Sunday, August 28, 2011

Previewing the 2011 Huskers

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?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Top Ten for Nebraska Is About As Good of A Guess As Any

Personally, I think preseason polls are meaningless and actually counterproductive in the grand scheme of trying to rank teams as the season goes forward. Meaningless because it's just a guess. Every team has questions, and plus, there's a few idiots around there who think that because Team X finished last season #1, they should begin the next season #1 because nobody has beaten them. Nobody in the AP poll did that, probably because they didn't want to get the "Cam Newton is in Charlotte, dumba*" response...but I'm sure somebody gave it serious thought.

It's also counterproductive because, right-or-wrong, these preseason rankings become the baseline for the first week's rankings and then every week after that. So right now, I'm thinking about abstaining from the preseason BlogPoll for this season.  But that doesn't change the fact that the AP poll came out yesterday with Nebraska at #10.  Some people think that's too high.  I'm not sure I see that, mostly because rankings are not something that you can look at abstractly.  Rankings are relative based on the other teams they are being ranked with.

If Nebraska is ranked "too high" at #10, I'd like to know who should be ranked ahead of Nebraska. Looking over the rankings, I'm struggling to find too many teams in the second ten that should get moved against Nebraska.  Wisconsin is the obvious candidate; and if I were submitting a ballot, I'd probably list them ahead of Nebraska.  But anybody else? Virginia Tech and TCU are breaking in new quarterbacks. Notre Dame?  Really?  South Carolina? They certainly got thumped badly at the end of last season.

And frankly, I've got a few issues with some teams ahead of Nebraska.  Texas A&M ranked eighth?  C'mon. Nebraska played horrible that night last season in College Station, and even A&M fans recognize that Nebraska got hozed in that game.  Oklahoma State ranked ninth?  Florida State ranked sixth?  Stanford ranked seventh with a new coach and only 11 returning starters?  I think you can make a better case that Nebraska is ranked too low than too high.

Did Nebraska finish the season on a two game losing streak?  Yes..but let's not forget that one of those losses was to Oklahoma...and oh, look.  Guess who's #1.  With an injured freshman quarterback, Nebraska couldn't hold onto a 17-0 lead. But some will point out how poorly that quarterback played under pressure late in the season.  Good point, but let's remember another freshman quarterback from, oh, say 2009.  Came into Lincoln and threw FIVE interceptions.  That Landry Jones, what a bum, right? now he's a consensus Heisman candidate.

Is Nebraska a top ten team?  I don't know, but in August 2011, they look more like a top ten team than a lot of other teams. It really doesn't matter, because these rankings are based on pure speculation. We're less than two weeks away from real football, and we finally can set aside speculation and look at real performance on the field. Once that happens, we'll have a better idea if Nebraska is a contender, pretender, or a fraud.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thursday Night Beer: How About a "Baylor" for Miami

In the wake of Yahoo's stunning expose of Miami's nightmare of illicit benefits to 72 players, it seems that the only question that remains is whether the NCAA will impose the death penalty on Miami. Ever since SMU football was shut down for a year in the 80's, it's been assumed that the NCAA would never impose that penalty again because it was so severe. I haven't completely read Charles Robinson's report in it's entirety yet, so I won't draw a conclusion on the degree of Miami's guilt yet...but I will suggest that a full shutdown of the Miami program might not be necessary. Look at Baylor basketball:  after the Dave Bliss scandal (one player murdering another while other players received cash and drugs), Baylor didn't get the death penalty. Instead, they were forced to give up scholarships and not play any non-conference games in a season.

There are numerous ways to penalize a football program:  take away scholarships, home games, or television appearances. Maybe a combination of it all. You don't necessarily have to completely shut it down. Of course, this is something Nebraska needs to keep an eye on because the Hurricanes are on the schedule in 2014 and 2015. Will Miami still even be able to play in those seasons?  If they are still allowed to play, they very well could be penalized so severely that Miami-Ohio could be a much stronger team. That's not what Nebraska signed up for as a non-conference foe.

UNO announced today that they'll hold "Homecoming" prior to the October 1st exhibition hockey game against British Columbia. I've got mixed thoughts on this.  On one hand, it helps keep the tradition going without football, and it might improve attendance at a traditionally poorly attended exhibition game.  But let's not forget what's happening simultaneously with that exhibition game:  Nebraska's first Big Ten football game against Wisconsin. So let's not kid ourselves: only a few UNO die-hards will be attending the hockey game that night, even with "homecoming".  If UNO really wanted to do homecoming right, I'd suggest doing it Thanksgiving weekend, perhaps on Sunday afternoon with the St. Cloud State series.

