The wait is almost over.
Technically the offseason hasn’t quite ended yet, but the annual appearance for every program at Big Ten media days serves as an unofficial kickoff for the season -- and a welcome reminder that football is nearly back. The event opens next Monday in Chicago with the coach and three players from every team in the league reporting for two days of questions, answers and some predictions sure to go wrong by the time September rolls around.
To help set the scene in advance, this week Big Ten blog is rolling through a list of the hottest topics each team will be addressing. Up next: Nebraska, which will have quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., linebacker Josh Banderas and wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp joining coach Mike Riley in Chicago.
1. Can Riley get the Huskers over the hump? A somewhat underwhelming hire in the first place, the goodwill that may have existed by trading Bo Pelini's abrasiveness for Riley's charming personality vanished quickly with every late-game meltdown and a losing season. Considering how consistently Pelini cranked out nine wins, that puts Riley squarely under pressure heading into his second campaign with the program. If Riley can get the Huskers to cut out even just a couple mental mistakes and maybe get a bit more luck along the way, there’s no reason to think he can’t have his team contending in the West Division this fall.
2. Will Armstrong take the next step? Nebraska’s potential is inextricably tied to what it gets out of its quarterback, as much or more so than any team in the Big Ten this season. The veteran obviously has no shortage of experience after attempting 878 passes over the past three seasons, and his 53 touchdowns suggest he can get the job done leading the attack. But turnovers have been an issue for Armstrong and he has also perhaps been hampered at times by an offense that seemed hesitant to make the most of his rushing ability. Will another offseason of development improve his accuracy and ability to protect the ball? Will Riley turn him loose? Those answers could make the difference in winning the West or another season short of Nebraska’s high expectations.
3.What’s up with the pass defense? There’s no way around it: The Huskers were downright atrocious against the pass last season. Both players and coaches spent spring practice making sure to point out that the secondary alone wasn’t to blame for the issues that allowed opponents to throw for more than 290 yards per game. But if that’s true, that leaves plenty of work for everybody on that side of the ball as the team gets set to report for training camp. There are talented players returning in the defensive backfield capable of getting the job done after another year to develop, and Riley tweaked the staff’s approach by putting defensive coordinator Mark Banker in charge of safeties. Will those results show up by September?