Nebraska Football: 5 Bold Predictions for the Cornhuskers' 2013 Season
Just because it’s January doesn’t mean we stop dreaming about Nebraska football. After Nebraska’s game performance against Georgia on New Year’s Day, NU fans were already looking forward to the 2013 season. Following Nebraska on the recruiting trail only heightens that anticipation, and the Spring Game in April will mark the high point of the offseason.
So here are five January, still-far-too-early bold predictions for next year’s Nebraska team. I’ll reserve the opportunity to make some changes to these as spring and fall camps go on, of course. But if I hit on any, I’m totally taking the credit.
Braylon Heard Will Be Nebraska's Starting I-Back
I know this isn’t new, as the now-familiar handsome and particularly smart analyst has already planted his flag on Heard winning the starting job here and here. But it seems to be splitting opinion amongst commenters, so let me explain my rationale.
First off, I love Ameer Abdullah. To “bench” him by predicting Heard to start is tough for me. I think he’s a fantastic player, and his off-the-field story (as told by Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald) about his relationship with Nebraska coach Ron Brown is amazing.
But after watching both of them last season, I think Heard has more upside than Abdullah. Heard appears to have better straight-line speed than Abdullah. He had a higher yards-per-carry average (6.69 vs. 5.04) than Abdullah last season. He doesn’t have the mystifying self-tackles, where he stumbles and goes down without being touched, that seem to plague Abdullah.
And then there’s the fumbles. Abdullah had eight fumbles in 2012, while Heard had none. Now, in fairness, Abdullah had 226 carries compared to Heard’s 52. But still, having a 3.5 percent chance to put the ball on the carpet every time a back gets a carry is a dangerous prospect—particularly when your quarterback leads the nation in fumbles.
Plus, remember that Heard didn’t have a full offseason to prepare for being a running back. He moved to the secondary after the 2011 season, and only moved back to offense once Aaron Green transferred to TCU.
So, given Heard’s production, a full offseason of work at running back, and Abdullah’s troubling history of fumbles, I think the ingredients are there for Nebraska to get a new starting running back in 2013.
Taylor Martinez Will Be a Heisman Finalist
Let’s just take a look at four sets of statistics for quarterbacks, without names:
No. 3 stands out as being a cut below the others, but it’s fair to say that 1, 2 and 4 are in the same basic tier in terms of quarterback performance.
So who are these phantom quarterbacks? No. 1 is Johnny Manziel in 2012, Heisman winner. No. 2 is Robert Griffin III in 2011, Heisman winner. No. 3 is Taylor Martinez from 2012.
Who is No. 4? Taylor Martinez in 2013, if you take the rate of improvement Martinez made from 2011 to 2012 and use it to project his 2013 statistics. Remember, Martinez (according to Steven Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star) is going back to the quarterback guru he worked with after the 2011 season and is going to “work two times harder than I did last year.”
There should be little doubt about his commitment. Martinez was voted as a team captain and team MVP by his fellow players after his junior season. He will be coming back for his senior season with the support of his team, and with the drive to get NU to the promised land.
Sure, extrapolating statistics is an inexact science. A Nebraska offense that racks up almost 4,000 yards of passing yardage seems optimistic, if not unrealistic. And sure, I left out some of the statistics that made Martinez look worse. If you use the same extrapolation rates, Martinez will throw 18 (!) interceptions in 2013.
But there’s little question that Martinez will be on a lot of Heisman watch lists to start next season. Nebraska’s schedule sets up for NU to win a lot of games, which will boost his Heisman stock. Martinez has shown the willingness to work on his game in the off-season. And he’s coming in to his senior season, his last chance at glory in scarlet and cream.
Do I think he’ll win the Heisman? No. But I think he’s got a great chance to get an invitation to New York.
UPDATE - In an earlier version, the statistics of Manziel and Griffin were incorrectly cited. That has been corrected, with thanks to the commenters for catching the error.
Nebraska's Defense Will Markedly Improve
Nebraska only has four starters returning on defense—three, if you don’t count the one start Zaire Anderson got before he was sidelined for the season. So how could Nebraska’s defense get better?
