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1. Still waiting for the breakthrough
The mid-1990s Nebraska Cornhuskers were efficient and brutal, predictable and unstoppable, wooing you with the option and taking your head off with the Blackshirts.
The early-2010s Cornhuskers, meanwhile, are solid. Good, even. But good is not elite, and aside from the devastating 2007 season -- a 5-7 campaign that got the Bill Callahan era labeled as an undebatable, miserable failure even though he had delivered a Big 12 North title the year before -- Nebraska has never felt further away from the game's true elite. The Cornhuskers have won either nine or 10 games in each of the last four seasons, they have a strong, fun offensive backfield, and they should once again have a deep, interesting defensive backfield.
Nebraska will absolutely be good in 2012 … but in Lincoln, there is little difference between good and terrible. It appears that only greatness matters.
That comes from last year's Nebraska preview. Nebraska has now won either nine or 10 games in each of the last five seasons. The Cornhuskers still have a strong, fun offensive backfield, and they still have a deep, interesting defensive backfield. In 2012, the defense avoided what would have been a third straight year of regression, and the offense took a lovely step forward behind a resurgent line and strong play-calling.
In 2013, Nebraska should have its best offense of the Pelini era. It should also have a defense that regresses just enough to offset offensive gains. In other words, the Huskers are looking at nine or 10 wins and an F/+ ranking between about 15th and 20th. Again.
Perhaps this is the blue-blood version of Glen Mason Territory, where a program is simultaneously successful and disappointing, and fans grow both impatient and guilty about feeling impatient. Nebraska is better than most programs and nowhere near as good as the dominant programs it seeks to emulate. And to the extent that anything actually needs fixing, there's no obvious fix in sight.
But if the defense can hold it together despite a lot of new pieces, the schedule is built for wins. Not only are there an always-obnoxious eight home games on the slate, but two of the four road games are against Purdue and Minnesota. If Nebraska can once again reach a top-15 or -20 level, the Huskers could be one solid road win (against either Michigan or Penn State) away from an 11-1 record, even without any major improvement. That could be exciting, but how would Husker fans view it if it ended in a conference title game loss and BCS bowl blowout?
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 10-4 | Adj. Record: 11-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 19|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Southern Miss||49-20||W||44.5 - 24.3||W|
|8-Sep||at UCLA||30-36||L||32.0 - 33.6||L|
|15-Sep||Arkansas State||42-13||W||48.2 - 13.3||W|
|22-Sep||Idaho State||73-7||W||32.8 - 17.9||W|
|29-Sep||Wisconsin||30-27||W||38.4 - 17.1||W|
|6-Oct||at Ohio State||38-63||L||37.2 - 38.5||L|
|20-Oct||at Northwestern||29-28||W||36.6 - 12.7||W|
|27-Oct||Michigan||23-9||W||29.3 - 7.0||W|
|3-Nov||at Michigan State||28-24||W||48.0 - 29.2||W|
|10-Nov||Penn State||32-23||W||38.2 - 27.5||W|
|17-Nov||Minnesota||38-14||W||30.4 - 14.9||W|
|23-Nov||at Iowa||13-7||W||23.2 - 17.9||W|
|1-Dec||vs. Wisconsin||31-70||L||37.0 - 60.1||L|
|1-Jan||vs. Georgia||31-45||L||32.7 - 27.6||W|
|Points Per Game||34.8||28||27.6||58|
|Adj. Points Per Game||36.3||10||24.4||30|
2. A defining, and in no way indicative, performance
The defense really wasn't that bad. Honestly. For the season Nebraska ranked 30th in Def. F/+, not "Blackshirts" worthy, but not bad at all.
There was an artificial bump in there because of the Michigan game; Denard Robinson got hurt early, and Devin Gardner didn't take over at quarterback until the next week, so Nebraska got a few quarters of Russell Bellomy throwing incompletions, meaning the 188 total yards they allowed to the Wolverines weren't as dominant as the stats thought they were. But the Huskers did still allow only 295 yards (4.3 per play) to Wisconsin the first time around and 301 (4.0) to Northwestern. And they dominated bad offenses like really good defenses are supposed to, allowing 3.9 yards per play to Southern Miss, 4.1 to Arkansas State, 3.1 to Minnesota, and 3.2 to Iowa.
