1. How do you look back at 2012? The Huskers had the best (eligible) record in the conference and won their first Big Ten division title, but the disastrous finish with the final two games has to leave a sour taste.
Salt Creek: Nebraska's fortunes followed the defensive line. Notice that our defeats came against teams with pretty solid offensive lines. (Wisconsin's offensive line forgot themselves early on and then remembered and oh, Wisconsin scores again!) 2012's failures were, in my opinion, the culmination of mistakes made in recruiting, development and personnel management by Pelini early in his tenure and his inability to correct for those mistakes after five years. The post-season hangover hasn't been an enjoyable one either - Nebraska fans are getting antsy for championships.
Aaron: Nebraska's season and their national perception is based upon their two bad losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin. There are polls this preseason that don't even have the Huskers ranked. 2012 is a season where good things happened. Nebraska had the toughest conference schedule, and navigated it all the way to the Big Ten Title game. But those blowouts are what people remember.
David McGee: Yeah, it does a bit, but I don't keep those games on the DVR. Last year was a thrill ride to both extremes. The disastrous finish, more specifically the Wisconsin game, in hindsight, was the culmination of a bunch of things that came to a head at the most inopportune of times. The conference title game has been Pelini's bugaboo since coming to Lincoln, that's his Oklahoma.
Mister Mike: I agree largely with what Salt stated: our recruiting, personnel management, and development along the defensive line post-Suh has been, in a word, poor. For the way Pelini's defense operates, this has spelled disaster in several big games. And it wasn't just Wisconsin and Ohio State that were bad losses: I'd put our bowl loss against Georgia and the UCLA game there as well. Granted, we didn't lose by 17+, but we gave up damn near 500 yards passing and surrendered almost 650 yards of offense to the Dawgs. Same thing with UCLA, as again, we gave up over 600 yards of offense there as well.
We were very, very fortunate last year to have things roll our way in several conference games, the two sure picks that were dropped by Northwestern, the call back on the pick-six at MSU, Shoelace going down with an injury against Michigan. Look, I understand that these things happen, but we can't count on those things to win us ball games this year. Bottom line, things simply have to improve, especially on the defensive side. They just have to.
Husker Mike: I think all Husker fans are in agreement that Bo Pelini had some issues in recruiting and development on defense in his first three years, and those mistakes really haunted Nebraska last year. I do disagree with those who fail to recognize that Pelini changed things up in early 2011. This year, we'll find out if those changes have helped or not with the defensive front seven.
I also disagree that the Capital One Bowl was a disaster. Nebraska was in position to seize command in the third quarter of a game against a team that was a few seconds themselves away from upsetting Alabama to gain a spot in the national championship game. Could Nebraska have played better? Absolutely. But, it wasn't a disaster.
2. Looking at the offense, how much better can things get? Despite funky mechanics, Martinez had perhaps the best passing numbers in the conference, Kenny Bell is back at receiver and Ameer Abdullah looks like a future star. Are there concerns anywhere about the offense?
Salt Creek: The offensive line, oddly enough. Despite our offensive production, our offensive line still struggles in the passing game, particularly on the right side. If Nebraska wants to come anywhere close to the "Scoring Explosion" of 1983, the line will need to shore up and give Martinez time to find his receivers or to check down to Ameer.
DM: Not as concerned with the line as I am with the 35 turnovers, only Idaho was worse in FBS. Turnovers are gonna happen, especially with this kind of offense,they're part of the game, but 35 is way too many and the six on special teams in is inexcusable. The offense should be very, very good, but they need to help their defense out by not turning it over as much, especially the fumbles, those are the worst. They've been very fortunate in past years to get as many back as they have, if they can stop fumbling the ball, that would be a huge first big step.
Aaron: I don't think a year goes by when people don't worry about the offensive line. If it's solid, good things happen even with average playmakers. If it's bad, it doesn't matter how good your playmakers are. Until the season gets going and we play a few games, the line will be the focus for the offense to see what it's ceiling is this year.