When I heard the reports of two separate disasters at outdoor concerts this week (one at the Indiana State Fair and the other in Belgium), I was reminded of the stupid "Ameritragedy" gag that a few bored media members organized after a storm caused a delay in the College World Series.  I remember the complaints "it was just wind"... well, this week we saw what could happen when high winds hit an outdoor event. Was it an overreaction to the June storm, which turned out to not be quite as strong as originally thought? Yes, but a necessary overreaction.  I bet the organizers of the Indiana State Fair wish they had overreacted last Saturday night.

Remember last month when Big XII Commissioner Dan Beebe declared that "no more than one live football game will be televised on any institutional network and no high school content will be televised on a branded member's network"?  Well, Texas and ESPN are ignoring Beebe, declaring once again that the Longhorn Network will televise a second game anyway, according to Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman. Oh, and "highlights" of high school games as well. Why stop there? Why not just announce that DeLoss Dodds is now the de-facto Big XII Commissioner or move Beebe into the Texas athletic department offices. Meanwhile, now it appears that LHN will try to televise the Bovines' game against either Kansas or Kansas State. If it's K-State, the game would appear on KSU's new online network as well.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Red Letter Day

August 15th promises to be a red letter day on a couple of different fronts. Tomorrow afternoon, the Board of Regents for Texas A&M will meet to authorize Aggie President R. Bowen Loftin to pursue a new conference for Texas A&M. But wait, didn't the SEC reject Texas A&M?  Hardly. People jumped on the first line of the SEC statement and didn't read the rest.
“The SEC Presidents and Chancellors met today and reaffirmed our satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment."
I admit, the first time I read this, I thought this was a big "no" to A&M. Then I read it again. It's simply saying that "we're fine with 12". It says nothing about increasing membership to 13 or 14.
"We recognize, however, that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of institutions in the league."
What's the definition of "future"? Well, tomorrow is the future.  In other words, we're open to adding institutions, as the situation evolves.  This is looking less and less like a "no".
"We discussed criteria and process associated with expansion."
If you aren't looking to expand, what do you you need "criteria" for? Or a "process associated with expansion"? The only reason you need a "process associated with expansion" is because you are looking hard at expansion.
"No action was taken with respect to any institution including Texas A&M.”
Wow...they actually named Texas A&M.  And note that they specifically said "No action was taken": that's definitely not a no.  It's not a yes, mind you. But it's anything but a no.

What does this mean? Simple. The SEC is proceeding cautiously for fear of lawsuits. They do not want their fingerprints on the first domino of the next round of college realignment.  Texas A&M will have to ask to join the SEC, and the SEC's announcement merely says that they are ready to talk to A&M. The condition for A&M is likely a decision to leave the Big XII first. And yes, look for A&M to look to Harvey Perlman for inspiration to lay the foundation to defend against the inevitable lawsuit from the Big XII. (Outkick the Coverage has a great read on the complications of this arrangement.) How much of this happens tomorrow, and how much of this happens once everything is finalized remains to be seen. My guess is much of the foundation needs to be set tomorrow, though.

Oh, and then tomorrow night, we'll finally learn whether Bubba Starling is going to be a Husker or a Royal. It's something that we probably won't hear about until late...maybe not until the next morning. I'm not quite as sold on Starling remaining in Lincoln as Steve Sipple seems to be (I recall him suggesting that it's a 30% chance he stays), but I don't assume that he's automatically gone either. The negotiations really start tomorrow night, and it comes down to how badly Starling wants to play for his hometown team.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nighthawks Will Play in 2011

It was good news for Omaha when the UFL announced that the league would play, albeit with a reduced schedule in 2011. The Omaha Nighthawks caught the attention of sports fans around the area and even attracted some national attention when they sold out all four games last season. We all know the financial problems the league faces; last season, the UFL hemorrhaged money like a Kevin Cosgrove defense hemorrhages yards and points.  So now the league is down to four teams, with Virginia replacing Orlando and Hartford shutting down.

I'm not 100% sure why the UFL chose to go with a 6 game schedule. I understand the desire to have a balanced schedule where each team plays the other home-and-away, but maintaining the eight game schedule keeps the existing ticket plans unchanged and would increase revenue.  Certainly you know that cutting that game likely will cost the Omaha franchise at least $500,000 in ticket sales.  Maybe more.  Yes, it would be unbalanced, but the  UFL is fighting for it's financial survival.

That survival likely will only come with some sort of investment by the NFL. I do think that the UFL adds value to the NFL.  The NFL really is the only major professional sport that doesn't have a minor league system. People like to say that college football is the developmental arm, but so many players struggle making the transition in their early years.  The UFL could fill that need, and likewise help skill players develop faster. Likewise, it's also a source of replacements who are in football shape and ready to contribute when an NFL player is injured.

