Preseason countdown: No. 24 Nebraska


That’s the last time Nebraska won something that actually mattered.

Here’s Nebraska’s problem, and this holds especially true for anyone who remembers when the program was Nebraska; if the team couldn’t dominate the Big 12, why are things going to be any better in the Big Ten?

One of the most interesting aspects of the Nebraska/Big 12 was the underlying bitterness the Husker brass felt towards Texas. It all came spilling out that the program was tired of being a second-class citizen in a league whose power had shifted south, and there was no shortage of unmitigated glee when the deal was done to take off to the Big Ten. The North was the star division when the Big 12 was first formed, with Colorado, Kansas State and Nebraska all national title contenders, and with Texas and Oklahoma both trying to pull up out of mediocrity, but Bob Stoops and Mack Brown changed all of that and soon, the North became Fredo.

Nebraska believes it’s Michael.

Even though Bo Pelini pulled the program up out of the nosedive, the last Big 12 title and last win in a BCS game came in the 1999 season. As much as Tom Osborne and others might have had a problem with Texas and Oklahoma getting most of the attention, to go along with the revenue issues, Nebraska was no better than the third best team in the conference for most of the last 12 seasons.

It’ll be tempting to think that the Huskers will waltz into their new league and will be the new star now that Ohio State is doing whatever it can to implode. Instead, they’re walking into a far tougher situation overall in a more balanced league with fewer true bottom feeders. Nebraska was in a two-team race with Missouri for the North title over the last few years, but now there’s no Iowa State, Kansas, or Kansas State to fatten up on. The Big Ten might not have a Texas or Oklahoma now that Ohio State is in trouble, but the conference is far better from top to bottom.

In the Legends, Minnesota is the lone layup at the moment and the program should be getting better in a hurry under new head coach Jerry Kill. Northwestern has been a thorn in the side of several Big Ten teams, and Iowa and Michigan State are solid. Michigan is a sleeping giant that’s just about to wake up under Brady Hoke, and it’ll win its share of division titles over the next few years.

And that’s just one division.

Ohio State is going to be hamstrung, but it’ll still be dangerous, while Penn State and Wisconsin will always be tough outs even if the Huskers are loaded an everything is working. Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue are as good or better than the worst teams in the Big 12, and again, they’re in the other division.

Nebraska needs to win and win a lot right away to show that it deserves to be considered one of the league’s superstars, and not just a great program that happens to be in a better conference. It’s the problem and concern that’s facing Notre Dame and bothered Penn State before joining; Nebraska is a powerhouse program that wants to be an anchor and wants to be the signature star, but it now becomes just another great team.

That will only change with winning titles.

It’ll take all of 2011 for the novelty to wear off and for teams to get used to playing the Big Red, but for now the Huskers will get everyone’s A game – more than usual – and will be under the hot spotlight because every date will be a big one in the inaugural campaign. Get ready to take your lumps, Nebraska.

The Big Ten season starts out at Wisconsin and followed up with Ohio State, when the remaining members of the Tattoo Five are back. It doesn’t get much more high-profile than that for an opening act, while going to Penn State and Michigan will be GameDay-worthy dates. Throw in the attention paid to the showdowns against Iowa and Michigan State, and for this year the goal might be to just survive under the pressure.

Or just win the Big Ten title.

Yeah, Nebraska is in a far tougher division in a better league, but this year’s squad should be as good or better than everyone in the Legends. Even with the interdivision dates with the Badgers and Buckeyes, there’s no reason to shoot for anything lower than a trophy-hoisting moment in Indianapolis with an offense that could be dangerous on the ground and a defense that’ll be its normal swarming self.

There are just enough problems to keep the Huskers out of the title game, but every team in the Legends has major flaws. The special teams need an overhaul, the offensive line has to undergo some major shuffling and reworking, and several untested receivers and backs have to quickly emerge. Defensively, the front seven should be a brick wall, but the secondary has to move on after losing Prince Amukamara and Dejon Gomes.

Make no mistake about it, though, Nebraska is still a power program and it might be back to being truly special again with Bo Pelini at the helm. Just don’t expect the big move to bring better results right away.

