Nebraska Football: 10 Bold Predictions for the 2011 College Football Season
One of the most exciting traits of college football is its unpredictability. Each year is remarkably different from the one before, making it all-but-impossible to forecast the coming year—even for experts in all things gridiron.
Consequently, one of the biggest challenges faced by football writers and analysts alike is predicting what will happen in an upcoming season.
2011 will be no different. In an offseason already replete with unforeseen events, the coming fall figures to keep the fans on the edge of their seats from beginning to end. It also figures to bring frustration to those whose predictions go completely awry.
That may be especially true in Lincoln, Nebraska, where head coach Bo Pelini and the Cornhusker football team prepare to take on a whole new conference in the Big Ten (commonly referred to as the B1G throughout writing communities).
As the nation's oldest and most storied conference moves under the spotlight, here are 10 predictions for Nebraska's inaugural Big Ten season.
Chances are I'll be pulling my hair out by midseason when they go awry.
But that's the fun of it, right?
Sources: ESPN.com, BleacherReport.com, HuskerLocker.com, Wikipedia.com, Google Images
Cornhusker Offense Will Put Country on Notice
Since Bo Pelini's second season as head coach, the Huskers have once again been marked by ferocious defense.
But after the graduation of Joe Ganz, Nebraska has not been able to develop a consistently effective offense.
Former offensive coordinator Shawn Watson received most of the blame, but the fault was not just his to bear.
Pelini, at the suggestion of AD Tom Osborne, kept Watson on as OC when hired in 2008. This worked for the first year, when Ganz carried the team to a 9-4 record and a Gator Bowl win over Clemson.
But when Pelini's vision, along with his recruiting focus, shifted to a run-based, spread-type offense, Watson's eventual demise was inevitable. The attempt to hybridize a West Coast attack with a spread option attack resulted in an offense without an identity.
Consequently, Watson's offense failed to carry its own weight, and the Blackshirts were frequently hung out to dry.
Now that Watson and embattled wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore have moved on, Pelini has been able to fill the vacancies with his own guys, allowing the staff to share a vision.
On top of that, the Huskers hauled in a star-studded recruiting class for 2011, and suddenly, the offense is littered with athletes that make their living on speed.
A new offensive identity will be unveiled in the fall, and if all goes well this offseason, Nebraska's offense could be one of the season's biggest surprises despite some inevitable growing pains.
Offensive Success Will Not Be Determined by Taylor Martinez
According to the vast majority of college football gurus, Nebraska's biggest gauge for offensive success will be the play of Taylor Martinez.
The mercurial sophomore-to-be began the 2010 season as one of the country's most explosive and dynamic athletes and ended it as one of the biggest disappointments.
The question remains: What happened to "T-Magic?"
Endless speculation has been spoken and written about why his season went sour halfway through. I personally believe the whole situation was overblown and that most of his troubles stemmed from his nasty ankle injury.
But regardless, I can't get on board with the wide belief that Nebraska's offensive fate lies in Martinez's hands.
If Martinez develops his passing game, the offense will be much better off. But if he doesn't, I am of the opinion he won't even be starting in 2011.
That's where redshirt freshman Brion Carnes enters the conversation. Although running an admittedly vanilla offense in the spring game, Carnes looked poised and confident both throwing and passing. If he can learn the offense well enough, he already has the physical tools to excel at the position.
Besides the competition Martinez will be getting from Carnes, the offense is stocked with enough talent that it will allow the quarterback to be more of a distributor than an every-down playmaker.
Based on those things, Martinez will not be the single-most important deciding factor for Nebraska's offensive success whether he develops that second dimension or not.
Jamal Turner Will Be Nebraska's Top Offensive and Special Teams Weapon
Sometimes, a kid doesn't know his own talents until he is forced to use them.
This can be said about Jamal Turner, who starred at quarterback throughout high school before being converted into a receiver at the Under Armour All-American game, where he reportedly turned a lot of heads.
Just months later, he is now being talked about in some circles as the next Johnny Rodgers.
Okay, so that might be taking it a little far, but the comparisons are eerily similar.