So yes, while this certainly wasn't a Ndamukong Suh-level Nebraska defense, it was pretty decent. That Nebraska allowed 1,229 yards in just 131 plays (9.4 per play) to Wisconsin and Georgia to finish the season was the exception, not the rule. But wow, what an exception.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Nebraska 38.9, Opponent 24.1 (plus-14.8)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 6 games): Nebraska 34.3, Opponent 18.2 (plus-16.1)
Adj. Points Per Game (postseason): Opponent 43.9, Nebraska 34.9 (minus-9.0)
That Nebraska takes the field in 2013 without its best defensive end, its two starting tackles, its top three linebackers, and both starting safeties is pretty scary. It's scarier, really, than it feels -- when you see a unit get vandalized like NU's did in the postseason, you tend to figure a blood transfusion is a good thing.
But again, with an offense that looks pretty outstanding, the Huskers can probably afford a bit of regression. Just don't make it a full-fledged collapse, because you'll blow a hell of a scheduling opportunity.
|Q1 Rk||4||1st Down Rk||7|
|Q2 Rk||13||2nd Down Rk||11|
|Q3 Rk||15||3rd Down Rk||19|
3. Second-best play-caller in the country
I'm already on record saying Georgia's Mike Bobo was the best play-caller in the country last year. (It's fun saying something that is both true and confrontational -- "Fire Bobo!" was a long-serving meme in the Georgia crowd, but there's no denying he was ridiculously good at his job last year.) But Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck may have been No. 2. He was definitely in the top five.
Whereas the persistent 2012 narrative during Nebraska telecasts seemed to revolve around tweaks to Taylor Martinez's mechanics and efforts to improve his passing ability, the fact was that his general throwing motion was very, very similar to what it had been in 2011. And Martinez was still horrific on any pass thrown further than 10 yards downfield. Martinez is a tremendous runner, and he has some of the best sleight of hand you'll ever see -- he seems to be able to make his give-or-keep decision about five yards past the option mesh point. But he's just not a passer.
Nebraska didn't improve from 33rd to eighth in Off. F/+ last year because Beck and his offensive staff turned Martinez into something he wasn't; the Huskers improved because Beck's play-calling philosophy catered perfectly to what Martinez actually was and is. Though the run percentages went up as the season progressed, Beck called a lot of quick, easy passes on first downs; Martinez is plenty accurate near the line of scrimmage, and the play-calling set up pretty consistent second-and-shorts, which Nebraska's efficient running game (as in, the most efficient in the country) was able to gobble up with ease.
Nebraska was one of the best in the country at taking free yardage. When things got tight -- as games progressed, or as Nebraska got closer to the end zone -- Beck leaned on the run a bit more, and the offense bogged down a hair. But first-quarter yards and points count just the same as they do in the fourth quarter. Beck milked the most possible production out of this unit; that's his job, and he was good at it. And there's really no reason to think he'll be any worse at his job in 2013.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Taylor Martinez||6'1, 210||Sr.||*** (5.7)||228||368||2,871||62.0%||23||12||34||8.5%||6.6|
|Ron Kellogg III||6'1, 220||Sr.||NR||4||9||22||44.4%||1||1||0||0.0%||2.4|
|Tommy Armstrong, Jr.||6'1, 220||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
4. Taylor Martinez is never going to be a passer
He takes too many sacks, he throws too many interceptions, and his passes of more than 10-15 yards are basically mini-Hail Marys. But when you run like he does, you can get away with it. Again, Nebraska had the most efficient running game in the country, pulling that off with only minimal assistance from Rex Burkhead. He showed a level of explosiveness last year that he really hadn't hinted at much before, but he also missed six games with injury, leaving most of the carries to Martinez and Ameer Abdullah (the two combined for 28 per game). Neither Abdullah nor then-freshman Imani Cross showed an inordinate amount of explosiveness, but behind a resurgent line, they were able to take advantage of the decent creases in front of them.
