Nebraska was so eager to move past its regular season in 2015 that it turned the page before an appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl.
The decision worked well, helping the Cornhuskers to a 37-29 victory over UCLA on the day after Christmas. It capped a 6-7 debut season for coach Mike Riley that began with four losses in the first six weeks, all decided in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime.
The Huskers struggled to run the ball consistently. They never found a long-term answer for problems in the secondary. And their turnover margin, 117th nationally at minus-12, remained a huge source of frustration.
Looking toward next season, with a December head-start, Nebraska again faces many questions. Here are three for the offseason:
1. Can Tommy Armstrong Jr. take the next step?
Armstrong has never lacked for confidence. He usually says all the right things -- and he did so again last month, revealing that he asked offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to treat him like a freshman in the months before his senior season. Armstrong backed up the big talk with a solid performance against UCLA, completing 12 of 19 throws for 174 yards without an interception.
He threw nine picks in the final three regular-season games, and 16 for the season. With help from Langsdorf and the running game, Armstrong showed in the bowl game that he’s capable of playing like the quarterback Nebraska needs to make the jump to contender status in the Big Ten.
If Armstrong remains hungry, he can diffuse talk about freshman QB Patrick O’Brien, who arrived on campus this week in advance of the spring semester.
2. What’s next on the defensive line?
The front four in 2015 ranked as the clear strength of Nebraska’s defense. It held foes to 3.8 yards per rushing attempt and got especially solid play from tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. Collins left a year early for the NFL, and Valentine may follow. If the Huskers manage to keep Valentine, that’s an important step. But they’ll need more help from the likes of Kevin Maurice, a senior next season, and a trio of tackles emerging from redshirt seasons.
On the edge, Nebraska must rely on youth to fill one starting spot and provide depth.
With the linebackers and secondary expected to mature, the Huskers can’t afford to take a step back on the line. Spring football and other offseason progress will help dictate the level of play up front in 2016.
3. How to fix the little things?
The aforementioned turnovers issue has plagued Nebraska for years, as have penalties. The Huskers were flagged 7.23 times per game, 105th nationally and worst in the Big Ten, for an average of 64 yards. It’s got to improve.
The methodology here is tricky. When errors such as these become systemic, coaches must look deep for the solution. Nebraska’s lack of discipline in controlling turnovers and penalties is likely rooted far within the program. A focus on details in the offseason, starting with conditioning drills and lifting sessions, would pay dividends in the fall.
That leaves improvement in the hands of strength coach Mark Philipp -- and the Nebraska players, who must take more accountability from January through August in handling the fine details.