June 17, 2009
A random, too-soon look at Nebraska's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. There was some talk before last season about Bo Pelini bring back a "more physical" attitude and "restoring tradition" after four years of dizzying pre-snap shifts, tongue-twisting verbiage and sometimes outright pass-happiness under NFL refugee Bill Callahan. The hope -- if not exactly the implication -- was that the Huskers were about to get really smashmouth with it again, summoning the old, piledriving juggernauts of the Osborne and Solich eras; the offense even ran the option on the first play of the spring game.
But Pelini retained Callahan's offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, and the offense was about what you'd expect from a Callahan protegé with fifth-year seniors at quarterback and the top two receiver slots: A team that still generated almost two-thirds of its total yards in Big 12 games from the passing game.
In general, the offense moved in the direction of greater balance, but still made its living primarily off the otherwise unimpressive arm of quarterback Joe Ganz, who threw 25 touchdowns, had five 300-yard games and set the school's season records for passing yards and completions. It was in many respects a ball-control offense -- second nationally in time of possession -- but it clearly revolved around being able to move the ball through the air.
At the same time, 2008 was also Nebraska's best rushing effort in conference play since abandoning the option with Callahan's arrival in 2004: With all that time at their disposal, the Huskers ran noticeably more often (40 carries per game) and more effectively (183 yards per game on 4.5 per carry) than in any season under Callahan, which may have been a major reason that they scored more points against Big 12 defenses (35.5 per game) than in any season under Callahan. Some of the improvement on the ground had to do with not having to race up and down the field to offset the worst defense in school history, a major factor in the pass-wackiness of the '07 campaign. But it also got a major boost from the late emergence of Roy Helu Jr., who replaced three-year starter Marlon Lucky in November and churned out three 100-yard efforts in the last four regular season games, averaging 7.3 per carry along the way. When Helu went down in the bowl game, third-stringer Quentin Castille blasted his way to 125 yards on 6.9 a pop.
Ganz and his top receivers, fellow overachievers Todd Peterson and Nate Swift, are long gone, leaving Helu as the unquestioned focal point of the attack. I almost wrote "star of the attack," but that still depends on how consistently he'll get the chance to replicate last year's stretch run.
What's the Same. If Callahan gets credit for anything here, it has to be for saving what had become a fairly dreadful recruiting situation under Solich. Nebraska is nowhere near what it was a decade ago, obviously, but make no mistake -- the Huskers should still be the most talented team in the Big 12 North by a couple miles:
They've narrowed a lot the last two years, but those remain fairly huge gaps; based on personnel, there is no reason Nebraska should not still be dominating this division year-in, year-in, instead of sitting on one championship game appearance since 2000. With Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin leaving Missouri, the excuses are dwindling.
The biggest arrow on the team is pointing at the secondary: Some sympathy is in order for any group doomed to face the murderer's row of Big 12 passing attacks, but with a pretty good pass rush from Ndamukong Suh and Pierre Allen up front, a much more experienced group on the back end can't afford to finish 82nd in pass efficiency D again.
Momentum ... heavy ... if only we can make it ... to ... September ... Beating last year's more or less ad hoc edition of Clemson may not seem like it's worth all that much in itself, but it did seem like a crucial step for a team that hadn't done much to recommend itself against other winners. On one hand, it was Nebraska's ninth win, enough to warrant a little postseason poll consideration; it was also the first New Year's Day win since the 2000 Fiesta Bowl rout of Tennessee. More importantly, though it was a solid win over a (more or less) respectable team, the likes of which hadn't come very easily for the previous two-and-a-half years.
Going back to the end of 2006, the Huskers have taken some major lumps against winning teams, enduring not only a 12-game losing streak to "Big Six" conference teams that wound up in bowl games, but suffering some gruesome indignities in losses to one-time underlings Missouri (41-6), Oklahoma State (45-14), Texas A&M (36-14) and worst of all, Kansas (76-39) in 2007. They opened conference play last year with another wipeout against the Tigers (52-17), this time in Lincoln, where Mizzou hadn't won in 30 years; that was sandwiched between tougher losses to Virginia Tech and Texas Tech, and foreshadowed one of the ugliest routs of the year at Oklahoma, a game Nebraska trailed 35-0 at the end of the first quarter. On the first Saturday of November, the Huksers were 5-4 and not very optimistic about anything.
