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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 16: Nebraska

You can sense the desperation from miles away: In Lincoln, the smell of fear – fear that there will be no renaissance, no climb back into the national picture – permeates every fiber of Nebraska football, from Taylor Martinez’s delivery to Barney Cotton’s offensive line to Cotton himself, with the Cornhuskers’ line coach drawing as much ire as any figure in the program’s proud history. There’s the fear that nine-win, four-loss seasons are the new norm; the former is a program birthright, but the latter is new. The fear that this current staff doesn’t have the answer. The fear that Nebraska bit off more than it could chew by hopping to the Big Ten. In Lincoln, the sense of impending doom stems from the idea that the offense will sputter, that the quarterback will throw off his back foot, that the defense isn’t up to par, that the pass rush lacks punch. Fear’s an ugly thing: Nebraska’s fan base is petrified. Good thing they play the games.

Conference
Big Ten, Legends

Location
Lincoln, Neb.

Nickname
Cornhuskers

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 7

2011 record
(9-4, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 25

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Southern Miss.
  • Sept. 8
    at U.C.L.A.
  • Sept. 15
    Arkansas St.
  • Sept. 22
    Idaho St.
  • Sept. 29
    Wisconsin
  • Oct. 6
    at Ohio St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Northwestern
  • Oct. 27
    Michigan
  • Nov. 3
    at Michigan St.
  • Nov. 10
    Penn St.
  • Nov. 17
    Minnesota
  • Nov. 23
    at Iowa

Last year’s prediction

I think we may see some early scuffles, but the Cornhuskers will be hitting their stride when it counts. And there are zero questions at all on defense: you can set your clock to Nebraska’s consistency on this side of the ball, in all facets and in every way possible. It’s the defense that will lift Nebraska to a Big Ten crown, in my opinion. But a national title? That depends on the offense, and Martinez in particular. And the offensive line, once again, is a work in progress. Those are concerns, and they’re really the reasons why Nebraska’s not among the top five teams in the country. But I’m confident — perhaps dangerously confident — in this team’s ability to hit the ground running in the Big Ten.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Well, this was a change: Nebraska’s defense was the team’s primary concern in 2011, not its offense. Four opponents rushed for at least 200 yards; five gained at least 418 yards of total offense. In the early going, the Cornhuskers struggled slowing down Fresno State and Washington, even if Nebraska won both games. The defense bottomed out against Wisconsin, continued scuffling against Ohio State and was embarrassed in losses to Northwestern and Michigan. The Huskers’ greatest defensive success came against more pro-style offenses, as in wins over Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa. After three years of continue growth under Pelini, the defensive decline was troubling. Was the offense perfect? Far from it. In 2012, Nebraska’s goal will be to play with more consistency on both sides of the ball.

High point A three-way tie. On one day, at least, the defense was vintage: Nebraska put the clamps down on Michigan State late in October, controlling the line of scrimmage and harassing Kirk Cousins in a 24-3 win. Two weeks later, the Cornhuskers adopted the perfect tone on and off the field in Penn State’s first game following its sexual-abuse scandal. In the season finale, Nebraska beat new rival Iowa, 20-7.

Low point Either the prime time collapse at Wisconsin, the defensive collapse against Northwestern or the second-half collapse against Michigan. All would work.

Tidbit The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in every season since 1962 but six: 1967-68, 2002, 2004-5 and 2007. Just as a comparison, let’s hold the rest of college football’s historical elite to the same standard. Alabama has 30 such seasons, if you include 1993, over that same span; Georgia has 23; L.S.U. 20; Michigan 30; Notre Dame 21; Ohio State 30, if we count the wins vacated in 2010; Oklahoma 27; Penn State 30, if you count each season since vacated by the N.C.A.A.; U.S.C. 24, if you include 2005; Tennessee 23; and Texas 28. Over the past 49 years, Nebraska’s five Legends division brethren – Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern – have combined for 52 nine-win seasons, with 30 from the Wolverines; the Huskers have 44 alone.

Tidbit (four losses edition) Nebraska has also lost at least four games in each of the last eight years. From 1962-2003, the Cornhuskers lost four or more games in a season only four times: 1967-68, 1998 and 2002. The streak of four-loss seasons is a program-high since suffering 11 straight four-or-more-loss seasons from 1951-61. Overall, Nebraska is 66-38 since the start of the 2004 season.