UFL games could also be of value to the NFL Network, which already televises Arena League games as well as Canadian games. ESPN has long realized that football - any football - is compelling television. That's why you see MAC games on Tuesday nights during the season.  Football brings ratings.  But is that enough to make the UFL financially viable? There's no way to know.

The surest way to ensure the UFL is not financially viable is for Omaha sports fans to turn their backs on the Nighthawks this season. Sure, we don't know if they'll play in 2012...but they will play in 2011.  Poorly attended games will ensure the leagues demise, and conversely, if the Nighthawks draw well in a futile effort to save the UFL, people will remember that. I have to believe that the Arena League would likely target Omaha knowing how the city supported the Nighthawks.

I look forward to the Nighthawks playing this season and plan to attend at least one game this season. Since we don't have a schedule yet, it's hard to say when, but I found it a fun atmosphere last year. And in the new ballpark downtown, it should be even better.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Peter Gammons Tweets on Bubba and Bo

Earlier this morning, my Twitter feed blew up with retweets and mentions of Peter Gammons' comment about Bo Pelini and Bubba Starling:
Bo Pellini going off on and threatening Bubba Starling is great news for the Royals.
My reaction is the same as nearly every other member of the Nebraska media corps:  What did I miss? What is Peter Gammons talking about?  Did Gammons receive some sort of scoop?  My initial take is: Probably not.  I think it's likely that Gammons heard part of the story of Starling not being on the Nebraska practice roster, misinterpreted it, maybe got a little misinformation as well, then filtered it through the national filter where the prevailing perception is that Bo Pelini is a raving lunatic

And out on Twitter it went, all with the same amount of cross-checking and validation that he spent on Pelini's last name.  (Only one "L", Peter...) Could Gammons be onto something?  Dirk Chatelain gives it some credence, though Sam McKewon got a denial from Starling's father. I personally don't give it much credence because so often I hear national reporters get stories about Nebraska football wrong, which makes me think this might be the case here if we can't get any further substantiation of it. That doesn't mean Gammons is automatically wrong; he's connected to a different set of sources on the baseball beat and may have gotten a good tip.  Those different sources may have also gotten the report wrong as it went through something similar to the telephone game, where one person tells something to somebody else, who repeats it to another, and before long, the story doesn't resemble the original story at all.

If Gammons report is true, it is a damaging report for both Starling and Pelini. I just don't know how accurate it is until Gammons reveals more than 140 characters of the story. And knowing just how wild the rumor mill gets around these parts (see Taylor Martinez "quitting" after the A&M game), if something really did happen, there would have been rumblings. So barring any further information, I'm putting this one in the unsubstantiated rumor bin.  Maybe Bob Davie's cable guy can make some sense of it.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sunday Night Dessert: Nebraska Talking National Championship Again?

I found it interesting that nearly every Nebraska player that spoke to the media on Friday mentioned playing for a national championship this season. First thing I thought of was the last time Nebraska players talked this way: four years ago. That was brash talk then for a team that lost the last two games of the previous season, and we all know how THAT ended.  (5-7, worst defense since college football players played both offense and defense, coach and athletic director run out of town on a rail, etc.) That doesn't mean another disaster like that is in store, but by that same manner, I didn't see the 2007 Train Wreck coming either. I do think Nebraska is closer to being in position to play for a title in 2011 than they were in 2007, though by no means should Nebraska be considered a favorite either. I'd argue that last season, Nebraska should or could have won every game. Texas had a losing record, Nebraska had too many penalties and mistakes against Texas A&M and Oklahoma, and frankly didn't show up in San Diego. If Nebraska has found some answers to the self-inflicted errors of last season, don't dismiss title talk coming from Lincoln. Don't buy non-refundable plane tickets to New Orleans for January either, unless you are planning to get an early start on Mardi Gras.

One item that did catch my eye was the discussion of team chemistry and especially Taylor Martinez's role in some of the team building that occurred this summer. Last season, we heard little behind-the-scenes rumblings about Martinez's leadership (or lack thereof). I don't know how much that matters; certainly it's far below the health of Martinez's ankle or his lack of understanding of the offense as a redshirt freshman in terms of importance. But it doesn't hurt either.

