Underachievers: Nebraska can and should live up to preseason expectations

Graham Watson

Preseason polls rank teams based on previous results, roster and potential, but when the teams actually step on the field, many often fail to live up to expectations. Last year was no exception. Several teams missed the mark on their preseason expectations, but none more than the five you'll read about this week.

Each day this week, the Doc will uncover the top 5 most underachieving teams of 2011 beginning with No. 5 and then we'll tell you what to expect in 2012. Notre Dame came in as the nation's fifth-most underachieving team. Here's No. 4:

No. 4 Nebraska

2011: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

There were high hopes for Nebraska heading into its first Big Ten season, especially coming off a 10-4 campaign in its final year in the Big 12. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was healthy after being hampered by an sore ankle in 2010 and the Huskers had arguably one of the best defenses in the country. So it was no surprise Nebraska was ranked No. 10 in the AP preseason poll and No. 11 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Many thought the Huskers would win the Big Ten's new Legends League and when Ohio State was hit with suspensions and quarterback Terrelle Pryor transferred, Nebraska's chances of winning the league overall were all but a done deal.

What Happened?

Nebraska started out exactly the way everyone expected. It mowed down Chattanooga, Fresno State and Wyoming and handled Washington despite a poor performance by the defense. But allowing Washington 38 points and 420 total yards should have been a sign of things to come and when the Huskers rolled into Wisconsin, it wasn't pretty. Martinez threw three interceptions, the Wisconsin offense racked up 486 yards of total offense and Nebraska was humiliated in its first Big Ten Conference game.

"We didn't make plays," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "I'm embarrassed. I apologize to the fans of Nebraska."

However, Nebraska handled the loss well and went on to beat Ohio State, Minnesota and No. 11 Michigan State by 21 points.

But then the wheels fell off. Nebraska lost three of its final five games, including a 28-25 upset loss to Northwestern, which started the Huskers' season-ending descent. They trailed Michigan 17-10 at half before turnovers turned the game into a blowout. A Hail Mary by South Carolina at the end of the first half of the Capital One Bowl turned a close game into a 17-point blowout.

Key Losses

No. 7 Wisconsin 48-17; Northwestern 28-25; No. 18 Michigan 45-17

What Now?

Nebraska is getting a redo. The expectations put on the Huskers in their first Big Ten season might have been a little unrealistic given that Nebraska was unfamiliar with most of its competition.

But this year there will be no excuses.

The Huskers return 14 starters from a year ago, including Martinez and most of the team's skill players. But offense wasn't really the problem last year; it was the defense that underachieved. However, seven of the top 10 tacklers are back and expectations will be high once again.

In continuing to adjust to the Big Ten, the Huskers are going to have to learn to win big games on the road. The two ranked conference teams they faced away from Lincoln last season — Wisconsin and Michigan — made the Huskers look foolish. And the away conference schedule doesn't shape up any better with games at Ohio State and at Michigan State. The season finale at Iowa could be interesting as well.

Should You Believe?

This year's schedule looks a lot like 2011. Nebraska has a relatively easy nonconference slate, which should give them momentum and confidence. But will it be enough to get the Huskers mentally prepared for the challenge of the Big Ten?

Nebraska opens against Wisconsin at home, which will be a good revenge game and a way to shake off any Big Ten anxiety before heading to Ohio State the following week. If they can get past that game then they should have some pretty good mojo heading into games against Michigan and Michigan State in late October and early November.

Many are picking Nebraska to finish behind Michigan and Michigan State in the Legends Division, which should provide some much needed incentive when the Huskers meet those teams in the middle of the season. Nebraska has the roster and the coaching staff to be the best team in the Legends Division and perhaps the Big Ten as a whole, but they need to get out of their own way mentally or they'll be doomed to repeat the mistakes from a year ago.

2012 Prediction: 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten)

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