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The Nebraska Cornhuskers are now the team to beat in the Big Ten.
-by Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
THE Ohio State University has won at least a share of the Big Ten Championship in each of the last six seasons, but with Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor out of Columbus, it is safe to say that the Buckeyes will not be extending that amazing streak in 2011. Instead, attention in the Big Ten turns due west to Lincoln, Neb., home of the newest member of the league’s Legends division and the clear favorite to win the Big Ten Championship in 2011.
For nearly 100 years, OSU has been THE major power in its conference, but the heavy favorite to unseat the Buckeyes as conference champions has yet to play its first Big Ten game. The Nebraska Cornhuskers boast an All-America front seven, ferocious coaching staff and talented running game, giving the corn-fed Big Red the preseason edge over the dairy-fed Big Red from Madison, Wis.
Interestingly, the biggest difference between Wisconsin, who is likely the new preseason favorite to win the Leaders division, and NU is also what makes the Huskers and Badgers nervous heading into the fall – the quarterback position. The Badgers have a chance to erase all concerns if they land uber-transfer Russell Wilson, but without the All-ACC signal caller, UW has a slim chance of winning the Big Ten title. Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, on the other hand, is equally talented but far from entrenched.
“T-Magic” exploded onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and posted some unbelievable performances against Oklahoma State (323 yards, 5 TDs), at Washington (137 yards rushing, 3 TDs) and at Kansas State (241 yards rushing, 4 TDs). But in the eighth game of the season, Martinez injured his ankle against Missouri. Three weeks later, against Texas A&M, he injured his ego in a highly publicized sideline/halftime discussion with uncompromising head coach Bo Pelini. The ankle never fully recovered, and defensive coordinators clearly made adjustments in the second half of the season, but many point to Martinez’s lack of mental toughness as the primary reason for the Big Red’s poor second half showing.
Pre-ankle injury, Martinez had 870 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns to go with 1,161 yards passing and nine touchdowns. Post-ankle injury, Martinez failed to top 100 yards rushing or 170 yards passing in any game. He threw one touchdown against four interceptions and failed to score a single time on the ground. The offense took a complete nosedive, and Nebraska lost three of its last four games.
The Big Ten has made sure that Martinez’s mental toughness will be tested during his introductory tour of the league. A road trip to Wisconsin and a home date with Ohio State will be the first two Big Ten conference games in NU history. Michigan State and Northwestern visit Lincoln as the calendar flips from October to November, before the Huskers finish with a nasty three-week stretch: at Penn State, at Michigan and Iowa at home.
A rematch with either Penn State, Wisconsin or Ohio State likely looms in Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten title game as well, should Martinez successfully navigate that extremely difficult conference schedule.
This Nebraska team is good enough to win the Big Ten title, and with a relatively simple non-conference schedule, the Huskers could also push for a National Championship. But with Cody Green transferred, Bubba Starling drafted No. 5 overall in the MLB Draft and Jamal Turner switched to wide receiver, there is little depth behind Martinez at the most important position on the field.
All this to say: The performance of a newly healthy and focused second-year starter at quarterback will determine whether the Huskers’ inaugural Big Ten season is a freight train b-line to New Orleans or a T-not-so-magical roller coaster ride through treacherous new territory.
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