Nebraska Cornhuskers Football: Top 6 Storylines for the 2011 Season
The 2010 college football season was chalk full of dramatic developments for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and 2011 will be no different. Here we'll discuss six unfolding sagas that will define Nebraska's season.
Nebraska once had a dynasty, but its decades of dominance were interrupted by an embarrassing period of futility. Fueled by the legendary Tom Osborne and the fiery Bo Pelini, the Huskers are looking to return to their elite ways.
But after a year full of controversy, Nebraska needs a season where its publicity is used to its advantage. For that to happen, the Huskers will have to succeed in areas that figure to be the team's biggest roadblocks, which will consequently be the focal points of Husker media coverage.
On top of that, there will be big-time drama this coming season that might involve the Huskers more than they need or want.
Here are the top six storylines that will make 2011 a year to remember for the Big Red Machine.
The Development of Taylor Martinez
There were two sides to redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez in 2010.
The first was his game-breaking side. Martinez exploded in the beginning of the season with several huge touchdown runs thanks to his explosive running ability. Some people, crazy as it sounds, were talking Heisman.
But then, his second side showed up. Once he got injured, he was never the same. Martinez was skittish, indecisive and ineffective.
So which side shows up in 2011? Based on what we've been hearing throughout the summer and into fall camp, it may not be either one.
Because of all the potentially-explosive weapons Nebraska has around Martinez, we likely won't see the sophomore running as much. But coaches and teammates say the Californian has gone through a rapid maturation process over the offseason, and those reports are consistent with what we've seen from him in recent interviews.
We should see a much more poised, calm and confident field general trotting out onto the field on September 3.
And yes, the starter will be Martinez. He's firmly ahead of the competition by all accounts thus far. But the question is, will he be an effective and eventually dangerous starter in both the running and passing game?
If Tim Beck can mold him into a consistent and accurate passer, I think the answer will be a resounding yes, but we'll just have to wait and see. And frankly, we may not find out this year.
Offensive Coordinator Tim Beck and the New Attack
So, what the heck is it going to look like?
Former running backs coach Tim Beck was promoted to offensive coordinator last spring after Bo Pelini wisely parted ways with Shawn Watson and Ted Gilmore, and it remains to be seen what Beck is going to do with the offense.
All signs point to a ground-based attack that mixes the zone read, the option and the spread, but as the former passing coordinator of he Kansas Jayhawks, it's hard to imagine Beck not getting the ball in the air early and often as well. It also looks like a no-huddle, hurry-up style will take precedence.
To make matters more interesting, the Huskers suddenly have a ton of speed and explosiveness at the receiver and running back positions, but the collective lack of experience is as alarming as the potential is exciting.
Junior running back Rex Burkhead will be a workhorse and breakout candidate while senior receiver Brandon Kinnie and junior tight end Kyler Reed look to be among Nebraska's top threats in the passing game. Beyond those three, however, freshmen Jamal Turner, Braylon Heard, Aaron Green and Ameer Abdullah will have to make significant impacts with zero experience if the offense is to be effective against good defenses.
The offense will have a huge say in whether or not Nebraska seriously contends for a Big Ten championship.
Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Washington Huskies
Nebraska's 2011 season coincided with the Tale of the Two Taylors, and the best gauge of that difference was the two games Nebraska played against Washington.
Early in the season when Martinez was just bursting onto the scene, Nebraska proceeded to obliterate the Huskies by five touchdowns in Seattle. But then the bowl schedulers decided a rematch between the Huskers and Huskies, in the same bowl game that Nebraska eviscerated Arizona the year before, would be a great way to go. I still cannot comprehend that logic; nevertheless, Washington slapped Nebraska with a 19-7 loss.
While the biggest reason for the clunker was most likely a lack of motivation on Nebraska's part, that doesn't change the fact that the first performance was vastly different from the second performance.
