By Sam Kienzle
Nebraska’s first season in the Big Ten was neither a disappointment nor a triumph. Nine wins in a season by most teams in the country is a good year.
Nebraska fans and players, however, had to be left wanting more after enduring some bad losses in their team’s inaugural season. The anticipation and novelty of Big Red entering the Big Ten likely added to the deflated feelings after the season wrapped up. Players prepare to the best of their ability.
Fans, meanwhile, salivate over their beloved team and perpetuate the myth of an unstoppable force, even when their squad lacks the chemistry to blow away a conference that is much tougher than imagined.
The Cornhuskers’ year started with as delicate a four-game winning streak as possible. The “Black Shirt” defense–supposedly a wall of talent and traditional dominance–gave up 29 and 38 points to Fresno State and Washington, respectively.
A trip to eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin would prove to their new world of competition that Nebraska was not ready for the prime time, as the Badgers obliterated Big Red, 48-17, in prime time.
The team finally started to feel good about itself again after beating Ohio State at home to complete the greatest comeback in school history. The team’s defense really did take over in a 34-27 win.
Three weeks later, the ‘Huskers shredded a Michigan State crew coming off an inspirational, last-second win over the same Wisconsin Badgers that popped them in early October. The Cornhuskers allowed only a field goal in their 24-3 win.
Fans and casual observers believed they were finally in control. But the team would go on to drop three of their next five games, including a devastating home loss to Northwestern and an embarrassing 45-17 collapse at Michigan. Nebraska’s 30-13 bow out to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl was the final slap in the face of a humdrum year.
The progression of time is a nice thing for sports fans, especially frustrated ones. Seconds turn to minutes, minutes to hours, and hours turn to days. Enough days pass that it’s finally time for another year of observing one’s team and hoping for the best.
Nebraska fans really do have a lot to be hopeful and cheery about. It’s rare that a first-year coordinator can install a style of play and have it take off like a bird. Tim Beck’s second year as offensive coordinator should prove to be much more seamless.
The defense should be hungry and ticked, at least enough to be better than seventh in the league in scoring, passing, and total defense. The rush defense gave up 158.5 yards per game, which was eighth best. The newness of a foreign conference is gone. It’s time to focus.
KEY ADDITIONS: Rex Burkhead rushed for over 1,300 yards last year on almost three-hundred carries. He needs a break every once in a while. Mike Marrow, a transfer from Alabama to Eastern Michigan to Nebraska is your gut-busting relief. He’s 6’2” and 250 pounds. He will be a good compliment to the smaller yet tough Burkhead (210 pounds).
KEY LOSSES: Lavonte David won Big Ten Linebacker of the Year last season for Nebraska. Alfonzo Dennard won Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year last season for Nebraska. That about sums it up.
WHO DELIVERS IN 2012: The Nebraska offense. Players actually know what they’re doing now in this run-heavy scheme. Third-year quarterback Taylor Martinez has been working with a quarterback specialist to quicken his release and improve his accuracy (which wasn’t bad, by the way). Korea’s own Seung Hoon Choi will lead an offensive line that has players coming back from injury and ones that have played more than one position. The trio of Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah, and Mike Marrow will be a blurry blend of tough, fast, and large.
WHO WILL NOT: The defense, but that’s nit-picking. Even though the team lost David and Dennard, they will find players to consistently adjust to the Big Ten’s assorted styles of offense. They will do this by the sheer willpower generated by feeling head coach Bo Pelini’s hot, angry coffee breath.
The defense’s pedestrian, second-tier conference rankings in 2011 were more likely the result of playing against new teams. Nebraska does, however, welcome a new defensive coordinator in John Papuchis. Improvement is on the horizon, but it won’t be enough to carry the team every game.
Opening at home to Southern Miss, then traveling to UCLA, and then hosting Arkansas State (now coached by Gus Malzahn) is tougher than one might think. An upset non-conference loss mixed with road losses to Ohio State, Michigan State, and maybe Iowa leaves the team at around nine wins.
Indiana is the only likely win for any other team in the conference, and they are not on Nebraska’s schedule. Any game could swing either way. Nine wins and a major non-BCS bowl seems about right. Get to ten victories–even without winning your division–and Big Red could find itself in the BCS.