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Huskers appear to have rejoined the elite
It's a good time to be a Nebraska fan.
After the purgatory that the Huskers went through during the Bill Callahan, the rebirth under Bo Pelini has restored the longtime superpower that now appears to be on the very of really, really big things again, and not just with the move to the Big Ten Conference.
With the right schedule, the defense at the frothing-at-the-mouth state that Pelini and his defensive coordinator brother, Carl, have demanded, and with ten starters back on offense, Nebraska will be more than just in the hunt for the Big 12 title. This is a national title contender.
Before booking tickets for Glendale for the Jan. 10 BCS Championship, there are a few major issues the program still has to get past.
The quarterback situation is iffy, at best, four of the top five tacklers, including Ndamukong Suh, are gone from the defense, and then there’s the talent gap. There are several good players, but Nebraska still has to work a little bit to get enough elite ones to consistently be in the national title chase and to get over the hump to be Nebraska again. There are enough good players and the coaching is so good that the Huskers can play with anyone in America on the right day, but to get back to the dominant level of the pre-2003 days, Pelini is going to need a little more time and a few more superstars. Ndamukong Suh doesn’t come around every year … or does he?
The offense might not be among the elite of the elite, but with ten starters back including all the rushing production of last year, four parts of the line, and excellent targets in Niles Paul and Mike McNeill, it should be more consistent. The special teams boasts two of the best players in the nation in kicker/punter Alex Henery and Paul, a returner, to give the Huskers yet another edge.
The right mix is in place to build on the tremendous leap taken forward last year, and now the expectations are rightfully jacked through the roof. The Big Ten couldn’t be happier.
What to watch for on offense: The quarterback situation. Zac Lee really was supposed to be a great talent who could be a dangerous all-around playmaker for the offense, but he didn’t exactly look the part last year. While a big boost in production can’t be ruled out, Nebraska can’t win the national title unless Lee plays far, far better. If he can’t handle the work, then sophomore Cody Green, a good young prospect, has to show he can. Could a potential championship season be in the hands of an untested prospect like Taylor Martinez? Everything else is in place on offense, so if the quarterback play is merely adequate and consistent, then the O could be every bit as good as the D.
What to watch for on defense: The Peso. It's a quirky way Nebraska will term its 4-2 -5 alignment as it tries to counteract the more dangerous passing teams with a fifth defensive back who’ll do a little bit of everything. After trying it out a bit last year, the formation proved to be so successful that the Pelini brothers might make it the norm. The versatility will be there to seamlessly move in and out of the alignment.
The schedule: There’s a reason Husker fans are all fired up. The defense should be fine, the offense can’t be worse, and the schedule is national-title good. This isn’t going to be one of the three best teams in the country, but to get to the BCS Championship a great team needs a mix of winnable layups with one or two signature games. Winning at Washington won’t be anything to get jacked up over, but it would still make a national splash, and the rest of the non-conference slate is a joke. While road games at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M will be tough, any team thinking big has to win those games. Getting Missouri and Kansas at home should all but sew up the North title, and then comes the big one: Texas. It might be a Big 12 Championship preview, and if the Huskers can win the showdown in mid-October, the hype and high expectations will follow.
Best offensive player: Senior RB Roy Helu, Jr. WR Niles Paul is the team’s most explosive weapon both as a receiver and a return man, but Helu is the steady back who did what he could through last season even though there was little passing game to take the heat off and despite getting hurt in early October. He won’t have to carry the entire workload this year with Rex Burkhead a dangerous option for the ground game, but he’ll be effective whenever he has the ball in his hands.
Best defensive player: Junior DT Jared Crick. Ndamukong Suh’s running mate over the last few years will now be the star of the show. Baker Steinkuhler will help the cause next to him, but the spotlight will be on as he needs to be both a dangerous playmaker in the backfield and a rock against the run. At 6-6 and 285 pounds, he has great size and enough quickness to be a 3-4 end in the NFL, but first he has to be the team’s top defensive force for everyone else to work well around him.
The season will be a success if … the Huskers win the Big 12 title. If everything falls into place, a shot at the national title is reasonable to dream about, but winning the conference championship is obviously a must. With the last title coming in 1999, going out with a bang before going to the Big Ten would be extremely sweet, and would show that Nebraska is truly back. The team, the schedule, and the coaching are in place to get it done.
Key game: Oct. 30 vs. Missouri. Yes, the 2009 Big 12 Championship rematch against Texas on Oct. 16 will be the one the world will be interested in, but the Huskers have to get past Missouri a few weeks later to all but be assured of the North title. It’s been an even series over the last few years, but this year the Tigers will be circling this game as the key to their season. Nebraska will have to be ready for a shootout.
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