2012 Nebraska Preview - No More Novelty
Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez & RB Rex Burkhead
Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez & RB Rex Burkhead
Posted Jun 28, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Bo Pelini
5th year: 39-16
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 27, Def. 27, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 27
Ten Best Nebraska Players
1. RB Rex Burkhead, Sr.
2. QB Taylor Martinez, Jr.
3. DT Baker Steinkuhler, Sr.
4. LB Will Compton, Sr.
5. S Daimion Stafford, Sr.
6. CB Mohammed Seisay, Jr.
7. TE Kyler Reed, Sr.
8. DE Cameron Meredith, Sr.
9. WR Kenny Bell, Soph.
10. TE Ben Cotton, Sr.
2012 Schedule
Sep. 1 Southern Miss
Sep. 8 at UCLA
Sep. 15 Arkansas State
Sep. 22 Idaho State
Sep. 29 Wisconsin
Oct. 6 at Ohio State
Oct. 20 at Northwestern
Oct. 27 Michigan
Nov. 3 at Michigan State
Nov. 10 Penn State
Nov. 17 Minnesota
Nov. 23 at Iowa
Now that all the thrill and novelty of joining the Big Ten has worn off, maybe Nebraska can get back to the business of being Nebraska again.

While head coach Bo Pelini didn't seem to care a lick about the conference change, and the players said all the right things but didn't appear fazed, it was a storyline each and every week. From kicking Big Ten life off with a thud in a blowout loss at Wisconsin, to the gut-check win over Ohio State the following week, to the surreal and utterly creepy first game after the explosion at Penn State, the team was tested time and time again.

The Huskers always took almost everyone's best shot – Michigan State didn't get the memo in a lifeless loss – and they'll have to deal with that again with road trips to Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa sure to jazz up the opposing fan bases, but unlike last year the team has to be on a more even keel. More importantly, they have to be able to show up against the better teams. They have to show the Big Ten that they deserve to be considered one of the league's stronger programs.

The loss in Madison came to one of the nation's top teams, while the Huskers can be forgiven for a letdown at Michigan the week after the circus in Happy Valley. But what has to be concerning was how inconsistent the team was during the second half of the season.

Just when it seemed like everything was on the right track with a dominant performance over Michigan State, next came the big clunker with the defense failing to do much of anything in a loss to a mediocre Northwestern squad. Yes, it was a draining, emotional win over the Nittany Lions, but the defensive front was miserable the week after, getting ripped to shreds by the Wolverines.

Worse yet, the offense that looked like a potential juggernaut with 25 rushing scores in the first seven games fell flat with just six touchdowns on the ground over the final five games. With a lousy passing game unable to pick up the slack, the O that scored 34 points or more over the six of the first seven games couldn't come up with more than 25 over the final six.

The program has become everything that former athletic director Steve Pederson had feared it would be when he canned Frank Solich almost a decade ago: slightly above average. But it might not take too much tweaking to make the quick left turn into a division title and a shot at the Big Ten championship. It will take a slew of big breaks, though.

QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead have to stay healthy for a full season again. If either one of those two go down, the offense that sputtered and coughed way too much will be dead in the water. The O line needs a slew of decent players to be ready for primetime, and the receiving corps has to prove that all the athleticism and potential can translate into production.

The defense needs more from the front four and has to get by without star linebacker Lavonte David and corner Alfonzo Dennard, but there's talent coming in from the JUCO ranks and the starting 11 should be good enough to win at least a division title. Throw in dual-threat kicker Brett Maher and kickoff returner extraordinaire Ameer Abdullah and the special teams will be a major plus to help out both sides of the ball.

No, this isn't going to be 1997 Nebraska by any stretch and the expectations of the former superpower have slipped from national-title-or-bust to hoping for ten wins, but the program still matters. It's still going to be a weekly story throughout the Big Ten season because, yeah, Nebraska is still in a new world and it does still seem new and exciting. Now it's time to establish its territory as a Big Ten power instead of looking like a faded Big 12 program in a constant reloading mode.

What to watch for on offense: More from the passing game. Taylor Martinez was a good all-around playmaker in high school, but he's a runner who makes the offense shine when he's making things happen on the move. However, this offseason he spent time working hard on his mechanics – primarily getting the footwork right – to start adding more of a passing element to his game. He'll never be a pro quarterback and he'll never throw for 4,000 yards in a season as a Husker, but he should be able to do a bit more to boost up the nation's 104th ranked passing game. The receiving corps is there with the loaded tight end duo of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed and speedy wideout Kenny Bell leading a veteran group of pass catchers. All Martinez has to do is start hitting on around 65% of his throws and complete more third down throws. He can do that.