Turner exploded onto the national scene with his four-catch, 92-yard performance in Nebraska's spring game, which included a 49-yard touchdown and two kick returns for a total of 111 yards.
As impressive as those numbers are, you had to be in Lincoln witnessing the game to truly gauge the performance. Precise route running, soft hands and decisive returning skills marked Turner's day. Simply put, Turner is a natural playmaker.
While Turner's permanent home looks to be at receiver and returner, his versatility is another trait that could be well-utilized by offensive coordinator Tim Beck. He could be used in trick plays and at running back and quarterback in certain instances if Beck so desires.
Jamal Turner is a stud, and he could be an All-Big Ten performer by season's end. Based on his wide range of talents, it's easy to imagine Turner being Nebraska's most electrifying weapon.
Rex Burkhead Will Be All-Big Ten First-Teamer
In 2010, running back Roy Helu Jr. finally had the breakout season he was looking for, rushing for 1,245 yards and 11 touchdowns on an impressive 6.6 yards per carry.
Finishing his career with 3,404 yards and 27 touchdowns, including the Nebraska single-game rushing yards record with 307, Helu will go down as one of Nebraska's best in history.
But one of the reasons Helu was able to have so much success was the emergence of true sophomore Rex Burkhead, who was able to take some of the load off of the injury-prone senior.
Burkhead had an impressive season as well, rushing for 951 yards and seven touchdowns on a 5.5 yards per carry average.
Now that the junior is the team's top RB, he'll be counted on to be a primary contributor to the Husker offense. And if the spring game was any indication, he won't have any trouble with that duty.
Burkhead put on some upper body strength in winter conditioning and looked better than ever before in the spring game, muscling his way to 91 yards on 11 carries. He also had a long touchdown run negated by a penalty.
The two best attributes Burkhead possesses are his balance and toughness. The two in combination make Burkhead a chore to tackle and give opposing defenses fits.
Not to be forgotten, though, are Burkhead's vision and quickness. He is a decisive, consistent runner that eats up four to five yards at a time and occasionally breaks a 20 to 30 yard gain. His soft hands make him a solid all-around back.
Despite a conference full of fantastic running backs, Burkhead will be one of the standouts and will be recognized as an All-Big Ten first-teamer.
Braylon Heard and Aaron Green Will Combine for 1,000 Yards Rushing
Now that Rex Burkhead will receive the lion's share of the carries, he'll need a rest every once in awhile. One of the team's biggest problems, however, is the lack of a backup for Burkhead.
Since no other running backs on the roster stood out this past spring, a huge opportunity presents itself for new Husker RB recruits Aaron Green, Braylon Heard and Ameer Abdullah.
Heard was supposed to be a 2010 recruit but was unable to qualify until this year. Now that he has qualified, he joins the 2011 class as part of an impressive skill position haul.
Green was the prized pickup of the class, while Abdullah was a late riser who Nebraska was able to yank out from under Alabama and Auburn.
All three of these players are talented enough to be the lightning to Burkhead's thunder, but chances are it will be a combination of two of the three.
In my humble opinion, it will be Heard and Green. The skill sets of these two will fit Nebraska's offense tremendously, and the two will combine for 1,000 yards on about 150 to 180 carries.
Blackshirts Will Be No. 1 in Scoring Defense
After a painful period of time in which the Nebraska defense was just plain awful, defensive mastermind Bo Pelini molded them into a stout unit once again.
The 2009 unit, led by the legendary Ndamukong Suh, burst onto the national scene and ended the year No. 1 in scoring defense, giving up a measly 10.4 points per game.
In 2010, however, the defense experienced a slight drop without Suh. Although still comfortably within the top 25, the Blackshirts weren't quite the same. The defensive line in particular left just a little to be desired.
A quick glance at the 2011 defense would suggest that the Huskers are set to experience yet another drop. However, now that Nebraska is in its fourth year with Pelini, the Blackshirts are in reloading mode.
And with a potential All-American returning in each level of the defense, this unit looks like it could be as good as the fearsome 2009 version.
