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Summer Snapshot '11: Nebraska Cornhuskers

So, we meet again, old friend.

Nebraska and Penn State will restart their series this fall, as part of the Big Ten's effort to establish cross-divisional rivalries. We'll get to the game at another time. For today, we're going to give you a quick look inside the program, as it stands this summer. Enjoy.

The Past Few Seasons...

Nebraska was one of the most-feared college football programs in the nation for more than 40 years. Double-digit win totals were expected like the changing leaves of autumn. From Bob Devaney to Tom Osborne, 1962 to 1997, the Cornhuskers failed to reach nine wins in a season only twice. Remember this was a time when 10 and 11-game regular seasons were in place. So winning nine games was a big deal. Plus, Nebraska was a regular in the bowl circuit, ripping off 35 straight appearances from 1968 to 2003.

In 1998, with Osborne retiring following his second national championship, Frank Solich took over the program. He was seemingly was on track to maintain the success Huskers fans were accustomed to watching on the field. But with the 2001 demolition of Nebraska by Miami in the national championship game, things were getting tense in Lincoln. It all came crashing down--well, in Nebraska terms--in 2002, when the Huskers went "only" 7-7. Solich was kept around for one more season, finishing 2003 with a nice 9-3 regular season record. He was let go before the bowl game, temporarily replaced by Bo Pelini.

The administration went in a new direction, hiring former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Calahan to "modernize" Nebraska football. For years, the triple option attack was the best in college football. It worked, very well. Four seasons later, Calahan was fired, as Nebraska was tortured through two losing seasons, and only a mediocre 9-5 season in the middle. The pass-first, West Coast style of football didn't work. Not at all.

Now returned Pelini, who interviewed once for this job during his interim position for the 2003 bowl game. This time, Pelini got the job. Since, Nebraska looks more like the team that was dominating the sport for four decades. Though it has taken some time to get back to becoming a consistent winner, it's been worth it. The defense has returned to the "Blackshirts" level of play. The offense is churning up the ground. And Nebraska has won 29 games in Pelini's three seasons. The 2010 season, Nebraska's last in the Big 12, did end with a thud, however. The Huskers lost three of their last four, including an embarrassing blowout loss to Washington, a team NU had dominated earlier in the season, in the bowl game.

The Cornhuskers enter the Big Ten this year, after decades in the Big 8 and Big 12 conferences. It should be very interesting for any college football fan to watch how Nebraska, a program only a year or two "back," responds to the challenge.

What to Look for in 2011...

Usually I begin with the offense. But today I'm going to dive into the "Blackshirts" first--the Nebraksa defense.

The defensive line gave up 232 rush yards per game in 2007. In 2009, it gave up only 93 per game. With three returning from a decent unit (153 rush ypg) last year, including Jared Odrick-like defensive tackle Jared (even the name matches!) Crick, this unit should resemble stats more like 2009 than 2010. Behind the line, Nebraska's linebackers had to bulk up this off-season for what Phil Steele referred to as the "rigors of the new conference." The Huksers frequently ran a nickle package in the Big 12, since that conference tends to favor passing over running. But this year they should be using more linebackers, as Will Compton and Lavonte David return from 2010. The strongside linebacker Sean Fisher was lost to injury before 2010, but will return this year. He made six starts in 2009.

The secondary loses All-American cornerback Prince Amukamara, safety DeJon Gomes and safety Rickey Thenarse. However, Alfonzo Dennard returns with 22 career starts at corner, and will be one of the better corners in the nation this fall. This unit won't come close to the monster it has been (#1 pass D last year), but it will still be formidable to throw against until the new guys get acclimated.

Nebraska actually came within 84 yards of having THREE 1,000-YARD RUSHERS. Now that Sounds like the NU of old. Quarterback Taylor Martinez wasn't a killer passer, but his dual-threat abilities kept defenses guessing. He finished with 965 yards rushing and another 1631 passing in 2010, 10 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Only a true sophomore, Penn State fans will see plenty of the young man the next three seasons, if he stays at the college level that long. Rex Burkhead is going to be the guy at running back this fall, but he'll have some help with VHT frosh Aaron Green. The receivers return two of the top four, but Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed only combined for 889 last season.

But the problem for Nebraska this year will definitely be the offensive line, which returns only two starters from 2010, and one more form 2009. The two guards that are expected to start are both sophomores with a career total between them of five starts. Marcel Jones did have 11 starts in 2009, but was injured in both that year and last year after only 4 more starts. The net experience in the unit might be better than it was by late last year, but it's still a major question mark.

The schedule is really the definition of "blockbuster," with Fresno State, Washington, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, and Iowa. The opener against UT-Chattanooga is a good warm-up game, but with the always-tricky Fresno up next, there's no time to waste. Washington destroyed NU in the bowl game last year, though the Huskers did win in Seattle earlier in the season. Trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan will mark the big road games, with Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa coming to Memorial Stadium. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, this could be the best 8-win team in college football.

Cross-posted from