The Nebraska Cornhuskers check in at No. 14 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Rex Burkhead, RB (SR)
Taylor Martinez might be the most important player, but no one is better in Big Red country than No. 22. Burkhead is arguably the most complete player in the nation. He can move the pile, get to the edge, pick-up the blitz, catch passes as a receiver and, most importantly, lead by example. He is a tireless worker who never turns off the motor. If Nebraska is to compete for a Big Ten title, it will undoubtedly be on the back of the three-down workhorse from Plano, Texas.
Trap Game: at Northwestern (Oct. 20)
It may be tough for the Wildcats to sneak up on Nebraska in 2012 considering what Pat Fitzgerald’s team did in Lincoln last fall. But with the most important two-game stretch of the 2012 season looming — Michigan at home and at Michigan State — directly after the trip to Evanston, Huskers fans can’t help but look past Northwestern. The players, however, better not overlook the Wildcats or they will be on the losing end of Purple Power once again.
Upset Alert: at UCLA (Sept. 8)
The season finale against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium could also fall into this category, considering what could be on the line on November 23, but a Week 2 cross-country trip to face the talented but underachieving Bruins could be tricky. New head coach Jim Mora has built a talented coaching staff to lead his roster full of four and five-star prospects. UCLA played for their conference crown last year and won’t be scared of Nebraska coming to the Rose Bowl. A win over UCLA would be the first step in the effort to make a return trip to Pasadena in 2012.
Unsung Hero: Brett Maher, K/P (SO)
Maybe he isn’t as unsung as others considering he was named Big Ten Kicker and Punter of the Year last fall. But not many kickers or punters contribute as much to their team’s success as Maher does. He drilled 19 of his 23 field goal attempts and averaged nearly 45 yards per punt while knocking 42.4% of his boots inside the 20. His ability to handle both jobs with ease is invaluable in the modern scholarship era of college football.
Biggest Game: Michigan (Oct. 27)
The Huskers will be on primetime TV three times this Big Ten season and the third visit to Saturday Night Football on ABC will be the biggest when it welcomes conference favorite Michigan to town. The Blackshirts were beaten and battered to the tune of 238 yards rushing at the hands of Denard Robinson and company last fall in Ann Arbor. But if Nebraska has conference title aspirations in 2012, it will have to close the 28-point gap from 2011.
Revenge Game: Michigan (Oct. 27)
Nebraska wasn’t just beaten by the Maize and Blue last fall, they were embarrassed. Taylor Martinez completed just nine of his 23 passes, Rex Burkhead has his worst game of the season with only 36 yards rushing and Denard Robinson accounted for four touchdowns in the 45-17 destruction in Ann Arbor. The Wisconsin game features a similar story line, but the Badgers don’t play within the division like the Wolverines. Nebraska is undoubtedly focused on revenge against both teams this fall.
Freshman To Watch: David Santos, LB
The Spring, Texas, product added nearly 20 pounds during his redshirt season — which almost didn’t happen at all. Santos was prepared to play a big role as a true freshman last fall until an injury forced him into a redshirt situation. With the loss of superstar Lavonte David, Bo Pelini appears to be leaning toward a by-committee replacement approach. In which case, Santos will get more than a few opportunities to prove his mettle.
Comeback Player: Andrew Rodriguez, OL (JR)
The big hog molly played in eight games last season for the Huskers. Halfway through the season, the 6-foot-6, 325-pounder was slowed by an injury that eventually cost him the final four games of the season. He has been shifted to right tackle where, when healthy, he will be a major force in the powerful Huskers ground game. Again, if he can stay on the field.
Defensive MVP: John Papuchis, DC
Along with new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph, Papuchis is the most important member of the Huskers defensive unit. Will Compton or Baker Steinkuhler might be the on-the-field MVPs for this unit, but if Nebraska returns to its Blackshirt way of life, it will be because of the new defensive coordinator. This unit was dominant just two years ago (93.1 rushing yards allowed per game in 2009) but has been less than salty over the last two (over 150 rushing yards allowed per game since). With plenty of talent on all three levels, Nebraska should be much-improved on defense in 2012.
Newcomer To Watch: Mike Marrow, FB
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound thumper has a chance to make a name for himself this fall. Whether it’s lead-blocking, catching passes or picking up short yardage first downs, Marrow has a chance to be the unsung hero on this offense. The son of Nebraska graduate assistant Vince Marrow, the fullback signed with Alabama out of Holland, Ohio, before landing at Eastern Michigan. He transferred to the Huskers and sat out last fall, but is ready lay the lumber in 2012.
Season Defining Moment: Wisconsin (Sept. 29)
There may be bigger games later in the season against the state of Michigan, but from a psychological standpoint, how the Huskers perform against the Big Ten’s other Big Red at home to start conference play on national television will be huge. Should they handle the Badgers with relative ease, fans can get excited about a potential conference title run. Should Wisconsin, and its rebuilt two-deep, walk into Memorial Stadium and win, the fans in Lincoln would have to be excited about their fifth nine-win season in a row.
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