Mike Riley is entering his second season as head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers after taking over for the fiery Bo Pelini. Riley led the Huskers to a 5-7 regular season in 2015 and a bowl win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl the day after Christmas.
He doesn't return a lot, but will get his starting quarterback, Tommy Armstrong, back. Armstrong was kind of hit and miss last year and was especially off in the game against Iowa in Lincoln last fall. Armstrong threw four interceptions in that game, which Nebraska might've had a good shot at winning if not for those turnovers.
Nebraska gained nearly 200 more yards than Iowa did, but Iowa was +3 in turnover margin, which was extremely helpful. Throw in two huge touchdown runs by Jordan Canzeri and Iowa had control of the game in the second half. Nebraska got a field goal from Drew Brown late in the game, but still found themselves down by 8 with about a minute left.
C.J. Beathard threw just 16 passes, but was efficient which was enough for Iowa to return home with an undefeated regular season in hand.
Outside of Armstrong returning, he gets two of his top targets back in Jordan Westerkamp and Cethan Carter. Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly will line up on the outside with Westerkamp. Reilly tallied 40 catches last season, which was second to Westerkamp's 65.
Terrell Newby, who was the teams leading rusher last season, will also return. He carried the ball 147 times for 765 yards and six touchdowns last year for the Huskers.
They are a little thin up front as they return just two starters along the offensive line in Dylan Utter and Nick Gates. Gates is going to make the move to left tackle from the right side of the line and Utter will move to center. John Raridon, who was ranked the second best guard in the country in the class of 2016, could eventually factor in here if he is not redshirted. For what it's worth, Raridon is a product of West Des Moines, IA and was ranked the 54th best player in the class of 2016.
A lot of their success is going to depend on the play up front from their relatively inexperienced offensive line and whether or not Tommy Armstrong turns the ball over. He threw 16 interceptions last season and it just didn't help the Huskers at all as they were 13th in the Big Ten in turnover margin. They had a lot of close games as all of their losses were by 10 points or less.
They were a team that was right there, but they just couldn't seem to close games out. The first game of the season against BYU is probably the first one that comes to mind where BYU won on a hail mary to end the game. If they can get consistent play from Armstrong and the offensive line, I can see Nebraska as a 7-8 win team this season.
They were pretty bad on defense with their exception of their run defense a season ago. They ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per game giving up about 110 yards per game. A lot of that can be credited to Maliek Collins, who was taken by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round of this past years NFL draft. While he didn't have many tackles, Collins was a constant bother in the middle of that line for Mark Banker's defense and usually demanded a double team.
They return zero starters along the defensive line, but will bring back linebackers Josh Banderas and Dedrick Young who were both top five on the team in tackles last season. Most of the talent they do have coming back is in the defensive backfield. Leading tacklers Joshua Kalu and Nate Gerry return along with Chris Jones. The lone newcomer to the starting rotation appears to be sophomore Aaron Williams.
Gerry, who is one of the better safeties in the conference, was ejected from last seasons game in Lincoln for a targeting penalty on Tevaun Smith late in the first half.
The Huskers will need to improve drastically in their pass defense which was ranked 13th in the conference last year. The return of 3 of out the 4 starters in the defensive backfield should help, although Kalu and Gerry are more talented at coming up and stopping the run.
Unfortunately, Riley lost his punter just a few days ago in a tragic accident. Sam Foltz, who was the best punter in the Big Ten last season tragically lost his life in a car wreck on Sunday. Foltz was at a kicking camp with other punters and kickers when the incident happened. From everything I've heard and read, Foltz epitomized what it meant to be a great football player and an even better person.
Nebraska should have been much better than they were last year and they'll likely have a better record this season than they did in 2015. I see Nebraska taking a back seat and finishing second in the Big Ten West right after the Hawkeyes and this game could decide that. Iowa gets Riley's bunch at home and Hawkeye fans love it when the Huskers come to town.
I see Iowa taking this one in a competitive game. Iowa wins by a final of 34-27 to conclude the year and win the Big Ten West title earning a second consecutive trip to the Big Ten Championship game.