Well, for starters, there’s not a lot of room for it to get worse. Nebraska was 58th nationally in scoring defense, 92nd in rushing defense and 35th in total defense. Yes, Nebraska was fourth nationally in passing defense, but the Capital One Bowl demonstrated how that statistic was a bit of fools' gold minted from a schedule full of teams with poor passing offenses like Northwestern (110th nationally), Minnesota (109th), Ohio State (105th) and Iowa (102nd).
And it may be that putting a bunch of new players on the field may be just what the Blackshirts need to get back to being the Blackshirts. Nebraska’s linebacker corps looks to have a lot more speed and athleticism than last year. Jonathan Rose, the cornerback transfer from Auburn, has coaches raving already. Perhaps some of the young and untested talent on the defensive line will shine.
Nebraska’s defensive struggles over the last two years came in part because of recruiting struggles in 2008 and 2009. This season should be when improved recruiting will start to bear fruit on defense.
Nebraska Will Win 10 Games in 2013 ...
The B1G did Nebraska no favors when it first arrived in the league, giving it Ohio State and Wisconsin as cross-divisional opponents. But now that Nebraska is entering Year 3 in its new conference home, the scheduling worm has turned.
Ohio State and Wisconsin are gone. Replacing them is Illinois and Purdue, both coming off disappointing (and, in Illinois’ case, that’s putting it charitably) seasons. Purdue will be breaking in new head coach Darrell Hazell, while Illinois will be digging out of the ditch head coach Tim Beckman dug with the Illini being the worst team in the B1G last season.
The non-conference schedule sets up well for Nebraska, too. NU gets all four non-conference games at home, with the only significant challenge being UCLA. With five home games to start the season, only four road games overall, and a significant decrease in strength of schedule, a 10-win season should be the benchmark for Nebraska in 2013.
... But Will Not Play for the B1G Championship
While Nebraska’s schedule sets up well, the toughest test of the year will be facing Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. After Denard Robinson’s injury in Lincoln, Neb. last year, Michigan basically handed the quarterback ropes to Devin Gardner for the remainder of the season. Gardner produced, in amazing fashion. With an entire off-season as the starter to prepare, look for Michigan’s offense to be a sight to behold—rivaling if not surpassing Nebraska’s offense in 2013.
The Michigan-Nebraska game should have a lot of national attention, with the potential for an undefeated Nebraska team to face an undefeated or one-loss Michigan team. It will be a surprise if both teams aren’t in the Top 15, if not the Top 10, in the national polls.
We’ve seen how Nebraska has fared recently in such high-profile games away from Memorial Stadium. Wisconsin in 2011. Michigan in 2011. The Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Ohio State in 2012. The B1G title game against Wisconsin. The Capital One Bowl against Georgia.
Also, remember that Nebraska’s 10-win season last year had some white-knuckle moments. NU needed miracle comebacks against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan State to salvage victories. While those were exciting, those chickens eventually come home to roost. How many times have we seen a team win all the close games one season, then lose all the heartbreakers the following season?
So if we assume a loss to Michigan, and one other loss (perhaps to Penn State on the road or Northwestern at home) in conference, Nebraska ends the season at 10-2 and 6-2 in the Legends Division. Pretty good, right?
Take a look at Michigan's schedule. Assuming a Nebraska win, Michigan would have to finish the conference season 5-3 for Nebraska to make a return trip to Indianapolis. The Wolverines get the Buckeyes at home, but at this point you’d still have to make Ohio State the favorite.
But Michigan’s home schedule also includes Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa, which should all be wins. Its road schedule is a little hairier, with trips to Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern. Even so, with Devin Gardner starting, I don’t see more than one loss in that group. That leaves Michigan at 6-2 in the division, and beating Nebraska on a tiebreaker.
So at 10-2 after the regular season, missing the B1G title game and preparing for a bowl game, look for Nebraska to break its string of four-loss seasons under Bo Pelini in 2013—just not quite in the way that most Children of the Corn were hoping for.
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