Why Nebraska Is Flying Below Radar, Poised to Run Big Ten Table

Adam JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterSeptember 28, 2012

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 22: Running back Rex Burkhead #22 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers runs through the Idaho State Bengals defense during their game at Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2012 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

You're not sleeping on Nebraska, are you? You don't want to be the person who was caught sleeping on Nebraska. Not this year. Not with a Big Ten this bad.

In fact, it's not exactly out of the realm of plausibility that we're looking up two months from now and Nebraska's sitting at 11-1 and safely in the Top 10.

Here's why.

Nobody in the Big Ten has as many weapons on offense as Nebraska. That's both in total and on the field at once at any given time.

The tailback situation was fine even when Rex Burkhead was out; with him, it's arguably the best in the nation. Kyler Reed is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the conference. Kenny Bell is starting to fulfill his potential as a big-time wideout, and Quincy Enunwa is solid as both a catcher and downfield blocker at the other wideout spot.

And then there is the enigma that is Taylor Martinez. His throwing motion is still humorous, and his rushing is turning into something of an afterthought—he has one 100-yard rushing game and two total rushing touchdowns in his last 11 games—but he's turning into a lethal passer.

Yes, seriously.

He's not perfect, and a bad day always seems right around the corner, but his stats don't lie: He's 10th nationally in passing efficiency. Yes, Nebraska has played some weak competition defensively. So have a lot of teams whose quarterbacks aren't anywhere near 10th in the nation in efficiency.

Martinez isn't likely to be that high by the end of the year after he faces eight Big Ten secondaries, but dude's throwing the ball remarkably well.

The offensive line misses Tyler Moore and will continue to do so as he matriculates at Florida, but there's talent all over the place there. Spencer Long is one of the premier mashers in the Big Ten, and his counterpart at the other guard spot, Seung Hoon Choi, is a road grader in the run game.

There basically isn't a weakness in Nebraska's entire starting offense. And in many cases (especially running back, as mentioned before), the backup situation is just as strong. 

So, then, let's talk about the defense. Yes, the Blackshirts were incinerated by UCLA to the tune of 653 yards in Week 2. That was bad. The other three games? Nebraska has given up an average of 253 yards—precisely 400 yards off its worst outing, and a number that would be good enough for a top-10 standing nationally and second in the Big Ten behind Michigan State.

Now, yes, the UCLA game did still happen, and there's no sense crafting an argument around cherry-picking stats. But if you really want to contextualize the relative quality of Nebraska's defense, it would help to point out that Nebraska has played a far more difficult slate of opposing offenses than any other Big Ten team in the top 25 of total defense nationally (MSU, Purdue, Minnesota and Iowa).

There's no UCLA on any of those teams' dockets.

Nebraska has two tough road games on its schedule—three, if you count Iowa, which we don't. That's a trip to East Lansing for Michigan State and to Columbus for Ohio State. Nebraska completely shut the Spartans down last year in a 24-3 victory, and Michigan State is not materially better on offense this year than it was in 2011.

Meanwhile, yes, the Ohio State game will be tough. Maybe the Buckeyes win. They were certainly cruising while Braxton Miller was healthy in last year's game, and we know teams with dual-threat QBs and strong rushing games can give problems to Nebraska's defense.

But we also know how woefully inconsistent that Ohio State offense can be this year and how it lets even teams like UAB and Central Florida stick around for four quarters. What happens when Ohio State lurches back and forth for another 28-point game and this time it's not a Conference USA offense on the other side of the ball?