Two four-star freshmen enter the mix this season -- Terrell Newby of West Hills, CA, was the No. 75 overall recruit in the country last year according to Rivals.com. The backfield is loaded, in other words. And if the line can sustain last year's surge despite the loss of two starters, then there's no reason why the running game won't be top-five again.
Two all-conference linemen return. In Spencer Long and Jeremiah Sirles, Nebraska has a hell of a right-side duo. The Huskers improved dramatically on the line, perhaps partly because of the same play-calling that helped Martinez -- Nebraska punished teams for over-loading against the run, and Long, Sirles, and company were able to take advantage.
|Ameer Abdullah||RB||5'9, 190||Jr.||*** (5.7)||225||1,151||5.1||4.3||8||+2.5|
|Taylor Martinez||QB||6'1, 210||Sr.||*** (5.7)||161||1,255||7.8||7.4||10||+42.9|
|Imani Cross||RB||6'1, 225||So.||*** (5.7)||55||324||5.9||4.6||7||-0.4|
|Mike Marrow||FB||6'2, 250||Sr.||*** (5.5)||10||30||3.0||1.4||0||-1.7|
|Terrell Newby||RB||5'10, 180||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Adam Taylor||RB||6'1, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Kenny Bell||WR-X||6'1, 185||Jr.||*** (5.7)||77||50||863||64.9%||11.2||21.6%||61.0%||11.2||134.6|
|Quincy Enunwa||WR-Z||6'2, 225||Sr.||*** (5.7)||69||42||470||60.9%||6.8||19.3%||58.0%||6.9||73.3|
|Jamal Turner||WR-A||6'1, 185||Jr.||**** (5.8)||53||32||417||60.4%||7.9||14.8%||52.8%||7.8||65.0|
|Ameer Abdullah||RB||5'9, 190||Jr.||*** (5.7)||34||24||178||70.6%||5.2||9.5%||52.9%||5.2||27.8|
|Jake Long||TE||6'4, 240||Sr.||NR||10||6||55||60.0%||5.5||2.8%||70.0%||5.2||8.6|
|Tyler Evans||WR-X||6'1, 195||Jr.||** (5.4)||3||2||27||66.7%||9.0||0.8%||66.7%||10.6||4.2|
|Andy Janovich||FB||6'1, 225||So.||NR||3||2||13||66.7%||4.3||0.8%||100.0%||2.6||2.0|
|Taariq Allen||WR-Z||6'3, 195||So.||*** (5.5)||3||2||11||66.7%||3.7||0.8%||66.7%||4.1||1.7|
|Alonzo Moore||WR-X||6'2, 185||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jordan Westerkamp||WR-A||6'0, 200||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Sam Cotton||TE||6'4, 235||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
Richard Mackson, US Presswire
5. Kenny Bell is terribly underrated
Another beneficiary of the early-down passing: Kenny Bell, Martinez's primary quick-strike target who posted stats I had to double-check to verify. I like to think I do a pretty good job of keeping tabs of who's doing well and who isn't throughout the course of a season. But if you'd asked me what Kenny Bell's stat line was in 2012, I'd have guessed something around 40 catches, 500 yards, and 8.0 yards per target. Sorry for underestimating you, Kenny. The all-Big Ten voters did, too, in choosing Penn State's Allen Robinson as a first-team receiver over you.
The top three receivers all return for Martinez, including all-or-nothing passing downs target Jamal Turner. I don't really see the passing game improving much -- Martinez's ceiling is pretty well-defined -- but I don't see why it would regress much either.