Tidbit (magic number edition) Nebraska’s magic number: 200 – in more ways than one. Since Bo Pelini’s first season in 2008, the Cornhuskers are 24-2 when rushing for 200 or more yards as a team. The losses came against Oklahoma in 2008 and Virginia Tech a year later. On the other hand, the Huskers are only 14-7 when passing for 200 or more yards as a team.

Former players in the N.F.L.

40 DE Pierre Allen (Seattle), CB Prince Amukamara (New York Giants), S Larry Asante (Tampa Bay), CB Zack Bowman (Minnesota), LB Stewart Bradley (Philadelphia), K Josh Brown (New York Jets), DE Adam Carriker (Washington), DE Jared Crick (Houston), LB Lavonte David (Tampa Bay), CB Alfonzo Dennard (New England), LB Phillip Dillard (Carolina), WR Curenski Gilleylen (Green Bay), S DeJon Gomes (Washington), S Eric Hagg (Cleveland), OT Jemarcus Hardrick (Tampa Bay), RB Roy Helu (Washington), K Alex Henery (Philadelphia), OG Ricky Henry (Chicago), OG Russ Hochstein (Arizona), OG Richie Incognito (Miami), RB Brandon Jackson (Cleveland), OT D.J. Jones (Philadelphia), OT Marcel Jones (New Orleans), LB Chris Kelsay (Buffalo), WR Brandon Kinnie (Kansas City), P Sam Koch (Baltimore), TE Mike McNeill (St. Louis), DE Terrence Moore (Baltimore), OT Lydon Murtha (Miami), OG Carl Nicks (Tampa Bay), WR Niles Paul (Washington), TE Zach Potter (Jacksonville), C Dominic Raiola (Detroit), LB Barrett Ruud (Seattle), LB Scott Shanle (New Orleans), OG Matt Slauson (New York Jets), DT Ndamukong Suh (Detroit), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (Detroit), LB Demorrio Williams (San Diego), OG Keith Williams (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Nebraska’s best wins under Bo Pelini (2008-11)
1. 2009: Nebraska 10, Oklahoma 3.
2. 2009: Nebraska 33, Arizona 0.
3. 2011: Nebraska 24, Michigan State 3.
4. 2010: Nebraska 51, Oklahoma State 41.
5. 2009: Nebraska 27, Missouri 12.

Coaching

Bo Pelini (Ohio State ’90), 39-16 after four full seasons in Lincoln. Pelini was 1-0 when he took over as head coach, having replaced Frank Solich for Nebraska’s 17-3 Alamo Bowl victory in 2003. That game concluded a one-year stint in Lincoln for Pelini, who was hired earlier in the year as the Huskers’ defensive coordinator after nine seasons coaching in the N.F.L., most recently with the Green Bay Packers. Pelini also coached with the 49ers (1994-96) and the Patriots (1997-98) — both times alongside former U.S.C. coach Pete Carroll — before taking on a job with the Packers, coaching the linebackers, from 2000-2. Pelini might not have had the same impact on the Nebraska defense in 2008 as he had as the defensive coordinator in 2003, when he helped the Huskers finally rebound from its devastating finish to the 2001 season: late-season losses to Colorado, 62-36, and to Miami, 37-14. His defense ranked second in the F.B.S. in scoring defense and 11th in total defense in 2003, and made Pelini the fan’s choice to replace Solich. Pelini’s effect on Nebraska’s defense in his second go-round has been equally impressive: the 2009 group was the most well-coached defense in the country and the 2010 defense again ranked among the best in the nation – though last year’s defense didn’t take well to the Big Ten. Spurned by former athletic director Steve Pederson in his search for Solich’s replacement, Pelini spent the 2004 season as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma before taking the same position at L.S.U., where he spent three seasons (2005-7). L.S.U.’s defense finished among the top five in the F.B.S. in each of his three years at the helm; in 2007, the national title-winning Tigers finished third in the nation in total defense (288.8 yards a game) and takeaways (36). Now entering his fifth season as the full-time coach, Pelini still has yet to lead Nebraska back into the national title hunt. His job is secure, but it’s time for the Cornhuskers to make a move.