If the Pelini era eventually marches on to greater triumphs, the revenge win over Kansas the week after the humiliation in Norman will probably be hailed as the great divide, or the point of embarkation, or something -- beating KU snapped the losing streak to respectable teams and set off the four-game winning streak that is the fount of virtually optimism going into this fall. Capping the streak with a New Year's win over Clemson, on national television, in a game the Tigers led 14-3 at halftime, was the first time in ages that it felt like Nebraska might be in the vicinity of "back."
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. The sudden transfer of projected starter Patrick Witt, the only returning quarterback with a college pass to his name, dumped a mountain of scrutiny on Zac Lee, who went from "battling uphill" to "more or less entrenched starter" overnight. Lee is no bum: He was a four-star prospect out of junior college with interest from some pretty impressive schools when he signed on in Lincoln two years ago, and his size, first name and JUCO trajectory brings to mind Zac Taylor, a perfectly decent quarterback who led Nebraska to its one shining moment under Callahan, the North division title in 2006. Reporter like him.
Lee also soothed the faithful's frazzled nerves by completing 15-of-18 passes in the spring game, whatever that's worth. Potentially more exciting -- and less realistic -- was the early presence of Cody Green, one of the top "dual threat" quarterbacks in the incoming class, who arrived for the spring semester fully formed, physically, at 6'4" 220 pounds. Green missed the first part of practice with a minor injury but didn't fall on his face in the spring game; he looks like the obvious back-up and, in a pinch, the new savior if Lee's not up to snuff.
Best-Case. There are two top-10, mythical championship wannabes on the slate, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech, alongside 10 very plausible victims. I don't think I want to get too far out on a limb about their early trip to Blacksburg, but if the Huskers take care of business elsewhere through the first two months, the Nov. 7 home date with Oklahoma could be one of the biggest games in Lincoln in years. (Even if it's still likely to turn out more or less like the last big game in Memorial Stadium.)
It's not promising that the top challengers in the North, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, are all on the road; given that Nebraska has lost seven of the last nine in those locales, I can't go in for the sweep there. But if it takes two out of three, that should be good enough for the North title, a spot in the low 20s in the polls and a nice Cotton Bowl bid.
Worst-Case. There's not much danger of an upset from Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State and/or UL-Lafayette, and a loss at Virginia Tech -- unless it's a complete disaster, which the Hokie offense seems unlikely to inflict -- is no harbinger of doom. Another clunker against Missouri in the Big 12 opener, though, would be a bad omen, especially with always-dangerous Texas Tech coming in to close the window on a division title before the Huskers can even get a foot through. Throw in an upset loss at suddenly confident Baylor and a disembowling at the hands of the Sooners, and it's a lot harder to get up for those late November trips to Lawrence and Boulder. If the quarterback doesn't work out and the offense can't keep up with a series of prolific offenses on the other side, the schedule is formidable enough to drop this bunch back to 5-7.
Non-Binding Forecast. Nebraska looks like the tacit favorite to win the North, and based on talent and they way they finished last year, I'm willing to back that up. Kansas is a contender as long as Todd Reesing is in the shotgun, and Missouri has a feted, up-and-coming quarterback itself, but the key game for Nebraska might be Texas Tech: The Huskers only get one of the "big three" from the South, Oklahoma, while Kansas gets Texas and Oklahoma and Missouri gets the Longhorns and Oklahoma State. Even if Nebraska only splits the road trips with KU and Mizzou, it can still take the division if it grounds Texas Tech in Lincoln and holds serve against everyone else. I don't know about the quarterback, but I do like Pelini, and assuming some improvement from the defense, this team has a very good chance of getting its teeth kicked in in the Big 12 Championship game. (The best news? The Cowboys' new stadium is equipped with a squadron of robot dentists who can perform a quick cosmetic procedure right there on the sideline. It really is luxurious.)
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Previous Premature Assessments: Fresno State, Clemson, Kansas State, Colorado State, Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Kentucky, Texas A&M, East Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Connecticut, Purdue, Tennessee, California, Auburn.