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MnB B1G Preview: Q&A with CornNation

Brian Towle, writer for SB Nation's great Nebraska blog CornNation, was kind enough to answer our questions on Bo Pelini and the Nebraska Cornhuskers going into the 2014 season.

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First, let's talk about Bo Pelini. Where does he fit into the history of Nebraska coaches? How do you think the "Pelini era" will be viewed ten or twenty years from now?

Interesting question to say the least. As far as winning percentage, wins, and types of seasonal consistency, he’s right up there with Tom Osborne and such. The caveat, however, comes when you mention conference titles, BCS berths, and even bowl victories. Even the athletic department is all about hyping the whole #9wins thing as we found out that Nebraska is sending out posters to potential recruits with the fact that Nebraska has won 9 or more games since Pelini took over, i.e. the past six seasons.

In a way, it’s a fallback way to say that Pelini is successful for those that are going off at the beginning of the year about winning the division and/or conference. It’s not a bad thing by any stretch; there would probably be an investigation in Bloomington if that happened to Indiana or any other bottom-half school. However, at Nebraska, there isn't a spot inside Memorial Stadium for 9-win seasons. Nebraska hasn't won a conference title in over fifteen years, and hasn't appeared in the BCS since 2002. For a school with the fanbase, resources, and the fact that it’s the main gig in town (for now, anyway; see: Tim Miles and #Nebrasketball), sometimes we think more should happen.

How Bo Pelini will be viewed two decades from now depends simply upon if, when, and how he gets over the hump. If he does so and Nebraska can start getting Big Ten Conference titles and once in a while make a run at the national championship, then he will be considered successful. However, if by some means he leaves without that happening, then he’s nothing more than a Frank Solich-type of coach. Solich did fairly well against most of the teams he should have, and yet he struggled against teams that they were either equal to or were slightly below in terms of talent.

What is the biggest thing you like about Pelini, and what is the biggest thing you don't like?

The biggest thing I like about Pelini and the biggest thing about Pelini I don’t like is his stubbornness. In the way I like things, he realizes that he’s not needing to destroy his entire program just to realize that he’s close to turning the hump. However, the way it works against him is that he’s very resistant to change the small things at times. He’s generally a defiant guy who loves to remind everyone of things, like "I haven’t forgotten how to stop the run" after defeating Wisconsin in the ‘12 season in Lincoln, yet getting thrashed and outclassed in Indianapolis by the same Badger team. (They just scored again, by the way, on the Jet Sweep.)

As far as the fanbase goes, the majority of folks love Bo Pelini when he’s fired up and such. However, there is a growing portion that is getting tired and impatient of him and his antics. There wouldn't be much chattering if he would have done something better outside of 9-4/10-4 a year, but if this keeps going, there’s going to be a louder group that wants him held more accountable.

Is he in any danger of losing his job?

That’s a great question. If you’re talking about wins and losses, he’s perfectly safe. There’s no way you fire a coach who wins 9-10 games per season and stays to the status quo, but you can only stay patient for so long. However, with the way that Pelini operates, who knows? To be quite honest, after the Iowa debacle last year, I didn't see how we could keep him -- again, not because of his record, but his reaction.

There was also the infamous audio tape that Deadspin released, a situation that no one knew what would happen until Tom Osborne came in off the fishing boat to clear up. Between that, the "hat-swipe" at the referee during the Iowa game, and the post-game press conference where he challenged athletic director Shawn Eichorst and Chancellor Harvey Perlman to can him, there was no way I thought he would make it. The next day, he instead gets the Vote of Confidence from Eichorst, and everything shrinks down.

Can he survive that type of meltdown again? Who knows. I do know that the department better have a home run hire if they do wish to fire him, but outside of a 7-5 season where everything detonates in front of our eyes, he’s going to be here for a while. That’ll make many people happy, and yet it will piss off some others badly at the same time.

Three years removed from the Big XII, how does it feel to be a part of the Big Ten? How do you think Nebraska has adjusted? Have the 'Huskers met your expectations during the transition? Is being a Big Ten team everything you hoped it would be?

I do like being in the Big Ten, although personally it means now I can’t see Nebraska come to Texas once a year for a game anymore. I do think some folks (not many) don’t think the move to this conference has been worthwhile yet, but only because of the deal that Maryland got when they joined. (Not to fault the Terps, but Nebraska isn't hemorrhaging money like the Maryland athletic department is.)

