Continuing the Big 12 theme, the now-constant favorites in the North Division enter 2007 looking to continue to make progress en route to a return to the national elite. It's been six years since Nebraska's been a real threat, and while they probably don't have the overall talent to get back in that conversation this year, they're also good enough to give anyone and everyone a game.
With Bill Callahan and his West Coast system now firmly entrenched, even if you're not having flashbacks to Eric Crouch and Scott Frost while you watch them play, these guys still know how to win in Lincoln. And the defense will once again be stout. So in the 4th year of the Callahan administration, and coming off a division title last year, the bar is rising. At the very least, Nebraska needs to get to San Antonio - anything less will be a colossal disappointment. At the very best, this team is thinking BCS. And the fans who drink the kool aid in Lincoln as much as I do for the Vols have their sights set on the crystal football, because that's what Nebraska is supposed to do.
If that's to be the case, at this point or down the road, they've got to start winning the big games instead of just being competitive. The Huskers had Texas in the crosshairs last year and fumbled it away. Then they went through a total letdown the next week in surrendering 41 points to Oklahoma State in another loss. They were worn down 21-7 against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, then got more of the same in the Cotton Bowl against Auburn in a 17-14 loss. So they were right there against three of the nation's elite, and came up short every time. They won't have to wait long to see if things have changed in 2007: Southern Cal comes calling on September 15.
Nebraska's offense still runs through the quarterback, though he's not quite asked to run the triple option anymore. Instead, Nebraska will reload in the passin game, as Zac Taylor graduates to give way to Arizona State transfer Sam Keller, a solid QB who has plenty to prove and should play well with a chip on his shoulder. Should Keller falter, they've got a capable backup in Joe Ganz. Toting the rock to replace Brandon Jackson will be Marlon Lucky, but a knee injury in the spring game may slow him down a bit.
The wide receivers can play too. Maurice Purify and Terrence Nunn, seniors alike, should help spread the defenses just the way Callahan likes it, and JB Phillips - another senior at tight end - should also help accomplish more offensive production in 2007. All three interior linemen return.
While the defense on the whole should be good, its ultimate success will depend on the early progress of a defensive line that's replacing all four starters from last year, including Adam Carriker. The newcomers will be mostly juniors, so at least they have experience in the program.
As weak as the d-line may potentially be, the linebackers could be that good. That starts with Bo Ruud on the outside, who was All Big 12 in 2006 and should lead the LB corps. Steve "I have an awesome last name" Octavien will play the opposite side, with Corey McKeon in the middle. What gets through the weaker line should be slowed in part by these three. The secondary returns three of four, with a cloud of mystery surrounding the fate of Zack Bowman, who missed all of 06 with a knee and then injured his other knee in the spring. But even without him, the secondary has enough talent to rise to the challenge, and do a better job against the pass than their 2006 counterparts.
2007 Nebraska Schedule
09/01 - vs Nevada
09/08 - at Wake Forest
09/15 - vs Southern Cal
09/22 - vs Ball State
09/29 - vs Iowa State
10/06 - at Missouri
10/13 - vs Oklahoma State
10/20 - vs Texas A&M
10/27 - at Texas
11/03 - at Kansas
11/10 - vs Kansas State
11/23 - at Colorado (Friday)
Final Analysis: While September will determine how much of a national player Nebraska is going to be, October will determine the rise and fall of their season. At Wake Forest, where there's zero home field advantage, and home against Southern Cal, the odds may be with them, but both of those teams are BCS combatants from last year, and USC is without question the most talented team in the country. Nebraska could lose both of them. Or, they could win both of them and get back in that national conversation they so long to be in once more. The last time anyone doubted Southern Cal on the road, they went to Auburn and squashed the Tigers, which was two National Championships ago. But nothing is free in Lincoln. So you never can tell...
October will be more important as the Big 12 games come rolling in. You will not find A&M on this countdown, I think they're almost as overrated as their head coach. So no worries there. And I feel like Nebraska had their chance with Texas last year and blew it, so winning in Austin might be out of the question. Still, with Oklahoma absent from the rotation, this smells like a 10-2 team easy, and an easy pick to win the North. And if they can get to San Antonio, anything can happen.
I don't think they'll win the Big 12 - in fact, I think they'll lose to Texas twice. But those might be the only games they lose. Seriously, seriously, seriously...watch out for the upset on Southern Cal on 9/15. Nebraska is still a program that knows how to win. Losing in your conference title game is a great way to get left out of the BCS, and playing an SEC team in the Cotton Bowl is a great way to end your season on a lousy skid. So even if they lose three or four games in 07, expect Nebraska to be a factor both in the Big 12 and nationally. They're down here at 20 because I don't think it's going to end well for them, but I think they make it more than interesting and you're talking about them in late October in your BCS projections. College football needs Nebraska to be good. 2007 can be the year that they validate that need, even if they do so by being on the losing end of some really big games. If pushed, I'll take them to upset the Trojans, lose twice to Texas and fall in the Cotton Bowl to an SEC school to be named later. Is that a good year? Well, it's a good year with a bad aftertaste. That'll have to do.