Nebraska was back"...only to back down after the euphoria of the trophy celebration wore off.
The hype went up last week when Athlon revealed Nebraska at #7 in their preseason rankings. Whoa. Then Phil Steele, the king of the preseason prediction, one-upped that. Or two-upped that.
Top Five? Nebraska? What the heck are these guys smoking?
Over the weekend, Jon Johnston over at CornNation asked me for some brief predictions for the upcoming edition of "Cornhusker Kickoff" (arriving on magazine stands near you in mid-July!) Frankly, I've spend most of the offseason reviewing 2009 for the magazine, and hadn't thought much in detail about 2010. So I started to look at the schedule, and suddenly I start seeing something.
Western Kentucky, Idaho, and South Dakota State? There are three games destined for pay-per-view. Washington? It'll draw a regional ABC telecast, and Jake Locker is going to be the watched by NFL scouts all season. But let's not forget that Washington went 5-7 last season either. So it's not out of line to suggest that Nebraska will go 4-0 in the non-conference schedule.
So now we look at the conference schedule. Colorado is still the same Colorado team that keeps Dan Hawkins because they can't afford to fire him. Kansas loses a bunch of offensive talent, and starts over with Turner Gill. That game's in Lincoln as well. It took 8 (yes... EIGHT) turnovers for Iowa State to defeat Nebraska last season. You think that's going to happen again, even if the game is in Ames? Kansas State showed a heck of an improvement last season...but like Washington, couldn't get to a bowl game. Yes, this game is in Manhattan, but still, you have to like Nebraska's chances in this game.
Texas A&M in College Station? They went 6-7 last season as well, and Mike Sherman is on Bruce Feldman's Top Ten List of Coaches on the hot seat. Oklahoma State has to break in a new offensive coordinator and quarterback. Those two games may be on the road, but on paper, Nebraska looks like the superior team.
Missouri comes to Lincoln the day before Halloween. The Tigers thought they had slain the beast, especially as the fourth quarter began in the monsoon. Then Ndamukong Suh launched his Heisman campaign, bookmarked by two touchdown passes from Zac Lee to Niles Paul, and suddenly the Tigers three game winning streak against Nebraska was over. Tiger fans may try to play the "Blaine Gabbert ankle twist" card, but with this year's game in Lincoln, Nebraska should be favored here as well.
That leaves Texas. And we all know how that turned out last season, deep in the heart of Texas. This year's game is in Lincoln, and won't feature Colt McCoy.
Look over that schedule again. Do you see a game Nebraska can't win? Neither can I. Do you see a game Nebraska should lose? I don't either.
Suddenly those top ten ratings start making some sense, especially when you consider the way Nebraska ended 2009.
But "should win" doesn't mean "will win". I also remember that Iowa State game when Nebraska did their darndest to lost that game. And that's why I'm still skeptical about throwing Nebraska into the Top Ten. Is Nebraska capable of being a Top Ten team? Absolutely. I believe Bo Pelini when he says that Nebraska's defense could be even better this season, even minus Big Mister Suh. And while Nebraska's offense was woeful during October and November, we saw a spark of life in the Holiday Bowl. Looking back at the 2009 offense, it became clear to me that injuries at I-back and the offensive line really hampered the offense. Compound that with Zac Lee's arm injury and the lack of production from wide receivers until Brandon Kinnie began to emerge late int he season. All those issues seem to be correctable, and while nobody is going to confuse the 2010 offense with 1995's, all Nebraska's offense needs to be is merely average if the defense is stout. If that's the case... a top five ranking is absolutely possible with a 12-0 record. That puts them into the Big XII Championship game, and with a win there, perhaps something even bigger than that.
But until they actually do it, I'm not quite ready to put them there just yet. Call me cautiously optimistic, because while I want it and think it's entirely possible, expecting this is a reach for a program still recovering.