<
>

Nebraska is Big Ten's biggest enigma in 2015

Nebraska hits the practice field on Thursday to begin fall camp, and devoted Cornhuskers fans will breathlessly follow every morsel of development as usual. The thirst for information on Big Red is unquenchable.

But if it's possible, the interest level on this year's preseason preparations has risen even higher. That's because hardly anybody knows what to expect out of this particular team. Say hello to the 2015 Huskers, the Big Ten's biggest enigma.

Nebraska surprised everybody by hiring Mike Riley away from Oregon State this offseason. No program made a more monumental shift in personality, as the low-key Riley replaced the volatile Bo Pelini. Riley shied away from the "nice-guy" label at Big Ten media days last week, but his players talked about how much the volume level has lowered in Lincoln. They even joked about still waiting for Riley to get angry for the first time.

"It's a whole different atmosphere," safety Nate Gerry said.

Change can be a good thing. Nebraska's hope, of course, is that the team will assume Riley's even-keel temperament and avoid the schizophrenic, in-season yo-yoing of the later Pelini years. But the giant mood swing is only one reason why these Huskers are hard to peg.

Riley's arrival also means a scheme change on offense, as he tries to instill some of his West Coast-style passing attack while also playing to his new guys' strengths. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is an excellent leader who has had some big moments, including his 422 total yards and four touchdowns against USC in the Holiday Bowl. But he's not a precision passer -- he completed just 53.3 percent last year -- and mobility is one of his strong suits. Plus, Ameer Abdullah is not around anymore to erase mistakes.

How Armstrong and the rest of the offense adapt to Riley and vice versa looms as the largest curiosity for fans. And perhaps even to Riley himself.

"We have a quarterback and quarterbacks in our program now that have different skill sets," Riley said last week in Chicago. "So the blending of what we've done and what we intend to do with this team and then the establishing of an identity that's going to look good on the field is going to be kind of the exclamation point we have to put on during fall camp."

Riley joked that during spring practice, "some of it looked like football." What the media and public saw from the offense this spring was mostly inconclusive.

It's the Nebraska defense that has short-circuited in recent big-game implosions, most notably in the Wisconsin clobberings. So it's not exactly encouraging that the linebacker position is perilously thing heading into training camp. Plus, Randy Gregory is not around anymore to erase mistakes.

What will this team look like on both sides of the ball this fall? It's a great question.

"We don't have a team identity as of now," Gerry said. "But the one thing myself and the other captains notice throughout the whole summer is that there's a lot of want-to on this team."

The Huskers clearly have enough talent to win the West Division if things go well. But they will get challenged in the nonconference schedule with the opener against BYU and in a tricky road contest at Miami. They play Wisconsin relatively early (Oct. 10) and drew a difficult cross-division game against Michigan State, though both of those games are at Memorial Stadium.

Say this for the Pelini era: You always knew what the final record would look like. Despite the week-to-week inconsistencies, his team was remarkably consistent in winning nine or 10 games, and losing four, on an annual basis.

Can Riley's steady hand help Nebraska improve on that and claim its first conference title since 2000? Does Riley, who was 29-33 in his last five years at Oregon State, still have his fastball? Did the sideshow around Pelini obscure the fact this is simply a 9-4 type of program now?

These are all questions without definitive answers now. Which is why the Cornhuskers are the Big Ten's biggest enigma in 2015 and why they'll be one of the most fascinating teams to watch.