Preseason polls are funny things. Every one makes fun of them for being wildly speculative, a guessing game based on results from a different squad of players. But they are critically important for a team's long-term success in college football. With last year's Auburn squad being the exception, usually a poor preseason ranking places a glass ceiling on how high a team can rise in the polls, and ultimately how much success they can achieve in the postseason.
So, like them or hate them, preseason polls are very important. Nebraska is rated 10th in the AP preseason poll, the highest-rated Big Ten team. Let's lift the hood and find out how Nebraska got this lofty ranking.
Remember last September? Ah, those heady times, when Taylor Martinez was running rings around defenses like Western Kentucky, Idaho and Washington? When eye-popping conference performances like the ones against Kansas State and Oklahoma State made the redshirt freshman look like a dark-horse Heisman candidate?
Apparently, so did the AP voters. A top-10 preseason ranking for Nebraska clearly means many of the voters have at least some faith in Nebraska’s offense. And if you have faith in NU’s offense, you must have faith in Martinez.
Of all the uncertainty in Nebraska’s offense, the one constant last year was Rex Burkhead. His ability to run downhill, to catch passes out of the backfield (well, except against Texas) and even to run the offense out of the Wildcat made him the cornerstone of NU’s attack.
With another year of experience under his belt, Burkhead will again be the reliable threat to counterbalance some of the explosive, but inconsistent or inexperienced, offensive weapons around him.
Jared Crick is getting a lot of attention this offseason. You’ve seen him on the cover of a number of preseason college football magazines. Heck, he was the cover boy of Sports Illustrated’s college football preview issue (although, given SI’s track record, that might be a dubious honor).
Crick headlines a deep and dangerous defensive line for Nebraska that will be the anchor of the 2011 Blackshirts. Given their history, that’s apparently good enough for an AP top-10 ranking.
(I don’t care how many times that headline gets used, I’m never going to tire of it.)
Lavonte David leads Nebraska’s linebacker corps into 2011, leading some analysts to call it the best set of linebackers in the Big Ten Conference. That’s high praise for David, given that the other two starters are Will Compton, who has yet to match his on-field performance with his promise, and Sean Fisher, who returns from a season-long injury.
Still, given the speed, power and instinct that David showed in 2010, it’s not an unreasonable ranking. Couple a strong linebacker corps with a dominant defensive line and you can understand how Nebraska ended up in the AP preseason top 10.
Nebraska’s struggles on offense, particularly in the last two years, have been well documented. But there’s no question that defensively, Nebraska has been one of the nation’s best. When Bo Pelini was brought back to Lincoln by Tom Osborne, he was brought with the task of rebuilding Nebraska’s shattered defense.
In that quest, Pelini has clearly succeeded. Almost single-handedly, the Blackshirts have carried Nebraska to the cusp of a BCS bowl for two straight years. That kind of track record is enough to get a voter’s attention.
That was Bo Pelini’s bold pronouncement after Nebraska throttled Arizona in the 2009 Holiday Bowl. While 2010 didn’t quite end the way Pelini and Nebraska fans would have envisioned, the fact is that NU’s recent success has put Nebraska on the national map in a way it had not been since Miami dismantled NU in the 2001 national championship game.
It is part of the game that when traditional powers, such as Nebraska, have a resurgence, those powers tend to get the benefit of the doubt from pollsters. That trend is more true in preseason polls, when votes are cast based on speculation more than data. So Nebraska’s return to national relevance, if not national success, helped immensely in securing a preseason AP top-10 position.
Yes, Nebraska has a lot going for it coming into 2011. But NU also has a lot of question marks. Offensively, Nebraska has the human question mark at quarterback in Taylor Martinez, and a lot of young playmakers behind him. The offensive line returns only two starters, and NU loses a first-round NFL draft pick in Prince Amukamura from the secondary.
So at least part of Nebraska’s lofty national ranking has to be a bit of an indictment of the rest of the B1G Conference. If NU can obtain their pre-season ranking with all the questions it has, the only inference you can draw is that the rest of the conference has as many (if not more) questions to answer.
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