The Nebraska Cornhuskers’ first year in the Big Ten will be an interesting experience. On the defensive side of the ball, Lavonte David, Jared Crick and the rest of the unit will feel right at home – embracing the uncompromising, tough methodology that has traditionally ruled the conference.
On the offensive side of the ball, Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and the like will have to adjust to the grittier, more hard-hitting squads that they’ll face in their chase for a National Championship.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini -- a Big Ten alum and SEC student of the game -- has always prided himself on getting his teams to play stringent, rigid defense. Back in 2003, during his first go-around with the Huskers -- as a defensive coordinator under Frank Solich -- Pelini took the then 55th ranked defense in the nation to No. 11 in one year’s time.
Later when Nebraska opted not promote him to head coach and let him leave for greener pastures, they took another dip defensively and remained a mid-tier squad on that side of the ball until Pelini’s re-arrival in 2008 – this time as a head coach. From that point on, a particularly special emphasis would be placed on getting after opposing offenses and limiting scoring year after year after year, and as a result, the Huskers posted at least nine wins in all three seasons with Pelini at the helm.
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The Big Ten, meanwhile, is also a conference that has traditionally prided itself on a more methodical, slowed-down style of play. In 2010, six of the top 45 rushing defenses in the country came from this conference. Programs like the Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers boast talented playmakers on the defensive side who firmly believe in the theory: if you hit hard enough, the ball will come loose.
And that style of play is fine for the likes of David and Crick, who similarly seem to thrive on playing with as much brute force as humanly possible when they’re getting after offensive players. Last year as the last linebacker standing for Nebraska, David -- a second team All-American in 2010 -- racked up a school record 152 tackles in 14 games. That innate ability to sniff out the ball and bring down the carrier coupled with Crick’s tremendous athleticism and NFL-caliber talent should be enough to compete in the traditionally gritty Big Ten. If only cornerback Alfonzo Dennard could get all the way back to what everyone knows he can be, the dual secondary threat of him and Ciante Evans will undoubtedly be too much for any offensive grouping in the Big Ten.
Of course, Nebraska’s offense will be facing similarly tough defenses – ones that believe in handing out just as much punishment as the Huskers’ unit. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is as dual-threat of a player as they come, but coming off an injury-riddled, inconsistent 2010 campaign, you have to wonder how he’ll adjust to the new style of play he’ll encounter. On one hand, he has all of the skills necessary to evade opposing defenses with his quick feet and unparalleled athleticism. On the other hand, it’s already all but a foregone conclusion that the offensive line will experience at least some injury concerns over the course of the season, especially considering the fact that the season hasn’t even begun yet and already the line is all but completely nicked up (granted, players are now returning to the field).
Along the same lines, Burkhead will play a substantial role in his team’s transition to their new digs. Burkhead was a fierce runner in his backup capacity last season, putting up seven touchdowns and 951 yards in limited action. These totals proved to be particularly efficient when you consider that he only got the ball for an average of 11 carries per game and still managed to put up 5.5 yards per run. That being said, a diminished offensive line is just as dangerous to a running back’s success as it is to a quarterback’s, and as such, much of the responsibility for making sure both players succeed in this different Big Ten environment will depend on new offensive coordinator and recently promoted running backs coach Tim Beck.
All in all, while some growing pains are to be expected, Nebraska probably couldn’t have picked a better time to make the switch. In their Legends Division, the only real competition that they’ll have is the Michigan State Spartans – who really are no competition at all. Between the coaching changes, quarterback concerns and lack of talent that seem to flow through the division like a plague, the Huskers are clearly the class of the Legends grouping.
Not that the Leaders Division has much more to offer. Sure there is Wisconsin who will prove to be Nebraska’s biggest conference foe in the coming season and the always-dangerous Ohio State, who even with only one Tressel left in the program has the playmakers to fly under the radar and shock some people. But that’s where it ends.
Making a big change is never easy, and moving from the Big 12 to the Big Ten is about as big of a change as you’ll come across. That being said, Nebraska was always built like a Big Ten team, and has already been accepted as the best of the Big Ten by recent polls.
Maybe Nebraska doesn’t need to adjust to the Big Ten after all – rather, maybe the Big Ten will need to adjust to Nebraska.