The Nebraska Cornhuskers got used to having a target on their backs in 2010, when many a Big 12 programs gave them their best shot in an effort to spoil the departing school’s last hurrah on their old stomping grounds. This year in the Big Ten, Nebraska can invariably expect more of the same as, somehow, the Huskers have become the new team to beat without ever having played a single game of football in the conference.
The Huskers undeniably difficult schedule (one of the toughest in the country) would be problematic for any team. Conference play for the Big Ten newbies will kick off versus the Wisconsin Badgers on October 1, the other team to beat in the conference who many view as the biggest challengers to Nebraska’s championship hopes. Then, as if it that wasn’t enough, it’s followed directly by a game against Ohio State, the conference’s most prominent traditional power.
Fortunately, the Huskers have a guiding force to lead them through the inevitable wreckage and keep them poised and confident over the course of the season. The team’s head coach, Bo Pelini, is already doing his part to instill the only mentality that the squad will be able to survive with – don’t be scared of them, make them scared of us.
“It’s going to be a hard schedule,” cornerback Alfonzo Dennard recently told reporters. “But like coach Bo says, they have to play us, too.”
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And when these Big Ten veterans do get around to playing Nebraska, they’ll likely see why the recently released AP top-25 poll ranked them ahead of all of the conference’s traditional powers (including Wisconsin) at No. 10.
The Huskers, of course, have put together consecutive 10-win seasons and yet, despite the impressive mark, have actually underachieved by the program’s lofty standards. Back-to-back defeats in Big 12 Championship games -- and an awful loss to Washington in the 2010 Holiday Bowl -- sullied what otherwise would have been regarded as good runs, and only left Nebraska hungrier to do better.
That hunger is precisely what the club will need as it prepares itself to take everyone’s best shot in the coming season.
“We feel like we can line up and play against anybody in the country,” Pelini said. “We’re going to do our thing. We’re going to play our way. Obviously, you have to make some adjustments according to who you’re playing in a particular week. But we feel like our style, the type of kids we recruit, the type of football team we put on the field can fit into any conference.”
The Huskers boast a more complete team this season, though we'll see if that translates into less painful end-of-season losses or not. On top of the top-12 defense in four major categories that Nebraska will bring back largely intact, Pelini hopes that his team’s major weakness from last year will finally become something of a strength.
After a full year of learning the ins and outs of the collegiate game in the most stressful way possible (and getting healthy), young quarterback Taylor Martinez is expected to take massive strides in his passing game. That, coupled with the creativity that will no doubt be brought in by Tim Beck (who filled the void left behind by the fired Shawn Watson) should make for an interesting offensive gameplan, to say the least.
“We have a lot of different tempos,” center Mike Caputo recently told reporters. “Being set and being ready to go, we might go like that, or we might be sitting there checking. The defense isn’t going to know.
“It’s a little more cardio than the offensive line is used to. We did more running in June than we used to. I think we’re prepared.”
The defense has long-since been accepted as Nebraska’s calling card, and often times in 2010, they had to take the brunt of the punishment as they tried to compensate for the team’s offensive woes. Not this year, though. In 2011, the one-two punch of a stable offense and stellar defense is going to be the last line of defense against the body blows that the Huskers will inevitably have to take from their Big Ten counterparts.
Like the new kid in school, Nebraska will have to prove themselves before they can really garner respect from opposing teams. But given the way Pelini and this program prefer to make names for themselves, that’s undoubtedly the only way they’d want it.