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2015 season preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers

8/12/2015
Reaching nine wins could be an uphill battle for new Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Previewing the 2015 season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers:

2014 record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten; lost to USC in National University Holiday Bowl)

Key losses: IB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell, G Jake Cotton, G Mike Moudy, DE Randy Gregory, LB Zaire Anderson, CB Josh Mitchell, S Corey Cooper

Key returners: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., OT Alex Lewis, WR Jordan Westerkamp, WR De’Mornay Pierson-El, DT Maliek Collins, DT Vincent Valentine, LB Michael Rose-Ivey, CB Daniel Davie, S Nate Gerry

Instant-impact freshman: ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanley Morgan might be too talented to keep off the field this season. The Louisiana prospect chose the Huskers over offers from Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, Tennessee and others while being ranked as the No. 243 overall prospect in his class. Morgan is a good-sized receiver with big playmaking ability, and Nebraska fans might see him early on in his career. -- Tom Van Haaren

Class of '16 update: Nebraska currently holds the No. 22-ranked class in the country led by ESPN 300 prospects John Raridon, Marquel Dismuke, Terry Wilson and Quayshon Alexander. Wilson is the No. 12-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class and is committed with Patrick O’Brien, the No. 20-ranked pocket-passing signal-caller. The Huskers have done a nice job landing some bigger-name prospects as well as filling needs. With 14 commitments in the class, there is still room to grow and add more as we get closer to signing day. -- Tom Van Haaren

Biggest question mark: Can the linebackers hold up? The Huskers are pencil-thin in the heart of their defense. Rose-Ivey is back from injury, and Josh Banderas appears more comfortable already in coordinator Mark Banker’s system than at any point over the past two years. But attrition and scheme change have put Nebraska in a tough spot here. Sophomore Marcus Newby, redshirt freshman Luke Gifford and true freshman Dedrick Young must mature quickly. Walk-on sophomore Chris Weber is a candidate to play and at least one more newcomer will likely need to add depth.

Most important game: The same can likely be said for Minnesota and Iowa out of the West Division, but no opponent carries more weight than Wisconsin, which visits Lincoln in Week 6. That’s what happens when you’re the reigning division champ. For Nebraska, incentive to play well against the Badgers is huge after the embarrassment of last year in Madison. Wisconsin, in fact, has won in blowout fashion in three of four meetings with the Huskers since Nebraska joined the league. This is a barometer game for Mike Riley’s team.

Upset special: BYU received plenty of early support from the betting public, though the loss of top running back Jamaal Williams has likely cooled some of the good feelings about the Cougars. Nebraska has won a nation-leading 29 straight home openers, but it’s rarely faced a challenge like BYU since Florida State won in Lincoln to open the 1985 season. The Huskers figure to remain a work in progress offensively early in the year. Meanwhile, BYU features QB Taysom Hill, a dangerous matchup for the Blackshirts.

Key stat: Pierson-El accumulated 596 yards on punt returns as a freshman in 2014 -- 145 more than any team nationally other than Nebraska. Gains in the return game are often described as hidden yards. Not for Pierson-El. His work was on full display, looming large as a major factor in allowing Nebraska to win the battle for field position. He can't make a similar impact on special teams as a sophomore if every team punts away from him. So from where will those yards come?

Prediction: Another nine-win season, though it may well require a bowl victory to reach the benchmark in Riley's debut season. The Huskers get Wisconsin and Michigan State at home, possibly the two best teams on the schedule, though a trip to Minnesota looms as an equally difficult challenge. The road to nine wins, a level reached by the Huskers in each of former coach Bo Pelini's seven seasons, may hinge on Sept. 19, when Nebraska visits Miami.