Mister Mike: Turnovers first, OL second. We've recovered our own fumbles at a ridiculous rate (I believe it was almost 65%) but eventually, luck runs out and those numbers will regress. As Dave said, when you run this type of offense, there's going to be fumbles. But if we can cut out the stupid turnovers on special teams, and Martinez progresses in his decision making, then maybe they won't be such a pain in our ass this year.
As for the OL, we'll be able to see what kind of chops Garrison and Stai have in coaching the type of unit that Nebraska has long prided itself on having. The players so far have seemed to respond much better to these two running the show. Hopefully they can protect Martinez more than half a second this year and allow him some time to actually plant his feet and throw.
Husker Mike: Pass protection first, then turnovers. Nebraska's offensive line was fine run-blocking; it was the pass protection that was lacking. And the pass protection was a primary factor in many of Nebraska's turnovers. Martinez gets blindsided and coughs up the ball? Fix the pass protection. Martinez gets in a hurry and throws awkwardly or hurredly...and gets intercepted? Fix the pass protection. Yes, work on ball security as well...but if you work on the pass protection, many of last year's turnovers simply don't occur.
3. On the other side of things, last year's defense was pretty bad, and most of those starters are gone. Is that a good thing? How's the defense shaping up? Could it prevent the season from being a great one?
Salt Creek: As I said above, Nebraska's fate in 2012 basically followed the fortune of the defensive line. The same is true in 2013. As you said, the majority of those starters from last year's bend-break defense are gone. But the thing is, the depth issues remain. When you look at a roster you probably think "well, they've got quite a few DL, what's the problem?" But the majority of the upperclassmen on that list, they were unable to displace an undersized DE and an injured DT on the interior of the line last fall. Expecting them to play this year is kind of crazy. So this fall's defense will likely be, on average, Pelini's youngest defense in a while. While quite talented, the lack of experience may prove hazardous in Pelini's system, a very cerebral defense. This unit could possibly underperform and act like an anchor on what may be Nebraska's best offense since the 1990s. Then again, the defense was average in 1983 and they didn't do too badly as a team. (Our secondary and the LBs should not be a problem unless they're battling offensive linemen five yards forward of the line of scrimmage again. The secondary is, hands down, the best developed unit on this team. And that includes our WR unit which is pretty darn good.)
DM: The rhetoric has been that this defense is more athletic and talented but inexperienced. I've seen my share of examples on both sides of the coin on this one. If the talent trumps the inexperience, they'll be fine. The defense doesn't need to be great for the Huskers to find themselves in Indy, but it can't be giving up big plays like it did last year, either.
Aaron: This is why some polls don't have Nebraska ranked. The defense can be good and it can also be awful. They will get what they earn this year.
Mister Mike: Good and bad. Pelini has stated that this is one of the deepest secondaries he's had and our linebackers are definitely quicker and more athletic than last years' version. However, these guys can't be counted on to cover receivers for 6+ seconds while our DL is playing paddy-cake with the opposing team's offensive line. Pelini has to find a way to generate pressure and stone wall the run up front. So I think the defense (particularly the DL) will absolutely be the albatross this year if they don't improve. We can't count on putting up 40+ points a game, every game to win. This defense is going to have to make stops, and they're going to have to do it in big games too, where we always have seemed to melt down the last few seasons.
At this point I will also add: I've heard talk from the coaches just like this before. So until they can go out and prove it when it matters, it's all just coachspeak.
Husker Mike: I believe we have more talent up front than we've had since Ndamukong Suh graduated. But it's all inexperienced at this point, and it's all speculation as to whether it's going to make a difference. I think it will, but it's fair to be skeptical.
4. I'm never one to say a team got "screwed" by the officials, but last year's Nebraska game was a tough one to take for MSU fans. I point to the amount of yards MSU's defense allowed, especially on the final drive, but how do you look back at that game? Whether it was the pick-six called back for hitting too hard (like Kenny Bell in the B1GCG) or the pass interference before the winning touchdown, there was plenty for MSU fans to be upset about in a frustrating year.
