Big Ten season preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska ready to move past disappointing last season (1:34)

Nebraska head coach Mike Riley looks back at last season and how the Cornhuskers will rebound. (1:34)

Few programs were happier to turn the page to 2016 than Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers suffered through a 5-7 regular season in Mike Riley's first year as head coach, losing those seven games by a combined 31 points and going through all sorts of bad end-of-game scenarios.

Things perked up when Nebraska was granted a bowl slot, thanks to a dearth of eligible teams and its own outstanding work in the classroom. The Huskers took full advantage, beating UCLA 37-29 in the Foster Farms Bowl and raising optimism for this year.

Unfortunately, the program endured a tragedy late this summer when punter Sam Foltz was killed in an automobile accident that also claimed the life of former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. The team will honor Foltz with special decals on its helmets and other apparel, and he will never be too far from their thoughts.

Here's a look at what to expect from the team in Riley's second season:

2015 record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Key losses: DT Maliek Collins, OT Alex Lewis, DT Vincent Valentine, FB Andy Jankovich, DE Greg McMullen

Key returners: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., WR Jordan Westerkamp, S Nate Gerry, OT Nick Gates, LB Michael Rose-Ivey, LB Dedrick Young, TE Cethan Carter, WR Stanley Morgan

Instant impact player: Nebraska wasn't exactly planning on playing Boe Wilson on the offensive line as a true freshman. But circumstances may dictate otherwise. Starting guard Jerald Foster injured his knee and is out for the year, and likely fill-in Corey Whitaker will also miss at least the early part of the season with a knee injury. So Wilson, a three-star recruit according to ESPN.com, has been getting some first-team reps and may well get his baptism by fire in the opener against Fresno State.

Key stat: Minus-37. That's the turnover margin for the Huskers since 2012, which includes a minus-12 last year. If you're looking for a reason why Nebraska has struggled to win big games or break through and win a conference championship, look no farther. The turnover problems didn't improve with the coaching change, and things first have to get better at quarterback. Armstrong threw 16 interceptions last year and has 36 in his career. He has to make better decisions with the ball, and Nebraska has to be much more protective of it in order to contend for a West Division title.

Most important game: At Iowa, Nov. 25. Fact is, Nebraska is chasing the Hawkeyes now after Kirk Ferentz's team ran away with the West title in 2015. If the Huskers want to make it to Indianapolis, odds are they are going to have to win in Iowa City on Black Friday. The division title could be on the line that day.

Best-case scenario: The team we saw in the Foster Farms Bowl was a preview of what to expect. Riley and his staff have figured out how to maximize this team's ability in Big Ten play, using a physical running attack to augment what could be the best passing game in the league. Mark Banker's defense settles in and forces more turnovers, thanks to a deep and athletic linebacker corps. The Huskers pull off a home win over Oregon in Week 2, get on the right side of luck and pull out several close games. They finish 10-2 but win the tiebreakers to get to the Big Ten championship game. They pull off the upset in Indy to get to a New Year's Six game, and recruiting sees a major uptick after the team's best season in years.

Worst-case scenario: The offensive and defensive lines aren't championship-caliber. Armstrong struggles again with turnovers, and an average running game can't take much pressure off of him. The defense continues to hemorrhage yards and points. Big Red can't keep up with Oregon, loses a week later at Northwestern, gets blasted at Camp Randall Stadium and the Horseshoe and drops the Heroes Game to Iowa on Thanksgiving weekend. At least none of that made fans as indignant as a midseason road loss at Indiana, marking the second straight time a Riley team lost to a Big Ten opponent from the Hoosier State. The Cornhuskers finish 6-6, and there are serious questions about whether Riley is the right guy to lead the program forward.