The common wisdom in football is that the biggest leaps in improvement come after the first year on the field. After that, everything "slows down" as the familiarity takes over, and that's when players start learning to play smart instead of just hard.
Nebraska's offense, then, is set to take that similar leap.
As Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star points out, this is Tim Beck's second year with the Nebraska offense, and teaching it has become worlds easier this time around:
Last August, as Nebraska installed Beck's diverse spread system, players' heads were spinning. The coaches' heads were spinning.
Then to now is like going from calculus to addition, Beck says.
"It was like a whole different language for the players last year," he says.
Now, the more jaded observers of Nebraska football might interpret that as "Taylor Martinez is a slow learner," seeing as how he's the most important player on that offense. But this transition had just as much to do with the coaches, according to Beck, as the personnel on the field.
Nebraska's style of offense isn't necessarily pervasive in the Big Ten. So, as Husker offensive coaches watched film to construct a game plan, they often found themselves trying to guess how a team might defend NU.
Once games began, defenses often looked different than what Nebraska players and coaches had studied on film.
"So you had to make adjustments right away," Beck says. "You'd say, 'OK, they're going to play us like this, so let's run this play.' So, we'd run that play and then say, 'Oh, OK, so this is how they're going to stop that play.' So then we'd have to run this (other) play.
"So there might have been three adjustments before we got it right. Other times, the defense would do what we thought it would do, and we were OK."
Now that Nebraska has film on all eight of its Big Ten opponents' approaches to defending the Nebraska spread option attack (the conference schedules are the same as last year, as the Big Ten rotates schedules every two years), there's significantly less guesswork to be done.
Sure, those approaches may change from one year to the next—especially if Nebraska shredded that defense in 2011—but by and large, we're dealing with two sides that know what's coming this time around.
That's going to be huge for Nebraska.
Taylor Martinez can be the butt of jokes at times (primarily for his horrific throwing motion), but he's deadly on the run, and he's coming into his third year as a starter. If he matures as a passer and decision-maker, he should have a huge season. And thus, so should Nebraska.
If the last two last seasons are any indication, though, the real key to the year will be to get Martinez free. And that's as much an issue of play-calling and pre-snap adjustments as anything else. Check out this amazing stat from the Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine:
Neb is (11-0) in Martinez's career when he rushes for 70+ yds.He averages 6.9 yards per carry in 17 W's as a starter and 2 ypc in 8 L's.— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) August 10, 2012
So yeah. If Martinez is running, then the offense is running. And if the offense is running, the team is winning. And if the team is winning...well, there's nothing past that. Wins are what you want.
The scary part in of all this is that Nebraska wasn't actually that bad on offense last year. The Huskers were a middle-of-the-road team nationally in terms of both yardage (66th) and scoring (50th), but that translated into fifth in the Big Ten in yards and fourth in scoring.
There isn't a whole lot of room to go up in an ordinal sense, then—though, with Wisconsin outscoring the Huskers by 15 points a game, there's a big gap to be closed in terms of actual scoring.
And let's say this: if Nebraska puts together the second-best offense in the Big Ten this year (assuming Wisconsin can't be caught, though that's not carved in stone), odds are pretty good that it's at least in the Legends Division tiebreaker picture in 2012.
So there's the baseline of expectations. Let's see if Nebraska hits it.