2011 Record: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7
Bo Pelini is back for his 5th season as head coach for the Cornhuskers. With a career record of 39-16, his win-loss percentage is nothing to sneeze at (.709). However, with Tom Osborne as his boss, there are questions if that's good enough. They started out well last season, going 4-0 in non-conference play before their first B1G Ten matchup vs. Wisconsin. They played well to begin with, then ended up being blown out 49-14 by the eventual conference champions. Surprising wins against OSU (largest comeback in school history) and MSU followed. Fit in a blowout by our Michigan Wolverines in there as well as a loss vs. South Carolina in the Capitol One Bowl and what does all that tell us? Nebraska seemed like a Jekyll and Hyde team. Seemingly gone is the dominating defense for which they have been know for in the past. Will Osborne use the hook on Pelini if things don't go perfect this season? We'll wait and see.
Offensively, Nebraska has a lot of weapons to choose from, and it all begins with Taylor Martinez. Martinez seemed a bit more comfortable in the pocket last season, and yet still struggled with his footwork and passing mechanics. Tim Beck is there for his second season as offensive coordinator, so maybe that will help Martinez focus on the details of the offense, instead of being confused.
Now, about those running numbers. Martinez had less yards and less TDs than the previous season, and some of that might have to do with relying on the pass more, but the rest of it is due to the emergence of Rex Burkhead. Some pundits are saying he's the second best running back in the conference (Montee Ball being the first). Last season he ran for 4.8 ypc for a total of 1,357 yds and 15 TDs. One question that has arisen is how much he will get the ball. It has already been said that since Burkhead was involved in 60% of the rushing attempts, that it might be scaled back. He also lacks the home run speed that other running backs do. Sure, he can break that first tackle, but after that he doesn't change gears to break away from the others. One facet that helps is his pass catching ability. He was the 3rd leading receiver last season with 177 yds. He is durable, and quite physical and that can help both him and Martinez as they drive the offensive engine.
The offensive line is highly suspect this year. Three starters are gone from last season, including second team all conference center Mike Caputo. With 2 starters returning, their production might not be solid, but it should be serviceable with Tyler Moore at the left tackle spot and Jeremiah Sirles at the right tackle spot. This coaching staff has shown they can turn out some good offensive linemen and have built some solid depth through rotation in the spring and fall. It will likely take a step back, but it should be more than capable.
The receiving corps is a mishmash of journeymen players. Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner look to lead them, and keep an eye on Turner. Turner played in 12 games and was fifth on the team with 15 receptions for 243 yards. With 16.2 ypc, he might show some game-breaking catches. Tight ends seem to be an unimportant cog in the offense, but they do have Ben Cotton. Cotton only had 14 receptions last season, but they all went for over 11 yds. His reliability in the passing game is only surpassed by his physicality in the blocking game. If the receiving corps can take a step forward in 2012, it might be the difference that can make Martinez are true threat in the passing game.
Another thing to note is the big play potential of Nebraska's offense. Martinez's passes averaged 8.32 yards per catch, which is extremely impressive. Those numbers are about identical to Denard Robinson's numbers and puts him above players like Kirk Cousins, Dan Persa, Nathan Scheelhause, and James Vandenberg. For a player that clearly has difficulty moving the ball in the air at times, ranking above those players in a passing category is quite a feat. However, when you break things down it isn't as surprising.
Martinez didn't make a ton of passes, but when he did it was typically for a pretty big gain. Is Martinez simply a great deep passer? Not particularly. Defenses had seen the tendencies of Nebraska's offense and had centered around the line of scrimmage to stop the run. This means that if Martinez completes a pass, it's probably going to be a bigger gain than for most teams. Look at Nebraska's first touchdown against Michigan last year. A 54-yard bomb to the endzone. This was not a great play by Martinez, but the result of broken coverage and an emphasis on stopping the run. If Martinez really does become a consistent passing threat next season, these numbers may actually come down. However, that's the biggest question for Nebraska's team next year.
The defense will also have some big challenges. Gone is their coordinator in Carl Pelini who left for the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic. Also gone are three key members from last season in Lavonte David, Jared Crick, and Alfonzo Dennard (13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 3 FF). Yes, they are hoping for two juco transfers to step up and start immediately, but the loss of David hurts them immensely. That's not to say the cupboard is bare. Returning is senior tackle Baker Steinkuhler, Jason Ankrah at defensive end, and linebacker Will Compton.Without Dennard, the secondary doesn't have any big names left and will probably be one of the weaker units of the team. They do have talent though in Corey Cooper, Ciante Evans and Andrew Green. Bottom line is the defense can still show a lot of grit, but it's going to take some time for the younger players to mesh together.
There are a few recruits that might make a difference in 2012. Greg McMullen and Zaire Anderson were two of the more notable pickups. I think with McMullen's size, he may actually get some significant playing time next season. He's already at 280 lbs, which makes him the biggest defensive end on the team and Nebraska lost its best defensive line player, Jared Crick, in the offseason. Anderson is also a junior college transfer that will bring a good amount of experience to the team. There are a couple other recruits that could make an impact like Vincent Valentine, but McMullen and Anderson appear to be the most likely contributors early from the 2012 class.
The schedule for the Cornhuskers is difficult at times. They open against a Southern Miss team who finished a respectable 19th in the nation last year. That, along with home games against Michigan and Wisconsin and away games vs. OSU and MSU, figure to be their toughest ones of the season. The defense can only go so far before the offense can carry them, and even then it might not be spectacular. Will Pelini be on the hot seat at any point? Maybe not after this season, but if they don't produce a division title, conference championship, or national championship this season...Osborne might not have a choice.
Big Ten Finish: 5th
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: Medium
Upset Status: Medium
Bowl Status: Decent Bowl