Nebraska's season can be most accurately characterized as bipolar. More highs than lows, but the highs were high and, for a fan base that expects dominance like this one does, the lows were really low.
Bo Pelini's fifth full season at the helm was similar to the previous four, and probably his best. He won his fourth conference division title (he won three Big 12 North Championships prior to the Huskers realignment with the Big Ten), went 7-1 in conference, and at times looked like he had both the most physical and athletic team in conference. Nebraska sprinted out of the gate to a 4-1 start, stumbling only against a surprisingly solid UCLA team in week 2 and blowing out the rest of the non-conference schedule. After squeaking by Wisconsin in week 5, the Huskers were promptly decimated by Ohio State, 63-28.
Just when it looked like the team might fold, Pelini's squad stormed back in the fourth quarter to beat a very good Northwestern team that had built a 12-point lead with eight minutes to play. That's the way it seemed to go for Nebraska this year - slow starts followed by furious second half rallies. They beat both Michigan and Penn State, two of the Big Ten's best teams, in the latter half of the year, and cruised into the Big Ten Championship Game in great position. With the two best teams of the Leaders Division ineligible for postseason play, the Huskers looked poised to win their first conference title since 1999 by beating a 7-5 Wisconsin team.
Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and so it was for the Huskers, who received the drubbing of a lifetime from the Madison Miracle Makers. Nebraska, long known for their vaunted defense colloquially referred to as the "blackshirts," gave up 70 points and lost by 39 to a team who had lost a brutal overtime slugfest with Penn State just a week earlier. The Huskers never were able to regain their footing, and were beaten by 7th ranked Georgia in the Capital One Bowl at the start of the new year.
There were plenty of positives to be taken from this past season. Junior Taylor Martinez continued his "T-Magic" on the ground, gaining over 1000 yards rushing as a quarterback. What was most impressive, however, was his markedly improved passing. His motion is still a bit...unorthodox...but Martinez was able to raise his passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, and touchdown-to-interception ratio this year. He's an electrifying player, a home run hitter, and a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender next year. The offense was simply outstanding, and though the defense struggled at times, it showed poise and came up with stops when it needed to most of the year.
All sorts of variation between the services about Nebraska's overall ranking, but there are things we can agree on. For one, Nebraska brought in the consensus 3rd best class in conference, behind Ohio State and Michigan. Otherwise, they put together a strong class of linebackers and tailbacks, and threw in a 4-star QB for good measure. Signing 4-star running backs Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor, as well as one of the top dual threat QBs in the country in Johnny Stanton, should ensure Nebraska's explosive offense once Martinez and Ameer Abdullah move on.
Nebraska avoids Ohio State and Wisconsin during the 2013 regular season. Otherwise the schedule looks relatively favorable. Nearly the entire skill offense returns, with a few exceptions in the backfield - Rex Burkhead graduated and Braylon Heard transferred. Ameer Abdullah, sidelined with a minor knee injury this spring, will still see the bulk of the carries, but taking over for Burkhead and Heard will be Imani Cross, who made some nice contributions during his first campaign. The defense, however, loses 8 starters from a team that was already giving up points in bunches last year. Just like last season, Nebraska will rely on their offense to outscore other teams, rather than pinning them down with terrific defense.
Nebraska gets UCLA at home this year in an otherwise uninteresting non-conference schedule. They travel for their biggest conference games against Penn State and Michigan, and get a good Northwestern team at home. I expect they'll get one of these games, but even two might be a stretch. It's tough to win on the road in the Big Ten, and Northwestern continues to play better and better under Pat Fitzgerald. Still, Nebraska looks to be a Big Ten contender and a Legends Division front runner with the offense they run.