Tidbit (coaching edition) One Pelini remains – the important one. Another is gone: Carl Pelini, the former defensive coordinator, left prior to bowl play to become the new head coach at Florida Atlantic. Rather than make a splash, perhaps going after Mike Stoops, Pelini opted to promote from within his staff, naming former defensive line coach John Papuchis as the Huskers’ new coordinator. While not a hire that drew attention nationally, Papuchis is a young, fast-rising assistant who has been with Pelini since L.S.U.; the two will work well together, with Papuchis helping create game plans and Pelini calling the signals. As its new defensive line coach, Nebraska nabbed Rick Kaczenski away from Iowa – now that’s a hire that draws the Big Ten’s attention. It was one of two home-run hires Pelini made during the offseason, joining former Tennessee assistant Terry Joseph, a second young and impressive position coach. He’ll lead the Huskers’ defensive backs, replacing Baton Rouge-bound Corey Raymond.

Players to watch

While Nebraska as a whole scuffled acclimating itself to the Big Ten, one player fit his new conference like a glove: Rex Burkhead. The senior excelled, in fact, finishing third in the Big Ten in rushing (1,357 yards) and touchdowns (15) and blessing Nebraska with the sort of consistency wholly lacking from nearly every other position player on the offensive side of the ball. The Huskers might have been a slight disappointment last fall, when they failed to even sniff Wisconsin and Michigan; just imagine how Nebraska would have fared without Burkhead – it wouldn’t have been pretty. What he brings to the table is more than just production: Burkhead brings leadership, poise, confidence and production to an offense that needs each quality in spades.

He’s a Heisman candidate, in my opinion, because of those qualities. Nebraska is a different team when Burkhead gets his touches – a better team, a winning team. He owned the fourth quarter against Ohio State. Played an adult game of football against Michigan State, chewing up 130 yards on 35 carries. Willed the Huskers into the end zone against Penn State. Completely and utterly demoralized Iowa in the regular season finale. When the offense runs through Burkhead, Nebraska’s chances at winning games increases exponentially. The issue isn’t his production, but rather a blueprint that places undue emphasis on the quarterback, not on the clear and undisputed star of this offense; Burkhead’s the star, not the Huskers’ quarterback.

But he’s an untraditional star. He’s not going to match a Montee Ball-like level of production. Burkhead’s highlight reel isn’t special – he’s not breaking ankles, breaking long runs, breaking records. But he is special: Burkhead is special off the field, where he quietly won a national award for his work with a young fan battling a rare form of cancer, and he’s special between the white lines, merely in a different way than most Heisman contenders. Burkhead is special because he turns a one-yard loss into a five-yard gain – that might not sound like much, but few can, and fewer still can do it 20-plus times per game.

He’s going to lack the signature play that defines all Heisman campaigns, which is unfortunate. But Burkhead is one of the great players in all of college football, one of the great leaders, on and off the field, and one of the great running backs in the history of a program known for backfield play. There are few players I’ve enjoyed watching more.

The Huskers do need to get more from their backup running backs, however. One option is gone: Aaron Green, one of the top recruits in the 2011 class, transferred to T.C.U. after last season. Another, Braylon Heard, was moved to cornerback in the spring, though I imagine that he’ll get another look on offense at some point this season. Sophomore Ameer Abdullah (150 yards), who earned a bigger role on offense late last season, could provide a nice complimentary style to Burkhead’s physicality. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Imani Cross, a 220-pound Georgia product who has turned head over the early stages of fall camp.

Taylor Martinez was improved last fall, though not to the rate that most expected after his injury-plagued first season as Nebraska’s starting quarterback. He was a better passer, especially when it came to limiting turnovers: Martinez threw only three interceptions over his last eight games after tossing three against Wisconsin alone. He continued to contribute on the ground, adding 874 yards and 9 scores, though I don’t think that he’ll ever be the Eric Crouch-like runner some envisioned after his sterling start to the 2010 season. Martinez was better, believe it or not – just not good enough. It’s obvious that he holds the key; when he’s on, Nebraska can be the best team in the Big Ten.

That Martinez is uneven is part of the problem. But so are his overall mechanics as a passer, which led the junior to devote his entire offseason to retooling his footwork and delivery out of the pocket. You know the old Martinez: catapulting the ball towards a receiver’s shoes, tossing off his back foot, throwing lollipops up for grabs over the middle of the field. Hopefully, the new Martinez, one with reworked mechanics, will deliver the ball with more consistency in the intermediate game. In conjunction with a physical running game, that could open up Nebraska for more fireworks downfield. Until he becomes more well-rounded – not to mention a runner who can break a tackle – Martinez is a flawed quarterback; in turn, Nebraska has a flawed offense. But I’m confident that Martinez’s hard work in the offseason will yield his finest season yet as a junior. That should make this offense far more consistent than it was last season.

