2012 Nebraska Football Preview: Is Good, Good Enough?

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 12: Taylor Martinez #3 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers hands the ball off to Rex Burkhead #22 against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the game on November 12, 2011 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Bo Pelini has done a good job in Lincoln, inheriting a 5-7 team and winning at least nine games for four straight years. But in the land of Tom Osborne, "good" might not be enough for Husker fans. Can the Huskers reverse some alarming regression on defense and challenge for elite status once again? Related: Nebraska's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Husker football, visit Nebraska blog Corn Nation, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire.

It's an interesting time to be a Nebraska fan right now. In a still-new conference, in a college football universe dominated by the southeast, Husker fans are in the odd position of being separated from the elite programs in the country while still close enough to recent elite play to both expect and demand it.

This, after all, happened fewer than 20 years ago.

This, meanwhile, happened fewer than 15 years ago.

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.


Related: Check out Nebraska's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Nebraska last year:

The conventional wisdom surrounding this year's Big Ten race is that Wisconsin is the favorite in the East Leaders, Nebraska in the West Legends. And to be sure, that is a possible outcome. But the projections in the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 paint a different picture. As with last year, we're not giving Nebraska benefit of the doubt (and last year, it turned out our Nebraska projections -- ten wins and a ranking in the 20s -- were much closer to reality than the preseason polls). Thanks in part to a brutal conference slate, our projections say they could very well be in a dogfight with Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State (though I won't spoil the order, all four are predicted to finish either 5-3 or 4-4 in conference this fall).

This may seem counter-intuitive (But ... Nebraska! Defense! Taylor Martinez!), but it's not hard to see what the numbers see here. Their long-term performance rankings are only solid and far from great. Their YPP margin suggests they got a bit lucky last year in terms of both points-to-yards efficiency and fumbles luck. They finished horribly (though obviously this had a bit to do with injuries). They return Martinez but lose three line starters and their two biggest non-Martinez big-play threats. They have to replace a ton of talent in the secondary and must rely on a defensive line that got pushed around more than expected (and they're now in a conference where you can get pushed around quite a bit).

Bo Pelini has obviously restored quite a bit of Nebraska's shine, but they still have yet to finish higher than 16th in the year-end F/+ rankings, and there's no guarantee this will be the year either. Maybe Tim Beck and a completely healthy Martinez cure the at-times ailing offense, maybe Jamal Turner turns out to be an incredible big-play threat, maybe the rest of the defensive line helps Jared Crick out a bit more, and maybe Alfonzo Dennard is Prince Amukamara 2.0. But give me four "maybes," and I can turn Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State into great teams too. As we wait to see the new rivalries into which Nebraska gets fully immersed, we should also probably wait and see if all the pieces finally come together at an elite level for the Pelinis instead of simply assuming they will.

Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten was both successful and relatively forgettable. The Huskers played solid offense for most of the year, and the defense showed spurts of greatness -- it allowed just 187 yards (3.3 per play) and three points versus Michigan State, 270 yards (4.6 per play) and seven points versus Iowa -- but for most of the season, both units were simply solid. And both units faded at the end of the year.

First Eight Games: Nebraska 28.7 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.4 (plus-3.3)
Last Five Games: Opponents 27.2 Adj. Points per game, Nebraska 27.0 (minus-0.2)

Compared to 2010, the offense improved rather significantly in 2011, from 88th to 39th in Passing S&P+ and from 81st to 28th in Off. F/+. With Taylor Martinez behind center, Nebraska's was still a run-first, run-second offense, but Martinez did improve through the air (28-37 for 289 yards, two touchdowns versus Northwestern, for instance), and Nebraska was much more effective at closing out drives last fall.

On the flipside, the defense regressed significantly in the same way. A combination of injuries and shocking ineffectiveness were the catalyst for a drop from third in the country in Def. F/+ to 41st and from 27th in Standard Downs S&P+ to 42nd. No Nebraska lineman recorded more than 6.0 tackles for loss, and only two Huskers sacked the quarterback more than 2.5 times.

Heading into 2012, then, Nebraska is in the odd position of needing to improve its defense in order to win games. For years, the shoe has been on the other foot.

Offense

With Martinez leading the way, the Nebraska offense very much will be what it has already been. Martinez's skills with both his legs and a great play fake are far greater than those involved with the forward pass, but in 2011, the Huskers did figure out how to keep defenses off-guard just enough for Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead to find solid success running the ball.

Advanced stats suggest that Burkhead is really nothing more than serviceable in the backfield -- he rushed for just 4.8 yards per carry and a plus-4.5 Adj. POE (which means he is less than a touchdown better than the average college rusher given his carries, opponents and blocking). But what he lacks in explosiveness, he makes up for with reliability and diversity. Burkhead is Nebraska's third-leading returning receiver with 21 receptions for 177 yards (6.8 per target) and an 81 percent catch rate. He is also capable of spearheading the occasional Wildcat formation attack. He is durable and physical in ways that Martinez is not, and they make for a a good combination.

Now if they could just get a little more out of an offensive line that was nothing more than fine in 2011, ranking 68th in Adj. Line Yards. A little turnover up front might not be a bad thing, but one has to be wary of the loss of three starters, including second-team all-conference center Mike Caputo. Five players with starting experience do return, however, having amassed 44 career starts. Tackle Jeremiah Sirles and former walk-on guard Spencer Long have each started a full year's worth of games, while former four-star recruits Andrew Rodriguez (eight starts) and Tyler Moore (four) should fare reasonably well. The line might not get too much better, but it shouldn't regress any further than it already has.

