Nebraska is off to a 3-0 start and one could say the Cornhuskers have their ship pointed in the right direction. After leaving the Big 12 with two consecutive years of disappointing conference championship performances, this year's Huskers have a pretty bad taste in their mouth.
Coach Bo Pelini has preached to both his team and the media that a conference title is where the Huskers have had, and will keep, their proverbial crosshairs.
So the question remains: Is this the year? A new conference, a new offense and plenty of new freshman talent leaves many wondering how it will all shake out.
Over the next 10 slides, we'll take a look at what the Huskers will have to do to rid themselves of the bad taste and play for the Big Ten Championship.
There's a whole new setup in the Big Ten this year. With the addition of Nebraska, the conference has grown to 12 teams and two divisions (Legends and Leaders) meaning a conference title game can now be played. The Huskers have plenty of experience winning conference divisions—they dominated the Big 12 North nearly every year.
That experience could prove valuable this year as they attempt to gain control of the Legends division.
Taking a look at the schedule: Minnesota, Michigan State and Northwestern will not be an easy three-game stretch, but I think Michigan State is the only legitimate concern in terms of division contenders (out of the three).
Nebraska plays them at home and it could be the game that determines whether the Huskers enter the second half of the season on an upswing or a downturn.
The real test, however, should come in Nebraska's final two games: Michigan away and Iowa at home. Not only are these two teams highly competitive and well coached, they also have the best shot at taking the division.
Look for Michigan vs. Nebraska in the Big House to be the key game for the Huskers clinching the Legends Division.
Bo Pelini has positioned himself as a premier up-and-coming head coach, and with good reason. He has Nebraska back in the Top 10 and creates defensive units that (typically) terrorize opponents.
Bo and his brother Carl have had some major defensive struggles this year, considering the defense for the Huskers was thought to be the best in the Big Ten and one of the elite squads in the country. All of the talent is there, aside from an injured Dennard at cornerback, and with the recruiting prowess of the Pelinis, I find it hard to believe that the mistakes and breakdowns are entirely based on the players.
Assuming that Bo and Carl have kept some of their most effective blitz packages and confusing defensive looks a secret during their non-conference play, I think they're going to need to unload these packages on the Big Ten in order to have any hope of stopping or confusing teams like Wisconsin.
In terms of offensive coaching, new offensive coordinator Tim Beck has had measurable success against the Husker's non-conference opponents. Averaging over 40 points a game is something to be proud of.
However, creating a plan of attack involving more than Taylor Martinez on the run will be paramount to the team's offensive success.
The receiving corps for the Huskers this year have had both surprises and letdowns.
First, the letdowns. Brandon Kinnie and Tim Marlowe are two veteran wideouts who were expected to be the easy targets for Taylor Martinez this year. Both have had some serious issues holding on to the ball. On a team coached by Bo Pelini, that means the next guy in line gets a chance.
Enter Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner. Both are freshmen who show a wealth of raw talent and both have already made big plays for the team this season. Bell seems to have reliable hands that Martinez is becoming progressively more in sync with, while Turner has wheels and can make plays from seemingly anywhere on the field. Look for Bell to be a deep threat and Turner to be a breakout slot receiver.
Consistency can be found by Martinez in tight end Kyler Reed and sophomore Quincy Enunwa. Both players have shown the ability to "get after the ball" and aggressively make catches in coverage. Martinez will need all of these threats to be at the ready in order to effectively execute sustained drives downfield.
Nothing gets Nebraska fans revved up quite like an All-Star running back. Rex Burkhead aside (we'll cover him later), this year's team has what looks to be a perfect trifecta of talent. With three freshman backs behind Burkhead, the Huskers are really primed to create some potent running attacks.
Aaron Green, Braylon Heard and Ameer Abdullah are providing Tim Beck with plenty of options (no pun intended) along with plenty of speed. Abdullah has proven to be a serious threat on special teams with a 100-yard touchdown return already under his belt. Green and Heard have seen a fair amount of reps and shown a diverse array of skills.
These freshman running backs will be a key asset to the Huskers offense as they attempt to take the load off of Taylor Martinez's shoulders and keep the potentially tired Big Ten defenses on their heels.
Look for some interesting formations and triple options from Beck once conference play begins.
Consistency. That's what you get with Rex Burkhead.
The man is a student of the game and it shows. It will be important for Nebraska that No. 22 gets plenty of touches during Big Ten play, as he brings quickness and reliability to the table. The Huskers will need more of the latter.
With playmakers like Taylor Martinez on the field, this Nebraska team is in no dire need of "big play talent." However, what the Huskers do desperately need is a rock—an anchorman, if you will. Burkhead is that rock and more. He is a short and stout runner, making it difficult to spot him between the tackles. Moreover, he is dependable, the go-to guy for this feast-or-famine Huskers offense.
Coaches say he's the last guy out of the film room, often shutting it down long after the team has left. A student of the game, Burkhead is the Huskers' workhorse and he has broad enough shoulders to carry this Huskers team when need be.
I suspect we'll see Beck using him in the "Rex Cat" or "Wild Husker" formations during conference play and don't forget that Rex has one of the best pass-for-touchdown efficiencies in the NCAA (2010): 4 attempts, 3 completions, 3 touchdowns.
