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Hoge’s Big Ten Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Taylor Martinez is the key to Nebraska's 2012 season. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Taylor Martinez is the key to Nebraska’s 2012 season. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

While Big Ten training camps are underway, Adam Hoge will devote an entire day to each of the 12 teams in the conference. He will include a preview on each team, plus news, notes and analysis on Twitter. He will also take your questions on Twitter and 670TheScore.com. Follow him at @AdamHogeCBS.

(CBS) Other than their home blip against Northwestern last season, Nebraska’s “disappointing” Big Ten debut in 2011 was a little overblown.

The Cornhuskers’ other losses came at the hands of Michigan, Wisconsin and South Carolina. The problem was that they suffered a 48-17 blow out on national television in Madison and a 45-17 butt-whooping in Ann Arbor, which gave the impression that Nebraska wasn’t quite ready for the Big Ten.

All year the critics (including me) talked about how Taylor Martinez couldn’t throw the football, but what was more alarming was that a highly regarded defense was giving up a ton of points.

This year, Nebraska returns 14 starters. Martinez is supposedly a better passer and the defense is supposedly more disciplined. We’ll find out shortly if that is true. If it is, Nebraska might very well end up in the Rose Bowl.

Let’s take a look at the Cornhuskers’ chances:

Top Returnees

1. RB Rex Burkhead (Sr.) – While Martinez gets the attention, Burkhead is the engine of the offense, rushing for 1357 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011.

2. OG Spencer Long (Jr.) – The one-time walk-on is now one of the best offensive linemen in the conference.

3. WR Kenny Bell (So.) – Led the Cornhuskers in receiving as a freshman.

4. LB Will Compton (Sr.) – Nebraska’s leading returning tackler had 6.5 TFLs last season.

5. QB Taylor Martinez (Jr.) – The quick quarterback has to improve his accuracy.

Key Questions

Can Taylor Martinez throw a football?

Well, yes, but whether or not he can do it accurately in the Big Ten is the question that matters.

After a 4-0 start that included offensive point outputs of 40, 42, 51 and 38, the Cornhuskers offense was exposed in their first Big Ten game against Wisconsin when the Badgers sold out on the run and forced Martinez to throw the ball.

I covered that game and even though Nebraska got out to a 14-7 lead, it was pretty obvious that they were in trouble because the passing game was non-existent. Sure enough, the Badgers outscored the Cornhuskers 41-3 the rest of the way and an enormous flaw was exposed.

That wasn’t the only reason Nebraska lost four games in 2011. In fact, the defense probably deserves more blame. But scoring became pretty tough late in the season when it became so easy to game-plan defensively against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska failed to score more than 17 points in any of their final four games.

Martinez spent most of the offseason improving his throwing motion. If he did so successfully, the offense will be much improved in 2012 as most of the key pieces are back. If not, it will be one-dimensional again.

Will the defense improve?

A big reason the defense failed to meet expectations last season was because Jared Crick hardly provided any contributions. He’s gone, but so are Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Seven starters return, but those are big shoes to fill.

The good news is that this is a veteran group and there are still plenty of talented guys like Compton, Daimion Stafford and Cameron Meredith. This unit won’t be worse than last year’s and could be better.

Schedule Outlook

Nebraska has a pretty respectable non-conference schedule. Southern Miss is no slouch and a road trip to L.A. to face a revamped UCLA team is not easy. Arkansas State will provide a test too.

In the Big Ten, all four road games are losable. The Cornhuskers travel to Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa. They host Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Minnesota. This is one of the tougher Big Ten slates, if not the toughest.

Best Case

Nebraska survives a tricky non-conference schedule by going 4-0. They get the benefit of hosting Wisconsin at night under the lights, but this Big Ten schedule is too tough. Between Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa, there’s at least two losses in there. They can’t overlook Northwestern either. The Cornhuskers finish 6-2 in the Big Ten and 10-2 overall in the regular season. Depending on tiebreakers, that could still send them to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.

Worst Case

Martinez’s accuracy doesn’t improve and there aren’t enough playmakers on defense. Ultimately, 2012 is very similar to 2011. Unfortunately, the schedule is tougher and Nebraska ends up losing two additional games in the regular season to finish 7-5. That would put Bo Pelini in hot water going to into 2013.

Check out Adam’s final verdict on the Cornhuskers when his Big Ten preview concludes later this month. Up next in the series are the Northwestern Wildcats. Tweet your questions to Adam at @AdamHogeCBS.

Catch up on the series:
Aug. 8 – Illinois Fighting Illini
Aug. 10 – Indiana Hoosiers
Aug. 15 – Ohio State Buckeyes
Aug. 16 – Penn State Nittany Lions
Aug. 17 – Purdue Boilermakers
Aug. 20 – Wisconsin Badgers
Aug. 21 – Iowa Hawkeyes
Aug. 22 – Michigan Wolverines
Aug. 23 – Michigan State Spartans

adam hoge 2012 small1 Hoges Big Ten Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Adam Hoge

Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.

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