The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 14: Nebraska
Coach: Bo Pelini (39-16, fifth season)
2011 record: 9-4 (5-3 in Big Ten Conference, third in Legends Division)
Look back: Nebraska made the transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten look seamless with the Huskers winning nine games and finishing third in the Leaders Division behind Michigan State and Michigan. After going undefeated through is non-conference schedule, Nebraska dropped its conference opener against eventual Big Ten champs, Wisconsin. The Huskers won their next three games, including an impressive 24-3 win over Michigan State, before stumbling against Northwestern at home. The team split the next two – a win against Penn State and a loss against Michigan – before finishing the season against Iowa, 20-7. Miscues cost the team in its 30-13 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 5/8
Defensive starters lost/returning: 4/7
Key losses: C Mike Caputo, DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard
Top returnees: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, LB Will Compton, DB Daimion Stafford
Strengths: Nebraska has traditionally been known as a run-first, ask questions later offense. That should be the case again this season led by running back Rex Burkhead. The senior led the team in rushing (1,357 yards), rushing touchdowns (15) and was third in the Big Ten Conference in overall rushing (104.4 ypg) behind Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and Iowa’s Marcus Coker. Burkhead will benefit from the help of multi-talented quarterback Taylor Martinez, who was second on the team in rushing with 874 yards. Martinez threw for 2,089 yards and 13 touchdowns as well, leading the Huskers to the fourth-best scoring offense in the Big Ten.
Weaknesses: The defense, which was ranked seventh in the conference in total defense (350.7 ypg), will need to find help with its pass rush after losing defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David. David led the team in tackles (133) sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (7.5) and was the heart-and-soul of the defensive unit. The Huskers will also be without cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who made his way to the NFL in the offseason. Linebacker Will Compton will anchor a linebacking corps that is solid across the field. The secondary has questions and will need to find someone of the playmaking ability of Dennard to shore it up before the season starts.
Outlook: Nebraska prepares to enter its second season in the Big Ten and expectations are high. Taylor Martinez begins his third season at quarterback and fans are getting restless with his up-and-down performance. A strong start to the season could go far to keeping them at bay. The defense returns seven starters and needs to get better especially to compete with teams like Michigan and Michigan State in the Legends Divisions. Pelini has the program on solid ground but fans are wondering if there is more in store for the Huskers in the future.
Sept. 1 Southern Miss
Sept. 8 at UCLA
Sept. 15 Arkansas State
Sept. 22 Idaho State
Sept. 29 Wisconsin
Oct. 6 at Ohio State
Oct. 20 at Northwestern