When the Huskies travel to Lincoln to battle Nebraska on September 17, the biggest topic of conversation will be which Nebraska shows up.
One way or another, the Cornhuskers will prove one of the 2010 games to be a fluke. It needs to be the Holiday Bowl.
Nebraska vs. the Physical Big Ten
The rich tradition of Nebraska football has been built on the smashmouth offenses and bone-crushing defenses of the 70s, 80s and 90s. But ever since the Bill Callahan era, the Huskers seem to have lost their physical label.
Bo Pelini has revived that to a point, but since he stuck with the West Coast Offense in his first three years and built his defense to stop spread offenses, Nebraska still hasn't seemed to match the physicality displayed by its new conference mates.
The Huskers will be lining up in more three-linebacker sets against the Big Ten's strongest ground games, but after struggling at times in 2010 against the run, skeptics are just waiting to watch James White, Montee Ball, Dan Herron, Edwin Baker, Larry Coker and Silas Redd run all over the Blackshirts.
On the offensive side, the Huskers want to get Rex Burkhead, fullback Tyler Legate and newcomer Mike Marrow involved in a punishing power game, but with an offensive line that has yet to consistently prove itself, the effectiveness of that offensive aspect remains up in the air.
Being Huskers, however, you can bet the players don't take too kindly to being called soft. Expect Pelini to use the skepticism as fuel.
A deep defensive line and a revamped offensive line will lead the charge for a team that should be more physical than expected.
Bo Pelini vs. the Media
Bo Pelini must despise the media by now, because the guy can't catch a break.
Pelini's most recent rift with the media came after noted baseball columnist Peter Gammons posted an ill-advised tweet claiming that Pelini erupted on high school superstar Bubba Starling, who is trying to decide between playing football and baseball at Nebraska or signing a professional contract with the Kansas City Royals.
Both Pelini and the Starling family shot down those rumors, and Pelini expressed disappointment (which was probably closer to enraged disgust) with Gammons' unprofessional act.
To be fair, most other media members (in particular, those in the Lincoln area) justly sided with Pelini on the matter. Nevertheless, Pelini's opinion of the media is no secret, and as a result, he has become a target.
Can you really blame him for his opinion, though? Based on what is said about him in reports around the nation, people seem to forget that Pelini has cleaned up the program nicely in terms of weeding out players that hold themselves higher than the team.
One has to wonder, also, how the Huskers have recruited so well if players don't want to play for him. The opposite, in fact, is the truth. Husker players and assistants alike love their head coach because of his no-nonsense approach and willingness to defend his team.
Pelini's passion gets the best of him sometimes, and he can no longer afford the angry outbursts. But he isn't as bad as he's made out to be, which comes back to the sensationalist nature that the man is so out of tune with.
It's a vicious cycle that won't end anytime soon, and as if Taylor Martinez won't already be getting enough publicity, you can bet camera crews will be keeping a close eye on his relationship with Pelini on gamedays.
Conference Realignment Drama Continues
Wait a second—I thought all that realignment stuff was over with.
Recent reports of Texas A&M bolting to the SEC have surfaced, creating a chain reaction of rumors that also involve Florida State, Missouri and Clemson, among others.
So what does this have to do with Nebraska?
Well, apart from Husker Nation being able to say "I told you so" to the Big 12 (assuming that deal actually goes down), talks of super-conferences will rage throughout the 2011 season, which means the Big Ten could be adding more teams.
Beyond that, there will be the inevitable Big 12 loyalists that will still blame Nebraska for this mess. There are already many who are calling the Aggies whiners, a label frequently given to the Huskers in 2010.
My question is, why would you hate a team for doing what's best for itself? Texas may have made a very self-centered move by asking for its own network to keep the conference alive, but the Longhorns were just doing what was best for themselves.
The Huskers did the same in 2010, just as the Aggies are doing now. Nevertheless, get ready for the ridicule. After all, Nebraska was the one that started this mess, right?