By Frank Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Beating up on Florida Atlantic (49-3) and Arkansas State (38-9), while certainly a positive for Nebraska, was met with guarded optimism by fans as neither is what anyone would consider top-flight competition. A 16-15 loss at Virginia Tech right after showed that the
Cornhuskers could hang with the big boys, and that was followed by convincing
wins over UL-Lafayette (55-0) and Missouri (27-12), the latter coming in the
conference opener. Coach Bo Pelini and his staff had high hopes for the team,
and that confidence permeated the entire roster as the Huskers would go on to
finish 6-2 in conference, earning themselves the Big 12 North Division title
and subsequent trip to the conference championship game.
A 13-12 loss to Texas in the Big 12 title tilt snapped NU's five-game win
streak, but at 9-4 the Cornhuskers were rewarded with an invite to the Holiday
Bowl where they took on Pac-10 foe Arizona. Nebraska dominated the contest,
blanking the Wildcats in a 33-0 final. It was another solid year for Pelini
and his Huskers, setting the stage for bigger things to come. Unfortunately
for purists, or fortunately for those who embrace change, those bigger things
may take place this year in the Big 12, or have to wait until next season when
the Cornhuskers begin play in the Big Ten.
Pelini, while undoubtedly excited about joining a new conference a year from
now, is focused on competing one last time in the Big 12.
"We're excited about being in the Big 12 this year. We're excited about the
upcoming season, and all our focus is on the Big 12, which is a great
conference. We're excited to be in it this fall and looking forward to the
OFFENSE: With nine starters back on offense, the Cornhuskers should show
improvement from the 25.1 points and 322.8 total yards per game they averaged
last season. They had a particularly tough time moving the ball via the pass,
amassing just 175.7 ypg to rank 11th in the conference and 101st in the
Pelini is optimistic about his offense's ability to take the next step, "We
feel real good about the guys we have coming back on offense. We have some
experience. We have some young men who are going to come in and really provide
us with depth and great competition, which I saw throughout the spring. But we
need the quarterback position to step up."
Of course that means that senior Zac Lee is going to have to raise his level
of play significantly after he completed fewer than 59 percent of his passes
for 2,143 yards and 14 TDs against 10 INTs last year. Having a large chunk of
the offensive line back should help, as should the continued success of senior
RB Roy Helu, Jr. Helu (1,147 yards, 10 TDs) and sophomore RB Rex Burkhead give
the Huskers a potent one-two punch out of the backfield, and while there is
also talent on the outside, notably senior WRs Niles Paul and Mike McNeill,
any success the NU offense has this fall will be as a direct result of Lee's
ability to make plays in the passing game.
Pelini emphasized the importance of Lee using his previous experience to
catapult himself to new heights, "Let's face it, he's at the center point.
He's the trigger guy. You know, we're fortunate we do have some experience
coming back at that position."
DEFENSE: The Nebraska defense turned it around last season, yielding a mere
10.4 ppg, which led the nation. It was a far cry from the previous two seasons
when foes reeled off 28.5 and 37.9 ppg, respectively. The Huskers were equally
good against both forms of attack, allowing 93.1 ypg on the ground and 178.9
ypg through the air -- both of which ranked in the top three in the conference
and the top 20 nationally. The return of six starters should give the Huskers
another stifling defensive presence.
You might think that losing the nation's top defensive lineman would be tough
to overcome, but ready to grab the spotlight now that Ndamukong Suh has moved
on are senior DE Pierre Allen and junior DT Jared Crick, a pair of standout
performers in their own right. Crick is the team's leading returning tackler
with 73 stops, of which 9.5 were sacks.
The linebacking corps, while not as stacked as other positions, should be ok
with sophomore Will Compton considered the best of the bunch. The return of
All-Big 12 CB Prince Amukamara (five INTs) helps make the secondary one of the
best in the Big 12 this year. Another guy the coaching staff expects big
things out of is senior DB Eric Hagg, as his versatility allows him to defend
the pass or play the run with near equal effectiveness.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Nebraska's special teams are set, as senior Alex Henery handles
both aspects of the kicking game, and does so extremely well. In fact, Henery
is the most accurate placekicker in school history and he is no slouch as a
punter either, averaging better than 41 ypp last season. The return game is in
good hands as Paul is a threat to go the distance on every touch.
OUTLOOK: The Cornhuskers' non-conference schedule features four winnable games
as Western Kentucky, Idaho and South Dakota State all come to Lincoln. The one
potential speed bump during the opening month comes in week three at
Washington. The conference slate kicks off with a trip to Kansas State,
followed by a home date with Texas. Games against Oklahoma State and Missouri
are up next and if the Huskers have their heads above water at that point, a
four-game stretch versus Iowa State, Kansas, Texas A&M and Colorado could
benefit the team to the tune of another winning season and Big 12 North title.
With this being the last year Nebraska competes in the Big 12, there will
certainly be plenty of emotion. Expect Pelini to have his team focused on the
task at hand, leaving the Ohio States, Michigans and Penn States of the world
off in the distance -- at least for a few months.