Friday, June 15, 2012

Examining Year Two in the Big 10

For the first time since 2009, the Nebraska football team enters the season where its outgoing or incoming conference will not be a significant weekly discussion.

Before the 2010 season, Nebraska announced that it would move from the Big 12 to Big 10 in a move that University chancellor Harvey Perlman deemed was a better fit when it came to academics, culture and athletics. For much of the 2010 season, it seemed like a weekly discussion that the Huskers were leaving the Big 12 for the Big 10. For much of the 2011 campaign, it was seemingly a weekly discussion about how Nebraska was adjusting to the Big 10.

The Huskers went 10-4 in 2010 but tailed off after a 5-0 and 9-1 start. In 2011, Nebraska went 9-4 but was also 7-1 at one point. Even more disappointing that not winning the Legends Division, Nebraska had clunker road losses to Wisconsin (48-17) and Michigan (45-17) and a disturbing 28-25 loss at home to Northwestern. After two years in the Big 12 title game, most Nebraska fans viewed anything other than a trip to Indianapolis as a failed season.

Most would argue that Nebraska spending last season adjusting to Big 10 opponents. While it is true that the Husker coaching staff did not have the luxury of past experience against an opponent, that argument is also a wash because opponents were at the same disadvantage when preparing for Nebraska.

What should help, at least psychologically, is that the Huskers will host Wisconsin in their first conference game this season. After a close game for much of the first half, three Taylor Martinez interceptions helped pave the way to a blowout loss. The Badgers still have running back Montee Ball but the good news is that quarterback Russell Wilson is gone.

Nebraska also had to play road games at Michigan and Penn State. While Nebraska escaped Penn State with a win, the game at Michigan was somewhat similar to the Wisconsin loss. The Huskers gained momentum by pulling within 31-17 late in the third quarter but two special teams miscues gave the Wolverines offense a short field that led to two touchdowns that put the game out of reach.

While Nebraska draws Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State at home, that’s not to say that it does not have stringent road tests. The Huskers visit Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa. Ohio State should be a much improved club over last year’s 6-7 team with Urban Meyer but the Buckeyes are also on probation, which mean they are not eligible for the Big 10 Conference Title Game. Michigan State is also breaking in a new quarterback with the graduation of Kirk Cousins.

In 2012, the Badgers, Lions and Wolverines come to Lincoln. Nebraska’s sternest road tests will be against an Ohio State team on probation and with a new coach, a Michigan State team breaking in a new quarterback and Iowa. While the schedule as a whole is challenging, Nebraska's 2012 road conference schedule is less salty than its 2011 counterpart.

Perhaps the biggest thing that will help the Huskers in Year Two of their Big 10 voyage will be having a third-year starter at quarterback returning in Martinez as well as a senior at running back in Rex Burkhead. It also should help that offensive coordinator Tim Beck is in his second season. If all the returning offensive parts for Nebraska translate into better offensive production, then Nebraska could be looking at a dramatic turnaround in year two of its Big 10 adventure.

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