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Big Ten Football Preview 2015: Nebraska's season outlook

Tommy Armstrong leads a Nebraska team that went 9-4 last season.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Armstrong has been a fixture at quarterback for Nebraska the past two seasons.

But he'll have a new responsibility in 2015: the Cornhuskers are his team, now.

Bo Pelini is gone, as are stars Randy Gregory and Ameer Abdullah.

Coming off a nine-win season, Nebraska will need Armstrong to serve as a guide as it ventures into life with a new coach.

This week, we take a look at Nebraska in our Big Ten football season outlook series.

Key returnees

Armstrong obviously headlines Nebraska's returnees. He's started 21 games in the past two years and is entering his redshirt junior season on the Manning Award watch list.

In 13 starts last season, Armstrong flashed his dual-threat ability, passing for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns while rushing for 705 yards and six scores.

Nebraska must replace lead rusher Ameer Abdullah this season, but Armstrong should be able to alleviate the loss with his legs; he was the Cornhuskers' second-leading rusher in 2015.

Jordan Westerkamp and De'Mornay Pierson-El look to replace Kenny Bell at receiver.

Westerkamp, a redshirt junior, led all Nebraska returnees with 747 yards on 44 receptions. He should become Armstrong's number-one target in the passing game.

Pierson-El returns after an impressive freshman season. He caught 23 passes for 321 yards and four scores.

Not only did Pierson-El perform at receiver, he was one of the nation's best punt returners. His 17.5 yards per return average was second in the nation, and his 596 punt return yards, which led the nation, were nearly 200 yards more than all players.

Juniors Nate Gerry and Maliek Collins star lead a defense that could use improving in 2015.

Gerry, a defensive back, bests all returnees with 88 tackles. He totaled five interceptions and will be a cog in passing defense that ranked 33rd in FBS (205.8 yards allowed per game).

Collins totaled 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season at defensive tackle. He'll be looked upon to improve Nebraska's 80th-ranked rushing defense (177.85 yards per game).

The schedule

Sept. 5 vs. BYU
Sept. 12 vs. South Alabama
Sept. 19 at Miami (FL)
Sept. 26 vs. Southern Mississippi (Homecoming)
Oct. 3 at Illinois
Oct. 10 vs. Wisconsin
Oct. 17 at Minnesota
Oct. 24 vs. Northwestern
Oct. 31 at Purdue
Nov. 7 vs. Michigan State
Nov. 14 at Rutgers
Nov. 27 vs. Iowa

Nebraska hosts BYU, South Alabama and Southern Mississippi (Homecoming), but a trip to Miami highlights its non-conference schedule. 

The Cornhuskers have several home games against top foes — Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa, for starters — which should bode well for a team that has a 28-7 record at Memorial Stadium this decade.

It's tough to gauge how Nebraska will fare in the first year of the Mike Riley era. It has talented pieces returning but winning a Big Ten championship is of the upmost importance in Lincoln; Pelini was canned after a nine-win season.

Consider this: Nebraska's four losses in 2014 came against teams that combined for a 39-14 record (two 11-win teams). Three of those losses —Michigan State, Minnesota, and USC — came with Nebraska being within five points or less.

If Nebraska won those games, it's sitting at an 11-1 season with a different bowl bid and Big Ten championship berth.