Tonight on BTN, I finally got a chance to watch some of the 1995 Rose Bowl between Penn State and Oregon. I freely admit that I never actually watched that game; I was still in Fort Lauderdale, and frankly after being up half the night celebrating Nebraska's victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl, I had absolutely zero interest in watching the game. The sun was shining brightly, the air temperature was 81 and the water temperature wasn't much less than that. Meanwhile back in Omaha, it was about 90 degrees cooler...which made my decision fairly easy. I've felt all along that 1994 Nebraska would probably beat 1994 Penn State fairly easily, probably by two touchdowns. Tonight I saw nothing to change my mind, and in fact, it confirmed my suppositions. Heck, let's not forget that Oregon actually went up in the polls after that game after outgaining the Nittany Lions 501 to 430 yards.

We're down to the final week of the Bubba Starling drama. I know the common wisdom is that this is all a Scott Boras drama designed to extra every last penny the Kansas City Royals have available in their budget. It'll come down to next weekend, and by Tuesday, Starling will be off to Kansas City for a press-conference and then to the minor leagues.  Well, maybe...maybe not. Keep in mind that, in the end, it comes down to what Bubba Starling wants to do. Saying no to the Kansas City Royals is not saying no to a pro baseball career; it's keeping the door open to a career in football. That baseball career will still be there, and the money might be even greater at that time. So it comes down to what Starling wants to do:  football or baseball.  And while Starling has been playing it cool and making it seem that he wants to play football, I get the feeling that Starling's first love is baseball. And so my guess is that Starling isn't long for Lincoln, but that's just that: a guess.  We'll find out for sure on the 16th.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Wednesday Night Beer: More Bodybag Games for the Huskers

I wasn't completely surprised, but still disappointed, to learn that Nebraska had added Arkansas State to the 2012 schedule and South Dakota State to the 2013 schedule. Nebraska's budget is dependent on seven home football games each season, and with four conference home games each season, the Huskers need to play three non-conference games at home. In 2012, Nebraska will travel to UCLA and in 2013, the Huskers return to Southern Miss. So these games were going to be against teams that won't demand a road game in response. 25 or 30 years ago, Nebraska could get schools like Oregon and Oregon State to come to Lincoln without demanding a return trip. 10 years ago, Nebraska could get schools like Wyoming and Colorado State to only play in Lincoln.  Now? Only Sun Belt or 1-AA teams are still willing to take a paycheck without demanding a return trip.

Nebraska is trying to fill out future schedules by agreeing to play 2-for-1 deals with the likes of Fresno State, Wyoming, and Southern Miss, but that only goes so far. And even if a 1-AA team fills the final non-conference opening in 2012, it's still a better schedule than what Nebraska had to play in 2008 and 2009.

I'll admit that I bought into the Nebraska got a tough scheduling break mindset last year when the initial Big Ten schedules were released.  It's hard to argue that the Big Ten went easy on Nebraska: the Huskers only avoid Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue the first two seasons. But I'm starting to realize I overestimated the difficulty of the Huskers schedule. A lot of that is the result of the problems at Ohio State; the Buckeyes would be a lot more formidable if Ohio State still had Terrelle Pryor at quarterback.  But as I've been working through the first four conference games, I'm realizing that I was a little too euphoric over abandoning the sinking ship that is the Big XII that I overestimated the Big Ten. I noticed that Phil Steele rated the Huskers schedule #47, and that raised eyebrows. It finally hit me when I looked at Michigan State.  A good team, to be sure, but one with a lot of holes and doesn't seem to matchup well with Nebraska. And that's the leading contender to Nebraska in the west division of the Big Ten?

Note: that doesn't mean that I've changed my mind about switching conferences, nor does that mean that I suddenly think Nebraska is going to go unchallenged in a putzy conference. It just means that, well, it's starting to look like I overestimated our new conference opponents.

Speaking of changing conferences, Frank the Tank had an enlightening assessment about Texas A&M and the SEC.  Namely, he thinks it's unlikely, and he raises several good points. First, my assumption that expansion would reopen the SEC's television deals with ESPN and CBS appears to be false. So expansion means more teams dividing the same pot. He also illustrates how Texas needs A&M around, much like rock stars need an entourage. I've assumed that Baylor, Tech, and Kansas State would be enough of an entourage...but Frank disagrees.

One thing that will likely lead to Big XII instability down the line is that he sees Texas and ESPN winning the battle over televising high school games. His reasoning is that since Texas doesn't own any part of the Longhorn Network, it's not an NCAA issue. ESPN merely has a contract to televise Texas sporting events, much like ESPN has a contract to televise all sorts of college games. Nobody's had an issue with ESPN carrying high school games in the past, so why would this matter - except that the ESPN channel is named after the Bovines. It's a good point, and not good for Big XII stability...  And before you pooh-pooh Frank the Tank, let's remember he's been spot-on with his analysis up to now on all of these realignment topics.