At the beginning of the 2011 season, Jared Crick was rated as the No. 1 overall player in the Big Ten Conference. In my opinion, we have yet to see him play as such. Crick may have big shoes to fill with the absence of Ndamukong Suh, but this D-line is struggling to look average.
Media hype is like a cavity, it keeps setting in and before you know it, you're left with an empty shell of a tooth that crumbles under pressure. It appears that media hype and hearing about how untouchable the Huskers defensive line will be this year may have just started a cavity in these players' psyches.
Hopefully, the wake-up call has been heard because allowing 29 and 38 points in home games is something this defense and its fans are not used to and it's something the Big Ten competition will exploit.
Crick will need help from his talented co-linemen: Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith. Meredith had a standout game against FCS opponent Tenn. Chattanooga, recording two sacks and an interception. He shows promise as a talented defensive end and the Huskers may need to lean on him to contain scrambling quarterbacks. Steinkuhler has yet to make a name for himself on the national level. Strong and athletic, he should be recording sacks while Crick is double-teamed.
The success of the Huskers defense and ultimately the team will rely heavily on if this defensive line can play up to its potential.
Why only list three players from the entire secondary? Because these three players will make or break this year's pass coverage.
In the absence of first team All-American Alfonzo Dennard, sophomores Green and Evans have a large load to share. This is a serious concern as this coverage team is responsible for more than a couple of touchdowns given up by the Huskers defense.
Reports vary on exactly when Dennard is expected to return to the field and he will no doubt bring lockdown performance and confidence back to his side of the defense. However, Nebraska can not sit idly and let teams throw the ball at will. Having better coverage from Green and Evans will give the D-line and linebackers ample time to pressure the quarterback and is a necessity if the Huskers want to be a conference champion.
The Pelini brothers know very well how to coach up their cornerbacks. Look for drastic improvement from Green and Evans as a sign of coaching attention.
This season will prove to be an interesting one for the Huskers defense. Moving to a new conference will not be easy and it is not something to be taken lightly. The Pelini brothers are known for, above all, their defensive strategy and, over the last few seasons, it has shown.
Sending some high-caliber defensive players to the NFL in a few short seasons is no small task.
So the talent is well recruited and the players are thoroughly coached. What's missing here? What's missing are the intangibles. The lust for the big hit, the tenacious attitude, the blackshirts. The nation has yet to see this highly touted Huskers defense play to its potential and because of this: There have been no blackshirts awarded...yet.
Coach Pelini alone will decide when this group of young men deserve the honor of being a "Blackshirt."
In order to stand a fighting chance at securing the Legends Division, the Huskers defense will need to step up its game, play to its potential and earn the coveted blackshirts. There is a small possibility Coach Pelini will give them out just before the Wisconsin game (Oct. 1) to serve as a wake-up call, but don't bet the farm on it.
More likely, he will wait until a standout performance happens, continuing to use the blackshirts as the carrot on a string enticing his defense to go just a little bit further.
Entering the 2011 season, all eyes were on the offensive line. Everyone wondered, and wonders still, can this inexperienced group adequately protect Taylor Martinez and can it produce the holes necessary for a productive run game?
Much like other parts of the Cornhuskers team this year, the talent is there but game-time experience will need to be learned on-the-fly. This year, coach Barney Cotton has his work cut out for him.
Most people agree that the key ingredient to a productive offensive line is trust. In order to play at the Big Ten level, these young men need time together as a unit—enough time to understand their teammates' blocking assignments.
Only when the time is spent and the trust is earned can offensive lines act as one unit effectively guiding the offense downfield.
Coach Cotton's men had a positive performance against Washington that can likely be credited to the subbing scheme that happened throughout the game. Look for Coach Cotton to keep his O-line fresh by continuing to cycle players in and out of games. This could work well against Big Ten opponents, effectively wearing down a defense while keeping the offensive line energized.
Ladies and gentlemen, the No. 1 key factor for Nebraska to reach a Big Ten Championship game will be the consistency of Taylor Martinez.
We all saw his explosive play at the beginning of the season last year and we all saw the meltdown of the Huskers offense at the end of the season last year.
Martinez showed some good signs during the Washington game and seemed more poised than ever while in the pocket. Are his passes pretty? Certainly not, but so far they haven't needed to be. It's not the look of Martinez's passing game that is an issue, it's the delivery. Often throwing to the wrong shoulder of his receivers or making them come back to the ball, Martinez's arm could use some attention.
However, it wasn't his arm that got him this far. It's his speed. After a full recovery from two injuries last season, Taylor looks to have his old speed back. This Huskers offense relies heavily on its quarterback's speed and with a player like that, who wouldn't?
If the importance of Martinez's play can be summed up in just one stat, this would be it: Nebraska is 11-0 when Martinez amasses 125 yards or more.
Nebraska will need Taylor Martinez to be at the top of his game, week in and week out, in order to stand a chance against its new Big Ten competition, and his consistency will be the deciding factor to whether or not the Huskers earn the right to play for the Big Ten Championship.