For the past eleven seasons, Nebraska has kicked off the football season with a "tune-up" game against an overmatched opponent. Sometimes we at CornNation call it a body bag game or a money game; it's a game against an overmatched opponent. It's scheduled not because the opponent is very good (usually the opponent is really bad), but rather because the opponent doesn't demand that Nebraska return the favor. So we get the likes of Florida Atlantic and Chattanooga to open the season. (Or in 1999: Iowa. But I digress...)
Except this season: Nebraska managed to schedule BYU to open the season, and football fans everywhere should be grateful. Not since the 2003 season opener against Oklahoma State has Nebraska played an opponent of BYU's caliber to start the season. BYU's 8-5 record in 2014 might not look all that impressive, but look deeper. BYU started the season 4-0 with a 41-7 victory over Texas...but then star quarterback Taysom Hill broke his leg against Utah State. The Cougars would then lose their next four games, and a once promising season concluded at the Miami Beach Bowl with a game-ending melee. In March, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall announced that approximately ten players would be disciplined for their actions in the brawl, which could include suspensions. Who and for how long won't be known until the week prior to the game, it appears.
Hill (6'2" 232 lb. senior) returned this spring to workouts, and should be 100% ready to go this fall. He has no plans to change his game; he recognizes that his style of play is what makes him - and his team - successful. He'll accept the risk of injury as a necessary consequence. In the five games he played last season, he completed 66% of his passes for 975 yards and seven touchdowns, with three interceptions. Despite missing the last eight games of the season, he still was BYU's second leading rusher with 460 yards. His eight touchdowns on the ground led BYU, as did his 92 yards per game rushing. As a sophomore in 2013, Hill rushed for 1,233 yards (second on the team) and seven touchdowns and threw for 2,938 yards and 14 touchdowns. Depth behind Hill is a concern; sophomore McCoy Hill (no relation; 6'6" 230 lbs.) played in only one game last season, completing two of two passes for 27 yards. When McCoy was injured this spring, BYU pressed Christian Stewart back into service to keep practices going despite having no eligibility left after his senior season last fall. But four-star quarterback Tanner Magnum returned from his LDS mission last week to provide additional depth. Magnum was co-MVP of the 2011 Elite 11 Quarterback Camp. (You may have heard of the other MVP; some guy named Winston who likes crab legs...)
Senior running back Jamaal Williams (6'0" 206 lbs) was BYU's leading rusher last season despite only playing in seven games. He was suspended for the season opener, battled an ankle injury, then suffered a major knee injury in late October which ended his 2014 season. He missed all of spring practice, though running backs coach Mark Atuaia is "hopeful" that Williams will be ready to play this season. He has a redshirt season available to him, so that's a possibility as well. Williams rushed for 518 yards and four touchdowns in 2014, but 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns in a full 2013 season. Junior Algernon Brown (6'1" 229 lbs.) rushed for 324 yards last season in relief of Williams; he's not a gamebreaker, but he'll thump his way for good yards.
Senior Mitch Mathews (6'6" 215 lbs.) led the receiver corps last year with 73 catches for 922 yards and nine touchdowns. He's not a speed guy, but his height makes him tough to defend. Four-star junior college transfer Nick Kurtz redshirted last year after suffering a stress fracture in his foot; the 6'6 205 lb. receiver turned down offers from Oregon and Southern Cal to join the Cougars. Junior Mitchell Juergens finished 2014 with a bang, breaking loose for 11 catches for 194 yards in the last two games. The 5'10" 182 pound receiver finished the season with 28 catches for 424 yards and four touchdowns. Keep an eye on 6'1" 185 pound senior Devon Blackmon, who caught 10 passes for 130 yards last season. Phil Steele saw enough at the end of the 2014 season to list him on his second team all-Independents team.
Due to injuries in 2014, BYU started ten different offensive linemen at varying points during the season. That was bad for last year's team, but that means that despite losing four players with eight or more career starts, they return four. If everybody's healthy, it's hard to say where they'll all play, but there's serious depth on the line. Sophomore center Tejan Koroma (6'0" 280 lbs.) is a Phil Steele preseason all-Independent selection, while senior Ryker Matthews (6'6" 320 pounds), junior Kyle Johnson (6'2" 303 lbs) and sophomore Tuni Kanuch (6'3" 325 lbs) all made Steele's second team. What's interesting is that Brent Hein of SBN's BYU site "Vanquishing the Foe" thinks that one of those three might not even start. That's a good problem to have.
On defense, BYU presents a matchup that doesn't bode well for what Nebraska's offense was in 2014. The Cougars were unbelievable in stopping the run, giving up a nation leading six rushes of 20 or more yards all season. The converse is that you could pass on the BYU secondary, thanks to a lackluster pass rush. That adds yet another wrinkle to factor in when trying to figure out what Nebraska's offense will be like in Mike Riley's first year. Do what his players do best, do what the coaches want to do, or take what the defense is going to give you.
Up front, Bronson Kaufusi looks like he'll move back up to defensive end, at least the majority of the time. Last season, BYU experimented by moving him to linebacker in the spring, but as the season went on, he started spending more and more time at end. The 6'7" 265 pound star led BYU with seven sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. The rest of the defensive line? Only 2.5 sacks for the season. Junior nose tackle Travis Tuiloma (6'2" 285 lbs) and senior defense end Graham Rowley (6'4" 280 lbs) were both named second team preseason all-Independent by Phil Steele, with Kaufusi getting first team honors.
So if the defensive line looks pretty good, any issues with the pass rush likely comes from the linebackers in BYU's 3-4 alignment, right? Well, that seems to be the mostly unsaid consensus. Complicating things is that three inside linebackers (Harvey Langi, Manoa Pikula and Teu Kautai) missed spring practice with academic issues. Pikula, a 6'1" 239 pound "buck" linebacker is the leading returning tackler among BYU linebackers and a first team preseason all-Independent honoree by Phil Steele. So the hope is that an outside linebacker - likely sophomores Sione Takitaki, Fred Warner, and Troy Hinds - will emerge and fill the void. Warner had the best 2014 season with 19.5 tackles, but Phil Steele picked Hinds for his second team all-Independents preseason list.
The secondary got burned last season because of the lack of pass rush, but now the Cougars need to find two new starters at cornerback. Safety might be a little more settled later in the season, though likely not for the season opener against the Huskers. Junior safety Kai Nacua (6'1" 207 lbs.) is expected to be a key player this season, but he'll likely sit for some, if not all, of the game as punishment for the Beach Bowl Brawl. Look for junior cornerback Michael Davis (6'2" 181 lbs) to get the call early on in the secondary.
I'll be quite honest...this is a scary matchup for the Huskers to open the season. With Taysom Hill at quarterback last season, BYU blew out Texas 41-7 in Austin. So this is no directional Idaho, Louisiana or Florida team coming in to cash a big paycheck. This is a team that stops the run and dares you to throw the ball - and that's not something that Nebraska has done all that well with in the past. Mike Riley can look at it two different ways: he can lament not having a warmup game to road test his new team, or he can look at it as an opportunity to shock and surprise an opponent, because BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has no choice but to try to guess what he'll see from the Huskers. I suspect it'll be the latter, though it remains to be seen who'll be shocked and surprised afterwards.