Of course, blaming Martinez for Nebraska’s woes ignores the other issues that plagued the Huskers throughout last season: mediocre line play and a receiver corps that struggled catching the football. For example, drops and mental errors dropped sophomore Jamal Turner (15 catches for 243 yards) out of the mix over the final month of last season. If Turner can regain some confidence, he could team with sophomore Kenny Bell (32 for 461) and junior Quincy Enunwa (21 for 293) to give Nebraska a very young, explosive and promising top trio at the position. Bell’s the group’s best – he’s not only the Huskers’ most consistent receiver but also the only target capable of demanding double teams. While Bell and Turner are quicker options, Enunwa has the size to dominate smaller defensive backs.

In all, you can see the potential for Nebraska’s passing game to click should Martinez take a step forward. There’s that top threesome, followed by senior Tim Marlowe (12 for 113), redshirt freshman Taariq Allen – he’s been impressive this offseason – and true freshman Jordan Westerkamp, the latter the lone receiver taken in Nebraska’s most recent class. The Huskers also have one of the nation’s best tight end pairings in senior Kyler Reed (15 for 257) and Ben Cotton (14 for 189); Reed is the offense’s deep threat off of play-action. It’s on Martinez: Nebraska has given him weapons to work with.

And what does Nebraska do if Martinez doesn’t improve? Well, the staff could simply ride it out, sticking with the junior due to his experience and knowledge of this system. Another option would be to hand the offense over to sophomore Brion Carnes, who made a pair of attempts as last year’s backup. If things get really dicey – if both struggle, or if there are injuries – the staff would throw the reins to true freshman Tommy Armstrong, who played in a pass-first spread system in high school and could give this offense an entirely different look. As an aside, Nebraska has only three quarterbacks on scholarship; it’s probably time for this program to add some greater depth at the position – and I know that Pelini and this staff have struggled landing signatures from quarterback prospects.

Last year’s defense wasn’t ready for the Big Ten; the Huskers seemed more suited for the speed and finesse of the Big 12 rather than the Big Ten’s increased physicality, even if the conference is not quite the same grind-it-out league it has been in the past. The hope is that a year’s worth of growing pains provided enough ammunition – and game film – for Pelini, Papuchis and the two new assistants to draw up a better blueprint for slowing down teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan. Any confidence that this will lead to an improved performance stems entirely from the fact that Pelini, for all his unevenness with in-game management, remains one of the three best defensive minds in college football. It wasn’t so long ago that Nebraska’s defense was the best in the country, mind you.

But that defense was propelled forwards by an utterly dominating defensive line. This year’s line, on the other hand, is steady but completely unspectacular – that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the Huskers are lacking star power up front. Nebraska simply needs more: more from senior end Cameron Meredith (58 tackles, 5.0 sacks), who can’t trail off over the second half like he did a year ago, and more from senior tackle Baker Steinkuhler (40 tackles, 5.0 for loss), a former five-star recruit and a borderline all-conference candidate entering his senior season. This pair, the only full-time starters returning up front, need to give Nebraska more effort against the run and greater pressure on third down.

But the Huskers’ line play won’t be decided by this pair. It’ll be decided by what sort of progression the defense lands from junior Jason Ankrah (17 tackles) and sophomore Chase Rome (13 tackles), who will join Meredith and Steinkuhler to round out the starting lineup – and senior ends Eric Martin (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Joseph Carter, who will provide depth on the outside. Martin, a converted linebacker, could be a difference-maker for Nebraska’s pass rush. Inside, Pelini and Kaczenski will spell Steinkuhler and Rome with junior Thad Randle, sophomore Jay Guy and a trio of freshmen.

The line has potential. Steinkuhler has the ability to dominate games inside – not like Ndamukong Suh, but perhaps like Jared Crick, a quicker, penetrating interior lineman. There’s depth inside, especially if redshirt and true freshmen Todd Peat, Kevin Williams and Vincent Valentine are ready to contribute. Martin could give Nebraska some flash coming off the edge. This group will take a step forward – with the length of that step decided by whether the seniors and underclassmen gel before the start of Big Ten play.

