LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 25: Quarterback Taylor Martinez #3 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers throws downfield over the Iowa Hawkeyes' defense during their game at Memorial Stadium November 25, 2011 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska defeated Iowa 20-7. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
If you told me that the Big Ten would be the conference that would effectively trigger the maelstrom of realignment that has unfolded throughout the past couple of years, I would have called you crazy and probably not much of a Big Ten fan at all. Why, expansion? I dare say, the very notion is downright profligate, gluttonous even. You may kindly empty your locker and never show your face at the Big Ten Country Club, you radical you.
But, kidding aside, I think that things have worked out for both parties to say the least. While Nebraska maintained many intense and awesome rivalries in the Big 12, I look at the Huskers as a Big Ten team and feel as if they are just as much of a cultural fit--whatever that really means--amongst us 4.8 40-running slowpokes as they were in their old club.
It's been a year now, and although I don't pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the Nebraska fan base, but I would think that Nebraska's debut season was all in all a mostly successful one, the derp at home against Northwestern aside. I had Nebraska winning the Legends division last offseason, and I'm fairly certain that the average Nebraska fan had similar expectations (I'd be disappointed if it were otherwise). Although that did not come to pass, the Huskers put up 9 wins, losing to three pretty good teams (Michigan, Wisconsin, and South Carolina) and another against an always dangerous Northwestern squad in the process.
Now that the Huskers have gotten somewhat comfortable in their new environment--using their experience dealing with the tyranny of Texas football* to now suffer the arrogance of the PRESTIGIOUS AND VERY IMPORTANT YOU SEE Michigan Man--the initial "hi how are you where are you from what's your major" rush process is over. Nebraska is definitively a Big Ten team now, and yes, this is where we all start chanting ONE OF US (in a friendly, Midwestern way of course).
So, we ask: what's next? In a lot of ways, the same questions that Michigan fans may be asking also seem to apply to Nebraska football in 2012.
*Easy, Texas fans...be honest, we are pretty much the same in a lot of ways. If you blindfolded somebody and dropped them in Austin, TX, upon being unblindfolded that person would probably think that they he/she was in Ann Arbor if not for the oppressive heat, cowboy hats, and delicious brisket. You are a bizarro us...or maybe we are a bizzaro you? ANYWAY.
Like us, the Huskers have to replace some pretty key players on the defensive side of the ball (a side that was uncharacteristically poor at times last season). Tough corner Alfonzo Dennard will be plying his trade in New England this season (obligatory BILL BELICHICK IS A GOD goes here) and Lavonte David, a speedy tackling machine if there ever was one, is also gone. Additionally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Jared Crick, who is also gone but of course had his 2011 season cut short by injury.
Offensively, the Huskers only return two starters up front, as mentioned in this week's interview with the guys from Corn Nation. Although none of those losses were of the caliber of a guy like David Molk, continuity is always a good thing, especially on the OL. It's almost too easy to say that Nebraska's season rides on how Martinez develops as a passer or the defense's ability to cut down on the big plays, but the offensive line is, in my humble opinion, the most important position group for the Huskers going forward. Nebraska isn't quite the option heavy team that it once was, but the OL will need to get back to its world-destroying ways of old if this offense is going to maximize the potential of an already strong running game, parlaying that success into a competent/efficient air attack.
With that said...yeah, a lot is riding on the arm of the one they call T-Magic. Will he ever be an above average passer at the college level? I really don't know, but what Nebraska can do is: 1) hope that Martinez can simply make some better decisions as a third-year starter 2) have skill guys like Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa continue to step up (in addition to guys like Kyler Reed, Ameer Abdullah, and Jamal Turner) and 3) pray that Tim Beck can channel his offensive Muse of choice--I like to picture that Muse being Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska--in order to find some new, increasingly deception-based ways of moving the ball on the ground. Por ejemplo:
I was in the student section, so I saw this play unfold right in front of me and I remember just doing a "I ain't even mad though" type shrug. Perhaps this sort of option sorcery is more of a change-up than a base play, but there needs to be some sort of innovative effort on Beck's part to take the pressure off of Martinez's arm, not to mention the fact that Nebraska would probably like it if Rex Burkhead didn't spontaneously combust before November due to an excessive workload. Somebody more in the know than I could probably give some actual Xs and Os protips here, but yeah, Nebraska...do more crazy stuff like the above example. I mean, Beck doesn't have to go full Malzahn on everybody, but Nebraska probably won't be able to simply blow people off the ball like they once did. Misdirection and generally spreading the ball around are preferable to running Burkhead and Martinez into the ground, obviously. Luckily, the non-conference schedule isn't too tough, so the Huskers should, in theory, have a relatively fresh rushing attack once it hits what looks to be a brutal Big Ten slate.
