Friday, July 30, 2010

Does Bo Pelini See Something the Rest of College Football Doesn't?

With college football beat writers focusing on the Big XII this week, the national sports media started throwing up their asterisks over Nebraska's preseason "Top Ten" status.  Yahoo's Matt Hinton (aka "Dr. Saturday") started it on Tuesday by reminding us that Nebraska lost three games last season despite holding the opposition under 17 points:
The old-school preseason hype as a Big 12 frontrunner and darkhorse national candidate still depends on a defense, even minus transcendent interior-line wrecking ball Ndamukong Suh. But there's no doubt that the next step in the "return to glory" timeline will require more consistent competence under center.
SI's Stewart Mandel highlighted Nebraska as the most likely candidate to be the team that doesn't live up to their preseason hype:
I can think of at least one soon-to-be preseason top 10 pick coming off what was, at the time, a very uncharacteristic bowl performance: Nebraska.
Last we saw the Huskers, they were dismantling Arizona, 33-0, in the Holiday Bowl, to cement their first 10-win season in six years. Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh led another dominant performance by the nation's seventh-ranked defense. That part was par for the course. Quarterback Zac Lee ran 18 times for 65 yards and threw a 74-yard touchdown. Where on earth did that come from?
Then the Columbia Tribune's Dave Matter reported an undercurrent of skepticism from the rest of the assembled Big XII media in Dallas:
No one seems convinced that Nebraska runs away with the North Division. Yes, the Huskers are a heavy favorite, but I heard from more than a few writers something along the lines of, "I picked Nebraska, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Missouri win the thing." If the Tigers had showed up against Navy and won the Texas Bowl, my guess is Nebraska and Missouri split the first-place votes evenly.
Before Husker fans get mad, these writers aren't telling us anything that we already knew.  Remember all the complaining about Shawn Watson last season?  The Husker offense was bad last season.  Not even mediocre.  Bad.  Very bad.  And frankly, I agree that the preseason hype might be a little much.

But at the Big XII Media days this week, Bo Pelini made a point to address some of the concerns people raised last season, saying that Nebraska should see improved production at both quarterback and on the offensive line.  The offensive line was a big focus for me last season, as Barney Cotton was unable to substitute much in the latter half of the 2009 campaign. Now, Pelini says that the depth on the offensive line is "not even close" to where it was prior to now. You don't read about it elsewhere, but four offensive linemen redshirted last season.  Brent Qvale was moving up the depth chart until he got injured late in preseason practice. Add in junior college transfer Jemarcus Hardrick, and suddenly Nebraska's depth just doubled.

We know that it all starts up front, and last season, Nebraska had to "dial it down" on offense.  Tight ends took playing time away from wide receivers and were assigned to help block. Mike McNeill seemingly disappeared at times in the passing game as Nebraska focused on pounding the ball.  In the last month of the season, the only substitution on the line was with Mike Caputo at center, and frequently that was to spell an injured Jacob Hickman.

I understand where the media outside of Nebraska are getting their skepticism; in fact, I share some of it. But what I don't understand is the assumption that "they were bad last year, so they'll be bad this season."  Then these same sportswriters reverse field and point out that both Washington and Texas A&M will be much better in 2010, despite having losing seasons in 2009.

I'm not suggesting that Nebraska's offense will be great in 2010...just that they'll be better. This isn't going to be an offense that's going to put up 45 points a game week in and week out.  But if they can finish off drives and run some more clock, they could become an effective counterpart to a defense that should still be very good, even though they'll sorely miss #93.

I think Bo Pelini sees that.  But until the team actually hits the field, skepticism will remain, and impossible to argue against.

1 comment:

Misha said...

Great post, Mike! The Husker offense was bad last year, and it seems clear in hindsight now how much of that was the result of injury and lack of depth.

We see now that Zac Lee played injured through most of last season, and the depth at QB, while talented, wasn't quite ready to assume the reigns. And the offensive line as beat up all season, but mostly playing injured.

The one comment I am thrilled to hear more than any from Bo (including "this year's defense will be better than last") is his praise of the progress in the Offensive Line. This is the single area that, if it returns to Big Red standards as the Pipeline like the Blackshirts did last year, Nebraska is in for something special.