Tommy Armstrong

One rival coach told Athlon that Tommy Armstrong “is kind of a square peg in a round hole” in NU’s offense, but added that Armstrong seemed to buy into the teachings of offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, right.

LINCOLN — Roll into a bookstore, drugstore or supermarket. Head over to the magazine section. There, you’ll find that most college football pundits think Nebraska’s season rides on fourth-year starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who graces the covers of the Athlon and Lindy’s annuals, his right arm cocked, scanning downfield, probably about to scramble — when he’s most dangerous.

Husker offensive coaches have brainstormed ways to take pressure off Armstrong by giving him fewer choices, clearer paths to success and a healthy dose of reminders that a punt is better than a pick. The NU defense — porous for most of 2015 — has been tasked with giving up fewer big plays and defending the pass better.

But quarterbacks are faces of their programs, and no other current Big Ten quarterback has more career starts than Armstrong’s 33.

So No. 4 goes on most local covers. And No. 4 gets the microscope treatment in the magazines, which always begin with Phil Steele’s data-heavy, football-media-preferred bible and progresses through a medley of annuals.

Armstrong didn’t make it on Steele’s cover, as he chose four players from the Big Ten — Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Michigan State’s Malik McDowell, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and Iowa’s Desmond King. And Armstrong is not on a local Sporting News cover that features Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard and NU wideout Jordan Westerkamp.

Armstrong is prominent, though, on the Athlon and Lindy’s Big Ten previews that tend to be popular for the fan who doesn’t want to dive deep into Steele’s book. I always get a Steele bible and an Athlon Big Ten preview, in part because I like reading the anonymous Big Ten coach quotes breaking down each team.

Last season, you might recall, some coach gave Athlon this nugget of criticism on Armstrong: “Tommy Armstrong is just a guy. He’s probably better than Taylor Martinez, but I don’t think he’s great. His skill set doesn’t really fit the system they want to run because he’s so limited throwing the ball.”

Armstrong naturally bristled at those lines during 2015 Big Ten media days. His on-field play — the real response to such criticism — was up and down, a mixture of his usual playmaking derring-do and dangerous decision making. He threw 16 interceptions, the most by any Husker in a season since Joe Dailey, who threw 19 in 2004 — the first year of Bill Callahan’s pro-style system. Dailey lost his job the next spring to Zac Taylor and transferred to North Carolina.

There was no quarterback competition this spring, in part because Armstrong is a much better quarterback than Dailey was, and in part because there wasn’t a Zac Taylor in the fold to challenge Armstrong. Or, at least, that’s what a Big Ten defensive coach said in ESPN’s preview of the Huskers.

“You looked at the backups and thought, ‘Boy, I wish we were playing those guys,’ ” the coach said. ESPN has a few other choice quotes, too.

The one game that backup Ryker Fyfe started, he tossed four interceptions and lost a fumble that he tried to pick up instead of falling on it. NU lost to Purdue 55-45, arguably the worst loss in decades.

The lack of quarterback depth actually challenges many teams that often can’t persuade blue-chippers, and their impatient mentors/dads, to stick around if they don’t win the job on their timetable, but Nebraska has especially struggled with it.

NU hasn’t had a true quarterback battle since 2010. It won’t again until 2017, when Tanner Lee, Patrick O’Brien, AJ Bush and (perhaps) Tristan Gebbia vie for the spot.

Position battles make teams better. Competition will make NU’s running backs better this season. It’ll make for a great room of wideouts, who like hungry wolves, have to fight for every opportunity because there are so many good players. At linebacker, Nebraska has six legit starting options. Only three will get the nod.

At quarterback, it’s one guy.

What do the anonymous coaches in Athlon say this year about Armstrong?

“Tommy Armstrong is kind of a square peg in a round hole in a pro-style offense, but it looked like he bought into what they’re trying to accomplish,” the coach said. “He made some questionable decisions in late-game situations, but that may have been their staff trying to get a feel for what he can and can’t do.”

