The Comeback’s college football preview coverage continues with the next team in our Top 50 countdown, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. We’ll move up the list each day, leading up to the beginning of the regular season. 

It seems like the Nebraska Cornhuskers have been clawing, yearning, and building to try and get back to where history says it belongs. But it has been about two decades now since the Nebraska program was what it used to be. Yeah, there have been flash-in-the-pan years and wins over dominant programs in that time, but the fact remains that this is not your father’s Nebraska. And the clock is ticking.

Truth be known, Big Red has not been intimidating since Tom Osborne moved on to other areas of his life. Frank Solich, Bill Callahan, and Bo Pelini. None of the three could keep, or get, the ‘Huskers back among the elite, and none of them are still marching out of the tunnel into Memorial Stadium.

So now we are heading into year three of the Mike Riley experiment. Year one was a bit forgettable by all standards, weights, and measures. And although year two started off well, it ended with a thud when Nebraska lost four of its last six, including a two-touchdown loss to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.

Now it’s time to see if Riley can orchestrate a momentum-defining year in 2017.

No. 36 Nebraska Cornhuskers

Record: 9-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten (Lost to Tennessee 38-24 in the Music City Bowl)

Coach: Mike Riley 108-91 overall, 15-11 at Nebraska

Last Year in a Nutshell

Through the first seven games of the year, it looked like Nebraska had a shot to do really special things. Yeah, there were a lot of paper tigers in there, but beating Oregon at home, and taking care of Northwestern and Indiana on the road is worth more than many outsiders would have you believe. Looking revitalized and more careful with the ball, quarterback Tommy Armstrong led his team to a 7-0 record and No. 7 ranking heading to Wisconsin.

Although the Cornhuskers lost that game, it won a lot of doubters over by taking a tough and talented Badger team to overtime, finally succumbing on a fourth down incompletion to end the game in overtime.

But then things got hairy.

Nebraska traveled to Columbus to take on Ohio State and got pummeled 62-3. The game was never close, but insult was literally added to injury when Tommy Armstrong had to be taken off the field in an ambulance. He would ultimately be released from the hospital, but the football team would struggle the rest of the way.

Nebraska rebounded to win the next two games over Minnesota and Maryland, but got beat down again, this time on the road to Iowa, 40-10, in the season-ending Heroes Game. The bowl game loss added a sour and shriveled up cherry to the top of a very inconsistent season.

Recruiting Roundup

247 Sports Composite Ranking: 23rd

The Cornhuskers signed the fifth-best recruiting class in the Big Ten, according to 247 sports.com. Although that sounds decent on the surface, in order for Nebraska to start competing and beating the Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsins of the world, the players being brought in have to get better, and fast.

Still, there is talent to go around in this class. There are five four-star recruits, headline by wide-receiver Tyjon Lindsey (7th best WR recruit in the country). The ‘Huskers clearly made an effort to recruit speed on the outside with two other four-stars, cornerback Elijah Blades (16th rated CB) and another pass catcher Jaevon McQuitty (40th rated WR). The coaching staff also hopes it found a diamond in the rough at receiver with Keyshawn Johnson’s son, as long as his off-the-field legal battles get sorted out.

3 Key Stats

4That’s how many losses Nebraska had away from home last year. It just so happens to be the total losses for all of 2016 as well. Sometimes you just can’t make sense of some stats, and this is one of them. It’s expected to be harder to win on the road, but the numbers inside the numbers are staggering. Nebraska averaged 34.3 points at home, but just 17.5 on the road. Defensively, the Blackshirts gave up 16.1 points on average at home, but 33 away from Lincoln. It could just be an aberration, but the team needs to find a way to turn that around this year.

4.2The average yards per carry on the season for the Nebraska offense. It’s amazing as you dive into the stats from last year, just how average the Cornhuskers were across the board. This is another stat that screams mediocrity. Getting 4.2 yards per carry isn’t horrible nationally, but it is nowhere near teams that hand their hat on toting the mail in the Big Ten. Ohio State, Michigan, Maryland, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa, and Illinois. All had a greater yard per carry average than a program that prides itself on running the ball. That has to get better to catch some of the teams the program is chasing.

5 – The number of fumbles lost in 2016. Nebraska took exceptional care of the ball when getting yards while running. Ball security can make or break a season, and you can generally tell which teams work on ball security more than others. Iowa and Mr. fundamental himself Kirk Ferentz, is the only other team that did a better job carrying it high and tight.