I think that Nebraska, in their upcoming fourth year in the conference, now has zero excuses to make about being the "new guy" anymore. They've seen a majority of the teams, traveled to and fro, and realized who the "Chiefs and Indians" of the league are. It is nice to have the ability to turn it to BTN (Big Ten Network) instead of dropping $50 for a pay-per-view game 2-3 times a year.

Being in the Big Ten is alright; I do know that several folks miss the trips to Columbia, Lawrence, and Boulder. But at the end of the day, it is nice to know that you’re in a team environment instead of worrying about what side of the bed Bob Bowlsby and DeLoss Dodds woke up on this morning.

Who would you say are Nebraska's biggest rivals in the conference?

Well, Iowa, for starters.

The loser of that game has to claim Council Bluffs and it’s smell of hot garbage all day. Plus, they need someone to hate, and it’s awful nice to have someone in Black and Gold hating us on Thanksgiving, yet we don’t have to worry about getting a contact high!

Wisconsin, there’s some sort of jealousy because Barry Alvarez (who, by the way, is a Nebraska alum!) has that athletic department looking more like Nebraska than does Nebraska's own athletic department, some say. I guess the other team is Northwestern for the whole "NU" thing. We say that acronym is ours, they say it’s not, we say whatever nerds, they say whatever farmboy. It’s messy.

How do you feel about Nebraska's place in the new "West" division?

We have called them the East and West at for a while now, so it’s good to see that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney finally listened to us and to reason. It’s alright for football; right now it seems to be a two-horse race between Nebraska and Wisconsin, with either Iowa or Northwestern trying to become the third wheel looking to ruin everything. I will miss the two Michigan school games every year, but you guys have Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, so... have fun!

Okay, now let's talk about the team. In general, what can we expect from the offense? Will it be more run-based or pass-based? How's your offensive line?

First thing that Bill Connelly noticed in his Nebraska preview is the lack of starting experience in the projected offensive line, but what he missed is transfer Alex Lewis from Colorado coming in to be play at left tackle. Yes, it is probably going to be senior-heavy even though the seniors aren't returning starters, but this line still has game experience in the heat of battle.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck loves to make folks around Lincoln think his offense going to be this fast up-tempo machine with a plethora of plays and such... but then it just ends up with Beck calling the same play six times in a row, making the fanbase scream. He wants to aim for 50/50 run/pass, but I’ll keep thinking, because of the running back gauntlet available to him, you’ll instead see a lot of players coming out of the backfield. Ameer Abdullah is the main man in this offense, but we also have up-and-coming guys like Terrell Newby, Adam Taylor, and Imani Cross, all with different running abilities.

The one thing that must, must, must get better is ball security. Nebraska has had at least one turnover a game since the opener of the 2012 season. That’s a 26-game streak of having a giveaway on offense. In fact, Nebraska averaged two giveaways a game last year. Granted, some games had more than others (e.g., five vs. Michigan State), but when a team is averaging almost a full turnover more on offense than they’re getting back on defense, that’s a big issue.

Quarterbacks. Who's going to be the man under center? Tommy Armstrong, or Johnny Stanton (a.k.a. "Johnny Tebow")? What do each bring to the table and how are they different?

To start out fall camp, it’s going to be Tommy Armstrong. Johnny Stanton couldn't do much with knee issues last fall, but he did get a little better as spring practice went through. At the end of the spring, however, Stanton was along with walk-on Ryker Fyfe from Grand Island behind Armstrong.

The thing that helps Armstrong is that he’s used to the offense just as much from high school as Stanton is. However, I would say that if Stanton does end up beating Armstrong for the starting spot, I have a hard time seeing Stanton relinquishing it. He has a lot of hype for someone who hasn't even appeared in a game yet, but we’ll have to see how he acts in the line of fire.

Outside of those three, it’s pretty thin. Zack Darlington will be taking a redshirt as he comes back from concussion issues, and there’s no guarantee he’s going to even be able to play much, if he does at all, because of said brain injury issues. Incoming true freshman A.J. Bush also wants to be part of the mix, so we’ll see.

Anyone else we should watch out for on offense?