Salt Creek: We were told coming that the Big Ten's officiating isn't much better than Texas'. It hasn't disappointed in that respect.
DM: If I were an MSU fan, I'd feel the same way. Nebraska had more than their share of games go like that last year. The big question is, will they get the same good fortune this year? Not likely, though it does speak well of the Huskers ability to play in crunch time, they can do themselves a favor by playing better throughout the game to not need to rely on coin flip penalties or herculean comebacks.
Aaron: That was a rough game. The first half it seemed like the pass interference calls were going against Nebraska, and they weren't good calls. In the second half, they seemed to go against Michigan State. Again, they were borderline calls, but at least the refs were consistant in calling them both ways. Did it hurt Michigan State more? Maybe. They came at a point in the game where one call could make all the difference, and it did.
Mister Mike: Three words (actually four): "We got damn lucky."
Husker Mike: I understand that Michigan State fans are upset about the calls that went against them, but there also was a critical bad-call that went their way. At the end of the third quarter, Daimion Stafford got called for a bogus personal foul to give the Spartans a first down at the NU 4, and likely was the difference between a 6 point and a 10 point Michigan State lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
5. After two years, you finally get a break in the conference schedule, losing Wisconsin and Ohio State, like MSU. The schedule shapes up that Nebraska, MSU, Michigan and Northwestern should all be competing for the division crown as we head into November. What are some early predictions for how the Huskers' season will shake out?
Salt Creek: Depending on how the defensive line shapes up, I'd expect Nebraska to be undefeated heading into November. A 2-1 split of Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern should be enough to send Nebraska back to Indy, hopefully with less embarrassment. Of course, if the DL or entire defense struggles, Nebraska may drop the UCLA game as well as two games in conference play, ending up with 3 losses again before bowl season.
Aaron: Have opposing coaches learned how to exploit Nebraska's defense? If they have, it could be a rough November this year. Payback is expected against UCLA, and 7-0 heading into Northwestern is what people are talking about. At that point, they are really gonna have to earn it. We've had our bad years where our defense was dominant and our offense was terrible (2009), it can only get better for Sparty and, with their schedule, I think they will finish top three in the division. If things work out it will be UNL, MSU, NU fighting for the spot in Indy with Michigan battling for fourth.
Mister Mike: No offense to the Spartans, but honestly, this schedule is piss-poor from a SOS standpoint, primarily just by replacing tOSU and Wisconsin with Illinois and Purdue. Those should be two guaranteed wins right there. If everything goes like it should (and like we want) we should win at least 11 games in the regular season, no doubt, and make an appearance in Indy. Anything less than that would be a disappointment, since the schedule is so weak.
However, I don't think that will bear out. I think we lose at home to UCLA (barely), drop at least one, probably two games from the likes of Michigan, Northwestern, MSU, and/or PSU. So we'll probably win 9 or 10 in the regular season (again) and if we make it to Indy, we'll lose that game (again) and then lose the bowl game (again) and finish right where we've been these last few years...9-4 or 10-4 with a couple of blowout losses. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Point-blank, this season lives or dies on the performance of our defense.
Husker Mike: I agree that this season rests on the performance of the defense. I choose to be optimistic, recognizing that things have been changing in recent years. I think Nebraska gets to November undefeated. The tough game will be at the Big House, but I still like Nebraska to get to Indianapolis at 11-1
6. Thoughts on the black uniforms? In my opinion, not enough red, though I understand the Blackshirts idea.
Salt Creek: NO.
DM: Not my cup of tea, but they're not doing it for my benefit, nor any of the fans.
Aaron: They are better than the pajamas we wore against Wisconsin last year, but if I had my way, there would be no alternative uniforms.
Mister Mike: Love them. Much better than the red suits we wore last year. I wish we'd do things like this more often.
Husker Mike: Not exactly a big fan of them, but they are better than last year's pajamas. If the players like it, then they are fine. At least these uniforms have legible numbers on the front, so I can't complain too much.Thanks to the folks from Corn Nation for taking the time to answer some questions.