2011 Record: 9-4 (5-3 in Big Ten)
Head Coach: Bo Pelini (39-16 at Nebraska, 5-3 in Big Ten)
Four Year Win Trend: 9.5 wins and 4 losses
Last Bowl Game: 2011 season Capital One Bowl: lost to South Carolina 30-13
Revenge: 9/29 vs Wisconsin, 10/20 at Northwestern, 10/27 vs Michigan
Swing Games: 10/6 at Ohio St, 11/3 at Mich St, 11/23 at Iowa
Stat to Cheer: scored on 86.54% of trips to red zone (3rd in B1G)
Stats to Fear: -0.83 turnover margin in road/neutral site games, allowed opponents to score TDs on 69.23% of trips to red zone (11th in B1G)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 7; Defense: 7; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Will Compton (82 tackles), S Daimion Stafford (80 tackles), DE Cameron Meredith (58 tackles, 5 sacks), DT Baker Steinkuhler (40 tackles, 2 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Taylor Martinez (13 TD, 8 INT), RB Rex Burkhead (1357 rush yds, 15 TD), WR Kenny Bell (32 rec, 3 TD), OG Spencer Long
Top Recruits: QB Tommy Armstrong (Scout.com's #5 QB), MLB Michael Rose (#14 MLB), OT Paul Thurston (#19 OT), DT Aaron Curry (#22 DT), RB Imani Cross (#34 RB), WR Jordan Westerkamp (#36 WR), OLB Jared Afalava (#37 OLB)
Inside Scoop with Brandon Collard:
CFBZ: On defense, Nebraska loses some big name players. Who will be the leaders on this defense?
Brandon Collard: I think the leaders on defense have to be Will Compton and Cameron Meredith as both players are entering their senior year, and this is the time for them to finally shine and make an impact. I think that the absence of Jared Crick last year helped them out in getting some of that leadership which they will need this year, but they need more than just those two to step up. Defensive Tackle Baker Steinkuhler also needs to make an impact because he has had expectations placed on him since day one due to his family ties. He has played well over his career at Nebraska, but he needs to step up and be a front line leader, since the defensive backfield still leaves a lot to be desired. Another player which I am looking at big things from is cornerback Stanley Jean-Bapstiste, as a player who was converted from wide receiver last year he showed flashes of being excellent in spurts, but was still very raw in playing the position. My expectations from him are high but less so than others. I do look at him to anchor the defensive backfield, which was atrocious last season outside of Alfonzo Dennard.
CFBZ: Taylor Martinez enters his third year at Nebraska. What are the expectations for him this year?
Brandon Collard: Taylor Martinez’ expectations this year should be to improve his decision making and footwork. I have been one of his biggest critics the past two years, but he has shown signs of being an excellent player from time to time. What he needs to improve upon is his footwork and making sure he gets set in the pocket when he is dropping back to pass. He needs to work on not constantly moving around like his feet are being shot. He also needs to work on his decision making process. Just go back and look at the game against South Carolina. There were so many mental lapses tjat really sealed the fate of the offense. Last year I was a big proponent of having the offense be simplified much like the Ravens did in their Super Bowl year, trying to let the defense do the work for them, and score enough to win each game. Unfortunately I forgot that was the Ravens, and the idea of that working when the defense had as many issues, and injuries as it did was pretty much thrown out the window pretty quickly.
What are my expectations for him? I expect improvements in every facet of his decision making and game management. His throwing motion is what it is, and I doubt anyone would be talking about it if this team were going 12-0 or 11-1 every year, I just expect the mental aspect of his game to improve. I think his goal of having a 70% completion rate is pretty lofty, but if he can get it up to 60-65% I think the passing game will be in better shape than it has been in a while.
CFBZ: What areas do you see as Nebraska's biggest potential weaknesses this year and who needs to step up in those areas?
