As the start of the national college football season draws closer, National Compass will look at some of the teams and stories that may be overlooked by the sports media establishment. The one we’re looking at in particular this week, is the Nebraska Cornhuskers of the Western division of the Big10 Conference.
While everyone has solid expectations for such teams in the Big10 as Ohio State, Michigan (questionable with 17 starters graduated), Wisconsin and Penn State, Nebraska is more than somewhat off the radar screen.
Most season previewers and prognosticators have Nebraska near the top of the West division, but expect Wisconsin to win it – especially given that Wisky Coach Paul Chryst has 17 starters coming back for 2017 and not having to play either the Buckeyes or the Nittany Lions in the regular season schedule.
Win loss total predictions for the Big Red range from 6-6 to 7-5, with ESPN’s Football Power Index expecting Nebraska to only yield 6-6. Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune, has Nebraska finishing third behind the Badgers and Iowa. Athlon Sports is also looking at the 2nd place in the West as a toss-up, with Iowa and Northwestern as competitors to the Huskers in the runner up slot.
The reason pretty much everyone considers Nebraska as a tough read in terms of expectations is that the team is reloading and is also transitioning schemes on offense and defense.
Add a daunting schedule with not only division rival Wisconsin, but also a roadie at Penn State and a home game versus Ohio State and perhaps the low expectations are not unwarranted. On the other hand, a couple of Fox Sports Big10 coverage analysts are saying, “hold on – not so fast!”.
Fox Sports Analysts Bruce Feldman and Joel Klatt think observers are perhaps too quick to write off the Huskers. The reason? The new guy at the helm of the offense, Quarterback Tanner Lee, who transferred to Nebraska after two seasons at Tulane University, in a system that was not an ideal fit for his skills.
Tanner Lee – Tulane University Transfer and Manning Camp Standout
Lee’s profile, from his build and height (6-4 / 225) to his cannon for an arm and presence in the pocket, screams NFL starter. Feldman saw Lee at George Whitfield’s summer workouts after Lee’s first season at Tulane, having narrowly missed being recruited by SEC powerhouse, LSU.
Feldman is normally reserved about the prospects for second year transfers. “Maybe more with grad transfers, so we all kind of think or want them to be Russell Wilson, but you don’t get that. However, Tanner’s case is a little more sensible. He wasn’t fitting what Tulane was going to do. It’s going to be very interesting,” Feldman said. “I just feel like it’s been awhile since Nebraska had a quarterback that throws it like Lee does. I feel like Nebraska has a chance to be a sleeper. If there’s a sleeper I think Nebraska is it. I don’t hear a lot of people talking about them and I think Lee could be really, really good.”
Then there’s Joel Klatt, who has also noticed Tanner Lee. Joel played for the rival Colorado Buffalos during the ’90s when Colorado and Nebraska were both still in the Big 8 Conference. Klatt, who would like to see the Huskers make a comeback, says of the importance of Riley’s strategy on offense:
“For quarterbacks, more than any other position, I think fit really matters,. Schematic fit. Coaching fit. What style of player you are, what style you’re going to be asked to play. From that standpoint, I think this is going to be the best fit that Mike has had this far in his tenure at Nebraska.”
Klatt, in his evaluation of Tanner Lee, notes that “… Tanner seems to be the type of guy that is exactly what Mike has flourished with in the past. I think that’s why there’s more excitement, and candidly, that’s why I’m not only excited to see him play, but excited to see how Nebraska plays because of that.”
One other keen evaluator of QB talent, is Patrick Woo, scout for Reese’s Senior Bowl, an NFL team liason and an extra set of eyes in attendance at the Manning Camp, both in 2015 and earlier this summer.
Having seen Tanner Lee workout with Payton and Eli, Mr. Woo has extravagant praise for Lee. “[Louisville QB] Lamar Jackson, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold are great, but Tanner Lee was my favorite guy. “He looks the part. And he threw the ball well in 2015 and it was no surprise he won the starting job at Tulane.”
Woo particularly noticed Lee’s arm strength and mobility. “He had a really impressive spring this spring. He’s a big body, and has a strong arm. A really, really strong arm. He embodies everything you want in a true pocket passer,” Woo said. “His ability to place the ball is great. I thought he moved around well; I thought he showed a lot of mobility. And he’s a great guy. I really enjoyed spending time with him.”
So, Tanner Lee appears to be Nebraska head coach, Mike Riley’s X-factor, that could rewrite the script everyone is looking at this season.
Nebraska, after winning 7 straight, limped into the final stretch last season with a lot of injuries at key positions, with a quarterback, Senior Tommy Armstrong, who played his heart out and overachieved, despite the fact that he was not a fit for Mike Riley’s offensive schemes.
This year, Riley has that precise fit with Lee and the backups, including Patrick O’Brien, who was also an Elite 11 camp standout. Given the fact that the pre-season predictions always wind up being wrong one way or another and that the top ranked teams usually stumble in some games that should be a lock, Nebraska could just be the surprise no one expected.
That’s why they actually play the games.