What to watch for on defense: Will there be a pass rush? In 2009, Nebraska finished second in the nation in sacks, averaging over three per game and coming up with 44 on the year. Getting behind the line against wasn't a problem, either, but it helped to have Ndamukong Suh collapsing things from the inside. Partly because of the team's aggressiveness up front, the D finished first in the nation in points allowed and seventh in total defense. In 2010 the Huskers struggled up front, finishing last in the Big 12 in tackles for loss coming up with just 60. Last year, the pass rush was even worse with fewer hits on the quarterback while finishing dead last in the Big Ten in tackles for loss. The defense won't be more aggressive this season, but it needs Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler up front to start making more big plays.

The team will be far better if … the running game rocks. For all the talk of a more balanced attack and for all the hopes of more big plays from the passing game, it's still Nebraska and it's still at its best when the O line gets to line up and blast away for the ground game. Nebraska went 9-0 last year when running for 155 yards or more, and 0-4 when going under the 155-yard mark. The Huskers need to run effectively to win.

The schedule: The Huskers can be forgiven to add Idaho State to the non-conference schedule. There aren't any real breaks with a sneaky-tough pre-Big Ten slate with Conference USA champion Southern Miss to start, a huge game for the Jim Mora era at UCLA, and then a date with Sun Belt champ Arkansas State. And then the fun starts.

The Big Ten schedule couldn't be harder getting the three best teams from the Leaders – Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin – and going on the road to face the Buckeyes, Michigan State, and Iowa. Coming off a showdown with Michigan, the trip to Northwestern could be a landmine.

While the Huskers won't be at home once from October 6th to mid-November, there's a decent late stretch of three home games in four weeks before closing out at Iowa. Holding serve in Lincoln will be a must to have any dream of winning the Legends.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Rex Burkhead. How much more effective is Nebraska when it's running the ball well? It's 11-0 over the last 30 games when Burkhead runs for 100 yards or more. With decent size, breakaway speed and unquestioned toughness, he's a workhorse who can occasionally hit the home run from time to time. He helped carry the attack in wins over Penn State and Iowa, and he barreled his way to a tough 119 yards against Ohio State and 130 against Michigan State. He might not have to run for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns again for Nebraska to win, but he can't be far off.

Best defensive player: Senior DT Baker Steinkuhler. Linebacker Will Compton and safety Daimion Stafford could also be the team's best defensive players, and the new JUCO stars Zaire Anderson and Mohammed Sesay won't be far off, but it's Steinkuhler who needs to hold it all together. A steady performer over the last few years, he came up with 40 tackles with two sacks and five tackles for loss. This year he needs to be the anchor for an inconsistent defensive front that struggled after losing Ndamukong Suh a few years ago and wasn't quite the same when Jared Crick was banged up. Steinkuhler is good enough to handle the work.

Key player to a successful season: The defensive JUCO transfers. There are only two, but they will be tremendously important. It's always a risky proposition to ask for any newcomers to make a gigantic impact right away, but that's exactly what's expected from Zaire Anderson and Mohammed Sesay. Linebacker Lavonte David made 133 tackles as the heart-and-soul of the defensive front, while Alfonzo Dennard, despite not making a pick, was the team's top corner. Anderson has all the tools and all the talent to help pick up the slack for a linebacking corps that needs a new David, while Sesay showed this offseason that he can step in for Dennard without skipping a beat.

The season will be a success if … the Huskers win the Legends. It will take at least a split against Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks, and it'll take another split over Wisconsin and Ohio State from the Leaders, but the team is just strong enough to get through road games at Northwestern and Iowa and should be able to beat Penn State and Minnesota. There's no reason to go anything less than 4-0 in non-conference play, and a ten-win season should be expected.

Key game: Nov. 3 at Michigan State. The game against Michigan the week before could be more important, but that's in Lincoln. Going to Ohio State will be tough, but that's an interdivisional game. If the Huskers can hold serve against the Wolverines, then the date in East Lansing will probably determine – in some way – the Legends title, and it'll also be at the end of a key stretch of three road dates in four games.

2011 Fun Stats:
- Kickoff Return Average: Nebraska 25.5 yards – Opponents 24 yards
- Time of Possession: Opponents 31:30 – Nebraska 28:30
- Average Rushing Yards Per Game: Nebraska 217.2 – Opponents 158.5

- 2012 Nebraska Preview | 2012 Nebraska Offense
- 2012 Nebraska Defense | 2012 Nebraska Depth Chart 

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