Needless to say, the biggest question mark of this season is determining how Nebraska responds to the change in coaching staffs. I think this team severely underperformed last season, and it was primarily due to the previous regime. Tom Osborne told the Journal-Star that he thinks this team will be better, and that the new coaches were pleasantly surprised by the talent level. Sunday Morning Quarterback went a step further:
I criticize the excesses of recruiting obsession quite frequently, and people misinterpret that as saying that "recruiting doesn't matter." Which is a gross misinterpretation. Recruiting is important...but it's only the beginning. Player development and coaching matters as well, and is more important than pure talent. And while we can argue about the relative merits of talent, I don't think anybody in their right mind could argue that Nebraska's talent level was at the bottom of the Big XII. They played that way, to be sure. But they're capable of better. Much better.
"If the offense is merely steady -- it finished the season on a tear with Joe Ganz at quarterback, averaging 53 points over the last three games -- and Pelini’s initial efforts are good enough just to progress back toward the mean defensively -- that is, to split the difference between the best-case scenario of his lone season as coordinator and the worst-case scenario of last year’s collapse -- this is unavoidably one of the most improved teams in the country, and an impending threat to Missouri’s supposed stranglehold on the division."
Some think that 2008 will be a success if only they "play harder". And while that's a noble thought after 2007, most fans still think in terms of wins and losses. So let's take a look at the 2008 schedule:
They may not have had a winning season last year, but they did win at Iowa. Experts expect QB Tim Heller to lead Western to challenge for the MAC championship this season. Certainly, the Huskers had their issues with Ball State last year. And what's more...it's the first game of the season for both squads...so anything can happen. (Can you say "Appalachian State"?) Probability of Husker Victory: 70%
San Jose State
They'll be breaking in a new quarterback in 2008, and weren't terribly proficient in 2007 in the passing game anyway. They do return Yonus Davis, who missed most of 2007 after rushing for over 1,000 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2006. In any event, this one is hopefully a mismatch. Probablility of Husker Victory: 98%
New Mexico State
Hal Mumme knows offense... but his defense gave 40 points six times last season (sound familiar?) He got to keep his job for 2008, though. Probability of Husker Victory: 98%
Between graduation, suspensions, and injuries, Virginia Tech has as many question marks going into the season as the Huskers. So making any sort of prediction on this game is merely a guess at this point. The only known factor is that this game is going to be played in Lincoln...so the only known edge goes to the Big Red. Probability of Husker Victory: 52%
The defending Big XII North champions are everybody's choice to repeat. They're loaded on offense, and certainly improved on defense as the season went on. But how will Missouri react to being the hunted instead of the hunters? Does the Pinkel factor still exist, just bottling up pressure like the New Madrid Fault, awaiting just the right moment to unleash destruction across the Show-Me state? Oh...and this game is in Lincoln too. Probability of Husker Victory: 45%
We all know about Tech's lethal offense. If Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree had seen Kevin Cosgrove's defense last season, they likely could have rolled the scoreboard into triple digits. But that was then...this is now. On paper, in August, this looks like a mismatch, but we'll see if Pelini can come up with something other than a prevent defense. Last time we saw Texas Tech, Nebraska had some success stopping Tech when they would apply pressure to the quarterback. Funny, but applying pressure to the quarterback seems to be something Pelini defenses seem to be good at. This one isn't hopeless, my friends. Probability of Husker Victory: 40%
Gene Chiclets, as a former Husker head coach once referred to him as, started off 0-2 including a loss to 1-AA Northern Iowa... but then knocked off Colorado and Iowa, and put a heck of a scare into Oklahoma. Chizek seems to have the Cyclones on the rise. This one's at the Jack Trice Wind Tunnel. Probability of Husker Victory: 60%
Baylor starts over once again with Art Briles. Briles might make it work eventually in Waco...but not right away. Probability of Husker Victory: 90%
The Sooners are the defending Big XII champions. They're loaded. They're going to be in the mix to win it all. This one is being played in Norman. Probability of Husker Victory: 5%
AJ convinced me that Kansas was overhyped last season. Even ESPN.com's Tim Griffin loved his take:
Last year, they rode the confidence from a putz non-conference schedule and then avoiding Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Texas in conference into a BCS bowl berth. Well, guess what. The Sooners, Raiders, and Bovines are back on the KU schedule... oh and they also have to travel to South Florida as well. Not to mention that Joe Ganz hung 39 on them in his first start. I've got to believe that Pelini finds a way to hold the Jayhawks under 40...and this one's in Lincoln. Probability of Husker Victory: 60%
"Like Belinda Carlisle and the Go-Go's, KU comes around about once every 10 years or so to make a brief appearance ... then only to disappear into the black bowels of nothingness. The Squaks were a 2007 byproduct of luck and insanely lucky scheduling. No such luck this year."
Something's up in Manhattan. Either Ron Prince is a genius or a schmuck. He tantalizes Wildcat fans by owning Mack Brown, then frustrates them by losing to Iowa State and getting taken behind the woodshed by Bill Callahan in his last gasp at glory. Now he's taken 19 junior college recruits for this season, raising questions as to just what's going on down there. Jason Whitlock thinks the Wildcats can win 8 games this season; I think that's unlikely. Either the Prince gambit pays off grandly, and K-State challenges Missouri for the division title...or Chizik takes ownership of "Grimace" as the Cats struggle to win more than 3 or 4 games. Which is it? My money's says take the under. Probability of Husker Victory: 75%
Still not a believer in the Buffaloes. If it hadn't been for Bill Callahan, they would have went 5-7 last season...and the Buffies wouldn't have changed much for 2008. Probability of Husker Victory: 70%
So what does this work out to be? Well, I truly believe this comes down to how Nebraska responds to Bo Pelini. But how well is that?
Most optimistic: 11-1. Yep...that's pie-in-the-sky, pass the bong, break out the straightjacket talk. But except for Oklahoma, I believe EVERY game is winnable. Last summer, we thought Nebraska had a chance to win at Columbia and Lawrence. They didn't...and got blasted. But if this team bounces back, you just never know.
Most pessimistic: 3-9. Here's the thing...we really DON'T know why Nebraska went 5-7 last season. I attribute it to negligent management of the program by the people who were in charge. But what if it was much more than that? What if Bill Callahan actually salvaged a win or two last season, and that was really the best Nebraska was capable of in 2007? Maybe the players are just saying the right things now, but they return back to the same low intensity and fundamentally lackluster play we saw last fall. If that's the case, we'll lose to Western Michigan to open the season, get a couple of wins before getting beaten by Virginia Tech...then the conference season begins, where we only manage to sneak out a home win against Baylor.
My best guestimate: My read is that Nebraska's due for a huge rebound in 2008. I see several big games in Lincoln that are winnable: Virginia Tech, Missouri, and Kansas. Will they win them all? Nope...but I think they'll win a couple of them, though I think they'll also disappoint fans by losing a game they shouldn't have. Call me nuts, but I'm thinking as high as 9-3. Maybe 8-4. But put me down for 9-3.