Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, October 20, 2016 at 10:25 AM
The Nebraska Cornhuskers are enjoying a bounceback season. After a miserable 2015 year where they finished 6-7 with at least five of those losses meriting the label “gutwrenching”, the Cornhuskers have already matched last year’s win total with their 6-0 start in 2016. As the race for the Big Ten title heats up in these coming weeks, is there any money to be made investing in Nebraska?
The Cornhuskers are a short 2-1 price to win the Western Division, a race where the stiffest competition likely comes from Iowa (the 5-4 favorite) and Wisconsin (5-1). Nebraska’s odds to win the conference championship game—which would presume beating Michigan or Ohio State in the neutral-site league title game in December—are at 13-4.
What Nebraska has going for them is a balanced offense and a pretty good defense. The D ranks 19th in the country. Offensively, the Cornhuskers are built with a solid running game led by Terrell Newby (5.3 yards-per-carry) and including versatile quarterback Tommy Armstrong. While Armstrong is not a great passer—55.5% completion rate—he gets a solid 8.8 yards-per-attempt. And with a 10-4 TD/INT ratio, he’s doing a respectable job staying away from mistakes.
The negative for Nebraska is that all these numbers have been produced against a fairly soft schedule. A non-conference home win over Oregon doesn’t look as good now as it did at the time. The first three games in Big Ten play have been against Northwestern, Illinois and Indiana, all decidedly non-powers.
Head coach Mike Riley gets one more week of soft competition, with a home date against Purdue. Then the schedule heats up, with consecutive road trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Another big road test will be at Iowa in the season finale.
Nebraska’s play in Big Ten games thus far has to at least raise an eyebrow of concern. They held narrow leads over Northwestern and Indiana in the fourth quarter and had to survive. Against Illinois, who has been positively awful this year, the Cornhuskers actually trailed 16-10 in the fourth quarter before finally delivering three unanswered touchdowns for the win.
None of that inspires confidence in Nebraska’s ability to succeed against stiffer competition. But again, there is a flip side. Iowa has arguably looked worse. While Wisconsin has looked better, the fact the Badgers have already drawn both Michigan and Ohio State in divisional crossover games has put them in a two-game hole. Thus, Nebraska has a loss to give against Wisconsin and looks better so far than Iowa.
That adds up to good reasons to like the Cornhuskers to win the West, although it bears asking if the 2-1 price is sufficient to make it worthwhile, given the shortcomings and given that this team has yet to do anything to inspire confidence in their ability to cash the more lucrative 13-4 ticket to win the Big Ten Championship Game.
It makes Saturday’s game with Purdue an important case study. If nothing else, college football bettors need to see Nebraska really take the bull by the horns against a weaker team and deliver a decisive win without messing around into the fourth quarter. The line on the game is (-24), a good benchmark to use in what will be the last tuneup the Cornhuskers get before the Big Ten race starts in earnest.