Our ranking: No. 37 NEBRASKA
Coach: Mike Riley (15-11, entering third season; 108-91 overall)
2016 record: 9-4, 6-3 in Big Ten Conference, tied for second in West Division
Look back: Nebraska showed vast improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 under coach Mike Riley, with the Huskers going from six wins in 2015 to nine wins in 2016. The team opened with a seven-game win streak, its best start since 2001, and nearly made it eight in a row if not for an overtime loss to Wisconsin on Oct. 29. Much of the turnaround could be attributed to improved play and limited mistakes in close games. The team cut its turnovers in half: going from 27 in 2015 to just 14 in 2016.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 7
Key losses: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., WR Brandon Reilly, WR Jordan Westerkamp, OL Sam Hahn, OL Dylan Utter, LB Josh Banderas, DE Ross Dzuris, S Nathan Gerry
Top returnees: WR Stanley Morgan Jr., S Aaron Williams, S Kieron Williams, LB Dedrick Young, DE Freedom Akinmoladun, OL Nick Gates
Strengths: Despite seeing improvement on the defensive side of the football last season, Riley decided to make a change, firing longtime coordinator Mark Banker and bringing in former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to run the Blackshirts. Diaco’s first order of business was to revamp the unit, replacing the traditional 4-3 scheme with a 3-4 look for 2017. DE Freedom Akinmoladun anchors the front line, while LB Dedrick Young will be the man in the middle. The secondary has the most experience and depth of the unit, with the return of S Kieron Williams and S Joshua Kalu.
Following the departure of QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is the most experienced quarterback on the Nebraska on the roster (19 career starts) and figures to be the favorite to win the job during preseason camp. Freshman Patrick O’Brien will push him for snaps.
Weaknesses: Nebraska’s ground game dipped to its worst output (169 yards per game) since 2009 and to make matters worse, the team loses its top two rushers in Terrell Newby (879 yards) and Armstrong (512). Juniors Mikale Wilbon (89 yards) and Devine Ozigbo (412 yards) should share the rushing duties until someone earns the primary role.
Jordan Westerkamp finished his career as one of the top receivers in school history after accumulating more than 2,474 yards in four seasons in Lincoln, Neb. He is among a group of talented players who departed the program, leaving the Cornhuskers to make up more than 63 percent of their total receiving yards from last season.
Outlook: Riley’s emphasis on recruiting the West Coast is paying off in a big way for the Huskers. The team landed a top 25 recruiting class in 2017 and currently has another strong class committed for 2018. Those players will eventually start to rebuild some of the depth and talent this program has lacked during the past couple of seasons. Riley will try to carry the momentum from last season into 2017. There will be challenges, but the Huskers do have the benefit of playing Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa at home. The West Division will most likely come down to Wisconsin and Iowa, with Northwestern and Nebraska in the mix as well. If the Huskers can capitalize on their potent home-field advantage, Nebraska could finish the season in the top 25 for the first time since 2012.