Sunday, October 16, 2011

Handicapping the second half of the season

College football bye weeks are a good time for a few things as it pertains to fans: getting chores down around the house, watching other college football games or doing something with your family.

I definitely didn't get any chores done so mowing the lawn will have to wait. I watched a smattering of a few games but spent most of the day on an outing with my wife and kids. However, as I was taking a nap on the way home while my wife drove (I was in too altered of a state to drive), I was thinking about how Nebraska's season has transpired to this point and will potentiall take place the remainder of the 2011 season.

The Huskers, who are ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, resume action Saturday at Minnesota. The fact that Nebraska s 5-1 is no surprise. Seriously? When you were sitting around the barbeque this summer that's probably what you would have projected the Huskers' record to be after six games. The process of getting to 5-1, however, has been the furthest from what most projected.

The Huskers entered the bye week with the confluence of extremes. First, there was the embarassing 48-17 loss at Wisconsin. One week later against a struggling Ohio State team, Nebraska rallied from a 27-6 mid third quarter deficit to beat the Buckeyes 34-27. Those struggles in that game, however, do not look so bad today as the Buckeyes (4-3 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) beat No. 16 Illinois 17-7 on the road Saturday. What is that game more reflective of? Is Illinois, who very few people took seriously before the season, just a figment of our imagination? Or is Ohio State simply a troubled program that is still dangerous on a given day? The wait and see approach will be the best answer.

This is probably the most confusing Nebraska team in recent history. The offense that everyone questioned before the season is now viewed by many as the team's strength. Sure the unit laid a giant at Wisconsin but in general first year coordinator Tim Beck has pushed all of the right buttons and the young Nebraska offensive line, which was viewed as a question mark before the season, has been a team strength. So far the play of quarterback Taylor Martinez warrants a solid B. I know, it kills the anti-Martinez crowd to hear this but I'll say it anyhow. I'm not saying I think Martinez is Joe Montana but I have a sadistic pleasure in tweaking the anti-Martinez crowd.

The defense was expected to be a strength but is now a liability. With the exception of linebacker LaVonte David, none of the starters have lived up to their preseason billing. In fact, if the offense was not playing at its current level, the Huskers could very easily be 2-4. Losing cornerback Prince Amukamara to graduation was a tough blow and defensive tackle Jared Crick (torn pectoral muscle) is out for the season. Granted, Crick's peformance had been a disappointment but he still provided a presence. The defense's biggest disappointment is tackling and third down conversions. In the latter category, the Huskers rank 94th nationally, Those two areas must get better or there will be a few more disappointming Saturdays (win or lose).

Looking ahead at the rest of the regular season: The Huskers begin the second half at Minnesota (1-5 overall, 0-3 Big Ten) Friday, home against No. 23 Michigan State (5-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) on Oct. 29; home against Northwestern (2-4 overall, 0-3 Big Ten) on Nov. 5, at Penn State (6-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) on Nov. 12, at No. 11 Michigan (6-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) on Nov. 19 and home against Iowa (4-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten).

Just a gut feeling but I think Minnesota and Northwestern are definite wins while the games against Michigan State, Michgan, Iowa and Penn State will be the swing games.

Minnesota is in disarray. Yes, they battled hard at USC before losing 19-17 but it's not as if Carson Palmer, Matt Leinert or Reggie Bush suited up. The Gophers also have a bye but have been outscored by their last two foes (Michigan and Purdue) 103-17.

Northwestern, which has lost four straight since starting 2-0, isn't off the charts terrible as three of their losses are by ten points or less but 2-4 teams are usually 2-4 for a reason. They make enough mistakes to get beat.

As for the swing games, Iowa has easiest remaining schedule as two of the Hawkeyes' four toughest games will be in Iowa City -- Michigan on Nov. 5 and Michigan State on Nov. 12. However, for every big effort their offense has like Saturday in a 41-31 win over Northwestern they come up small like they did in a 13-3 loss at Penn State.

Michigan State is stout defensively. The Spartans entered Saturday's home game against Michigan leading the nation in total defense, allowing only 173.4 yards per game, and rank third in points allowed (10.2).

With Michigan, you have a quarterback in Denard Robinson who is Martinez's equal if not superior in generating big plays. Robinson was the 2010 Big Ten offensive player of the year, entered Saturday's game at Michigan State leading the Big Ten in rushing (120.0 yards per game) and total offense (308.3). The Wolverines were notorious for fast starts but fading finishes under former head coach Rich Rodriguez but under Brady Hoke, this group appears suited for the long haul.

Penn State's offense has been suspect but their defense has done a lot of heavy lifting. Gee whizz, Husker fans can relate to that from 2009.

When the Huskers went 5-7 in the 2007 Bill Callahan distaster, I preached very strongly that 8-4 is the worst Nebraska should ever be. Let's say Nebraska win the Minnesota and Northwestern game. If they do that, I think at worst the Huskers get at least one of the swing games if not two or three.

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