Nebraska had to happy with the way senior Will Compton (82 tackles, 7.0 for loss) played over the second half of last season. Something clicked for Compton, whether as a result of added experience or a coaching change – Ross Els, a former Ohio assistant, took over linebacker duties last fall – and the senior gave Nebraska all-conference-caliber play at middle linebacker for the first time in several years. Compton’s now the leader on the second level, with Lavonte David no longer wreaking havoc on the weak side, and he’ll need to carry his strong finish over to this fall to help Nebraska offset the lost production. David’s spot will be filled by another JUCO transfer, Zaire Anderson, unless one of two scenarios come to pass: one, Anderson fails to grasp this system, or two, senior Alonzo Whaley fends him off. Based on how well Pelini and this staff have smoothed the path for JUCO transfers to hit the ground running, I can’t imagine anyone but Anderson starting the majority of Nebraska’s games on the weak side.

Senior Sean Fisher (24 tackles) returns on the strong side, but Fisher has yet to regain his prior form after suffering a dreadful leg injury prior to the start of the 2010 season. While Nebraska is hopeful that Fisher can hold down the strong side – and play with greater confidence than he did a year ago – Pelini and Papuchis should be prepared to move Whaley over in a pinch. There isn’t great depth at linebacker, though sophomore Trevor Roach did a nice job behind Compton last fall. Nebraska also added three freshmen linebackers in February.

If there are questions about Nebraska’s front seven, they don’t extend to the Big Ten’s best secondary. There is ample depth at both cornerback and safety; the Huskers go five deep at both positions, by my count, with flexibility and interchangeability nearly throughout, giving Pelini and this defense several different alignment and formation options. And you’re also going to see fierce competition for starting roles during fall camp, which is good for business – the best four will start, but look for the Huskers to use as many as eight or nine defensive backs over the course of the season.

The only clear starter is senior Damion Stafford (80 tackles), a former JUCO transfer who will earn all-Big Ten honors in his first full season as the Huskers’ starting strong safety. In all likelihood, one of Nebraska’s starting cornerbacks will be junior Mohammed Seisey, another JUCO transfer who started his career at Memphis – and played very well as a freshman before leaving the program. That leaves juniors Andrew Green (48 tackles) and Ciante Evans (33 tackles) as the options on the other side, with Green likely getting the nod at cornerback and Evans serving as the Huskers’ nickel back.

There’s more: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a junior, took well to cornerback last October after moving out from receiver; senior Antonio Bell will start ahead of Seisey if the JUCO transfer can’t grasp the system; and true freshman Charles Jackson, who was slowed initially by academic issues, has already carved out a meaningful role in this defense. Senior P.J. Smith (33 tackles) is the odds-on favorite to replace Austin Cassidy at free safety, though Nebraska could also turn to senior Courtney Osborne, a former starter who disappeared from the rotation last fall. Former walk-on Justin Blatchford will play when the Huskers add a sixth defensive back; likewise with sophomores Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson, the next in line for starting roles.

So what’s the ceiling for this defense? It’s not going to play at a 2009 level, but Nebraska’s defense should improve upon last year’s finish and move into the top third of the Big Ten. Whether this defense can really improve, taking a step into the nation’s elite, depends on the play of several returning and new starters: Meredith, Steinkuhler, Anderson, Martin, Fisher, Seisay and Stafford. If these defenders plays to up their potential and the youngsters contribute, the Huskers could very well slow down enough teams to win the Big Ten. But that’s a stretch – Nebraska’s defense will be good, but not elite.

I knew that Brett Maher wouldn’t be another Alex Henery. He might have been better, in fact, though no one – no one ever, perhaps – will be as consistent as Henery was on field goals throughout his career. But Maher is an all-American for all that he brings to the table, for his ability to make 19 of 23 field goals, dictate field position as a punter and put more than a quarter of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. He’s the total package. Nebraska also has an all-conference return man in Abdullah, who handles both punts and kickoffs. Up next: preventing opponents from tasting the same level of success in the return game. The Huskers ranked 104th in the nation last fall in both kickoff and punt return coverage.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line It’s a tumultuous time for Barney Cotton and this offensive line, which suffered another tough blow when would-be sophomore Tyler Moore, a projected starter at tackle, left the program earlier this week. It’s nearly a devastating loss, but not quite: Moore’s departure hurts more down the road than in 2012, as while certainly an upper-crust prospect his all-conference days were at least one more season down the road. With Moore gone, along with three of last season’s starters, the spotlight turns even more firmly on Cotton and his perennially underachieving line. Some – but not all – of the vitriol is based in reality: Nebraska’s line play has been an embarrassment. This is Nebraska, after all, home of the pipeline, and I thought that a return to a more physical running game would lead to a rejuvenated performance up front.

