The same story about Nebraska football is written every year, only the stakes get higher and the pressure is amplified every offseason.
Everybody knows the story by now: Nebraska is hungry to recapture national prestige, having not won a conference championship since 1999 in the Big 12. It has not finished in the AP top 10 since getting blown out in the 2001 national championship game, and it has not finished with fewer than four losses since 2003. From 1963-2001, Nebraska had 28 top-10 finishes and won five national championships. At many schools, going 9-4 is not something to complain about; for Nebraska, there's been an insurmountable gulf between decent seasons and the top-10 national prominence that the program had grown accustomed to for nearly four decades.
The Cornhuskers' isolated geographic position puts them at a recruiting disadvantage that, combined with scholarship limits and increased revenue elsewhere, makes it difficult to sustain success as a national power that consistently competes for and wins championships.
It's a tenuous situation, one that creates a constant need to find the next possible savior. This season, the next great hope for Nebraska football comes from an unusual place: Tulane.
It's a big year for transfer quarterbacks in a lot of places in college football. Jarrett Stidham is being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate before taking a snap for Auburn. Will Grier offers the potential to upgrade West Virginia's passing game. Malik Zaire may get a chance to expand Florida's stagnant offense. Max Browne finally has a chance to live up to the recruiting praise at Pitt.
And yet the transfer quarterback who faces the most pressure-packed 2017 season was not a highly rated recruit and didn't begin his college career at a Power Five school. The transfer QB under the most pressure is Tanner Lee, a two-year starter at Tulane who sat out last year and is now being showered with hype as he's tasked with leading Nebraska as it tries to snap out of its years of frustration. It's burden that isn't easy for anybody to take on, and it won't be eased by the rising expectation that he'll provide Nebraska with an NFL-caliber QB.
There has been speculation about Lee's NFL upside since he decided to transfer, and attention has only grown, from his work on the Nebraska scout team in 2016 to April's spring scrimmage to the Manning Passing Academy this summer to preseason practice:
After seeing @HuskerFBNation QB Tanner Lee spin it yesterday, he will be a top NFL prospect for '18 or '19. Size, arm talent, intangibles.- Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) August 11, 2017
It's not hard to see what's appealing about Lee: He's 6-foot-4, 220 pounds with a big arm and a skill set that meshes with Riley's pro-style system.
Add in the fact that new quarterbacks with experience almost always elicit optimism -- when things aren't going well, everyone always loves the next QB -- and the intrigue surrounding Lee has been taken to surprising heights, given what we've seen from him in live games so far.
At Tulane, Lee started 19 games in 2014 and '15, for 3-9 Green Wave teams. He completed 53.6 percent of his passes for 3,601 yards, 23 TDs and 21 INTs, averaging just 5.9 yards per attempt. He ranked 102nd nationally in passer rating in 2014 and 94th in 2015. The last regular-season game he played, his 19th Tulane start, he completed 9 of 22 passes for 103 yards and a TD in a 49-21 loss to an SMU team that finished 2-10.
Of course, there are significant caveats when judging Lee's potential based on what happened at Tulane. In that last game, Lee was knocked out in the third quarter with a hand injury. It was part of a trend: In those two years, Lee dealt with a subpar supporting cast, including an offensive line that didn't protect him well, and he got hit a lot and dealt with injuries and youth, meaning that he wasn't put in position to succeed.
Will Nebraska put Lee in position to succeed?
It's easy to get excited about the potential of a new quarterback, but actual results when the season starts are another matter. Since replacing Bo Pelini as head coach, Mike Riley is 15-11 in two seasons. Last year's team climbed as high as No. 7, against a weak schedule, before collapsing. The 62-3 loss to Ohio State and the 40-10 loss to Iowa took away any positive feelings, and the only difference between Riley's 9-4 season and Pelini's seven straight four-loss seasons was the personality of the coach. The script has become familiar, and the pressure only grows the further that Nebraska's status as a top-10 program nationally recedes into the past. Nebraska has recruited at a top-30 level, and, for the most part, that's what the results have been.
With patience already thin from the minute he was hired, Riley faces a pivotal third season as the roster is now mostly made up of his players, specifically recruited for his system. Lee is not alone in facing pressure, of course, but as the hand-picked quarterback for the offense under Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf -- after they inherited Tommy Armstrong, who started the past two years -- it's Lee who is being counted on to elevate the Cornhuskers more than anyone, in a year in which "not a system fit" ceases to be an excuse.
It's a tough spot for a new quarterback, regardless of the potential. While Nebraska has a solid roster, there's no particular area to hang your hat on in the preseason. Players like WR Stanley Morgan and OT Nick Gates are proven performers, but Nebraska doesn't have any position unit that is clearly among the Big Ten's top two or three, and it doesn't have any position unit that would clearly rank among the top 25 nationally. The Huskers lose leading rusher Terrell Newby, four of their top six receivers, two offensive line starters and five of their top nine tacklers, in addition to dealing with an injury to senior CB Chris Jones, arguably the team's best player. Last year's Cornhuskers had only three players who earned All-Big Ten honors, two of whom are gone and none of whom were first-team selections.
There's talent but little proven star power, and it's as if Lee is expected to step in and immediately provide the spark that points Nebraska back in the direction it wants to go in.
In the quarterback-starved Big Ten West, a breakout quarterback is capable of making a big difference. But if the past 15 years have shown anything at Nebraska, it's that one person, even a quarterback, is unlikely to be the missing piece of the puzzle. While Lee, if he comes close to rising expectations, might provide an exciting new chapter, it'll take a lot more for Nebraska to start writing a new story.