Husker fans are scratching their heads, wondering how their team is going to do this fall. Complicating matters is that they're still reeling from the 13-30 meltdown with South Carolina in last year's Capital One Bowl as well as blowouts at Wisconsin and Michigan.
The one constant during Bo's first four teams at Nebraska has been their inconsistency. The head scratchers include the Huskers beating eventual Legends winner #9 Michigan State in Lincoln, but losing at home the following week to unranked Northwestern. In 2009, it was more of the same. Nebraska took Virginia Tech to the wire on the road but four weeks later lost to unranked Iowa State 7-9 at home in a game the Huskers had more turnovers than points. And later that year, NU came within one second of beating Texas for the Big 12 championship, losing to the Longhorns 12-13.
THOSE WASCALLY WABBITS!
In 2010 the Huskers struggled in a 17-3 win over South Dakota State at home, beat #7 ranked Missouri at home and saw a 17-point lead over the Sooners in the Big 12 championship evaporate, resulting in a 23-20 loss. And an uninspired Husker team lost 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl that same year to a Washington Husky team NU dominated 56-21 earlier in the year in Seattle.
Do you want more inconsistencies? In 2009, the Huskers finished #1 in scoring defense in the nation, but two years later dropped to #42. Go figure.
So how will Nebraska do this fall? Of course no one knows for sure. But if it's optimism you're looking for, maybe you should check with #3.
Husker junior QB Taylor Martinez has let it be known that anything less than a 70% pass completion rate for him and a national championship for Nebraska this year would be a disappointment. Such bravado should be applauded, but don't cash the checks just yet.
Here are my expectations for this year's Husker football team. For a football program that hasn't won a conference title in 12 years and one that hasn't even won a divisional title since 2010, my list is rather modest. As the Chinese saying goes, epo epoli -- step by step.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2012
1.) Win the Legends (Tastes Great) Division
2.) Win 10 regular-season games
3.) Play a close game in the B1G championship
4.) Play in a BCS bowl game
5.) Win the game!
6.) Finish the season with 11 wins (a first since 2001)
7.) A Top Ten finish in the final polls
8.) No Bo Pelini sideline meltdowns on national TV
9.) No meltdowns by Bo in front of the media
10.) Rex Burkhead finishes his career as the second-leading rusher in school history.
There. That's not asking for too much, is it? No conference championship, no national championship and no Rose Bowl appearance. Realistic?
Yes. (Well, maybe not about the meltdowns)
Here are my Fourteen Essentials for success this year.
1.) A Consistent Plan and Sense of Purpose
One of the things that made Tom Osborne's teams so successful for so long was that NU seldom changed its philosophy -- especially his last 17 years. The Huskers ran basically the same offense (the defense changed in 1991), kept most of the same coaching staff and established an expectation of winning. Osborne's teams had a sense of urgency and purpose every game. More importantly, his teams seldom beat themselves.
Quick. How many assistants who started with Bo in 2008 are still on his staff? If you guessed four, you are right. But during that time, three have changed coaching responsibilities: Ron Brown (from tight ends to running backs), John Papuchis (from D-line to Defensive Coordinator) and Tim Beck (from RB to Offensive Coordinator). Only O-line coach Barney Cotton has remained in his original role.
HOPE AND CHANGE?
The result of so much change has, in my opinion, kept the Huskers from reaching their full potential for greatness. Since the summer of 2010, the Huskers have run three offenses: West Coast, Read Option and now Tim Beck's Hybrid offense. The changes have stunted the growth of the offense. Players have had to do too much thinking instead of just reacting. Uncertainty leads to mistakes. Fumbles, incompletions, interceptions and false starts have plagued this program for four years.
The Huskers also go into this season with a new D-coordinator, new D-line coach and a new secondary coach. The staff changes on defense might be easier to overcome because Papuchis has been with Bo for all four years. Don't get me wrong, coaching changes can be a good thing, but sometimes you run the risk of reaching the point of diminishing returns.
Let's hope this year the offense can take advantage of running the same offense for the second year in a row.
2.) Eliminating Mistakes
I had a nice conversation with former Heisman winner Eric Crouch recently. The subject of turnovers came up. I asked Eric how many fumbles he had in his career.
"Three," he said. Three? In four years of running the option? Are you kidding me? That is stunning. It should come as no surprise that the last time Nebraska won a conference championship ('99) and had an 11-win season ('01) was when Eric was the Husker quarterback.