As young players continue to emerge, the Nebraska defense continues to gain steam, and the 2011 Blackshirts could end up holding the top spot in the most important statisical defensive category.
Alfonzo Dennard, Lavonte David and Jared Crick Will Be First-Team All-Americans
Speaking of the Blackshirts regaining the top spot, here are the three biggest reasons for that prediction.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Jared Crick anchor each level of the 2011 defense, and that's a really, really good thing for this defense.
Crick and David are known commodities throughout the nation and garnered All-American honors in 2010. While Dennard was overshadowed by Prince Amukamara in '10, he too will be in the spotlight in '11.
After a slow start to the season, Crick improved considerably and ended up recording an impressive 70 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
David was the season's breakout defender, racking up a school-record 152 tackles to go along with six sacks fresh out of junior college.
Dennard was tested early and often in '10 because of Amukamara's presence, and he performed brilliantly, recording four spectacular interceptions and returning one for a touchdown.
Each considered one of the top players at their respective positions, the three seniors will dominate and earn first-team All-American honors.
Daimion Stafford Will Start at Safety
One of the most underrated signees of Nebraska's 2011 class, Daimion Stafford is another JUCO prospect that Pelini decided would be able to come in and contribute right away.
A quick look at his film shows why Pelini offered Stafford early in the recruiting process.
Stafford was a force at safety, equally adept at stopping both the run and pass, at Chaffey Community College in California.
USC and Florida apparently thought so as well, coming in late and attempting to steal him away from the Huskers.
Nebraska's safety position has a lot of competition and no standouts, so if Stafford can come in and impress right away (much like Lavonte David), he could be more than a regular contributor for the Huskers—he could be a starter.
Nebraska Will Lose Two Conference Games; Win Big Ten Title
As much success as Bo Pelini has had in his four years at Nebraska, one negative thing that has marked the program is inconsistency throughout those seasons.
While much of that was likely due to a staff that lacked cohesiveness, Pelini still needs to prove that he can mold his team into a consistently dominant force. That's what separates the good teams from the great teams.
Now that Pelini has put together a staff with a singular mind, the consistency will likely come in time.
But 2011 will not be that time.
The Cornhuskers have a rough Big Ten schedule, especially early on when they have to play two perennial contenders, Wisconsin and Ohio State, back-to-back.
As I said before, regardless of how effective Nebraska's offense might be in the coming year, growing pains will be inevitable. These growing pains might spell disaster in a couple of Nebraska's games against the Big Ten's best.
The Huskers have also been known to put out a couple of clunkers against teams they should normally beat by a comfortable margin (Iowa State in 2009, Texas in 2010).
I think Nebraska will put together an impressive year and end up winning the Big Ten Title, but not without a couple slip-ups along the way, possibly against a team or two not considered as good as Nebraska.
Nebraska Will Face Oregon in the Rose Bowl
If the Cornhuskers end up on top of the Big Ten with an 11-2 record, which is what I've predicted, they'll be going to the Rose Bowl, where the top Big Ten team will face the top Pac-12 team or an at-large bid if the No. 1 Pac-12 team plays in the BCS Championship.
In an earlier article highlighting the projected winners of each Big Six conference, I predicted the Oregon Ducks would win the Pac-12.
However, I don't think the Ducks will make it back to the BCS Championship game and will instead receive another Rose Bowl bid.
This would be an intriguing matchup from a couple different perspectives.
First, Oregon wide receivers coach Scott Frost, a former Nebraska quarterback, reportedly discussed a possible position on Nebraska's staff during the Huskers' coaching search. Frost's ties to Nebraska would make for an interesting side story.
Second, the game would feature an exciting matchup between the prolific Oregon offense, led by Darron Thomas and LaMichael James, and the stout Nebraska defense, which will have faced an offense with many similarities to Oregon's every day in practice.
A Nebraska-Oregon matchup would be very entertaining, and it's a very possible scenario for the 2011 Rose Bowl.
So if you are a fan of the red or the green, start saving up for a trip to Pasadena—just in case.