This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
Entering the fifth year of Bo Pelini's tenure at Nebraska, one might come to expect that the consistency the Cornhuskers have shown will continue. Nebraska has lost four games every single year in Pelini's four years, including three in conference play. Consistency is usually the hallmark of a good program, which is exactly what has been built in Lincoln.
However, Nebraska fans will not just be content with being a competitive 5-3 or 6-3 each year in conference play. Getting back to the top 10 in national rankings and winning conference championships is the goal, and one that has proven to be highly elusive even with the move to the Big Ten.
Expect the pressure to get higher and higher as Nebraska becomes more accustomed to play in the Big Ten. It may be bad luck that Nebraska pulled the highest profile three teams in cross-division play, as well as having to survive the brutal Legends Division, but the Cornhuskers will need to overcome that challenge to get back to being in the nation's elite once more.
Last year Nebraska was able to continue generating points at a high 30 point per game rate, but the Blackshirts suffered to adjust to 11 new sets of schemes on the schedule. Despite some injuries to pile onto the defense, Nebraska persevered just when it looked like Ohio State was going to send them to a thud of an 0-2 Big Ten start.
The comeback against the Buckeyes sparked a three-game winning streak capped by a dominant 24-3 beating of Michigan State (the only conference loss the Spartans would take on in regular season play). If not for a shocking defeat the next week against Northwestern, Nebraska would have avoided the typical three losses in conference play.
The pieces are there for a better run despite the tough schedule repeating in 2012. Will Nebraska survive tough road environments this season in first trips to Columbus, East Lansing and Iowa City? Will Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead continue to run Big Ten defenses into the ground? Can the Cornhuskers finally break the string of four-loss seasons? Let's take a look.
Although Nebraska entered 2011 with some questions at quarterback, Taylor Martinez took the job by force with his play during the season. Martinez threw for over 2,000 yards and ran for nearly 900 more as the Huskers rolled up nearly 400 yards per game on offense. Look for Martinez to be the leader of this offense even more as a junior, and his experience the past two years will be invaluable.
Nebraska also rode the workhorse mentality of running back Rex Burkhead last year to 1,350 yards and 15 touchdowns. Behind a solid offensive line, Burkhead managed to average nearly 4.8 yards per carry. If this statistic remains the same or improves in 2012, opposing defenses will find it tough to keep the Huskers below 30 points.
Unlike last year, Burkhead should receive a lot more help in carrying the heavy rushing load in the Cornhuskers offense. Ameer Abdullah only racked up 42 rushing attempts in 2011 but he appears ready to take more carries in 2012. Freshman Imani Cross seemed likely to redshirt this year, but some rave reviews during fall camp could mean he also taken an active role in the running game.
Although only two starters return on the offensive line, a pair of seniors has stepped up to take likely starting positions that looked to be filled with youth and inexperience going into the spring. Seung Hoon Choi will take over at right guard, while Justin Jackson appears to have a slight edge on the starting center spot. There's plenty of talent in the two-deep, but this is a spot where injuries could take a major toll on the offensive output in 2012.
Although Burkhead and Martinez will keep the offense rolling on the ground, the most improved area of the offense should be the passing game, as four of the top five receivers return for Martinez. Sophomore Jamal Turner is the rising star that is the biggest question mark, but Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell will be the primary targets. With these receivers all now having a year of work with Martinez under their belts, the passing numbers should be a better complement to the strong Nebraska running game.
All signs point to a slightly improved offense, as long as the offensive line holds up. Playing the same set of eight Big Ten defenses will also help Nebraska prepare better for what the team will face this year.
After learning how to dominate Big 12 competition after Pelini's first year running the defense, Nebraska took a big step back in the first year of Big Ten play. Of course, preparing for eleven new offensive schemes can make things exceedingly difficult. Still, there's no doubt that the Blackshirts underachieved in year one of Big Ten play.
Seven starters return on defense, and many of these are seniors. This will help replace the All-American level talent that has departed in Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard.
