No Substitute for Experience? Let’s Hope Not
Throughout the offseason we'll see a number of predictions made about the upcoming season. The major inputs to these predictions are usually along the following lines:
How many games did you win last year?
What's your schedule look like?
Who left/who's coming back?
We know Nebraska went 9-4 last season, which ties Wisconsin for the best record in what will be the Big Ten West division. The schedule is tough with road games at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Iowa, at Fresno State, and at Northwestern. The home slate features Miami, Minnesota and a number of teams Nebraska should be a considerable favorite to beat. But who's coming back and how does that compare with the competition?
Phil Steele has revealed his early look at what teams have lost to graduation, early entry to the NFL draft, and presumably anything else known at this point (like transfers or major injuries). The bad news is that Nebraska is tied for 12th out of 14 Big Ten teams in terms of the number of returning starters with 11. The good news is that Michigan State is in the same boat and Wisconsin is even worse with just 9 players returning. But the Huskers will be at a deficit in terms of experience versus the rest of the Big Ten, Miami, and Fresno State.
That said, all experience probably isn't equal. Take Minnesota for example. They lose quarterback Philip Nelson and standout nose tackle Ra'Shede Hageman who both played a huge role in Minnesota's upset of Nebraska a year ago. It's fair to say that losing Hageman means more to Minnesota than NU losing Andrew Green and Jake Long combined.
The Huskers bring back the best pass-rusher in the conference in Randy Gregory, the best running back (maybe in the country) in Ameer Abdullah, and the league's best kick returner in Kenny Bell. Nebraska brings back a quarterback with starting experience and its entire two-deep at linebacker. Injuries on the offensive line in 2013 mean that NU has a bit more experience returning there than you'd expect just glancing at the final depth chart. Even a rebuilding secondary brings back a quality safety in Corey Cooper and productive reserve in Josh Mitchell.
Similar things could be said about Michigan State, which brings back a lot good players despite all of the graduations. It's fair to say then that the number of returning starters isn't everything. Indiana brings back 18 starters, but no one will be picking them to win the conference.