Will the fans cut Bo Pelini some slack?
The Nebraska football program is in an interesting place right now. The Tom Osborne years of the late nineties, in which the Cornhuskers won three national championships in four years -- including a set of back-to-back title runs -- has many in the Big Red nation restless for a return to the days of glorious dominance. As Michigan fans we can understand this notion appropriately. It was around the same time that Michigan won its own national championship -- we actually share the 1997 title with Nebraska, in case you didn't know -- and afterward the Wolverines went on to compete regularly for Big Ten championships, BCS bowls, and at least were in the national title discussion. Ask any Michigan fan and they'll tell you they long for those days again.
As Michigan struggles to get back to being a consistently good football program, Nebraska is already there. Bo Pelini has never lost more than four(!) games in any of his six seasons as the head coach of the Cornhuskers. But this isn't the 1930s, where teams could claim national titles after winning a mere eight games like Minnesota did in 1934 and 1935. (The Gophers even claimed one in '36, when they went 7-1!) Pelini's record, as it stands right now, is 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, 9-4, 10-4, 9-4. The years where he won 10 games, the Cornhuskers were competing in the conference championship game. To any sane, rational person, you have to admit that looks pretty damn good.
But not everyone in the Nebraska fan base is sane or rational, and like I said, eight-plus wins doesn't mean national championships these days. Pelini's job security is a regular discussion topic on Nebraska football forums and message boards, and the general knock against him (record-wise) is that he isn't an "elite" coach like Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, who regularly churn out seasons with double-digit wins and have a few national titles to their name. Here is a small sample size from Old School Husker over at CornNation:
If Pelini has another 9 or 10 win season… his seat is hot.
Your initial reaction when you read a statement like that is probably "HUHH??!!' and to be fair, many in the discussion see this type of statement for what it is. A few understand that the standard Pelini has set is incredibly hard to match for any coach, and it isn't so much trying to figure out whether or not Pelini is the future, but rather who is capable of replacing him. Minnesota famously canned Glen Mason after he was taking the Gophers to bowl games regularly, and they replaced him with Tim Brewster. Nebraska fired Frank Solich for not matching the standard set by Osborne, despite the fact that he posted a record of 58-19, and they replaced him with Bill Callahan, who posted a record of 27-22. If I'm a fan of any team in this situation, I'm incredibly wary of letting a guy go because he's "only" getting nine or ten wins a year. The guy who replaces him might not be as good.
Can the Cornhuskers achieve early momentum?
I'm intrigued by Nebraska's schedule in 2014. It provides the Cornhuskers with the opportunity to finally give Bo Pelini that breakout season the fans have been hoping for, provided everything goes right. It also is set up in such a way that, if a few bad things happen early, the season could go horribly, horribly wrong.
Initially, you're probably inclined to think that the non-conference schedule -- Florida Atlantic, FCS McNeese State, at Fresno State, Miami (FL) -- isn't all that daunting, and you'd probably be right. At the very least, Nebraska should be 2-0 before heading out to Fresno. One brief caveat: early reports claim that McNeese State isn't exactly a push-over, despite the fact that they're in the FCS. With the addition of former Kansas State quarterback Daniel Sims to their roster, this match-up becomes even more interesting. Still, the 'Huskers are deeper, and while this contest may be closer than will make Nebraska fans comfortable, there's still no reason to expect an upset.
That leaves the two marquee non-conference games, Fresno State and Miami (FL), as interesting headliners. Is Fresno State really going to be the same team without Derek Carr? Is that game really a toss-up? They return home afterwards to face the Miami Hurricanes, and with the brands of both programs on the field, the media is sure to be buzzing about the two traditional powerhouses squaring off. Yet this is neither the Miami of old nor is it the Nebraska of old, but Nebraska is a little farther along. Couple that with the home-field advantage of being in Lincoln, from which the team definitely gets every possible inch of help they can, and it would take a serious, surprising surge by the Hurricanes to catch the Cornhuskers napping.
I think it would be wrong to say there isn't a very real chance that Nebraska could be 5-0 (a Big Ten opening win against Illinois in Lincoln) going into East Lansing. Following that, which at this point likely falls in the Spartans' favor, who is really left to challenge Nebraska? There is Wisconsin at Camp Randall on November 15 and Iowa in Kinnick Stadium on November 28, the season's only other two games (which happen, of course, to be away) for the Cornhuskers which give me pause.
Yes, it would be very typical for Nebraska to drop one against either Northwestern or Minnesota, both games in which the 'Huskers would be favored. But barring that, if Nebraska knocks off either Wisconsin (a tall task on the road, but not impossible) or Iowa (on senior day? always rough for visitors), then you're looking at a 10-2 record. It might not be enough to get them to the newly installed four-team playoff, but it could be just enough to get them in one of the non-playoff BCS bowl games. Unless it's national championship or bust in your mind, there's your breakthrough season.