Rule #1: Great teams don't beat themselves. Contrast that to the penalties and turnovers that have plagued the Huskers under Bo's first four years. The Huskers really need to improve on this.
3.) Stay Out Of Bad Plays
Mistakes can end drives or at the very least, cause losses in field position that can change third and short to a punting situation. And for the sake of Bob Devaney, throw the ball away instead of forcing a bad play and taking a sack. Play within the flow of the game. Mistakes are the Great Equalizer. They can make great teams mediocre.
Of course injuries are a part of the game and there's not a lot teams can do, but the Huskers will have to stay reasonably healthy to be successful.
5.) Establishing Depth at QB
More important than changing Taylor Martinez's Uncle Rico throwing motion is the need to establish a go-to backup to #3. Brion Carnes, Ron Kellogg or true freshman Tommy Armstrong needs to step up and make it known that he can come in under any circumstance and play winning football. Until there's a strong #2, the Huskers will likely struggle.
6.) Win The Games You're Supposed To and Don't Lose Those You Should Win
I'm not predicting a 12-0 season, but for goodness sake, don't lose to a Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern, UCLA or Southern Mississippi. Take care of business.
7.) O-line Talent and Depth
It goes without saying that in order for the offense to reach its potential, having an O-line that can get first downs at crucial points in the game is going to be absolutely essential. Even with the graduation of center Mike Caputo and the departure of (Mary) Tyler Moore and the transfer of Ryan Klachko, there seems to be plenty of depth.
8.) D-line Talent and Depth
Ever since Ndamukong Suh left for the NFL, the Husker D-line hasn't been the same. Injuries last year really hurt Nebraska down the stretch. Jared Crick was never the same after his early-season injuries last year. Jason Ankrah, Chase Rome, Cam Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler have to stay healthy. It will be interesting to see if Fr. DE Vincent "My Funny" Valentine will emerge as a backup.
9.) Linebacker Talent and Depth
Lavonte David is gone, so it is critical that Will Compton, Sean Fisher, Alonzo Whaley and JC transfer Zaire Anderson stay healthy and play well.
10.) Anticipate the Long Grind
Pelini's teams over the past four years have lost 10 games in the months of October and November. What makes these losses so damaging is that they've been conference games. The Huskers are going to have to be mentally and physically ready to play when injuries and the grind of the season start to mount. Eric Crouch told me there were games when he was hurting so much that he didn't know how he was ever going to play. "But once I was on the field, something clicked and I went out and played," he said.
11.) Special Teams
This is one area that is one of the strongest on this year's team. Getting a reliable holder to replace Austin Cassidy will be critical.
12.) The Running Game
This is another strong point for the Huskers that will need to be effective all year if the Huskers are going to have a great season. The addition of 250-pound FB Mike Marrow and RB Imani Cross this year along with second-year RB Ameer (Bist Du Schoen) Abdullah, should provide enough depth to keep Rex Burkhead fresh for the entire season.
13.) Bounce Of The Ball
An oblong ball can take some strange bounces at times. The Huskers will need some breaks along the way to finish strong.
14.) Finish Strong
Nothing succeeds like success. Putting Nebraska back on the map can only help the Huskers' recruiting efforts for years to come.
THE GOLDEN EAGLES
As I mentioned, Southern Mississippi is not likely to come in to Memorial Stadium this week intimidated by the venue. To be sure, the Huskers lost to USM in 2004 in Lincoln 17-21. Fans can still remember Husker QB Joe Dailey inexplicably running out of bounds as time expired, sealing the win for Southern Miss.
WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT?
And the Golden Eagles are coming in to Lincoln fresh off a 12-2 record last year. But a new head coach, new schemes and the loss of many key players make this game a bit more to the Huskers' advantage. Throw in new and inexperienced quarterbacks and you have the making of a long afternoon for So Miss.
Joe Dailey and Kevin Cosgrove's defense are gone (thank goodness) and the Huskers should win this one easily. Look for a lot of playing time for the reserves. Husker fans are going to want to see how many snaps backup QBs Ron Kellogg III and Brion Carnes will get and if true freshman Tommy Armstrong will give up a redshirt year and play.
Here's my take:
Write me at HuskerDan@cox.net. For my archived columns, go to http://www.huskermax.com/huskerdan