The Cougars are finally set to kick off their 2015 season in one of the more intriguing matchups of the day, a 3:30 pm ET tussle against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. A season opening trip to Big Ten country is a little unusual for BYU, and other than passing familiarity with the Nebraska brand, and some of their more famous NFL alumni, some Cougar fans might not know a ton about this team, especially after the significant changes they made in the offseason.
Luckily, I happen to primarily cover the Big Ten, and may be able to shed some light on BYU's week one opponent. Here are some things that y'all need to know:
Okay, just who is Nebraska?
Only one of the most storied programs of all time, even if that shine has fallen off a little bit since the 1990s. Nebraska boasts more wins over "Power Five" programs than any other school, is fourth all time in total wins, claims five national titles, three Heisman winners, and claims perhaps the most dominant team in college football history, with their 1995 squad. Seriously, look at those box scores. You probably couldn't do better on your Xbox. At least, not if you played against a real difficulty level. I see you playin' on Varsity, and yes, I am judging you.
Granted, we're a little ways away from the fully weaponized Death Star Nebraska programs, but the team has still been plenty good in recent memory. Nebraska finished in the AP Poll four of the last six seasons, and will probably contend for a spot on that list for this season as well. This is a bit of a touchy subject for Nebraska fans, so BYU fans going to the game should bring it up as much as possible.
How good is Nebraska projected to be?
They're not going to be a national title contender, and most writers who cover the league, including myself, don't consider them a serious contender for even winning the Big Ten (there is a pretty big step behind Ohio State and Michigan State this season). That doesn't mean the Cornhuskers are going to be bad though.
The Cornhuskers received six votes in the AP Poll (BYU picked up two), and they are expected to likely win eight or more games and contend for a Big Ten West championship, along with Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iow--and yeah, you're already asleep. Basically, the program has been a regular 9-4-ish team that hangs out between that #20 ranking and the top of Also Receiving Votes, and even with a coaching change, that's where many expect them to be this season.
Coaching change? Who is coaching Nebraska now?
Bo Pelini, the foulmouthed and occasionally abrasive coach who was unable to do anything other than go 9-4, is off to Youngstown State, and Mike Riley, formerly of Oregon State, is now in charge, in a curious move. Riley's teams weren't consistent winners at Oregon State, but he was able to coax several very successful individual seasons, despite nearly always being at a talent disadvantage to his peers. That will rarely be the case at Nebraska, or at least, for this season.
Riley's season should be fascinating to watch. His temperament could not be more different from Pelini, as Riley is hailed as one of biggest nice guys in college football. Not in the sense that he wears fedoras and complains about women not dating him on the internet, but in actually being a kind, functional human being, something we perhaps take for granted. That doesn't mean he isn't a competitor or anything, but how his new approach plays in Lincoln, a fanbase that prides themselves as being the 'nicest in college football' (and they'll tell you about this too), it could be a good match. As long as he wins, of course.
The changes on the field could be significant too. Nebraska had been running a more spread-based power run attack, and has the personnel to fit that, but Riley's offensive system is much more pro style-focused, with an emphasis on a short and intermediate passing game. New defensive coordinator Mark Baker will try to shore up a unit that returns exciting talent on the defensive line and in the secondary, but struggled badly in run defense and in preventing big plays. Sometimes they did this at Oregon State. Sometimes they didn't.
It'll be a season of change at Nebraska, and their first game will be a stiff test.
Who is Nebraska's best player?
This is a tough question. Perhaps Nebraska's most dangerous player is WR/Return Man De'Mornay Pierson-El, who is already one of the very best returner specialists in the country. He's injured, however, and won't be playing against BYU. The Cornhuskers do have another very good wideout in Jordan Westerkamp, a tall, athletic safety in Nate Gerry, and one of the best defensive tackles in the conference in Maliek Collins. There might not be a preseason All- type on this roster, but there are several players who could potentially compete for say, All-Big Ten honors.
Where could BYU have an advantage in this matchup?
On paper, Nebraska's defensive line had a lot of talent last season. Collins and fellow blue-chip defensive tackle Vincent Valentine were paired with Randy Gregory at defensive end, and yet, Nebraska gave up a gazillion yards rushing during the season. Gregory is gone, and there doesn't seem to be a clear replacement at defensive end, and the Cornhuskers will be replacing a lot at linebacker. If Taysom Hill or whoever is carrying the ball for BYU can get an initial push on that line, they should be able to have some success running the football. Even if they can't, BYU should be able to score on Nebraska.
There's also the fact that in most position groups, BYU's got a pretty experienced team, and understands, schematically, what they want to do. Nebraska is breaking in new systems and new coaches all over the field, and may have mismatched personnel to accomplish what they want to do out of the gate. The best way to attack BYU might be to go after their secondary, but without Pierson-El, and with a quarterback who struggled with accuracy last season in Tommy Armstrong (although to be fair, a lot of his 52% completion percentage came from the kind of throws he was asked to make), Nebraska might not be able to take full advantage of that weakness early in the season.
Where does Nebraska look to have an advantage?
The average Nebraska player is still bigger, faster, and probably a little more skilled than the average BYU player, and that could be most important along the lines. Nebraska's pass rush might not be the strongest that BYU will face this season, but Valentine and Collins could still wreck havoc on the interior of BYU's offensive line, especially if Tejan Koroma misses time for whatever reason. Taysom Hill is going to do Taysom Hill things no matter what, at least on some level, but BYU will also need production from their patchwork running backs, and that'll require some between-the-tackles presence. That might be hard to do against Nebraska.
BYU is also going to want to run a gazillion plays on offense, and the best way to make sure they can't do that is never let them get the ball. Nebraska's had excellent running backs for the last few seasons, and their pair of Imani Cross and Terrell Newby can pack a powerful punch, even if it isn't quite as formidable as the departed Ameer Abdullah. If Nebraska can hand off to Cross and Newby for four, five, six yards a carry, they'll open the field up for either play action bombs to Westerkamp, or shorter, higher percentage passes for Armstrong to keep drives alive. BYU's defense is not super deep, and if they're forced to defend 8, 9, 10 play drives in the first half, they're going to struggle by the fourth quarter. Nebraska could kill them with a bunch of paper cuts.
Who is going to win?
It's tough to say, because we also don't totally know who is going to play. Nebraska will be suspending five players for this game, but the word around the campfire is that only one will be a starter. BYU, on the other hand, will already be down Sione Takitaki, and depending on how discipline is passed down from last year's Memphis Brawl, (or other offseason Honor Code or otherwise suspensions), could be down multiple other players. If BYU misses a body or two along their offensive line, or another pass rusher, that could change the dynamic of this matchup considerably.
Assuming nobody else is suspended, even though Nebraska is (fairly, imo) listed as about a six point favorite, there are probably more paths to victory here for BYU than against their other three big September opponents.
Assuming that BYU enters this game at basically full strength, I think they come away with the upset in a close game. If the Cougars end up missing a running back, or a pass rusher, or an offensive lineman, or other key contributors, I think Nebraska is able to get enough from their offense to win and barely cover that spread.
Should be appointment television either way.