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Three questions for 2017: Nebraska Cornhuskers

There was something very familiar about Nebraska's 2016 season.

The Cornhuskers were in the running for the Big Ten West Division title until the final weekend. But they also got blown out in two of their biggest games (Ohio State and Iowa) and lost the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl game to Tennessee by two touchdowns.

The final tally was 9-4 ... which was basically the same record Bo Pelini put up every single year before he got fired. Of course, it sure beats last year's 6-7 mark in Mike Riley's debut season.

Is Nebraska forever destined to have four-loss seasons and come up short in the conference race? Or can Riley get this team to the next level? The answers to those questions depend largely on how they answer the following three queries in the 2017 offseason.

1. Who takes over at quarterback?

Tommy Armstrong Jr. had some really good moments in three years as a starter, but he was hampered by injuries down the stretch and couldn't play in the bowl game. His career is now over, as is that of Ryker Fyfe, who started the bowl game. There will be a quarterback battle this spring between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien. Lee was the scout team MVP this year, though his numbers with the Green Wave weren't impressive. O'Brien was a highly rated recruit Cornhuskers fans have been waiting to see. Both are 6-foot-4 pocket passers, so Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf could return to more of a comfort zone after changing their schemes to fit the mobile Armstrong. But neither Lee nor O'Brien has proved himself yet.

2. How much can the defense improve?

As Nebraska zipped out to a 7-0 start, Mark Banker's defense looked like a much-improved unit. But once the schedule stiffened, the resistance from the Huskers weakened. Nebraska gave up 62 points to Ohio State, 40 to Iowa and 38 to Tennessee. The defense probably overachieved for a while given the lack of elite talent on the front four. The secondary should remain a strength with the expected return of defensive backs Chris Jones, Joshua Kalu and Kieron Williams. The Davis twins offer promise in the trenches. But Nebraska had only one defensive player on the All-Big Ten first, second and third teams. That was safety Nathan Gerry, who graduated. As with most questions surrounding this program, it comes down to talent acquisition and development.

3. What about the running game?

Mention the words "Nebraska football" to a casual observer, and the first image conjured probably is an explosive running game. But that hasn't really been the case in Lincoln since Ameer Abdullah shipped off to the NFL. The Huskers averaged a pedestrian 4.2 yards per carry in 2016 -- ranking ninth in the Big Ten -- and didn't have a player go over 900 yards. Devine Ozigbo showed some burst in the bowl game, and Tre Bryant has a lot of potential. But Nebraska has lacked an elite running back and offensive line for some time now. It's hard to win big without those things in the Big Ten.