The wide receiver position has been up and down for the Cornhuskers last year. There’s a couple of seniors in Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner who had mediocre junior seasons and are looking to bounce back. Bell is the vocal leader in the group, but he had a down year in comparison of his sophomore season. He had more catches, but averaged six yards a catch less in his junior year. Jamal Turner, on the other hand, has one year left to make good on his talent from the DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth) area. Injuries have not helped the last couple of seasons.

Jordan Westerkamp and Sam Burtch are also coming back and they were fairly solid contributors last year. Tight end has been an odd position the last couple of years, with Cethan Carter being the incumbent starter as fall camp opens. Lot of folks were high on him coming out of Louisiana, as Nebraska passed on several higher ranked players for Carter. I’m still trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So, the defense has been up and down the last few years in Lincoln. What's been the biggest problem, or why have the Huskers struggled to bring back the legendary 'Blackshirt' defense of yore? What's the plan going forward?

Two years ago, Nebraska was a great back-seven team but had a thin, underachieving group on the defensive line. Now, the d-line is (arguably) the strongest part of the group, even with Avery Moss getting the year off cause he didn’t do the right thing. Randy Gregory is a guy that a lot of folks think will be going in the top-three picks of the NFL Draft next year. He is the guy that Bo Pelini loves to put on the rush as his back-seven do their work in pattern matching. He has a good bunch of mates in Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Greg McMullen and Aaron Curry down the line. Joe Keels is a JUCO who is coming in and who you should be keeping an eye on, too.

Linebacker was an odd spot, in that it was deep yet we had to keep putting a lot of combinations out there to see what would work. Josh Banderas seems to be the man at middle linebacker (when he’s not taking bicycles off of racks after school lets out), while Jonathan Rose will be battling him for that middle spot. David Santos, who had some bad days last year (Minnesota, for one) got moved out of the middle, and he will be competing with players like Courtney Love (no, not that Courtney Love) and Marcus Newby for playing time. If we can find two or three of those guys that gel very well, we'll have a great position.

The secondary will be interesting too. Gone are such guys as Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Ciante Evans, and Andrew Green. Josh Mitchell is seasoned but not very big. Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell seem to be the men on the corners. Meanwhile, Nathan Gerry and Leroy Alexander will help out a safety crew that has to help pick up the slack and help the group make the right decisions.

Who are the best Cornhusker prospects for next year's NFL Draft, and where do you think they'll go?

Well, there is some guy named Randy Gregory. He should be a Top 5 NFL draft pick if he stays healthy, so should Ameer Abdullah. Personally, I am mystified as to how folks think Abdullah shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as Melvin Gordon, but that’s just me I guess. Let Gordon get the press if it means Ameer gets the yards, touchdowns, and leads the team. Jake Cotton and possibly Mark Pelini should be considered good candidates for offensive linemen in the draft. In my mind, Bell and Turner are "tweeners" that probably need big years to get into the talk. It would help if quarterback play was more consistent, but they have to not only stay healthy but make plays as well.

Finally, let's talk about the schedule. How do you like Nebraska's chances of winning the West division? Do you have a prediction for how the season will go?

This is an interesting non-conference schedule the Cornhusker have. We were robbed of the "Pelini vs. Pelini" headline after Florida Atlantic fired Carl Pelini, but after them and McNeese State, we’ll find out how good Nebraska is in with two legit games to prep them for Big Ten play. In Week 3, Nebraska has a 9:30 p.m. Lincoln time kickoff vs. Fresno State in California, and then we come home to host Miami in Lincoln in prime-time. If Nebraska can get through those first four games at 4-0/3-1, there’s going to be a good feeling about the conference schedule. If it’s 2-2, the "cat calls" about Pelini disappointing folks again will come out.

The road schedule (MSU, NW, Wisconsin, Iowa) is pretty brutal if you’re struggling, but the home slate (Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota) can get you healthy quickly. I think 10-2 is successful, although many people see us finishing 8-4/9-3, going to a New Year's Day bowl game somewhere south, facing an SEC team against whom Nebraska will probably be underdogs. I’d say Nebraska’s chance of winning the West Division and making to Indianapolis is 35%, but I do know Nebraska has only themselves to blame if they can’t get there this year.

Special thanks goes out to Brian Towle for answering our questions! Be sure to check out the fantastic blog and community over at Corn Nation, probably the best Nebraska blog on the web! Seriously!