|Spencer Long||RG||6'4, 315||Sr.||NR||27 career starts; 2012 1st All-Big Ten|
|Jeremiah Sirles||RT||6'6, 310||Sr.||*** (5.7)||28 career starts; 2012 2nd All-Big Ten|
|Seung Hoon Choi||LG||20 career starts|
|Brent Qvale||LT||6'7, 315||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13 career starts|
|Justin Jackson||C||12 career starts|
|Andrew Rodriguez||RT||6'6, 330||Sr.||**** (5.8)||8 career starts|
|Jake Cotton||LG||6'6, 305||Jr.||** (5.3)|
|Mark Pelini||C||6'0, 295||Jr.||NR|
|Cole Pensick||C||6'2, 275||Sr.||*** (5.5)|
|Ryne Reeves||RG||6'3, 295||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Zach Sterup||RG||6'6, 315||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Matt Finnin||OL||6'7, 305||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Chongo Kondolo||OL||6'4, 290||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Q1 Rk||35||1st Down Rk||64|
|Q2 Rk||54||2nd Down Rk||14|
|Q3 Rk||11||3rd Down Rk||27|
6. A trade-off
Since ranking a perfectly mediocre 60th in Off. F/+ in 2009, the Nebraska offense has improved for three straight years. But it's been basically a zero-sum game for the Huskers, as a defense which ranked fourth in Def. F/+ in 2009 has fallen in two of three. After tumbling from eighth to 38th in 2011, the D did rebound a bit last fall, to 30th. But the line, once a massive strength, was still terribly mediocre; and now the front seven has been ravaged by turnover. Only two of last year's top seven linemen return, and the top three linebackers are all gone.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jason Ankrah||DE||6'4, 265||Sr.||**** (5.8)||14||21.0||2.9%||6||2||0||1||2||0|
|Thaddeus Randle||DT||6'1, 290||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||15.5||2.1%||1||0||0||0||0||1|
|Kevin Williams||DT||6'2, 275||So.||*** (5.7)||5||2.5||0.3%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Avery Moss||DE||6'2, 270||RSFr.||*** (5.7)||3||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Walker Ashburn||DE||6'2, 260||Jr.||*** (5.6)||2||1.5||0.2%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Aaron Curry||DT||6'1, 280||So.||*** (5.6)||4||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Greg McMullen||DE||6'3, 285||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Vincent Valentine||DT||6'3, 325||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Randy Gregory||DE||6'6, 230||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
7. Weakness gets weaker
When you lose a lot of pieces from a mediocre unit, it only hurts so much. Nebraska ranked 50th in Adj. Line Yards and 54th in Adj. Sack Rate, and while end Eric Martin was outstanding and the tackles were actually solid in pass-rush situations, you're not exactly losing Grant Wistrom and Ndamukong Suh here. But somebody still needs to step up. Jason Ankrah, once a star recruit, was decent last season, and for all we know, two four-star newcomers -- redshirt freshman Greg McMullen and JUCO transfer Randy Gregory -- will not only hold their own, but thrive. But unless the newcomers are great, the end position has a pretty low ceiling. And it's the same story for the tackles.
The line has been a drag on the defense as a whole for a couple of years now. (While last year's postseason games were indeed mostly outliers, the front six/seven just got completely dominated in both games.) There is potential here, but almost none of it is proven. And it will be backed up by a linebacking corps with plenty of former star recruits and, yes, no proven studs. Nebraska frequently uses a nickel alignment -- five defensive backs instead of three linebackers -- by choice; in 2013, it might be out of necessity.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|David Santos||MIKE||6'0, 225||So.||**** (5.8)||13||17.5||2.4%||2||0||0||0||1||0|
|Trevor Roach||MIKE||6'2, 230||Jr.||NR||5||3.0||0.4%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Zaire Anderson||WILL||5'11, 220||Jr.||**** (5.8)||3||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Max Pirman||BUCK||6'5, 230||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Jared Afalava||WILL||6'3, 230||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Michael Rose||LB||5'11, 230||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Josh Banderas||LB||6'2, 220||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Marcus Newby||LB||6'1, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ciante Evans||NB||5'11, 190||Sr.||*** (5.7)||14||47.0||6.4%||3||2||1||8||0||0|
|Andrew Green||CB||6'0, 195||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||39.0||5.3%||2.5||1||0||3||0||0|
|Josh Mitchell||CB||5'11, 160||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||25.0||3.4%||2||1||1||5||1||0|
|Stanley Jean-Baptiste||CB||6'3, 220||Sr.||NR||14||21.0||2.9%||0||0||2||9||0||0|
|Corey Cooper||S||6'1, 210||Jr.||**** (5.8)||14||12.5||1.7%||1.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Harvey Jackson||S||6'2, 210||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||11.0||1.5%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Charles Jackson||CB||5'11, 175||So.||**** (5.8)||13||8.5||1.2%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Daniel Davie||CB||6'1, 185||So.||*** (5.5)||13||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Mohammed Seisay||CB||6'2, 200||Sr.||**** (5.9)||12||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Wil Richards||S||5'11, 190||Sr.||NR||14||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Austin Williams||DB||6'0, 205||Jr.||NR||13||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jonathan Rose||CB||6'1, 190||So.||**** (5.8)|
8. Can't worry much about the secondary
I couldn't use "strength gets stronger" as the header here because both departed safeties, Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith, were pretty damn good; they combined for almost as many tackles and tackles for loss as the top three lienbackers, and they defensed 19 passes as well.
