After a down year two seasons ago, Nebraska surprised many with an unexpected nine-win season in 2016, but coach Mike Riley’s mission to return the program to prominence appears to be far from complete. With many questions still left to answer following a spring full of turnover and change, the Cornhuskers begin what could be a season of transition Saturday when they host Arkansas State.
Nebraska made a three-win improvement last season, but their prospects for 2017 are a bit up in the air as Riley enters the year with a new defensive coordinator (Bob Diaco) and quarterback (Tanner Lee, who replaces record-setting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.) among a host of other key changes. “New defense, new quarterback. It feels like, in a way, starting over. But the beauty of it is we’re not. We’ve been with many of these kids for two years,” Riley recently told the Lincoln Journal Star. The Cornhuskers dropped four of their final six last season after winning their first seven, so they hope to rediscover their first-half form against the Red Wolves, who shared the Sun Belt conference title with Appalachian State in 2016. After starting out 0-4, Arkansas State suffered only one more loss the rest of the way and defeated Central Florida in the Cure Bowl.
TV: 8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network. LINE: Nebraska -16.5.
ABOUT ARKANSAS STATE (2016: 8-5): Three defenders landed on the preseason All-Sun Belt Conference first team, including defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, who has 30.5 career sacks - 13.5 shy of the FBS record of 44 (Terrell Suggs, Arizona State; 2000-02). The only offensive player to make the first-team list was tight end and fellow senior Blake Mack, who is on the Mackey Award watch list one season after averaging 19.2 yards per catch and leading the team in receiving yards (652). Junior running back Warren Wand - a 2016 all-conference second-team selection - is on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award and needs only 412 yards to become the 13th player in school history with 2,000 rushing yards in a career.
ABOUT NEBRASKA (2016: 9-4): Lee won the starting job with a strong showing in the spring, and most of the Cornhuskers’ hopes of enjoying success in the post-Armstrong era ride on the right arm of the Tulane transfer, who could be Nebraska’s first NFL quarterback prospect in several generations. Stanley Morgan Jr. (33 catches for 453 yards) is the Cornhuskers’ top returning receiver following the graduation of Jordan Westerkamp, who finished his career second on the school’s all-time receptions list. Diaco is overseeing a change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, but he’ll have to make due for most of the season without senior cornerback Chris Jones, who will be sidelined at least four months after undergoing surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee in July.
1. The Cornhuskers were one of only five FBS teams to go 7-0 or better at home last season and have won 19 straight night games in Lincoln.
2. Rolland-Jones is one of only two defenders in the 16-year history of the Sun Belt to win the league’s player of the year award.
3. Nebraska has won both meetings between the schools - most recently in 2012 - and is 12-0 against teams from the Sun Belt.
PREDICTION: Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 20