Well, not quite. One thing hasn’t changed, on the other hand: Nebraska’s best offensive lineman is a former walk-on. That would be junior Spencer Long, who turned in an all-conference season at right guard. With Long the line’s best and junior Andrew Rodriguez moving to right tackle, the Huskers will have a very solid strong side. That position change will hand left guard over to another former walk-on, senior Seung Hoon Choi, who started Nebraska’s last four games on the left side and six overall. Junior Cole Pensick will get the nod at center, replacing Mike Caputo. Is Pensick bigger than Caputo, who was generously listed at 6’1? Yes, but not by much. While Pensick is strong, Nebraska must get bigger at center to combat Big Ten interior linemen.

It’s obvious that Moore’s departure threw Nebraska for a loop – even if the staff had to know that he was entertaining the idea of heading home. Before this week, Cotton and the Huskers were planning on using junior Jeremiah Sirles as a swing tackle, someone who could provide depth and the occasional start on both sides of the line. With Moore gone, Nebraska might need Sirles to reclaim the starting spot at tackle, something he lost heading into last season. It’s going to be either Sirles or junior Brent Qvale on the blind side, and neither scenario is particularly appetizing. You can blame Martinez for this team’s offensive woes, but that’s not entirely correct: Nebraska’s offensive line is the reason why the Huskers shoot blanks in key games. Something has to give – and Pelini might have no choice but to make a coaching change if the sour line play continues.

Game(s) to watch

The year comes down to how Nebraska fares in five Big Ten games: Wisconsin, at Ohio State, Michigan, at Michigan State, at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are the weakest team of that bunch, but the game takes on added meaning as the Huskers’ new end-of-year rivalry game. Nebraska must take at least three of those five to win nine games, especially with the program’s recent propensity for losing at least one game it shouldn’t – see Northwestern, 2011. The must-wins: all four non-conference games, one of two of the Michigan schools, Northwestern, Minnesota and Iowa. Netting a Legends title and a conference title game berth should be the Huskers’ top goal. Everything after that point is gravy – though the fan base is pretty hungry, and gravy sounds just right.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Nebraska is very good but not great – you can say the same of this team as you can now say about this program, in fact. Why Nebraska will continue its streak of nine-win seasons is because of its senior leadership, beginning with Burkhead on offense and extending to Meredith, Steinkuhler, Compton and Stafford on defense. This sort of leadership has been lacking in Lincoln over the last few years; having seniors in key roles will help the Cornhuskers stay more balanced, perhaps avoiding the sort of manic episodes that have plagued the program for nearly the entirety of Pelini’s tenure. As of now, Nebraska has enough on offense to remain solid: Burkhead is a star, Martinez is fine and the receiver corps deep, though line play remains a concern. Defensively, the Huskers have a capable front seven and a potentially dominant secondary. In my mind, this is a team that will win nine games.

But will the Huskers lose four? Yes, if last season’s foibles carry over to September. The offense will sputter if Martinez hasn’t improved as a passer; his deficiencies make Nebraska one of the nation’s worst teams when coming from behind. The Huskers must get more balance on this side of the ball, so all eyes will be on the junior as he attempts to take a step forward as a third-year starter. The line needs to round into form early – and the offense needs to make things easier by running the ball well on first down, which not only makes for easier drives but also sets up the play-action pass. The Huskers must get better play against the run from the interior of the defensive line and more pressure on third down at end. If not, it’s easy to see teams like Wisconsin and Michigan continuing to have success moving the football.