The best part of this defense should be the secondary, which is led by safety Daimion Stafford. Stafford and returning cornerback Andrew Green each broke up about 10 passes a season ago, which is a good number. However, more turnovers could be generated at this level of the defense if Nebraska wants to compete for the tough Legends Division title. Look for Memphis transfer Mohammed Seisay to make an impact by the middle of the season as well.
Linebacker is a position with a few question marks, although seniors Will Compton and Sean Fisher will take a lot of the snaps. Fisher may not be 100 percent healthy, especially early in the season, and that could open the door for JUCO transfer Zaire Anderson or David Santos to earn some playing time. Compton is the leading tackler returning for the Huskers, although his 82 tackles in 2011 paled in comparison to Lavonte David's 133.
The defensive line was the chink in the armor, if there was one in 2011. This season three seniors return in the two-deep, although Eric Martin does not appear to be poised to take a starting role at defensive end. Instead, any pass rush from the ends will come from Jason Ankrah and Cameron Meredith. Meredith generated nine quarterback hurries a season ago and will need to improve on this number to keep offenses honest.
On the whole, the defense should be improved statistically despite a loss of star power. New stars could be born in the place of those departed, especially if Nebraska avoids a rough start to conference play like it had a season ago.
Nebraska may not have come in and dominated the league right away in the standings, but one aspect of the football team that did blow away the new competition was the special teams. With an established junior kicking and punting and the fast Ameer Abdullah handling most returns, the special teams unit was easily the Big Ten's best in 2011.
And now, all of these players return for another season. The kicking and punting duties will be performed by senior Brett Maher, who managed to win Big Ten Player of the Year in both the kicking and punting positions. Maher nets about 38 yards per punt and is nearly automatic on all field goals under 50 yards. He provides the Huskers with a huge advantage when games come down to field position battles.
Speaking of field position, Ameer Abdullah also contributed nicely to putting Nebraska in favorable field position last year. Abdullah only averaged seven yards per punt return, but a 30 yard average in kick returns was impressive. Even with Abdullah taking more carries on offense, expect him to again use his speed and elusiveness in the special teams game as a sophomore.
This special teams unit may be simplified to two great players, but those two players could make Nebraska the strongest special teams unit in the country, not just the Big Ten. This will be a huge advantage as Nebraska tries to break through the glass ceiling of 5-3 and 6-3 conference records from the past few seasons.
The Cornhuskers' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—Southern Miss (win)
9/8—@ UCLA (win)
9/15—Arkansas State (win)
9/22—Idaho State (win)
10/6—@ Ohio State (loss)
10/20—@ Northwestern (win)
11/3—@ Michigan State (loss)
11/10—Penn State (win)
11/23—@ Iowa (win)
Projected record: 10-2, 6-2 Big Ten
Nebraska faces an early season road test by heading out to the Rose Bowl to take on UCLA in Week 2. Although Nebraska is the better team talent-wise, the Bruins could pull a big upset if Nebraska is not ready. The opening game against Southern Miss cannot be overlooked either.
Once again, Nebraska drew the tough end of the Leaders Division and right up front with a home game against Wisconsin followed by a road trip to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes. These games likely both should have been losses a season ago, and Nebraska will need to once again escape with at least one win to stay relevant in the Legends Division race.
Once again, Nebraska will need to be wary of Northwestern coming out of a bye week with the two most important games of the season against the Michigan schools coming up the next two weekends. If Nebraska can sweep the Michigan schools, then the road will be set with three relatively easy games to close out the schedule.
Of course, no game in Iowa City is ever easy, but Nebraska should be able to outpace the Hawkeyes offense in 2012. As long as Taylor Martinez learned from some of his mistakes a season ago, Nebraska will go a bit farther in the race for a conference championship.
Oddly enough, the race between Nebraska and the Michigan schools could come down to a fourth tiebreaker of record against common opponents, which would bring the games against Ohio State into play. Perhaps the games against the Buckeyes will hold much more significance than expected in 2012, and that could be the key for Nebraska to win a championship.
Winning in Columbus is not easy, but this Nebraska team just might do it. At worst, this team should finish with no more than four losses. The potential is there for a 12-1 season and a conference championship, which would provide a return trip to the Rose Bowl.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
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