The college football season bears ever closer with fall camps in full swing. Looking ahead towards opening kickoff, we continue the Rant Sports 100 in 100 countdown with No. 23, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The Cornhuskers had high hopes in 2011 of storming through the Big Ten in their inaugural season. Things got off to a rocky start, however, as Wisconsin initiated Nebraska with a 48-17 beatdown in Madison in the Huskers first ever conference game. The team was able to rally and posted a respectable 9-4 (5-3) record that they will look to build upon in year two of Big Ten play. The key for this team will be to find some consistency week to week. While looking like a solid Top 25 team for most of the season, the Huskers got blown out in three of their four losses, including a season ending 30-13 shellacking at the hands of South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. Lincoln has little patience for failing to meet expectations and Bo Pelini will be fired up to make up for it in 2012.
The Huskers return a large chunk of their offense from last season, keyed by third-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez. Last season, Martinez accounted for over 2,800 yards of offense on the ground and through the air and scored 22 touchdowns (13 throwing, 9 rushing), but faded down the stretch when Nebraska faced its tougher opponents. All nine rushing touchdowns Martinez scored came before October 22, failing to find pay-dirt in the final seven games of the season. He will need to be a more consistent threat for the entire season if the Huskers want to take the next step.
Helping to take the pressure off Martinez in the running game will be senior running back Rex Burkhead. Last year, Burkhead rushed for 1,357 yards to lead the team and scored 15 touchdowns on the ground. He was also a nice weapon out of the backfield in the passing game, catching 21 passes for 177 yards and a pair of touchdowns on his way to All Big Ten honors. He was the anchor of the 15th ranked Husker rushing attack and will be called upon once again to gain the tough yards against these Big Ten defenses.
Nebraska is a run-first offense that would like to run the ball at every opportunity, but defense tend to catch on to that, so they will need to find someone to emerge as a playmaker in the passing game. Redshirt sophomore Kenny Bell looks to be that guy this year and for the near future. Bell emerged as the team’s leading receiver his freshman season, catching 32 passes for 461 yards and three touchdowns. While the stats aren’t gaudy on a national level, what he did with the amount of passing Nebraska did last year is impressive. Now he’ll just have to hope Martinez can hit him once in a while.
The Blackshirts of Nebraska lose some of their top defensive stars, but may turn out to be deeper in 2012. The defensive line will look to continue the Nebraska tradition of disrupting opposing passing attacks with pressure and will look to senior defensive end Cameron Meredith to get it done. Meredith has started 27 straight games for the Huskers, proving to be a versatile weapon in Pelini’s hybrid schemes. He can hold the edge as a traditional end in a 4-3 or play a standup outside linebacker in the 3-4. That versatility will allow the coaching staff to move him around and let him loose this season to do some damage in the backfield.
The defense will be led my senior middle linebacker Will Compton, who finished second on the team in tackles in 2011. After earning honorable mention Big Ten honors last season, Compton gets the keys to the defense turned over to him this season and he’ll be asked to lead an experienced, if unspectacular, group of defenders. Compton has been the veteran leadership for the team in the spring and throughout the offseason, so expect him to step up and lead in 2012.
The secondary will be led by second year starter, and former junior college transfer, strong safety Daimion Stafford. Stafford quickly cracked the starting lineup his first season in Lincoln, staring all but the season opener. He finished third on the team in 2011 in tackles while leading the team in pass breakups. He’s a hard-hitting, aggressive playing safety who can come up and help in the run game just as easily as dropping back into coverage.
The Huskers schedule sets up eerily similar to 2011. They open with four very winnable games before opening Big Ten play against the Badgers on September 29. The difference this year is that they get the tough games at home (or most of them). No trips to Madison or Ann Arbor this season, as both Wisconsin and Michigan come to the Lincoln. However, they do have tough road tests against Ohio State in Columbus and Michigan State in East Lansing October 6 and November 3, respectively. Their other two road games against Northwestern and Iowa should not prove too difficult.
So how many games can Nebraska win this year? If they don’t prove themselves to be better on the road against the best of the Big Ten, probably not much better than 2011. Taylor Martinez will need to make teams respect his arm as well or the running game will face a loaded box all season long. At the end of the day, the Huskers are a good team…but maybe not quite great. Nine wins in Lincoln (and still no Big Ten title) this year for Nebraska.
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