So we’re waiting to see improvement. And for Nebraska, improvement in these areas – passing, blocking, stopping the run, rushing the passer – would mean the difference between another 9-4 season and a Rose Bowl berth. Listen: Nebraska’s not that far off. This team is one of four teams with a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten; I have them third in the league, just behind Michigan State in the Legends division, and right in the mix for an at-large B.C.S. bid. It will only take a little push, a little nudge, for this team to start moving in the right direction. Can Pelini push the right buttons?

Dream season Nebraska runs the table. Glory days. Smiling people. For one day, they allow balloons to fly in Lincoln.

Nightmare season The Huskers lose every road game but Northwestern – could have used that win last year – and lose another one-sided affair to Wisconsin, sliding down to 6-6 and forcing Pelini to make several tough decisions on his coaching staff.

In case you were wondering

Where do Nebraska fans congregate? An overwhelming number of options. Independent message boards can be found at Husker Board and Husker Max – and Husker Max is your place for every link available on Nebraska football. To catch up on Nebraska recruiting, check out Huskers Illustrated and Big Red Report. You can find additional coverage at Corn Nation and the Web sites of the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald. Finally, check out Huskers Gameday.

Nebraska’s all-name nominee RB Rex Burkhead.

Word Count

Through 109 teams 445,950.

Up Next

Who is No. 15? The head coach of tomorrow’s program won his 100th career game on the same day that two heavyweights fought for the W.B.A. title.

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Comments

  1. DMK says:

    Longhorns.

  2. Stefen says:

    USCe

  3. Patrick says:

    On Nov. 8, 1997, Evander Holyfield beat Michael Moorer by TKO to retain his WBA crown.

    On that same date, Steve Spurrier and Florida defeated Vanderbilt for OBC’s 100th career victory.

  4. Real Deal Holyfield says:

    Virginia Tech Hokies are next.

  5. Dontel says:

    USC WEEZEE IS NEXT!

  6. Vic says:

    4. 2010: Nebraska 51, Oklahoma State 14.

    make that

    4. 2010: Nebraska 51, Oklahoma State 41.

  7. John says:

    Best, most accurate and most thorough preseason article I have read on the Huskers-Great Job

  8. You are NOT the father! says:

    Sorry Stefen, Patrick, and Dontel but the DNA results have cleared the University of South Carolina.

    Virginia Tech is your Daddy!

  9. Jayschool says:

    A little math:

    1962 to 2011 encompasses 50 seasons, not 49. That means Nebraska has had 44 nine-win seasons over that span.

  10. Real Deal Holyfield says:

    Virginia Tech is next.

    Originally posted: August 18, 2012 at 1:34 am

    (Where’s the original post?)

  11. Real Deal Holyfield says:

    Virginia Tech is next.

    Originally posted: August 18, 2012 at 1:35 am

    (Where’s the original post?)

    Doh! There it is. Disregard. Thank you.

  12. John says:

    Paul,

    Awesome introduction for the Huskers – may I write a fitting conclusion for it?

    “Martinez may again struggle, though he’s Nebraska’s most productive QB since Crouch. The line may be inconsistent, though they did finish 3rd in the nation in rushing last year. The defense may have a hard time improving on (gasp) 37th in the country without David. And Nebraska may go 9-4 again (NU is one of only 6 programs to win 9 or more the last 4 years).

    But here is where the program’s future will turn: can the country’s most self-immolating fan base withstand a likely 9 win season without turning up the heat on its coaches and players to a rolling boil? If not, then Nebraska will turn back the clock – to 2002, 2003, or 2007, leading to a meltdown among its coaches, players, and system and leading to a plethora of staff changes that will again set the program back a few more years.

    In short, surviving the transition to the Big Ten is no less important for Nebraska than surviving its perpetually worried fan base, especially now that most in the state are no longer limited by dial-up internet and can grumble continuously at high-speed.”

    (A Husker fan wrote this)

  13. Aaron says:

    The 31-17 win over Missouri in 2010 was probably Pelini’s best. It’s still his only win over a top-ten team.

  14. Jim says:

    I agree that is is a complete and extremely well-written, in-depth article. It’s the most non-biased look at the Huskers I have seen.

    However, as a life long Husker fan and season ticket holder, I would disagree with the characterization of the fan base as filled with fear and desperation. I am quite content with returning to 9 win seasons as the norm, although of course I would be thrilled with 10, 11, or 12, etc.

    I am pleased, and virtually every Husker fan I know, is pleased with the return of a midwest, blue collar, play 4 quarters, work ethic made famous by Devaney and Osborne, and brought back by Pelini. Husker fans can once again be proud of their team, even in a loss.