There is some other good stuff in there — especially about Nebraska’s struggles on the offensive line, which coach Mike Riley expects to improve — but those lines about Armstrong are pretty accurate. Square peg in a round hole. Wants to do the right thing. Coaches used some trial and error — and had more error than needed.

Big magazines made simple: As Armstrong goes, so too may Nebraska. That’s the big-picture story in the glossies. Let’s fill in the rest:

* * *

Phil Steele

The basics: The kitchen sink. And the kitchen counter. And the fridge. And perhaps the pantry, too. Everything about college football that you’d dare to think about, written in Phil Steele’s shorthand code.

Cost: $12.99

Cover: The Big Ten cover does not feature a Nebraska player. I bought a Texas-centric cover in Lincoln. The Florida/Notre Dame random combo may be my favorite, though.

NU rank: 22nd (2nd in Big Ten West)

Iowa rank: 14th (1st in Big Ten West)

Four playoff teams: Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU

Risky rankings: Stanford at 10, TCU at 11, Michigan State at 13

NU All-Americans: None

NU recruiting class rank: 34th

NU national unit rankings: QBs 34th, RBs 53rd, WRs 17th, LBs 21st, DBs 38th, Special teams 20th

NU bowl prediction: TaxSlayer vs. Florida

Mistakes: The book has a million things in it. It’s not all going to be right. In one spot, for example — under NFL Draft eligible rankings — quarterback Tommy Armstrong is listed at 5-11, 195 pounds. Things like that.

Special features: As many as you can imagine. Power polls, most surprising teams, most improved teams, stock market indicators, experience charts, projected stats (which Nebraska fans will rather like). Also, Steele has tweaked his team preview write-ups. His forecast is a little more detailed, and there’s a section for offense and defense. He’s also added a “this decade” analysis.

Strengths: For people who really dive hard into football, it helps them think better about the game and know the opponents better. Steele is in it for the long haul, a tireless worker, and while the guide isn’t really user-friendly, it is exhaustive. It’s like a visit to a banker who still keeps records by hand — but they’re impeccable, and he’s an excellent banker.

Weaknesses: Your eyes may glaze over, and it can be hard to find things.

Stats guru Chris Stassen factor: As Steele is quick to point out, he’s the most accurate last year, over the last three years, over five years and over 10 years. His magnificent 2013 was key.

* * *

Athlon

The basics: One of the better annuals that in recent years has balanced decent statistical breakdowns — like turnover margin, explosiveness and offenses finishing drives — with readable material.

Cost: $7.99

Cover: Tommy Armstrong is on the Big Ten cover in local areas.

NU rank: 31st, (2nd in Big Ten West)

Iowa rank: 19th, (1st in Big Ten West)

Four playoff teams: Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Clemson

Risky rankings: Ohio State at 3, Ole Miss at 10, Stanford at 12, Michigan State at 13, San Diego State unranked.

NU All-Americans: None

NU recruiting class rank: 25th (Uses 247Sports Composite)

NU national unit rankings: None

NU bowl prediction: Pinstripe vs. Pittsburgh

Mistakes: None in particular

Special features: Athlon examines the strengths of each team from a “Five Factors” statistical profile — Northwestern’s 10-win season defies all logic. The Big Ten-specfic version has full rosters that are readable and have good nuggets. Athlon relives the Michigan State drive to beat Iowa in the Big Ten title game and visits new coaches during their first 100 days.

Strengths: Athlon is kind of the Apple to Steele’s dense PC. There’s a lot of stuff in Steele’s magazine that “I don’t have 70 hours” fans may not care about.

Weaknesses: Not many. It’s not Steele’s giant bible, and there’s probably less overall writing than in the Lindy’s annual.

Stats guru Chris Stassen factor: Athlon was second among magazines last year and behind Steele and Lindy’s over five years.

* * *

Lindy’s

The basics: An annual that has national and Big Ten versions. More writing in this annual than Athlon, perhaps not quite as much interesting data or production value.

Cost: $8.99

Cover: Tommy Armstrong is on both the local and national versions of the cover in the area.

