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Know your opponent: week 10, Nebraska

Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.

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The basics
2012 Record: 10-4 (7-1 Big Ten)
Returning starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 5
Coach: Bo Pelini, 8th year

2012 capsule

Take away the last two games of the season, and Nebraska doesn’t come out looking so bad after all! A week-two six-point loss to UCLA is no shame – the Bruins won their own division last season, and are every bit the better team in the city of Los Angeles right now – and getting bulldozed at Ohio State…well, it happens. All in all, Nebraska’s regular season, which included a six-game win streak, was a rousing success – unless you use Huskers fans’ 20th century national championship-or-bust grading curve to vet season performance. Which you shouldn’t, because Nebraska wasn’t close to being one of the best two or three teams in the country last season, let alone its own conference. Wisconsin hammered that home with a 39-point massacre in the conference championship game, after absorbing beaucoup criticism for winning a division whose two best teams (Penn State and Ohio State) were ineligible for postseason play, by running (no, literally) Bo Pelini’s defense off the field. Georgia cleaned up what was left of the Huskers’ broken collective ego by capturing a convincing 14-point Capitol One Bowl win. 

Offensive overview

There must be a loophole hidden away in the NCAA rulebook somewhere, maybe some pro-level birth date doctoring, or a backtable quid pro quo going on, because I’ve run out of rational ideas to explain how Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is back for another season of college football. The good news for Martinez, in what feels like his seventh year of eligibility, is that 2013 could well end up being his best season yet. The Huskers return seven starters on this side of the ball, including 2012 breakout tailback Ameer Abdullah, explosive wideout Kenny Bell and NFL-bound offensive guard Spencer Long. The talent around Martinez is imposing, but maybe the biggest reason why Nebraska’s offense could blossom into one of the highest-scoring units in the country this fall comes down to Martinez himself – namely, whether the Huskers QB has taken a few more steps along the developmental throwing curve. If Martinez’ passing accuracy improves dramatically (unlikely, but ok), this offense will be the best the Big Ten has to offer.

Defensive overview 

Ah, the catch. Yes, Nebraska is going to make scoreboards do cartwheels this season, but part of that cartwheel-performing will have to do with the dozens of points a defense bringing back just four starters from an already substandard unit is set to yield to opponents. The Huskers had trouble stopping people last season, and they’ll probably have trouble stopping people this season. Which is sort of strange, considering Pelini’s reputation as a defensive coach. But it’s true: the Huskers lose the core of last season’s defense, and while new players in several key starting spots could lead to better production, the overall inexperience and uncertainty – save for a few bright spots, like cornerback Ciante Evans and defensive end Jason Ankrah – should be worrisome for Huskers fans. Mass turnover + already bad defense = worse defense. That sounds about right. 

Three players to watch

Taylor Martinez, Senior QB – When Martinez is on, the Huskers offense churns and other teams, even with the permissive defensive front Nebraska purports to field this season, will struggle to keep pace.

Thad Randle, Junior DT – You watched the Big Ten championship game last season. You saw how effortlessly the Badgers’ linemen carved out running lanes and bowled over opposing defenders. Randle is the best hope Nebraska has to ensure that same scenario doesn’t play out this season.

Ameer Abdullah, Junior RBThe Huskers have a lot of weapons on the offensive side of the ball, and Abdullah – fresh off one of the most prolific sophomore rushing seasons in school history – is arguably the most dangerous.

Behind enemy lines: (1) HuskersOnline.com Publisher Sean Callahan (@Sean_Callahan), on what to expect from the Huskers this season:

"When you look at Nebraska going into the 2013 season the Huskers easily have the best offense they’ve had in a number of years, but on the flip side this is probably the most inexperienced defense NU has had in quite some time. The good thing is the schedule is extremely favorable with eight home games, including five consecutive at home to start the season. Gone is Ohio State and Wisconsin form the schedule, as they were replaced with Purdue and Illinois from the Leaders Division. Anything less than a 10 win season and an appearance in the Big Ten title game would be considered a disappointment. Las Vegas has the Huskers as a favorite right now in 11 of their 12 games."

(2) Omaha World Herald football beat writer Sam McKewon (@swmckewonOWH):

"Nebraska returns most of an explosive offense, led by quarterback Taylor Martinez, that dragged the team to several comeback wins on the Big Ten trail. The defensive players who melted down in 63-38 losses to Ohio State and 70-31 losses to Wisconsin are mostly gone, replaced by far less experienced ­ and more athletic ­underclassmen. How quickly NU coaches develop them ­ especially the heretofore-maligned defensive linemen ­will determine whether the Huskers win the Legends Division or finish in the middle of the pack. The offense will produce points, but when Martinez and his skillmates are stressed too much, they try too hard and committ turnovers. The schedule's a dream before a Nov. 2 tilt vs. Northwestern, and NU should enter round three with the Wildcats undefeated or close to it."

Final thoughts

This team is not difficult to read. The Huskers have an explosive offense, probably the best in the Big Ten. The other side of the ball is less than flattering, and when the Huskers find themselves in close games, and one of the bright defensive minds in this league discovers a weakness – which is inevitable, by the way – Nebraska won’t be able to rely on its sheer scoring proficiency to beat quality teams. The only way Nebraska can go from “really fun, high scoring outfit” to “national championship contender” is if Pelini’s defense actually starts evincing the power and speed and force and depth Pelini promised to bring to Lincoln five years ago. High-scoring games are a given, but can Nebraska get enough stops? Will the defense be too much of an obstacle? Can Nebraska score enough points to cover up however many it allows on the other side of the ball? Until the defense shows it can slow down some of the league’s best offensive units (which it didn’t last season), I’m not buying in.