Nebraska Football 2012: 5 Bold Predictions for the Huskers' Second B1G Season
Heading into their first season in the Big Ten, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were expected to dominate. After all, they had dominated the Big 12 North, beaten Oklahoma and literally been within :01 of pulling the biggest upset in the history of the Big 12 Championship Game. They had a stellar defensive mind in their head coach, Bo Pelini, and their offense was one of the most explosive in the country in 2010. Add to that the firings of Rich Rodriguez from Michigan and Jim Tressel's exit from the firestorm that was Ohio State, and Nebraska was, suffice to say, the favorite to win the conference by a wide margin.
Then October 1, 2011 happened. In front of a national audience and ESPN College GameDay, Nebraska was toasted for 486 yards and 48 points in a 48-17 loss at Wisconsin. Welcome to the B1G, Huskers.
After bouncing back in a big way the next week in a school record come-from-behind 34-27 win against Ohio State in Lincoln and a dominating 24-3 victory over Michigan State to possibly get themselves back into the BCS race, the Huskers were upset 28-25 at home by Northwestern.
They beat a very rattled Penn State squad 17-14 in the Nittany Lions' first game without Joe Paterno since before Vietnam, and all seemed to be right in the world. They simply needed to beat Michigan at the Big House and hope for a Michigan State loss for their chance at revenge in the B1G Championship Game.
That didn't happen. Michigan pounded the Huskers 45-17, and it was another season without a BCS bowl for Nebraska.
After limiting Iowa to just 88 yards rushing in a 20-7 victory to start what many see as a budding rivalry, the Huskers seemed to be ready to stick it to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. Then they lost their composure and were blown out 30-13. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini left for Florida Atlantic soon thereafter, and Nebraska was left in a funk they hadn't felt since Bill Callahan was coach.
That's not a good feeling for Husker fans. They want to be in the thick of things. They want to visit cities like Pasadena, New Orleans, Miami, or Tempe in January. Orlando is nice, but there is a hunger among the followers of the Big Red that cannot be ignored.
How do the Cornhuskers get back to January and back to a BCS bowl? Here are 10 bold predictions for the 2012 season.
Nebraska's Defense Will Return to It's 2009 Form
Ndamukong Suh. Prince Amukamara. Dejon Gomes. Phillip Dillard. Larry Asante. All names from a stellar 2009 defense led by Heisman finalist Suh that dominated teams and allowed only 10 points per game, best in the nation.
The defense was probably the best in the Big 12 in 2010, but a keen eye could see chinks in the armor. They had difficulty stopping a mobile quarterback. They relied too much on their potent, if inconsistent, offense to create plays.
In 2011, with Carl Pelini as defensive coordinator, Nebraska's defense failed the team when they needed them most. Wisconsin and Michigan repeatedly made the Blackshirts look utterly confused and out of place. South Carolina baited the Huskers with petty banter, and Nebraska gave in. At the end of the season, a fan base was wondering what direction this team was headed.
Thankfully for the fervent Husker fan base, 2012 will be a good year for the defense. The schedule sets up nicely to create consistency, and the first game of the conference slate is at home.
Nebraska may have the youngest coaching staff in the nation, and that means the energy level is at a premium. Head coach Bo Pelini is focusing more on the defense again as his offense appears to be back in good hands. Pelini made two coaching hires and promoted another from within in an offseason full of coaching moves.
After defensive coordinator Carl Pelini took the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic, Bo Pelini promoted John Papuchis from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator. He also hired Rick Kaczenski from Iowa to replace Papuchis on the defensive line. Kaczenski brought with him an impressive resume that included All-Americans during his time as defensive line coach for the Hawkeyes.
After Husker defensive backs coach Corey Raymond accepted the same position at alma mater LSU, Pelini scooped Terry Joseph from Tennessee to replace him. Joseph, cousin of former Husker Mickey Joseph, coached a stellar Volunteer defensive backfield for three years.
While the coaching turnover may seem like a hindrance, it may be just the jolt the Husker defense needed. Kaczenski took over prior to the Capital One Bowl and has a deep (if oft-injured) defensive line retuning. Joseph inherits a defensive secondary with playing experience. Nine of the returners have starting experience. Linebackers coach Ross Els is in his second season at Nebraska, and his linebacking corps is the deepest it has been since Pelini became coach.
Under the tutelage of new (and old) defensive coaches, the Nebraska defense will return to it's 2009 form. Daimion Stafford and Courtney Osborne will continue to be used as missiles on defense, but the biggest improvement will come from the defensive line. Preseason All-American Jared Crick missed much of the 2010 season with a torn pectoral muscle. There is little doubt he was missed. This season, however, there are no magazines touting this bunch as All Big Ten. Hell, they aren't even in the Top 5 as a whole. That doesn't seem to bother the Blackshirts.
The push up front is the biggest concern, and seniors Baker Steinkuhler, Cameron Meridith, and Eric Martin will provide that. Meridith and Martin are exceptionally quick for ends, and Steinkuhler provides a plug in the middle.
There is no Lavonte David this year. There is no Alfonzo Dennard. That is ok. The Huskers leant heavily on their All-Americans in 2011. In 2012, they will play more as a unit and learn to rely on each other and the scheme. As they do, they will transform back into the Blackshirts teams feared. Michigan State saw a glimpse of that last year. Many others will in 2012.
Nebraska Will Repay the Favor to Wisconsin
Almost exactly a year after Nebraska was humiliated in front of a national audience in their Big Ten opener, Taylor Martinez and the Cornhuskers will be better prepared to face a Wisconsin team without standout quarterback Russell Wilson and a defense not as talented or salty as they were in 2011. They will still have to stop running back Montee Ball, but, without a deep threat and somebody to throw it and take the pressure off the running backs, Nebraska will sell out and blitz over and over again.
The beating might not be as bad as the wood the Badgers laid to the Huskers in Madison in 2011, but it will be bad. Nebraska's defense will show up in a big way, Rex Burkhead will have over 150 yards rushing, and the Huskers will win by more than three touchdowns to start off their second season in the Big Ten with a bang.
Taylor Martinez Will Complete More Than 65% of His Passes
Let's face it. Taylor Martinez's throwing motion reminds you more of Tim Tebow than it does any other quarterback in college of the NFL. If anything, this prediction is the hardest of all to imagine. The guy just doesn't throw very well or with any sort of accuracy.
There is good news, though. Martinez is dedicated to keeping his starting job. We know this because he spent his spring break not schmoozing with girlfriend and Nebraska volleyball player Lauren Cook but in California with a throwing expert (by the way, what's up with Nebraska football and volleyball players dating? I just heard Roy Helu and Dani Mancuso are getting married).
The best news on the planet for Taylor Martinez: the Nebraska running game will take pressure off him in the pocket. With Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah, and Aaron Green forming a formidable backfield, Martinez will have more time to sit back and go through his reads on play action and straight passing plays. As he does this, he will make more throws on target and will complete 65% of his passes in 2012.
Rex Burkhead Will Win the Heisman Trophy
He's Rexy and He Knows It. Heard the songs? If not, look them up on YouTube.
They are about Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead. My favorite line comes from "Sexy Rexy": "Calves defined like dictionaries, breaks through tackles on his carries."
In early odds, Burkhead is at 20-1 to win the Heisman Trophy. If you ask Nebraska fans, or anybody in the Big Ten footprint, that is far too low. Burkhead is the unquestioned leader of the team. He is the most popular player in Nebraska football since Brook Berringer. He is as much of an unstoppable machine on the field as he is a charismatic, humble man off it. Burkhead is what legends are made of at Nebraska, and the Heisman Trophy will be his crowning achievement.
What can Burkhead do on the field? Well he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and just over 104 yards per game in 2011. That's not bad. He will have to do better than that to have national recognition, though. His 21 catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns are nice. However, more than anything, he will need sophomores Ameer Abdullah and Aaron Green to step up and spell him when the time arises.
He will need big, and I mean BIG, performances in national games. He will need to run roughshod over Wisconsin and Michigan. He will need to will the team to victory.
More than anything, though, he needs the team to win. Nebraska needs to win the Big Ten Legends Division. He then needs to pull an Ndamukong Suh from the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game and just tear apart whoever Nebraska plays in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game.
Nebraska can do that. They have the talent. Rex can as well.
Nebraska Will Win the Big Ten
Nebraska sort of stumbled their way through the 2011 football season. They were beaten badly by Wisconsin and Michigan and upset at home by Northwestern. They managed to overwhelm Michigan State and Iowa and also hung on at Penn State. Throughout the season, though, it felt as though they couldn't get their feet under them. In 2012, that won't be the case.
Nebraska's offense won't be forced in so many down-and-distance situations as they were in 2011 as a deep, talented offensive line will keep a Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead-led attack moving. Martinez has a new throwing motion that will help him improve on his 57% accuracy, a bevy of speedy, talented receivers to throw to, and the always steady Burkhead behind him. In short, this will be the best and most balanced offense Nebraska has seen since 1999.
The defense is going to come together and obliterate opposing offenses. Blitzes will come from every angle, the defensive line will push offensive lines back into their quarterbacks, and running backs will find no lanes to run. In short, this will be a defense to be feared.
The schedule doesn't do them any favors, but there is no team outside of Michigan as talented as they were in 2011. The Huskers get the Wolverines at home the last weekend in October. They welcome Wisconsin, Penn State, and Minnesota to Lincoln as well. They will have to battle past Ohio State and Northwestern on the road in consecutive games.
The Huskers won't have to win every game on their schedule to win the Legends Division, but they must avoid trip-ups in Evanston, East Lansing, and Iowa City to advance to the Championship Game. The good news is Nebraska will win the games they need to and will not lose to anybody they shouldn't. On December 1, the Nebraska Cornhuskers will beat the winner of the Leaders Division and will claim their first Conference Championship since 1999.