What to watch for on offense: Simple, yet speedier. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck is going to try to make things as easy as humanly possible. Nebraska wants to be a running team, so the big linemen are going to block and the speedy running backs and quarterbacks are going to zip through the holes – and it might just be that simple. The other goal is to pick up the pace. Everyone says they’d like to do that, but while it’s hard to be Oregon it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Huskers were able to develop a better rhythm while cutting down on the mistakes. The passing game won’t be ignored, but it might be along for the ride if everything works as planned as the running game should tear off yards in chunks.

What to watch for on defense: The 4-3. In a Big 12 with pass happy teams across the board and top-shelf quarterbacks to deal with on a regular basis, Nebraska’s defense adapted with a hybrid linebacker/safety almost always in the mix and with the occasional six defensive back look to start games. Now the D will go to a more traditional 4-3 because it makes more sense in the Big Ten and the linebackers could turn out to be the team’s biggest strength. Of course the brilliant defensive minds of the brothers Pelini – head coach Bo an defensive coordinator Carl – will adapt and adjust as needed, but the front seven should be ready to handle the running game a bit better.

The team will be far better if: The mistakes stop. There were a few strange games – like the 16-penalty fiasco against Texas A&M – but Nebraska committed way too many sins getting flagged 109 times for 993 yards compared to the 63 penalties for 522 yards the opponent committed. The team committed ten penalties or more in four games and went 1-3 in those. The one loss without the double-digit penalties came in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma, but the Huskers fumbled the ball three times and threw a pick. The 24 turnovers weren’t way off base compared to the national norm, but the 45 fumbles – losing 16 – choked the attack.

The schedule: Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska. The Huskers are given a big flaming bag of unfair in their first year in their new league having to face the three best teams from the other division, going to Wisconsin and hosting Ohio State in the first two league games. If that wasn’t enough, they have to go to Penn State. In division play, they have to go to Michigan, but they catch a big break getting Michigan State and Iowa at home meaning any problems in interdivision play could be offset by running the Legends table. Considering Washington has to come to Lincoln against what should be an extremely motivated Big Red (after what happened in the Holiday Bowl), the non-conference schedule isn’t that bad with Fresno State the only other game to prepare for. The off-week comes before Minnesota when it would’ve been a much, much bigger break to get it in between the Wisconsin and Ohio State showdowns.

Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Taylor Martinez. Simply put, Nebraska can be in the national title hunt if Martinez is the player he was over the first half of last season, or it’ll struggle to stay in the Legends race if he’s hobbling. After seven games, Martinez was on pace to run for 1,740 yards and 24 touchdowns, but he suffered an ankle injury and wasn’t quite right the rest of the way. He came from a passing attack in high school and can throw the ball if needed, but his job will be to stay healthy to be the leader that Tim Beck is looking for.

Best defensive player: Senior DT Jared Crick. A good argument could be made that LB Lavonte David is the team’s best defensive playmaker after making 152 tackles with six sacks and ten broken up passes, but it’s Crick and his running mate, fellow tackle Baker Steinkuhler, who should set the tone for the defense. Crick isn’t Ndamukong Suh, but he’s great against the run and he’s fast off the ball and getting into the backfield making 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss to go along with 70 stops. He has to get past a knee injury, but he’s expected to be fine by the start of the season.

Key player to a successful season: Freshman PK Mauro Bondi. Martinez is the key player to the Nebraska season, but the team needs a steady placekicker who can replace Alex Henery and his deep, ultra-accurate leg. Bondi was considered one of the nation’s top kicking recruits, and he has to show why immediately so Brett Maher can focus full time on the punting game. The Huskers played three games last year decided by three points, and they were 1-2 in those games.

The season will be a success if: The Huskers win the Legends. Forget about the national title. There’s no way, no how the Huskers get through this schedule without at least two losses, but that doesn’t mean they can’t beat Michigan, Iowa, and Michigan State on the way to winning the division. Taking the conference title is asking for too much, but there might be an opening to be the league’s lead dog with Ohio State in trouble, and winning the Legends might do that.

Key game: Nov. 25 vs. Iowa. Name the Big Ten date and it might be the key game to the Husker season. Winning the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin in Madison would set the tone, beating Ohio State would be a program-changer, and getting by Michigan State and Michigan might be vital. Looking long term, beating Iowa in the regular season finale is a must. Iowa City and Lincoln are fewer than 300 miles apart and this should be the start of a beautiful rivalry.