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Nebraska Football: Can the Cornhuskers Win the Big Ten in 2012?


The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Can Nebraska Win the Big Ten Title in 2012?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Here’s a shocking number: Since Nebraska led the nation in turnover margin in 2003, the Cornhuskers have finished on the plus-side of that statistic only once. Nebraska was plus-five in 2009 and even in 2006, but in the other six seasons, Nebraska coughed up the ball more than the Cornhuskers took it away from opponents. Turnover margin is the biggest predictor of team performance, and Nebraska’s trend of being on the wrong end of the turnover margin is a major reason the Cornhuskers haven’t been able to move out of the nine- and 10-win range into nationally elite territory. The 11 conference champions last season averaged plus-7.7 in turnover margin. Conference champions in the six major conferences averaged plus-11. If Nebraska is going to win the Big Ten, that’s where Nebraska’s going to need to make its turnaround. Now a veteran, Taylor Martinez should be less likely to turn the ball over, though his 15 interceptions in two seasons as a starter aren’t terrible. Rex Burkhead fumbled only once last season, albeit in the loss to Northwestern. The defense on the other hand forced only 18 turnovers last season. Only Indiana and Minnesota forced fewer in the Big Ten. Nebraska still won nine games and was in the Big Ten race before the Northwestern loss on Nov. 5, so that speaks well of the rest of Nebraska’s team a year ago. In 2012, Michigan will be the favorite in the Big Ten Legends Division, but Nebraska has the pieces to contend for the Rose Bowl if the Cornhuskers start to get some long-awaited breaks.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Absolutely. But it will come down to two major overriding factors: Taylor Martinez' ability to complete key passes and new defensive coordinator John Papuchis' ability to get stops. After a fairly strong freshman season, Martinez entered last fall needing to show mental maturity and toughness. He did that as he became the leader of the offense and master of the Huskers playbook. The next step in his development as he enters his third season under center will be improving his accuracy and efficiency. He must be able to keep defenses away from the line of scrimmage by completing third down, fourth quarter passes on a regular basis. With Rex Burkhead carrying the load, and arguably the best collection of receivers in the Big Ten as his disposal, there is no reason to think T-Magic doesn't continue to blossom as one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league.

The defense might be the bigger issue. After straight crushing opponents in 2009, the Black Shirts have been pushed around. And it starts at the line of scrimmage. Three contributors, including the injured Jared Crick, have moved on from a D-Line that has allowed over 150 yards rushing per game since '09 — where they averaged 93.1 yards allowed per game with a Boy Names Suh leading the way. But Papuchis has plenty of talent to work with in the front seven. Baker Steinkuhler and Will Compton lead a group that needs to slow the run with more toughness and get more pressure on the quarterback than 1.62 sacks per game (84th nationally in 2011). Fixing the front seven will go a long way to competing for a Big Ten title.

The schedule gives the Huskers a few opportunities for revenge as Michigan and Wisconsin visit Lincoln this fall, while road trips to Michigan State and Ohio State could be the toughest tests of the season. There is no dominate, undefeated type of team in this league this fall so the Huskers could survive a loss to Ohio State with ease. And since no one will have to face the Buckeyes in the title game, the winner of the Legends Division will likely claim the trip to Pasadena. How Nebraska fares against the state of Michigan should determine how far this team can go in 2012.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Michigan is getting most of the preseason hype as the favorite in the Legends Division, but the gap between the Wolverines and Michigan State and Nebraska is very narrow. Brady Hoke did a good job of moving Michigan back onto the national scene last year, but this team suffered some key losses, including center David Molk and defensive tackle Mike Martin. Denard Robinson is back for a run at the Heisman, but filling the voids in the trenches is crucial to winning the Big Ten title.

I give Nebraska a slight edge over Michigan State for second place in the Legends Division, but again, the margin is very, very small. For the Cornhuskers to improve on last season’s win total, quarterback Taylor Martinez has to get better as a passer, while the defense has to stop the run. Losing quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy will be difficult for the Spartans to overcome. Coach Mark Dantonio has done a good job of building up Michigan State’s depth, but Cousins and Worthy were two of the best players in the Big Ten last year. The schedules are essentially even, as Nebraska and Michigan State play Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Leaders Division, while the Spartans host the Cornhuskers on Nov. 3.

If Michigan struggles to replace Molk and Martin, the division race will be wide open. I think 10 wins is a realistic goal for the Cornhuskers in 2012, but to win the division, they have to beat Michigan in Lincoln on Oct. 27. The Wolverines handled Nebraska 45-17 last season, but this could be a different game in Lincoln.

While I think it’s certainly possible for Nebraska to win the division crown, I think a second-place finish is more likely. However, if the Cornhuskers can get to 10 wins, a BCS bowl appearance is certainly within reach.

Where will Nebraska finish in the 2012 Big Ten standings? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day.

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