Make or Break Games of 2017

OCT. 7 Vs. WISCONSIN

Record in the last five meetings: 1-4

Last Year’s result: L, 23-17 in OT.

Why it matters: We’re not going to pull any punches here. Wisconsin is the program the ‘Huskers are chasing. With the history and tradition Nebraska has, there’s no reason why it can’t meet or exceed what Wisconsin is doing on the field. It just hasn’t happened yet. Riley nearly led his team to a win in Madison last year, but fell short again. This time the game is in Lincoln, and if the Cornhuskers have any designs on winning the division and getting to Indy, it’s a must win — especially with Wisconsin’s comparatively light schedule.

NOV. 24 VS. IOWA

Record in the last five meetings: 2-3

Last Year’s result: L, 40-10

Why it matters: C’mon it’s the Heroes Game! Okay, aside from the somewhat forced rivalry game here, this one could have some pretty big implications. The season could go one of two ways. There could be a West Division title on the line, or there could be a decent bowl-trip up for grabs. There are a lot of games that could go either way in the middle of Nebraska’s schedule. But Iowa is another one of those programs that seem to have the ‘Huskers’ number. If this thing is going to get turned around, the victory bell has to ring more often against the likes of Iowa. Plain and simple.

Three Key Players

Tanner Lee, QB – I know, I know, low-hanging fruit here, but it’s true. Tommy Armstrong is gone to graduation, so here we go with the task of replacing a three-year starter under center. Say what you will about Armstrong’s decision making throughout his career, but don’t forget the leadership void that his departure will leave. For now, Mike Riley has named Lee the “leader,” but has left the competition open … sorta.

Our bet is that the transfer from Tulane will get every opportunity to be the guy this year. He needs to be more than a manager of the offense though for Nebraska to have a shot at a division title.

De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR – New quarterback? Check. Offensive line that struggled to move people in the running game last year? Check. Jordan Westerkamp gone to graduation? Check, double-check. Someone has to step up on the outside in the passing game, and Pierson-El seems more likely than anyone. He can be dangerous in the return game too, but the team really needs him to gain separation and provide some easy targets for some pop in the offense. It’s all about balance for Mike Riley on that side of the ball, and the hope is that it starts through the air in 2017.

Devine Ozigbo, RB – We’re going with all offense here because of some key departures that need filled in a big way. Just like quarterback and the wide-receiver position, gone is another starter, Terrell Newby. He might not have been healthy all year, and he may have came up a wee shy of 1,000 yards for the year, but he did what he could behind an offensive line that needed to be better. Ozigbo is now the next man up and there needs to somehow be more production from the running game in 2017 for Nebraska to meet its team goals. At 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, he has the size and ability to get yards in between the tackles, and that might just be what the offense needs this year to move the chains on a more consistent basis.

Bold Predictions

(Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

Mike Riley will be cozying up to the hot seat after 2017. I want to believe that Nebraska will be good, and I want to believe that the Huskers are on their way back. But replacing so many skill position players on offense is not pointing to a resurgence for the program. Maybe the offensive line shows a ton of improvement and maybe Lee, Pierson-El, and Ozigbo make up for the key departures on offense. For me though, there are just too many things that have to go right here. Nebraska will likely go bowling, but sniffing a division title doesn’t appear to be in the cards. Let the whispers begin. And only whispers at this point.

Tanner Lee will be replaced as the starting quarterback at some point. Yeah, he’s the “starter” for now, but if and when the offense struggles to get first downs and score points, the coaching staff will make a move to try and jump start things. Lee threw 14 interceptions at Tulane in 2014 largely because he often lacked time to throw. Unless the Nebraska O-line improves on pass protection this year, that could be an issue again. Let the revolving door begin under center.

Nebraska will lose at Purdue on Oct. 28. Yes, that Purdue. The one that keeps experimenting with head coaches in the engineering science lab. Stay with me here. Nebraska plays Ohio State at home on Oct. 14, then has a bye week before heading to West Lafayette. An off-week doesn’t always work in a team’s favor, and it won’t here. After getting beat by Ohio State, the extra week of preparation will result in a flat performance against a team and style that will give the Nebraska defense fits.

Follow the rest of The Comeback’s Top 50 College Football Countdown leading up to the regular season.

About Phil Harrison

Phil has been writing about college sports for over eight years. In addition to contributing to The Comeback, he is a frequent contributor to collegefootballnews.com and talking10.com. His writing has been featured on foxsports.com, espn.com, and cbssportsline.com among others. He's a Jack of all trades, and a master of one -- living in the doghouse at home far too often. Follow him on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB