I began by taking a broad overview of the Nebraska program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Cornhuskers will do this season.
Two weeks ago, I scanned the 2012 Nebraska offense and how it projects.
Last week, I looked at the 2012 Nebraska defense and how it is shaping up.
This week, I'll look at the Huskers' specialists, recruiting class and schedule; and I'll give a final breakdown and my prediction for Nebraska in 2012.
In 2010, the Huskers said goodbye to their all-conference punter/All-American kicker Alex Henery, as well as their top return man, Niles Paul.
Apparently, that was no problem as Brett Maher picked up all-conference honors in both kicking roles, while Ameer Abdullah had the ninth-highest kickoff return average in the country. Abdullah was also solid on punt returns averaging 6.81 yards-per-return on 16 attempts.
Look for both to reprise their roles in 2012.
In the end, with an average defense and inconsistent offense, superior special teams were the difference between seven and nine wins last year.
2012 Recruiting Class
It was a small class for Pelini—17 recruits—including two JUCO transfers that will likely play this year.
A true freshman that could see immediate playing time is running back Imani Cross from Gainesville, Georgia. Cross is a bulldozer that both Rivals and Scout list as 6'1", 220 pounds. As the depth chart is wide open at running back after the first two spots, look for Cross to come in and get playing time as either a tailback or fullback.
He had offers from Notre Dame, Iowa, Michigan State and Arizona, among others. With his size, he could be an immediate downfield threat.
Lastly, Bo Pelini did the unthinkable. He went into the Buckeye State and snagged a recruit that had an OSU offer.
That recruit was defensive end Greg McMullen. He could see the playing field early, if he can prove his value as an end rusher.
A pound sign (#) indicates must-win for Nebraska.
An exclamation point (!) indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign ($) indicates a swing game.
09/01: Southern Miss Golden Eagles #
09/08: At UCLA Bruins #
09/15: Arkansas State Red Wolves #
09/22: Idaho State Bengals (FCS) #
09/29: Wisconsin Badgers $
10/06: At Ohio State Buckeyes $
10/20: At Northwestern Wildcats #
10/27: Michigan Wolverines $
11/03: At Michigan State Spartans $
11/10: Penn State Nittany Lions #
11/17: Minnesota Golden Gophers #
11/24: At Iowa Hawkeyes #
Best-Case Scenario: 11-1
In order for this to happen, Nebraska needs:
- Game changers to pop up amongst the defense. The D has enough experience to be solid, but it is devoid of proven playmakers. It can be an elite defense with some game changers.
- Taylor Martinez to become the quarterback Husker fans have been waiting for. The Nebraska offense will remain limited unless he makes tangible improvements.
- At least one, and preferably more than one big-time playmaker to emerge amongst the pass-catchers. Martinez needs a security blanket and a downfield threat to help him mature and to take the offense to the next level.
Worst-Case Scenario: 7-5
In order for this to happen, Nebraska needs:
- No improvement from Martinez. He is the living embodiment of the Nebraska offensive ceiling.
- The defense remains a cast of no-names that get the job done, but don't accomplish much more than that and can't shut down big-time offenses.
- The offensive line to struggle with continuity and consistency.
The Season Will Be a Success If...
The Huskers win 10 games, and Taylor Martinez and the offense are able to move the ball against elite defenses.
The fact of the matter is if Martinez and the pass catchers improve, then the offense should be potent, balanced and consistent, and if the offense is potent, balanced and consistent, the Huskers should win nine games at a minimum, a probable 10 games with a reasonable chance at 11.
It's that simple. Anything less than that and some Nebraska fans will get edgy. Pelini won't be on the hot seat, but he'll definitely start to hear some detractors.
As I've repeatedly said, Pelini has proven he can coach up a defense. Last season aside, there is no reason to expect anything less than a top-five-in-the-conference/top-25 in the country defense.
It won't be amongst the top three, and it won't be anywhere near the 2009 defense, but, despite the loss of multiple game changers, it will be something of a return to form for the Blackshirts.
On the other hand, until I see differently, there is no reason to believe that Taylor Martinez, and by extension the offense, have made vast improvements.
As it is, this offense seems to have a personality crisis. Is it an option team? Is it a power-rushing team? When it passes, is it a West Coast offense?
All of this, along with outstanding special teams, should be enough for Nebraska to win all of the games it should win.
Nevertheless, the big question, as I pointed out in the introductory article and in various comments along the way, concerns Pelini and the Huskers' performances against ranked foes and against the odds. With a career record of 3-12 against ranked opponents, it is evident that how Pelini fares against ranked foes is what has kept him from Osborne-like heights.
A recently-released Phil Steele article supports this assertion. Over the last three years, Nebraska, along with classic underachievers Notre Dame, Miami (FL) and Illinois, is near the bottom of Steele's list in terms of games in which they have been favored vs. actual win/loss record.
Via that same article, Nebraska has only one underdog win in those three years. In other words, Nebraska and Pelini win the games they are supposed to, but aren't much of a threat in the underdog role.
This year, the Huskers will face at least three ranked opponents and potentially four. Those will be the only games in which Nebraska might not be favored.
The good news is two of those games are at home, and beating Big Red in Lincoln is a chore. Pelini has a home career record of 23-6, though three of those six losses have come against unranked foes. The Huskers most recent three home losses—2011 Northwestern, 2010 Texas and 2009 Iowa State—have come against unranked foes.
With all of this in mind, I have Nebraska with road losses at Ohio State and Michigan State, and a close loss to Wisconsin in a game that might be one of the tightest of the year.
For my money, the Nov. 3 trip to East Lansing will be for the Big Ten West Crown. However, I don't see Taylor Martinez being able to do anything against the MSU secondary—one of the 10 best in the country—especially on the road.
Check out past installments of 2012 Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Illinois Fighting Illini.