On Sept. 19, the Cornhuskers will hit the road for the first time during the 2009 season and venture to Blacksburg, VA to play Virginia Tech. To say that this will be a monumental challenge for the Cornhuskers would minimize the actual task they face that day.
This game will mark the first road game for Zac Lee, Nebraska's likely first-year starting quarterback. In recent years, Blacksburg has earned a reputation of being a fairly difficult place to play, made more difficult this year by what appears to be a pretty salty bunch of Hokies. Salty Hokies? What is a Hokie, anyway?
Now, for the real nuts and bolts of this game.
VT Offense vs. the Huskers Defense
The Hokies offense will be led by junior QB Tyrod Taylor, who completed 57 percent of his passes in 2008 and was the team's second leading rusher with 738 yards. Taylor should benefit this year in having a corps of players returning with experience at the wide receiver position and in seeing the ACC's leading rusher, Darren Evans, leading the rushing attack.
An issue I see that could pose problems for the Hokies offense when on the field against the Huskers defense is the fact that they will be replacing a guard and a center. These are the guys that will be facing potential AA and high NFL draft pick Ndamukong Suh.
I know that these guys will be playing Alabama and Terrence Cody on Sept. 5, but Cody isn't the explosive inside force and sideline to sideline player that Suh is. Cody is only a run-stopper due mostly to his size.
Suh is a player that plays the run as well as the pass and puts heat on the quarterback from his NT position. On each side of Suh will be two returning defensive ends, strongside end Pierre Allan and weakside end Barry Turner, both of whom have 10-plus starts during their careers.
Nebraska is likely going to be playing, at least in part, a group of very young but athletic linebackers, led red shirt freshmen Sean Fisher, Will Compton, and Alonzo Whaley. These young guys will be bolstered by the veteran trio of Phillip Dillard, Colton Koehler, and Blake Lawrence.
Taylor and VT beat Nebraska last year because they allowed Taylor to get out of the pocket and extend plays, while watching the Huskers secondary break down time after time. Well, three of the four starters in the defensive backfield return for the Huskers, and I think they should perform more effectively as a cohesive group.
I look for the Nebraska defense to try to make Taylor a pure drop-back, stay-in-the-pocket passer, and they do have the defensive linemen to do that.
VT offense vs. Nebraska defense...I will call a push.
Nebraska Offense vs. the VT Defense
The Nebraska offense comes into this game with what looks to be a very solid and experienced group of offensive linemen with a tandem at running back in Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille. They probably couldn't ask for a better situation to help take the pressure off of a quarterback venturing away from Lincoln for the first time.
Not only are the Cornhuskers inexperienced at quarterback in 2009, they are also looking to part-time wide receivers such as Menelik Holt, Niles Paul, and Chris Brooks to take more of a leadership role and be big playmakers at the wide receiver position.
Young players like Antonio Bell, Khiry Cooper, and JC transfer Brandon Kinnie should be looked upon to make some plays also.
I expect Nebraska and Lee to look for standout tight end Mike McNeil in the red zone and in crucial down and distance situations.
Virginia Tech returns seven starters to a defense that is annually one of the stingiest in the country. They are always well coached and prepared by Bud Foster and will be again this year. They are led on defense by defensive end Jason Worilds, who was a second-team All-ACC performer in 2008.
I have to give an edge to the Hokies defense over the Nebraska offense in 2009 due to the level of inexperience at quarterback and the wide receiver positions.
Nebraska Special Teams vs. VT Special Teams
Nebraska will be getting the 50-plus redshirt freshmen who didn't play in 2008 on the field as special teams contributors in 2009. There was quite a bit of speed and athletic ability that Nebraska redshirted in 2008, and this will be many of these guys' first chance to participate.
The Hokies are needing to replace a kicker, and Nebraska has the ever-reliable Alex Henery, he of the 57-yard field goal to beat Colorado in 2008.
I would give the Huskers an edge here in special teams because they have Henery, who will likely be punting this year, but the Hokies and Beamer always have solid and sometimes "special" teams play. So, I will call this a push.
If you can't tell already, I do expect this game to be close and likely low scoring, as opposed to the 35-30 game in Lincoln last year.
As for a pick.
Come back after the first two weeks of the season, and I will make my pick at that time.