lincoln of the current campaign, despite it being the largest increase in wins from Season 1 to Season 2 in the history of coaching tenures at Nebraska.
The glaring number 3 in Nebraska’s 9-3 record reminded everyone of the Bo Pelini years, and triggered a pretty visceral response online from Nebraska fans unhappy that Riley hasn’t gotten Nebraska over the hump in his two full seasons here.
A win over Tennessee wouldn’t completely wipe away those feelings, but it would give Nebraska its best winning percentage (10-3) since the Frank Solich era. That 3 would still be there, but the 10 wins would be the most since 2012.
And second, Nebraska will have to win with players that will be key in 2017.
Without senior Westerkamp and possibly Moore, junior receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El and sophomore receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. will be on display as Nebraska’s go-to receivers (along with senior receiver Brandon Reilly). Morgan and Pierson-El will be the main guys next season, along with one or two of the incoming freshman receivers. How will they handle the workload?
And if Newby and Bryant are hurt, or even if just Bryant, sophomore Devine Ozigbo or freshman Mikale Wilbon will have to show what they can do. Ozigbo solidified a backup spot last year against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. And he could be contending for a starting role if Bryant can’t go.
On the defensive side of the ball, with Gerry gone, sophomore Antonio Reed will have some shots at Gerry’s old spot. The new secondary of Kieron Williams, Aaron Williams, Reed and possibly freshman Lamar Jackson will be on full display, and with it a sneak peek into next year’s pass defense.
This game won’t win Nebraska the Big Ten title or even grab any major attention for next season. That will depend on how redshirt junior Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien look next spring.
The 8,000 tickets allotted to Nebraska fans are sold out, according to the Music City Bowl. They seem to understand this game isn’t for naught.
All that’s left to see now is if the Huskers show up, too.