Entering 2009 the Huskers are coming off of a 9-4 effort and are poised for year two of the Bo Pelini era in Lincoln. They’ve drastically improved on defense from the 2007 implosion that saw the outsider Bill Callahan forced out and they look to contend for their second Big XII of a disappointing decade for Nebraska’s Red Sea faithful. Picked to finish behind Kansas and the power triumvirate of Okie State, OU and Texas the Huskers are in a solid position to surprise the rest of the Big XII.
3 Biggest Reasons They Can:
-The Nebraska running game will get 1,000 yards from Roy Helu Jr. Last season Marlon Lucky suffered from injuries and Helu Jr took the lead in rushing for over 800 yards. This year Helu Jr gets the fulltime keys to the Big Red machine with Quentin Castille, the bruiser, to spell him during games. Helu Jr, while not nearly as hyped as Lucky, proved his mettle a season ago in going for 157 yards in Norman, topping 100 against Colorado and Kansas and averaging 6.4 yards per carry on the season.
Helu Jr is a great blend of size (6’0”, 215 lbs) and not only possesses excellent speed but a tremendous change of direction. He’s shifty but still able to take punishment, get yards after contact and move the pile. The kid is going to be a major factor in the Big XII, a conference that outside of OU’s stable and Kendall Hunter at OSU is lacking in true feature backs.
-The Cornhuskers have experience in the area that matters the most in the pass happy Big XII; the secondary. They return seven players with plenty of experience including two safeties and a corner who finished 2-4 in tackles a season ago. The Huskers secondary should see their 233 yards per game decrease due to the return of talented defenders. Anchored by the defensive leader hard hitting safety Larry Asante the back four are athletic enough to cover receivers downfield and plenty active in the run defense to give the younger, less experienced linebackers help. Look for Bo and his brother Carl Pelini; the defensive coordinator, to bring pressure, play aggressive defense and disguise coverages to take advantage of the knowledgeable players and playmakers they possess in the backend.
-No Texas. For the third year in a row the Huskers escape the dreaded Big XII South draw that puts Oklahoma and Texas on the schedule in the same season. The Huskers also evade Oklahoma State from the South setting up their schedule for only two ranked conference tests; OU in Lincoln and Kansas in Lawrence. Even with a loss to OU the Huskers can win the weaker Big XII North by beating Kansas head to head.
This is roughly the same schedule that Mizzou possessed in their 2007 Big XII North Championship campaign. Nebraska is not quite as polished as the 2007 Tigers but their schedule will likely not feature the four ranked conference opponents that Chase Daniel had to navigate two seasons ago. Long story short if Nebraska is capable of sailing unscathed through the likes of an improved Baylor, rebuilding efforts at Mizzou, Iowa State, Texas Tech, Kansas State, an unproven Colorado squad and Kansas the early November OU loss will be meaningless.
Biggest Roadblock To Their Dark Horse Dreams:
Yes OU in November and Kansas the following week will be daunting. But, the fact is Nebraska’s biggest roadblock to the Big XII Title is the game down in “Big D.” The Big XII Championship Game has been the demise of the frail North Division since K-State’s upset win over Oklahoma in 2003. In the years since Colorado has seen beat downs by 39 and 67 points in back to back seasons and more recently Missouri’s been dealt brutal back to back pulverizings by Oklahoma. Playing OU once during the season may be bad but getting the Sooners or Texas back in Jerry Jones’ new playground will prove the biggest game of Bo Pelini’s young head coaching career.
Should the Huskers’ cards play themselves out the right way Pelini and the rest of Lincoln will be staring down the barrel at a 7-1 conference record and a date with destiny in Arlington, Texas. Nebraska has the tools to fulfill the first portion of this prediction, but they’ll get only one shot in Arlington and hopefully Pelini can draw on his inner Les Miles to pull out a shocker.