Summer gridiron report: Nebraska eyeing North title

It only took Bo Pelini one season — his first as head coach — to turn Nebraska’s defense from embarrassing to respectable.

It seems like a while ago, but it’s been only two years since the Cornhuskers ranked 112th of 119 Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense with a whopping 476.83 yards given up per game. Pelini, who served as defensive coordinator at LSU from 2005 to 2007, led a Nebraska team that gave up 349.85 yards per game last year — 55th in the nation and second in the Big 12.

Pelini has injected new-found energy into the blood of the most tradition-rich football program in the Big 12 North. Pigskin reigns supreme in Lincoln, Neb. (how about 77,670 fans…for a spring game) and expectations continue to rise after the Cornhuskers won six of their final seven games last season.

Nebraska is a fringe top 20 team in most preseason rankings and should challenge for its fifth North crown in the Big 12 era.

Writing about Nebraska being a nationally prominent team again pushes thoughts of blizzard-like temperatures to the forefront of my mind, even in the summer. Nebraska has some of the most loyal fans in the country and I don’t think there’s any question the Big 12 is a more fun conference to follow with a nationally ranked Huskers squad.

Thanks for stopping by this midweek edition of Conference Chatter’s summer gridiron report. Here’s a schedule of when each Big 12 team was/will be featured.

Big 12 North

Big 12 South

  • June 15: Oklahoma State
  • June 17: Baylor
  • June 19: Texas A&M
  • June 22: Texas Tech
  • June 24: Oklahoma
  • June 26: Texas

Let’s keep it going with Nebraska, which finished last season 9-4 with a Gator Bowl comeback victory over Clemson on New Year’s Day.

Biggest question mark: Wide receiver. Nebraska’s taking applications. Nate Swift and Todd Pederson, who rank No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, on Nebraska’s all-time receptions list, have exhausted their eligibility. Junior-to-be Niles Paul, a projected starter, was suspended this spring after being charged for reckless driving, minor consumption and operating a vehicle without a license. Paul pleaded not guilty. The trial is July 6.

That leaves unproven guys such as senior Menelik Holt, senior Chris Brooks, junior Will Henry and freshman speedster Antonio Bell. Paul must get his act together by the fall and get out of the doghouse. The Huskers will need him. Projected starting quarterback Zac Lee, who only threw two passes last season as a sophomore, will particularly need him.

Biggest strength: Defensive line. The majority of the reason is because of Ndamukong Suh, the most disruptive defensive tackle in the nation and Nebraska’s undisputed best player. Suh would have been a first-round pick had he entered the 2009 NFL Draft. The senior is already No. 2 overall on Todd McShay’s early 2010 mock.
Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo

Suh led the Huskers in tackles (76) and sacks (7.5), which is ridiculous when you consider he’s a tackle and not an end, and he’s drawing constant double teams. Suh is extremely versatile as well. The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder lined it up on offense and caught a touchdown pass last season against Kansas. He’s a can’t-miss rising star.

Breakthrough player: Junior running back Roy Helu, Jr.

Long-time Huskers fans have to be loving this. When you talk about Nebraska’s offense, the strength of the unit lies at running back. I’m not suggesting Nebraska’s going to go all 2001 on us (Eric Crouch and Dahrran Diedrick had more than 200 carries that year — apiece — and combined for 2,414 yards and 33 scores).

But Nebraska’s 1-2 punch of Helu and junior Quentin Castille should stack up with the best running back duos in the Big 12. Helu got the call many times over longer-tenured Marlon Lucky last season and responded by averaging 6.4 yards per rush (803 rushing yards, 7 TD’s). With a full season’s workload and the lack of big-play receivers, Helu is a prime breakout candidate for at least 1,000 yards and 10 scores.

Coaching stability: Very strong. Heck, anyone who makes Bill Callahan seem like a distant memory so quickly should have the Huskers fans’ immediate approval. Football is alive and well again in Lincoln and Pelini is the primary reason.

NU’s schedule

  • Sept. 5: vs. Florida Atlantic
  • Sept 12: vs. Arkansas State
  • Sept. 19: at Virginia Tech
  • Sept. 26: vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
  • Oct. 8: at Missouri
  • Oct. 17: vs. Texas Tech
  • Oct. 24: vs. Iowa State
  • Oct. 31: at Baylor
  • Nov. 7: vs. Oklahoma
  • Nov. 14: at Kansas
  • Nov. 21: vs. Kansas State
  • Nov. 27: at Colorado

Fearless forecast: 2nd in North.

I probably went back and forth on who would win the North 10 times, but my gut feeling told me it wouldn’t be Nebraska. Much has been made about Nebraska’s schedule, which is surely more favorable than that of Kansas.

But who’s to say Oct. 31, against a rising Baylor program for instance, is a guaranteed win for the Huskers? What about the last game of the regular season on Nov. 27 at Colorado, particularly if the Buffs are contending in the North? Sure, NU’s home to Oklahoma and Texas Tech, but those are far from gimmes. And of course, the KU game is in Lawrence.

Bottom line is the Big 12 is the second-best conference in the nation. Tough games every week are the norm. Not to sound like a dreaded coach’s quote, but there’s not a slew of guaranteed victories for Nebraska in the conference schedule this season. Same for Kansas.

If Nebraska wins the North, I won’t be surprised at all. I’ll just be wrong. Stay tuned for Friday’s summer gridiron report on Kansas, my predicted winner this season in the division.

And as always, discuss.