After finishing up my 2011 opponent previews for CornNation, I realized I hadn't "closed the loop" with some thoughts on Nebraska this season. My personal take is that after reviewing everybody on Nebraska's schedule, I'm more optimistic about Nebraska's chances this year. That being said, this year is much more of a case of prognostication because there simply aren't many opportunities for direct comparison between a Big XII and a Big Ten schedule. So here are the baseline assumptions I make about Nebraska this season.
At quarterback, most pundits throw Taylor Martinez into a list of potential Heisman candidates. Obviously, they think the "real" Martinez is the one that we saw the first two months of the season. Was he inconsistent at times? Absolutely. He was also a freshman. Did he play poorly down the stretch? Yes, though let's not forget why: an injury that took away his primary weapon. If he's healthy and has grown into the role of playing quarterback, he'll definitely be a contender for all sorts of honors.
Rex Burkhead is a solid I-back who rarely made a negative play...but he wasn't the game-breaker that Roy Helu was. Helu's gone, and three freshman will be counted on to fill that role and complement/relieve Burkhead. I'm not a recruiting guy, so I don't know which back it will be...but the law of averages would indicate that one of the three incoming backs should be able to become a solid #2 back. I don't know if it will be Aaron Green, Ameer Abdullah, or Braylon Heard, but I doubt all three will be washouts. And thus, I think the running back position will be as strong, if not stronger, in 2011.
Wide receiver is one of those positions that frustrated me throughout the last few years. How can you run a pro-style West Coast Offense without talented receivers? Frankly, I don't think it was ever a talent problem as much as a coaching problem. Look at Chris Brooks, who's probably had more of an impact in the NFL than he ever had at Nebraska. I'm reminded of the frustrating drops that plagued the Huskers the last couple of years and resulted in losses to Virginia Tech, Iowa State, and Texas. So needless to say, I'm happy that Ted Gilmore left Lincoln, and am optimistic that Rich Fisher can do better. And after watching Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell in the spring game, I think Nebraska could have more playmakers on the field than ever before. So I'm optimistic here as well.
The injuries on the offensive line continue a sad trend, but I am encouraged with the number of freshmen and sophomores now in a position to start. Depth has been a problem here the last couple of years, but now it seems there is a changing of the guard. Will that mean an improvement up front? Right away, no...but as the season goes on, it will. So again, I'm optimistic here.
On the defensive line, I think this group is going to be as solid as in 2009 as long as everyone stays healthy. Can Eric Martin be the final piece of the puzzle that allows this defense to unleash pure havoc on the Big Ten? If not, is Josh Williams ready to replace Pierre Allen?
At linebacker, a full season of Will Compton can only help this defense deal with the power rushing attacks this season. And 6'6" 235 pound Sean Fisher replacing Eric Hagg might be an even bigger piece of that puzzle. This is one of those big question marks that I have for this season; I'm optimistic that the brothers Pelini have an answer for Big Ten offenses, but until we get to October, we'll never know for sure.
The secondary is my biggest concern going into this season. Alfonzo Dennard could be an all-American...but only if he's healthy, and we don't really know about how serious his preseason injury is. Ciante Evans looked really good in relief of Dennard against Missouri last season, and really bad against Iowa State the next week. Obviously, whomever lines up to replace Prince Amukamara isn't going to be as productive as the Prince was. Austin Cassidy might have been more consistent than Evans last season, but he won't be as good as Dejon Gomes was last season either. So this secondary shouldn't be as good as Nebraska's was last season. But with Nebraska's move to the Big Ten, being better in the front seven is more important than being better in the secondary.
So what does that mean for 2011? Here are my thoughts before we ever play a game.
Likely wins: Chattanooga, Wyoming, Minnesota. If Nebraska can't win these games, it's going to be a long season.
Probable wins: Fresno State, Washington, Northwestern, Iowa. Fresno always gives BCS teams quite a tussle; Nebraska can't afford to ignore this one. Nebraska mistakes with turnovers and poor play doomed the Huskers in the Holiday Bowl; I expect Nebraska to be ready to play for this one. Northwestern is a solid team, but they were too dependent on Dan Persa last season, and while Persa will play, it's unlikely his Achilles will allow him to be the same playmaker he was last season. 2011 will be a rebuilding season for Iowa; too many holes all over the roster except on the offensive line.
Tough games: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan. Three of these are on the road, and I think Nebraska probably loses two of those. Wisconsin looks to be the equal of Nebraska for the most part, and with the game in Camp Randall, I think Nebraska probably ends up on the short side here. I also think Nebraska probably drops one of those road games in November...probably at Michigan, as I think the Weasels could be well on the road back to relevance by then. Ohio State has plenty of talent, but I think they have a few question marks that need to be solved. I think the Huskers win a close one here. The matchup of Michigan State and Nebraska seems to favor the Huskers, so while the Spartans will challenge Nebraska in the Big Ten's west division, I don't think it'll be as big of a challenge on the field. Penn State probably will be a tough game as well, though I think Nebraska wins that one as well.
So my math puts Nebraska at 10-2, and likely in Indianapolis to play Wisconsin again. On a neutral field, this one looks like a barnburner and frankly, a toss-up. I'll weasel out and not pick a B1G champion, except to say that both teams end up in BCS bowl games.
To review my past predictions, I predicted 11-1 last season and 8-4 in 2009. I predicted 9-3 for 2008, missing it by one game. I didn't see the 2007 meltdown coming, predicting 10-3 instead. I did nail 2006 by predicting a 9-3 regular season and a Big XII North championsihp. I was one game off in 2005 as well, predicting 8-3 in the regular season. Your predictions?