It's still very difficult to get a handle on what Nebraska is or where they fit in the Big Ten landscape. Whereas I struggled to figure out what I really wanted to get at last week because I was still attempting to reconcile Michigan's defeat of the Buckeyes last November with my current worldview, this week it's simply a matter of unfamiliarity.
So far, I know what I know about Nebraska in a second-hand manner: what people have told me, what I've read, what I've seen on television. I did get to be around Nebraska fans by virtue of being at this past November's game, and let me just say this: from my admittedly limited fan interaction sample size, they were pretty awesome. They were all seemingly 6'8'', too, which is another issue entirely, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a big time fan base come into the Big House/Ann Arbor and be less annoying than Husker fans were last year. I remember going out that night and finding myself looking up and watching the late games on one of the TVs, nodding and tsk tsking and going WARDFNADDJNSDAKDBN with random Nebraska fans whenever something happened in the Oregon-USC and the Oklahoma-Baylor games. In short: they're good people.
That said, I've long been of a mind that you can't truly understand another university's football program or its fan base until you've been to their campus for a game. I've had the chance to go to Ohio State, Penn State, Northwestern, Indiana, and Purdue so far...luckily, I'll be back in the Midwest this fall, and I'm crossing my fingers that a trip to Lincoln will be in the cards. If the gameday experience is anything close to what I've heard it is, Michigan is going to have a tough time coming out of there with a win.
If Nebraska wants to quickly ascend to the highest rung on the B1G ladder, there's one thing they must do: beat the top teams in the conference. The Huskers went 3-2 against the top names in the conference (Michigan, OSU, PSU, MSU, Wisconsin), 4-2 if you throw in an Iowa program that hasn't shown us the same sort of quality the past two seasons as we've seen in the past. However, the OSU game very easily could've been a loss, and the Wisconsin and Michigan games were blowouts. This is where the aforementioned homefield advantage figures into the equation.
While it is true that Nebraska is still getting used to the Big Ten--and the little known rule that all Big Ten players must duct tape no less than 10 copies of the ponderous Riverside Shakespeare to their body in order to be allowed to take the field on Saturdays**--Nebraska has one thing that will take getting used to for the rest of the conference: Memorial Stadium. If you're a Badger or Wolverine fan, you better not be sleeping on the Huskers this year based on last year's results. Yeah yeah I know, "but last year's Northwestern game"...as Nebraska already found out, Northwestern will do that to you sometimes.
Again, it's kind of hard to really put a finger on what the Huskers may or may not do this season simply because I'm not as familiar with the Nebraska program as I am every other B1G team (obvious statement is obvious). Over time, you sort of unknowingly build an internal database of useless college football-related information, bits and pieces that allow you to identify trends and form reasoned opinions and predictions. Like predicting the weather, all of this amounts to an imperfect science at best, but you can still feel somewhat comfortable about doing these things at a reasonable success rate.
On the other hand, sizing up Nebraska is like trying to predict the weather, only in this case it's the weather of a planet in some galaxy 3,946 light years away. Fortunately, we do have the rudimentary technology to make the trip from Ann Arbor to Lincoln, a fact which I plan on taking advantage of this season (for research purposes, of course).
For example, do Nebraska students tailgates play awful, awful music like the ones at Michigan? How do Nebraska fans feel about cheap stadium rock? Do the students show up to the games on time? Does the Memorial Stadium crowd deflate easily like the Big House crowd does when things don't go well early on? Does the stadium food taste like salted cardboard? These are the important questions that we as curious Big Ten fans should be asking.
I have no idea about any of these things, but I plan on (hopefully) finding out this fall. It's been a year, Nebraska: let's officially break that awkward new neighbors phase by inviting us into your home, your Palace of the Plains (we'll bring the Bell's).
**GET IT, BECAUSE WE'RE SLOW AND ALSO SNOOTY CHAMPIONS OF WARRIOR-POET-ATHLETES. You guys will get used to this self-deprecation in time.