Of course, a large part of that scenario hinges on Nebraska taking care of business against their non-conference opponents -- against all of whom the Cornhuskers will likely be favored -- as well as everyone in the Big Ten who they are supposed to beat. Illinois, Purdue, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Minnesota are all contests in which Nebraska should (at least, on paper) be able to outlast their opponents. Of those five, only Northwestern is on the road. You'd have to make a strong case for why the Cornhuskers would go 3-0 on the road against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, but it wouldn't take nearly as much of an argument to say they can top the second or third tier conference teams.
To me, this is really all about going undefeated in the non-conference. Should Nebraska drop more than one game there (say, against both Fresno State and Miami), it has the potential to completely derail the season entirely. Unless the 'Huskers were to bounce back in a big way, mimicking Michigan State's run in 2013, you're looking instead at the possibility of them falling to 7-5 or even 6-6. And God help those Nebraskans if they drop the ball against Florida Atlantic or McNeese State.
Tommy Armstrong Jr.: Tommie Frazier 2.0?
You know what's fun? Making a prediction and being completely, utterly, hilariously wrong. Last year, when I previewed Nebraska's offense, I said that Johnny Stanton, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was the clear-cut heir apparent to Taylor Martinez, who I believed would definitely and obviously make it through the entire season uninjured.
This presumption that Stanton was Martinez 2.0 was based almost entirely on the fact that Stanton had been a finalist in the Elite 11 quarterback competition, which actually means very little other than that he was a super-hyped four-star recruit, and the fact that he looked like a carbon copy of Taylor Martinez (i.e. he shares Martinez's build and running ability, suited ideally for Pelini's spread option). The thought that Stanton would succeed Martinez's last hurrah and allow the offense to keep steadily moving along with very little drop-off seemed like a no-brainer. Meanwhile, when the question of guys like Ron Kellogg III or Tommy Armstrong Jr. came up, the term I used was "afterthought":
Of course there are guys like Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong. Kellogg looked good enough in the spring game to at least be a serviceable backup in the event Martinez needs it. Given the fact that he's a senior, Kellogg looks primarily like Pelini's best chance to keep a redshirt on Stanton until 2014. Armstrong, meanwhile, is a redshirt freshman, but he doesn't have near the potential or upside that Stanton does. He has some support among the Nebraska fanbase, but no one has really seen anything from him and at this point he looks like an afterthought at best.
Shame on me. Shame!
Little did I know that Martinez would see his record-breaking career unceremoniously ended by injury, and that a mix of Kellogg and Armstrong would take the reins at quarterback, with Armstrong emerging as anything but an afterthought. (In hindsight, it also makes sense that Pelini would prefer to make Stanton redshirt.) Though the Cornhuskers season hopes could have ended with Martinez's injury, Armstrong valiantly led the team through the remainder of the schedule and was 7-1 as the starter.
He was a heralded recruit in his own right, but with the commitment of Stanton, word began to circulate that Armstrong would moolight as a wide receiver, if not totally change positions. That proved to be premature, as most speculation is, before injuries happen. As the starter, Armstrong looked poised and in control, though there are some shortcomings: he is not as explosive a runner as Martinez was, and he posted eight interceptions to nine touchdowns. Granted, he is still young, so there is room, and time, for him to improve. It might also help that he got a tutoring session from Brett Farve, a quarterback of similar ability.
Armstrong may also remind 'Husker fans of Tommie Frazier, who made his bones as an option quarterback for the Cornhuskers and led them to consecutive national championships. Armstrong and Frazier also seem to have similar measurables (Armstrong is 6'1", 220 lbs.; Frazier was 6'2", 205 lbs. at Nebraska), and just in case you think I'm crazy, the Journal Star sees enough of a resemblance in play-style:
A Nebraska quarterback named Tommy running the option? Longtime Husker fans have seen that before.
They saw it again Saturday – at least for a series – when redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong made his debut near the end of the third quarter of Saturday’s 56-13 blowout of Southern Miss.
The Huskers led 49-13 when Armstrong trotted onto the field, and the player who may be the future at quarterback led [Nebraska] on a nine-play, 64-yard scoring drive.
Armstrong – like Husker legend Tommie Frazier before him – looked comfortable running the option. He carried the ball four times for 23 yards, and sophomore Imani Cross capped the drive with a 1-yard run.
That was after Armstrong's debut, where he did little more than serve as a backup. When he took more significant snaps and eventually became the starter, Armstrong averaged 22.44 yards per game rushing, totaling 202 yards in 9 games. By design Nebraska is not the option team under Pelini that they were under Osborne, so we can't expect Armstrong as a redshirt freshman to be the mirror image that Tommie Frazier was when he led the Cornhuskers to undefeated seasons.
However, it's not too far off to think that Armstrong has similar potential. Johnny Stanton will still be in the mix, and a small part of me still thinks he's better suited for Tim Beck's offense, but right now he is at a clear disadvantage to Armstrong, who has the experience, the confidence, and the ability on his side. Armstrong's no slouch as a passer either. It will be interesting to see how the development of these two players goes and where the offense goes with either one at the helm. A lot of people might see Stanton as the second coming of Taylor Martinez, but if he's that while Tommy Armstrong is the second coming of Tommie Frazier, which do you think the fans would prefer?