The change in direction at Nebraska would have been a little easier to stomach had the Huskers won more than six games last season.
Six-win seasons are hardly the norm in Lincoln and an even starker contrast to all the winning that preceded last season, when Bo Pelini led the team to seven straight nine-win campaigns. But athletics director Shawn Eichhorst was no longer comfortable with Pelini at the helm — with talk of him not winning the “right” games — firing him in favor of Mike Riley.
There are still plenty of questions surrounding Riley’s credentials for such a big-time job, but here he is heading into his second season at Nebraska. And it would seem he needs to start winning some games fast to make sure that mediocre finishes don’t become the new normal in Lincoln.
Riley’s first season wasn’t exactly a normal one, with the Huskers dealt a handful of brutal last-second losses. Hail Marys and overtimes and walk-off field goals and last-second drives accumulated with astonishing fashion, and Nebraska was at one point 3-6 with the six losses coming by a total of 23 points (and one was by 10, making the other five by a combined 13 points). That’s unusual, though Nebraska’s defense was certainly to blame in some cases. It’ll have to be better this year to avoid a repeat of some of those stunning losses.
“If you look at the numbers and what you’ll expect to need to win games, we did OK, offensively big plays. But we were bad defensively. We gave up way too many big plays,” Riley said during the team's media day earlier this month. “And oftentimes some of those times, right at the first game, was a really big play at the end of the game. I think being sounder, being able to prevent long passes and long runs. I think maybe the two main factors in winning and losing games are turnovers and big plays. Explosive plays. And it goes both ways. Not turning the ball over offensively and getting explosive plays and defensively getting some turnovers and not giving up big plays. I think those are main factors there.”
This offseason, too, has been anything but normal, featuring the tragic death of punter Sam Foltz in a car accident late last month. The team still has games to play, but much of the attention of the season will be placed on honoring Foltz. The Huskers will wear decals and play for their teammate. The athletics department set up a scholarship in Foltz’s name.
Dealing with Foltz’s death will be a challenge enough, but then there’s the far less important task of winning football games in an always loaded Big Ten. It makes for quite the job for Riley & Co. in a season where normally great improvement in the win column would have been the main focus.
Nebraska has plenty of reason to be excited on the offensive side of the ball, though, with Tommy Armstrong in his fourth season starting at quarterback. And Armstrong will be throwing to an experienced and potent pair of receivers in Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly. Terrell Newby is a quality running back. But will that be enough to turn things around in such drastic fashion? After all, all those guys were there a season ago.
There were signs of what the Huskers could do at the end of last season. Nebraska shredded Michigan State’s defense in a stunning upset victory toward season’s end, and the Huskers triumphed over UCLA in the bowl game. Those positive steps could be all the Huskers need to head into 2016 with confidence and a chance to be better.
And while Riley gets deserved questioning for never presiding over a consistent stretch of winning as a head coach, he also deserves some slack for the way many of those games ended last season. A couple seconds here, a couple seconds there, and the Huskers could have been a 10-win team.
But hey, that’s college football.
So what’s the team hungry to do, coach?
“Win. And whatever winning means — winning the games, winning championships — I think they invested a lot,” Riley said. “My hope is, and it’s an educated hope, is that they have the last part of the season with a couple really good wins in there. It kind of made them confident in what we do and also anxious to prove we can do that consistently, which we did not last year. I think with veteran leadership we have coming back, with the fact that I think there was some confidence coming out of that and some excitement about what might be, it’s allowed me to say I think this is a hungry team.”
One of the leading scorers in the Big Ten is taking his talents to the ACC.
Andrew White III, who opted to transfer away from Nebraska after going through the NBA Draft process, will play for Syracuse during the 2016-17 season. As a graduate transfer, he is immediately eligible.
White informed ESPN of his decision Sunday before tweeting his own picture of him in Orange gear.
Excited to join Syracuse Basketball🍊🍊 pic.twitter.com/Idiri7bm6H— Andrew J. White III (@AndrewWhite03) August 28, 2016
White started his college career at Kansas before transferring to Nebraska, where he averaged 16.6 points per game last season, the second-best scorer on the team and the sixth-best scoring average in the Big Ten. White was also the Huskers' leading rebounder last season, averaging 5.9 rebounds a game and ranking in the top 15 in the conference.
Like many others with eligibility remaining, White took advantage of new rules allowing him to go through the NBA Draft process without hiring an agent, giving him the option to return to college with his eligibility intact. After doing so, he decided to leave Nebraska, a decision that upset his coach.
White visited Michigan State after deciding to transfer, setting up the possibility of his transferring within the conference, but he'll go out of conference with his move to Syracuse, a team that reached the Final Four last season.
Two years ago, we all wondered if Ezekiel Elliott would be able to fill the void left by the departure of Carlos Hyde.
We probably all feel a little silly about that question now, huh?
It’s the nature of college football, of course, but despite high recruiting rankings, Elliott was a question mark a season after Hyde was the Big Ten’s best running back for Ohio State. Elliott then went on to break out in the postseason for the national champs, and last year he was one of college football’s best running backs, rushing for 1,821 yards and earning a top-five spot in the NFL Draft.
So it’s on to the next question mark at Ohio State: Mike Weber.
Weber potentially has even higher expectations than Elliott did. The No. 7 running back recruit in the Class of 2015 and the best player in the state of Michigan, Weber famously decommitted from Michigan during a loss to Maryland in Brady Hoke’s final season. Weber then committed to Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes, and thanks to those high recruiting rankings, people have been wondering about when he would star for Ohio State for a couple years now.
The time has come, maybe a little earlier than it was supposed to. Elliott, after all, left following his junior season, and the dismissal of Bri’onte Dunn earlier this offseason left Weber as really the only option in the backfield for the Buckeyes. Meyer all but declared Weber the starter during Big Ten Media Days.
“I like where he's at. I don't like, I love where he's at as far as what kind of physical condition he's in,” Meyer said. “And I anticipate he'll be the starting tailback, but that's why we have training camp.”
Like many of the rest of the guys who will be stepping into starting roles for Ohio State this fall, Weber has no collegiate experience. He redshirted last season. It means, like many of his teammates, he’ll have to get ready and he’ll have to prove that he can turn those high recruiting rankings into gameday success.
And who else is getting Weber ready but quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Barrett knows a thing or two about being an inexperienced player in a starting role. That’s what he was as a redshirt freshman two seasons ago when Braxton Miller was injured right before the season started. Barrett proved he was ready, leading the Buckeyes to an 11-1 regular season before suffering his own injury ahead of Ohio State’s postseason run.
“Mike Weber, he’s an explosive back that we have,” Barrett said. “He cares a lot about his teammates, I feel like. We’re going to just keep on pushing him. I try to push him every day, I work out with him quite a bit and just try to make sure he understands that the work that happens in the offseason is where you win the game. You don’t win the game Sept. 17 when we’re at Oklahoma or when we’re down the road playing at a place like Wisconsin. That’s not where you win the game at. You win the game in the offseason and in the moments that really define you and who you are.
"So I’m just pushing him to strive to get better. I push him, he probably at times hates me. I know he could give so much for this team, and I just want to make sure he performs at his best.”
It’s a team-wide theme, getting these young guys ready for game action. As Barrett mentioned, there’s a huge early season test coming at Oklahoma, and that’ll be quite the baptism by fire for the young Weber.
But as much as lack of experience is a theme for these Buckeyes, so too is big expectations. Weber was part of a highly rated Ohio State recruiting class, and at Ohio State those guys are expected to deliver.
Elliott did in taking over for Hyde. Maybe we’ll all feel silly about questioning Weber, too.