That said, there are still a lot of exciting names here. I have no idea how Ciante Evans and Andrew Green still have eligibility left -- it feels like they have been in Lincoln since Frank Solich was there. But they're back, along with Stanley Jean-Baptiste (a stat favorite of mine -- he has defensed 13 passes in two years while only recording 28.0 tackles; that ratio means he's either an incredible ball defender or an awful tackler) and four former four-star recruits.
It's hard to say the secondary will even be as good as last year's without Stafford and Smith, but I just can't make myself worry about this unit. Nebraska's had good secondaries for a while now, and it will again in 2013.
|Ameer Abdullah||KR||5'9, 190||Jr.||17||21.2||0|
|Kenny Bell||KR||6'1, 185||Jr.||14||23.2||0|
|Jamal Turner||KR||6'1, 185||Jr.||7||22.1||0|
|Ameer Abdullah||PR||5'9, 190||Jr.||16||13.1||1|
|Special Teams F/+||103|
|Field Goal Pct||54|
|Kick Returns Avg||64|
|Punt Returns Avg||53|
9. Who's Nebraska's next great kicker?
Okay, that sounds like the worst reality show idea ever.
From 2007-10, Alex Henery made 183 of 184 PAT attempts, 42 of 43 field goals of under 40 yards, and 26 of 33 field goals of over 40 yards. In 2011-12, Brett Maher made 102 of 103 PATs, 25 of 28 field goals of under 40 yards, and 14 of 22 of over 40 yards. Both were excellent at booting touchbacks. You have to go back to 2006 (Jordan Congdon) to find when Nebraska was last iffy at kickoffs and 2004 (Sandro Deangelis) to find when the Huskers didn't have a reliable place-kicker. With Maher out of eligibility, it appears that either sophomore Mauro Bondi or redshirt freshman Spencer Lindsay will take over. Can they keep the streak alive?
And what of the Nebraska special teams unit as a whole? Long a strength (sixth in 2009, eighth in 2010, 14th in 2011), it already showed cracks last year despite Maher's general reliability. But Nebraska was average at returns and quite below average at punting last year. Can they right the special teams ship before it becomes an issue?
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|21-Sep||South Dakota State||NR|
|23-Nov||at Penn State||24|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||19|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||20|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-12 / -4.6|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (8, 4)|
10. Just about the easiest schedule imaginable
Over the last four years, Nebraska has ranked 10th, 16th, 28th, and 19th, respectively, in the F/+ rankings. As one unit improves, the other regresses, and the overall product remains about the same. It has to be both pleasing and discouraging for Nebraska fans. This isn't the end of the Callahan years, but it isn't the Osborne years either.
But with this schedule, Nebraska really could rack up a serious number of wins without actually improving much over their recent product. Only one of the Huskers' first seven opponents is projected better than 70th, and only one all year (Michigan State at home) is projected better than 20th (and barely at that). Nebraska might not face an elite opponent before the Big Ten title game, and that's only if Ohio State or Wisconsin are actually elite.
Nebraska went 50-15 in Frank Solich's six years in charge (1998-03). The Huskers won at least nine games five times with Solich, but they were rarely elite, especially as Tom Osborne's influence officially faded. They were good to very good, winning a lot of games and occasionally losing in embarrassing fashion to top-tier teams.
Now they're in a similar situation. A startlingly easy schedule could allow for Nebraska to finish the year with some really, really big games. Will they break through, or will the 2013 postseason take shape like 2012's?