- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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The season is inching closer and closer and, with that, so is our series on the best- and worst-case scenarios for every Big Ten team in 2014.
These aren't predictions or scenarios that are illustrative of the most probable outcomes. They're simply meant to show the potential highs and lows in a season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. Also an important reminder: We're trying to have some fun with these.
Up next are the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Bo Pelini raises both arms in triumph on the field in Indianapolis, with the Big Ten trophy in one hand and his cat in the other. Students sing the alma mater while a choked-up Pelini looks on and Anya the cat meows in unison.
“This one’s for Anya!” Pelini screams into the mic.
It’s an image that winds up on the front page of nearly every sports section in the country. “Nearly purr-fect” reads the headline, as the Huskers lock up one of four playoff spots with a 12-1 record. Pelini sweeps Big Ten Coach of the Year honors and is invited to appear on the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Cat Fancy.
Ameer Abdullah rushes for more than 1,700 yards and 14 TDs en route to beating out Braxton Miller for the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award. Kenny Bell becomes a first-team All-B1G selection and sets school records for career receptions and receiving yards. Defensive end Randy Gregory is the MVP of the Big Ten championship game, as he wrecks the Buckeyes with 3 1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles in the 31-21 victory.
Early on in the season, some fans wondered aloud if Nebraska would be able to make it this far. The Cornhuskers needed a last-minute touchdown drive by Tommy Armstrong to edge Fresno State in a 38-35 late-night thriller on Sept. 13. And then came the tough, 20-14 loss to Michigan State on Oct. 4.
But Pelini keeps his players motivated with a "Meow (Re)Mix" music video that goes viral, and that Fresno State contest provides a turning point for Armstrong. He looks like a new quarterback, brimming with confidence, after that career-defining drive in which he converts a trio of third downs during the 75-yard TD march. From then on, the words “poise” and “clutch” are constantly used to describe Armstrong. It becomes a running joke; one blog finds that TV commentators have referred to Armstrong as “clutch” a total of 394 times during the season.
Armstrong helps engineer a 10-point comeback over Wisconsin. And, against Iowa, in the last week of the regular season, he shakes off a would-be sack and finds Abdullah in the flat for a short pass that Abdullah turns into a 60-yard score. The Huskers end up winning by a touchdown.
The pass defense is only mediocre, but the front seven strikes fear into conference opponents. And Gregory compiles at least one sack in every game on his way to conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Those highlights replay throughout the minds of Pelini -- and Anya -- as they accept the Big Ten trophy on a cold December night. Next up is the first round of the College Football Playoff.
And, this time around, no one is counting out the Huskers ...
In some ways, it’s already begun.
Three potential defensive starters go down in the first week of preseason camp -- safety LeRoy Alexander (suspension), nickelback Charles Jackson (knee injury), linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey (torn ACL) -- but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Days before the season, the Huskers lose another starting defensive back to injury -- and Abdullah suffers a minor ankle injury that doesn’t keep him out but still seems to hinder him all season.
The Huskers win their first two games without issue, but that streak ends on the road against Fresno State. Armstrong looks lost and commits three turnovers -- two interceptions, one fumble -- as Nebraska loses by two touchdowns. Then comes the loss to Miami (Fla.). That’s when the murmurs start regarding Armstrong.
Pelini is pestered by questions about trying another signal-caller. But, even among fans, there’s no consensus. Some say to go with Johnny Stanton; others think Ryker Fyfe deserves a shot. Some still believe Armstrong is the guy.
Bo stands behind Armstrong and, although Armstrong delivers a win against Illinois, he’s not convincing. Defenses are beginning to creep up on Abdullah, and Nebraska’s star running back seems as if he’s becoming less effective each week. Couple that in with the fact the patchwork secondary hasn’t been tested outside of Fresno State, and some real concerns remain in spite of the 3-2 start.
Then it all starts to unravel against Michigan State. Armstrong is pulled after two first-half interceptions, and Pelini rotates both Stanton and Fyfe. But neither fares any better. With a quarterback controversy brewing, Pelini cuts his news conference short leading up to the game at Northwestern. Then, after another loss, he skips his next one altogether.
Nebraska beats an overmatched Rutgers and Purdue -- but drops the last three to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Abdullah’s rushing average falls by more than a half-yard compared to last season. Bell fails to gain the necessary yardage to break Johnny Rodgers’ career Nebraska record. And the pass defense is ranked outside of the top 75 in the country.
After the final loss in the regular season, dropping Nebraska to 5-7, Pelini walks straight past the waiting sideline reporter into the tunnel. He trudges right past the security guards, skips the postgame presser, hops into his car and drives off.
And nobody is quite sure if he’s coming back …
2dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy