by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

It’s a milestone move for longtime Big Six, Big Seven, Big Eight, and Big XII plains power Nebraska. But it’s a switch that made sense when the Big Ten went shopping for another team, giving it 12 and qualifying the league for two divisions and a championship game in December. Nebraska—which decades ago petitioned to join the forerunner of the Big Ten—now gets a piece of the league’s lucrative ABC/ESPN package, plus a slice of the Big Ten Network deal, plus the big paydays at sites such as Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin rather than its annual visits to Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Colorado.

In terms of football itself, the Cornhuskers appear to be on the “cusp” (the word used by HC Bo Pelini) of winning a championship. NU has represented the North in the Big XII title game the last two years, but failed to capture the championship either time—losing that controversial 13-12 decison vs. Texas in 2009 when an “extra” second was added to the play clock after a Colt McCoy throwaway out of bounds, and last season being defeated 23-20 by Oklahoma after leading 17-0 in the first half. Also, Pelini personally is not new to the Big Ten, having been born in Youngstown, Ohio, playing safety at Ohio State, and beginning his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Iowa.

Pelini’s 2011 team is pretty well set for its new challenge, but there has been some drama at QB, where the Huskers struggled last season after triggerman Taylor Martinez suffered one of those lingering high ankle sprains in the 8th game. The slick RS frosh up to then had rushed for 870 yards and 12 TDs. After the injury, he missed one game entirely and totaled only 95 YR and 0 TDs. NU ended up losing three of its last four games (defeats at Texas A&M, vs. Oklahoma in the title contest, and vs. Washington in a rematch in the Holiday Bowl). All three of those teams were able to effectively bottle up the speedy Martinez on the ground, ganging up on Nebraska’s read option and forcing the QB to the air, usually from the pocket.

In an attempt to partly defuse such tactics, Pelini has re-structured and simplified the NU offense, featuring a quick-paced, no-huddle attack that should help exploit Martinez’ breakaway ability. The health of Martinez is of extreme concern, as experienced backup QB Cody Green (two starts) has transferred and reserve Kody Spano has had to quit football due to accumulated knee and shoulder injuries. The Cornhuskers are hoping the situation will be ameliorated by the arrival of dual-sport star Bubba Starling, a 6-5 outfielder from Kansas City who is being offered millions after being the No. 5 overall pick in the MLB draft (August 15 is Starling’s baseball/football decision deadline). In order to provide more depth, if needed, 6-1 true frosh star Jamal Turner—who demonstrated electric moves at WR in spring—has been taking some snaps at QB, a position Turner played in high school in Houston. Potential depth problems at QB are not welcome on an offense that had 45 fumbles LY (luckily, losing only 16).

Elsewhere on offense, Pelini has some rebuilding to do, but he has a solid base. Sr. WR Brandon Kinnie had 44 recs. (5 TDs) LY, and jr. TE Kyler Reed (22 & 8) has a proven nose for the end zone. If the dynamic Turner is not needed at QB, he should quickly add his big-play potential at wideout. Jr. RB Rex Burkhead (951 yards rushing LY) is a proven commodity. He is likely to be backed up by blue-chip frosh Aaron Green. The OL must replace three starters, but the projected new “big uglies” are plenty big and got considerable playing time last season.

Seven starters return on defense, which also is big and talented, reportedly going three deep at some positions, led by DTs Jared Crick (9½ sacks) & Blake Steinkuhler (3½), whose power and penetration up front helped NU finish 11th in total defense and 9th in scoring defense (17.4 ppg). Pelini used lots of 4-2-5 last season in the pass-happy Big XII, with every-down OLB Lavonte David starring with a school-record 152 tackles, including 6 sacks. Facing more power offenses in the Big Ten, the Huskers are likely to use their 4-3 more often. Sr. CB Alfonzo Dennard (4 ints. LY) is back, and there is proven talent at safety in sr. Austin Cassidy, jr. Courtney Osborne, and jr. P.J. Smith (3 ints.). CB is the area of concern on defense, with impressive soph Ciante Evans getting the first chance to take over for graduated NFL draftee Prince Amukamara.

Nebraska special teams lost a gem with the departure of P/PK Alex Henery (18 of 19 FGs LY). True frosh PK Mauro Bondi will battle returning jr. P/PK Brett Maher, who was Henery’s holder and who also has done some pole-vaulting in addition to kicking!

Summary...After back-to-back appearances in the Big XII title game, Nebraska is moving to the more-prestigious Big Ten at a good time. With a solid nucleus returning, the Cornhuskers have been picked by the media to win the Legends Division, despite road games at Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan. (The Badgers offered to become the Huskers’ end-of-season rival, which is Iowa, instead.) NU did catch a break for its Big Ten home debut vs. Ohio State, which no longer features head coach Jim Tressel and veteran QB Terrelle Pryor. Game Three this season involves a rematch vs. Washington, which was humiliated 56-21 by the Huskers last September in Seattle, but then enjoyed a hustling 19-7 revenge victory vs. NU in the Holiday Bowl. Pelini has the ground game, defense and depth to make it to the initial Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, and the HC says the leadership and chemistry on his team “are at an all-time high.” However, last year showed the need for the Big Red to keep Taylor Martinez healthy, so Nebraska fans are hoping Bubba Starling ends up loving the Cornhuskers more than he does money.

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