The Nebraska Cornhuskers entered the 2012 Big Ten Championship game with a 10-2 (7-1) mark, representing the Legends division and having locked up their third 10-win season in four years. After an early September upset against a revitalized UCLA team and a thumping at the hands of the eventually undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes, the aforementioned mark was one to be proud of for Husker fans.
Then, things turned south. We all know what happened in Indianapolis, where the Husker defense wilted against the Badgers in a 70-31 defeat. The loss must have been especially frustrating given that the Huskers knocked off the Badgers at home on Sept. 29, 30-27, a comeback win that proved they could hang with the team that dealt them a rude awakening in Nebraska's first conference game in 2011.
The Huskers gave up a school record 539 yards rushing to the Badger attack in 2012's second matchup. In 50 total Badger carries, freshman UW tailback Melvin Gordon racked up a whopping 216 yards on just nine carries, Montee Ball contributed 202 on 21 carries and James White pitched in 109 on 15 carries for good measure.
With the Badgers throwing the ball just 10 times all game, this blowout was almost reminiscent of Wisconsin's 2010 demolition of the Wolverines in the Big House, one in which they threw just 15 times and ran for 357 yards. Any time something reminds you of a Michigan defense from that era, things are probably not going so well.
Additionally, the Huskers gave up 217 yards rushing to UCLA tailback (and current Green Bay Packer) Johnathan Franklin, 371 yards against Ohio State (and, more importantly, 63 points) and 125 yards rushing and Georgia's Todd Gurley. However, in that bowl game, the more important stat line belonged to UGA signal caller Aaron Murray: 18/33, 427 yards and five touchdown passes.
The Huskers relinquished a macabre 53.5 points per game in their four 2012 losses. Needless to say, despite winning the division, the 2012 season was a mostly successful one marked by intermittent discordant thuds.
Of course, the Huskers did win the division, so they definitely did something right. Although they couldn't score enough to keep them in the aforementioned losses--an unreasonable request for even the best of offenses--the Huskers finished 28th in the nation in points per game (35 ppg) and 8th in offensive S&P+. The Huskers can score, and fast: just as we saw with Denard Robinson, Taylor Martinez can take it to the house at any time (see: 71-yard TD run at Michigan State).
The Huskers lose tailback Rex Burkhead but retain Ameer Abdullah, who, despite his lack of size, racked up 1,137 yards rushing in 2012 on 5.0 yards per carry. For a guy his size, Abdullah provides a nice blend of quickness and a surprising bit of power at times.
With Abdullah and Martinez leading the way again on the ground, Nebraska offensive coordinator will continue to hope for incremental improvement from Martinez through the air. For all of the criticism Martinez has gotten for his awkward throwing motion, he did lead the conference in passing efficiency as late as late October.
Say what you will about the state of Big Ten quarterbacking, but 2012 was certainly a big step in the right direction for Martinez. Martinez is already a major threat with even an average passing game, but if he can build upon last season's performance, the Husker offense will be quite difficult to stop.
On the outside, the Huskers boast an equally impressive array of receiving options in Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. Talented tight end Kyler Reed is gone, in addition to TE Ben Cotton, so the Huskers will need to replace that production somehow. Although Reed never quite duplicated his 2010 season, when he reeled in eight touchdown grabs in 22 receptions, his skill at the position will be missed. Luckily for the Huskers, Abdullah is a solid receiving options out of the backfield (24 receptions, 178 yards, two touchdowns in 2012), and should continue to serve as an effective checkdown option for Martinez when the play breaks down or on designed sideline routes.
As far as incoming talent goes, the Huskers signed two RIvals 4-star tailbacks in Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor, from California and Texas, respectively. Tailbacks Braylon Heard (6.7 YPC) and Imani Cross (5.9 YPC) do return to the fold [EDIT: As noted in the comments, Heard transferred to Kentucky and will not be returning], but if either of the talented freshman can contribute this season, you're looking at a seriously crowded, Wisconsin-esque backfield, one in which the quarterback is also a big time option.
However, as mentioned before, the Husker front seven needs a lot of work. Nebraska was an okay 32nd in defensive FEI, but was 60th in the "explosive drives" category. When the Husker defense crumbled, it crumbled spectacularly.
Additionally, the Huskers were 48th in sacks and an awful 90th in rushing yards allowed per game. Wisconsin and Ohio State are off the regular season schedule, but if the Huskers are going to come out victorious against either in a hypothetical conference title game matchup, the front seven must show up in a way it did not several times last season. Of course, there is also the dangerous ground game of Northwestern to deal with in the division, and the Michigan ground game should be improved by the Nov. 9 matchup in Ann Arbor. As for Michigan State post-Bell, time will tell.
Either way, Nebraska returns just five 2012 defensive starters, which could be a good or a bad thing (insert generic offseason chatter about this subject). On the bright side, the Huskers signed two four-star linebackers and four-star defensive end Randy Gregory in the 2013 class. Even better, Gregory comes to Lincoln via a JUCO, meaning he should be ready to contribute right away.
The Huskers did finish fourth in passing defense, but you have to assume that some of that is due to their inability to stop the run. Bo Pelini's defense returns both corners and nickelback Ciante Evans; if there is any solace to be found in the Husker defense, it is with this position group.
In the grand scheme of things, the success or failure of the 2013 season will be determined by whether or not the Huskers can make significant improvements in stopping the run. As followers of Big Ten football, we've heard the "run the ball and stop the run" formula for success over and over again, as if there are no other elements in the complicated and sometimes wacky game that is college football.
Yet, with these Huskers, that reductive bit of wisdom actually holds true. With the Buckeyes and Badgers off the schedule, things should be a little easier on that front. On paper, the Huskers should be 7-0 heading into a difficult November that includes the following games: Northwestern, at Michigan, Michigan State and at Penn State.
This schedule is perfect because it sets the ideal course: a fate decided in November. In college football, that is just as it should be.
With this being the final season in Lincoln for Taylor Martinez, however, anything less than a Big Ten title (whether a reasonable stance or not), could be considered a disappointment. The road to Indianapolis will once again be a difficult one, as Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern are all worthy combatants in this Legends division game of thrones.
So, three words: stop the run.