With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
Returning Starters: 9 (three offensive, six defensive)
Returning Experience: 46%
2016 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)
Coach: Mike Riley (third year, 15-13 overall, 9-8 in conference play)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 46th
2016 S&P+ Offense: 68th
2016 S&P+ Defense: 33th
2017 S&P+ Projection: 42nd
It’s fair to say Nebraska got a bit lucky last year. The Cornhuskers rode one of the best turnover luck margins in the country in 2016 to a 9-4 record, though their statistical profile would not suggest a nine win team. Nebraska earned three one-possession wins, but struggled noticeably, especially offensively, against top-ranked opponents. Perhaps most telling is that Nebraska’s S&P+ rating is projected to improve to 42nd this year (from 46th) but the team is only expected to finish 6-6.
Nebraska started the season 7-0, earning solid wins over Northwestern and Oregon before traveling to Madison as the No. 7 team in the country to face Wisconsin. Nebraska fell short in overtime, 23-17, then mustered only 204 yards of offense in a 62-3 loss to Ohio State the next week. Rebounding nicely, the Huskers beat Minnesota and Maryland in consecutive weeks before getting walloped by Iowa to finish the season 9-3. The season concluded with a 38-24 loss against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
Nebraska’s offense is characterized by turnover, especially at the skill positions. The Huskers lose their top running back, three of their four most productive receivers, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started 43 games over four years for Nebraska. Armstrong was never the most efficient passer, but he was solid, and he rushed for 23 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards over his career as well. The Husker offense will have a completely new identity for the first time in four years.
Tasked with replacing Armstrong is Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, who was decidedly mediocre during his time in New Orleans. He’s not the dual-threat that Armstrong was, so he’ll have to earn his stripes with his arm. Former four-stars Tristan Gebbia and Patrick O’Brien sit right below Lee on the depth chart, and it’s entirely possible Northwestern will see one of those two in November.
Top receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. returns after a productive sophomore season, but the Huskers lose their two most explosive threats in Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore. De’Mornay Pierson-El will likely start opposite Morgan, but most of his impact comes on special teams (more on him later), and the depth chart is wide open after that. A strong batch of 2017 receivers includes Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Tyjon Lindsey could figure into Nebraska’s plans, but likely need some time in the weight room.
Devine Ozigbo and Tre Bryant will battle it out for the starting running back role. The speedy Bryant is the more intriguing option, as the sophomore ran back kicks last year and impressed during spring ball. Either way, don’t expect too much from the running game. The offensive line returns three starters, but the lack of experience at running back isn’t encouraging.
Defense was Nebraska’s strength last year, as an experienced secondary and a passable front seven held opponents under 30 points in nine of 13 games. However, following a 38-24 loss to Tennessee, Mike Riley fired defensive coordinator Mark Banker. The move was oddly timed, and Riley admitted he needed to move fast to line up the hiring of Bob Diaco. Diaco, the former head coach of Connecticut, had a successful run as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator and will switch Nebraska from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense.
The front seven will see a lot of turnover, as the Huskers lose their top two linebackers, as well as their best tackle and defensive end from 2016. Converted tight end Freedom Akinmoladun notched three sacks last year and the junior will anchor the defensive line along with tackle Carlos Davis. Dedrick Young II returns as the team’s sixth-most productive tackler in 2016 at linebacker.
Nebraska’s secondary is much more polished. The Huskers return three experienced safeties in Josh Kalu, and Aaron and Kieron Williams, a trio who combined for nine interceptions last year. Both starting cornerbacks will reprise their roles as well, highlighted by former four-star Lamar Jackson, who finished second in Heisman voting among guys named Lamar Jackson.
Northwestern might have a tough time moving the ball through the air against Nebraska, but chunking off yardage on the ground should be considerably easier, providing the Huskers don’t improve by leaps and bounds up front before Nov. 4.
Three Players to Know
WR/PR De’Mornay Pierson-El, Sr.
Pierson-El was one of the better regular punt returners in the Big Ten last year, averaging 7.3 yards a return with a long of 45 yards. As a freshman, he led the nation with 596 punt return yards. A knee injury in 2015 slowed him down, but he is someone to be taken seriously on special teams.
ILB Avery Roberts, Fr.
Nebraska’s front seven might be thin, but Roberts could make an immediate impact at linebacker. The top player in Delaware, Roberts chose Nebraska over nearby Penn State and enrolled early. He’ll figure into Nebraska’s linebacker rotation right away and has the potential to ease the loss of top tackler Josh Banderas.
S Aaron Williams, Jr.
Williams is the Huskers’ most disruptive player, and he might be their best one as well. A defender who is all over the field, Williams will see plenty of time as the nickel back, and the junior has proven he can stop the run and the pass. He notched 5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks, to go with three interceptions and seven passes defended. Clayton Thorson will need to keep Williams in the back of his mind to have success against a strong Nebraska secondary.