NU rank: 33rd (3rd in Big Ten West)

Iowa rank: 15th (1st in Big Ten West)

Four playoff teams: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State

Risky rankings: Baylor at 5, Stanford at 10, Washington too low at 21

NU All-Americans: None

NU recruiting class rank: 25th (Uses 247Sports Composite)

NU national unit rankings: None

NU bowl prediction: None. Lindy’s only does top bowls.

Mistakes: No major ones, other than Baylor ranking.

Special features: Scoping the nation section covers a lot of stuff like coaching changes, transfers and more. Lots of recruiting stuff for people who didn’t catch up on signing day.

Strengths: It’s a strong guide — with a Nebraska write-up featuring The World-Herald’s Rich Kaipust, so you know it’s on-point. Lindy’s generally does well with accuracy. Good coverage of the FCS.

Weaknesses: Perhaps a few more stats would be good.

Stats guru Chris Stassen factor: Lindy’s was sixth among magazines last year but third over the last three years and third over five years.

* * *

The Sporting News

The basics: A national overview of college football that always looks pretty sharp but isn’t very accurate and comes out too early.

Cost: $7.99

Cover: Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard and Nebraska wideout Jordan Westerkamp are on the cover in this area.

NU rank: Outside the top 25 (3rd in Big Ten West)

Iowa rank: 17th (1st in Big Ten West)

Four playoff teams: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State

Risky rankings: Michigan State at 11, Baylor at 5, Ole Miss at 7, Stanford at 9, Arkansas at 23

NU All-Americans: None

NU recruiting class rank: 25th (Uses 247Sports Composite)

NU national unit rankings: None

NU bowl prediction: Pinstripe vs. Georgia Tech

Mistakes: TSN still lists Greg McMullen and Kevin Williams as playing for the Huskers. They don’t.

Special features: A page on where transferred players ended up, and the most comprehensive FCS coverage, if that’s your thing.

Strengths: Always a nice-looking magazine that rolls up well. Like the Sporting News in general, it’s not what it used to be.

Weaknesses: It clearly went to press early based on some of the errors. Accuracy is an issue.

Stats guru Chris Stassen factor: Poor. Last among magazines last year — even behind media polls, which are notoriously junk — and last among magazines over the last 10 years by a healthy margin.

* * *

ESPN

The basics: A well-designed, pretty-looking magazine that has more depth than it did in 2015, but not much more.

Cost: $7.99

Cover: In this region, it’s a glamour shot of Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield staring into your eyes.

NU rank: 1st in Big Ten West

Iowa rank: 3rd in Big Ten West

Four playoff teams: LSU, Oklahoma, Clemson, Washington

Risky rankings: More like annoying and inconsistent. Iowa is ranked third in the Big Ten West but 15th in the nation. Also, Michigan at 3 and Baylor at 7

NU All-Americans: None

NU recruiting class rank: 26th

NU national unit rankings: None

NU bowl prediction: None

Mistakes: The rankings. See the weaknesses section.

Special features: ESPN projects wins according to its FPI (Football Power Index) formula for each team. ESPN personalities pick the best units.

Strengths: It looks good. ESPN has good designers. There’s a clever inside media joke “Coach, talk about” that ESPN uses throughout the magazine. The FPI thing is fine.

Weaknesses: Too many chefs in the kitchen. Once again, on the same two pages, ESPN has to have a top 25 from one guy and a College Football Playoff projection from another guy because ESPN has too many people who need to have this little tiny role in the magazine. How hard is it to have one top 25 and one playoff projection? Beyond that, the preview has mediocre depth, and the picture of Mayfield, frankly, is a bit GQ for my taste.

Stats guru Chris Stassen factor: ESPN was the third most-accurate magazine last year.

* * *

Contact the writer: 402-219-3790, sam.mckewon@owh.com, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

Reporter - Nebraska athletics

Sam covers Nebraska football, recruiting, women's basketball and more for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @swmckewonOWH. Email: SMcKewon@owh.com

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.