You can call me a lot of things, but even in my post therapy world one of the things you still can’t call me is an optimist. Maybe it has a lot to do with the things that have happened in my life, but a good chunk of the issue is that I am a sports fan who lives in Northeast Ohio. I have dealt with a lot of heartbreak in the past 22 years I have been on this Earth when it comes to sports, and as such the Number 9 ranking of the Nebraska Cornhuskers scares the living daylights out of me.
This year just seems so ripe for a letdown, and it has more to do with things off the field than actually on it…
The first way I am sensing a letdown is the simple fact that people are predicting Nebraska to be better without their star Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh, even the head coach is saying this. I completely understand that Bo Pelini is just trying to do his job and make each year seem better than the next, but the fact remains you are expecting a lot out of your defense if you just expect it to improve it’s performance after such a great job last year. Prince Amukamara is the obvious star of the defense this year, but he is a different type of great player than Suh was. He is a corner and while he can shut the offense’s number one target down all they have to do is simply not throw the ball his way and you are effectively taking him out of the equation. This will be huge against a team like Texas (or a potential Big XII Championship Game match-up with Oklahoma). If a team has the talent in their Tight End or other wide-outs then the potential to exploit a rather (in my opinion) suspect secondary after that is high.
You also have to look at how good of a player Defensive Tackle Jared Crick really has the potential to be this year. Last year we all know that he was helped out a lot by teams double teaming Suh, but this year he will be expected to match his productivity from last year, and do it as the line’s main threat. Can he do it? I am not sure. He is not nearly the athlete that Suh was and he is not nearly as dominating a physical presence who can beat double teams on the regular. His other defensive tackle mate will probably be Redshirt Sophomore Baker Steinkuhler and, football pedigree aside, expecting him to jump from obscurity to playing the Crick role in his first full year of starting is really asking a lot out of him, and will the pressure get to him is a big factor this year as well.
Next, a way this year can easily be a letdown for Nebraska fans is the words of one Bo Pelini after the 33-0 destruction of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl, “Nebraska is back, and we’re here to stay!” This is obviously a great way of increasing your fans expectations by a whole lot, and while it is Pelini’s M.O. to say these things and get his players fired up; it is also good bulletin board material for the other schools you are going to play. I am a big fan of laying low, and trying to stay off the radar for as long as possible until you are noticed via your team’s play and not by it’s actions. By saying these things, Pelini effectively brought Nebraska front and center again. While it is great that Nebraska is trying to be a national power again, it should be brought out slowly and not all at once. The Big XII Championship last year was the first exposure, and it was a good way to make your mark on the county (albeit in a heartbreaking manner…), but this puts you EVEN MORE in the cross-hairs of every team you play, and makes the possibility of an upset or a meltdown all the more likely. Which brings us to…
Nebraska’s schedule this year is not really that difficult, but there are a couple potential “trap” games and obviously difficult games which need to be looked out for that can cause this season to go spiraling down and out of control. The two difficult games this year will obviously be the Washington and Texas games, and unless the Nebraska gets to the Big XII Championship game (which is expected) those are the two biggest games of the year in the regular season. Washington has a Heisman Candidate in Quarterback Jake Locker, and it also has a really good coach in Steve Sarkasian. Both of whom lead an upset of (a weak) USC team last year at home. This year Nebraska goes to Seattle and can easily suffer the same fate that USC did and it could really send the season for a loop in only it’s third game, but being beaten by a weaker Washington team on National TV could really throw things out of whack.
The biggest game of Nebraska’s regular season will be the October 16th game against Texas. A day which Nebraska is marketing as, “RED OUT AROUND THE WORLD.” Nebraska has only beaten Texas once in Big XII play (the 1999 Big XII Championship), and is 4-9 in the series against them, with the only home win coming back in 1933. Nebraska also suffered a string of heartbreaking losses against this team, and another one (even if they do make the Big XII Championship Game) would effectively become some sort of hex placed upon Nebraska by the football gods every time they face Texas. This IS the game that will make or break Nebraska’s season. If they go into the game and come out undefeated suddenly this thing becomes a legitimate National Title contender. If they lose to Texas and it is in another heartbreaking manner then this game can also send the entire season spiraling out from under them, not to mention the almost NEED to beat Texas simply because of the way Nebraska left the Big XII and the things that Tom Osborne feels and has said about the conference since then.
Aside from the final (for the foreseeable future anyway) game against Colorado there are two or three games that can derail this even if they do beat Washington and Texas. In addition to the Missouri, Texas A&M, and Kansas State games there is also the oddly scary team in Idaho which could throw a giant wrench into things during the season. Idaho was a solid team last year that made a bowl game, and will be primed to take down a Top 25 team early in the season and dash its potential dreams of a National Championship. This game reminds me an awful lot of the Ball State game back in the ill-fated 2007 season. After having lost the prior week to USC, Nebraska came in hoping to salvage something after that debacle of a game, and after having gotten (admittedly) lucky against Wake Forest the week prior to the USC Game they were feeling pretty good about being 2-1 at the time and not 1-2. The wheels of the season really came off against Ball State. They came into Memorial Stadium and knocked Nebraska right in the mouth from the start and even took a lead late into the 4th Quarter of that game. If not for an interception return by Bo Ruud and a missed field goal (by inches) then Nebraska would have lost AT HOME to BALL STATE. Do I expect the same to happen against Idaho? No, simply because of the talent discrepancy (Idaho does not have playmakers such as Dante Love and Nate Davis), but the fear is always there and that would kill the season two games into it and would dig a hole deep enough that it may be too hard to come back from.
Lastly, the national pressure could definitely be cause for a letdown this year and not from just a rankings standpoint. EXPANSIONPALOOZA~! Was all started by Nebraska jumping ship to the Big 10 and with this being their last year in the Big XII suddenly it becomes a big game every time Nebraska plays someone and the stories will always be there. The first sign of slippage could instigate a number of “Can they compete in the Big 10?” or “Nebraska not where it needs to be!” type stories throughout the country. Simply put, they put themselves under immense pressure to perform this year and show that no matter what conference or locations they play in they can compete to the highest level and take out every team on the map. Have the Cornhuskers come a long way since the dark days of the Pederson/Callahan Era? Yes, absolutely they have. Do they have a long way to go to “RESTORE THE ORDER” as the old saying once went? Yes. This year is a huge year in the history of the Nebraska Football Program and a lot of the pressure is self made more than usual. Their ability to withstand and overcome it will be a measuring point as to the future prospects of this program.
Then again, I am just might be a cynical and jaded sports fan from Northeast Ohio…