Brandon Collard: The first potential weak area has to be the receiving corps, and that goes for the tight ends as well. This has never been a strong suit of Nebraska save for the Terrence Nunn/Nate Swift/Maurice Purify era, but even then they were backed up by a decent to good rushing attack. Nebraska has one of the country’s best tailbacks in Rex Burkhead, and has a very athletic quarterback in Taylor Martinez, but there has to be more than just those two carrying the load every week. The key to a good offense has to be variety, and Nebraska gets very one dimensional sometimes because of how they structure what they do. The receiving corps last year left a lot to be desired, and still suffered from the old Nebraska “hands of stone” issues which have been pretty consistent with the Bo Pelini regime. The players who need to step up are Ameer Abdullah and Jamaal Turner. While Abdullah is not a wide receiver, he is an offensive threat that has shown the ability on special teams to be able to make big plays, and based on that they should use him in any situation which they can. Utilizing him on screens, and shorter routes so that he can break away from defensive backs, would be an excellent way to bring the offense out of the one dimensional doldrums which they have a habit of falling into. Last year I felt that Jamaal Turner (despite it being his first year playing wide receiver) could have been utilized far more on a week to week basis. While I don’t think he will ever be a true “number one” receiver anywhere; I think he can be used as an excellent decoy, and trick play option. Since he is a former quarterback the idea to use him on reverses, and lining him up under center would be wise because Taylor Martinez is an excellent athlete, and could easily make a catch or two on offense and try to break something big. The offense just needs to get creative, and do something to keep defenses off balance. I am not saying they need to get “cute,” but they do need to do more to show off some of the weapons which they do have
On the defensive side of the ball I would say the biggest potential weak spot has to be the aforementioned secondary unit. Last year (outside of Alfonzo Dennard) the secondary was an absolute embarrassment. Ciante Evans and Andrew Green left a lot to be desired to say the least, Austin Cassidy the same way, and Justin Blatchford played a lot like someone named Justin Blatchford. Through all of that they may have stumbled upon a diamond in the rough with Stanley Jean-Baptiste. I already mentioned a few things about what I like about him, and why he needs to step up, but it should also be reminded that he is only in his second year of playing the position. As good as he looked in spots, he also looked very, very green in other spots. He needs to step up and learn as much as he possibly can because he should be the anchor for the secondary. There will be rough spots, but he is athletic enough to get things done.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Brandon Collard: Last year at this time I said that Nebraska would be playing for a National Championship, and would only lose to Wisconsin during the regular season. This year I will not be nearly as bold because that was pretty absurd when I look at a prediction like that in hindsight. For an overall record I will say a 9-3 regular season and an appearance in one of the Big 10/SEC New Year’s Bowl Games. Will this be enough in the eyes of most Nebraska’s fans? I am not exactly sure because that seems like what you can pencil this team into going every year and unlike the professional sports there are no perks for dropping below. I hate to get complacent with my expectations from the team, but that’s the way it has gotten the past few years, and it’s why I checked out last season when I did because of how stagnant my emotions came from the team. In order for it to be “above and beyond,” though is by doing something out of the ordinary. The team needs to defeat an upper echelon team, they need to win a big game, they need to do something which makes it seem like they are going up, and just aren’t going to be slotted into those 9 or 10 win teams every year.
In Nebraska's debut season in the Big Ten they managed to get victories over Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. Not bad, but they fell to Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Overall, Nebraska had about as tough of a first year B1G schedule as was possible. They had to play at Michigan and at Wisconsin and they also played the three toughest teams from the opposite division (Wisky, Ohio State and Penn St). Overall, it wasn't a bad year for Nebraska but it was a bit disappointing based on where they had been projected by some pre-season prognosticators.
One area Nebraska needs to improve this season is to be more balanced offensively. Last year, the Huskers finished fifth in the conference in total offense but that was split between a tenth place passing offense and a third place rushing offense. Rex Burkhead returns so there should be little issue with running the football but it also helps if the opponent doesn't know what is coming. Last year Nebraska finished the season with 611 rushing attempts to only 293 passing attempts. If Taylor Martinez can progress this year and be a more consistent passing threat it will really help the Huskers take a big step forward.
In moving from the Big 12 to the Big Ten most probably expected the defense to maintain it's current level or at least look better on paper (statistically speaking). The Big 12 is known for it's explosive offenses and the Big Ten is known for more of an all-around game that generally doesn't feature as much scoring. A surprising thing happened as Nebraska allowed six more points per game last year (versus 2010) and also gave up around 45 more yards per game. While some of that can be blamed on the change in conference it can also be blamed on personnel as Nebraska just didn't seem to have the same horses that they've had recently on defense. It will be interesting to see how the Huskers come out of the box this season. Will they get back to their roots as a rough and ready defensive unit or will they be a middle of the pack Big Ten defense like they were last year.
Two games really stood out for the Huskers last year and they were both blowouts. The Huskers got blown out in their two biggest road tests last year (Wisky and Michigan) and overall they finished just 3-3 on the road (and in neutral site games) versus a 6-1 home record. This year, Nebraska still has a very tough schedule as they still play the best two teams in the opposite division but they get them at home. This years big road tests will be at Urban Meyer led Ohio State, at Northwestern (who beat Nebraska in Lincoln last year), at Michigan State and at Iowa. Phil Steele is projecting Nebraska in a three-way tie with Michigan and Michigan State at the top of the Big Ten but I see the Huskers as just a slight step behind them right now. Is this the year that Bo Pelini can break the streak of four loss seasons?
2012 Prediction: 9-3
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