The 2011 college football season is just two weeks away and the Associated Press has released its official Top 25 poll. As the Nebraska Cornhuskers get ready for their inaugural Big Ten season, we'll take a look at their No. 10 AP ranking and decide whether it's too high, too low or just right.
Why It's Too High
In 2010, Nebraska started the year with a bang and climbed all the way to No. 5 before getting knocked off by an un-ranked Texas at home. The Cornhuskers bounced back from a terrible week with big wins over Oklahoma State and Missouri, but would ultimately finish the year on a low note, losing three of their last four to finish 10-4.
Much of Nebraska's struggles were attributed to an inconsistent offense that couldn't produce against good defenses, as well as poor on-field discipline. At times the offense was magnificent, but towards the end of the season it was awful.
Head coach Bo Pelini decided to start from scratch on offense. He fired the last two holdouts of the Bill Callahan staff, Shawn Watson and Ted Gilmore, and promoted Tim Beck to offensive coordinator.
The Husker offense has a ton of potential, but with a ton of young players inconsistency could be a detriment yet again. Nebraska may take its bumps and bruises in an offensive transition year.
Nebraska was one of the most penalized teams in the Big 12 last year and also had one of the highest fumbling rates in the country. Newly-appointed running back coach Ron Brown is on a mission to shake that tendency, but if the penalties and fumbles don't get fixed, you can bet those problems will be the difference in some close games.
Defensively, Nebraska was very solid, but struggled at stopping the run from time to time. If this minor problem sticks around, the Huskers could really struggle to stop what will be some of the best ground games in the nation.
One more thing that cannot be overlooked is the departure of Alex Henery. The most accurate placekicker in NCAA history will be replaced by a very unproven player, one way or another.
Why It's Too Low
The Cornhuskers have had a dominant defense since 2009, when the players finally grasped Bo Pelini's conceptual scheme and Ndamukong Suh rose to legendary status.
The Blackshirts took a slight step back in 2010, but defensive coordinator Carl Pelini believes this defense might be the deepest and most talented he's had at Nebraska. The Huskers return three All-American-caliber defenders in DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David and CB Alfonzo Dennard.
How many games will Nebraska win in 2011?
Pelini says the Blackshirts are well ahead of the curve in fall camp and that we should see a unit with a whole lot of salt taking the field in 2011.
When shifting the focus to the offense, it's difficult not to see the potential. While inconsistency will be inevitable, this offense is suddenly bursting with young and explosive talent. If this group can find ways to score on good defenses, the Huskers have a great shot at winning the Big Ten and even a legitimate chance at a national title appearance.
Another point of concern is special teams, but with rising coach John Papuchis overseeing that phase of the game, the Huskers may be more solid in that area than many think.
Mauro Bondi and Brett Maher will compete for the starting placekicking and kick-off jobs, while Maher will likely take the punting job. Reports out of fall camp are that both are doing well.
Concerns about the return game have also been voiced, with the Huskers' top kick- and punt-return man, Niles Paul, departing for the NFL. But the Huskers are auditioning some very talented young guns to fill in, and if Jamal Turner's spring game performance was any indication, Nebraska will fill Paul's special teams role without missing a beat.
If all the pieces fall in the right places, this is without a doubt a championship team.
Why It's Just Right
Production must always trump potential when considering rankings and predictions, but the Huskers have a mix of both this season.
Returning impact players Rex Burkhead, Kyler Reed and Brandon Kinnie should anchor an altogether solid offense when it's all said and done, and the offensive line should be deeper and more consistent. Taylor Martinez has shown signs of maturation and should have a lot more confidence than he had at the end of last season.
Defensively, the Huskers should be the best in the Big Ten. Those who think Nebraska won't be able to line up and take on the most physical Big Ten teams might be surprised at the Huskers' toughness. They should be a lot more stout against the run with more linebackers and a deeper defensive line; a young but talented secondary will benefit from slightly less potent passing offenses.
The special teams units will be inexperienced, but if they can get into the swing of things and develop consistency early on, they should actually improve from last season under Papuchis.
Overall, this team looks like it has a good shot at an 11-win season and a New Year's Day bowl game, if not a BCS berth.
Verdict: No. 10 ranking is accurate.