Big Ten's Nebraska Could Be the Dark Horse to Land in Pasadena

Dan Vasta@CI_StatsGuruSenior Writer IIIJanuary 23, 2012

ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 02:  A Nebraska Cornhuskers fan looks on during the Capitol One Bowl against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Florida Citrus Bowl on January 2, 2012 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

A few key defensive players will be missed (Alfonzo Dennard, Lavonte David), but the return of quarterback Taylor Martinez alongside superstar running back Rex Burkhead gives the Nebraska Cornhuskers a legit chance of appearing in Pasadena next season.

The schedule is not easy, but the pressure on these Huskers like there was this past season will be over. Many people anticipated Nebraska winning the Big Ten this past season, but a few others will carry the majority of the hype for this season.

Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin will be the main favorites to represent the Big Ten in Pasadena next season, and that is not even mentioning the amount of eyes that will be watching Urban Meyer and his Ohio State Buckeyes.

The biggest need of improvement for the Huskers to really accomplish such a dream would be to improve upon a passing attack that was ranked just 104th.

Averaging 162 yards per game is not exactly respectable among teams challenging for a BCS berth, and the hope is that the leading receiver will have more than 32 receptions on the season.

Kenny Bell was just a redshirt freshman last season, hauling in 32 passes for 461 yards and three touchdowns. That certainly is a must-change if they expect to see more success for running backs  Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah.

Abdullah and Burkhead can help in the passing game (more so Burkhead, who tied for third on the team in number of receptions), but somebody else has to step up.

The hope is that guys like Ben Cotton (TE), Kyler Reed, Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa will step up considerably.

However, the search could be over with incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp, who set the triple crown record as a wide receiver in the state of Illinois (receptions, yards, touchdowns). The 6'1", 200-pound wide receiver from Montini (Lombard, Ill.) is a flat-out winner (three straight state titles) and will be ready to prove himself in Lincoln next season.

Of course, football is the ultimate team game, so the offensive line (three returning starters) needs to improve on top of staying healthy.

Plus, the 37th-rated total defense has to develop new stars, and quickly.

Baker Steinkuhler, Will Compton and Sean Fisher should be the guys to count on. The rush defense was the only small concern since it allowed 158 yards per game (64th).

On special teams, look for one of the best in the game to only get better. Brett Maher was 10th in yards per punt (44.5) and he was also 19th in field goal percentage (19-of-23, 82.6 percent).

The schedule will not be easy, however, since Legends is the much tougher division at this moment. Michigan and Michigan State will both be preseason top-15 teams next season and Iowa could be improved as well.

The way-too-early key for Nebraska is to find a way to win a few road games (Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State). If the Huskers manage to win three of the four, they may be the team destined to represent the conference in Pasadena despite being overlooked at the moment by Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin.