COLUMBUS, Ohio — Wait, is Nebraska good?
That was the question much of the college football world was asking as the Huskers ran their record to 7-0 despite looking like anything but world beaters in the second half against Purdue, Illinois and Oregon. Then came Nebraska’s first loss, and a change in perception of the club.
Aside from the end result, last weekend’s overtime loss to Wisconsin on the road looked an awful lot like how Ohio State fared at Camp Randall two weeks earlier.
That Huskers’ performance must have impressed the College Football Playoff committee. Even though Nebraska’s best win is arguably Wyoming, the Huskers sit 10th in the first CFP rankings. To learn more about Nebraska, we’ve turned to Chris Heady of Land of 10. You can follow him on Twitter at @heady_chris and you can read his work here.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between 6-7 Nebraska and 7-1 Nebraska?
Heady: Honestly, trust.
Last year was a perfect storm for a few reasons. I don’t think the offense was used to the new scheme and I don’t think they knew how to use Tommy Armstrong. I don’t think the defense wanted to play a non-Bo Pelini defense and I’m not sure the locker room really trusted Mike Riley.
Pelini was very “Us Against The World.” Riley is very “The World Is Great,” so the change in dynamic was pretty shocking, I think.
But a year removed from a 3-6 start, Nebraska is 10-2 in its last 12 games. Those losses, both close, came to a ranked Wisconsin and a ranked Iowa. I think this team has started to buy into the coaching staff and play a little looser.
Q: What’s the deal with Tommy Armstrong? Is he good now?
Heady: I’ve been saying the same thing about Tommy Armstrong since 2013.
With Tommy, you’re going to get the good, but you’ll have to take some of the bad, and you fully can’t get rid of either. He’s played relatively better this year primarily because they’re making him throw less and do less.
Plus, he’s now working with Danny Langsdorf, the current offensive coordinator and former quarterbacks coach for Eli Manning in New York. So his mechanics are getting better, and he’s making better decisions. But again, with that, you’ll still get some of the picks. The two just go hand and hand.
Q: Why has Nebraska been so good in the fourth quarter this season?
Heady: I think the way Nebraska plays offensively just wears people down.
Nebraska runs (a lot) and has a lot of quick playmakers, and I think they’re in ridiculous shape. So come the fourth quarter, they’ve been able to play like it’s the first quarter still.
Plus, there’s a lot of fight in this team. There’s fight in all teams, but this is a team motivated by the death of their teammate, Sam Foltz, and motivated by everyone doubting they’re for real, and I think they want to play for Foltz and prove they belong.
And with those two factors, I don’t think quitting is even an option for this group.
Q: In what areas or at what positions can Nebraska have success and cause problems for Ohio State?
Heady: Nebraska’s secondary is probably its biggest advantage this week.
Nate Gerry is playing like an All-American, and the two corners, Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu, have both grown into All-Big Ten corners. Ohio State has some scary receivers, but I think Nebraska matches up really well with them.
Q: How do Nebraska fans feel about Mike Riley, and has that shifted at all this season?
Heady: It’s absolutely shifted.
At the beginning of the season I think fans were still upset about the 6-7 season in 2015. I think the win over Oregon started to change the tide. Yes, Oregon is pitiful now, but it was still a demon that Riley hadn’t exorcised yet, and at the time was massive for the program.
Nebraska is 10-2 over the past 12 games after that 3-6 start so I think fans are starting to buy into Riley, just like the team has.
Q: What are the expectations around the program and/or fan base both for this game and the rest of the season as a whole?
Heady: This is the first time in a very long time that I don’t think Nebraska fans have any expectations.
With Pelini “10 wins or get out” was the expectation. After Riley’s first year, I think Nebraska fans threw expectations out the window and just wanted a season better than .500. I don’t think Nebraska fans expected being No. 10 in the first College Football Playoff rankings. With this year I think it has kind of been “let’s see how far this team can go.”
In other words: If Nebraska wins this game at Ohio State, it’d be shocking to a lot of people in Nebraska. If they lose, it wouldn’t be, but the world won’t come crumbling down.
Q: What’s your prediction?
Heady: I think this game will be closer than it should be. The Vegas line currently favors Ohio State by 17 points, and that kind of spread is a distinct possibility if Nebraska let’s this game get out of hand. But the Huskers haven’t done that in more than a year.
I think this one is close enough for Nebraska to prove it’s a real program and not a fluke. However, I’m not sure the Huskers have enough firepower on offense to keep up with Ohio State.
So I’ll go Ohio State 27, Nebraska 21.