Thursday, August 12, 2010

NU Pre-View: Overrated and Underrated 'Husker Storylines

September 04 isn't too far away, and 'Husker fans at this point pretty well know all of the storylines and questions that surround the 2010 NU squad. But, I've noticed that some of the popular storylines really aren't central to the end result of NU's 2010 campaign. Moreover, some of the storylines that aren't really being talked about are much more crucial to NU's goals. So, which storylines are overrated and underrated? Let's take a look.

Now, don't jump to conclusions. The lack of production from the quarterback last year was one of the primary reasons that Nebraska struggled and ultimately came up short when it counted. Improved quarterback play is the primary thing NU will need to take the next step 'Husker fans are craving, a return to national prominence.

But the 2010 QB situation is far different than the 2009 situation. Last year, Nebraska had to choose between an untested starter and a true freshman. Injuries and defections required NU to convert a linebacker to quarterback, which tells you all you need to know about the dearth of QB options NU had in 2009.

2010 is a very different story. Zac Lee is coming back after a year of adversity, and is in competition with Cody Green, who had a year in the system to mature, as well as wunderkind Taylor Martinez. Rather than having no options, Bo Pelini is almost spoiled for choice with his signal-caller decision this year.

Ultimately, I think Lee will take control of the job. Remember, after the season we learned that Lee was hurt early on in the campaign - not surprisingly, about the same time NU's offense went into a nosedive. A healthy and experienced Lee suggests that NU's offense will look more like the Holiday Bowl team that dominated Arizona and less like the turtles that couldn't score against Iowa State.

But even if Lee struggles, Pelini has other levers to pull at QB. Yes, getting good quarterback play is important, but the options NU has means that finding that good play is far more likely than not.

Nebraska lost Mike Smith to season-ending surgery, meaning that NU will lose a critical and versatile player who provided depth to the offensive line rotation. The fact that Smith is a senior means that NU will also lose the maturity and experience Smith brought to the rotation.

It's not clear if Smith would have been a starter at the end of fall camp. And NU will still have plenty of senior leadership across the line. But NU's offensive success starts with the line, and the loss of a key component of that line is always an area of concern.

Blasphemy, I know. October 16 is the date for Armageddon, the battle of good versus evil on FieldTurf, the chance to settle on the field all of the ugliness from the conference realignment soap opera over the summer.

But if Nebraska wants to win the Big XII, the first goal is to win the Big XII North. If the unthinkable happens and Texas beats NU, but the 'Huskers run the table against their North foes, NU will still likely be in the Big XII title game in December with a chance to win the conference title and go to a BCS bowl.

Believe me, the game against Texas is a big deal for any number of reasons. But 'Husker fans should keep in mind the ultimate goals for the team - division title, conference title, BCS bowl - are all achievable regardless of the outcome on October 16.

Just before Bevo comes rolling into Lincoln, NU has to head to the Little Apple for the final time. Kansas State, as much as any team, has a deep and primal loathing for Nebraska, and would love to hand NU a loss in what is almost certainly their final game against each other. Plus, the game against the Purples is a Thursday nighter on ESPN, at the miserable little bandbox that is Bill Snyder Family Stadium. All of this sets up what should be a snake pit environment for NU, with the crowd well-lubricated and loaded for bear.

Oh, and Daniel Thomas plays for the Purples. A solid argument can be made that Thomas is the best running back in the Big XII this year. Not in the North. In the conference. With Bill Snyder in his second year back at the helm, a weapon like Thomas at Snyder's disposal, a prime-time ESPN night game to send the Purple faithful into a lather, and NU in danger of looking ahead to October 16, K-State will have the table set for an upset. This has trap game written all over it, and if NU drops their conference opener to a North division rival, things get very dicey for Nebraska making a return trip to Dallas in December.

It's not just 'Husker fans that are looking at 2009's record and predicting a top-10 finish and a possible national title run for this year's squad. Nebraska's undressing of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl, on the heels of their near-miss against Texas in the Big XII Championship, have led most national college football pundits to anoint the 'Huskers as one of college football's elite programs again.

But, as the great Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend. Take a look at that record. Who, exactly, did NU beat? Their best win was over a tailspinning Oklahoma team that ended up outside of the top 25. For heaven's sake, the 2009 squad lost to Iowa State. At home.

Yes, NU almost beat Virginia Tech on the road. Yes, they almost beat Texas in the Big XII title game. But almost beating a team means you lost to that team. A closer inspection of NU's 2009 record reveals a lot of good wins, a lot of close games, but no real signature win that NU can hang their collective hat on and declare their return to the elite of college football.

These two go hand in glove with each other. Since 2001, Nebraska has zero wins over a top-15 team. Zero, as in none. In the BCS era, only Nebraska and Duke boast such a record. Yes, that Duke.

Again, don't get me wrong. I think Nebraska has a legitimate potential this year to run the table and play for a national title. But the feeling in 'Husker Nation is, as Pelini put it after the Holiday Bowl, "Nebraska's back, and we're here to stay."

I love the confidence of the man, and I think an attitude like that is critical to create the culture of winning that was crushed out of Nebraska by the Buffaloes on Black Friday in 2001. But until you do something, you haven't done it, and as of yet Nebraska hasn't done it on the field with a signature win.

NU will have a phenomenal opportunity on October 16, against a Texas team with a rookie and relatively immobile quarterback, in front of a Nebraska crowd with a frenzy that hasn't been seen at Memorial Stadium - maybe ever. If Nebraska can avoid the trap in Manhattan, the table will be set for the signature win and for Nebraska to take that mythical "next step" into the upper echelon of college football.

But that step hasn't been taken yet, and it's still a very big step to take. 'Husker fans would be wise to remember that and not assume that the journey back to the promised land is complete.

GBR, baby.