    The spoiled Pelini haters, those with the fear and desperation you speak of, are a minority. Unfortunately, in this day of electronic social media, it’s the spoiled rabid fans (they are truly fair weather fans), that are the most vocal and visible.

    I’m realistic about the Husker’s chances this year, and I would be grateful for another 9 or 10 win season. A ranking in the 10-25 area seems about right. The comments about the struggles of both the defensive and offensive lines are spot on. If NU can gradually develop what made them successful in the past (tremendous line play on both sides), then the return to greatness will take care of itself.

    Nebraska will never be able to out-recruit the likes of USC, Florida, etc. But what Osborne did was turn merely good football players into great ones with excellent coaching and weight training. Coaching longevity (assistants in particular) helped a ton. Only time will tell if Pelini can do the same. Hopefully he will have a decade or more to prove himself, as Osborne had.

  15. Stephen Johnson says:

    Like most of the people commenting I approve of the article for accuracy. What may be underestimated is the opportunity for improvement in multiple areas to come together and enable the team to win those tough one they lost in the past. Maybe this year the OC will not call 19 pass plays out of 20 and enable the defense to pick off Taylor 3 times because they knew he was going to pass against Wisky. We will tell early in the year. One of the MOST telling comments was about the results when running well and passing well. The team 24-2 when running more than 200 yards. When passing for more than 200 yards they were only 14-7. This indicates that running well is a good strategy. Control the ball and the clock.

  16. Aaron says:

    Winning the time-of-possession battle fits into a nice narrative about being tougher than the other guys, but it’s not a good predictor of winning the game. A plot of win percentages and average time of possession for all 120 FBS teams in 2011 shows little correlation. Consider Oregon, which went 12-2 with the lowest average TOP in FBS.

    http://i.imgur.com/2OKnq.png

  17. bshirt says:

    As always here, an excellent & fun read. Pre-Snap has simply great writers.

    Imo, the vast majority of the wacked out NU fanbase exists on the internet. They’re the ones that screamed for Frank & Bo’s head for “only” having a 10 – 3 bowl winning season. After their success with bring in Callahan, without TO returning to save our bacon, NU would now be Minnesota.

    The difference is that then Pedeyshine was in charge and quite willing to listen to the loud-mouthed internet genius crowd. Fortunately, now TO is in charge and retarded decisions demanded by the internet crowd will certainly be totally ignored.

    One small thing I will disagree with is that Tmart’s gap speed in 2010 was simply unreal and imo not to be so casually dismissed as this article implies. Word is that it’s back or extremely close and if correct will add another “very” real lethal weapon to our offense this year.

    Pre-Snap rules.

  18. Burnt Orange says:

    I saw somewhere some awful new age, new look Nebraska uniforms. Say it isn’t so. Those are some classic uniforms they are messing with – is nothing sacred ? And 9 wins meant a lot more when you did not play 13-14 games a year.

  19. John says:

    @Burnt Orange

    Agree about the unis – have you seen what ND did to theirs? Nope, nothing sacred, especially when adidas gets involved

    Your point about 9 wins is sound – that’s why a lot of my fellow NU fans are disappointed. But if that’s not good enough for a program minimum these days – what is? 80% winning? That would put Nebraska in the same elite company it was in for 20 years with Osborne, when it was, in any year, one of the top 3-4 programs running, if not the best. What possible reason is there that Nebraska would hit that level in Pelini’s 5th year, considering Pelini’s predecessor, Nebraska’s disadvantageous geography, and the fact that tradition means very little these days? Heck, UT has its greatest coach since Royal, awesome facilities, great geography, and even they stub their toe for a couple years.

    Nebraska needs to chill out on the fire Pelini thing till he delivers a 13-12 couple years.

  20. Burnt Orange says:

    @ John – saw those ND unis – ridiculous. There is periodic talk of Texas going to black and orange unis. Hopefully not in my lifetime.

    The nine win thing drives me nuts. Would rather see the emphasis on losses. Mack apologists are quick to point out that he went 12 straight years with 9 or more wins – great but that includes a 9- 5 season and I don’t know how many 10-3 campaigns. I say how many undefeated or one loss seasons – the true measure of a fine team – four for Mack, eight for Royal.

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