In the preseason in 2011, we heard a lot of buzz about the play of freshman Jamal Turner, who lit Corn Nation aflame with a strong spring performance. It was another freshman, however, who ended up taking center stage in the Nebraska passing game. Kenny Bell, a three-star recruit from Boulder, easily led the team with 32 catches for 461 yards (7.9 per target, 55 percent catch rate). Turner was impressive with the chances he got (15 catches, 243 yards, 10.1 per target, 63 percent catch rate), but he didn't end up seeing a high level of opportunity.

Both return in 2012, as do junior Quincy Enunwa and tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton. Combined with Burkhead, then, seven of Martinez's top eight targets return from a unit that, again, did improve quite a bit in 2011 despite occasional issues with drops. This is a good thing.

If nothing else, any quality that doesn't have to come from Martinez and Burkhead will keep legs fresh and minimize the chance for an injury to either of the two. There are four-star backups to each -- sophomore quarterback Brion Carnes, sophomore running back Braylon Heard (along with three-star sophomore back Ameer Abdullah) -- but Martinez and Burkhead are still the best, most proven weapons on the offense. Keep them upright and healthy, and you will have yourself a solid, if less than spectacular, unit.

Defense

Both those 2009 and 2010 Nebraska defenses were good. Led by Ndamukong Suh, whose name I have never typed without also including the word "transcendent," the Huskers improved from 80th in Def. F/+ to fourth in Bo Pelini and his brother/coordinator Carl's second season in Lincoln. In 2010, despite the loss of Suh and the only-good-not-great play of his successor, Jared Crick, the Huskers improved to third on the strength of a deep, aggressive, dynamic secondary.

In 2011, however, the Pelinis had to go back to the drawing board. Gone were cornerback Prince Amukamara and others from the secondary, and Crick was only able to play five games because of injury. Suddenly, Nebraska had a defense incapable of making a mess of plays behind the line of scrimmage, and a decent -- if depleted -- secondary was only so able to pick up the slack. Nebraska had zero tackles for loss versus Fresno State, and only one each against Washington and Wyoming.

Without Crick, and without all-everything linebacker Lavonte David (13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles), the defense simply must figure out how to make a few more plays in 2012. The offense will be good at milking leads and playing ball control, but it is not -- and will never be -- meant to play from behind (sans last year's Ohio State game, of course). The front seven is stocked with players with great recruiting profiles who have shown flashes -- five-star senior tackle Baker Steinkuhler, four-star junior end Jason Ankrah, four-star senior linebacker Will Compton -- but a lot of said plays will probably have to come from a solid secondary.

David was the clear leader of the Husker defense, but Daimion Stafford quickly turned himself into David's No. 2. He racked up 63.0 tackles and 3.0 tackles for loss (better than all but three linemen), and he broke up a strong 10 passes. Stafford, corner Andrew Green (2.0 tackles for loss, one interception, eight passes broken up) and old hands like P.J. Smith and Ciante Evans should give new defensive coordinator John Papuchis (Carl Pelini is now the Florida Atlantic head coach) some fun pieces. Papuchis was a defensive intern for Nick Saban at LSU and has been Nebraska's defensive line coach since 2008. He became recruiting coordinator as well in 2011 before replacing the younger Pelini.

If the offense maintains its 2011 improvement, the defense won't have to play at a 2010 level for the Huskers to contend in the Legends Division. But it will have to be quite a bit better than it was last year. It might be a pretty good time for new blood at coordinator, and it may be a great time for some former star recruits to raise their games a bit.

Defining Success

If this program weren't named Nebraska, then I would look at a schedule that includes tricky non-conference visits from Southern Miss and Arkansas State, a non-conference visit to a blank slate of a UCLA team, and in-conference visits to Ohio State, Northwestern (which won at Nebraska last year), Michigan State and Iowa, and I would say that simply going undefeated in non-conference and going .500 in conference might signify pretty solid play and reasonable success.

But after the teases of 2009-10, and after the move to a new conference that didn't exactly bow to them on the field, one can sense Husker fans getting a little restless. I can't imagine anything less than a strong run at a division title (which would mean at least 9-3 or 10-2) would be considered much of a success.

Prognosis

Bo Pelini inherited a team reeling from its 2007 collapse, and he pretty quickly turned it into a solid winner. Nebraska has won at least nine games in each of its last four seasons and is clearly a well-established Top 20-30 program. But for a fanbase that could probably still unanimously name the entire 1995 two-deep, and for a program that keeps reserved seats for Heisman winners Eric Crouch and Johnnie Rogers in the press box, "Top 20-to-30" doesn't exactly have an amazing ring to it. Nebraska is finding itself in some top-tier version of Glenn Mason Territory, and it is a pretty awkward place to be.

In 2012, the schedule conspires against the Huskers, but the team itself should certainly be at least as good as last year's, and I can pretty easily talk myself into it being a little better. But is "a little better" enough to make a significant difference?

For more on Huskers football, visit Nebraska blog Corn Nation, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire.

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